Thursday, December 18, 2014

'Annie' again? Yes -- and updated, too

A wobbly version that too often falters..
The 2014 big-screen edition of the over-exposed musical Annie seems to have been intended as an urban fantasy that's meant to combine the joys of the original with an updated story and a few new songs.

This Annie only occasionally does justice to the original material and, at the same time, fails to stake out enough turf of its own. It's like a third-rate comedy with musical numbers and a spunky 10-year-old kid who wanders through a Manhattan that's imagined with lollipop sweetness.

Annie (Quvenzhane Wallis) now lives in a Harlem foster home. She believes that the parents who left her at a restaurant when she was an infant someday will return.

But Annie isn't only about the need for a girl to shed a harsh Dickensian childhood. It's about the way a plucky waif becomes the instrument by which an ambitious businessman turned politician (Jamie Foxx) can be humanized.

Thanks to some glaring plot contrivances, Annie's taken under wing by Foxx's cellphone billionaire, a corporate baron who also happens to be running for mayor of New York City. Foxx's Will Stark crosses paths with Annie when he keeps her from being hit by a speeding car. Filmed by a bystander, Stark's rescue goes viral.

Why not, asks the billionaire's crass campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale), lift Annie from her hard-knock life and let her live in a gleaming, aggressively modern apartment with a billionaire? Surely, voters will swoon.

The super-rich Stacks has political ambitions, but he's not much of a people person. He keeps himself emotionally isolated, and has a Howard-Hughes-like obsession with germs.

In this version, Wallis takes over from the red-headed dynamo type that usually plays Annie, something the movie accomplishes in an energetic opening sequence that finds Annie pushing a red-headed schoolmate off center stage so that she can present a lesson on FDR to her classmates.

Wallis impressed just about everyone by playing a Louisiana six-year-old named Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild. Here, she may be working a little too hard.

Director Will Gluck makes room for the adult cast members, but saddles them with material that's straining to shed its Depression origins.

Cameron Diaz does everything she can to overact as Miss Hannigan, an embittered show-biz reject who takes care of foster children -- for the money, of course.

Both Diaz and Cannavale give the kind of out-sized performances you might expect to see in a children's theater production, and, at times -- though not consistently -- the movie seems to be aimed at the youngest audience segment.

Rose Byrne never quite finds a niche as Stack's assistant.

Look, I like the idea of a multi-ethnic Annie. And why not update material that's been done to death? It's just that Gluck hasn't been able to do it in a truly meaningful and exciting way.

You know the filmmakers have run out of imaginative gas when, toward the end of the movie, they add a helicopter chase sequence. It saves Annie, but not a movie that's too wobbly to ensure that it finds a place in the sunshine -- either today or (as Annie optimistically promises) tomorrow.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A not-so-innocent children's book

It's interesting that two of the year's more intriguing movies involve elements of horror. Why not? We don't exactly live in times without terror.

Both movies, by the way, drew attention as part of The Film Society of Lincoln Center's 43-year-old New Directors/New Film series. I'm talking about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Babadook, both films directed by women.

More about A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which was directed by newcomer Ana Lily Amirpour, at a later date. Suffice it to say now that it's an Iranian vampire movie filmed in Los Angeles. I know, you're sick of vampires, but Amirpour's film, shot in black-and-white, is too eerily unnerving to dismiss.

This week, though, we'll turn attention to The Babadook, a movie that's beginning to make its way around the country after its debut on VOD.

Australian director Jennifer Kent accomplished what I'd begun to think was impossible: She's made a good horror movie; i.e., one that doesn't shortchange scary thrills, but is also rife with ambiguity and psychological subtext.

The Babadook involves a children's book about a strange figure named The Babadook. He wears a top hat, and almost always is seen in silhouette. He's scary, ominous and perhaps unstoppable. He's dread personified.

The story begins when the widowed Amelia (Essie Davis) reads this strange pop-up book to her six-year-old son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). It takes Amelia a while to realize that the book, which seems to have appeared from nowhere, isn't exactly a cuddly, bedtime tale.

From that point on, The Babadook begins to mix horror with parental frustration while raising troubling questions: Is Amelia losing her mind? Is Samuel a demon child? Is a real demon terrorizing both of them?

