Tag Archives: cinema

‘Beauty and the Beast’ aims to enchant a new generation

In 1991, Disney struck gold with Beauty and the Beast. The film enchanted audiences and critics alike, and raked in several hundred million dollars along the way, but also upended expectations of what an animated film could be.

Not only did the New York Times theater critic controversially call it the best Broadway musical score of the year (spurring an actual Broadway show three years later), it also was the first-ever animated film to be nominated for a best picture Oscar.

Over a quarter century later, the legacy endures but times have changed, and there’s a new Beauty and the Beast on the block. Out March 17, the film is a lavish live-action reimagining of the “tale as old as time” with state-of-the-art CG splendor, Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s classic songs and score (and a few new tunes with Tim Rice), and a modern social consciousness.

The film stars Harry Potter’s Emma Watson as the bookish heroine Belle, who yearns for adventure outside of the confines of her “small provincial town” and Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens as the cursed and cold Beast. Their supporting cast is a coterie of veterans, including Kevin Kline (Maurice), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth), Audra McDonald (Madame Garderobe), Stanley Tucci (Maestro Cadenza) and Ewan McGregor (Lumiere).

That Disney’s specific vision for Beauty and the Beast has lived on is no surprise, and its 13-year run on Broadway helped keep it in the cultural consciousness.

“It’s genuinely romantic, a genuinely beautiful story,” Menken said of its lasting appeal.

And then there’s the nostalgia aspect. For many (including the cast), this was a seminal childhood film.

Luke Evans (Gaston) saw it when he was 12, Josh Gad (LeFou) when he was 10, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Plumette) when she was 8. Suffice it to say, they all knew the lyrics to the songs before they were cast.

The remake is also part of the Walt Disney Company’s ongoing strategy to mine their vaults for animated fare worthy of live-action re-creations. Mulan, The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Lion King are just a few already in the works.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t worthy updates to be made in Beauty and the Beast. Director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) delighted in rooting the story in a specific time and place — 1740 France — and adorning every last corner of the production with Rococo and Baroque details.

Technology advances allowed the production to render household objects that look believable when brought to life. The Beast’s look, meanwhile, was achieved by combining performance capture and MOVA, a facial capture system, meaning Stevens throughout production walked on stilts and sported a prosthetic muscle suit with a gray body suit on top. (Yes, he danced in this getup).

The characters are more fleshed out as well. The Beast gets a backstory. As does Belle, whose independence looked refreshingly radical in ‘91 and goes even further here.

“She’s a 21st century Disney princess. She’s not just a pretty girl in a dress,” Evans said. “She’s fearless and needs no one to validate her.”

That the woman behind the character is also the UN women’s goodwill ambassador only adds to its resonance.

“I think Emma’s an incredible role model for young girls, as somebody who has two daughters but also has a young son who I want to grow up with these values instilled,” Stevens said.

And, in a tribute to Ashman, who died of complications relating to AIDS at age 40 before the ‘91 film came out, the production even unearthed forgotten lyrics from his notes, which they’ve added to two songs in the new film — Gaston and Beauty and the Beast.

While many of the beats, and even lines, remain the same as in 1991, the world looks more diverse from the very first shots. Faces of all races can be seen both in the grand castle and the country town.

“(Condon) wanted to make a film that was resonant for 2017, that represents the world as it is today,” said Mbatha-Raw.

Much has been made, too, of LeFou’s subtle “gay moment,” which put the internet in a tizzy far ahead of anyone actually seeing the film. On one side, GLAAD was applauding, on the other, a Facebook page apparently belonging to the Henagar Drive-In Theatre in Henagar, Alabama, announced that it would not be showing the film.

Many in the production have backed away from the topic entirely.

“To define LeFou as gay … nobody who sees the movie could define it that way. He’s enthralled with Gaston,” Menken said. “I’m happy that LeFou is getting so much attention. But I pray that this stupid topic goes away because it’s just not relevant with any respect to the story. Even the one moment that’s being discussed is just a silly little wink. It’s nothing.”

For his part, Gad thinks it’s been “overblown,” too, and that the story is more about “inclusiveness” and not judging a book by its cover.

“It’s a story with a lot of wonderful messages, and, really once you watch the film, anyone who is wondering what it’s all about will understand that it’s a beautiful story, inclusive of everyone. It’s a legacy that I’m proud to be part of,” Evans added.

“But you can judge Gaston by his cover,” he said with a smirk. “That’s exactly who he is.”

