Archive for the ‘Arts’ Category

American Sniper: Not Enough Bang—Movie

January 20, 2015

Bradley Cooper gives a bravura performance as Chris Kyle, the hero of “American Sniper.” Unfortunately, as presented on-screen, the film’s execution doesn’t measure up to the real person, and over the course of more than two hours, becomes too repetitive. Directed by Clint Eastwood with screenplay by Jason Hall, based on Chris Kyle’s memoir, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, written by Kyle, Scott McEwen and James Defelice, the film delves into Kyle’s childhood, his rodeo career, enlistment into the military, marriage and fatherhood, and most importantly, his years as a Navy SEAL and four tours of duty in Iraq.

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“American Sniper” opens in Iraq with Chris zeroing in on a young target in his sights. The film then powerfully jumps back in time to his home in Texas and a hunting lesson with a young Chris (Cole Konis) and his father, Wayne (Ben Reed). We see that even at a young age, Chris is an excellent shot. Chris’ father is a stereotypical Texas good-old boy, who seems to be all about God, country and hunting. Anything less than “manning up” is unacceptable to him. Younger brother, Jeff (Luke Sunshine), is weaker than Chris and seemingly in Chris’ shadow for the rest of his life. The boys grow up and become bronco rodeo riders. Although successful, Chris isn’t fulfilled and enlists, becoming a Navy SEAL. Interestingly enough, brother, Jeff (Keir O’Donnell), also enlists in the military. Prior to his first tour, Chris meets and marries Taya (Sienna Miller). Soon after he is married, he heads off to Iraq. The film shows that Chris doesn’t take his first kill lightly…that it does weigh on him…but he gets on with the mission at hand. Over time, Chris is known for his sharpshooting skill and his number of kills, earning him the nickname, “Legend.” Chris is matter-of-fact about his accomplishments which wins him the respect and friendship of his fellow soldiers. Although Chris is home for the birth of his first child, a son, it’s easy to see that he doesn’t feel completely at ease there, thinking he should be back with his fellow soldiers. Over the course of four tours, his time at home is more and more strained, especially when he becomes a father again. He goes back to Iraq, but during his fourth tour, Chris seems to realize that when it’s done, it’s time for him to be home for good. But being stateside is easier than it sounds. Chris has flashbacks, violent outbursts and more. It’s not until he tells a VA psychiatrist that he is “haunted by all the guys he couldn’t save,” that he finally finds the road back to a fulfilled life.

Clint Eastwood would seem to be an excellent directing choice for “American Sniper.” He does capture the camaraderie of the soldiers especially well. The good-natured ribbing, even while waiting on targets to make a move, comes off as very genuine. He also does a very good job in showing how boring the life of a sniper can be…the hours of just waiting for movement…while still remaining sharp. Unfortunately for a movie viewer, sitting there waiting with Chris and the other men isn’t very interesting and while the players may change a little over four tours, it feels like one is watching the same thing over and over. And while Eastwood does show us Chris’ home life and the strain tours take on families in general and his in particular, there just isn’t enough of what Chris does to overcome this and get on with his life. We see some of this activity, but it would be meaningful learning more. Eastwood concludes the film on a somber note. To underscore the solemnity, the ending film credits roll in silence. It’s a brilliant touch.

As noted earlier, Bradley Cooper gives an outstanding performance as Chris Kyle. He’s very believable as a man who sees things in terms of black and white, who loves his country and his family—both military and familial. Sienna Miller, as Chris’ wife struggling to cope with the changes she sees in Chris, is also very convincing. The supporting cast of actors playing soldiers is extremely good and those actors make the film feel very realistic.

Unfortunately, even with compelling performances, “American Sniper” too often feels repetitive and flat. The man himself was anything but, and it’s too bad the film doesn’t capture more of that spirit.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

Paddington: A Magical Delight—Movie

January 20, 2015

In a movie year full of altruistic apes, snarky raccoons and dragons that rise from the sea, “Paddington’s” bear brings it and then some. A magical delight from beginning to end, “Paddington” is for the child in all of us. Directed by Paul King and written by King and Hamish McColl, based on Michael Bond’s character, Paddington Bear, this is the tale of how Paddington came to be.

