Belle of the Ball

With all the movies released each year, it’s impossible to see them all. Even established critics for media sources will miss some. And much of what slips by under the radar are the dregs that deserve to be missed. However, sometimes a gem gets flushed away with the silt that’s surrounding it. The premium channels and streaming services give us a second chance to uncover the missed diamonds. Currently HBO is featuring a British beauty that was only in limited release in the US last year: Belle.

The titular character is Dido Elizabeth Belle, the daughter of Capt. (later Admiral) Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) who saved her mother from a slave ship. After her mother’s death, Lindsay arranges the child’s passage to England where he places her in the home of his granduncle, William Murray (Tom Wilkinson), the 1st Earl of Mansfield and the Lord High Magistrate of England. Lord Mansfield and Lady Mansfield (Emily Watson) had no children of their own, but along with Dido they raised their niece Elizabeth Murray following her mother’s death and her father disowning her in favor of his new wife and family. Dido (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon) grow into beautiful women, but both are constrained by 18th Century society.

Elizabeth has no inheritance or land, which handicaps her when seeking a suitor. One who is interested is James Ashford (Tom Fenton), though he is offended by Dido’s existence, even though his brother Oliver (James Norton) finds her attractive. Dido’s not allowed to join the family for dinner when they have guests. Even though Sir John acknowledged her as his daughter and made her his heir, he wasn’t married to Dido’s mother. After dinner she’s allowed to join in by the rules of society, since it is a more casual time.

While she’s mostly been protected on Mansfield’s estate, the world starts to impose on her. Part of her awakening comes from John Davinier (Sam Reid), a vicar’s son who’s studying the law under Mansfield’s tutelage. He tells her of a case Mansfield is considering between the owners of the slave ship Zong and their insurers. The owners claim that the ship ran low on water so they had to throw their cargo – slaves – overboard so the crew could survive, but the insurers have refused to reimburse them for their loss. Davinier, an ardent abolitionist, believes there is more to the case, but his passion gets him dismissed by Mansfield. Still, it has begun an awakening in Dido.

The movie begins with the “based on a true story” notation, which for Hollywood is code for “most of this is made up.” However, English films usually stay very close to the actual events, and that is the case with Belle. Zong was a landmark case – it was also known as the Zong Massacre – and Mansfield was a major force in English government and jurisprudence. One of his friends and clients was Sarah Churchill, the wife of the first Duke of Marlborough. His decision in the Zong case and others had a profound effect on England. Some of the details of Dido and Davinier are more fanciful, but it does make for a wonderful love story.

I’d first noticed Gugu Mbatha-Raw when she played Martha Jones’ sister Tish during the third season of the new “Doctor Who.” She was the best part of the Tom Hanks movie Larry Crowne, and she has three upcoming features in postproduction or filming where she stars with Matthew McConaughey, Will Smith, and Keanu Reeves, so her profile should definitely rise. The camera loves her and it reads every nuance on her face and in her body language. Her performance as Dido is seamless and beautiful to behold.

The rest of the cast is sterling, especially Wilkinson and Watson as Lord and Lady Mansfield. While showing characteristic English restraint, you also see the depth of their love for Dido. Rounding out the cast is Miranda Richardson as Lady Ashford and Penelope Wilton as Mansfield’s spinster sister.

The movie was directed by Amma Asante, who began as a child actress but moved up to the hyphenate writer-director-producer. The Writer’s Guild of America gave credit for the screenplay solely to Misan Sagay, who also wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God. There was a question, however, about multiple of rewrites that Asante did. Regardless, it is an effective screenplay that both presents the story and captures the era.

Look for this movie, and if you get the chance, watch it.

Detail from a painting of the actual Dido Belle and Elisabeth Murray

Suspension of Disbelief

I admit I like well-done disaster movies, though like effective or inventive horror films they are rare. The genre is the junk food of cinema – tasty at times but you have to limit your intake if you want to stay fit and healthy. Disaster flicks go back all the way to the silent era, and two of the best were from the 1930s: 1936’s San Francisco, starring Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, and 1937’s The Hurricane, directed by John Ford. Neither could win a Special Effects Oscar, since that category wasn’t added until 1939, but San Francisco got 6 nominations and won for Sound Editing, and The Hurricane got 3 noms, also winning for Sound. The 1970s were the heyday of the genre, with The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, etc, but by the end of the decade their box office had fizzled. Movies like The Swarm, Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, and When Time Ran Out (all produced by disaster-master Irwin Allen) were nails the genre’s coffin. But like zombies, the genre keeps coming back. Last year’s Into The Storm and this summer’s release, San Andreas, are the latest to keep it alive.

