Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Imitation Game

Alan Turing (left) and actor Benedict Cumberbatch

Alan Turing at age 16

THE IMITATION GAME           B                     
Great Britain  USA  (114 mi)  2014  d:  Morton Tyldum            Official site

Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine.

Morton Tyldum is the Norwegian director of Headhunters (Hodejegerne) (2011), a stylish crime thriller running on high octane that treats the audience to a savagely vicious world of unleashed villainy, while here he exposes one of the dark secrets of Great Britain’s past, their ill-advised persecution of the one man that nearly single-handedly invented a machine that decrypted the German messages in World War II and helped the Allies win the war.  While most of us didn’t read about this in our history books, that’s because the information remained classified for the next 50 years.  The subject of the film is the great British mathematician Alan Turing, a brilliantly educated gay man of genius (modestly comparing himself poorly to the academic exploits of Einstein in the film) who devised a number of groundbreaking techniques for breaking German codes.  Winston Churchill said Turing made the single biggest contribution to the Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany, where historians now believe he may have helped advance the end of the war by two years and in the process save 14 million lives.  Despite his status as a war hero (which was not recognized publicly due to continued government secrecy), Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, which remained against the law in Britain until decriminalization in the mid 60’s.  In something out of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), as an alternative to prison, he accepted what amounts to chemical castration by taking female hormone injections, dying two years later at the age of 41 from self-inflicted suicide by cyanide poisoning.  It took until 2009 for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to make an official government apology for “the appalling way he was treated,” while the Queen also granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013.  Based on the Andrew Hodges book, Alan Turing:  The Enigma, which he began writing in 1977, released in 1983, it’s interesting that the book was written by a mathematician, currently a Research Fellow of Wolfson College at Oxford University, where his interest developed from his similar background, but also from his participation in the gay liberation movement of the 1970’s.  

Despite his notoriety today, Turing remained a mysterious figure during his lifetime, a man shrouded in secrecy, where MI6 Secret Intelligence Agent Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) points out he would have been a perfect candidate as a spy, telling him he was exactly the man he hoped he would turn out to be when he recruited him.  The film is told during three periods of his life, his teenage schooldays, wartime service, and his final years in the early 1950’s, continually moving back and forth in time, opening with the scratchy recording of the 1939 radio broadcast of King George VI declaring war on Germany, which is the same speech from Tom Hooper’s Academy Award winning picture THE KING’S SPEECH (2010).  As that film relied upon a superb performance by Colin Firth as the stuttering King, this does the same with Benedict Cumberbatch as the brilliant Turing, where what both films have in common is they are handsome, well-made, informative, dignified, yet also exceedingly bland.  While this is a highly unconventional subject matter, the film itself couldn’t be more safely conventional, where any reference to homosexuality has been so deeply eliminated and hidden from view, mentioned only through coded references, that this could easily pass for a Disney film.  In other words, it helps if you’re familiar with the subject matter ahead of time, as there is little mention of actually “being” gay.  This is a far cry from the dreaded anguished realms of Hell described by impeccably educated, Catholic-bred, fellow Brit Terence Davies in his intensely personal ode to his hometown of Liverpool, Of Time and the City (2008), a much more emotionally devastating work where he bashes the Catholic Church for instilling in him an overwhelming sense of fear and guilt while growing up gay, eventually rejecting the church altogether, where he admittedly now lives an asexual lifestyle.  Turing, unfortunately, never survived to appreciate the benefits of his own tiresome efforts, where he basically invented an initial model for what we now commonly call computers.  Had he survived the socially repressive era of the 50’s, he would be lauded and celebrated on a number of fronts today, and while hardly the definitive Alan Turing film, leaving out huge gaps in his life, hopefully this is not the last word on the subject. 

