Issue XCVI

21 OCT 2016

Arts

01/12/2015

Film Review “Unbroken”

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Starring: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson and Takamasa Ishihara
Directed by: Angelina Jolie
Rated: PG 13
Running time: 2 hrs 17 mins
Universal

Our Score: 5 out of 5 stars

I first heard the story of Lou Zamperini about 20 years ago while watching one of Tim McCarver’s HBO Sport Specials. I learned that Zamperini had run in the 1936 Olympics (which were held in Berlin) and, even though he didn’t win his event (the 5000 meter race) his time on the final lap so impressed Adolph Hitler that the leader had a personal meeting with him. I also learned that, during World War II, Zamperini’s plane crashed in the Pacific and he became a prisoner of war. The story ended by informing me that, thought dead, a memorial track event was held in California and that Zamperini actually showed up at the second one. An interesting story, to be sure. But the life of Lou Zamperini, how it was lived and how it was molded, took place between races and that is the story of UNBROKEN.

The film opens with Lieutenant Lou Zamperini (O’Connell in a star-making role), a bombardier, and his fellow airmen in a dogfight with Japanese pilots. Making it through, but with the plane badly damaged, the crew is given another assignment and put in a plane that is the talk of the base, mostly because it is in such disrepair. True to its myth, the plane malfunctions and the plane crashes into the Pacific Ocean. Eight of the eleven crewmen are killed but Zamperini and the others spend 47 days on a raft, living off of rainwater and the fish they manage to catch. They are eventually spotted and sent to a prisoner of war camp in Japan. They’re meager dinner is a handful of rice, thrown into their cells. Lou notices the names of nine sailors that had occupied his cell before him. When he inquires as to their whereabouts he is told they were beheaded. Welcome to Japan.

Masterfully directed with a script by a who’s who of Oscar nominated screenwriters, “Unbroken” is easily the most inspirational film of the year as well as one of the year’s best! Jolie proves herself to be a smart director, letting the cast and the script tell the story and capturing the magic on camera. Not to diminish her contributions here. Any time you have a film set during war time it is very easy to go for the heartstrings and gloss over things that would make lesser men cowed by what took place. But here Jolie refuses to hide, or deny, any of the treatment administered...


Unbroken (2014)

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*/****
starring Jack O'Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund
screenplay by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen and Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson
directed by Angelina Jolie

I genuinely believe that Angelina Jolie means well. She's like the distaff Sean Penn. Unlike Sean Penn, she probably shouldn't direct more movies. Jolie does her research by going to the places she makes movies about. She cares. She adopts children from those places. She takes embarrassing publicity photos with her subjects, sometimes, that indicate not malicious self-promotion, but rather an unaffected, Costner-esque surprise and wonder. She's growing in her morality before our very eyes, and it's great, but her second time up to the plate, Unbroken, is naive and simpering. The only thing remotely interesting about it is that its subject, Olympic athlete and WWII POW Louis Zamperini (Jack O'Connell), after getting tortured by the Japanese for a while, decided post-war to embrace Billy Graham and forgive his torturers. That bit, the interesting bit, is left to a few lengthy end-title cards. It's sort of like reading the Old Testament and calling it good and, um, wanting to post the Ten Commandments in schools instead of the Sermon on the Mount. Never mind.

O'Connell is going to be a star. This film could make him one. His performances in Starred Up and ‘71 are remarkable, visceral things. If there's an heir to Tom Hardy's meteoric rise, it's O'Connell. He's pretty much the only good thing in Unbroken, and I say that even after I watched that part where he gets PG-13 punched in the face by every single person in his prison camp. It's but one torture of many devised by a particularly inventive tormentor, Mitsushiro Watanabe (Takamasa Ishihara). See, this is one of those films in which a guy gets tortured horribly but refuses to crumble. He's superhuman that way. His tormentors, on the other hand, are inhuman monsters. A scene where Tokyo is firebombed, devastating a civilian population that Unbroken has just shown to be urbane and entirely undeserving of sudden annihilation, should land with some kind of emotional weight that doesn't include bloodlust. You really want the dirty Japs to get theirs, is what I'm saying, and the final rimshot of Watanabe refusing Zamperini's Christian grace just goes to show how godless those yellow heathens truly...



