Friday, December 19, 2014


ANNIE (Will Gluck, 2014)

Although Annie Bennett (Quvenzhané Wallis) was abandoned at an Italian restaurant at the age of four, the plucky Harlem foster kid remains confident that she’ll be happily reunited with her parents. In ANNIE the ten-year-old waits outside the eatery every Friday night in anticipation that mom and dad will return for her. In the meantime she’s in the care of Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz), who provides shelter and little else for Annie and four other girls. Miss Hannigan is still bitter about her failed singing career in the 1990s and spends her alcohol-soaked days lamenting what might have been.

Annie’s prospects improve, at least for the time being, when cell phone mogul Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx) crosses her path. Video of him saving her from being hit by a van goes viral and boosts his flagging New York City mayoral campaign. Stacks’ campaign manager Guy (Bobby Cannavale) recognizes Annie as a golden opportunity to broaden his candidate’s appeal, so he convinces the billionaire to become her temporary guardian. Instead of moving into the group home Miss Hannigan was threatening to send her to, Annie settles into a penthouse overlooking Manhattan. Beyond the public relations advantages she gives him, Stacks is slow to warm up to Annie, leaving her care to his personal assistant Grace (Rose Byrne).

Director and co-writer Will Gluck’s modernized musical remakes Broadway through what’s popular on the radio. Showtunes are adapted with hip hop beats and AutoTuned vocals that play it exceedingly safe rather than tapping into the innovation in today’s rap, R&B, and DJ culture. The closest this version of ANNIE has to a memorable production number is when “It’s a Hard Knock Life” uses the sounds of straightening up the foster home to add STOMP-like percussion. The singing and dancing are adequate, with Diaz faring best in a scenery-chewing solo and a duet with Cannavale.

What ANNIE lacks in terms of belters and hoofers, it makes up for in personality. Wallis comes across as a sweet, streetwise kid whose hardships haven’t soured her outlook on life. Her Annie is not a precocious foster child, just a quick study when it comes to understanding her place in the system. Foxx avoids becoming maudlin as his career-focused character allows this little girl to soften him up. He’s also funny doing a number of spit-takes, especially when they’re ill-timed on the campaign trail. As a surrogate mother of sorts to Annie, Byrne shares some tender moments Annie make it easy to root for the happy ending for everyone that is sure to come. Diaz and Cannavale are likably unlikable as they scheme to use Annie for their selfish interests, and the celebrity cameos in a fake movie within the movie are an amusing treat.

At times the updated references scream of trying too hard--enough with the hashtags to signal that one is plugged in--but overall ANNIE makes an easy transition from its original Great Depression setting to today. The lack of crassness is the best carryover from ANNIE’s origins. Rather than trying to subvert the pie-eyed optimism of its source, this version dials back the irrepressible enthusiasm to a more prudent level while never feeling as if it needs to be more cynical or vulgar to appeal to a new generation or wider audience.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Babadook

THE BABADOOK (Jennifer Kent, 2014)

In THE BABADOOK Amelia (Essie Davis) still dreams of the traumatic day almost seven years earlier when she lost her husband Oskar (Benjamin Winspear). The car accident that killed him happened as he was driving a pregnant Amelia to the hospital. Amelia emerged physically unharmed and gave birth to their son, but the loss of Oskar continues to haunt her. Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who is approaching his seventh birthday, is keenly aware of the circumstances of his arrival and the gaping absence at home, although his fears are manifested in obsessions with monsters and magic.

Samuel frequently awakens his mother in the middle of the night to check for creatures possibly lurking in the closet and under the bed. Often he winds up sleeping with her. He also makes weapons to fight the monsters and exhibits violent tendencies. Amelia is exhausted and at wit’s end with how to handle him. The situation gets worse when she reads him a book called MISTER BABADOOK that he pulls from the shelf. The mysterious book about a monster one can’t be rid of triggers a new round of nightmares and daytime anxiety in Samuel. Amelia has already had to remove him from school for his misbehavior. Her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney) will no longer watch him or come over to Amelia’s home because of how he acts out. Amelia even begins to believe she hears and sees the Babadook stalking them.