I won't say much more about the plot except to tell you that Amelia became a widow when her husband died in a car crash. He was driving her to the hospital to give birth to Samuel. How's that for a large can of psychological worms?

But here's the thing -- or at last a thing -- with which you'll have to come to grips. Samuel is an obnoxious, impossible kid. He's prone to tantrums. He's mildly precocious. And he's dangerously aggressive. At one point, he pushes a cousin out of a tree house.

So naturally, we sympathize with a mother who's at the end of her rope. But Kent shifts that focus after we begin to wonder whether Amelia is losing her grip.

Perhaps all the horror we're witnessing in Amelia's home -- lots of things that go bump in the night -- is a creation of her mind, flowing from her badly damaged psyche.

When it comes to creating tension and keeping us off balance, Kent is no slouch.

But here's where the movie distinguishes itself: Almost everything we see is anchored to the real exasperation of a single mother who's being pushed to limits that are carefully delineated in Davis's increasingly unhinged performance.

I suppose The Babadook can be classified as a haunted-house movie, but it's more than that. It will rattle you and also give you something to think about as it moves toward its provocative and psychologically intelligent conclusion.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Five armies battle. Boy, do they ever

Final chapter of The Hobbit passes muster, but I'm glad it's done.
I give up. Why resist director Peter Jackson's final installment of The Hobbit; a.k.a., The Battle of the Five Armies.

If there were a quiz, I confess that I wouldn't be able to name the five armies nor would I be able to say I deeply cared about which one of them prevailed at the end of Jackson's massive, three-part Tolkien extravaganza.

A sense of proportion pushes me into agreement with those who argue that The Hobbit might have been more admirable if Jackson had made one movie instead of three -- or at most, say, two.

It seems unfair to have asked us to spend almost six hours on the two previous movies that set up this final chapter, which clocks in at a fleet two hours and 24 minutes, almost a short when it comes to Jackson and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Say this, though: Jackson certainly hasn't underestimated Tolkien's audience appeal. He has given the Tolkien fan base ample reason to support his efforts, which are chock full of CGI marvels, complex storylines and -- in this case -- a battle that becomes the big-screen equivalent of the 100 Years War. That's a snarky way of saying that the damn thing lasts for about 45 minutes.

Now, if that battle -- which follows a bravura opening in which an entire city is burned by a fire-breathing dragon -- weren't something to see, Jackson would deserve to be scorned. But in both its larger and smaller fights, Jackson presents battles that have the power to awaken those who have suffered through mid-picture torpor.

The movie begins with an attack by the dragon Smaug on peaceable Lake-town. Smaug is well on his way to torching the entire place when Bard of Bowman (Luke Evans) figures out how to slay the dragon.

Bard (or is it Bowman?) then leads the survivors to a mountain redoubt to seek shelter from a pending attack by the Orcs, who are marching as relentlessly as only Orcs can toward the same mountain fortress.

Meanwhile, other groups also are en route to the mountain, and Jackson introduces us to a variety of familiar Tolkien characters -- of interest to the faithful and of no consequence to anyone else.

Now, the dwarves already have occupied the mountain, which also contains an ungodly amount of treasure. Thorin (Richard Armitage) has taken charge of the dwarves and is busy orchestrating things for his own, ambitious ends.

Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) continues to be a "can't-we-all-get-along" kind of Hobbit, and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) shows up to add the customary gravitas.

It takes a while for all of the various factions to realize that they must join forces against the Orcs.

Enough about the plot, which the uninitiated might best approach with a scorecard listing all the various players.

Here's what redeems Jackson's opus: Significant characters die, and we feel the sorrow of their passing. The tone of the final segment is full of nobility, and, at times, a tragic sense of heroism.

The great battle is followed by a kind of idyll in which Bilbo returns to the Shire, where he attempts to resume normal life. Suddenly, the movie's dark palette is flooded with lush greens.

Personally, I'm happy that the whole business has concluded, and I hope that Jackson finds other ways to express himself. I was touched by this operatic finale, but I've had all I can stand of Hobbits, Orcs, Dwarves, wizards and trolls.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Critics' Choice nominees announced

The Broadcast Film Critics Association has announced its nominations for its 20th annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards.

As a member of the BFCA, I usually print a list of the nominees, which don't in all cases represent my votes. The Critics' Choice winners will be announced on Jan. 15, the day that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announces its Oscar nominations. The show will be broadcast on A&E, beginning at 7 p.m. MST.