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The story begins in darkest Peru where Paddington’s aunt and uncle encounter the English explorer, Montgomery Clyde (Tim Downie). Clyde is enchanted by the bears and teaches them to read, write and speak English. Before going back to England, he tells them that they will always be welcome in London and leaves his hat behind as a remembrance. Many years later, the nephew of the aunt and uncle (who will eventually be known as Paddington) leaves Peru under sad circumstances. A stowaway on a ship setting sail for London, the bear has nothing more than a suitcase full of marmalade and a marmalade sandwich tucked under his hat, just as the explorer had taught the bears to do…just in case. He arrives in rainy London, expecting someone…anyone to give him shelter and welcome him into their family. While no one in London seems surprised by a talking, well-mannered bear, the city is not as friendly as he expects. It isn’t until he meets the Brown family, who offer him temporary shelter, that his fortune changes for the better. Mrs. Brown (Sally Hawkins) and young son, Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), take an immediate shine to him…Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville) and older daughter, Judy (Madeleine Harris), not so much. The family decides to call him Paddington, named for the station in which they found him, and so Paddington begins to settle in, hoping to find either the explorer or the explorer’s family to eventually “adopt” him. However, finding a permanent home for Paddington is not his only problem. Unbeknownst to the Brown family and Paddington, a villainous taxidermist (Nicole Kidman) has been made aware of Paddington and is out to find him and provide him with a different kind of permanency.

“Paddington” is so much fun on a variety of levels. The scenes in the Browns’ bathroom are absolutely hysterical, as the bear adjusts to a life with humans in a human house. His reactions and the family’s reaction to him are priceless. It all feels so very real. Even the scenes with the family in the kitchen seem quite genuine and are extremely funny.

“Paddington” boast a top-notch cast. Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins are just wonderful as Mr. and Mrs. Brown. Bonneville is especially good and has some terrifically funny scenes. It’s hard to find someone who can express disgust and disdain as elegantly as this actor can. Julie Walters is great as the family housekeeper, Mrs. Bird, and her interaction with everyone else in the cast is fun to watch. Nicole Kidman makes for a great villain. She’s absolutely terrific in her single-minded meanness and such are her shoes that they get their own special credit (Nina Shoes, for those of you who might be interested). It’s rare that we see her do anything with a comic bent and she really shines in the part. Imelda Staunton and Michael Gambon as the voices of Paddington’s aunt and uncle are spot on. Finally,there is Paddington, himself. Voiced by Ben Whishaw, he is sheer perfection. He makes Paddington so loveable without being treacly…he is that great.

“Paddington” is full of real pigeons and monkeys as noted by their respective wranglers in the film’s credits. You can tell me that Paddington is not real, but I refuse to believe it. Everything about him feels genuine. You just want to reach out and touch him…or hug him. I don’t want the magic spoiled by knowing how this was done. If this really is special effects, then it’s the most amazing work I’ve seen in a long time. All I know is that “Paddington” seemed very real to me and I just fell in love completely.

4 nuggets out of 4

Selma: Doesn’t Quite Measure Up to Excellent Performances—Movie

January 18, 2015

In spite of some very good performance, “Selma” still feels and falls a little flat. Directed by Ava DuVernay and written by Paul Webb, “Selma” is about the 1965 March for voting rights from Selma, Alabama to the Montgomery state capitol and the events leading up to the March.