The Babadook is more of a symbolic threat or a psychological rupture made tangible than the sort of monster that skulks around horror films dispatching with vulnerable people. In that regard THE BABADOOK loses some of its ability to frighten, but writer-director Jennifer Kent maintains a creepy environment that reflects the emotional disturbance in the two-person family. Amelia’s house features cold lighting and a gray interior, as if all of the color was drained from her existence when her husband died. Parents may describe children as the lights of the lives, but Samuel is nothing of the sort. He’s a terror to his mother and a searing reminder of the grief that accompanied him into the world.

Davis would likely be hailed more widely for her performance if it were contained in a traditional drama, but the psychological horror genre allows her a broader spectrum for depicting grief and maternal fatigue. The strain of tending to a difficult child for whom she has no solution is etched into her face. Davis gives Amelia the appearance and attitude of someone who has resigned herself to never escaping the black pit into which she’s fallen. She can sense the pity others have for her and the dislike that often accompanies it because Amelia and her son make people uncomfortable.

Kent writes Samuel not as a bad seed but rather as an angry and scared boy who has been raised with the perception that he is being held responsible for his father’s death. Wiseman excels at playing an unsettling kid who is hard for a mother to love because his defenselessness is so readily apparent underneath his lashing out.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Pyramid

THE PYRAMID (Grégory Levasseur, 2014)

THE PYRAMID is not technically another entry in the belabored category of found footage horror, yet it mostly relies on that conceit in its unsuccessful attempt to drum up scares. The overwhelming majority of shots come from cameras the characters wear and carry. Presumably the immediacy of having cameras capture their perspectives is to increase the fright as if it’s a first person experience, but audiences are long past thinking that this sort of film really documents true events. At its worst THE PYRAMID’s creative tactic pulls one out of the action by calling attention to how affected its found footage is.

While revolution is being staged in the streets of Cairo in August 2013, 250 miles south of the city an American father-daughter archaeologist team discovers a new, three-sided pyramid buried in the desert. Princeton professor Dr. Miles Holden (Dennis O’Hare) and Nora (Ashley Hinshaw) are excited about what they might find inside. They’ve already been slowed down from exploring the pyramid because of the blast of toxic air that came from the first opening their workers made near the apex. Now the Egyptian government wants the excavation stopped because of the civil unrest in the country.

While stalling their departure they send a robot into the pyramid so they can at least get some video of the tomb’s interior. When robotics engineer Michael Zahir (Amir K) loses control of the expensive machine on loan from NASA, he, Holden, Nora, documentary host Sunni (Christa Nicola), and cameraman Fitzie (James Buckley) venture into the pyramid to rescue it and take a look for themselves.

THE PYRAMID belongs to the subset of horror films that primarily consist of people yelling at one another in dark places. Certainly the point is to set up the characters so they’re picked off one by one, but how about creating some atmosphere rather than spinning wheels with worthless arguments to accrue running time? Often what they say sounds like they’re reciting Wikipedia articles about pyramids or overexplaining what’s going on because the filmmakers put no trust that viewers will be able to follow the simple narrative.

Except for the shock of a clawed fist bursting through a chest or the film’s jolting cheat by pairing a loud, clanging stinger with someone putting a hand over another’s mouth, as if that’s a natural sound, THE PYRAMID is never particularly scary. When director Grégory Levasseur drops his potential victims into a couple tight spots similar to those in the Indiana Jones films, it feels like there’s an attempt to use the constricted space to his advantage, but those moments are far too few. The dark setting merely serves the purpose of covering up sketchy computer-generated special effects. The predator revealed to be inside the pyramid provides a novel twist, as far as that goes. However loosely THE PYRAMID tries to connect its events with the real violence in Tahrir Square is just tasteless.

Grade: D-

Thursday, December 04, 2014


WHIPLASH (Damien Chazelle, 2014)

Go on the message board of a struggling sports team, and chances are you’ll find an insistent subset of fans clamoring for the coach to crack the proverbial whip. The belief is that verbal abuse and fear can supply the motivational corrections for lack of success. Yelling and intimidation will provide the catalyst for improvement that supersedes all other obstacles to the objective. Legendary coaches are fondly remembered for how tyrannical they were. Because they win tantrum-throwers and bullies like Bobby Knight are humored and tolerated, at least until they create problems for higher-ups. Even then, they keep their share of admirers because of an unwavering faith that being tough brings the best out of others.