Certainly the main problem with the film is the detached unlikability of the main character as he works in near isolation at Bletchley Park, a secret British cryptography unit at the Government Code and Cypher School that was formed to crack Germany’s Enigma machine code, where despite the horrors that are foisted upon him early in life, including being brutally bullied by others at school, he remains unsympathetic throughout because of the routine way he’s so dismissive of others,  His callous disregard for other people, particularly during wartime when nerves are already on edge from nightly bombings, is beyond offensive and near psychotic.  While the film attributes it to how much smarter he is than others, his hubris and extreme arrogance are symptomatic of deeper psychological problems that are left unexplored.  Instead, the film counterbalances his sneering coldness with a warmhearted figure in Keira Knightley as his sole friend, Joan Clarke, a woman he hires because of her own brilliance in solving puzzles.  But she provides all the social etiquette that he’s incapable of, which includes graciously smiling and being friendly, while Turing criticizes and belittles the ineffectiveness of his coworkers while continually alienating them.  His indifference is reminiscent of Stephen Hawking’s portrayal in The Theory of Everything (2014), who is seen in a much more positive light through the loving eyes of his wife whose book was adapted for the film.  Except for those private moments when Turing is seen with Clarke, he is almost exclusively alone, though the person having the greatest impact on his life was his only friend at Sherborne School, Christopher Morcom (Jack Banner), his first love, where the two were the smartest students in class, but his untimely death from tuberculosis shattered Turing’s religious faith, sparking a career as a mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist, but also the idea of whether a machine might contain the intelligence of a human being, where he named his code-breaking machine after Christopher, while also inventing the “Turin test,” or “Imitation game,” a series of questions designed to determine whether you were speaking to a person or a “thinking” machine.  Near the end of his life Turing is portrayed as a lone eccentric, having lost all his family and friends, where all that’s left is Christopher looming inside his apartment taking up an entire wall, like a place of worship, or the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where the accompanying music by Alexandre Desplat might actually be described as exalting.  Turing’s life was portrayed earlier by Derek Jacobi in a made-for-television movie called BREAKING THE CODE (1996), and who can forget Dougray Scott as the tortured codebreaker in a fictionalized version, with Kate Winslet and Jeremy Northram along for window dressing in ENIGMA (2001), but this Hollywood version with Cumberbatch offering the intellectualized, award-worthy performance will have a much greater impact.  It’s been a banner year for science in movies, with portrayals of real life scientists Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking, and let’s not forget the fictionalized NASA pilot turned space traveler Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in Interstellar (2014).   

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Once Upon a Time Verônica (Era uma vez eu, Verônica)

ONCE UPON A TIME VERÔNICA (Era uma vez eu, Verônica)        C                    
Brazil  France  (91 mi)  2012  d:  Marcelo Gomes   

The problems inherent with this film are reflective of the current lackluster state of malaise in the Brazilian film industry overall which seemingly lags behind the quality of other major Latin American cinema cultures at the moment, where Mexico (Carlos Reygadas, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, Francisco Vargas, Fernando Eimbcke, and Amat Escalante) and Argentina (Lisandro Alonso, Lucretia Martel, Fabián Bielinsky, Adrián Caetano, Carlos Sorín, Albertina Carri, Martín Rejtman, and Pablo Trapero) in particular lead the way, but even the smaller film industries of Chile, and perhaps even Cuba, Uruguay, and Peru are producing more innovative films than Brazil, where the variance in quality is rather sizeable, subject to horrendously bad movies featuring “Telenova” actors, others copying the latest aesthetic of indie style films, while billionaire producer Walter Salles wields considerable power and influence after the critical success of CITY OF GOD (2002) over a decade ago, but the films he has written, directed or produced in the past ten years have often just been bad films, where he tends to choose topical issues but the focus is on artificiality and surface qualities, often relying upon nude scenes, rarely getting under the surface into complex character development.  CINEMA, ASPIRINS AND VULTURES (2005), an earlier film by Marcelo Gomes premiered at the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, but this film, despite a brave effort by lead actress Hermila Guedes as the title character Verônica, a psychologist working at a public hospital, is ridiculously simplistic and an insult to the mental health profession in its lackadaisical presentation.  Even the sitcom television comedy The Bob Newhart Show (1972 – 78) offered greater respect and in depth insight for patients showing signs of depression and various other psychological ailments than this film, even though a good part of it is realistically shot during treatment sessions. 