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“Selma” opens with Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo) and his wife, Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo) getting ready for the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony for which King is a recipient. This scene is important for showing us not only the esteem with which King is held, but in presenting, in a very subtle manner, the dynamic between Martin and Coretta. It’s loving relationship, but seems a little strained. From Oslo we go back to the United States where we meet Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), a nurse in a rest home. It’s through her that we see how difficult it is for African-Americans to register to vote, regardless of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the courthouse, in an effort to register to vote, we watch Cooper going through hoops to answer ridiculous “qualifying” questions, the answers to which, no American would have the answers. It’s that scene and one other horrific scene which set the movie up perfectly for what is to come and demonstrates perfectly why the Selma marches are necessary and why King believes that it is so important that they happen on his time-frame, not President Johnson’s.

As King prepares for the initial march we are introduced to members of both the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Meeting at the home of old friends, the two groups discuss strategy and while SNCC favors a more aggressive approach, it acquiesces to the more non-violent pursuit of King’s SCLC. The resulting initial Selma march is shown in all its brutality. It and the aftermath are well-done, albeit very difficult to watch.

As Martin Luther King, Jr., David Oyelowo is outstanding. He never seems like he is doing an impersonation and his performance feels very genuine. Signing on to the film in its early 2010 origins, “Selma” became a passion project for him and he does King proud. A very unglamorous Oprah makes for a very compelling Annie Lee Cooper and in some ways, Cooper is the heart and soul of the film. Carmen Ejogo as Coretta gives an outstanding portrayal. Her performance is a very dignified one, much like the real Mrs. King many of us have seen or about whom we have read. Stephen James as a young John Lewis is also very good. In fact, the entire supporting cast is extremely good. Not so good, two important leads…surprisingly Tom Wilkinson as President Johnson and Tim Roth as George Wallace. Their accents and performances seem more like caricatures than the real people. To be the successful politicians they were, there had to be more to them than what we see on the screen. And perhaps it should be pointed out that these two actors are English and maybe this is what causes them to overdo the Southern drawl to cartoon levels. Oyelowo and Ejogo are also English, but neither lay the accent on so thick and are much more believable in their roles.

There has been some controversy about how President Johnson’s and Rev. King’s relationship is portrayed. That is something for historians to discuss. Regardless of what truly happened, no one can doubt that the Civil Rights Movement and the fight for true equality and the right for all Americans to vote, regardless of the color of their skin, was and is an important, hard-fought battle. There most definitely is a moving connection as we watch the final March take place and Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.This reviewer just wishes that the rest of “Selma” packed more of an emotional wallop. Some scenes do, but others do not and it’s hard to say just why that is the case. When the film is mixed with real footage of the day, more of that emotion resonates. There’s just not enough of that to bring “Selma” to that next level.

2 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

Unbroken: Powerful Salute to a Real Man—Movie

January 4, 2015

Fierce, dark, heroic…”Unbroken” is all this and much more. This brilliant film pays tribute to its hero, Louis Zamperini, by presenting a luminous look into the life of an extraordinary man. Masterfully directed by Angelina Jolie with primary screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book, “Unbroken” takes us from Zamperini’s boyhood to his life as a bombardier to the endless days he spent on his raft, to his imprisonment and torture and, finally, to his eventual release. It’s all mesmerizing and although there are times you want to look away, you can’t.

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Jolie begins the film with mind-boggling scenes of one of Zamperini’s (Jack O’Connell) bombardier missions during WWII. The shots inside the plane are absolutely phenomenal. We feel like we are right there beside the crew. In the midst of the action, we flash-back to a young Louis (C.J. Valleroy) living in Torrance, CA. A child of Italian immigrants, Louis is frequently bullied for his heritage and is well on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent. Fortunately when his older brother, Pete (first played by John D’Leo and then Alex Russell ), sees how fast Louis can run when trying to escape from some crime he’s just committed, he decides Louis has it in him to run track. It’s Pete who sets him on the straight and narrow with the words that remain with Louis for the rest of his life, “If you can take it, you can make it.” Pete’s influence is a success and Louis turns into a track phenom. He becomes part of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, coming in 8th in his event and sets a record for speed in the final lap in the 5000-meter run.

