Tag Archives: Bradley Whitford

Louder Than Words

tick, tick…BOOM!

by George Wolf

What’s an aspiring writer to do when his first major work is bypassed for the eager anticipation about what he’ll do next?

He takes his agent’s advice to “move on to the next one. And write what you know.”

Broadway trailblazer Jonathan Larson – Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and composer of Rent – agonized for 8 years over Superbia, a futuristic musical that never earned a full production. When Larson did move on to the next one, it became tick, tick…BOOM!, his autobiographical story of a composer named Jon whose final days as a twentysomething bring feelings of rejection and inadequacy.

ttBOOM! made it to off-Broadway in 1990, with revivals beginning in 2001,15 years after both the phenomenal success of Rent and Larson’s tragic death from an aortic aneurysm at the age of 35.

Now, director Lin-Manuel Miranda brings Larson’s story of struggling artistry to the screen with an infectious exuberance and undying respect for those committed to the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.

Andrew Garfield stars as Jon, who waits tables in a New York diner, works on his musical and worries about how much other people have accomplished before turning 30 (“Sondheim wrote West Side Story at 27!”)

While Jon struggles to find enough money to keep the lights on, his longtime girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp) mulls a tempting job offer in the Berkshires, and his best friend Michael (Robin de Jesus) decides it’s finally time to give up the Broadway dream and get a real 9 to 5 gig.

While everyone – including Sondheim himself! (a terrific Bradley Whitford) – tells him Superbia needs one more big song in the second act, Jon rebuffs any need for a life “backup plan,” even as his tenuous relationship status and a co-worker’s HIV diagnosis remind him of each precious tick of the clock.

Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hanson, Fosse/Verdon) effectively layer the musical segments with real-life inspirations and one-man show beginnings that build to workshop performances and Broadway fantasies. From the birthday defiance of “30/90” to the pleading interplay between Garfield, Shipp and Vanessa Hudgens (as Susan’s stage persona) on “Come to Your Senses,” Miranda’s staging is lively and stylish, peppered by plenty of Easter eggs and cameos saluting years of musical greats (including Chita Rivera, Bernadette Peters, Bebe Neuwirth and two of Hamiton‘s Schuyler sisters in the show-stopping “Sunday” alone).

Garfield delivers an electric, committed performance, singing well and absolutely selling the manic, no-sleep-til-curtain-time tunnel vision that Larson clings to instead of admitting that there might be any other way to live.

And as a tribute to this life, the creative process and one man who personified both, tick, tick…BOOM! is a runaway hit. But in the process, it forgoes a sense of intimacy that might have brought us closer to Larson himself. That’s a trade-off the film ultimately seems comfortable with. Miranda, Garfield and company are going big here, and end up reaching the balcony with crowd-pleasing panache.

Muzzled

The Call of the Wild

by George Wolf

Look, we’re all thinking it, so let’s just get it out there.

Raiders of the Lost Bark.

Happy now? Okay, we can move on.

Truth is, there’s plenty of bark in this latest adaptation of Jack London’s classic novel, but not much bite to be found.

We’re still introduced to Buck, the sturdy St. Bernard-Scotch Collie mix, as the spoiled pet of a wealthy California judge (Bradley Whitford) in the late 1800s. Stolen and sold as a sled dog to French-Canadian mail dispatchers, Buck adapts to the pack mentality and the harsh conditions of the Alaskan wilderness, eventually teaming up with the grizzled Thorton (Harrison Ford) for a journey into the Yukon.

It should come as no surprise that Ford is effortlessly affecting as a world weary mountain man. What is surprising is his endearing rapport with a CGI dog (motioned-captured by Terry Notary). Ford’s narration is earnest enough to soften its heavy hands, drawing Thorton and Buck as two kindred spirits, both lost in their own wilderness.

While taking the actual wild out of The Call of the Wild seems sadly ironic, the computer-generated beasts come to fall perfectly in line with director Chris Sanders’ family-ready vision for the enduring tale.

Stripped of any bloody carnage, cultural insensitivities or harsh realities, Sanders (How to Train Your Dragon, Lilo & Stitch, The Croods) and writer Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) fill the gaps with obvious questions, easy answers, and a flesh and blood bad guy (Dan Stevens in full Snidley Whiplash mode) who manages to be the biggest cartoon in a film full of computer animation.

Buck himself – looking fine but landing a notch below the motion capture high water of the last Planet of the Apes trilogy – is often stuck between Lassie and Scooby, heroically loyal while seeming to instantly understand everything from English to drunkenness.