Often the premise of the impending disaster is repeated in multiple movies – sometimes in the same year. We’ve had dueling volcano (Dante’s Peak vs. Volcano) and killer asteroid (Armageddon vs. Deep Impact) pictures in the past. Occasionally, though, there can be an original – if hardly credible – idea that is done decently enough that you suspend your disbelief for two-plus hours and just enjoy the ride. It may even become the chocolate bar you enjoy when no one’s looking, even when you eat healthily the rest of the time. For me, that guilty pleasure is 2003’s The Core.

Let me grant from the outset that the premise is completely ludicrous: the core of the earth has stopped spinning, causing a breakdown of the electromagnetic field that leads to all manner of catastrophic events, and a team must travel to the center of the earth and use nuclear weapons to jumpstart the planet. It’s not quite as bad a premise as 2012’s overcooked continents, but it’s close. What separates The Core from schlock like 2012 is a good director, an unusually fine cast, a script that manages some wit and surprises, and decent special effects.

The movie was directed by Jon Amiel, who graduated from Cambridge and has worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He directed the classic “The Singing Detective” for the BBC, and did several good movies in the 1990s, among them Sommersby with Jodie Foster and Richard Gere, and Entrapment with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones. Since The Core he’s mostly worked in TV, with recent work on “The Borgias,” “The Tudors,” and “Once Upon a Time.”

In the opening scene, he focuses on a hotshot businessman about to earn millions on a deal. The man’s expensive watch stops just before he enters the meeting, but he doesn’t think much of it. In the meeting, the businessman leads his team to the head of the glass conference table – then collapses on it, dead. Sounds of alarms filter into the room from outside, and the camera pans out the window to a fair in a square and the surrounding streets where other people have fallen dead at the same time. It’s one of the more effective opening sequences for a disaster flick.

The cast for the movie is not the usual suspects – no Bruce Willis or, for an earlier generation, Charleton Heston. Instead the cast is heavy with Oscar and Golden Globe winners and nominees who usually work in independent films. The main roles are played by Aaron Eckhart, Hillary Swank, Stanley Tucci, Alfre Woodard, Delroy Lindo, DJ Qualls, Tcheky Karyo, Bruce Greenwood and Richard Jenkins. Among them they have 2 Academy Award wins plus 3 nominations, and 5 Golden Globe wins plus 5 nominations.

The disaster scenes are unusual and decently done. Along with the opening scene, you have two other set pieces early in the film. One features birds going amok in Trafalgar Square, and while it’s not the equal of Alfred Hitchcock’s attack on Bodega Bay, it’s effective. Part of the action is shot through the viewfinder of a video camera that’s been dropped during the mayhem. The other sequence is better, with the Space Shuttle having to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles. The filmmakers do move Dodger Stadium from Chavez Ravine in East LA to somewhere around Long Beach for the sake of a shot of the shuttle buzzing over the stadium. It would have made more sense geographically to use Angel Stadium, but The Core was produced by Paramount, and at that time the Angels were owned by the Walt Disney Company. Such is life in Hollywood. Later in the movie they do meet a major criteria for disaster films and destroy the Golden Gate Bridge, but not in the usual way. This time they melt it.

The screenplay was done by Cooper Layne and John Rogers. Layne was also a producer of the film, but his credits are thin according to IMDb. He’d acted three times, produced a documentary and The Emperor’s Club before The Core, and his only other screenwriter credit was the 2005 remake of The Fog. Rogers has more writing credits, particularly for the TNT shows “Leverage” and “The Librarians” which he also helped create, but he has a major blot on his record. He followed up The Core with the horrible Halle Berry Catwoman.  Somehow the script for The Core turned out better than anyone had a right to expect, unless there was an awful lot of ad libbing on the set.