“Unbroken” then picks up where the war action left off. We now know that after the Olympics Louis enlisted (off-screen) where he became part of a bombardier squad. The squad is in the middle of a search and rescue mission in the Pacific when their plane fails them and crashes into the ocean. He and initially two members of the squad survive the crash and endure 47 days on a raft in the Pacific before being captured by the Japanese. They are taken to a Japanese prison camp where, for most of their remaining time in capture, they suffer some absolutely harrowing days under the sadistic watch of Mutsuhiro “Bird” Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). Watanabe knows of Louis’ Olympic status and, thus, he is singled out for special torture.

Jolie has done a fantastic job in casting “Unbroken.” C.J. Valleroy as the young Zamperini is terrific and his transformation into the adult Zamperini (O’Connell) is spot-on. O’Connell, so fabulous in “Starred Up” is even better in “Unbroken.” He captures Louis’ spirit…his will to survive perfectly. He gives a truly amazing performance. Also very good is Ishihara as Watanabe, his primary tormentor. His portrayal is never over-the-top. It’s more of an understated malevolence, which is very unsettling.

It’s impossible to exaggerate how affecting “Unbroken” is. The battle scenes are extremely realistic. The days spent on the raft and the conversations between the men feel very real. And, finally, the time in the prison camps is just horrific as we watch the men shrink physically, but never emotionally, before our very eyes. Adding to the film’s ferocity is the powerful score by Alexandre Desplat and the realistic cinematography of Roger Deakins.

Angelina Jolie, the Coen Brothers and Jack O’ Connell…all have given us a film that is truly worthy of its subject, Louis Zamperini. Although you may have to sit in your seat for a while to regain your composure when the film is over, “Unbroken” is not to be missed.

4 nuggets out of 4

 

Mr. Turner: Is It Over?—Movie

January 2, 2015

To be perfectly blunt, “Mr. Turner” is a hugely disappointing bore. Two hours of watching actor Timothy Spall looking and grunting like a pig is just not entertaining on any level. “Mr. Turner” gives new meaning to the phrase, “like watching paint dry”…literally. Written and directed by the usually wonderful, Mike Leigh, “Mr. Turner” is one very long look at the life and career of 19th century British artist, J. M. W. Turner (Timothy Spall).

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“Mr. Turner” deals with the artist’s latter years, so he is already a renowned artist when we meet him. He lives in London with his faithful housekeeper, Hannah (Dorothy Atkinson) and his father, William (Paul Jesson), until his father’s death. This particular casting is very bizarre because the father looks about the same age as Turner, making one think at first that the two are brothers.

Turner’s paintings become more impressionistic over the years. Not everyone is a fan of this change as we see in an amusing scene with a young Queen Victoria’s reaction to his work. Turner and his new art are the butt of jokes several times over the course of the film, often within Turner’s earshot. While his reactions are priceless, they are most definitely not enough to sustain interest in the film. Therein lies the problem with “Mr. Turner”…there is no there, there. There’s no narrative to explain the man behind the paint brush. What caused his painting style to change? There are some extraordinary scenes of Turner strapped to a boat’s masthead so he can paint what he sees, but why did he choose to do this? The film doesn’t say.  “Mr. Turner” alludes to and shows that as a human being, Turner could be quite despicable. He took some heinous (or so we are led to believe) actions within his family and we know he fathered children, but was never a real father…why?  His treatment of Hannah would today be a form of sexual harassment. However, in 19th century England, everyone was far too polite to say anything publicly. Why was he like this? The only time Turner’s mood seemed to lighten was when he was around Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey), the landlady of the boardinghouse where he often stayed. He became friendly (for him) with both Sophia and her husband. After her husband died, the two of them became more than friends. It’s worth noting that when he was at home in the company of his housekeeper, Turner was moody, dark and mean. When in the company of Mrs. Booth, he actually seemed to brighten a bit. It makes one wonder what might have happened if she had come into his life sooner.

