Movie Review: Into the Woods

MV5BMTY4MzQ4OTY3NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjM5MDI3MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_Visually arresting and musically deep and inviting, Disney’s adaptation by Rob Marshall (Chicago) of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods is mesmerizing in its own way. Though it gets bogged down by Meryl Streep as the witch – she’s too domineering, which sometimes stops, rather than frames or enhances, the show – the magic of maturing in the dark, bending and breaking woods flourishes in Marshall’s capable hands.

Intersecting stories of a baker and his barren wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt), a boy and his mother (Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman), the witch and her daughter Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), with Christine Baranski as the stepmother and Johnny Depp as the wolf, subtly blend in a kingdom with poignant touches, emotional songs and cinematic flair. The film does Sondheim justice.

Layers of life lessons are woven, embedded and peeled away with humor, tenderness and worldly bitterness, longing and cheer. That everything is packed into the rhythmic and musical tales of the witch’s curse commanding the childless couple to find a white cow, a golden shoe, a blood-red cape and hair as yellow as corn in exchange for a child is itself an achievement. The pictures move, glow and draw the audience inward from the start, as a grayness in the sky melds into something that is not as it first appears.

The theme that life is richer than cliches and expectations is well played, especially by Blunt, Pine and Ullman and the children, in particular, Huttlestone as an indefatigable boy named Jack, who is willing to be thought a fool to love his pet and brave enough to pierce the sky. The whole complicated storybook in song does merge with a wink at the camera, especially in the number with the handsome princes pining away for their lost maidens. With the witch twirling into thin air with melodrama and giants thumping from a distance, not to mention the wolf ready to pounce and tear into plump young flesh, Disney does not soften what is hard and knowing and the prospect of journeying into darkness to lighten one’s load is both dramatized and made musical with a black, brown and midnight blue look that fits the narrative. Fans of the stage show will notice discrepancies, of course, but the show’s core holds.

Taking the scope of a lifetime, from birth to death and everything meaningful in between, and putting it to poetry, music and pictures, Rob Marshall knits the characters’ stories, doubts and insecurities into a winding pattern, bringing untethered single lives into a communion that cashes in on hard-earned lessons with affirmation and an outward look. Into the Woods prowls and stalks the audience with cleverness in melody and words that mean something, for a change, with what it means not burned out on life, for a bigger change. But it is intended to be savored by those who have been to darker places and been burned (and who hasn’t?). If you can forgive the Streep-ness and keep the metaphor in mind as you chuckle, laugh and are moved to feel, you are likely to find wonder in Stephen Sondheim’s point that the best part of going in is coming out.

Be Sociable, Share!

Movie Review: American Sniper

ASPosterAmerican Sniper is concise, powerful and emotional. Skillfully beginning with an Arabic chant and ending with the death of an American hero, this depiction of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL trained as a sniper and deployed in Iraq, is both a penetrating portrait and an ingenious condemnation of the monstrous ideas guiding America’s military. Director Clint Eastwood has mastered the war movie.

Childhood flashbacks depict a boy who is a son, a brother and above all a child who honors himself. He does so simply, seriously and with guidance from his father, a thoughtful hunter who teaches his son to think as a leader, neither as a bully nor as a conformist. The young Texan’s life is overly simplified, so he ends up in a rodeo with a girlfriend he doesn’t deserve. When he sees an attack on the West by Islamic terrorists on television, he makes a connection to something his father once said. He decides to change his course in life. He enlists in the military by free choice.

Soon, Chris Kyle meets and marries a woman (unrecognizable Sienna Miller) who is smarter than the first girlfriend. They plan to start a family. After Islamic terrorists destroy the Twin Towers, Kyle is sent to Iraq under orders from President George W. Bush. This is not a history movie, and the timeline is abbreviated, but anyone with knowledge of recent history can see the trajectory. Those who scorn the news, especially bad news, will be lost. American Sniper is rightly unconcerned with them. This is the story of a single-minded American who goes to war to defend everything he loves.