In WHIPLASH 19-year-old Andrew Neiman (Miles Teller) wants to be one of the great drummers. A first year student in fall semester at the Shaffer Conservatory of Music, Andrew dedicates himself to being the best he can be. Influential and feared teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) notices Andrew and invites him to join the Shaffer Conservatory Studio Band. Being in the school’s top jazz orchestra is a major accomplishment, especially considering how young he is, but at the first practice he discovers that Fletcher will use mind games to push him beyond what anyone else might ask of him, assuming he can withstand the pressure.

Bald and clad in black, Fletcher runs the room like a drill sergeant at boot camp. The rehearsals and performances he conducts are no place for those who accept less than perfection. Andrew believes he’s up to the challenge. He practices and plays until his hands develop blisters and bleed, and even then it isn’t enough to get him to stop for long. He preemptively breaks up with a girl he’s seeing because he thinks she will ultimately resent him dedicating every spare moment to drumming. Andrew has a singular goal in mind, and if it requires Fletcher tormenting him, so be it.

Fletcher’s exacting standards are summarized when he tells Andrew, “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’.” If WHIPLASH has enough cultural impact, it’s a line that may be trotted out by those trying to rally their charges to be better while refusing to give an inch to them. Although Simmons is playing the heavy, he’s devilishly appealing as he berates young adults for no good reason other than his misguided sense of how to get them to fulfill their talent. He’s an exacting monster and one whose dark charisma allows him to get away with the kind of behavior that would otherwise be considered impermissible. Simmons adeptly switches between the face he shows the public and colleagues and the one he reserves for those under his stern rule.

Writer-director Damien Chazelle keeps things similar to the sports world by populating the band entirely with male students. The fraternal code means containing what happens within the walls of the rehearsal space rather than risking being perceived as weak. Fletcher flings homophobic, ethnic, and personal insults but notably not racial ones. Like athletes in the locker room, this group of ambitious and skilled musicians normalize outrageous behavior that they disregard as something outsiders wouldn’t understand.

WHIPLASH isn’t a bad teacher movie so much as it’s about the madness in the pursuit for perfection. After all, Fletcher would have less power if Andrew or his fellow players didn’t regard him as an avenue to bigger opportunities or artistic growth. The film’s perspective is attuned to details with a laser focus. From tactile observations of the instruments to every last item in the enclosed environments, even fuzz on the tiled floor, WHIPLASH keeps a vigilant eye that everything is in its place. Beyond the rehearsal space and stage the stakes are not as high as those in them realize, but as Andrew begs to be kept in this cage, it’s as thrilling as if the fate of the world rests upon what transpires there.

Grade: A-

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

The Theory of Everything


Stephen Hawking’s ideas as a theoretical physicist produce more questions than answers for the layperson because of the complexity of his thoughts. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, a gauzy biopic about his first marriage, also leaves plenty to consider, although not by reason of great intricacy in what it presents. Rather, it can be maddeningly vague in what it leaves unexplained or tastefully hints at. Based on his ex-wife Jane Hawking’s book, the film gives the impression of a story that has been sanitized to secure the subjects’ authorization.

The film opens in 1963 at Cambridge, where Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a doctoral candidate searching for a topic. At a party he meets Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), an arts undergraduate studying French and Spanish. They hit it off that night, and Jane gives Stephen her phone number, which he often examines as though it’s an equation to be solved. Although she belongs to the Church of England and he doesn’t believe in God, the difference doesn’t keep them from being happy together.

To this point Stephen has exhibited some clumsiness that he doesn’t think twice about, but after a nasty spill one day he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. A doctor informs him that the neurological disorder is gradually weakening his muscles. Eventually he will not be able to control his body. His brain will not be affected, but the average life expectancy for someone with this affliction is two years. Burdened with this news, Stephen avoids Jane and doesn’t tell her about his condition. When she learns the truth, he’s ready to break things off to spare her the pain and allow him to focus on his work. Instead she proclaims her love. They marry, have children, and see him become internationally lauded as his body deteriorates.

In math one must show the work. In THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING a tidy calculation is arrived at while scrubbing away the arithmetic that could support it. Director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten use montages to gloss over important stretches that could make the case for the great love that get Stephen and Jane through difficult times. The film jumps from post-ALS diagnosis to married life with a child, ignoring the transition to a more incapacitated state while he finishes his doctoral paper.