Birdman led this year's list with thirteen nominations. It was followed by The Grand Budapest Hotel, which garnered 11 nominations.

My 10 best-list will be published soon, but I offer the Broadcast Film Critics nominees, which cover more ground than the Oscars, as a way of getting you started on your own year-end thinking.

Gone Girl
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
The Theory of Everything

Benedict Cumberbatch – The Imitation Game
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Jake Gyllenhaal – Nightcrawler
Michael Keaton – Birdman
David Oyelowo – Selma
Eddie Redmayne – The Theory of Everything

Jennifer Aniston – Cake
Marion Cotillard – Two Days, One Night
Felicity Jones – The Theory of Everything
Julianne Moore – Still Alice
Rosamund Pike – Gone Girl
Reese Witherspoon – Wild

Josh Brolin – Inherent Vice
Robert Duvall – The Judge
Ethan Hawke – Boyhood
Edward Norton – Birdman
Mark Ruffalo – Foxcatcher
J.K. Simmons – Whiplash

Patricia Arquette – Boyhood
Jessica Chastain – A Most Violent Year
Keira Knightley – The Imitation Game
Emma Stone – Birdman
Meryl Streep – Into the Woods
Tilda Swinton – Snowpiercer

Ellar Coltrane – Boyhood
Ansel Elgort – The Fault in Our Stars
Mackenzie Foy – Interstellar
Jaeden Lieberher – St. Vincent
Tony Revolori – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Quvenzhane Wallis – Annie
Noah Wiseman – The Babadook

The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Into the Woods

Wes Anderson – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Ava DuVernay – Selma
David Fincher – Gone Girl
Alejandro G. Inarritu – Birdman
Angelina Jolie – Unbroken
Richard Linklater – Boyhood

Birdman – Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo
Boyhood – Richard Linklater
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Nightcrawler – Dan Gilroy
Whiplash – Damien Chazelle

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
The Imitation Game – Graham Moore
Inherent Vice – Paul Thomas Anderson
The Theory of Everything – Anthony McCarten
Unbroken – Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese, William Nicholson
Wild – Nick Hornby

Birdman – Emmanuel Lubezki
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Robert Yeoman
Interstellar – Hoyte Van Hoytema
Mr. Turner – Dick Pope
Unbroken – Roger Deakins

Birdman – Kevin Thompson/Production Designer, George DeTitta Jr./Set Decorator
The Grand Budapest Hotel – Adam Stockhausen/Production Designer, Anna Pinnock/Set Decorator
Inherent Vice – David Crank/Production Designer, Amy Wells/Set Decorator
Interstellar – Nathan Crowley/Production Designer, Gary Fettis/Set Decorator
Into the Woods – Dennis Gassner/Production Designer, Anna Pinnock/Set Decorator
Snowpiercer – Ondrej Nekvasil/Production Designer, Beatrice Brentnerova/Set Decorator

Birdman – Douglas Crise, Stephen Mirrione
Boyhood – Sandra Adair
Gone Girl – Kirk Baxter
Interstellar – Lee Smith
Whiplash – Tom Cross

The Grand Budapest Hotel – Milena Canonero
Inherent Vice – Mark Bridges
Into the Woods – Colleen Atwood
Maleficent – Anna B. Sheppard
Mr. Turner – Jacqueline Durran

Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Into the Woods

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Edge of Tomorrow
Guardians of the Galaxy
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

Big Hero 6
The Book of Life
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
The Lego Movie

American Sniper
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Edge of Tomorrow
Guardians of the Galaxy

Bradley Cooper – American Sniper
Tom Cruise – Edge of Tomorrow
Chris Evans – Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Brad Pitt – Fury
Chris Pratt – Guardians of the Galaxy

Emily Blunt – Edge of Tomorrow
Scarlett Johansson – Lucy
Jennifer Lawrence – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
Zoe Saldana – Guardians of the Galaxy
Shailene Woodley – Divergent

The Grand Budapest Hotel
St. Vincent
Top Five
22 Jump Street

Jon Favreau – Chef
Ralph Fiennes – The Grand Budapest Hotel
Michael Keaton – Birdman
Bill Murray – St. Vincent
Chris Rock – Top Five
Channing Tatum – 22 Jump Street