What is interestingly, tellingly omitted, unlike most Iraq war movies, is a sense of today’s cynical culture and the vacancy of the American people. By focusing on the mostly decent men who enlist in the U.S. Armed Forces, Eastwood with writer Jason Hall jettisons today’s sniveling, bankrupt culture and keeps focused on one man with a mission to fight, win and get back home. Along the way, Cooper’s sniper Chris Kyle does kill, picking off Islamic insurgents and combatants one by one from rooftops and windows in Fallujah and Sadr City, and he does think about it. He doesn’t joke about it and he abhors those who do. He doesn’t let thoughts distract him and he judges those who do. Of course, he is fallible and he makes mistakes, which his wife presses upon him during leaves between tours, even as she struggles to make sense of the damage and distance her husband’s actions leave in their wake.

The mess of an aimless military action that’s doomed to fail has certain, devastating consequences. So, Chris Kyle, like Pat Tillman, whose story is very similar, is jostled, hustled and left to fend for himself in every sense – physical, mental, psychological – and American Sniper shows how the un-war shapes him and ultimately renders him lonely, confused and deprived of the glory and brotherhood he deserves. The movie is not explicit in this regard. Kyle displays his sense of purpose straight, clear and true as he loses comrades, tries to relate to his wife and child and aims for a nemesis who’s been taking Americans down. The conflict lies within Chris Kyle, as he finds repulsion in being applauded for a high kill count while being frustrated that no one back in America thinks, acknowledges or talks about the mass slaughter of Americans in Iraq. Kyle carries but doesn’t use a Bible, which stands to him for general virtue. He listens to a soldier who questions the purpose of the deployment. He makes way through tour after tour while doing his best. Always, he wants to do more and be better at his work.

In other words, he’s like many Americans; Chris Kyle, the most successful sniper is U.S. military history and co-author of the book upon which the film is based, is proud, productive, kind, thoughtful and purposeful. Cooper portrays him without bravado in lingering looks from those blue eyes and in soothing tones in that gentle voice. When he is tested by a snickering soldier during a crucial and agonizing judgment call, he does his best to remain composed and achieve the goal.

When the burden of killing others becomes too much, he lets himself loose, though he does so in private and American Sniper revels in its individualism. The screen has not seen such a lone, strong and rational military hero in a war picture in decades. Cooper carries the film, but his Kyle is deeply wounded, crippled by an unwinnable war spun by politically correct goons concerned more with appeasing those who worship the Koran than with eradicating the foreign threat to the United States. He is surrounded by those who either cheer the kills or by those who envy him for his ability. Only a few decent men and his fellow SEALs grasp his commitment to a noble cause.

This is why the left hates the picture and why conservatives don’t get it. American Sniper is neither pro nor anti-war and which it is is the wrong question. It is pro-man and pro-American. “It’s about us,” one fighter says about what the effort means, evoking Patton’s famous line about the essence of fighting a war. But, as in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, these men are like ghosts in an unending war with thousands of dead and waiting-to-be-annihilated Americans – “sitting ducks” as one superior admits, though he does nothing to fix it – in a land where they are ordered to go house by house to pick off terrorist chieftains one by one in a neverending death spiral.

This Chris Kyle comes to grasp, if wordlessly, when he finally, mentally logs out after a climactic battle like the Alamo. In those scenes, with the SEALs outnumbered and surrounded by Islamists and incompetent Americans, the nature of the conflict between the legendary American individualist and the clustering mobs comes into focus. As it does, a dustup envelops everyone and swirls in a deadly, incoherent blur that deposits the audience into the mix. This singular scene is the perfect picture of America’s incompetent post-9/11 response. The enemy is left to be picked off one by one, as hordes gather and storm, while the most skilled marksmen are left literally in the dust at the mercy of machines run by the morally vacant. What happens next punctuates the point leaving American Sniper about what America lets the enemy do to Americans, like what the U.S. let the enemy do to Sony and its major motion picture and will eventually get around to doing to you and me, too.

Early in the movie, a top-notch trainer instructs young Kyle to “master your breath, master your mind and find the space between heartbeats” to master your life. This is the theme of this absorbing tale in tours of the American sniper. See it and judge for yourself. Do not be shocked if you, too, are moved, not just by what an American soldier did and tried to do for you, but by what the American government did and has done to him.

Be Sociable, Share!

The Undoing of Sony’s ‘The Interview’

TIPosterSony Pictures Entertainment’s decision to withdraw its movie, The Interview, from its scheduled release next week, is not an example of compromise, cowardice or caving in. The company, which is being sued by its own employees in a class-action lawsuit and attacked by hackers sponsored by Communist North Korea, according to the U.S. government, is the victim of an attack and it has its reasons. Sony is a for-profit enterprise and this is a business decision. No one but Sony’s executives knows what its principals know and there may be good or bad reasons for its choice to pull the movie from distribution but that choice is Sony’s to make. This unprecedented derailment of a major product launch under threat of attack is caused by those who initiated the technological attack and subsequent threat of physical violence.