Opening and closing on a swirling montage of nude bathers at the beach, Verônica is seen as one of the party revelers, where the continual movement of bodies and camera are woven into an orgiastic frenzy of sexual freedom, becoming a dreamy image of personal liberation that may only be a fantasy, especially as the camera then moves indoors to a couple having sex, where the bodies exist in an impressionistic mosaic of nudity, but other than cliché’d verbal responses, it’s hard to find any real passion in the room.  Afterwards, as if sizing herself up in the mirror, Verônica speaks into a handheld tape recorder and offers detached, diary-like thoughts about her impassive state of mind, identifying herself in the third person, “Patient:  Verônica.  Had some great sex last night.  Or at least she thinks she did.”  This recurring motif describes the adolescent self-absorption of her thoughts, continually calling attention to herself, but also the lack of any real insight into her own character.  In a Grey’s Anatomy (2005 – present) moment, Verônica is seen celebrating with other members of her graduating class from medical school in Recife, where what’s immediately apparent is the difference between book knowledge and patient knowledge, as she’s thrust into the sprawling overcrowded population of patients waiting to be seen in a public hospital, where it’s hard to believe she’s actually “helping” anyone.  Nonetheless she walks past this ever expanding line of patients to get to her office each day, where a variety of ailments present themselves to her, but realistically she always feels like a fish out of water, as there’s little actual interaction with patients when all she does is sit there writing prescriptions all day.  Away from work, she spends the majority of her time with her elderly father (W.J. Solha), a retired banker with a love for listening to old Brazilian records, but whose declining health worries her, seen tenderly taking care of him even though his continual advice for his daughter is to head for the beach or go out with friends and live her own life instead of being stuck with him. 

The one constant throughout is Verônica resorting to sex as the only outlet for all her internal struggles, spending most of the time with her boyfriend Gustavo (João Miguel), but she continues to express self-doubts, offering vacuous comments like “I, patient Verônica, uncertain about life, like everybody else.”  She even seems to believe she has a heart of stone, as she freely has sex with others as well and has difficulty making emotional commitments.  You get the feeling that every aspect of her life is self-analyzed, that perhaps the only reason she became a psychiatrist was to analyze herself, as she remains indifferent to everyone else except her father, the one man she can depend on.  The dreary and downbeat tone at work and in her life feels monotonous and suffocating, growing even worse when she discovers her father is dying, but this is contrasted by street scenes of the two of them walking slowly through Recife recalling past memories while a blossoming vitality of life exists all around them.  When they’re forced to move to a new location, due to needed building repairs, it’s a rather overt metaphor for having to rebuild their own lives.  Real life is overly grim, where there’s simply nothing to lure the audience into this perpetual aloofness except the sensuousness of the music heard throughout, where in Verônica’s early onset midlife crisis she has thoughts of becoming a professional singer.  While this seems little more than a dream, it does give the director an excuse to film whatever passes through her head, resorting to multiple sex scenes as well as a nightclub singer singing one of those songs you can’t seem to get out of your head, that Verônica actually sings to one of her disgruntled patients, “It’s all standardized in our hearts/ Our way of loving doesn’t seem to be ours at all/ Forever moving love to a new address.”  This shifting focus of attention and inability to concentrate on anything except the sensuousness of the beach, sex, music, and dreams does reflect the Brazilian state of mind, as if stuck in a reverie, but in this film she’s imprisoned by it.    

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Into the Woods (2014)

INTO THE WOODS               B+                  
USA  (124 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Rob Marshall                       Official site

Into the woods,
It’s time to go,
I hate to leave,
I have to, though.
Into the woods-
It’s time, and so
I must begin my journey.