While still conforming to the thriller format, the movie has plenty of sly humor. You have Eckhart as Dr. Josh Keyes, Karyo as Serge Leveque, and Tucci as Dr. Conrad Zimsky, all scientists, though Tucci is one of the rock star variety. When Keyes hands him a paper where he’s outlined his evidence that life on earth will end in a year, Zimsky’s first thought is he wants an autograph. When Keyes and Zimsky brief a Pentegon meeting on the threat, they give a demonstration of what will happen to the Earth when the electromagnetic field disappears – using an orange, a can of air freshener, and a lighter. Keyes drops the incinerated orange in a carafe of water and tells the group, “Feel free to throw up. I know I did.” It’s a welcome relief from the usual stoic heroism in disaster flicks.

Jenkins plays Thomas Percell, a 4-star General, while Swank and Greenwood are shuttle pilots and Woodard is a NASA mission controller. Lindo is Braz Brazzleton,a scientist who left academia to pursue creating an inner space ship. When Percell and the other scientists approach Braz, you have this exchange:

Serge Leveque: Dr. Brazzelton, when do you think the ship will be operational?

Brazzelton: When I get my fabrication methods perfected; twelve…no, ten years.

Percell: What would it take to get it done in six months?

Brazzelton: (laughing) Fifty billion dollars, I…

Percell: (deadpan face) Will you take a check?

Keyes: Why don’t you use a credit card? You get miles.

With his lanky body and unusual face, D.J. Qualls is perfect as “Rat” Finch, a hacker who’s recruited to keep any news about the Earth’s impending doom off of the internet. When Zimsky scoffs at his usefulness, Rat asks Zimsky how many languages he speaks. Zimsky says five, and Rat comes back with: “Well, I speak one…One Zero One Zero Zero. With that I could steal your money, your secrets, your sexual fantasies, your whole life. Any country, any place, anytime I want. We multitask like you breathe. I couldn’t think as slow as you if I tried.” Bam!

The Core didn’t light up the box office, and only made back about half of its production cost in its US release. You’ll likely find the DVD in the $5 bin at your local Wal-mart. The production did consult with scientists about the science of building a capsule to reach the Earth’s core, and it actually stimulated one to theorize a way for an unmanned probe to do it. He published his ideas in the prestigious journal Nature in 2003. The movie did find an audience at the University of British Columbia, near where it was filmed in Vancouver. The Earth and Ocean Science course uses it by showing the film and then having the students discuss the bad science in it.

But, if you do suspend that old disbelief, it is a bit of a fun ride.

Next Best?

In the summer of 2012, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a welcome relief from the usual shoot-‘em-up, blow-‘em-up movies that fill the schedule. The story of a group of elderly Britons moving to India was charming, and a showcase for a cast full of the best British actors over the age of sixty. Now John Madden and Ol Parker, the original’s director and screenwriter respectively, have reassembled their cast, added a couple of bonuses, and brought forth a sequel, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The movie begins with hotel owner Sonny (Dev Patel) and his manager Muriel (Maggie Smith) on a trip to California to seek a partnership with a hotel chain run by Ty Burley (David Straitharn). Parker knows enough not to tinker with the original characters so Muriel is as opinionated and curmudgeonly as in the original movie. Her dissection of how Americans make hot tea is almost worth the movie ticket by itself, and when she’s later asked how the trip was, she responds, “I went with low expectations – I was disappointed.” Burley promises to send an inspector to check out the proposal and if they’re satisfied, he’ll invest.

The rest of the survivors of the first movie are there for Sonny’s morning roll call: Evelyn (Judi Dench), who’s pursuing a new career as a fabric purchaser; Douglas (Bill Nighy), now separated from his wife Jean (Penelope Wilton) but hopeful for a second chance at love; the amorous Marge (Celia Imrie) who is pursuing two wealthy men at the same time; rakish rogue Norman (Roland Pickup), still with Carol (Diana Hardcastle) whom he met during the first movie; and also Sonny’s fiancée, Sunaina (Tina Desai) who’s now working with him as they prepare for the wedding. Soon though, new arrivals upset the balance, including an American looking to write a novel (Richard Gere).