Rose Byrne – Neighbors
Rosario Dawson – Top Five
Melissa McCarthy – St. Vincent
Jenny Slate – Obvious Child
Kristen Wiig – The Skeleton Twins

The Babadook
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Under the Skin

Force Majeure
Two Days, One Night
Wild Tales

Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Last Days in Vietnam
Life Itself
The Overnighters

Big Eyes – Lana Del Rey – Big Eyes
Everything Is Awesome – Jo Li and the Lonely Island – The Lego Movie
Glory – Common/John Legend – Selma
Lost Stars – Keira Knightley – Begin Again
Yellow Flicker Beat – Lorde – The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1

Alexandre Desplat – The Imitation Game
Johann Johannsson – The Theory of Everything
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross – Gone Girl
Antonio Sanchez – Birdman
Hans Zimmer – Interstellar

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Escaping bondage -- with help

Ridley Scott directs, Christian Bale plays Moses and the Hebrews flee.
If I were able to talk to Ridley Scott, who directed Exodus: Gods and Kings -- a 3-D rendering of one of the best-known Bible stories -- I'd ask him what on Earth (or under the heavens) attracted him to the material.

It's a question the movie itself never entirely answers.

Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments combined gaudy spectacle with an Americanized freedom agenda as the benighted children of Israel -- with a snarling Edward G. Robinson in tow -- fled 400 years of bondage in Egypt.

Scott downplays the story's religious/spiritual aspects, but doesn't find enough by way of replacement. I'm no literalist when it comes to Bible stories so I have no problem with an artist using the Bible's rich and venerable stories as a springboard for an interpretive statement.

But in skipping some of the key ingredients of the story -- serial confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh, for example -- Scott not only makes an interpretive choice: He abandons some of the story's most fertile dramatic ground.

Gods and Kings makes masterful use of CGI to create great battles (Egyptians vs. Hittites), the fabled plagues -- frogs, boils, rivers turned to blood, etc. -- and, of course, the parting of the Red Sea. It would be shocking if a 21st Century filmmaker couldn't outdo DeMille in the effects department. Scott clearly does.

But then there's the rest of the movie ....

I suppose the movie's most controversial element involves Scott's depiction of God, the prime mover in the Exodus narrative. Turns out that Moses sees God as a shepherd boy (Isaac Andrews) with a close-cropped hair, a British accent and a confrontational attitude.

This vision -- it should be noted -- may be a hallucination, an image resulting from a rock slide that beans Moses and leaves him buried under a ton of mud.

Hallucination or not, the relationship between God and Moses sometimes gets testy. They argue about such details as whether God has gone too far over the top with the plagues, particularly the final one which takes the lives of the first born of all the Egyptians, including Pharaoh's son.

Are we supposed to find irony in the fact that mighty Pharaoh is undone by a child whose voice has yet to change?

Then there's Moses himself. Poor Christian Bale. Any actor who tackles this kind of iconic role must pit himself against the cumulative weight of centuries of western art and kitsch -- from Michelangelo to Charlton Heston.

Bale opts for a contemporary interpretation, aided by language in a script by a quartet of credited writers (Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian) that does its best to avoid any trace of poetry. The movie treats Moses as a warrior/general and early action hero.

Moses's greatest internal struggle seems to revolve around his initial inability to accept his ethnic origins as a Hebrew, but even that conflict lacks much by way of urgency.

Joel Edgerton plays the movie's other key figure: Ramses. With a bulbous shaved head, Edgerton more resembles Kojack than a king.

Perhaps in an effort to give Ramses a bit of shading, he's presented as a cruel man, but one who loves his son and who sometimes seems confounded, particularly when his own priests and priestesses are unable to stem the tide of so many vicious plagues.

What's a Pharaoh to do? Grumble and, on at least one occasion, play with his pet snakes.

The rest of the cast largely is reduced to non-entity status. That would include Aaron Paul as Joshua, and Andrew Tarbet as Aaron, key figures in the story who are reduced to ... well ... almost nothing.

John Turturro makes an interesting Seti, Rhamses's father, a god/king who prefers Moses to his own son. Blink and you'll miss Sigourney Weaver as Seti's duplicitous wife.

Ben Kingsley makes a bit of an impression as Nun, a wise old Hebrew slave who knows Moses's true identity.