12/12/2014

'Dumb and Dumber To’ Review: Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels Return to Fine Form in Hilarious Sequel

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Ol’ Rubber Face is back, as Carrey and Daniels embark on another cross-country road trip, this time with Rob Riggle, Kathleen Turner and Laurie Holden

I probably laughed more watching “Dumb and Dumber To” than any other movie this year, save this summer's brilliant “Neighbors” and impossibly clever “22 Jump Street.” It's not just that the jokes and gags arrive one after another, barreling toward the audience with relentless regularity like baseballs from a pitching machine, although that certainly helps.

For better or for worse, the Farrelly brothers, who debuted Harry and Lloyd's first road-trip comedy two decades ago when I wasn't yet a teenager, probably swayed my sense of humor their way with their prodigious (and mega-popular) output during the mid to late 1990s and early 2000s. Even as their hits have become more modest in recent years, their influence has spread.

“Dumb and Dumber To” proves a (mostly) pleasant trip down nostalgia lane. The Farrellys feel like jesting uncles you haven't seen in awhile who look exactly the same as they ever did. The visuals remain homely and brutally efficient, the plot convoluted but the pacing brisk, and the humor often inventive and resourceful — and just as often tired or offensive (to women, people of color, gays and lesbians, old people, take your pick).

I felt particularly bad for both the elderly Asian actress whose Chinese (or Chinese-sounding babble) was raucously sniggered at by Lloyd and the fairly established, 40-something actress asked to lick her co-star's toes. Women remain jiggle-candy or hags to be called out for ugliness in the Farrelly universe.

Also read: 'Dumb and Dumber To' Is the Smart Choice to Win Weekend Box Office

And the brothers still haven't learned how to incorporate human emotions into their films. “Dumb and Dumber To” begins with Harry (Jeff Daniels) discovering that Lloyd (Jim Carrey) has been faking a coma for the last 20 years as a prank, a revelation that leads him to respond, “Awesome!” Though it's slightly tested here, their loyal friendship has all the emotional resonance of two baboons cackling at the hysterical way the other is scratching its butt.

The sequel fares better with the jokes, the freshness of which stem from the script's malapropisms and the central duo's, well, dumbness. When Harry and Lloyd end up at a science and tech conference, the latter poses as “Dr. Christmas” to gain entry. “Christmas like the holiday?” he's asked....


Reviews for the Easily Distracted: Dumb and Dumber To

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Title: Dumb and Dumber To

Is It Worth The 20 Year Wait? Nothing is worth a 20-year wait, except perhaps thereunion of the cast of D2: The Mighty Ducks. Because really, who wasn't looking forward to that?

Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: One bottle of Turbo Lax out of five.


Brief Plot Synopsis: Moronic duo trek across America to find one's long lost daughter while contemplating the paradox of existence. They also fart a lot.

Tagline: "The average person uses 10 percent of their brain capacity. Imagine what they could do with 1 percent."

Better Tagline: "The sequel no one wanted, including the cast and filmmakers."

Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Harry Dunn (Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) have reunited after 20 years of not-quite separation (Lloyd faked brain damage as a prank ... yep) for two reasons: Harry needs a kidney, and he wants to find his daughter named Penny (Rachel Melvin), who was given up for adoption by one-time lover Fraida Felcher (Kathleen Turner). The two set off in pursuit of Penny, who's attending a tech conference in El Paso (don't ask). Though unbeknownst to them, Penny's adoptive mother Adele (Laurie Holden) and her lover Travis (Rob Riggle) want everyone out of the picture for reasons I can't dredge up the effort to type out.


"Critical" Analysis: Tempus sure does fugit. When the original Dumb and Dumber was released in 1994, Jim Carrey was a newly anointed box office phenom and so-called "gross out comedies" had yet to really take hold. D&D helped solidify Carrey's marketability and made the Farrelly Brothers household names.

Big surprise, then, that we get a sequel when both are years away from their last hit: Carrey's was 2008's Horton Hears a Who!, the Farrelly's 2001's Shallow Hal, and that's using a generous definition of the term. Still, even given the (probably) mercenary motivations behind the sequel, you'd think there'd be no reason it shouldn't be as well-received as the first movie.

