Into the Woods

December 25, 2014 by  
Filed under Kiko, Reviews

Starring: Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine
Directed by: Rob Marshall (“Chicago”)
Written by: James Lapine (debut)

With this musical fantasy, director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) probably has the goose that lays the golden egg when it comes to the box office this holiday season, but it’s hard to come up with a substantial reason to visit this mishmash of classic fairytale characters (Cinderella, Rapunzel, etc.). Adapted from James Lapine and Stephen Sondeim’s Tony Award-winning Broadway play of the same name, “Into the Woods” is a misfire on almost every level (this coming from someone who knows his fair share of kitschy show tunes).

In the film, Marshall along with Lapine, who penned the screenplay based on his own book, focus the story on a nameless baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt). Unable to have children, the couple turns to a nameless witch (Meryl Streep) who promises them a child if they go on a mission for her (think the Wizard of Oz asking Dorothy to procure the Wicked Witch of the West’s broomstick, except not nearly as interesting). Their assignment: to bring to her a “cow as white as milk,” which belongs to Jack from the Jack and the Beanstalk tale; a “cape as red as blood,” which belongs to Little Red Riding Hood; “hair as yellow as corn,” which belongs to Rapunzel; and a “slipper as pure as gold,” which belongs to Cinderella.

What comes out the other end is an awkward mess of a narrative with a tone that goes from playful family-friendly fare to a story about death and deception all wrapped up in collection of Broadway tunes that – with the exception of the title song – are far from memorable. Sure, some of the Grimm Brother’s stories get closer to their original text, but Disney seem to be trying to have their cake and eat it, too, by attempting to cater to the kiddos in some scenes and then flipping a switch. For example, cutting off the heels and toes of Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters when they try to fit into her shoe probably isn’t what most five year old children remember happening in the classic 1950 animated movie. Happy-go-lucky mice, yes. Self mutilation, not so much.

When Johnny Depp comes out in full Johnny Depp mode (he’s wearing wolf whiskers and singing about “plump pink flesh” while salivating over Little Red Riding Hood), audiences will wonder who this film is actually for. Fans of the stage play might have an invested interest, but with the exception of a few technical achievements (art direction, costume design and make-up), this isn’t a musical with anything to say (much less sing).

The Giver

August 15, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Brenton Thwaites
Directed by: Phillip Noyce (“Salt”)
Written by: Michael Mitnick (debut) and Robert B. Weide (“How to Lose Friends and Alienate People”)

As we become more and more removed from our days in the classroom, the passage of time withers away and degrades our sense of detail and we’re left with general remembrances of our learning experiences. A dozen years ago in 7th grade, I read the dystopian young adult novel “The Giver.” I can recall enjoying the book, but reflecting back on my days in middle school and especially walking into the theater to see the film adaptation, I remember nothing about the plot or content. I can only hope that the movie is just as easily forgettable.

In a seemingly utopian society, everyone is given pre-determined jobs and their place within a family. Unbeknownst to the citizens, they also live in a society without feelings, emotions, or even color. The only connection to the previous world is a man known as “The Giver” (Jeff Bridges), who has memories of life in the past. As he is on the precipice of becoming an adult, 16-year-old Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is selected to be “The Receiver” and have the memories transferred to him. But when what starts out as discovering a whole new life turns into something different as Jonas discovers the darker parts of society he decides that everyone needs to know.

Suspension of disbelief is one thing, but in order to buy into “The Giver,” you have to ignore a plethora of absurd plot holes, most of them big enough to ride a standard issue futuristic-looking bike through. Details about climate, injections, and a general sense of how the citizens are stifled are completely murky and hard to follow.

The citizens of this buttoned-down and manipulated community are meant to be lacking in feelings and emotions, which gives it some leeway in the sense of almost vacant performances. The problem is, the line delivery in “The Giver” is so bad that one might think that the teenagers in the film accidentally stumbled onto the set after filming an infomercial. Equal blame should be put on the screenwriters whose pedestrian and simple screenplay contains a lot of dialogue in the form of questions in a way that would make Alex Trebek proud. It’s extremely difficult to keep a straight face as a character, with complete seriousness and no irony poorly delivers the line “what is love?”