Dee Rees’ American odyssey ‘Mudbound’ captivates Sundance

Director Dee Rees wanted to get to the big questions in her enthralling period epic Mudbound. Specifically: What is it to be a citizen and what is it to fight for a country that doesn’t fight for you?

The film, which premiered Saturday night at the Sundance Film Festival, had audiences raving and some already speculating about Oscar chances.

Based on Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel Mudbound, chronicles the lives of two families in the WWII-era South — one white and one black, and the complicated intersectionality of their paths. There’s the McAllans, Laura (Carey Mulligan), her husband Henry (Jason Clarke), his brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) and their father Pappy (Jonathan Banks), and the Jacksons, Florence (Mary J. Blige), her husband Hap (Rob Morgan) and their son Ronsel (Jason Mitchell).

They’re tied together by a rental agreement — the Jackson’s rent their land and home from the McAllans — and the deeply complicated racial relationships in the segregated South in which Henry can demand help from Hap at any moment and Pappy can insist that Ronsel exit the local store from the back entrance.

It’s a sprawling and deeply American story about women, men, race and personhood that defies a simple summary.

“It’s not didactic, it’s not preachy,” Rees said. “The thing I love about it is it’s multiple points of view.”

Both Jamie and Ronsel go off to fight in WWII, where Jamie’s once shiny life becomes clouded by the horrors of war and alcohol. Ronsel finds freedom and acceptance that he’d never had in the U.S. embodied in his appointment to Sergeant status and a relationship with a German girl. But back at home, nothing has changed.

“I wanted to juxtapose the battle at home versus the battle abroad with the battle at home sometimes being even bloodier than the battle abroad — to show these two families fighting on the front lines,” Rees said, whose grandfathers both fought in wars, one in WWII and one in Korea.

“Both went away and came back and both didn’t quite get what they should have gotten,” she said.

Rees, who directed Pariah and the HBO movie Bessie, found in the story a deep resonance with her grandmother too. She integrated images and truths from her grandmother’s life in the Louisiana into the story, like how she wanted to be a stenographer and not a sharecropper (one of the Jackson children declares this her dream) and how she remembered as a child being pulled on the back of a cotton sack.

Blige, who is earning raves for her subtle and deeply powerful performance as the Jackson family matriarch, also had a grandmother who grew up in the South in Savannah, Georgia. She channeled her to embody Florence.

“She was so strong and silent. She never really said a lot, but when she said something it meant something … She planted her own food, she killed her own chickens, she killed her own cows. (She) and my grandfather were Hap and Florence,” Blige said. “Southern people are really all about love, and that’s what I took. I’m born and raised in the Bronx in New York, and as a child I went down South every summer so I saw my grandmother give love. I was raised with ‘yes ma’am’ and ‘no ma’am.’ “

Though it’s been less than a day, so far the response has been rapturous. The audience at the premiere gave Rees and the cast a long standing ovation, and subsequent screenings have elicited similar praise. Mudbound does not yet have distribution, but it is expected to be one of the Festival’s hottest properties, and, one that people will be talking about long after Sundance comes to a close.

Martin Scorsese: ‘Cinema is gone’

Martin Scorsese’s Manhattan office, in a midtown building a few blocks northwest of the cordoned-off Trump Tower, may be the most concentrated bastion of reverence for cinema on the face of the earth.

There’s a small screening room where Scorsese screens early cuts of his films and classic movies for his daughter and his friends. There’s his personal library of thousands of films, some he taped himself decades ago. Film posters line the walls. Bookshelves are stuffed with film histories. And there are editing suites, including the one where Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker regularly toil with a monitor dedicated to the continuous, muted playing of Turner Classic Movies.

“It’s a temple of worship, really,” says Schoonmaker.

Scorsese’s latest, “Silence,” may be the film that most purely fuses the twin passions of his life: God and cinema.

Scorsese, who briefly pursued becoming a priest before fervently dedicating himself to moviemaking, has sometimes seemed to conflate the two.

“Silence” is a solemn, religious epic about Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) in a violently anti-Catholic 17th century Japan. Scorsese has wanted to make it for nearly 30 years. He was given the book it’s based on, Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel, by a bishop after a screening of his famously controversial “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988.

“Silence” is an examination of belief and doubt and mysterious acts of faith.

But making the film was such an act in itself.