Watching Dumb and Dumber To, I realized what had made its predecessor as successful as it was. Not only did the Farrellys/Carrey/Daniels stretch the envelope of good taste, there was also a gleeful misanthropy at play that's mostly missing here. Maybe this says more about me than anything, but mean-spiritedness...



12/04/2014

Met Opera: A Masterful "Die Meistersinger" With Levine As Masterconductor

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The world of grand opera is generally not known for its comedies, and few are quite as grand, funny or poignant as the Metropolitan Opera's magnificent production of Die Meistersinger von Nurnburg, which returned to the house last night with James Levine in the pit to draw out every nuance of Wagner's radiant and rousing score.

A cast full of mastersingers, led by a brilliant James Morris as the cobbler-poet Hans Sachs, a strong Johan Botha as the lovesick knight Walther von Stolzing, and the lovely Annette Dasch as the girl of his dreams Eva, captures all the opera's grandeur and humor.

If nothing else, just hearing Levine conduct the excellent Met orchestra in an inspired reading of what Wagner's only comic opera. From the robust opening notes to the final chorus, and especially in a soul-searching and moving prelude to Act III, it is an outstanding orchestral performance of an opera that is close to Levine's heart.

It is a special operatic treat that the Met will make available on Dec. 13 when it simulcasts its matinee performance of Die Meistersinger to more than 2,000 theaters in 68 countries around the world as part of its Live in HD series.

Die Meistersinger represents a major departure for Wagner. No longer is he immersed in the realm of Germanic legend and myth but in a very human world where mortals fall in love, rivals deceive one another, lie, and cheat. In his specific world of 16th-century Nuremberg a smitten knight (Walther) is wooing a beautiful maiden (Eva) but facing some competition from a jealous older man (Beckmesser) who is not above chicanery to press his own suit.

There are added complications. The shoemaker Hans Sachs has his own feelings for Eva and they are reciprocated to a degree; Hans's apprentice David is courting Eva's friend Magdalene; and Eva's rich father has promised to give his daughter to the winner of the annual St. John's Day songfest competition sponsored by the Guild of Mastersingers.

In order to pursue his quest for Eva, therefore, Walther must become a Mastersinger. But the Guild has some very specific rules and regulations on what should and should not be in a song, and Walther knows none of them. When he auditions for the Guild he breaks them all and is ridiculed by Beckmesser and the other Mastersingers, and his application is rejected. Only Hans sees some promise in the young knight's new kind of song and decides to help him.

Wagner...


Opera Review: The Met’s (Very) Long-Running Meistersinger

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Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg lingers on the moment when one era rolls into the next, when nostalgia is vaporized by innovation, decorum trumped by joy. It’s an opera about a singing contest, and like virtually every victory-of-talent story — Project Runway, Billy Elliot, Fame, Dreamgirls, Friday Night Lights — it follows the classic arc from arrogance and failure to persistence and triumph, with a coach’s pep talk and a humbling epiphany along the way. Among the opera’s many wonders is that we witness the prize-winning song taking shape before us and watch its maker spin fussy tradition into shiny melody. Wagner shows us a version of his own process, composing both sides of a great aesthetic struggle. In the end, he launches himself and his music into the splendid future. 

The Met’s venerable production, now being trotted out for one last lap before being mothballed, gets the story backwards. On opening night, time slowed and liveliness surrendered to age. After five hours of music, broken up by two interminable intermissions, wistfulness spread like mold over the vigorous, sensual score. A pair of veterans returned to Otto Schenk’s half-timbered Rhineland, bringing a mixture of pleasures and irritants. The nearly 68-year-old James Morris, who sang the cobbler/poet Hans Sachs, knows how to husband his resources, and as he soldiered gamely into the night, power and authority gradually faded into tender, tired wisdom. James Levine, a real-world Sachs of towering experience and enormous endurance, mixed ravishing passages with perfunctory bombast. 

The younger members of the cast had an equally uneven night. Tenor Johan Botha clomped through the role of the whippersnapper troubadour Walther von der Vogelweide, his voice light and his phrasing heavy, as if singing Wagner were a burden instead of a joy. Only Paul Appleby, in the secondary role of the apprentice David, honored the opera’s festive spirit. It’s a shame for this sumptuously old-fashioned production to go out on such a middling note. If you’re going to sit in an opera house for as long as it takes to fly to Europe, you want the cast to make every hour count.