The character design is also particularly awful. Thwaites as a lead has nearly negative charisma and if you’re going to introduce a character as the funny guy who could always make everyone laugh, you might want to have him say something remotely funny a minimum of once in the film, or at least make him more personable than a bag of hammers. Bridges and Meryl Streep are pretty much the only members of the cast who show any semblance of acting, though they seem generally disinterested throughout.

Loyalties to the source material aside, the premise is only mildly intriguing, with exactly one truly interesting plot line and image that is quickly done away with and wasted. Everything else feels completely trite, as director Philip Noyce searches to find deeper meaning and a way to tap into emotions and finds nothing. The one saving grace of “The Giver” is that at times it is so bad that you can have some laughs at its expense. Whether it is faithful to the book or not seems to be a moot point as “The Giver” is a completely unmemorable slog with no personality, no interesting characters, and no real reason to exist.

Floyd Norman – The Jungle Book (Diam. Ed.)

February 14, 2014 by  
Filed under Interviews

He might not have considered himself a trailblazer in the film industry when he first took a job as an animator at Walt Disney in the 1950s, thus becoming one of the first African Americans hired to work at the studio, but no matter how you look at it, Floyd Norman has paved the way for many of his successors over the last five decades.

In celebration of the recent release of the Diamond Edition of the 1967 Disney film “The Jungle Book,” a film Norman helped animate, the now 79-year-old artist took some time with me to talk about working at Disney studios and why he never gave a second thought about being one of the very few African American animators employed there. He also talked about collaborating with Bill Cosby on the cartoon special “Fat Albert” and commented on accusations that have sprung up again about his former boss Walt Disney being a racist.

“The Jungle Book” Diamond Edition is currently available everywhere.

Did you have a sense you were doing something groundbreaking in the animation industry when you were hired by Disney or was it just a job you loved doing?

When I first came to Disney [Studios], I never thought of myself as a member of any particular group. I came here as an artist applying for a job. I never saw myself as a trailblazer or breaking ground. I was just another kid looking for a job.

You were born two years before Disney released its first feature, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” What Disney films from your childhood do you remember making the biggest impression on you?

I think the first film my mother ever took me to was Walt Disney’s “Dumbo.” I saw it at the Fox Theater in Santa Barbara. That film was probably the one that stayed with me for the longest time. I remember seeing the opening sequence with the storks carrying the baby circus animals. I remember one of the storks was voiced by Sterling Holloway. It was weird because years later, I got to work with Sterling Holloway on “The Jungle Book.” (Holloway voiced Kaa, the snake, in “The Jungle Book”).

When you revisit something like “The Jungle Book” again, does it feel the same as the first time you saw it back in 1967?

Not really. I watched the film in 1967 and didn’t watch it again until 20 years later. Then I saw the film fairly recently. As more and more time passes, it’s almost as though somebody else made this film and I’m just another viewer. I have to sometimes remind myself that I worked on the movie. It’s been so long ago. It’s funny how you look at things. It’s strange that so many years have gone by.

Your first job as an animator was working on the “Archie” comic book series. I saw that the first African American character in that specific series wasn’t created until 1971. His name was Chuck Clayton. This was around the same time the show “Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids” debut on TV. Were you conscious during this time that the animation landscape was changing with more characters of color being created?

When I was creating cartoon characters, I never gave any thought to their color. They were just another cartoon character. In the 1960, I did work with Bill Cosby in developing characters for “Fat Albert.” That was the one time when we were focused on characters of color. But ordinarily I really didn’t think about that. When I was working on “Archie,” I was just working on a comic book. They were just funny and interesting characters.

But I’m assuming it had to be a little different working with Bill Cosby on “Fat Albert” and having a sense that creating a cartoon like that was something completely different than anything done before. I mean, specifically creating African American characters was the focus, right?