Although “Mr. Turner” has received several awards and nominations, its allure simply escapes this reviewer. As Turner, Spall does nothing but stomp and grunt. When he does speak, he’s not easy to understand. The rest of the performances, save for that of Bailey, are there seemingly to show the speech and moirés of the day.

The only parts of “Mr. Turner” which are truly good are its cinematography and music. Cinematographer Dick Pope is extremely worthy of the special jury prize the Cannes Film Festival awarded him for the film’s cinematography. Gary Yershon’s weird and powerful score complements the movie beautifully.

“Mr. Turner” provides a lovely look at the beautiful work of J. M. W. Turner. It’s unfortunate that most of the film doesn’t measure up to that work.

1 ½ nuggets out of 4

 

Into the Woods: The Woods Can Be a Wonderful Place—Movie

December 29, 2014

Into the Woods” is a joyous, albeit dark, journey into the combined worlds of Stephen Sondheim, James Lapine and the Brothers Grimm. Directed by Rob Marshall, with screenplay by Lapine, based on the musical by Sondheim and Lapine, “Into the Woods” grabs you in the very first scene and never lets go.

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Through song we’re quickly introduced to a variety of familiar fairy-tale characters with some unfulfilled dreams, chief among them—the Baker and his Wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Cinderella’s Stepmother (Christine Baranski), Jack and his Mother (Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman) and most especially, the Witch (Meryl Streep). Yes, the Witch has unfulfilled dreams, too…dreams that only the Baker and his Wife can make happen. And why would they help the Witch? Well, as she explains, to reverse the curse they didn’t know was placed upon them…a curse that makes it impossible for them to have children. Helping the Witch puts the Baker and his Wife in contact with virtually every other character in the musical. The plot seems simple and direct, but that is not necessarily the case. As the Witch reminds them…and us…be careful what you wish for.

What helps makes “Into the Woods” so successful is that every single actor can actually act and sing. Each actor makes you believe in his or her character and is perfectly cast.

The supporting cast…and the word, supporting, is used loosely… is just phenomenal. As the Wolf, Johnny Depp is sublime. He is everything you’d want in a wolf…sly, sneaky, lithe and sexy…even with those ears and whiskers. What’s more, his voice suits his character to a tee. Depp has limited amount of screen time, but he makes the most of every single second. As the object of his “affection,” Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Hood is terrific. She conveys just the right amount of spunkiness. Crawford may be young and little, but this girl can sing…she’s a precocious belter and is fabulous. Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman as Jack and his Mother make the perfect team. Huttlestone is impishly cute with a great voice and his character’s “love affair” with his cow seems very believable. Tracey Ullman has a shockingly melodic voice. In a supporting role, we don’t see a lot of her, but she is fun to watch when she’s on the screen. Fans of “The Bold and Beautiful’s” Mackenzie Mauzy knew she could sing and as Rapunzel she doesn’t disappoint, making a beautiful and belligerent Rapunzel. Cinderella’s Stepmother, Christine Baranski, is hysterically mean. She can sing with the best of them and her role just seems meant for her.

Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as his brother and Rapunzel’s Prince have to be singled out for special praise, especially Pine. They are both fabulous and together are just hysterical. When they sing, “Agony,” you’ll be in anything but. Pine is the year’s comedic find. He has a bit more dialogue than Magnussen and as the slightly dim, but oh so charming prince, he just continues to astound, he is that good.

