Saturday, June 22, 2013

Playing for Time - 9 stars out of 10

Playing for Time - 9 stars out of 10

"Playing for Time" is a tough watch but a necessary one.  This true story of Holocaust survival is unlike any other Auschwitz story out there.  It is hard to believe that this is a made-for-tv movie because the script and acting are so incredible.  There are a few moments that are below cinema quality (usually the presentation of stock footage that could have been edited more consistently with the rest of the film), but "Playing for Time" is definitely worthy of the silver screen.  Vanessa Redgrave gives an awe-inspiring performance as the singer/pianist Fania Fénelon, a half-Jewish supporter of the French Resistance  who escaped death at the Concentration Camp.  The historical accuracy of the book and film are accredited to Fénelon, who lived to tell her tale and helped to write the screenplay.  Upon being recognized as a musician, she was placed in the Women's Orchestra of Auschwitz (conducted by Alma Rosé, the niece of Gustav Mahler).  These women would perform for the Nazi officers at Auschwitz (including Josef Mengele) and approached each performance with the realization that if they were no longer seen as valuable, they could face the gas chamber.  Although Fénelon opposed the casting of Redgrave due to her height and personality, Redgrave's interpretation of the character captures the thematic trauma of this story.  Barely unable to speak when she has to prove herself worthy to play in the orchestra, she locks in to a sense of desperation that most of us cannot imagine.  The disdain of many of the non-orchestra members creates an interesting perspective, viewing these women as working for the Nazis when they are merely doing what is necessary to survive.  Nothing about this film is easy to watch, from the shaving of the women's heads to the smoke from the chimneys as bodies are burned.  The Holocaust is one of the darkest chapters in the history of the human race but this film is a tribute in memory of those who unjustly lost their lives and others who were placed in a survival situation and found a way to persevere.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cloud Atlas - 7 stars out of 10

Cloud Atlas - 7 stars out of 10
900th Review

How can you possibly put "Cloud Atlas" into words?  I couldn't even tell you if it is good or if it is bad, let alone try to explain what you will see during this visual "experience" that takes place in different styles throughout many different eras of human existence!  This review is designed to make you curious, not to create the impression that this is going to be like "The Tree of Life" (which I found to be a terrible, terrible movie).  "Cloud Atlas" is absolutely in a world of its own, weaving together six different stories that occur in the South Pacific (1849), Cambridge (1936), San Francisco (1973), United Kingdom (2012), Korea (2144), and Hawaii (2321).  The characters are loosely related from one story to the next, having a connection to the previous era either by reading the journal of a character,  editing a fictional manuscript describing the events, or even a coincidental meeting with one of the characters.  After reading a review of the book, I feel that this concept was under-emphasized in the movie and that the cohesiveness between stories suffered as a result.  The characters are also related by reincarnation, showing that one soul develops throughout many lifetimes.  This is represented by each actor playing six different roles (young, old, male, female, hero, villain).  If nothing else, "Cloud Atlas" is a triumph of acting.  The transformation of Tom Hanks from old, murderous doctor to non-threatening innkeeper to young, heroic scientist to homicidal, f-bomb dropping gangster to movie actor to one of the final survivors of mankind is simply stunning.  Each actor is stretched to their limits in several dramatically different roles and the contrast is spectacular as all of these stories quickly alternate back and forth in this masterpiece of editing.  David Gyasi portrays the best individual character as the slave Autua while Jim Sturgess undergoes the most impressive  transformation from the aristocratic Adam Ewing to the Asian Hae-Joo Chang.  The make-up is incredibly complex as it adapts the age, race, and gender of each actor.  There are a few instances where the make-up is less than convincing (particularly Doona Bae as a Mexican) but that is barely worth noting in the scope of this epic example of actor transformation.  I am surprised that the film did not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Make-Up, though it is pretty clear that the Academy did not care for the film.  The music was beautiful, the futuristic special effects were very well-done, and I think that the film at least deserved one nomination to acknowledge the difficulty of putting this story onto the screen.  On top of the acting and storytelling, the film represents a multitude of genres, rapidly transitioning between dramatic fight against racism, romantic tragedy, mystery thriller, quirky comedy, dystopian sci-fi, and primitive epic journey.  "Cloud Atlas" is unlike anything that you have ever seen and, although you will be completely lost after the first 4 minutes, the payoff is worth it in the end.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Phoebe in Wonderland - 10 stars out of 10