Yes, but I was only thinking in terms of a cartoonist and an entertainer. I really didn’t think about it in social terms like we were breaking new ground or doing anything special. We were just creating entertainment. That’s how I’ve felt about all of my jobs. At Disney, it was the same way. I know people over the years have wondered why we haven’t had more characters of color, but that’s been changing in recent years. Things do change over time.

Looking back over your career as an animator, what do you miss the most about the way things were done? Do you think we’ve lost some of the magic in animation with technology taking over as much as it has in the last 20 years?

Well, there’s no doubt technology has impacted animation in a very real way, but not necessarily in a bad way. I think what we’re doing today is quite remarkable. I recently saw the Disney film “Frozen,” which is stunning visually. Now, of course, things have changed since the early days when we made everything by hand. Back then it was artists drawing with pencils on paper. So, in a sense, the work felt more intimate. Maybe we’ve lost a little bit of that today with the use of technology, but I still think our films resonate with audiences. I think the Disney magic is still there. I think the heart and the warmth is still present in the films. Although we’re using new tools and new techniques, I think the magic still comes across.

Are you a doodler?

(Laughs) I do that all the time. I think all cartoonists are natural doodlers. Sometimes our doodles end up as a motion picture. We’re continually testing and trying new ideas with new characters and new situations. That’s something that any animation creator is always doing. It’s part of our DNA.

This is a bit of a touchy subject, but over the last few weeks a lot has come out about Walt Disney himself and whether or not he was racist. Actress Meryl Streep made mention of it at an awards show recently as did Disney’s grandniece. What was the environment like at Disney Studios back in the 50s when it came to race and the animators that worked there?

I never gave it much thought because it was never a problem. I think a problem has been created where none existed. We were a bunch of artists. We were writers, artists, dancers, actors. Our main thing was the art. Everybody got along just fine. The issue of color or race never came up. We were just trying to create entertainment. We’ve addressed these accusations time and time again, but they continue to resurface, unfortunately. Walt Disney was certainly one of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for. He was a man who treated everyone equally and fairly. I can’t think of a better boss that any artist could have had. So, I refute any of those accusations. I worked for Walt and was with him in many story meetings over a 10 year period. He was a man that I can speak highly of. He was a great boss, leader and inspiration.

I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of Neal Gabler’s 2009 biography on Walt Disney. It’s called “The Triumph of the American Imagination.”

Yes, I have.

Well, in the book, Gabler says Disney was not racist but he was “racially insensitive like most white Americans of his generation.” Does that, maybe, fit a bit better when looking back? Could that be the reason people think he was racist?

Well, I think that’s Neal opinion. (Laughs) Every author is entitled to their opinion. But that was not the Walt Disney I experienced. I did not work for a man who I thought was racially insensitive at all. I worked for a man who was extremely demanding. He was a tough boss, but he was tough on everybody. It didn’t matter who you were. Walt was a tough guy. But that’s why he got the best work out of his staff. Racially insensitive? I would say no such thing existed. Certainly I didn’t see it.

Did you get a chance to see “Saving Mr. Banks” with Tom Hanks playing Disney? What did you think?

This was the first film where I can recall Walt being such a central character. I felt Mr. Hanks did a terrific job of portraying the Walt Disney I knew. I was lucky enough to be on the set with Tom Hanks as the film was being shot last year and to be able to pass on a few pointers to a really great actor, who really didn’t need my coaching. But at least I was able to provide some insight on what it was like working with the old maestro – his manner and how he behaved and his optimism and enthusiasm. I was happy to be there with Tom and to pass that along to him. I loved the film. I think it’s a great film. I think Tom Hanks and Emma Thompson gave fantastic performances. I was delighted when I saw the finished film.

I’ve probably been living under a rock, but I recently learned about the similarities in scenes from “The Jungle Book” and “Robin Hood.” There are videos on YouTube that show how some scenes from “Robin Hood” are lifted straight out of “The Jungle Book” and other Disney films. Can you speak about that a bit? How did that happen?