Then there are the leads…to say they are all amazing is putting it mildly. As the Baker, James Corden is so very lovable you can’t help but root for him. He might not be leading man handsome, but he is a terrific actor and with his wonderful voice, he makes you fall in love with him. His scenes with the young characters, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood, are very charismatic and his work with Blunt and Streep is especially good. Emily Blunt is extremely endearing as the Baker’s Wife. She has a delightful voice and her scenes with Corden and Pine are terrific in very different ways. Anna Kendrick gives us a very plucky Cinderella, one with a huge heart, but fierce in spirit at the same time. Her singing is amazing and she is just all-around magnificent. Finally there is Meryl Streep as the Witch. To say she is astounding and perfect in every way is an understatement. Many of us knew Streep could sing, but we’ve never heard her sing the way she does in ‘Into the Woods.” Ferocious and soft when she needs to be, she just nails it. The beauty of Streep is that her part is meant to be huge and she plays that just right without overwhelming her cast-mates. The other actors more than hold their own with her which makes the movie a well-rounded affair.

The musical takes full advantage of the screen, using special effects where it’s called for and not a bit more. The effects help the film, but never overtake it. As brilliant as “Into the Woods’” cast is, the movie would be nothing without the breathtakingly beautiful and lyrically fun songs of Stephen Sondheim. Abetted by James Lapine’s marvelous screenplay, the astute direction of Rob Marshall and the most wonderful of costumes by Colleen Atwood, “Into the Woods” is a feast for the ears and eyes.

Sometimes it’s more than ok to go into the woods. This is one of those times. Run, don’t walk.

4 nuggets out of 4

 

Famous Puppet Death Scenes: Death Does Not Become Them—Theatre

December 28, 2014

“We are all dying each moment; we’re dying as I speak,” says puppet Nathan Tweak in his opening monologue for “Famous Puppet Death Scenes.” He is correct…part of me died a little watching this recent offering from the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

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Created and conceived by Canada’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop, “Famous Puppet Death Scenes” is extremely imaginative and humorous in spots, but when it’s not funny, it just sits there and I do mean sit. The “play” consists of 22 little scenes enacted by puppets. Some scenes have humans taking center stage as well. Most of the scenes have a brutal tone to them as suggested by the title. Some of the scenes are shockingly funny in their violent end…the first time. But too often the same act is committed several times in the same scene and, hence, loses its surprise and its fun. Other times, the same violence is enacted in a different scene.

The male actors who do come out on stage to either perform with the puppets or do scenes on their own are immensely talented in their expressions and in their physicality. But no amount of talent can make waiting for a huge eye to blink either amusing or entertaining.

“Famous Puppet Death Scenes” is directed by Tim Sutherland, Peter Balkwill, Pityu Kenderes and Judd Palmer and stars Nicholas Di Gaetano, Pityu Kenderes and Viktor Lukawski.

Once again, “Famous Puppet Death Scenes” is extremely original and the puppets are made to do some very unusual creative acts. But is it entertaining? For this reviewer, the answer is, “sadly, not very.”

“Famous Puppet Death Scenes runs through January 4.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
641 D Street, NW, Washington, DC 20004

1 ½ nuggets out of 4

Annie: Changed Up But Still Fun—Movie

December 22, 2014

Sometimes a movie surprises you…in a good way…and so it is with the 2014 “Annie.” Extremely entertaining, full of heart and fun, there’s truly not a bad performance in the entire film. And while you won’t tap dance your way out of the theatre, you’ll leave humming with a smile on your face. Directed by Will Gluck with screenplay by Gluck and Aline Brosh McKenna, based on Thomas Meehan’s stage play book and Harold Gray ‘s comic strip, Little Orphan Annie, the best way to enjoy this “Annie” is to leave your memories of yesteryear’s versions behind and appreciate this version on its own merit.

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“Annie” 2014 is less a traditional movie musical and more of a dramedy with musical numbers sprinkled in. Set in present day, Annie (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives in a group foster home run by Ms. Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), a one-time wanna-be actress and present-day alcoholic. Annie was abandoned by her parents as a child outside an Italian restaurant, left with nothing but half a locket and a note saying that someday they hoped to see her again at the restaurant. One afternoon, while trying to save a dog from being tortured by some neighborhood boys, she is almost hit by a car, but is swept out of harm’s way by Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx), a self-made billionaire running for mayor. His campaign advisor (Bobby Cannavale) thinks there might be benefit to his campaign…giving him some much need humanization…by inviting Annie to live with Stacks for a period of time. And so she and her newly adopted dog, Sandy, come to live with Stacks in his penthouse. Annie’s relationship with Stacks, his assistant, Grace (Rose Byrne), Ms. Hannigan and the girls under her “care” carry the story forward.

