‘Tis the season for awards screenings by the studios, and that means one is inundated. There usually is a weekend or two when it’s more like a tsunami, and this was that weekend. I saw five movies – and it should have been six, but I just didn’t have it in me to see that last one. It was a documentary (and word is a very good one, CitizenFour, about Edward Snowden), but that’s something that doesn’t need a big screen and I could always catch on Netflix.
The five I did see were Unbroken, Into the Woods, The Hunger Gmes: Mockingjay (Part 1), Big Eyes and a documentary Showrunners.
I've already written about Unbroken here, which I saw Saturday afternoon. After that, I later drove over to the Writers Guild Theater for for an early evening film and then camped out there for the nighttime movie.
First was Into the Woods, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. Much as I love musicals (if that hasn’t been clear here…), it’s never been a show I’ve cared to see, and haven’t. Even when they did a PBS production. And I wasn’t sure I would go to the film, but ultimately I did. A Sondheim-fanatic friend raved about it, saying how it made things more clear than on the stage, and also it was hard to pass up that cast.
I was glad I went – the movie was exceedingly well-made and enjoyable, although I still have no interest in seeing it on stage, and I didn’t utterly love the film. The story is too disjointed for my taste and a touch on the precious side, feeling like it’s trying to force a point and moral on you that isn’t completely justified by the story. But – it’s still a very interesting viewpoint to take, overlapping about four fairy tales or so into one related story, and giving it all a more grounded, realistic underpinning where things don't always turn out as expected or well. Also, (without having seen it on stage) I get the sense that it does work better as a movie. You can separate the individual stories well, create certain things like a beanstalk up to the sky and a giant particularly well, and have a deep and foreboding real woods that adds a great deal of character, among other things. Mind you, I like when theater greats impressions and lets the audience fill in the blanks – but there’s plenty enough of that in the basic story here that a little grounding helps.
What helps too is how wonderful the cast is. Meryl Streep at The Witch is quite great (a big shock there, I know), and Anna Kendrick stands out too, as Cinderella, showing off her Broadway music theater background, where she’s the second-youngest performer ever to get a Tony nomination.
But most of the other star names handled themselves impressively. It was nice to see James Corden do so well at The Baker in such a high-profile film, oddly on the heels of him starting soon as a TV talk-show host. I’ve written often here about how much I like the guy, and his charm shows here hugely. And Emily Blunt as The Baker’s Wife will surprise people by how well she handles the singing. She’s extremely good in the film. And surprising too is Chris Pine who sings wonderfully as Prince Charming – one of two brother princes – and has a hilarious number completing with his brother about “Agony.”
Afterwards, I stand around at the theater to see the evening screening of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, the third-part of the “four-part trilogy.” I found it a well-made piece of empty piffle. I basically enjoyed the first film in the series, and disliked the second, finding it largely a remake of the first. I figured that this film would at least move the story forward and it did. But I suspect most of the plot development takes place in “part two,” so dividing the final story in half kept this one a bit short on Things Happening, though happily it also get the running time to a manageable two hours.
The story here is that there’s now a pretty well-organized rebellion against the Central Sector, and the rebel political and military leaders want Katniss Everdeen to be their spiritual face, which she agrees to, while being upset that her love Peta is seemingly being used by the Central Sector as a pawn. Okay, there you have the story pretty much. There are a few bombing attack sequences, and Katniss blows up a fighter jet by shooting an exploding arrow at it. Also, there’s a lot of brooding.
That brings us to Sunday, when I skipped that aforementioned morning documentary and started in the late afternoon with Big Eyes, which is based on an oddly-intriguing true story. You may recall the very successful pop artist Walter Keane in the 1950s and 1960s who drew all these little kids with Very Big Eyes. Well, it turns out that all of that was actually done by his wife Margaret, and he fraudulently took all the credit. The film tells that story. I was intrigued about going, though not sure if that was enough for me on such an overly-busy movie-weekend. But then when I saw the people involved, I was convinced – Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, directed by Tim Burton, and written by Scott Alexander (who I used to lay softball with long ago and larry Karaszewski, the writing team who did Ed Wood, Man on the Moon (about Andy Kaufman) and The People vs. Larry Flynt.
I enjoyed it, and found it quite interesting. Christoph Waltz in particular gives one of his tour-de-force performance. Amy Adams does a nice job for a character who tends to be much more internal. The only difficulty I had was that as much as she clearly is deeply wronged and feels sort of pushed and dominated into her acquiescence (particularly for a woman at that time) – she is an active participant in the “fraud.” That’s less an audience concern later on, as her husband really does become more controlling and oppressive – while generally very charming. But at the beginning, when she could have put an end to it easily, she makes the decision to let it go on, for the money. Yes, she’s maneuvered unfairly into a corner, but she’s still the one saying okay. That’s not to let him off the hook, or blame her, but to say it takes a while for the significant sympathy and understanding to kick in.
Which leads to the final film of the weekend, for which I again stayed at the Guild theater to see – the documentary Showrunners, about the people in charge of TV series. One might wonder why I chose that documentary rather than the Edward Snowden one. There were three reasons – one is that I figured there was a far better chance that CitizenFour would be available on Netflix. Another is that as a writer, seeing a documentary about writers at the Writers Guild Theater seemed the proper thing to do. But mainly…my good friend Jeff Melvoin (whose many showrunning credits include Army Wives, Alias and Picket Fences) runs the WGA Showrunners Training program and is featured in the film. That pretty much was the clincher – as you might imagine. Edward Snowden can wait for another day.
(It turns out that some other friends were in it, as well – Robert and Michelle King, who created and run the series, The Good Wife.)
It’s extremely well done, directed by an Irish fellow named Des Doyle – oddly, major funding came from the Ireland Film Board. As luck would have it, he was sitting directly across the aisle from me, so we got to chat a bit before the film began. Whether it would be of significant interest to the general public, I don’t know – though since it’s about making TV shows, maybe many so. My favorite passage actually deals specifically with that issue, what are showrunners, and what on earth do they (and writers) do -- it comes when the showrunner of the series Bones is talking about when his father came to Los Angeles and visited the set. "Now, you must understand," he says, if I'm paraphrasing him correctly, "my dad loves television. Absolutely loves it. And he has been watching it since television was invented. And he's there on the set when Emily Deschanel who plays 'Bone' gives a long, intricate scientific explanation of something. And my dad turns to me after and says, 'How in the world does she come up with all that??!'" And with a world-weary expression on his face, the guy adds, "And this is MY DAD!"
I thought the film was at its best in the middle, particularly when it dealt with studios and network politics and the specifics of the work and dealing with actors and such. The opening about the job was a bit repetitious and generic, and the end (dealing with when series end) seemed a touch off-topic. It was very interesting, but seemed more “inside.” But the whole thing was well-crafted. And Jeff was terrific in it. He comes across as sort of the professorial expert, analyzing the subject. In fact, if I had any real quibble it’s that there should have been more Melvoin…
And then I got home and rested my eyes.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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