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING also makes another leap in which choir director Jonathan Hellyer Jones (Charlie Cox) becomes integrated into the Hawking family as a caretaker. At her mother’s suggestion a stressed Jane takes a brief time to herself by singing at church. Prior to the montage the unspoken attraction between Jane and the widowed Jonathan implies that she may turn to him for comfort in crisis. After the sequence of Jonathan assisting Stephen and becoming like a member of the household, Jane informs their helper that she is pregnant. Because of this elision the audience wonders if they have been intimate--Stephen’s parents certainly suspect it--yet Jane gives a vociferous denial before the two confess their feelings to one another.

Time and again THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING fails to dig into the emotional nuances and challenges, preferring to scurry along to the next key moment. The film collapses time so that the Hawkings’ marriage and Stephen’s professional success appear to endure because of predetermination. For circumstances rife with emotional and physical struggles, it all looks remarkably light on conflict. Redmayne is good at conveying the wit, rambunctiousness, and intellect trapped inside Stephen even as his body betrays him. Jones suffers beautifully as a woman devoted to a man reliant on her. THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING stops short of making them both saints, but in smoothing over their conflicts, it does a disservice to the hardships they bore. It’s not that every complication needed to be detailed but that Stephen and Jane’s relationship shouldn’t be simplified to where they become sentimental mascots for vowing to stick with someone through sickness.

Grade: C

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Penguins of Madagascar

PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR (Eric Darnell and Simon J. Smith, 2014)

Referring to an animated film rather than a cartoon doesn’t connote the reach for creative validation implicit in the usage of graphic novel versus comic book, yet in both cases reduced mentions of the more juvenile-seeming term have brought more realism often at the expense of the frivolous. Today’s computer-animated offerings certainly still employ lighthearted comedy, but now silly jokes rarely seem to be enough on their own to sustain cinematic entertainment for kids. Something of substance must be conveyed as well, as though there’s a proficiency test all children’s films must prepare small viewers for. Animated characters are guided to put down their anvils for releasing on antagonists’ heads in favor of dropping life lessons. Taking animation more seriously has resulted in quality work receiving recognition that might not have come when it was written off as merely kids’ stuff, but it shouldn’t necessitate squeezing out less nourishing fare. Thankfully, PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR, which sets a course for non-stop zaniness, is a step toward restoring balance. The side characters’ spin-off film isn’t adage-free, but its message is a pill ground up and baked into a piece of cake.

PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR fills in how the four fowls became a unit separated from their colony and then picks up their story after the events of MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED. The appropriately named leader Skipper (Tom McGrath), brains of the group Kowalski (Chris Miller), demolitions expert Rico (Conrad Vernon), and secretary/mascot Private (Christopher Knights) plan to rob Fort Knox, although their sights are set on plundering a vending machine’s stash of discontinued Cheezy Dibbles than raiding the vault. Waiting for them is Dave (John Malkovich), an octopus known in disguise to the general public as Dr. Octavius Brine. Dave captures the penguins and takes them to his lair in Venice.

Dave too was once a featured resident of the Central Park Zoo, but he was shipped out when the penguins arrived and seized the attention of those who used to come to see him perform. Sent from park to park as other penguins continued to steal his thunder, Dave seeks revenge on their kind. He plans to use a serum on all penguins that will make the cute birds significantly less cuddly. This foursome gets rescued by The North Wind, a group of polar animals that help those who can’t help themselves. The North Wind believes the penguins will muck up their efforts to bring Dave to justice and sends them away, but the penguins have other things in mind.

PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR distinguishes itself with a combination of clever setpieces, wordplay, and some inspired celebrity voice casting. A chase through Venice and a sequence of midair plane-hopping deliver fleet and funny action that animation excels at. The penguins are humorous in their lack of self-awareness and inflated but not undeserved pride in tactical maneuvers. The dialogue stands out by verbing the names of actors and actresses into puns. Werner Herzog’s opening narration is an inspired joke, especially given his views on nature’s mercilessness. Malkovich’s delicious interpretation of an evil genius octopus serves as a terrific example of how trading on a well-known actor’s persona can be creatively wise and more than just a way of attaching familiar name to promote the film.

Like the other MADAGASCAR films, PENGUINS OF MADAGASCAR isn’t something that sticks as being important or necessarily memorable in the long run, but it’s an enjoyable time that’s as worthwhile in moderation as the empty calories the penguins crave.

Grade: B