(Laughs) I know what you’re talking about. I think there are a lot of Disney fans out there who know that as well. Our director [on “Robin Hood’], Wolfgang Reitherman, for some reason, loved to go back into the archives and find animation that had been done before and recycle it. This was just a quirk of our director.

So, was it simply to pay homage to past Disney films? Did he love “The Jungle Book” so much that he wanted it to be a part of his film?

That’s interesting. I’ve never thought about it in that way before. Some people say it was to save money, but it wasn’t. In many cases, finding those old scenes and trying to modify them would’ve cost more money. It would’ve been cheaper to animate it from scratch. I don’t know exactly why he wanted to do it. It wasn’t about cost savings. It was just the director’s taste. Yeah, we heard a fair amount of complaints about the reuse of material, but it’s just what our directed wanted to do.

August: Osage County

January 10, 2014 by  
Filed under Cody, Reviews

Starring: Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Juliette Lewis
Directed by: John Wells (“The Company Men”)
Written by: Tracy Letts (“Killer Joe”)

After coming out with one of the most twisted films of last year, an adaptation of his own play, “Killer Joe,” playwright and screenwriter Tracey Letts might have hit the limit of how depraved his material really can get. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still toy around with some dark themes. Making use of a cast of acting veterans and Oscar nominees/winners, Letts pens another Southern-skewed darkly comedic drama, “August: Osage County.”

When the patriarch of a family goes missing, a dysfunctional and estranged family comes together in the house they grew up in. At the center is a mother, Violet (Meryl Streep) and her three daughters. With the stress stemming from a missing patriarch, Violet’s pill addiction and some heavy family tension, the Weston house becomes a place of utter chaos.

As an adaptation of a play, obvious attention is paid to the screenplay. Though it certainly has some sharp, witty dialogue, it is also deeply flawed with an insistence on big, loud, theatrical confrontations. Even though some of them are legitimately interesting and well-performed, the design of jam-packing melodramatic moments around every corner is taxing and leads to a few instances of perceived overacting, most of which is at the hands of Streep. She’s constantly spewing big, dramatic monologues with a thick, put-on accent, though this might be more of a character design flaw than anything else. This isn’t to say it’s a bad performance. All things considered, Streep is good in the role as the foul-mouthed and inappropriate Violet. She is, however, overshadowed by Julia Roberts who is fantastic in the best role she’s had in years.

In fact, many of the performances are mostly strong as director John Wells gets solid turns from such actors as Margo Martindale, Chris Cooper and Juliette Lewis, to name a few. It’s a shame that the structure of packing so many over-the-top dramatic moments makes the film become exhausting to watch at times. Still, “August: Osage County” gets by based on the strength of its acting, especially Roberts.

The Iron Lady

January 14, 2012 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Alexandra Roach
Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”)
Written by: Abi Morgan (“Shame”)

Call it Oscar grubbing if you want, but it’s not Meryl Streep’s fault that she’s so damn talented. Well, technically, it kind of is.

Still, when it was announced Streep would play former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a film that would cover the British politician’s life and career, it was almost guaranteed she would be a shoe-in for a record 17th Academy Award nomination unless something disastrous happened along the way. As Streep performances go, you can’t do much better than what she does with “The Iron Lady.” As biopics go, however, the film feels like someone is giving a history lesson using a set of sketchy CliffsNotes. While it certainly has the opportunity to be an inspirational take on one woman’s groundbreaking contribution to a nation, it instead transforms Thatcher into a tragic character with limited emotional trajectory.