Phoebe in Wonderland - 10 stars out of 10

"Phoebe in Wonderland" is one of the most sincere stories that I have ever seen.  It  begins with childlike innocence as we are transported into the mind of young Phoebe, a girl who loves and imagines the characters of "Alice in Wonderland."  The story takes an unexpected turn when she becomes impulsive in her speech and self-destructive in her actions, the apparent victim of Tourette Syndrome.  My respect for Elle Fanning has grown exponentially after seeing her tackle this complex role at the age of 10.  I have always felt that she was riding on the coattails of her sister but in this film, she showed true acting finesse.  The subtlety of her symptoms combined with her heart-wrenching emotional meltdown in bed make this one of the best performances by a child actor that I have ever seen.  The film boasts one impressive scene after another and once things start to fall apart, it becomes a series of high-emotion scenes without much of a break in between.  Another scene worth noting comes as Felicity Huffman (Phoebe's mom) pours her heart out to a therapist.  This long monologue is uncut as the camera slowly zooms in on her tears from across the room over the course of a few minutes.  It is an incredible scene as we symbolically move from the outside perspective of the therapist to the inside of the mother's heart.  This scene is then trumped by Patricia Clarkson (the drama teacher)’s monologue about boys performing the greatest female roles in the time of Shakespeare.  This story left me with a sense of vulnerability as a family is pulled apart by the stress caused by their daughter's uncontrollable behavior.  The film will speak to any person who has or wants to have children, showing the amount of love and selflessness that is required to care for a child when the unexpected arises.  "Phoebe in Wonderland" is one of the most underrated films out there and, while the thematic material is tough to swallow, the reward is well worth it in the end.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Alice in Wonderland (1951) - 5 stars out of 10

Alice in Wonderland (1951) - 5 stars out of 10

"Alice in Wonderland" is an interesting component of the Disney Canon.  While it was initially a box office failure, the film boasts some of the most interesting and creative images in Disney's long history of animation.  While I believe that Wonderland should have appeared much stranger, much of the imagery is perfect for this imaginative land.  I love the design of the flowers, featuring subtle human features while still looking like normal flowers.  It's incredible thoughtful how each flower takes on the literal characteristics of its genus like the blue bonnets, the shy violets, and the dandy pup.  The Disney animators also bring all of the great word-play creatures of Wonderland to life like the bread-and-butterflies, rocking-horseflies, and dog-and-caterpillars.  The voice actors reach the level of goofiness (or insanity) necessary to bring Lewis Carroll's characters to life, particularly Ed Wynn (Uncle Albert from "Mary Poppins") as the Mad Hatter and Sterling Holloway (Winnie the Pooh) as the Cheshire Cat.  Kathryn Beaumont also shines as Alice.  The problem with this film is not its quality of animation, voice acting, or characters.  The problem is that, due to the film's episodic nature, we never really develop a connection with Alice.  Even Walt said that the film failed because Alice had no heart.  There is no cohesiveness, almost as if five directors were hired to create their own individual sequence (oh wait, they were).  The episodic format was the problem with "Saludos Amigos" and "The Three Caballeros," and it causes the same problems for this film.  There is no greater example than the random sequence about the walrus and the carpenter that is only relevant "because the story was told by Tweedledee and Tweedledum in 'Through the Looking Glass.'"  Meanwhile, it has nothing to do with Alice or Wonderland.  I like these twin bozos, but why pull random elements from "Looking Glass" when "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" has plenty of material that was not included in the film?  The other misstep in this production is the inclusion of too many songs.  How are you supposed to remember the music from a 75-minute film that contains over 15 songs, some of which last less then 30 seconds?  Give me five solid show-stopping songs and I will show you an audience that will walk out of the theater singing "The Circle of Life" and getting back in line to learn the second verse of "I Just Can't Wait To Be King."  From a technical analysis, it is easy to find problems with "Alice in Wonderland," but it truly is an enjoyable family film; however, if you are looking for an accurate telling of Lewis Carroll's famous book, you will be disappointed.

Coming to America - 5 stars out of 10

Coming to America - 5 stars out of 10

"Coming to America" is a pretty typical 80's comedy, displaying more sexuality than you might expect (or desire) to see but also boasting impressive performances by Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall as multiple characters.  The story itself is pretty unique, putting an African prince into a rough neighborhood of New York City under fairly believable circumstances.  Add in the fact that he works at a mock-McDonald's fast food restaurant and you've got a ton of laughs!  Again, an unnecessary amount of nudity and sexual dialogue hurts this film as the story could have succeeded on its own.  While Murphy's characters aren't as brilliant as "The Nutty Professor," he and Hall have some hilarious moments in this alter egos; in fact, I preferred these absurd characters to their main roles.  Shari Headley makes a convincing love interest and James Earl Jones is in this movie (no need to say anything else).  "Coming to America" has a typical 80's comedy feel while avoiding the stereotyped storylines, but prepare to be distracted from impressive comedic performances by more sexual comedy than usual (or necessary).