Quvenzhané Wallis and Jamie Foxx, “Annie’s” two leads, are both very good and have terrific chemistry together. Wallis, so winning in her “Beasts of the Southern Wild” film debut, continues to captivate. She’s extremely convincing in conveying Annie’s innocence and street smarts. She definitely has some dance moves and sings well enough in the role. It is no surprise that Foxx can sing and dance, and as Stacks, he is absolutely charmingly perfect in the part.

As good as Wallis and Foxx are, it really is the rest of the cast that helps make Annie as entertaining as it is. At times Cameron Diaz’s Hannigan may seem over the top, but truth be told, she is really good as the drunk longing for the good old days. Her scenes with the girls are fun to watch and her “Easy Street” song and dance with Cannavale is very sweet. Her interaction with David Zayas as the shop owner, Lou, who harbors a crush on Hannigan, is especially good. And when her singing truly counts, her voice in the part works. Rose Byrne’s scenes with Wallis are achingly good. However, the real hands-down scene stealer is Stephanie Kurtzuba as Mrs. Kovacevic, the case worker helping Annie. She is just amazing…funny, musical, and capable of saying so much with just the blink of an eye, she steals every scene she is in without even trying.

There is some very appealing singing and dancing by Annie and the foster girls. “It’s the Hard Knock Life” is particularly enjoyable. “Annie” also features some amusing cameos and has some great NYC and subway shots adding to the film’s overall enjoyment.

See this “Annie” with an open mind and you’ll be glad you did. It’s just a plain good time at the movies.

3 nuggets out of 4

The Imitation Game: Film-making at its Best—Movie

December 19, 2014

The Imitation Game” is a brilliant film about how the man who broke secrets harbored a secret which eventually broke him. Directed by Morten Tyldum with screenplay by Graham Moore, based on the biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, “The Imitation Game” is the true story of Alan Turing, who, by breaking the Nazi code, helped bring an end to World War II. Beginning in 1939, Turing and his team worked at England’s top-secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. Because their work was done in secret, the world did not learn of what Turing and his colleagues did to change the course of the war in favor of the Allies until many years later.

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“The Imitation Game” begins in 1951 with the arrest of Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). During the course of his interrogation, he decides to break his silence, telling his story to the arresting detective, Detective Nock (Rory Kinnear),   and warns him that what he’s being told can never be repeated. We then go back and forth in time, beginning with his Turing’s recruitment into the Enigma Program—learning about the work the group accomplished and the relationships that developed within the group and end with Turing’s arrest and the years that followed.

Turing doesn’t suffer fools easily and has an abrasive personality, to put it mildly. He’s not one for diplomacy, speaking the truth as he sees it. Although his superiors, Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) and Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) don’t love his attitude, they do appreciate his smarts.

Through the magnificent acting of Alex Lawther as the young Alan, we see the bullying Turing received as a young student. His boyhood friendship with student Christopher (Jack Bannon) affected him deeply and the manner in which Turing honors him later is a stroke of genius.  As an adult, Turing earns the respect of his colleagues, but not necessarily their friendship. Turing helps recruit the lone woman, Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), into Enigma and the two develop a warm relationship, which, for a time, proves beneficial to both.