While Streep’s presence makes a deep impression on the acting front, Thatcher’s does not from a narrative aspect. Like Leonardo DiCaprio in “J. Edgar” earlier this awards season, the mammoth-sized lead role overshadows what turns out to be a well-intended and compassionate — but ultimately misguided and uninspired — reflection on such an influential individual. Constructed through flashbacks, some of which come from the frail mind of Thatcher (who is introduced to audiences as a senile old lady advised not to leave her house alone anymore), it’s difficult to see why screenwriter Abi Morgan (“Shame”) makes these twilight years the base of the script. Thatcher constantly forgets she is no longer prime minister and hallucinates that her deceased husband Denis (Jim Broadbent) is not only alive and well but just as charming as he was when she first met him after graduating from Oxford. Alexandra Roach plays the young, opinionated Thatcher to a tee.

As the story continues through Thatcher’s rise through Parliament from Education Secretary to Leader of the Opposition, director Phyllida Lloyd (“Mamma Mia!”) and Morgan are not able to grasp the larger-than-life events and concepts that mark Thatcher’s legacy. Reference to the Falklands War in 1982 is reduced to stock footage and a couple of scenes featuring Thatcher in a war room possibly playing Stratego.

Despite the flaws in the script, Streep, as in her performance as Julia Child in 2009’s “Julie & Julia,” immerses herself inside her character with attention paid to the faintest of details. It’s scary how deeply Streep melds into Thatcher. Unfortunately, she’s really the only major asset here.

It’s Complicated

December 24, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, Steve Martin
Directed by: Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”)
Written by: Nancy Meyers (“Something’s Gotta Give”)

It may be hard to relate to any of the confounded characters in Nancy Meyers’ new grown-up romantic comedy “It’s Complicated” unless divorce is a favorite pastime of yours, but the director/writer behind such recent films as “Something’s Gotta Give” and “The Holiday” has sure got a flair for charming spectacles. It works perfectly with characters that ought to know better when it comes to the complexities of love.

With veterans Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin springing into action, there are plenty of hearty laughs that will resonate most with mature audiences who might describe Judd Apatow comedies as juvenile.

In the film, Streep plays Jane, a bakery owner whose 10-year-long divorce to Jake (Baldwin) has come full circle and entered a very awkward stage. As she says goodbye to her youngest child who is going off to college, Jane decides to secretly revisit her defunct relationship with her ex-husband even after he left her for a younger woman (Lake Bell).

Family life isn’t going too well for Jake. Jane is perfectly situated to be the cozy option to turn to when he needs an escape. Jane, however, isn’t playing the  dependant or revenge-seeking divorcee waiting by the phone for her lover’s call. Instead, she realizes the role she has taken when becoming “the other woman” and embraces it as an extracurricular activity she deserves to partake in.

But when Jane’s home contractor Adam (Martin) beings to drop hints that he is interested in her, her confusing relationship with her ex becomes more of a risk than a enjoyable throwback to old times especially when he starts falling in love with her all over again.

Much of “It’s Complicated” should not work as well as it does with all the broad strokes Meyers has given us in her witty script. For every classic rom com scenario that plays like a French bedroom farce there’s hints of cushiness that makes the film tightrope a fine line between episodic gags and what Meyers really wants.

At the end, however, these characters are so likeable; from Baldwin and his scene-stealing smile to Streep’s  unfettered happiness to even Martin’s slightly-underwritten third-wheel nice guy, Meyers has it all under control and doesn’t let it get, well, too complicated.  It’s like a buffet of comfort food. While you can overstuff yourself quite a bit, there always seems to be enough room for a few more guilt-free nibbles.

Fantastic Mr. Fox

November 27, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Jason Schwartzman
Directed by: Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”)
Written by: Wes Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”)

If it wasn’t for Spike Jonze and his beautifully somber retelling of “Where the Wild Things Are,” Wes Anderson would be the leading vote-getter this year as the director with the most imagination for his whimsical and detail-oriented animation “Fantastic Mr. Fox.” Look behind you Pixar; this is a sly one.

Based on the classic Roald Dahl children’s book of the same name, which was published in 1970, Oscar-winner George Clooney (“Syriana”) lends his voice to Mr. Fox, a risk-taking carnivorous and clever newspaper columnist who promises his wife Mrs. Fox (two-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep) that he will find another line of work after they are both caught stealing chickens.