Into the woods
And through the trees
To where I am
Expected ma’am,
Into the woods
To Grandmother’s house-

—Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford)

When you’re dead, you’re dead.         —The Witch (Meryl Streep)

One of the most beloved musicals in the Sondheim repertoire, one that inverts the childlike innocence of fairy tales, ingeniously combining several classic fairy tales into a single story, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk, allowing tragedy, heartache, and death to intrude, creating a post apocalyptic feel that mirrors today’s post 9/11 world where unspeakable horrors continue to plague and traumatize a harrowed worldwide population, especially each new generation of children.  Originally opening on Broadway on November 5, 1987, the production won three Tony Awards, Best Score (Sondheim), Best Book (or Story, James Lapine), and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s wife) in a year dominated by The Phantom of the Opera, winner of seven Tony awards, becoming the longest running Broadway show in history.  While the original film version, Into the Woods (1991), directed by Lapine was simply filming a live performance of the original Broadway cast in front of an audience, the original singers are far superior, especially Bernadette Peters, who simply exudes greater complexity, bringing more humor and anguished personality into the Witch, while the comic timing throughout is more free flowing as well, but this is a much more entertaining version as the camera isn't so suffocatingly confined to fixed positions, though the direction does feel distracting at times.  More importantly, in both productions the Sondheim complexity really does shine through, where the theatrical experience is not only among the best Sondheim productions of his entire career, rivaling West Side Story (1957) and Company (1970), but among the most transforming theatrical experiences ever.  Nonetheless, the film underwent many changes to be brought to the screen by Disney, which will invariably be questioned, especially by Sondheim purists who wouldn’t change a thing, but it does streamline a three-hour production, with an Intermission, into a two-hour film.  First off, it eliminates about ten songs, including two new songs written by Sondheim specifically for the film that were also dropped.  Additionally, there is no narrator standing off to the side of the stage, which is seen as more of a theatrical device, instead the narration is provided by the Baker (James Corden) from the opening scene, which adds a bit of symmetry as he is again telling a story at the end of the movie.     

While Into the Woods (1991) *is* the definitive stage version, after the passing of 25 years, perhaps it’s due for a reassessment.  It’s worth noting that the legendary Bob Fosse took the stage version of Cabaret and completely changed it for the film, which won 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, beating out Francis Ford Coppola in the process for THE GODFATHER (1972), Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor.  Fosse cut two major characters, remade the lead into an American, and cut most of the material except for the songs in the nightclub, and for that the man is considered a genius.  Comparatively speaking, these are only minor alterations, none of which change the tone of the original, except perhaps it’s darker, as none of the characters who are killed off return to the stage for a rousing final number before the curtain falls.  As something of a quest movie, the opening ten minutes or so are a rush of exhilaration built around a single musical theme of “Into the Woods,” which introduces the central characters, the childless Baker (Corden) and his wife (Emily Blount, probably the best thing in the entire show), who have been cursed by the Witch (Meryl Streep in a less comic, much meaner version), who has herself been cursed into ugliness, demanding that they retrieve certain items to reverse the spell in order to conceive a child, where they continue to interact with other storybook characters throughout their journey.  Nearby the poor and not so bright farm boy Jack (Daniel Huddlestone) is scolded by his mother (Tracey Ullman) when he hesitates to take his best friend, a cow named Milky White, to the market for needed money, while Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is continually humiliated and mistreated at home as she dreams of attending the luxurious Prince’s ball, but visiting her sick grandmother is Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) who gathers as many cookies from the Baker as she can, stuffing them into a basket before she skips along into the woods, meeting a devious wolf (Johnny Depp) who has other ideas along the way.  Often you can’t really tell where one musical number ends and another begins, continually moving in and out of dialogue, where film allows much of the story to be told in flashback, something you can’t do on stage.  