With the sharp edges ground down, this Call of the Wild becomes a pleasant metaphor for the simple life, and for finding your place in it. In short, it’s a PG-rated primer, meant to hold a place until the kids are ready for the real thing.

In the Name of the Son

Three Christs

by Hope Madden

“Three grown men who believe they are Jesus Christ—it’s almost comical,” reads Bradley Whitford’s Clyde, a Ypsilanti mental patient who happens to be one of those three men. There is something bittersweet and meta about his reading that particular line from Dr. Stone’s (Richard Gere) report on the experimental procedure the doctor is undertaking with his three chosen patients.

On its surface, Three Christs itself seems almost comical. Whitford, Walton Goggins and Peter Dinklage play real life patients institutionalized in Michigan in the 1960s, each of whom believed they were Jesus. Just below the surface is a sad, lonesome story of a medical system ill-equipped and unwilling to treat the individual, and of the peculiar, touching struggles of three souls lost within that system.

Director Jon Avnet, writing with Eric Nazarian, adapts social psychologist Milton Rokeach’s nonfiction book on his own study, “The Three Christs of Ypsilanti.”

Whitford’s performance is fine, but he’s somewhat out of his league when compared to Dinklage and Goggins. Dinklage is the film’s heartbeat and he conveys something simultaneously vulnerable and superior in his behavior. He’s wonderful as always, but it’s Goggins who steals this film.

Walton Goggins continues to be an undervalued and under-recognized talent. He can play anything from comic relief to sadistic villainy to nuanced dramatic lead (check out his turn in Them That Follow for proof of the latter). Here the rage that roils barely beneath the surface speaks to the loneliness and pain of constantly misunderstanding and being misunderstood that has marked his character’s entire life.

Gere is the weakest spot in the film. He charms, and his rare scenes with Juliana Margulies, playing Stone’s wife Ruth, are vibrant and enjoyable. But in his responses to his patients and in his struggles against the system (mainly embodied by Stephen Root and Kevin Pollak), he falls back on headshakes, sighs and bitter chuckles.

Aside from two of the three Christs’ performances, Avent’s film looks good but lacks in focus, failing to hold together especially well. The point of the extraordinary treatment method is never very clear, nor is its progress. Stone’s arc is also weak, which again muddies the point of the film.

Three Christs misses more opportunities than it grabs, which is unfortunate because both Dinklage and especially Goggins deliver performances worth seeing.

Quintessentially Disney

 

by George Wolf

 

The God of Irony must be smiling on Saving Mr. Banks, the “Disneyfied” account of a legendary author afraid the film version of her greatest work would get… Disneyfied.

Leave it to a pair of reliably great actors, and the memories of one of Disney’s most treasured classics, to make sure the whole affair turns out much better than a black fly in your Chardonnay.

Emma Thompson brings wit and humanity to the role of P.L. Travers, who for years rebuffed all offers from Walt Disney himself to turn her Mary Poppins stories into a movie. Tom Hanks plays Mr. Disney with the charming twinkle you’d expect, and from their first scenes together, he and Thompson exhibit a playful, unmistakeable chemistry that buoys the film.

The fact that Saving Mr. Banks is as enjoyable as it is feels like an underdog snatching victory from sure defeat.

The script, from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, takes (according to numerous accounts) many “feel good” liberties with the story of how Mary Poppins came to fruition. Even worse, the director is John Lee  Hancock, the man behind The Blind Side, a downright criminal piece of whitewashing if ever there was one.

Together they fill the backstory of Travers’ troubled childhood with force-fed melodrama, attempting to pull every manipulative heartstring available. Though given less screen time, the treatment of heartbreak in Walt Disney’s own past is equally subtle.

But, in addition to the sublime lead performances and a strong supporting cast, Saving Mr. Banks has a powerful trump card:  Poppins!

Each time the music and writing team (Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford and B.J. Novak-all stellar) show Travers a proposed storyboard or play her a new song, you can’t help but smile. Finish up with classic footage from the 1964 film and still pics from the actual premiere, and it’s pretty hard not to surrender to the guilty pleasures.

Those without an affinity for the source material may not get the same warm feelings, but adding schmaltz to their own story of schmaltz-adding is perverted Disney genius. That, along with the well-played nostalgia for one of their greatest achievements, just might make Saving Mr. Banks the quintessential Disney film.

 

 

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