The crucial masterstroke ofInto the Woods is that the fairy-tale happy ending comes halfway through the action. What exactly becomes of Cinderella after she settles in with her Prince? Does Jack miss the adventure of climbing up the beanstalk? Does Little Red Riding Hood ever dream about the Wolf? Such questions fuel the wickedly amusing 1987 Broadway musical, with songs by Stephen Sondheim and book by James Lapine.
Cue the irony, then, that Sondheim’s sly modern classic has been taken up by Disney, history’s busiest purveyors of the happy ending. Sondheim and Lapine were both involved in the film, and if many things have been cut or altered, a bit of a subversive message still peeks through (and some key characters die along the way). Into the Woods presents a crowded roster, with Meryl Streep earning top billing as the Witch, the blue-haired crank who sets things in motion. Streep’s opening scene is pretty glorious, as the actress stalks around the Baker’s shop, spitting out the backstory and laying down a curse.
Tommy Lee Jones, as actor and director, clearly cares a lot about the Western. Is there an audience that cares with him? The once-dominant genre has declined so steeply since the 1970s that each new one is an event, and Jones has become one of the few people still riding herd on the form. (Though ailing at the movies, the myth of the West is alive and well in American politics, currently full of gun-totin’, hog-castratin’ candidates.) The Homesman is so good it makes you wish Jones could somehow make a Western a year, just to keep exploring the pockets of American frontier experience that still need filling in. This one offers a series of new wrinkles, beginning with its route: The story goes from west to east, the opposite of most Westerns.
“Thank you for your childhood,” says the Chief Elder to each graduating 16-year-old. In this society, that’s not as weird as it sounds; all children who reach 16 are given life assignments and launched into adulthood at a public ceremony.
Childhood’s end, indeed. The Giver tells the tale of one such teen, Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites), chosen for a very special role on assignment day. He will be the new Receiver of Memories, a singular and mysterious job that sets him apart from everybody else in this isolated, placid world.
For reasons we don’t know, this slice of humanity has embraced “sameness” as its motto. The voluntarily tranquilized population is white, polite, and always truthful. If everyone is just the same, with limited emotional range and no ambitions, they will all get along together. That explains why we view this world in black-and-white. Odd thing is, Jonah keeps seeing flashes of color.
Tracy Letts won the Pulitzer Prize for his play August: Osage County, and he has written the screenplay for this film. If you seek a useful yardstick for the distance between stage and screen, this movie provides one: Here is a writer adapting his own work for the movies, and there is almost no evidence of how this display of canned yammering could possibly have won a high literary honor.
Admittedly, if you imagine everything playing out on one set, with August?’s overlapping dramatic arcs and crafted one-liners creating an actors’ showcase, the thing could work as a dramatic night in the theater. But open all that up to the outdoors, dissipate the pressure-cooker structure with lapses in time, and let director John Wells add a sentimental spirit to the proceedings, and you’ve got one middling movie.
One can only imagine how witty, wise and moving HopeSprings might have been in the hands of Mike Nichols, originally tapped to direct (Carnal Knowledge 30 years later?). Advertised as a romantic dramedy about middle-aged marriage gone stale, Hope dutifully delivers gentle laughs and occasional sexual farce. And probably that’s all director David Frankel—who mined such easy comedy out of cosmeticized surfaces in The Devil Wears Prada—was aiming for.
He didn’t count on Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones. Did the gutsy co-stars of Hope Springs simply hijack Frankel’s safe little comedy of marital errors? Or did they force the fellow to rise to their level? Either way, this team’s tough, unglamorized performances power Hope way beyond the ho-hum territory of a slightly edgier It’s Complicated. Shout-out to Oscar: As an aging couple looking for love among the ruins, Streep and Jones are so good they could be auditioning for a softer, American version of Scenes from a Marriage, Ingmar Bergman’s classic dissection of marital life and strife.
But the stars can’t act away the movie’s tonal lurches and character U-turns. Segueing from soap opera to shockingly raw moments of emotional realism, from sexual slapstick to In Treatment–style therapeutic drama, Hope edges into deep waters, painful issues like growing old and lonely, the passing of physical beauty and youthful faith. But ultimately Frankel and the script chicken out, ditching challenging cargo in favor of a dash for the picture-pretty port of Feel Good.