The responsibility for defending against such an attack and threat lies primarily with the United States government. As Objectivist scholar Onkar Ghate wrote in 2006 about an Islamic terrorist attack over cartoons, the American government should protect individual rights, including the exercise of freedom of speech, “no matter who screams offense”. Beginning in earnest with the first President Bush, who refused to defend Americans and U.S. bookstores against Islamic Iran’s threat to murder writer Salman Rushdie over a book he authored, and continuing through the dreadful Obama presidency, which tried to censor CNN, the United States blames, opposes and suppresses free speech. An administration that deliberately, wrongly and systematically blames a motion picture for a terrorist attack, as Obama’s team did over the September 11 attack at Benghazi, can and should be expected to be hostile to a movie that mocks a foreign leader. Sony is not the police and should not be blamed for pulling the movie; making movies and money without the presumption of police protection and military defense is tantamount to self-destruction. Sony had no reason to believe the U.S. would defend itself and American movies, theaters and lives (the administration said and did practically nothing to defend Sony against this attack). Sony has every reason to conclude that the opposite is true.

The content of the movie, as with a book or any other expression of the freedom of speech under assault, is not the issue, though certain lowlifes in the press, such as Variety, the Los Angeles Times and Fox News, sanctioned the attack with their sensationalistic and despicable reports disclosing the stolen property. When an attack occurs, all discussion of content must end and freedom-loving people should rally around the right of the speaker to speak. Charlie Chaplin made – and his United Artists distributed – The Great Dictator decades ago, mocking a fascist dictator in plain sight and with much notice. But that was when Americans at least superficially supported the First Amendment and recoiled from being ordered to submit to force and tyranny. Instead, today, many Americans mock the First Amendment. They recoil from the making of the movie or shrug in compliant acceptance of the status quo and lockdown as the ‘new normal’. They submit to the TSA. They are willing to go along with constant, unchecked surveillance by the NSA. Under such conditions, what happened to The Interview will almost certainly happen again. Like Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick in another movie that might never have been made, Casablanca, Americans face an imminent moral choice to sanction the self-destruction or speak up and demand that their government protect and defend individual rights.

Be Sociable, Share!

Christmastime at the Movies

Robert Osborne 2This season, between work projects and writing, I’ve been reading books and watching new and old movies. I’ve also managed to fit in a few interviews, including an exchange with writer and director Theodore Melfi about his emotionally powerful new movie, St. Vincent (read the interview here). It’s a fresh, humorously frank movie about a boy and an old man who’s a drunk and Bill Murray’s character is an especially pointed and honest portrayal of an alcoholic. I’ll be surprised if you don’t agree after seeing the film and reading the interview that Melfi is an artist to watch. I’ve also seen and plan to post reviews of The Imitation Game, Birdman and Whiplash, which I’ve appreciated or enjoyed to varying degrees, and a timely, new movie out next month starring Anthony Mackie, Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner titled Black or White. The racially driven story is written and directed by the bright and talented Mike Binder, whom I recently interviewed. Like St. Vincent, the picture takes place in present day, involves alcoholism and a custody battle and, cleverly in both movies, it is rendered with a sense of dry humor.

That is also a particular characteristic of Robert Redford’s, the subject of an interview with Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne (pictured), who will host an entire series of Mr. Redford’s films next month on TCM. I’ve interviewed Osborne about John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck among others, such as Ernest Borgnine, so I’m excited about the opportunity to examine one of Hollywood’s more recent (and last great) movie stars. Robert Osborne doesn’t hold back. This may be our best interview.