11/12/2014

Nolan balances love, sci-fi in 'Interstellar'

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Even more mind-blowing than his “Inception,” Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” emphasizes the importance of love in a science-fiction tale set in the not-too-distant future.

The setting, or at the least the first one, is a farm in an area reminiscent of the Dust Bowl during the 1930s. Along with gigantic dust storms, blight has killed crop after crop until only corn is left — and that crop is vanishing. Additionally, the Earth’s atmosphere is changing, and the air is not as breathable as it once was.

Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, a farmer who was once a NASA test pilot. He and his son Tom, younger daughter Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) and Cooper’s father-in-law (John Lithgow) live together on the farm where clouds of dust are part of everyday life. (One of the most interesting scenes involves a dust storm during which Cooper tells his family to “mask up” as they travel through it.)

After Murphy has an experience she cannot explain, she and her father end up being drawn to a secret location where they are separated and interrogated by formally dressed people who refuse at first to identify themselves. What Cooper and Murphy have stumbled upon is what is left of NASA. Led by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), this small group of scientists is trying to save the human race with two different proposals, one of which involves colonizing other planets and leaving the Earth behind to die.

Cooper finds out that a “wormhole” near Saturn may have been placed there by some kind of intelligence to provide a pathway for explorers seeking habitable planets. He will be the pilot for a group of astronauts that includes Brand’s daughter Amelia (Anne Hathaway), two other scientists and a robot called TARS (Bill Irwin).

Cooper and his teammates know that time will unfold differently back on Earth as they make their years-long journey. And he also knows that, despite his promise to his daughter, he may never return.

I’m not going to tell you much more about this movie. To do so would create spoilers. I will say that the acting is terrific, the look of it is incredible and the finale is somewhat open to interpretation.

You won’t need to understand every scientific concept presented here to enjoy the movie. All you will need to understand is the importance of loving relationships — in this case, family relationships — to make the film work for you.

Hans Zimmer’s...


Interstellar Have Rocket ‒ Will Babble

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Now may be a good time to reassess Christopher Nolan’s standing in the firmament of important American filmmakers. I’ve always thought the guy was overrated, that his films, dating from “Memento” and including “Inception,” were too overly calculated and hermetic by half ‒ interesting schematics for movies rather than interesting movies. In this respect, Nolan is a bit like Brian De Palma.

Nolan’s latest, a $165-million Paramount-Warner Bros. co-production called “Interstellar,” proves a New Age-y, fuzzy-headed sci-fi’er that borrows liberally from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Contact” and the director’s own “Inception.” It’s overlong, talky and, depending on the crisis, either dopey or pretentious … sometimes both. During the Big Revelation, which is supposed to make us feel all tingly and wonderful inside,  [interstellar-movie-trailer] I was reminded of John Carpenter’s Kubrick spoof, “Dark Star.” In that shaggy-dog cult item, the astronaut-cum-glorified garbage collectors behave less like Flash Gordon than The Three Stooges.

Maybe the best way to describe this expensive boondoggle is as cornpone existentialism. About a third of the film takes place on a Midwest farm in the near future, when sandstorms and dust-bowl conditions have rendered Earth all but uninhabitable; the rest of the story unfolds in deep space aboard a ringed centrifugal craft called The Endurance. The crew, led by Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and science officer Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), have been tasked with traveling to Saturn and exploring the most promising of three planets in another galaxy ‒ accessed through a gaseous wormhole much like the terminus Stargate in “2001.”

There’s much talk about quantum physics, higher life forms, and transcending “the dimensions of time and space.” None of this scientific palaver, however, amounts to a hill of beans. The missing element in the equation? With apologies to the Beatles, “Love, love, love.” (At crucial junctures, Hans Zimmer’s familiar score is cranked up to drown out these silly exchanges.)

Because the four-member crew and their surprisingly agile security-bot (voiced by Bill Irwin) are passing into another dimension, every hour spent on a planet equals seven years back home. This makes Coop especially uneasy because he’s a single dad...



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