Stage shows are notoriously difficult to bring to the screen, where Sondheim’s earlier A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1977) fell short of audience’s expectations, while Tim Burton’s dark-themed SWEENEY TODD (2007) had flashes of brilliance but catered to a distinct few, quickly leaving the theaters after a short run.  But unlike earlier failed attempts, like CAMELOT (1967) or MAN OF LA MANCHA (1972), the inspiring magic of the Sondheim source material remains intact and can be enthralling, especially for those experiencing it for the first time.  The film is an alluring mix of absurdism and childhood fantasy with real life themes, where the stark seriousness can catch unsuspecting viewers off guard, yet the beauty of the music can literally be enchanting.  There’s a broad attempt to turn this into a Shakespearean Midsummer Night’s Dream, an exotic place where a little magic dust gets everything mixed up, including the two Prince Charmings, Star Trek’s Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, both hamming it up to excessively vulgar and distasteful delight while singing “Agony” like a cologne advertising shoot along some artificial waterfalls, each complaining bitterly about the difficulties encountered in their attempts at romance, eventually marrying their destined fairybook sweethearts before time creates a rift between them, where both cheat on their wives with little to no remorse.  This incident in particular plagues the Baker’s wife, succumbing to the Prince’s charms in a momentary lapse of reason, who feels as if a kind of madness has taken over, as the world around her is quickly coming apart at the seams before she finally comes to her senses, but it’s too late, a victim of the unpredictable violence of the times.  The film retains the brilliance of the original story, which has not only a fascinating interplay between what’s real and what’s imagined, but has another interesting dynamic where children are seen through the eyes of Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, while the emphasis on the Bakers shifts the importance to the views of expectant parents, where the disasters occurring throughout reflect a kind of imaginary world that they both need to navigate their way through together.  When the Witch sings “Stay with Me” to her daughter Rapunzel as she’s about to leave with her Prince, it’s one of the best songs about parental loss ever written.  Perhaps more emphasized in the film are the anxieties associated with parenthood, where the Baker encounters the spirit of his father more as a reflection of his own fear of fatherhood, which is paralleled later near the end when the Baker encounters the spirit of his dead wife, offering him tender but encouraging words of advice about his ability to handle such a complex situation on his own. 

Perhaps no contemporary American composer has broken more rules than Sondheim, who views humankind as potentially problem solving.  To that end, the opening is stuffed full of complicated situations, with each character drawn into this internal whirlwind of the story.  But as the film progresses, the concept of time expands with age, becoming more contemplative, where the marvel of the story is how the characters interact with one another, where their shared conflicts help them grow as they ask questions about what to do.  According to Mark Eden Horowitz’s Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, “wishing” is the key character in Into the Woods, wishing for love, for a child, for understanding, which connects the characters not only to one another but to the audience.  The initial fantasies are elaborated upon through a sophisticated musical score that initially charms and delights before growing more somberly reflective.  Sondheim was himself abandoned by his father at age ten and had a psychologically abusive mother, eventually becoming an institutionalized child having little contact with his original family.  When his mother died in 1992, Sondheim did not attend the funeral.  This dark world of feeling abandoned and disconnected from the world around you is the setting of the film, where the songs literally bring the viewer inside these fragile moments of tragedy and personal loss that become nothing less than heartbreaking in the song “No One Is Alone,” No One Is Alone by Bernadette Peters - YouTube (5:15), where Cinderella, separated from her Prince, comforts Little Red Riding Hood while the Baker, who has lost his wife, consoles Jack after he’s lost his mother.  The film is preoccupied by the tragedy of the times we live in, which has become a much more unstable and threatening world.  Visited by the spirits of the ones they (and we) have lost, it’s the Witch who uncannily sees through this myriad of missed connections, unraveling lives and broken dreams, and as if in a haze delivers one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs, “Children Will Listen,” Children Will Listen by Bernadette Peters - YouTube (3:05), that somehow magically and triumphantly reconnects us all to each other, from one generation to the next, literally transforming this fairy tale about inexplicable loss into a transcendent passion play on love, forgiveness, and human redemption.  

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Into the Woods (1991)

INTO THE WOODS – made for TV, PBS American Playhouse          B              
USA  (153 mi)  1991  d:  James Lapine

I was raised to be charming, not sincere.        —The Prince (Robert Westerberg)