“Acting it out, maybe that’s what existence is all about,” Scorsese says of his faith. “The documentary on George Harrison I made, ‘Living in the Material World,’ that says it better. He said if you want an old man in the sky with a beard, fine. I don’t mean to be relativist about it. I happen to feel more comfortable with Christianity. But what is Christianity? That’s the issue and that’s why I made this film.”

It wasn’t easy.

Scorsese, 74, may be among the most revered directors in Hollywood, but “Silence” is almost the antithesis of today’s studio film.

To make it Scorsese had to drum up foreign money in Cannes and ultimately made the film for about $46 million. Everyone, including himself, worked for scale.

Few today are making movies with the scope and ambition of “Silence” — a fact, he grants, that makes him feel like one of the last of a dying breed in today’s film industry.

“Cinema is gone,” Scorsese says. “The cinema I grew up with and that I’m making, it’s gone.”

“The theater will always be there for that communal experience, there’s no doubt. But what kind of experience is it going to be?” he continues. “Is it always going to be a theme-park movie? I sound like an old man, which I am. The big screen for us in the ‘50s, you go from Westerns to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to the special experience of ‘2001’ in 1968. The experience of seeing ‘Vertigo’ and ‘The Searchers’ in VistaVision.”

Scorsese points to the proliferation of images and the overreliance on superficial techniques as trends that have diminished the power of cinema to younger audiences. “It should matter to your life,” he says. “Unfortunately the latest generations don’t know that it mattered so much.”

Scorsese’s comments echo a tender letter he wrote his daughter two years ago. The future of movies, he believes, is in the freedom that technology has yielded for anyone to make a movie.

“TV, I don’t think has taken that place. Not yet,” adds Scorsese, whose “Boardwalk Empire” was lauded but whose high-priced “Vinyl” was canceled after one season. “I tried it. I had success to a certain extent. ‘Vinyl’ we tried but we found that the atmosphere for the type of picture we wanted to make — the nature of the language, the drugs, the sex, depicting the rock ‘n’ roll world of the ‘70s — we got a lot of resistance. So I don’t know about that freedom.”

Since the election of Donald Trump, some have expressed hope for a return to the kind of ‘70s filmmaking Scorsese is synonymous with.

“If the younger people have something to say and they find a way to say through visual means as well as literary, there’s the new cinema,” says Scorsese.

But the current climate reminds him more of the ‘50s of his youth.

“I’m worried about double-think or triple-think, which is make you believe you have the freedom, but they can make it very difficult to get the picture shown, to get it made, ruin reputations. It’s happened before.”

“Silence,” which Scorsese screened for Jesuits at the Vatican before meeting with the pope, remains a powerful exception in a changing Hollywood.

“He wanted to make this film extremely differently from anything out there,” says Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s editor since “Raging Bull.” “He’s just tired of slam-bam-crash. Telling the audience what to think is what he really hates. Trying to do a meditative movie at this point, in this insane world we’re in now, was incredibly brave. He wanted to stamp the film with that throughout: the pace, the very subtle use of music.

“How many movies start without music at the very beginning under the logos?” she adds. “He said, ‘Take out all that big Hollywood.””

Scorsese, apostle of cinema, continues the fight.

His Film Foundation has helped restore more than 750 films. And he regularly pens supportive letters to young directors whose films he admires.

Imagine that in your mailbox. Almost like getting a letter from your god.

An unexpected life in sci-fi: An interview with Sigourney Weaver

A movie has a way of sitting up straight whenever Sigourney Weaver is in it. Whether the part is small or large, she reliably jolts any film alive with her intelligence and commanding presence. She usually means business.

That, of course, has been apparent since her breakthrough role as Ellen Ripley in “Alien.” But it’s no less true of Weaver at 67. She has an almost queen-like status on today’s movie landscape, particularly in science-fiction.

She has defined one mega franchise (“Alien,” with one more on the way) and been the MVP of another (“Avatar,” with four sequels coming). Just her voice is enough to lend sci-fi credibility, whether as the ship’s voice in “WALL-E” or as the all-powerful Director in “The Cabin in the Woods.”

Weaver has been particularly ubiquitous in 2016, gracing the year’s top box-office hit, “Finding Dory,” with its best gag (her aquatic center greeting), and popping in to reprise her original role in the contentious “Ghostbusters” reboot. She was even glimpsed in Ron Howard’s “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years” as a young, rabid Beatlemaniac.