Twelve years later, Fox is a family man with a son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), who he really can’t bond with, and a craving to return to his animalistic nature and go on another heist after a long hiatus. Call it a mid-life crisis, but Fox needs an adrenaline rush again. “I’m a wild animal,” is the reason he gives his better half when she finds out he and his loyal friend Kylie (Wallace Wolodarsky), an easily- influenced opossum, are scheming to steal from Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, three of the meanest farmers this side of the woods.

But while Fox is off jumping fences and getting ready for their “triple-header master plan,” Ash is left to fend with his own insecure teenage problems. His lack of self-confidence is magnified when his much more talented cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) comes for a visit and is immediately accepted by Fox as a member of his chicken- thieving crew.

Boggis, Bunce, and Bean, however, aren’t going to let one sly little fox outsmart them. Armed with dynamite, bulldozers, and rabid beagles, they go on a full assault against Fox and his family, who inhabit a tree across the field from where the farms sit. The farmers push them farther and farther into the terrain and force them to make an intricate series of paths to stay alive.

Masterfully crafted in a screenplay penned by Anderson (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) and Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale”), much of the writing duo’s snarky and sardonic dialogue works charmingly well coming from the mouths of fuzzy creatures who wear corduroy jackets and bandit hats and dance as silly as the Peanuts gang. There’s even a witty ongoing gag throughout the film where Anderson and Baumbach replace any expletives they would have used in one of their grown-up films with the word “cuss.”

Driven by old-fashioned stop motion animation, the style of “Fantastic Mr. Fox” looks like nothing you’ve seen in the past few years. It’s a handmade work-of-art with a wonderfully eccentric and heartfelt message about fathers and sons and what it really means to be “fantastic” when you’re just so different from everyone else. If Anderson has proven anything in his 15-year career, that would be the perfect sentiment.

Julie & Julia

August 6, 2009 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci
Directed by: Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”)
Written by: Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”)

Whether you’re a glutton or a light eater, it would be difficult not to enjoy what director Nora Ephron (“Sleepless in Seattle”) serves up in her double-biopic “Julia & Julia.” The film, which stars two-time Academy Award winner Meryl Streep and two-time Academy Award nominee Amy Adams, is as tasty as a French Quiche Lorraine. Who says real men don’t eat it?

In half of the film, Streep plays American chef and French cuisine mastermind Julia Child before she actually knew how to even make an omelet. We watch Streep embody Child while living in Paris in the 40s and 50s and trying to find something to do to keep her busy while her husband (Stanley Tucci) attends to his work as a foreign diplomat.

With a love of French food, Child decides to take French cooking lessons at the culinary arts school Le Cordon Bleu after hobbies like hat making and playing bridge don’t fulfill her needs. There she finds the joy of cooking and proves to her all-male class that a woman has just as much right to run a professional kitchen as a man.
 
Working in harmony with Child’s biography is the story of Julie Powell (Adams), an insurance claims representative who wants more out of life than her monotonous nine to five job. A fan of Child, she, too, has a fascination for food, but doesn’t realize what a fantastic cook she actually is until she challenges herself to a “deranged assignment.”

The goal: to cook all 524 recipes in Child’s first book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” which we also see Child undertake in her portion of the film. Not only will Julie cook boeuf bourguignon and bouillabaisse, she will also update an online blog about her experiences while performing such a demanding feat.

While Julia’s story is much more enjoyable to the cinematic pallet than her counterpart Julie’s sometimes irritable journey, the parallels between these women’s lives are sincere offerings from Ephron. Streep once again proves why she is arguably the best actress of her generation, while Adams’ starry-eyed disposition makes her a perfect choice for Julie. If you can get past her meltdowns and focus on the melting butter in a saucepan instead, “Julie & Julia” is as delicate and satisfying as the caramelized sugar covering of a crème brulee.