The secret of having a fine night watching the Academy Awards is having a horse in the race, and I had two: Meryl Streep, whom I couldn’t bear to see lose again, not after that performance, and Undefeated, a documentary longshot about high school football players in North Memphis,Tennessee, that didn’t stand a chance in a field that stretched from Pina to Hell and Back.
So, understandably, our house echoed with shrieks, after Undefeated’s win. You may remember the bleeping disbelief by one of its pair of young director-editors, Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin, Oscars in hand.
As the extraordinary Manassas Tigers’ coach Bill Courtney says, “Football doesn’t build character; football reveals character.” Undefeated reveals the almost overwhelming personal struggles of three of Courtney’s young black athletes as they move toward manhood, captured by the kind of filmmaking “luck” that comes from being there, day in day out, recording routine moments and ones of high and sometimes almost hidden emotion.
One of these came on the filmmakers’ first day with Montiel, known as “Money,” a small, speedy offensive lineman and honors student. He took Lindsay and Martin behind his grandmother’s house where he lives, to show them his pet: a tortoise. As he picks it up, explaining gently how its hard shell protects the soft creature inside, we get the first glimpse of the heart on each side of Undefeated’s lens.
If you saw The Blind Side, and think you already know this territory — you don’t. There’s no Sandra Bullock (lord love her) facing genteel opposition as she steps in to change the life of one gifted black player. If Undefeated’s kids see college football as the only way out of their flat-lined lives in this weed-filled, scraggly patch of North Memphis, they can also see the odds as clearly as we can.
Have not awakened from deep Streep mode over here. Partly because the Weinstein Company has been working her like a dog to see that The Iron Lady gets a decent lift-off. Thus her Kennedy Center Honors now, a Vogue cover, a Newsweek cover, plus an appearance – and an unsurprising win — at the otherwise crushingly dull Golden Globes. (Well, she and Idris Elba. That was nice.)
Then it’s the Oscars, February 26th (nominations January 28th.) I have less than no faith in that august body, which moves like lemmings with a strong startle reaction. Think back to that clip from Julie & Julia during the Kennedy Center night, when Stanley Tucci’s Paul Child asks his wife Julia what she likes to do best, and, brimming with enthusiasm and a mouth full of divine French food, she says, “Eat!” Consider the pure joy of that performance.
Then remember: that year, Academy voters preferred Sandra Bullock.
It makes me worry that they’ll let her towering work as Margaret Thatcher go unacknowledged while they dither over its “propriety” or “historical inaccuracy” or, heaven help us, its “anti-feminism.” Really!
So, at this house it’s been one or another of her 46 features, each night, with or without friends, just to warm up the gods. We’ve had The River Wild, which she said she made to prove to her girls that she was brave, and A Cry in the Dark and Sophie’s Choice, which proved it to the world. Next is One True Thing, her open-hearted evocation of the kind of small town Americans she grew up around.
I also dug out hindsight from the file, to prove that my appreciation isn’t a sometimes thing. This was from the late 80s, an attempt to sum up her decade of extraordinary portraits.
“With Sophie’s Choice the disappearance of Meryl Streep into the persona of a well-born Polish Catholic survivor of the Nazi death camps approaches the eerie. Whether she is speaking excellent German or halting or fluent English, Sophie must convince us that her mother tongue is Polish. At one time or another, she must be “utterly, fatally glamourous,” grey-green with malnutrition, giddily flirtatious, besotted with love or romantically melancholic. All the while, at the deepest level, she is carrying a secret horrendous enough to char the edges of anyone’s soul.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Terry Curtis Fox, writing in Film Comment, seems to have been the only one to point out the rather obvious fact that The Deer Hunterisnâ€™t really about the Vietnam War. Director Michael Cimino is much more interested in how change comes to the safe, closed world that protects and justifies both the commonest and the most eccentric behavior of its inhabitants. Indeed, how these people face change, and whether or not it really succeeds in taking over their world, are questions the film asks much more readily than the obvious moral and psychological questions about the Vietnam War that shallow reviewers have attributed to the film. The closed community, with whose solidarity and survival Cimino is concerned, is built on the foundation of ethnic pride. In this respect the film is reminiscent of The Godfatherin its epic length and pace, and its focus on an ethnic subculture. It is Ciminoâ€™s debt to Coppolaâ€™s debt to Ford that the structural burden of this parable of a closed society is borne by the recurrence of rituals that lend a sense of continuity to the story as well as to the lives of its characters: drinks at the tavern, the hunting trip, the wedding and reception, the funeral, and that most disturbing ritual of all, Russian roulette.