The main thread of the story is Sonny and Sunaina’s nuptials, which breaks the story into three acts, but wound into it is Sonny’s seeking to expand his success as an hotelier. This is a bit contrived, especially a mistaken identity subplot that has Sonny acting even more crazy than normal. Still, the machinations manage to be both funny and poignant at times. Another story line involving Norman begins as a farce but leads to a heartfelt moment. However, the rest of the film has a number of moments that sparkle like diamonds. It’s like sitting in for a master class on film acting taught by consummate professionals. Even though he has only two short scenes, Straitharn matches the rest of the cast with a memorable characterization that etches itself into your memory.

The movie also benefits from being in turn laugh-out-loud funny and get-out-your-hankies poignant. Madden and Parker trust the audience enough to leave some things implied rather than beating the audience over the head with the script, which is a pleasant difference from much of the Hollywood fare. Madden’s camera captures India beautifully, so that it feels both exotic as well as completely familiar. They do follow the convention of India cinema by having an extensive and extravagant musical dance at the end, with Dench, Gere et al participating.

In some ways the title is unfortunate, having “Second Best” as part of it. It may not be the complete delight of the original; having that lightning strike twice would be too much to ask for or expect. But it does come so very, very close to the first movie that fans of the original will not be disappointed.

Knights of the Boardroom Table

In the 1960’s there were two main types of spy movies. There were the gritty, realistic films like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Ipcress File, and Funeral in Berlin (the last two both starring Michael Caine), and then there were the wry and slightly over the top – sometimes very over the top – James Bond films and its imitators like Our Man Flint or the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” films. With the latter movies, it was a short step to camp comedies like The 2nd Best Secret Agent in the World or Modesty Blaise. The spy genre got a kickstart in the new millennium with the Bourne series, which reinvigorated James Bond when Daniel Craig slipped into the tux. Now, in the new movie Kingsman: The Secret Service, we have a paean to those earlier fantasy spy films, though it also has a strong dose of Bourne in its blood.

Based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar (who wrote the comics “Kick-Ass” and “Wanted,” both later filmed) and Dave Gibbons (who illustrated the classic “Watchmen”), the Kingsmen are operatives of a small but well-funded private intelligence operation. They take their cue from the legend of Arthur and his knights, roaming the world to do good, and their aliases are based on the characters from the legend. Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is known as Galahad, while its weapons, tech and training officer is Merlin (Mark Strong). The head of the organization is, appropriately, known as Arthur (Michael Caine). When one of the agents is killed during a mission to save a kidnapped scientist (Mark Hamill), the others are called upon to nominate a replacement, who are then all invited to a training class run by Merlin.

Galahad chooses Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton), who on the face of it is an uncouth London youth on his way to becoming a criminal. Eggsy, though, is intelligent and capable, and he happens to be the son of a former Kingsman who sacrificed himself to save Galahad, Merlin and others. The training allows for a classic origins story, though with this one it’s like you’ve drunk a full bottle of adrenalin.

With Bond, the good ones have a great villain – something that is referenced in Kingsman. For this movie, it gets both a failing and a passing grade. The main villain, tech billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), is too prissy and his lisp gets old real fast. What saves the film is his Odd Job, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), whose lower legs have been replaced by knife-blade prosthetics. Her fights are a blend of ballerina and ninja.

Firth gets to cut loose from the proper characters he’s often played while still maintaining a gentlemanly decorum. It’s like he’s followed Liam Neeson and discovered his inner action hero at an age when most action heroes should have retired. Instead the casting works wonderfully. Taron Egerton had done a couple of shorts and TV series back in the UK before 2014, when starred in Testament of Youth and filmed Kingsman. He’s almost too neat at first, but you forget about that once he meets up with Galahad. Mark Strong is wonderful as Merlin, and having Caine as Arthur is perfect, a bridge to the 1960s spy films.