But she ends the year with “A Monster Calls,” a smaller film that uses fantasy to plumb deeper emotional depths. Directed by J.A. Bayona (who’s helming the next “Jurassic Park” film), the adaptation of Patrick Ness’ novel is about a boy coping with his mother’s terminal illness. Aside from approaching grief with uncommon seriousness, the film flips some genre tropes, including Weaver’s grandmother character.

The actress (who hasn’t lost a bit of her glamour) recently reflected on “A Monster Calls,” her re-entry to Pandora and her legacy of strong female protagonists.

AP: Your father, Sylvester ‘Pat’ Weaver was president of NBC and created the “Tonight Show.” Was it like you grew up in show business?

Weaver: At the time, I thought everyone’s father ran a network. I thought everyone got to go on the set of “Peter Pan” and meet Mary Martin. I always used to think I was going to go to school and then come home and be a different girl and go to a different house. It took me a while to realize I was stuck with me. Maybe that’s the early awareness of an actor that we’re all changeable. I remember thinking, “Gosh, I’m so amazed I’m in this body for so long.”

AP: You have such an impact on a film, regardless of how large your part is.

Weaver: I really love being part of a good story. I don’t need to be the center of the story. That’s why I really loved “A Monster Calls” because the grandmother was unlike anyone I’ve played before _ not completely unlike my mother, who was British. It’s a movie I hope families go to together.

AP: Was your small role in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” your first film?

Weaver: Woody offered me a bigger part but I turned it down because I was in a play. I played a multiple schizophrenic who kept a hedgehog in her vagina and I wasn’t going to give that part up.

AP: “Alien” was quite a follow-up.

Weaver: It didn’t feel like a big movie to me. It felt like a very small, dark, strange movie and I could relate to that because I was used to doing very strange things off-Broadway. I thought: This is fine. This is like a workshop movie.

AP: Ripley was one of the first strong female protagonists in an action film. Is that a legacy you’re proud of?

Weaver: I am. I’ve since read other scripts and I go, “Well that’s kind of an interesting part but I’d rather play this guy.” Because I always feel still, like in our world, there’s a lot of testosterone in some of these movies where really legitimately a woman would be involved.

AP: Do you think that’s changing?

Weaver: I think by the time your daughters are in the world, everything will be different.

AP: What did you think of the backlash to Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters”?

Weaver: I was very surprised by it. I enjoyed the movie. I love all those women. I think Feig is brilliant. I do think it has something to do with the misogyny Trump has unearthed. I thought it was very charming. Does it also make you remember how much you loved the first one? I think so, but not to the extent that I’m going to boycott it. We’re sitting at the table. You’ve got to make room for us. We’re not going to go away.

AP: Ang Lee’s “Ice Storm” must be a film you’re particularly proud of.

Weaver: I was discussing a character I might play with someone and they said, “This woman’s cold.” I said I find that a nonsensical adjective for a woman. I’m sure you could describe Janey in “Ice Storm” as cold but she wasn’t cold. She was so disconnected from her life and bored by it.

AP: You’re soon to head into one mammoth “Avatar” production.

Weaver: The scripts for “Avatar” are absolutely incredible. I have committed to a very interesting movie about a woman (“Second Saturn”) that I hope to do in May. It’s like: This is my wonderful meal before I go into Pandora.

 

 

 ‘La La Land’ is something to sing about

In time for Christmas, there’s the eye-popping, heart-lifting “La La Land,” which honors and modernizes the screen musical to such joyful effect that you might find yourself pirouetting home from the multiplex.

OK, perhaps we exaggerate.

“La La Land,” created by the copiously talented writer/director Damien Chazelle and featuring the dream pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is not for everyone.

Perhaps you don’t like music, or singing, or dancing. Or romance, or love, or beautiful people falling in love. Or sunsets, or primary colors, or pastels. Or stories. Or, heck, the movies themselves.

If you don’t like any of those things, maybe stay home.

Otherwise, be prepared: By the end, something will surely have activated those tear ducts. The one complaint I overheard upon leaving the film was: “I didn’t have enough Kleenex.”

The first obvious gift of “La La Land” is its sheer originality. Let’s start with the music. Unlike in so many other films, nobody else’s hits are used here. The affecting score is by Justin Hurwitz, with lyrics by Benji Pasek and Justin Paul (also getting kudos for Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen.”)

Our setting is Los Angeles, and so it begins — as it must — on a jammed freeway.

But unlike Michael Douglas in “Falling Down,” the drivers here simply brush off their frustrations, exit their cars, and break into song and dance.