One of the most endearing of all Stephen Sondheim musicals, a magical experience largely because of its universal accessibility, one that pokes fun of children’s fairy tales, imagining them with different outcomes than ending happily ever after, premiering on Broadway on November 5, 1987.  Divided into two halves, separated by an Intermission, the first half fits the audiences expectations by ingeniously combining several classic fairy tales, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk, with a sarcastic narrator (Tom Aldredge) dressed in a suit visibly seen standing off to the side of the stage advancing the stories with a polished relish, while in the second half, when the familiar suddenly turns unrecognizable, elements of death and stark realism are added, where the story grows darker with a chilling despair that haunts the surviving characters, suddenly cut off from their families and homes, left to fend for themselves in a changing world.  Music and lyrics by Sondheim, with a clever story written by James Lapine, the production won three Tony Awards, Best Score, Best Book (Story), and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s wife, whose deadpan timing is a joy to behold) in a year dominated by The Phantom of the Opera, winner of seven Tony awards, becoming the longest running Broadway show in history.  Collaborating with Lapine, the writer has a taste for visually oriented theater, where their first musical together about pointillist painter Georges Seurat was Sunday in the Park with George, in 1984, winning two Tony awards for design, while Sondheim and Lapine won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  Lapine also directs the film, attempting to recreate the Broadway experience by simply filming a performance in front of a live audience, but the suffocatingly narrow and confined limitations of a fixed camera with a zoom lens moving in and out, but not panning from side to side (where interestingly the stage moves instead of the camera), prevents an overall view of depth and breadth of the entire stage, losing much of the three dimensional aspects of movement, as there are plenty of scene changes within a scene, often losing connection with characters, where the visual effect throughout is everything feels flattened out.  This is the same problem with filming operas (appearing regularly in movie theaters nowadays), where these specific theatrical performances were meant to be experienced live in theaters where the sound reverberates throughout the music hall. 

Ostensibly a story about a childless Baker (Chip Zien) and his wife (Gleason) and their magical quest to begin a family, fighting off a curse placed upon them years ago by an ugly Witch (Bernadette Peters, a delight in one of her best roles), who has herself been cursed, collecting several items the Witch demands to reverse the curse while interacting with other storybook characters throughout the journey.  With music tying all these elements together, the opening sequence of heading “Into the Woods” draws in many of the featured characters, including Little Red Riding Hood (Danielle Ferland, who ultimately becomes knife-wielding and cynical) snatching as many cookies as she can grab in the bakery before she’s off to her grandmother’s house, a somewhat dimwitted neighbor Jack (Ben Wright) who through impoverished circumstances is forced by his mother to take his best friend, a cow named Milky White (an inanimate object), to the market for money, while Cinderella (Kim Crosby) is seen fleeing through the woods wearing slippers of gold while escaping from the Prince (Robert Westerberg, who doubles as the wolf, and after meeting on the set ironically goes on to marry Cinderella/Kim Crosby in real life afterwards) after the luxurious ball, a recurring event that happens on each of three consecutive nights.  The First Act plays out like a delightful run-on sentence, continually getting carried away with one idea, which overlaps into another, and another, creating waves of interconnecting sequences that are humorously developed through complicated musical lyrics that are given the Sondheim touch, where he is a master of cleverly crafting music and lyrics specifically tailored to the characters and situations within his musicals.  Perhaps setting the absurdly ridiculous tone for the story is one of the more memorable musical numbers, a duet of dueling princes in “Agony,” Into the Woods - "Agony" - YouTube (2:39), one (Chuck Wagner) who can’t fathom how to steal away Rapunzel locked in her tall tower with no doors and the other whose fair maiden keeps eluding his grasp at the ball, something he finds unthinkable, where he attributes it to “madness,” each an exaggerated caricature of what a Prince Charming is supposed to be, yet each bemoaning the opposition they encounter as if it were a fate worse than death.  But that’s only a prelude for worse catastrophes yet to come.  When the Witch discovers the Prince has romantic inclinations with Rapunzel, she begs her daughter not to leave her, as the world outside is filled with trouble and heartache, "Stay with Me" - Into The Woods (1991 ... - YouTube (2:46), becoming one of the best songs ever written about parental loss.  When Rapunzel refuses, however, the Witch angrily blinds the Prince, cuts off Rapunzel's hair and banishes her to the desert. 

