Friday, January 23, 2015


The two most recently released films I've seen are both adaptations, one of a stage musical and one of a book, and they highlight the strengths and weaknesses of screen versions of previous literary works. Into the Woods works best, possibly because it "only" a matter of moving the Stephen Sondheim musical from stage to screen. I use '"only" in jest, fully aware of how easy it is to mess up a stage musical (see Mame, Finian's Rainbow, Man of La Mancha, A Chorus Line...). But here, the filmmakers have largely trusted the stage version and, if memory serves me--it's been over 10 years since I've seen Into the Woods on stage--a minimum of changes have occurred. In fact, what charmed me most about the movie, aside from the fabulous Emily Blunt who apparently can do no wrong, was that much of it feels like it was live shot on a stage, a very elaborate stage, with a minimum of CGI fussing.

The plot, about fairy tale characters such as Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel who get into more-or-less real life predicaments for which their fairy tale backgrounds have not prepared them, has always felt a little didactic to me, but the dark turn the story takes in the last half is interesting. Every actor is fine, and even better, they're all good singers. Standouts are Emily Blunt, James Corden (pictured with Blunt), and Chris Pine. I wish the wonderful Christine Barankski, as Cinderella's wicked stepmother had been given more to do. Anna Kendrick in the central role as Cinderella shined with a little less luster, but the strong cast and the fact that the director, Rob Marshall, resisted the urge to smother the film in special effects make this well worth seeing.

Gone Girl is based on a best-selling thriller by Gillian Flynn with a notorious twist that I don't need to reveal here. The book is a pulp thriller, cleverly written but without literary pretensions, about a wife who goes missing and the husband who the entire country comes to believe killed her even though her body isn't found. The movie has been directed by David Fincher who I wouldn't have thought would have been interested in material like this. The film doesn't completely work, and the main problem is that the book is, to some degree, about creation and writing, and much of the book is told through diary entries made by the wife. It's always difficult to translate the act or art of authorship to the movie screen; in this particular case, Fincher also needed to find a visual equivalent to equal the effect on the reader as certain hidden elements are revealed through the act of writing, and I don't think he succeeds.

However, as a melodramatic potboiler, this works well enough. Ben Affleck makes an almost prefect husband: handsome and charming on the surface, but with just enough hints of smarminess and artifice to make us think he could be a murderer. I was less enthused about Rosamund Pike as the wife, but it's a difficult role; she also has to seem like the perfect wife on the outside with hints of misbehavior just under the surface. The supporting cast is mostly bland, even Neil Patrick Harris in a somewhat farfetched role, though I very much liked Carrie Coon as Affleck's sister. This is a case in which I might have enjoyed the movie more if I hadn't read the book first, so if you like twisty thrillers and have somehow not read the book, by all means, go.

Friday, January 2, 2015


Even though I didn't write about any movies here last year, I did see several--54 to be precise, in theaters or on DVD, counting only current and recent films, not classic films of which I saw about 150. I'll try to spend the next few posts catching up some of those films, starting with the last few I saw in 2014. In Calvary, an priest (Brendan Gleeson) in a small Irish village is visited in the confessional by a man who was sexually molested in his youth by a priest (The first of the line is his: "I first tasted semen when I was seven years old."). The molester has died but the man can't find peace so he tells Gleeson that he will murder the priest next Sunday, on the beach. He says he knows Gleeson is a good man, but that will make his death all the more cleansing.

Gleeson knows who the man is but takes no substantive action. Instead he goes about his week like normal and we see his day-today interactions with his troubled flock. In some ways, the movie plays out almost like the basis for a TV show about the trial and tribulations of a modern-day priest. This is not "Going My Way" territory; Gleeson was married and had a daughter before his wife died and he took Holy Orders, so he is worldly, and he is flawed--at one point in a fit of anger, he wrecks havoc in a bar. Director John Michael McDonagh has said his film was inspired by Robert Bresson's austere film Diary of a Country Priest, and both follow a priest through everyday events as he manages to keep faith in the face of the flawed secular world in which he lives and ministers.

As a lapsed Catholic, I have to say that neither film made me see why such faith should be sustained, but as character studies, they are both good films. Gleeson is excellent as a very human priest, and he is surrounded by a solid supporting cast including Chris O'Dowd as a possible wife-beater, M. Emmet Walsh (pictured above with Gleeson) as a dying American writer, Aidan Gillen (Littlefinger in Game of Thrones, pictured below) as a doctor, and Dylan Moran as a rich man who delights in being a son-of-a-bitch to everyone. The tone of the film is serious though not really dark, with comic shadings, and the ending is a little surprising but satisfying. In an age of big-budget action and fantasy films, I feel hopeful that there is still room for something small, serious and semi-artsy at the multiplexes.