“The Imitation Game” is full of wonderful performances, but as Alan Turing, Benedict Cumberbatch is absolutely fantastic. He has the most expressive face which he uses to full advantage in this role. He simply nails all the inner conflicts his character goes through. When the final credits roll, you feel as if you have met the real Turing and walked in his shoes. It’s because of Cumberbatch’s performance that the movie has such a dark, sad feel to it.  The film’s supporting cast never lets the main character or the film down. It’s hard to think of someone better in the Joan Clarke role than Keira Knightley. She has a look that fits easily into the style of the times and there is something about her that makes you believe she could be that smart…matching Turing step for step…quip for quip. As his “colleagues,” Matthew Goode and Allen Leech turn in great performances. Each has a moment to shine and each takes that moment and runs with it. Charles Dance and Mark Strong are also very good as Turing’s bosses.

Special kudos must be given to Alexandre Desplat’s magnificent score which suits “The Imitation Game” perfectly. The real black and footage used within the film also lends a great deal of authenticity to the story.

Beginning with television’s WGN America series, “Manhattan,” about the making of the atomic bomb (which has many similarities to “The Imitation Game”) and “The Theory of Everything,” the smartly performed “Imitation Game” joins the growing list of 2014 stories about geniuses and their effect on world events. What makes all of these endeavors work so well is that there are genuine, compelling stories being told and that each one has real heart. Since Turing was eventually convicted of gross indecency, a criminal offence resulting from his admission of maintaining a homosexual relationship, “The Imitation Game” will not necessarily leave you in an uplifted mood…in fact, it could have the opposite effect. Turing, for all of his contributions to the world’s well-being, including being thought of as the father of computer science, was treated abominably. That one can feel so depressed from watching the story unfold from afar…a story that took place many years ago…speaks volumes for everyone associated with “The Imitation Game.”

If you are in the need for a spirit booster upon leaving the theatre, this reviewer suggests seeing “Pride” immediately to see how far we’ve hopefully progressed as human beings.

4 nuggets out of 4

Wild: Winning Fight Along the Trail—Movie

December 16, 2014

Wild” is a tour de force for Reese Witherspoon. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée with screenplay by Nick Hornby, based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, “Wild” is the story one woman’s fight to exercise her demons…literally.

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We are introduced to Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) mid-way through her 1100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). Battered, bruised, fatigued and possibly at her lowest point emotionally, she gives out one gigantic, loud howling scream after watching one of her shoes fall into the abyss. She then defiantly tosses the other away and our journey with Cheryl has officially begun as we then we go back and forth in time with her.

Loving each other, but no longer in love, Cheryl and her husband, Paul (Thomas Sadoski), have amicably divorced. The fact that Cheryl has given up both her maiden and married names, legally changing her last name to Strayed, pretty much says it all. Cheryl’s life has been on a downward spiral ever since the death of “the love of her life,” her mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern). A chance reading of an article about hiking the PCT sets her on her course, in an effort to get her own life in order.

While the story may sound like a cliché, the way Cheryl’s story is told, assures you that it is anything but. As she hikes she runs into a variety of obstacles—some imagined, others not. The film also comes with a lot of humor. One doesn’t know what to make of Farmer Frank at first and her encounter with the Hobo Times reporter is very funny. But then there are the snakes—reptile and human, some of them friendly, some not so much. Throughout it all, when times are tough on the trail, Cheryl thinks back to her mother and the conversations they had. Bobbi faced many hardships, but somehow managed to survive and in her own way, thrive.

Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl is simply amazing. She’s basically in every scene and you can’t take your eyes off  her. Grimy, feisty, slutty, sullen, bewildered and triumphant, she is Cheryl.

“Wild” has a very strong supporting cast used sporadically, but importantly, throughout the film. Just when you think Laura Dern’s Bobbi is a tad too ethereal and saintly, she puts some bite into the character when you least expect it. Thomas Sadoski is very good as the husband trying very hard to understand his wife. Performances by W. Earl Brown as Frank, and Cliff de Young as the one-time hiker with sound advice, make strong impressions.

The film has a terrific score and makes extremely good use of songs by Simon and Garfunkel. Hornby has done a great job in turning a book into a movie and director Vallé helps guide Witherspoon to the performance of a lifetime.

3 ½ nuggets out of 4


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