Part of the beauty of the play is how well the audience is initially comforted by the opening act, where everyone finds what they’re looking for, as the Bakers have a child, the Witch has regained her beauty, Cinderella has married the Prince and lives in a castle, Little Red Riding Hood has defeated the Wolf, and Jack and his mother are no longer poor, as the magic beans received for the cow have brought them riches, where “once upon a time” has led to “happily ever after” and all is seemingly right with the world.  At the Intermission, audiences are likely to be smiling.  But the second act literally transforms the play, as something devilishly clever aspires to something even greater, where simply following one’s customary storybook destiny without having to make difficult choices is not in the cards, as that is not how life works.  Despite achieving what they set out to, everyone seems happy on the outside, but underneath they all still yearn for something more, where the Bakers fret about not having enough room for a new family, while Cinderella may actually be growing bored with the Prince, and Rapunzel, despite being freed from the tower, wanders aimlessly in the desert, where her blind Prince somehow finds her there, regaining his sight from her tears and marries her on the spot, but she’s grown hysterical.  Both Prince Charmings continue to romance other women, betraying their wives in the process, but this is all they know.  While Jack initially chopped down the beanstalk, leaving a Giant dead in their backyard, a new Giant is detected from another beanstalk, a Lady Giant who’s fuming over the loss of her husband and wants the child responsible handed over to her.  In her wrath, she destroys the castle, steps on Grandmother’s house, and causes the death of the Baker’s wife.  In regaining her beauty, the Witch has lost her powers to defend against such a formidable creature, singing the “Last Midnight” in their darkest hour, leaving them seemingly at the mercy of the Lady Giant, many having lost their homes and their loved ones.  This heartache and tragedy is reflected in one of Sondheim’s greatest songs, “No One Is Alone,” where Cinderella comforts Little Red Riding Hood while the Baker consoles Jack after he’s lost his mother, trying to keep his anger from swelling up into vengeance.  In the end only a few survive, but they are visited by the spirits of the ones they lost, where the Witch, of all people, delivers the moral of the story, singing one of the most beautifully heartfelt songs, “Children Will Listen,” before they all collectively return to the introductory main theme song, “Into the Woods.”  These complex characterizations are the heart of the story, as Sondheim brings the unfamiliar into the familiar, where this is one of his more audience pleasing and ingeniously created works.  By the end, we feel intimately connected to the characters, mixing comic wit, savage satire, and pure tragedy into their otherwise fortuitous lives, bringing them to the edge of the apocalypse where their world, as they and we in the audience know it, is completely destroyed and they must find a new way to survive outside the safely protected confines of fairy tales and illusion. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014


Author Cheryl Strayed (left) and actress Reese Witherspoon  

Cheryl Strayed  

WILD              B-                   
USA  (115 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Jean-Marc Vallée          Official site

I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told.
—Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, 2012

Adapted from the 2012 memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, this is a case where literature is the better format than film, as most of the story is told through seemingly disconnected, stream-of-conscious thoughts that continually feel fragmented in the film, randomly pulled together through music and flashback sequences, but it all feels so cliché’d, especially the choices of music, which are mere snippets, where the audience never gets a feel for how or why this journey is so essential, other than on a superficial level.  It’s not unusual for people’s lives to fall apart from time to time, but this is certainly an unusual method to put the missing pieces back together again.  By the end, despite the grand poetic gesture, supposedly finding transcendence in the final moment, there’s little reason to believe this character is really any different, as she’s always been the sum of her parts.  The film pales in comparison to the male counterpart, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), where the characters throughout are more deeply fleshed out and complex, offering more memorable performances, where here it feels more like a mother and daughter film, where neither one is fully revealed, but remain abstract configurations.  Reese Witherspoon purchased the rights to the book, while Oprah listed it on her Oprah's Book Club 2.0 in June, 2012, becoming a #1 best seller for seven weeks, where Witherspoon plays the lead character (author Cheryl Strayed) and is also a producer on the film.  While the backstory is only revealed in flashback, the film counts off the days in 1995 as 26-year old Cheryl begins her journey alone in the Mohave Desert near the Mexican border and follows the Pacific Crest Trail through the mountainous terrain of the Sierra Nevada in California and the southern end of the Cascade Range in Oregon, where hikers have to make sure they complete enough miles every day to reach the opposite end of the trail before weather conditions make snowy sections impassable, targeting several resupply points en route to stock up on food and water, until reaching the Bridge of the Gods traversing the Columbia River at the border of Washington, the lowest elevation of the entire 1100-mile journey that took over 3-months.  While the feat is not to be minimized, something very few could actually accomplish, nonetheless the film itself minimizes the difficulty of the journey and instead attempts to reveal the unfolding narrative through the restlessness anxiety of her interior world.    