I enjoy watching classic movies and I recently watched and recommend Elia Kazan’s brilliant and terribly underestimated Man on a Tightrope, grueling East of Eden and brutal On the Waterfront. Other pictures include an unknown gem by Stanley Kramer, at least previously unknown to me, with an outstanding performance by Faye Dunaway as an individualistic, self-made oilwoman opposite rugged oilman George C. Scott, Oklahoma Crude. It’s an incredibly involving film with Dunaway at her best. Look for a review of Lasse Hallstrom’s new movie, The Hundred-Foot Journey, which is released on Blu-Ray this month, too. Of course, it’s Christmastime, which means there’s a glut of new movies I still want to see during this jam-packed awards season and I’m listening to Christmas tunes by Olivia Newton-John, Christopher Cross and Melissa Manchester, whose new single and album will be released early next year. On the topic of music, I’m glad to see talented recording artists such as Sam Smith and Bob Seger get recognition they earned and deserve. Giving and getting what one wants and deserves, and anticipating what’s joyful to come, is, for me, part of the magic of Christmas.

Be Sociable, Share!

A Tale of Two Unarmed Americans

The death of Michael Brown sparked riots. The death of Miriam Carey (read about it here) did not. The difference is indicative of the disunited state of the union.

The disunity is not based primarily on race, as both Carey and Brown, not to discount the recent death of Eric Garner, were unarmed black Americans who died at the hands of police and many of the protestors objecting to judicial outcomes are white. The difference is not based on whether to judge based on facts or jump to conclusions based on emotionalism, though there’s apparently more of the latter, fueled by the cult of today’s fragmentary, momentary, whim-based media culture. A recent Fox News Special Report panel, for instance, comprised of leftist and conservative intellectuals, denounced a recent grand jury decision against a white policeman based purely on pictures, not facts.

No, what accounts for the difference between the public’s fixation on one unarmed American being gunned down by police and the public’s apathy toward another unarmed American being gunned down by police is the refusal or choice to think. When Ms. Carey, an unarmed black mother whose life was extinguished by police apparently without cause, was killed by cops, complete with media coverage and plenty of pictures and audio, practically no one noticed, questioned or scrutinized the shooting death. This despite the legal case by Ms. Carey’s family, who are suing the government for essentially murdering Miriam Carey after she became lost and made a U-turn (read about the case and her autopsy here). Who is Miriam Carey? No one asked.

MiriamCareyRIPWhy? Perhaps because, as America becomes a police state, ruled by the TSA and NSA, led by politicians in Washington, DC (which I first noticed during a visit in 2003 and wrote about here), the American people want to be ruled, to be controlled, to live under dictates such as ObamaCare, so they have no reason to question when a single mother who becomes lost is gunned down in the streets on live television like a scene from The Hunger Games. Is there zero interest in the identity, life and death of Miriam Carey because she died at the hands of those protecting the nerve center of the nascent police state Americans so desperately seek to live under?

From the drugs in his system and an apparent criminal assault and robbery to his parent urging people at what had once been a peaceful protest to burn the town to the ground, which is what subsequently happened, the public knows much more about the late Michael Brown. Whatever the merits of the judicial decisions, the public has reason to believe Brown was acting against the law while the public has reason to doubt whether Carey was acting against the law (despite initial reports). If Brown was a criminal and Carey was not – to say nothing of Eric Garner’s illegal actions, which prompted local businesses to call police and have him arrested – the dichotomy mirrors the nation’s disunity.

That an unarmed American being gunned down by police without cause in the name of protecting the president barely registers while an unarmed American being gunned down by police with at least partial cause in the name of protecting property and public safety incites riot says a lot about Americans’ hierarchy of values. Miriam Carey’s life was extinguished after she made a U-turn and fled from an unprovoked assault upon being unknowingly presumed guilty of intent to harm the president. Michael Brown’s life was extinguished after, by everyone’s admission, he assaulted a police officer. Does the fact that the former led to silence while the latter led to destruction reflect a society that holds contempt for life, liberty, private property and the selfish pursuit of happiness?

Time will tell. But two unarmed black Americans were shot in the head by police – one in a small, Midwestern town by a single cop and one in the nation’s capital by an army of police – and both died. One death led to an inquiry before a grand jury and elicited outrage, rejection and a riot and one death went unnoticed and untried and elicited silence, sanction and consent. I think it’s clear whose death is cause for concern about justice.

There are legitimate questions about the role of the police, who must be held to the highest possible standard for use of force in a free society, and questions must be asked and answered. They were regarding the death of Michael Brown – they were, too, over the death of Eric Garner – and the results were adjudicated. In the case of Miriam Carey, who was killed in front of her child with neither trial nor public doubt, question or protest, they were not. The disparity in the American people’s response – outrage versus consent – underscores the urgency of the ominous threat to individual rights.

Be Sociable, Share!