This virtuoso number, “Another Day of Sun,” which was filmed on a freeway interchange with some 100 dancers toiling in sizzling temperatures, establishes Chazelle’s high-flying ambitions. It also tells us we’d darned well better be ready for people to break out into song — because that happens in musicals. And it introduces our main characters.

Sebastian (Gosling) is a struggling jazz pianist, with stubborn dreams of opening his own club. Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress, working as a barista while auditioning for TV parts. They clash on the freeway. She gives him the finger.

They have a second bad meeting at a piano bar. Finally they meet a third time, at a party. Suddenly, they find themselves on a bench overlooking the Hollywood Hills at dusk. And then … they dance.

Is it Astaire and Rogers (or Charisse)? Yes and no. Stone and Gosling are charming musical performers, but way less polished and ethereal than their cinematic forbears. This human quality in their first duet makes us root for them.

And we keep on rooting. It’s hard to imagine more perfect casting here. Gosling’s Sebastian is suave and sexy but also ornery and unsure of himself; Stone’s Mia is warm and ebullient but also fretful and self-doubting. They need each other to chase their respective dreams.

But what will success mean, and can they possibly achieve it together? It’s this pillar of the story that lends it a very modern, melancholy bite.

Chazelle, 31, shows his love for cinema with references both sly and overt to classics like “Singin’ In the Rain” and Jacques Demy’s “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”

And then there’s the nod to “Rebel Without a Cause,” with a scene at LA’s Griffith Observatory.

There, at a place built to watch the stars, the two dancing lovers actually lift up into them.

It’s corny, sure, and gorgeous and romantic. As Sebastian says to his sister earlier in the film, “You say ‘romantic’ like it’s a bad word!” In a musical, romantic is NEVER a bad word.

Some people resist musicals because in real life, people never break out into song; they just speak their feelings. To which musical lovers say: “Exactly! And this is why we need musicals.”

Long live the musical. Bring enough Kleenex.

‘Deadpool’ in, ‘Silence’ out and more Globes film surprises

The Hollywood Foreign Press Association never fails to disappoint with their assortment of nominees, which always seem to include some expected picks, some inspired ones and some headscratchers too.

The nominations for the 74th annual Golden Globes certainly had some bombshells, too. Here are a few notable snubs and surprises.

OLD GUARD OUT

Past Globes glory didn’t seem to matter this year for Hollywood legends Clint Eastwood, Martin Scorsese and Warren Beatty, none of whom received directing nominations despite all having won in that category at least once. In fact, Eastwood’s “Sully” (that means no Tom Hanks nomination either) and Scorsese’s “Silence” were shut out completely, while Beatty’s big return to directing and acting, “Rules Don’t Apply,” scored only one nomination — for actress Lily Collins.

NO LOVE FOR ‘LOVE & FRIENDSHIP’

Whit Stillman’s Jane Austen adaptation “Love & Friendship” charmed audiences and critics, but was left without a single nomination — especially surprising in the case of Kate Beckinsale, whose performance as the conniving and ambitious Lady Susan Vernon has been widely regarded as one of her best. Instead, in the musical or comedy category, the HFPA singled out the little-seen John Carney musical “Sing Street.”

THE NAUGHTIEST SUPERHERO

Besides being a superhero movie, the irreverent and very R-rated “Deadpool” is about as far away as one can get from a stereotypically tasteful awards choice, but somehow still scored two nominations — one for best motion picture in the musical or comedy category and another for star Ryan Reynolds. Perhaps they draw the line at animated food orgy, though — “Sausage Party,” despite a big awards push, was left out of the fun.

LEFT FIELD ACTING CHOICES

The comedy and drama distinction always allows for a few out-of-nowhere contenders, but the best performance by an actor in a musical or comedy was stacked with unexpected picks, including Colin Farrell for his performance as a single guy looking for love in the dark as night comedy “The Lobster,” Ryan Reynolds for “Deadpool,” and Jonah Hill as a bro arms dealer in the generally panned “War Dogs.” In the supporting category, Aaron Taylor-Johnson sneaked in with a nod for his portrayal of a sadistic Texan in “Nocturnal Animals” and Simon Helberg for his crowd-pleasing piano player in “Florence Foster Jenkins,” which elicited a gasp from those in the room at the Beverly Hilton while the nominations were being announced.