Writer/Director Matthew Vaughn knows how to handle comic book material. He, along with his co-writer Jane Goldman, had done Kick-ass in 2010, and then rebooted the X-Men series wonderfully with X-Men: First Class in 2011 as well as doing the story for X-Men: Days of Future Past. (They also wrote the excellent spy-revenge drama The Debt in 2010, which was directed by John Madden and starred Helen Mirren and Jessica Chastain.) In visual style, Kingsman dances along the edge of parody, but it has a giddy time doing it. The movie definitely goes over the top near the end, though it’s nothing to lose your head over. What helps is an intelligent script that has several surprising twists, and one complete shock.

Kingsman is a popcorn movie, an action flick that’s a good waste of time. It’s rare to get one of these outside of summer, when they usually fill the cinemas, and especially not in February where you normally have studios dumping their bombs like Jupiter Ascending and Seventh Son. If you enjoy this type of action film, Kingsman does have some delights to offer.

The 10 Best Movies About Making Movies

For my 200th post, I thought I’d look at my favorite movies that deal with making movies, so you could subtitled it “Incest is best.” In a broader sense, though, it’s a way to both explain how the magic trick is done on the screen, as well as make magic at the same time. For this list I’ve ruled out movies that deal with simply watching films, even though that eliminates one of my all-time favorites, Cinema Paradiso. Instead the films below all feature some aspect of creating a movie, be it the actual filming or the creative process before the first camera shot. There are quite a few films that fit that criteria, and I’ve included a couple of Honorable Mentions that have similarities to the films on this list. If I’ve left off a favorite movie-making film of yours, please feel free to mention it in the comments. So, in no particular order, here are my choices.

Singing in the Rain (1952)

Okay, so I went with an obvious choice to start, but this not only is a great movie about the early days of the talkies, it’s also one of the – if not THE – greatest musical films. The songs by Arthur Freed (who also produced the film) and Herb Brown blend perfectly with the sparkling script by Betty Compton and Adolph Green. Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor were at the top of their game, and they were matched by Debbie Reynolds even though she wasn’t a trained dancer. Outstanding, too, was Jean Hagen as the silent star with a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard voice. Sadly, this movie was the high point of her career, and she worked mostly in television after it (including a 4 year stint as Danny Thomas’ wife on “Make Room for Daddy”). She died in 1977 at age 54.  Honorable Mention: The Artist (2011), which looks with the same time period from the opposite perspective.

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Jean Hagen should have won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Singing in the Rain, but instead she lost out to Gloria Grahame in this movie. Kirk Douglas plays an unscrupulous but talented producer who’s trying to make a comeback. He turns to three people whose careers he built up but who were each hurt by him – an actress (Lana Turner), a writer (Dick Powell) and a director (Barry Sullivan). Grahame played the writer’s wife who interferes with Douglas’ plans until he maneuvers her into an affair with an actor, with tragic results. The script by Charles Schnee could be viewed as a prototype for the Hollywood tell-all novels of Jackie Collins, but the acting and Vincente Minnelli’s direction transcend the material. Honorable Mention: Two Weeks in Another Town (1962), which was also written by Schnee and starred Kirk Douglas.

Hugo (2011)

While movie-making isn’t central in Martin Scorsese’s film, the sections dealing with Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) and the fantastic cinema world he created when film was in its infancy capture the wonder of the magic lantern days. Scorsese has been at the forefront of film preservation efforts, and this film is his dissertation on why it’s important. On the technical side, it also demonstrates how 3D can be used to augment the power of a film.

Super 8 (2011)

2011 was a banner year for movies about movies. Here you have a group of six kids who are making a zombie movie, but are interrupted when an alien invades their Ohio town. Written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Steven Spielberg, the movie harkens back to their preteen years when they made their own films. Abrams let his young actors actually film a Super-8 movie that plays during the credits, so we get to see the footage that we watched being shot. It turns out to be a pretty good film, too.

Shadow of the Vampire (2000)

What if your vampire movie actually stars a real vampire? The movie tells a legend about Nosferatu, the classic 1922 film by F.W. Murnau. We watch the filming of that movie, including the recreation of many of the scenes, while we’re also watching a horror movie. John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe (who was nominated for an Oscar) are excellent as Murnau and his star, Max Schreck. Nosferatu qualifies as the first movie adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. It follows the plot of the book, but Murnau didn’t have the rights to film the story so he changed the names to protect the guilty.