The always interesting Ben Mendelsohn brings a seamy twist to the role of Hegep, a conniving Egyptian who exposes Moses as a Hebrew, the development that pushes Moses into exile where he meets his wife (Maria Valverde), a woman made to look like a Bedouin princess.

Beset by structural flaws, including a tendency not to build toward the story's key events, Scott's Exodus shortchanges both the spiritual and political relevancies of a story that still resonates on many levels. The movie doesn't exactly break new ground as an action/adventure, either.

Most memorable shot: An upward look at the corpses of Egyptian soldiers floating in the Red Sea after the Hebrews have reached safety.

So what are we left with? At times, Moses seems like an actor who can't quite find a center for his portrayal -- or maybe that's Bale. Ramses can come off as a bit of a schlub, and God seems like a cosmic spoilsport.

When Moses reunites with his wife after his Egyptian exploits, she quite reasonably asks about the throngs who are traveling with him.

Who are they?

My people, says Moses, demonstrating that he finally has accepted his true identity.

What else to say but, "Mazel tov, Moses." Or maybe, where's Mel Brooks when we need him?

Chris Rock on the streets of New York

In Top Five, a talented comedian finds a movie that he truly makes his own.
Chris Rock comes close to hitting his stride in Top Five, a new comedy about an alcoholic comedian who's trying to establish himself as a serious actor.

In his third directorial effort after I Think I Love My Wife (2007) and Head of State (2003), Rock finally finds a vehicle that brings some of the smarts, raunch, social insight and bravado of his stand-up routines to the big screen, along with enough vulnerability to protect him from accusations of undue vanity.

In this outing, Rock -- who directed and wrote the screenplay -- portrays Andre Allen, a stand-up comic who finds a niche (and an enlarged bank account) in Hollywood playing a character called Hammy the Bear, a cop in a bear suit who mows down criminals with his automatic weapon.

The Hammy movies are enormously popular, but Allen's sick of making them. That's why he ignores the advice of his agent (Kevin Hart) and pushes himself into a new arena with a serious movie called Uprizing!, the story of a 1791 Haitian slave revolt. The poster features a bearded Allen brandishing a machete.

Of course, Uprizing! is on track to bomb, thus thwarting Allen's attempts at reinvention.

Rock's screenplay mostly follows Allen around New York City as he meets with a variety of indignities on his film's opening day. Rock doesn't miss the opportunity to take a few nicely placed shots at movie-biz hype -- an easy but ever-ripe target.

Rock's character's last name is Allen, and his fans want him to return to his funny stuff. Sound like anyone you can think of? Allen spends a fair amount of time walking and talking in Manhattan, but the humor and tone of Top Five is light years away from Woody Allen, who never got down and, yes, dirty the way Rock can.

A fair amount of the movie's humor tends toward the raunchy and ribald, notably a bit in which a Houston hustler (Cedrick the Entertainer) introduces a visiting Allen to couple of hookers. The encounter devolves into what Allen describes as the low point that finally got him off the sauce.

I won't give away any of the other gags, but there's an amusing bit that suggests an even better movie, one that's more conversational than crude. Visiting the Brooklyn neighborhood that spawned him, Allen meets up with Tracy Morgan and a variety of others who create the riffs that give the movie its title. They're trying to name the top five hip hop artists.

Rock builds his slender story around a running bit: A New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson) wants to write a profile about Allen, who hates the Times for having panned all of his movies. Pressured by his manager, Allen reluctantly agrees.

Rock and Dawson generate sparks of antagonism and potential romance that suggest something more than a reporter/source relationship with Dawson matching Rock step-for-step.

Did I mention Allen's engaged? Gabrielle Union orbits the New York story: She's in LA, a blatant striver who has arranged to marry Allen as part of a reality show to be aired on Bravo.

Draw your own conclusions about the hot sauce gag, which is better discovered in theaters. Many will regard it as a comic high point. I didn't.

But rapper DMX singing his version of Smile made up it.

There's also a moment in which Allen finds himself in a choke hold administered by a New York Cop, an unintended evocation of recent events.

Don't look for a structural masterpiece: Rock builds his loose-limbed comedy around a variety of bits with a few serious moments added to make Allen's struggle with alcohol and desperation more plausible.