MISS SLOANE TAKES CHARGE

“Miss Sloane,” the Jessica Chastain-led lobbying thriller, might have bombed at the box office this weekend and received generally tepid reviews from critics, but it didn’t stop the HFPA taking notice of Chastain’s performance as the always three steps ahead of the competition Elizabeth Sloane. Since 2012, Chastain has been nominated for four Golden Globes and won once, in 2013, for “Zero Dark Thirty.”

WOMEN BEHIND THE CAMERA

With the statistics of female representation behind the camera as dismal as they are, it might not be that much of a surprise to find zero films directed by women up for best picture or best director this year. Yet it is notable, especially with critically acclaimed fare like Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” and Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe,” both of which were shut out completely. The one saving grace is in the foreign category, where Maren Ade’s comedy “Toni Erdmann” is the nominee from Germany and Uda Benyamina’s “Divines” is nominated from France.

Jessica Williams, Cate Blanchett star in Sundance premieres

Former “Daily Show” correspondent Jessica Williams flexes her dramatic chops. Cate Blanchett pays homage to great 20th century artists and “Silicon Valley” star Kumail Nanjiani tells a very personal story in some of the films premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.

Programmers announced their selections for the documentary and narrative premiere sections at the Sundance Film Festival, which has launched films like “Boyhood,” “Manchester by the Sea” and “O.J.: Made in America.”

As with many years, the Sundance premiere slate can be a place for well-known comedians to take a stab at more dramatic and serious roles.

In what’s expected to be one of the breakout films and performances of the festival, comedian Jessica Williams stars in Jim Strouse’s “The Incredible Jessica James,” about a New York playwright recovering from a breakup and finding solace in a recent divorcee.

Nanjiani is another who might surprise audiences in “The Big Sick,” which he co-wrote with his wife Emily V. Gordon and is based on their own courtship. He stars alongside Zoe Kazan in the Michael Showalter-directed pic.

The festival also has films featuring veteran stars in different kinds of roles.

Shirley MacLaine stars in “The Last Word,” about a retired businesswoman who strikes up an unlikely friendship with a journalist (Amanda Seyfried) after writing her own obituary.

Festival founder Robert Redford, too, is in Charlie McDowell’s “The Discovery,” about a world where the afterlife has been proven. Jason Segel and Rooney Mara also star.

Cate Blanchett re-enacts artistic statements of Dadaists, Lars von Trier and everyone in between in “Manifesto.”

Michelle Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland co-star in the drama “Where is Kyra.”

“Avengers” Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen re-team in the FBI crime thriller “Wind River,” the directorial debut of “Hell or High Water” writer Taylor Sheridan.

“Bessie” director Dee Rees is poised to be a standout with “Mudbound,” a racial drama set in the post-WWII South and starring Carey Mulligan, Jason Clarke, Jason Mitchell and Mary J. Blige.

“It’s quite topical to this time even though it’s a period piece,” said festival director John Cooper.

Among the documentaries premiering are a look at the Oklahoma City bombing from Barak Goodman; Stanley Nelson’s examination of black colleges and universities, “Tell Them We Are Rising”; and Barbara Kopple’s account of a champion diver who announces he is transgender, “This Is Everything: Gigi Gorgeous.”

“The beauty of independent film is it’s not a copycat world, unlike some of the Hollywood stuff where they follow trends,” said programming director Trevor Groth. “Independent film has always been about originality and choice and something different.”

The 2017 Sundance Film Festival runs Jan. 19- 29.

 

On the Web

www.sundance.org/festival

10 great political films for a stranger-than-fiction race

There are some wonderful idealistic films about American politics, warm with optimism and belief in Washington’s system. None of them resemble this election season.

Yet for a presidential campaign that has felt more like “Mad Max: Fury Road” than “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” there are still plenty of films that suit the moment and may just offer a desperately needed break from television news in the final days before Tuesday.

There are a lot of ways one could program a pre-election movie night, some of them drawn along party lines. Supporters of Hillary Clinton, for instance, might enjoy screening Mike Judge’s prescient “Idiocracy” or, to see a less-than-presidential cameo from Donald Trump, Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander.” Voters for Trump, on the other hand, might want to, with tongues in cheek, turn on “You’ve Got Mail.”