Day For Night (1973)

Francois Truffaut made many of the classics of French cinema before his untimely death in 1984 at the age of 52. This film, about a director struggling to complete his movie while dealing with a host of personal crises, won the Best Foreign Language Oscar. The title refers to a direction in the shooting script for the cinematographer to film a scene during the day but make it look like it takes place at night. You can often tell when this was done in old films because of the strong shadows in outdoor shots.

Bowfinger (1999)

Written by Steve Martin and directed by Frank Oz, this is a film for movie wannabes. Martin plays a low-rent producer/director who fails to get a major action star, played by Eddie Murphy, to appear in his movie. So instead he stalks the actor to get the needed footage and uses a hapless lookalike (also played by Murphy) for other scenes. While it’s played for laughs, hidden camera filming has been used in films, and it resulted in one of the all-time classic lines. Dustin Hoffman ad-libbed the “I’m walkin’ here” line in Midnight Cowboy when a taxi tried to roll through a scene they were filming with a hidden camera.

Boogie Nights (1997)

Writer/Director Paul Thomas Anderson usually makes movies that are fascinating character studies, such as There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, and The Master. His first big success was this film that looked at people involved in porn films in the 1970s, when Deep Throat’s success made them think that porn could become a legitimate filmmaking endeavor. The cast is incredible, with Julianne Moore, William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, Heather Graham, Mark Walberg, and Burt Reynolds. An interesting piece of trivia: Anderson made a short version of this story as his first film in 1988, after dropping out of NYU Film School.

Sunset Boulevard (1950)

Billy Wilder’s poison pen love letter to Hollywood has to be on the list. Silent star Gloria Swanson’s over-the-top performance as Norma Desmond was balanced by William Holden’s sardonic turn as the hack screenwriter she drags into writing her comeback. The film features appearances by Cecil B. DeMille, H.B. Warner, Buster Keaton and others, playing themselves. It was nominated for 11 Academy awards, including in every acting category, but in the end it won for writing, score and art direction. Honorable Mention: The Stunt Man (1980), which featured another maniacal performance that led to a comeback, this time for Peter O’Toole.

Argo (2012)

While it’s a based-on-a-true-story thriller, Argo makes this list because of how the fantasy world of movie making was used to ex-filtrate six US hostages from Iran. Alan Arkin and John Goodman are wonderful as the Hollywood insiders who help Ben Affleck’s character pull off the rescue mission. One aspect of filmmaking featured in the movie is storyboarding, where the film’s shots are drawn out to give the filmmakers a visual for the shots. Affleck uses reproductions of the actual storyboards that were done for the original script before it went into turnaround, the Hollywood term for purgatory. Those storyboards were done by Jack Kirby, a legendary cartoonist whose work goes back to the first Captain America comic book in the 1940s and worked with Marvel during its Silver Age (1958-1970).

Fractured Fairy Tales

Growing up, I loved the cockeyed humor of “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” One of its segments was called “Fractured Fairy Tales,” where common stories got twisted like a balloon animal. Now there’s a grownup version of it playing on the silver screen – Into The Woods, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago).

The musical is one that Stephen Sondheim wrote during a ten-year partnership with James Lupine. Sondheim is a genius of musical theater, having written the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy,” and then both the music and lyrics for “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “A Little Night Music,” and “Sweeny Todd.” During the years 1984 to 1994, when he collaborated with Lupine, they produced three musicals: “Sunday in the Park with George” in 1984, “Passion” in 1994, and in the middle “Into The Woods” (1987). While they were interesting, even audacious stories and were honored with several Tony awards, they didn’t match the success of Sondheim’s earlier work. “Passion” had the shortest run of any winner of the Best Musical Tony.

Into The Woods mashes together several of the classic fairy tales. You have Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her Prince (Chris Pine), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) and her own prince (Billy Magnussen), Jack of beanstalk fame (Daniel Huddlestone, who played Gavroche in Les Miserables) and his mother (Tracey Ullman), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and her Wolf (Johnny Depp). What binds them all together is a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt). A witch (Meryl Streep) who lives next door tells them that they’ve been childless because she cursed the baker’s family after his father (Simon Russell Beale) stole magic beans from her garden. That act also twisted the witch into an old crone. But for the next three nights the moon will be blue, and if the baker and his wife can gather four items, one each from the fairy tale groups above, the curse will be broken.

