Movie Review ~ Boyhood

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The life of a young man, Mason, from age 5 to age 18

Stars: Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke 

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 166 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  Director Michael Apted began filming a group of children in England when they were seven years old and has returned every seven years to check-in and see what dreams they have achieved, what losses they have suffered, and what obstacles they’ve overcome.  The last entry is 2012 was 56 Up and my advice is if you leave Richard Linklater’s equally impressive Boyhood wanting something in the same vein but with a pulse all its own and haven’t yet caught Apted’s eight film series to get on that pronto.

The comparisons between Apted’s decades in the making study of the class system in England and Linklater’s more focused following of one boy for twelve years are inevitable and both flourish on their own merits.  What truly bowled me over with Linklater’s three hour opus is that in the age of studios wanting films released faster and faster, he was able to take the time and resources to make this the way he wanted – and that’s something that should be applauded and admired.

It’s a simple set-up, really.  Find one young boy not too self-aware but still grounded and create a world with characters, situations, and ideas that explore how our experiences shape us as we grow.  Add two Hollywood actors that don’t mind a long-haul commitment with no guarantee for success and start filming!

There are so many factors with Boyhood that Linklater (Bernie) just couldn’t have known we he started the film.  Would the boy grow up to resent these yearly visits?  How would he fare on-camera?  What happens if six years in he decided to move to Tibet and take a vow of silence?  What if the Hollywood actors found a different gig that prevented their participation or they grew tired of the unique filming schedule?  Further…what sort of story would be told from year to year?

It’s clear from the finished project that this was a once in a lifetime sort of project and everyone involved knew it.  Yes, the quality of the acting from the boy (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) waxes and wanes and it’s no surprise to learn Lorelei wanted out after several years because her ambivalence to the material is evident through several years of the process.  Still, there’s a sense of “realness” within a dramatized story that gives the film street cred.

Coltrane’s performance grows more affected with each passing year and having seen the film on two occasions I did cringe both times at some of the line deliveries that come across less as in the moment observances and more as words successfully delivered without much weight behind them.  Still, that glint of curiosity that shines so brightly in the early years never really goes away, making each age more interesting as Coltrane and his character start to come into their own and grow into themselves.

Ethan Hawke (Sinister, and Linklater’s famous trilogy comprised of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) plays a good dad and any urge to portray him as a deadbeat or explore why he separated from his wife (Patricia Arquette) is resisted.  He matures right along with his children, moving from the divorced dad with the cool car to a remarried man approaching middle-age with a new baby and mini-van in tow.

Though the film is called Boyhood the heart of the film is found in Arquette’s terrific turn.  We see her go from being a single mother to returning to college in order to complete her education, then into her second marriage to an abusive alcoholic, before moving onto yet another doomed-to-fail-marriage to an army vet.  Through it all her maternal instincts never fade; sometimes she’s the cool mom but mostly she’s the mama bear who puts her children first and herself last in any situation.

Arquette is uniformly excellent throughout the film but goes above and beyond in two scenes at the end of the movie which I believe are worth the price of admission.  It’s in her final scene that she not only sums up the whole point of what Linklater is getting at with striking clarity but also verbalizes a painful truth every parent must feel at one time or another.  It’s a thrilling, Oscar-ready performance from an actress I had previously struggled with liking.

Yes, the running time is over 2 ½ hours but I’ve seen 90 minute films that felt four times longer.  I can’t recommend it higher – the most satisfying of films released in 2014.  And if Arquette doesn’t win an Oscar, I’ll be terribly disappointed.

Movie Review ~ Foxcatcher

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The greatest Olympic Wrestling Champion brother team joins Team Foxcatcher lead by multimillionaire sponsor John E. du Pont as they train for the 1988 games in Seoul – a union that leads to unlikely circumstances.

Stars: Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo, Channing Tatum, Sienna Miller, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Michael Hall

Director: Bennett Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Delayed by nearly a year when Sony Pictures Classics decided to pull its release to avoid going up against a late 2013 onslaught of award-worthy films, Foxcatcher finally arrived in 2014 and proved that SPC was right to wait and that the wait was most certainly worth it.  True crime dramas don’t get much better than this impressive examination of personal and professional obsession.

I knew next to nothing about the crime at the center of Foxcatcher’s tale and for the sake of my spoiler-free nature I’m going to assume you don’t either and will keep the various turns concealed for you to discover on your own.  In short, the film follows the late 80s relationship of Olympic wrestlers David and Mark Schultz with their eccentric sponsor John du Pont.