But before the real ballots are in, let’s cast votes for 10 of the best political films, many of which shine all the brighter with relevance these days:

  1. Weiner.” In many ways the movie of the year is Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary about Anthony Weiner, the woebegone former New York congressman who has proven an unexpectedly central figure ahead of the election. “Weiner” chronicles his initially promising but ultimately doomed 2013 mayoral campaign, with his wife and top Clinton aide, Huma Abedin, by his side. Beware: This is politics as horror film. Watch with your eyes half-covered.
  2. A Face in the Crowd.” Elia Kazan’s 1957 classic about a populist fraud has proven salient in more elections than one. In arguably his greatest performance, Andy Griffith stars as an Arkansas drifter, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, who rises from a small radio station to great heights of national television and power, only to be brought down by his womanizing and disgust for common people. “I’m not just an entertainer,” he declares. “I’m an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force!”
  3. Election.” An ambitious, uber-prepared blonde woman running for president is nearly thwarted by those who innately detest her. No, Reese Witherspoon’s high school president-to-be Tracy Flick isn’t Clinton. But in Alexander Payne’s darkly comic satire, there are some  similarities between the two, and the extreme reactions they provoke.
  4. All the President’s Men.” The keystrokes are sounded with the oomph of cannon blasts in Alan Pakula’s Fourth Estate classic, with Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The excellent “Spotlight” drew deserved comparisons to this 1976 film, but “All the President’s Men” reigns supreme as a procedural portrait of journalism and American democracy.
  5. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Who should have their finger on the button? In Stanley Kubrick’s classic farce, not only were the fears of nuclear command and control satirically undressed, so was a war-crazy, sex-obsessed all-male government.
  6. “Bulworth.” Warren Beatty is now returning with his first film as writer-director since this 1998 comedy. Still fresh today, it’s about a disillusioned California senator (Beatty) who, with plans to commit suicide, decides to tell the truth. The political system, as if coming in contact with a toxic foreign substance for the first time, recoils in disgust.
  7. Advise and Consent.” The title, pulled from the clause in the Constitution, refers to the nomination process of Supreme Court judges and other president-appointed positions. Otto Preminger’s dense and dark 1962 film set on Capitol Hill is about a Secretary of State nominee (Henry Fonda) with a hidden past. Of course, Congress’s advising and consenting of such positions, like Supreme Court judges, has ever since gone absolutely smoothly and has had little bearing on the election. OK, maybe not.
  8. In the Loop.” Before there was “Veep,” there was “In the Loop” (and the equally sharp BBC series “The Thick of It”). No one has pulled back the curtain on politics quite like Armando Iannucci, whose foul-mouthed, aide-surrounded officials sway — comically, desperately — with the winds of daily news cycles.
  9. “Lincoln.” The biopic-like title, in a way, distracts from the point of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 drama. No other film has more fully captured the dirty, horse-trading business of the legislative process, in all its colorful and compromising sweep. To get anything done, a politician must say one thing to one set of people, and another to another set. “Two-faced,” that common slur of elected officials, is the nature of the business.
  10. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” There’s perhaps no greater political truth in all of movies than that famous line from John Ford’s 1962 film: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ford’s film was a Western, the genre in which we work out what America is, plus horses. In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a more complicated truth lies behind the rise of James Stewart’s respected senator. The newspaper of the film might not print it, but Ford does.

Honorable mentions: “Wag the Dog,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Milk,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Great McGinty,” “No.”

 

‘Trolls’ is big-hearted sensory overload

“Trolls” is a sugary sweet confection of sights and sounds that will surely leave a fair share of adults with an aching stomach and bleeding ears from sensory overload.

But, it’s not for them, is it?

Sure, it’s their childhood toys that are being riffed on, but beyond the dazzlingly grotesque renderings of the 1970s rec room look — all carpets and felt and mustard yellows — “Trolls” is not a nostalgia play.

It’s for the kids, and fairly young ones too, who will no doubt be swept up by the neon, the sterilized cover songs of pop music past and present, and the goofy, big-hearted humor. Even the parents will find loads of charm from that last one. The script is quite clever, but it is too easily overshadowed by everything else that’s going on (which is a lot).

The governing theory behind “Trolls” seems to have been to crank it up to eleven at every turn. That fits with the mantra of the Trolls themselves, which is hyper positivity (and I do mean hyper). They sing and dance and hug every hour and celebrate with joyous abandon. There’s even a Troll in full body sparkles who sings only in auto-tune — an example of how the jokes can go way too far into just plain annoying territory.

Thankfully, it’s grounded with some truly fantastic vocal talent led by Anna Kendrick (Princess Poppy), whose impeccable comedic timing and silky speaking and singing are perfectly used. I just wish they would have stuck with more original songs, saving the known pop tunes for comedic effect only. Sonically speaking, “Trolls” is hitting a little too close to that abysmal George Lucas mess “Strange Magic.”