Doubt

December 15, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams
Directed by: John Patrick Shanley (“Joe Versus the Volcano”)
Written by: John Patrick Shanley (“Alive”)

Watching two acting heavyweights like Academy-Award winners Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman go head-to-head with material written for the stage can be seriously nerve-wracking. It’s simply impossible to grip onto each word they hiss at each other or catch every glance glared back and forth between them. There are moments in “Doubt” where – as cliché as it sounds – I didn’t want to blink.

It’s different when you use that sentiment with a film like “Doubt,” though. While most people would say they couldn’t tear their eyes away from the screen during a multimillion-dollar special effect, there are no bells and whistles in John Patrick Shanely’s opus. All it is is raw emotion and talent. It’s an actor’s showcase.

Meryl Streep plays Sister Aloysius Beauvier, the principal of a Catholic school in the Bronx in 1964, who accuses one of the priests, Father Brendan Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman), of committing an impious act with a shy black student without any real concrete evidence. Sister Aloysius is an intimidating figure and feels if there is anyone that can get the truth out of Father Flynn, it would be her.

Amy Adams (“Junebug”) plays Sister James, an idealist nun who first takes suspicion to Father Flynn’s behavior toward the student before reporting it to Sister Aloysius. Her nature is not to be untrustworthy, but with Sister Aloysius certainty about what she thinks she knows, there is very little that can be said to change her mind. It’s actress Viola Davis (“Solaris”) who comes the closest to cutting Streep’s Aloysius down to size. She, along with Streep and Hoffman, are shoe-ins for Oscar nominations. (Adams isn’t far behind either).

In “Doubt,” Shanely has created a cinematic paradox. As each of these characters slice each other down, they all reveal their own moral shortcomings. It’s shocking how well a story like this also divulges what kind of thinkers we are. Do we think on impulse and what we know to be true in our own heart or is there always doubt without specific proof? “Doubt” won’t give you the answers you’re looking for, but you’ll be replaying the scenarios through your head long after the curtain falls.

Mamma Mia!

July 5, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried
Directed by: Phyllida Lloyd (debut)
Written by: Catherine Johnson (“Sin Bin”)

The reason musicals like “Moulin Rouge!” and “Chicago” worked so well at the turn of the century was because directors like Baz Luhrmann and Rob Marshall had an eye for something uncommon. If that wasn’t the case, the return of the genre might have led us into Bollywood territory where the entertainment value drops as each new film mirrors the last.

In “Mamma Mia!” director Phyllida Lloyd and screenwriter Catherine Johnson go for a more conventional adaptation of the popular Broadway hit. In its own inconsequential way, the film version is the same spectacle as it is on stage, but with more to survive visually on the big screen.

When Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) uncovers her mother’s old diary, she is ecstatic to find out the book could hold the answer to a question she has been wondering her entire life: Who is my father?

The only problem is, her mother, Donna (Meryl Streep), was somewhat promiscuous during her formative years and slept with three men around the same time. This means, of course, that any one of them could be Sophie’s dad.

Set on inviting her father to her wedding so he can give her away, Sophie decides the most reasonable thing to do would be to invite all three men to the ceremony and sort it out when they arrive.

Although Bill (Stellan Skarsgard), Sam (Pierce Brosnan), and Harry (Colin Firth) have no idea the real reason they have been invited to the Greek island paradise, all three show up much to the chagrin of Donna, who hasn’t seen her ex-lovers in years.

Once you get past the giddiness of it all, “Mamma Mia!” has some high points during the musical interludes like ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” which is so darn catchy you’ll want to hear it again when it’s over. Still, it takes a while to warm up to the characters as they sing and flutter about, especially Pierce Brosnan who seems awkward during most of his vocal work. Then there are also a few misplaced songs and underwritten storylines. Why Winters’ tune is important enough to include in the film is beyond comprehension.

Most of the film’s flaws come from the direction of Lloyd, who seems to have everyone and everything moving nonstop without anywhere to go. If that’s what equals a high-energy musical, someone pump Seyfried and friends up with some sedatives and leave the musicals to directors whose only point of reference isn’t “Grease.”