For the first act, the fairy tales progress pretty much as known, except with the baker and his wife stepping into the stories as they gather the needed items. But Sondheim is not a “happily ever after” kind of writer, and in the second act the story turns very dark. In truth, the actual tales, instead of the Disney-fied versions of them, can be scary, horrifying, and deeply creepy. (Strangely enough, this movie is produced by Disney.) But Sondheim goes beyond even those elements of the tales and has the characters face death, sexual betrayal, and loss, even as a rogue giant (Frances de la Tour) is destroying the woods.

The movie’s screenplay was written by Lapine, and he’s cut down the second act so it’s not quite as bitter and sad as the original musical. Marshall does a decent job keeping the production moving along, though with the cuts (or maybe because of them) the movie lags at the end. Film does allow for more interesting staging of on the songs. For Cinderella’s main song “On the Steps of the Palace” she can actually performed it on the palace’s steps, and Marshall’s staging of “Agony” is a standout.

The production has received a couple of Oscar nominations, including Streep’s 19th (!) for acting. To put that in perspective, over the course of the entire history of the Academy Awards, Streep’s been nominated for over a fifth of those years. While it seems gaudy for one actress to rack up that many nominations – and three wins – the problem is she deserves them. The witch is a fascinating character who flows through a whole river of emotions. The role was originated on stage by Bernadette Peters, and she won a Tony for her portrayal.

Anna Kendrick showed her pipes in Pitch Perfect (and on the singles chart with “The Cups Song”), and she handles Sondheim’s music like a Broadway veteran. It’s a pleasant surprise that those in the cast who aren’t known for their musical talents, such as Chris Pine and Emily Blunt, have gorgeous voices to go along with their acting prowess. James Corden isn’t familiar to American audiences (unless they’re Doctor Who fans – he’s appeared in two episodes during Matt Smith’s tenure as the Doctor), but in England he’s well-known as a writer and producer as well as an actor on both stage and screen. He won a Tony in 2012 for the play “One Man, Two Guv’ners.” His anonymity should come to an end because of this movie as well as his replacing Colin Ferguson on “The Late, Late Show” later this year.

Curiously, Johnny Depp has been promoted as a main part of the cast, even though he has only two scenes and one song. While the role is short, it is both memorable and enjoyable. That’s a stark contrast to his recent starring roles in The Lone Ranger, Transcendence, and the current release Mortdecai, where the roles are long but the movies are eminently forgettable and painful to watch.

Into The Woods has done decently at the box office, surpassing $125 million, and it stayed in the top 10 for over a month. But there is an inherent weakness in the production that is deadly for a musical. It doesn’t have a “Send in the Clowns” or a “Tonight” or a “No Business like Show Business” – or to make the point with a recent movie, it doesn’t have a “Let it Go.” While the music is good and the lyrics witty, there’s no song that the audience will be humming on the way out of the theater. Regardless of the strong work of Marshall and his cast, Into The Woods will remain a minor example of a great talent.

No Reflection

Clint Eastwood’s new film American Sniper has become a sensation after having the best wide-distribution opening weekend for a drama ever. Warner Brothers had rushed the film into limited release in December, to qualify for the upcoming Oscars, and then put it in regular release in January, instead of waiting for its originally scheduled release in December 2015. The studio had done this once before with an Eastwood Film; Million Dollar Baby was release earlier than planned and won the Best Picture Oscar in 2005. Now to go along with 6 Academy Award nominations, American Sniper has made more than $200 million in less than two weeks, giving Eastwood his greatest financial hit ever. It’s also become his most controversial.