[Originally published in Movietone News 62-63, December 1979]
Alan Alda is an unimpeachably right guy. Heâ€™s attractive, intelligent, multifariously talented, and probably good for the ecology. He is a model of sociopolitical conscientiousness, and a 100-percent masculine romantic icon without a touch of male-chauvinist-piggery. No matter how often or deservedly his talents (acting, writing, directing) are recognized, he manages to maintain a becoming modesty at the same time he displays an unabashed joy in winning (turning a cartwheel on the way to claim his Emmy for a recent M*A*S*H script). Iâ€™ll let go of the other shoe as soon as I insist that I like and admire him, too. And untilThe Seduction of Joe Tynan I tended to assume that it was base envy or some other character flaw of mine that led me to find Alan Alda just a tad smarmy. The physiognomy is part of it, ready to turn rat-faced if the sweetness ever left the smile and the warmth and intelligence deserted the eyes. Itâ€™s in the voice, too, a subterranean whine ever so faintly compromising the moral-ethical rectitude. Whether this hint of imperfection has any deeper locus I shall not speculate here, lest the lynch mobs begin forming in earnest. And look, Iâ€™m talking about just the merest tincture here, the shadow of a shadow.
With every review I read of Doubt, I get the nagging feeling that I’ve seen a different film. It’s certain that I’ve had a different experience. Doubt, John Patrick Shanley’s screen adaptation of his own play and the first film he has directed since Joe Versus the Volcano, continues to rumble through my mind because the ideas and conflicts left unresolved in the film. This is Shanley’s witch hunt play, his Crucible, with a very specifically American setting and the reverberations it carries. I never saw the stage production of John Patrick Shanley’s original play in any incarnation, let alone the Broadway run, and though I keep hearing the familiar chorus “It worked better on stage,” I wonder of having seen the stage play is preventing viewers from actually seeing the film.
While the cinema can be used effectively to express ambiguity, it is also a medium of concrete imagery and particular sense of certainty: it’s a mystery until the reveal, where we have the privileged view of seeing what happened, or at least seeing the evidence left behind and being provided an explanation that answers all questions. There is no such certainty in Doubt. It’s not Rashomon (everyone lies), it’s not Les Girls (everyone tells the truth in their own way, as Sarris so lovingly put it), and it’s certainly not The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’ brilliant documentary that “recreates” various testimonies to illustrate how great minor discrepancies can be. There are no conflicting witnesses here, there is no forensic evidence to sift, there isn’t an accusing victim, merely the suspicion of a criminal act and one person’s drive for justice (or at the very least protective action) in a system that (as we all know too well given recent revelations) is more concerned with self-preservation than self-policing.
Set in the church and Catholic school of a largely Irish and Italian neighborhood of the Bronx in 1964, the film embraces so much â€“ racism and integration, the tensions between the old Catholic traditions and the modernization of the church and its public outreach in the sixties, the acts of pedophilia perpetrated by priests and covered up by the church, hypocrisy, faith, power, morality â€“ without lecturing or hectoring, placing it all within the very human struggle of fallible people doing what they think is right. Or at least that’s what we hope. The crux is, no surprise, in the title. Sunny, optimistic idealist Sister James (Amy Adams),a young nun teaching history to junior high boys and girls, witnesses what is at best circumstantial evidence of an improper relationship between the friendly and warm Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the well liked priest whose sermons bring religion to earth, and the school’s first African-American student, the brunt of student bullying. Flynn has extended his protection and support to the boy, but the imperious Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Meryl Streep), the authoritarian principal who fulfills every stereotype of the officious Catholic school who wraps the knuckles of distracted boys, suspects something more. Or is it that she just doesn’t like Flynn, whose new ways collide with her strict standards? “You don’t have any proof,” Father Flynn says to her when she vows to see him removed from the parish. “I have my certainty,” she replies. Belief without proof. Faith, in other words. She has no room for doubt. We aren’t so privileged.