Although Rock appears in nearly every scene, he bolsters the movie with lively cameos from Kevin Hart, JB Smove, Whoopi Goldberg, Adam Sandler and Jerry Seinfeld.

Judging by the movie's cameos and by its ending, it's safe to say that Rock has a deep respect and love for stand-up and the people who do it.

It's tempting to wonder where Rock's movie career goes from here. Like his main character, Rock might be most comfortable with an audience in front of him and a mike in his hand.

In that environment, he's sharp, smart, savvy about pop culture, and unworried about giving offense. He's a comic with honesty and conviction, and in Top Five, he frequently comes across that way.

Brief looks at two worthy docs

In wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion
Director Margaret Brown's The Great Invisible skillfully details the lingering impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion that killed 11 men and pumped 176 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico. Brown's documentary makes it clear that profits trumped safety concerns on the massive rig. The film also introduces us to a variety of people who were devastated by the explosion: a father who lost a son, fishermen who've lost their livelihoods and a chief engineer whose life has been shattered. It's interesting to hear from Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who ran the BP Deepwater Horizon Disaster Victim Compensation Fund. He doesn't come off as an ogre. And, of course, Brown touches on our unwavering commitment to fossil fuels as part of the problem. The Great Invisible covers lots of ground, mixing tough issues with a variety of personal views that do justice to the human side of a story that brought out the best in some people, most notably a selfless church volunteer who distributed food to those in need.

A documentary about living and working in Antarctica

The best reason to see director Anthony Powell's Antarctica: A Year on Ice involves some of the spectacular sights Powell captures: mysterious skies illuminated by the southern lights, glacial-looking landscapes and the perpetual, starry nights of a long winter. Powell also takes a look the daily lives of the people who work in this forbidding world, the several thousand who arrive for summer research and the 700 or so brave souls who stay for the winter. We meet the people who keep McMurdo Station, where the U.S. conducts research, in shape; they're folks who bring a work-a-day attitude to their unusual surroundings. Thanks to Powell, who met and married his wife at McMurdo, you don't have to test yourself against the Antarctic elements. Or if for some reason, you feel the need -- you'll know a lot about what you're letting yourself in for after seeing A Year On Ice.

Looking for renewal in the wilds

Reese Witherspoon carries Wild across the finish line.
Mired in a downward spiral that included drugs and promiscuity, Cheryl Strayed avoided the obvious. Rather than following the customary 12-step path to recovery, she took many thousands of steps.

In an attempt to quiet her demons, Strayed embarked on a 1,000-mile solo trek on the exceedingly difficult Pacific Crest Trail, which runs through California, Oregon and Washington.

To hike the Pacific Crest, one must adjust to sea-level altitudes, as well as to heights of more 13,000 feet -- not to mention the threat of snakes, wildlife, wild swings in weather (heat and snow) and scary isolation.

The resulting trek, which Strayed made in 1995, transformed her life and led to the publication of Wild, a best-selling 2012 memoir about her shattered life and restorative wilderness journey.

Actress Reese Witherspoon joins with director Jean-Marc Vallee (The Dallas Buyers Club) to bring Strayed's story to the screen, presenting Strayed's inner and outer journeys -- both of which resound with hardship.

The resultant movie allows Witherspoon to seize an opportunity to appear sans make-up and, at times, without psychological defenses. She's certainly up to the challenge.

Because Strayed traveled alone, her story has been taken as a statement of feminist triumph. Strayed entered a male domain and proved that she could survive the arduous hardships of the trail. Viewed that way, the story acquires additional heft.

Although not without its tensions, Strayed's wilderness adventure is presented in straightforward fashion. She began with a ridiculously heavy backpack and boots that were too small. Gradually, she learned how to keep herself going.

Strayed met men along the way, and Vallee treats most of these meetings as friendly and helpful, although one proves potentially threatening, something along Deliverance lines.

Strayed's plunge into a wanton life began with the death of her 45-year-old mother (Laura Dern) from cancer. That blow was followed by estrangement from her husband (Thomas Sadowski), who made several futile attempts to rescue her from self-imposed degradation.

Vallee chooses to deal with Strayed's torments by replicated the way our minds tend to be flooded by unwanted thoughts. It's a valid approach, but the movie's many flashbacks don't always work, perhaps because they often feel abrupt and fragmentary, as if they've been shot out of a cannon.

