Magic to do

Posted on 19 Dec 2014 at 6:00am

Sorcery and song dominate a rich holiday season of moviegoing: ‘The Hobbit,’ ‘Into the Woods,’ ‘Annie,’ ‘The Imitation Game,’ ‘The Gambler,’ ‘Unbroken’

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SIT, A SPELL | A Witch (Meryl Streep) enlists a Baker (James Corden) to do her dirty work in the fractured fairy tale of Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods.’

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Executive Editor

The year got off to a slow start, movie-wise. From New Year’s Day until the end of summer, only one film — Boyhood — really stuck out. Now there’s a glut of holiday releases (some predictably good, some surprising) and the quality is out in force. There’s something for every taste to entertain you.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
The final (well, there’s still The Silmarillion) installment in Peter Jackson’s double-trilogy of J.R.R. Tolkien is the shortest of all the films, and a satisfying climax to the journey of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and friends, as elves, orcs, humans and dwarves gather for a battle royal for the future of Middle-earth.

Jackson has become a pro at these movies (17 hours worth!), and there’s a rhythm here that feels organic, even as the special effects tend to overwhelm (but do not entirely squelch) the performances. The series is about a sense of wonderment, and while the VFX have lost their ability to surprise, there’s no denying that you get what you come for.

Into the Woods
Gandalf isn’t the only one with a touch of magic at his fingertips. A Witch (Meryl Streep) has cursed a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) with childlessness unless they can recover a list of goodies from the forest for her nefarious purposes. On the way, we meet Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her Prince (Chris Pine), Red Riding Hood and a Wolf (Johnny Depp), Rapunzel, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), his Mother (Tracey Ullman) and, of course, a wicked Giant (Frances de la Tour).

Stephen Sondheim’s wonderfully fractured fairy tale musical has been a charmer for decades, but its mix of fantasy, childlike wonder, sarcasm and a sung-through score have always made it a challenge to translate from stage to film. (The stage production usually emphasizes the artifice and campiness of the story, with a stuffy narrator poking the audience in the ribs.) But in Rob Marshall, Disney has found the ideal director to adapt the show — losing, perhaps, some of its lighthearted coyness but scoring with its spectacular production values and searing message.

It helps that Marshall has assembled a cast that really can sing Sondheim right — Streep has proven herself a singer before, but Kendrick, Pine (in a delightfully hammy version of “Agony”) and the astonishingly gifted Huttlestone deliver the kind of show-stopping performances that typically would have live audiences on their feet. It’s not for little kids, but fantasy-loving adults and theater queens of all ages will be transfixed.

Annie
I have been surprised at how much pre-release blowback has been expressed to me by friends and acquaintances about Annie; most think it “looks terrible.” Funny, but the 1982 film version (very faithful to the source material) actually was terrible, so anything should be an improvement. Does this version — with an African-American Annie (Quevanzhane Wallis), foster-care kids instead of an orphanage residents and hot-to-trot Miss Hannigan (Cameron Diaz who, truth be told, really does overdo it) — stray from the 1977 musical? Oh, my, yes. But think of it as a reboot for the modern age, not a period piece stuck in the past.

Like Into the Woods, this Annie has evolved for its new medium. New York City is portrayed as rough-edged but not scary — an idealization that sets the tone for family-friendly approachability early. It’s confectionary and aggressively upbeat and corny — since when has Annie ever not been all of those things?! The songs are all mostly there, though often rewritten with fresh lyrics and re-orchestrated with a hip-hop sensibility befitting the contemporary audience. Wallis is a delightfully perky presence, Foxx adds some Al Green soul to his part and Rose Byrne strikes the perfect pitch moderating the two. Purists may scoff; the rest of us will just have a good time.

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in ‘The Imitation Game,’ below, Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch, center) and company do the near-impossible: Make math look interesting.

The Imitation Game
What Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) did during World War II might seem to be magical. A mathematician with few social skills (think of him as Sheldon Cooper with an Oxford accent), he decoded the Nazi’s Enigma program at a time when the thought of a “computer” (they used to be called “Turning machines”) had not much advanced past the abacus. But his genius was no match for the provincial ideas in England during the 1940s and ’50s. Turing was gay, and that was a serious crime. The penalties for it were staggering — even for the man who saved the Allies’ asses.

To appreciate just how compelling the film is, consider this: It makes doing math seem cinematic. That’s a feat not accomplished since Julia made writing look interesting, and it speaks to the film’s fluid, poignant discussion of social issues — not just homosexuality, but sexism, class structure, honor and the morality of allowing people to die for a larger goal. The Imitation Game — led by Cumberbatch’s fierce defiance and Keira Knightley’s best performance since Atonement — is incalcul- ably meaningful.

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DOUBLE DOWN | Mark Wahlberg acquits himself well in this retro thriller.

The Gambler
Can  we pinpoint the moment when Mark Wahlberg went from gay boy Soloflex poster model to serious actor? We might place it in this film: When Wahlberg steps before a classroom, lecturing students about the fine art of novel writing, it could be a moment to laugh, like when Denise Richards played a nuke-u-ler scientist in a James Bond movie. But we don’t snicker, because his character seems real, lived-in and badly, badly damaged. A rich boy with a gambling addiction, Wahlberg’s character is on a suicidal path that’s often painful to observe. It’s like Leaving Las Vegas, only blackjack, and not booze, is his poison of choice.

Based on a 1970s James Caan film, The  Gambler was not really in need of a remake, which is partly what makes it engaging. Watching someone gamble self-destructively (doubling down on huge bets that you know will eventually go south) is incredibly cinematic and just as stressful. It doesn’t take car chases to get the blood pumping, just stakes that increase until you fear for the characters.

William Monahan (Oscar winner for The Departed) has fashioned a compelling adaptation of James Toback’s original script, full of genuine ideas and an air of mystery behind the characters, who are fleshed out by a strong cast (Jessica Lange, Michael Kenneth Williams, John Goodman). This isn’t a great movie, but it’s unexpectedly good at times. Call that a safe bet.
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Unbroken
Scott Rudin’s bitchy emails aside, you can’t really call Angelina Jolie talentless; she’s delivered fine performances, and while her feature debut as a director — the Serbian-language war drama In the Land of Blood and Honey — looked like it might be a pretentious vanity project, it was powerful and deftly handled. The same is true of her latest, which shows Jolie may be the ballsiest filmmaker in Hollywood.

With its nerve-wracking scenes of violence, war and torture, Unbroken is a potent kick to the teeth, made more striking because it’s based on a true story — Olympian Louis Zamperini’s survival from a Japanese POW during WWII. Part Chariots of Fire, part Killing Fields, Jolie elicits powerful work from Jack O’Connell as Louis, but especially Miyavi as his chief torturer.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 19, 2014

 

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