The story itself is an odd one. The Trolls have some distant neighbors called Bergens — grotesque-looking monsters suffering from chronic depression who decided long ago that the only way to be happy is to eat Trolls. Yes, EAT the Trolls, like their own personal supply of Prozac. For some reason, they only do this once a year on Trollstice. But that all ended 20-some years ago when the Troll King Peppy (Jeffrey Tambor) heroically staged a massive escape mission, saving his subjects from death by Bergen.

Cut to the present day and the Trolls are happy and celebratory as ever, but their party gets a little too rowdy and, well, an exiled Bergen (Christine Baranski) spots them and captures a few to weasel her way back into the good graces of the people of Bergen Town. The dreary ugliness of Bergen Town and its inhabitants actually has a bit of a Jim Henson-vibe, reminding older audiences of a time when children’s productions were still allowed to be insanely weird and even a little creepy. But it stops at the visuals. Even the awkward Bergen scullery maid Bridget (Zooey Deschanel) has a perfectly crisp pop voice when she bursts into Lionel Richie’s “Hello.” Why didn’t she go full character actress in song? It’s just another one of the ways in which “Trolls” mashes up past and present in a way that doesn’t quite coalesce.

In any event, Poppy and the rare negative troll Branch (Justin Timberlake) take it on themselves to go try to save the captured Trolls. They have a fun enough buddy comedy chemistry together, though Timberlake is not as adept at voice acting as Kendrick is. And ultimately, the “get happy” moral of the story, while trite compared to something like “Inside Out,” is sufficiently sweet enough for its audience. Did you expect more from a piece of candy?

 

Doctor Strange dazzles with mind-boggling visuals

No affinity for superheroes or familiarity with Marvel mythology is required to enjoy the visual spectacle that is “Doctor Strange.” Being open to mysticism and the possibility of parallel dimensions might help, though.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays the title character in this origin story, where plot is secondary to dazzling special effects that invert gravity, reverse time and twist buildings like blocks in a Rubik’s Cube. It’s worth it to watch the film in 3-D, and on an IMAX screen if possible (as this critic did), for an immersive, almost psychedelic experience. Two spectacular action sequences in the third act are enough to justify the ticket price.

Dr. Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a brilliant, arrogant neurosurgeon. He’s a know-it-all about medicine and music; a materialist with an expansive apartment and a drawer full of designer watches. His commuter car is a Lamborghini, and he’s speeding around curves in it when he’s distracted by a text and flies off a cliff. He awakens from surgery to finds his hands shattered and held together with a series of metal pins.

Despondent because he can’t work, Strange travels to Nepal, where he believes a healer may have cured someone from complete paralysis. He ends up at a palace where he meets the mysterious Mordor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), warriors who introduce him to magical powers and mystical realms. As a scientist, Strange dismisses their teachings (“I do not believe in fairytales about chakras”), but desperation – and a bizarre trip down a third-eye wormhole – make him a believer.

Meanwhile, one of the Ancient One’s former students (Mads Mikkelsen, always an excellent villain) has gone rogue, using the mystical teachings to connect with dark forces. He and his minions believe they’ll receive eternal life if they destroy the sanctums of the Ancient One’s power, which are conveniently located in New York, London and Hong Kong – all dynamic settings for destruction and mind-bending magic.

Each of the city sequences look great, but the New York scenes are truly phenomenal. In the hands of director Scott Derrickson and the special-effects artists who worked on “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the Big Apple becomes mesmerizingly Escher-esque: a disjointed, gravity-ignorant collection of streets and buildings.

While some of the magical elements may be far out (a levitating cape, for example), the Ancient One’s messages are grounded in contemporary pop psychology and spirituality. She says things like, “We never lose our demons, we only learn to live above them,” and “Silence your ego and your power will rise.” Coming from a bald Tilda Swinton, it sounds more insightful than preachy.

The film addresses such sweeping concepts as death and time, but only to define the characters’ motives. Some of the messages may be worth contemplating, but “Doctor Strange” is not a message movie. It is a visual delight, where the spiritual notion that not all can be explained by science allows for an “Inception”-like unraveling of reality.

Be sure to stay through the credits for two delicious Marvel “Easter eggs.” One involves a massive, self-refilling beer and the other teases a possible “Strange” future.

“Doctor Strange,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence.” Running time: 115 minutes. Three stars out of four.