As Strayed hikes, she's constantly confronting images of sexual abandon and heroin addiction. She also recalls happy times with her loving mother (Laura Dern), a woman who had a bad track record with men. We learn about Strayed's relationship with a younger brother, who had his own difficulties accepting his mother's death.

British novelist and screenwriter Nick Hornby (About a Boy and An Education) seems to dispense with a third act. The hike ends, Strayed tells us that everything in her life (good and bad) may have been necessary for her to reach the purifying moment with which the film concludes.

That's a triumphant ending on the page; somehow -- or so it seemed to me -- it didn't seem quite so moving on screen.

When Strayed finally has her big emotional catharsis, she drops to her knees and weeps after an unexpected encounter with a boy and his grandmother. Vallee shoots this scene from behind Witherspoon. We see only her back and that ever-present backpack, prominent though reduced in size from the movie's early going.

Something about that image didn't feel right to me. I don't know exactly what I wanted so see at that precise moment, but it sure wasn't that damn backpack.

Still, Witherspoon's performance, the range of scenery captured by cinematographer's Yves Belanger's camera and the amazing fact of the story -- a brave soul with no-previous experience conquered the Pacific Crest trail on her own -- prove sufficient fuel to keep the movie marching forward.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Learning jazz from a master

Keep on Keepin' On is one of the year's most affecting documentaries.
Movies that buoy the spirit without insulting our intelligence aren't easy to come by. That's part of the reason why Keep on Keepin' On proves so special. This documentary about the relationship between jazz great Clark Terry and a young blind pianist stands out as one of the year's most affecting movies.

At last, a movie that's inspiring without drowning us in the gooey sap of sentiment, a story that reminds us of the importance of mentorship in developing talent and of the nourishing powers of friendship.

As jazz fans know, Terry is recognized as one of the world's great trumpet players, having plied his trade with Count Basie and Duke Ellington. No less a light than Miles Davis paid homage to Tracy.

Terry also became the first African-American musician to work with the National Broadcasting Company orchestra, famed as the Tonight Show band under Johnny Carson.

Although the movie scans Terry's career, its real subject is Terry's relationship with budding jazz pianist, Justin Kauflin, who was 23 when filming began.

Terry offers Kauflin advice and wisdom when the young man visits Terry's Arkansas home. Terry instructs Kauflin about how to play a variety of musical licks, often scat singing them for his eager protege. He encourages Kauflin to find his own voice.

Terry, who'll be 94 later this month, is not in the best of health. He has lost both legs to diabetes, and has begun to lose his eyesight, as well.

Yet, throughout the filming, his spirit remains undiminished. Even during a hospital visit, Kauflin receives instruction from Terry. The two always seem to talk well past midnight, neither being eager to end their encounters.

First-time Australian director Alan Hicks, who's also a drummer and a student of Terry's, has hold of a story with a strong emotional core. Wisely, his film never loses touch with it.

The story, of course, has its low points. A jittery Kauflin suffers from stage fright. He loses an important jazz competition. And, yes, it's painful to watch Terry's health -- frail at the outset -- deteriorate ever further.

Keep on Keepin' On includes an appearance by Quincy Jones, who credits Terry with having given him his start. A reunion between Jones and Terry is expectedly touching, but, then, so is almost everything in this engaging documentary.

It's worth knowing that Keep on Keepin' On has some serious Colorado connections. It was edited by Denverite Davis Coombe, who also received credit for the movie's screenplay, and produced by Paula DuPre Pesmen, who resides in Boulder.

Both Davis and Pesmen have serious credentials, Coombe having edited many of director Daniel Junge's films -- including the Oscar-winning documentary short Saving Face -- and Pesmen having worked on several Harry Potter movies, as well as important documentaries such as The Cove and Chasing Ice.

Equally important: Keep on Keepin'On last week made Oscar's short-list for documentaries, 15 films from which five final nominees will be selected. Look for an announcement on Jan. 15.

But when I tell you that I was moved by Keep on Keepin' On, it's not because I feel compelled to support the home team or because I'm overly impressed by possible Academy Award nominations. It's because I'm grateful to these filmmakers for having given us the opportunity to hang out with Terry and Kauflin, two men who go a long way toward proving that when it comes to music, there's no such thing as an odd couple.