While Cheryl Strayed is a novelist and essayist, someone extremely familiar with words and language, this adaptation by Nick Hornby is a poor substitute, as the various sequences never feel connected, but remain isolated moments, as people Cheryl meets along the road simply vanish from view without a word, where they, along with her memories, are like ghosts following her along the trail, where they never materialize into living, breathing human beings that matter to the audience.  Instead, the camera focuses entirely on Cheryl 100% of the time, where everything else is incidental, even the vastness of the wilderness, beautifully photographed by Yves Bélanger, where despite the continuing timeline, there is no real comprehension of time and distance, as the film really takes place inside her head.  While the experience is a document of mood swings, resembling Danny Boyle’s 127 HOURS (2010), it lacks that film’s intensity and sense of desperation as well as the degree of difficulty encountered, though both rely upon the interior world of flashbacks.  In the end it becomes a road movie, where Cheryl’s initial encounters with her own naiveté reflect just how angry and unprepared she is to make such an extreme journey, where the F-word is littered throughout, but she receives needed help and excellent advice along the way.  One of the more unusual scenes is seeing Cheryl and Paul (Thomas Sadoski), her husband of seven years, getting matching tattoos, something they can share forever even as it comes on the day they are getting divorced.  Their familiarity with each other is touching, especially when Cheryl acknowledges she cheated on him, obviously recognizing the cost at that moment, adding that she actually cheated on him a lot.  This may be their closest moment together throughout the film, though it only hints at her own personal descent into reckless drug abuse and a rampant proclivity for sleeping around with any man that so much as looks at her.  Much of these self-destructive experiences are narrated as she hikes along the trail, becoming a parallel world of soul searching through her past that she carries with her throughout her long and arduous ordeal.

Perhaps the heart of the film is her close relationship with her mother Bobbi, Laura Dern, who rescued her and her little brother from an abusive and alcoholic father, yet maintained her dignity and self-esteem throughout the ensuing years of struggle, sacrificing all to make sure her children had a brighter future than her own, suggesting she would never change a thing if it produced something as beautiful as her two children, but she dies quickly at the age of 45 after being diagnosed with lung cancer, fueling a period of rage and self-destruction.  Her own history of sexual violation leaves her even more exposed as a lone traveler through such remote territory, where she has to instantly assess her encounters with various men, where the possibility of sexual violence is always on the back of her mind, yet it’s the terrain she’s chosen to navigate on her own terms.  What’s perhaps most surprising is how few negative encounters she has, where most everyone she meets is helpful and overly friendly, except for a couple of leering, beer guzzling DELIVERANCE (1972) guys carrying bows and arrows, who find it most peculiar to run into a woman alone in the woods, though we never get a clear picture of just how much time is spent alone.  When she wanders into the heart of civilization, where a guy is passing out flyers for a musical tribute to Jerry Garcia, who just passed away, she jolts at the closeness of his physical presence, something she’s obviously not been used to for several months, where she has to recalibrate her bearings.  But apparently it’s like riding a bike, as in no time she’s hopped into the sack with the same guy, heading back out the next morning.  Particularly because she crosses through some of the prime real estate for pot growing in America, one wonders what might have been cleaned up for the movie, as drug use is not uncommon for back packers in that neck of the woods, but this subject is completely glossed over without incident.  While we assume Cheryl has gone through some psychological trajectory, this is never evident, though a final sequence attempts to grow increasingly transcendent without ever actually rising to the moment.  It recalls a more dramatically compelling bridge sequence at the end of Chris Eyre’s SMOKE SIGNALS (1997), where both films attempt to reconcile the violence and discord of their pasts with a Siddhartha-like moment of self-realization.