Part of the controversy lies in the subject of the film. Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq who was credited with 160 plus kills, the highest official count in the history of the US military. Some have questioned the whole idea of snipers, in spite of their being a component of war from the time firearms became accurate. As long as there’s been a US Army, there have been snipers. (The British forces during the Revolutionary War were angry at the colonials for shooting at them from concealment rather than marching out on the field so the British could shoot back.) In the past, films often portrayed snipers as cowardly, if they were the enemy’s sharpshooters – see the end of Sands of Iwo Jima when John Wayne is killed by one – while pretty much ignoring US snipers. Recently that changed. The best depiction of a sniper as part of a fighting unit is Private Jackson (Barry Pepper) in Saving Private Ryan. Another movie that focused on sharpshooters was Enemy at the Gates, which told a fictionalized version of the story of Vasily Zaytsev (played by Jude Law), a sniper who was instrumental in helping the Russians win the Battle of Stalingrad in WWII. If you’re going to have a war, there will be snipers, on both sides.

Kyle did four tours in Iraq, and no one can dispute his courage in service. After he returned, though, he collaborated to write the autobiography on which the movie is based. Several of his claims in the book are problematic and doubtful, and led to Jesse Ventura winning a seven-digit judgment against Kyle for defamation of character. The movie ignores those aspects of his post-Iraq life.

Instead the film focuses narrowly on Kyle himself. It begins with Kyle (Bradley Cooper) watching over troops moving through a city in Iraq. Most of the first trailer for the movie (see above) is composed simply of lifting that sequence from the film. From there it jumps back to Kyle’s early life, beginning with his first kill while hunting with his father. His father instills in Kyle a simple religious faith that is rooted in the Old Testament. As an adult, Kyle competes on the rodeo circuit until he’s motivated to join the Navy SEALs following the Al Qaeda attacks on American embassies in Africa.

The scenes of him going through SEAL training are one of the weakest parts of the film. It plays out like a short, light version of An Officer and a Gentleman, though with less conflict. (Kyle’s instructor for sniper training has also taken issue with them.) The intensity of the training was better depicted in the opening of Act of Valor. With his marksmanship experience, Kyle is chosen as a sniper. It’s during training that Kyle first meets Taya (Sienna Miller) who later becomes his wife.  They are together when the 9/11 attacks take place.

Bradley Cooper’s performance as Kyle is rightly being touted as his best ever, mostly because he’s able to convey depths and subtleties while the character himself is unaware of them. The lack of self-awareness has Kyle ignore the effects of combat on himself and his family. In a scene after his first deployment, Kyle accompanies a pregnant Taya to a doctor’s appointment. After hearing Taya describe how Kyle’s heart is racing, the doctor checks his blood pressure and finds it’s dangerously elevated. But rather than being concerned about dying of a heart attack, Kyle’s more upset at what he sees as being ambushed by the doctor. Sienna Miller gives an exceptional performance as Taya, showing both her deep love for her husband and her exasperation at his behavior. Late in the film, Taya tells Kyle, “If you think the war isn’t changing you, you’re wrong. You can only circle the flames so long.” Taya was a source for the production, and most of the scenes of her and Kyle together are told from her viewpoint.

It’s been said that movies are a mirror that allow us to see our lives and the lives of others from a different perspective, but in the case of the war scenes for American Sniper Director Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall do not expand understanding of what happened during the war. Instead they present a mirror clouded by Kyle’s us/them mentality. The movie doesn’t even mention Sunni, Shiite, or Kurd, and instead treats the Iraqis as a monolithic nation of savages. It does allow the filmmakers to expand the character of Mustafa, a Syrian sniper who fought against the US forces. While he’s only mentioned once in Kyle’s book, in the movie he becomes Kyle’s nemesis, which sets up a climatic confrontation between the two. In reality, no one could float between the different fighting factions, who hated each other as much as they hated the Americans.

In some respects, American Sniper has echoes of Eastwood’s classic meditation on the corrosive effect of violence, Unforgiven. The difference is that William Muny was aware of the price he’d paid spiritually, but in American Sniper Kyle is unable to see what has happened to him. He doesn’t have the capacity for reflection that Muny displays. Eastwood underline the tragedy of Kyle’s death without showing the actual event. The archival footage at the end of Chris Kyle’s funeral show how the story is already passing into the realm of legend, which was Kyle’s nickname. Eastwood has followed the advice of the newspaper editor in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”