Driven by a desire to win and acquire a celebrated status based more in fantasy than reality, du Pont (Steve Carell, Hope Springs, capped with a putty nose from the Nicole Kidman/Virgina Woolf collection) first engages the more impressionable and equally desperate Mark (Channing Tatum, Magic Mike) before bringing the more accomplished brother (Mark Ruffalo, Thanks for Sharing) into his inner sanctum.  These three men form a triangle that becomes more problematic as time goes by; brother is pitted against brother and du Pont is at the apex of it all.

Though free from the sordid feel of a tell-all crime tale, there’s a sinister edge lurking around every corner in Bennett Miller’s film.  The script from Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye doesn’t shy away from awkward moments that turn into real nail-biters, without ever showing their hand as to what lies in store.

In only his third film as a director, Miller has once again achieved a high bar of accomplishment.  In Capote and Moneyball he guided actors to Oscar nominations (and one win) and the same seems likely here.  Carell looked like an early front-runner for taking home Best Actor and while his performance is an austere departure from his comedic ways, the buzz seems to have faded a bit.  I personally felt Tatum was the important performance of note with the actor showing heretofore unseen depths in his work but the tide seems to be turning for Ruffalo to bag a nomination.

Creepy seems like a bit too simple of a term to put on the film but that’s exactly what it is…creepy.  That overall sense of something not being right seeps through the proceedings but doesn’t make it bottom-heavy to the point of being slushy.  It hums with the fear of what’s to come and the pot boils over at precisely the right moment, though a rather perfunctory climax lessens the impact a bit.

The strong performances would be worth a recommendation alone, but the skilled deployment of story coupled with a compelling structure make it very worthy of your time.

Movie Review ~ The Imitation Game

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The Facts:

Synopsis: English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Allen Leech, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Matthew Beard, Rory Kinnear

Director: Morten Tyldum

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  As I said in my review of the trailer for The Imitation Game, I worry that star Benedict Cumberbatch is getting ever so slightly overexposed.  From his on the spectrum performance in the BBC television series Sherlock to his sinewy performances in August: Osage County, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and 12 Years a Slave all the way to his sinister voice work in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies the actor seems to be everywhere nowadays.

With the arrival of The Imitation Game, we should all brace ourselves for more Cumberbatch in the years to come because it’s his performance here that should really put him on the map, not to mention guarantee his first trip to the Academy Awards.  Though the character could be a distant cousin to his Sherlock, Cumberbatch’s performance as mathematician turned code-breaker Alan Turing is a fully realized flesh and blood wonder, one not afraid to take aloof to the next level yet still managing to keep an audience engaged.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the film because it’s so multi-layered that you’re better served letting the well-scripted film do the telling for you.  Adapted from the Andrew Hodges novel by young screenwriter Graham Moore, The Imitation Game benefits from Moore’s youth in its execution.  While the material is never dumbed down, it’s related to us through dialogue from someone that clearly has an ear for how to convey complex code talk and wartime business to the masses.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (who helmed the bloody good Headhunters) keeps everything moving at a nice clip from the get-go.  We meet a post-war Turing being investigated by the police who look back into his life for clues to a current crime.  Through these passages we learn of Turings involvement with cracking the Enigma code during WWII along with a group of carefully selected scholars (including Stoker’s Matthew Goode and Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech).  From this group a love interest appears (Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina) and instead of feeling shoehorned in, Moore creates a dynamic relationship between Turing and this woman…a relationship that opens up another set of secrets Turing is trying to hide.

Straddling the past and present and multiple covert secrets (both kept and uncovered) is no easy game but all involved score high points for its unqualified success.  While maybe not an edge-of-your-seat thriller, it’s absolutely one that will command you to lean forward and look harder at what’s underneath it all.  An assured film, to be sure.

Movie Review ~ The Homesman

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country by covered wagon by the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who in turn employs low-life drifter George Briggs to assist her.

Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep, Miranda Otto,Hilary Swank, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richte

Director: Tommy Lee Jones

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  You haven’t seen bleak onscreen quite like you’ll see it in The Homesman, a drama with Western sensibilities.  Based on Glendon Swarthout 1988 novel and adapted by Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver, and star/director Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), the film ambles down a road to the unknown and is not for the wary.

It’s the mid-1800s in the Nebraska Territory and independent Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has come from New York City to lay claim to a land of her own.  The opening scenes show Cuddy as a hard-working woman of the land, but one that has a recognizable hint of sadness around the corners of her dirt streaked face. Unable to find a husband, she entertains suitors with food and entertainment like a black widow without any venom.

Volunteering to transport three women from the territory part of the way back to their homes, Cuddy sets out in a covered wagon across the desolate landscape of pioneer life…but not before getting a desperate claim jumper (Jones) to accompany her in return for a fee.  All three women have seemingly lost their minds due to the harsh conditions and maybe Cuddy is just doing the honorable thing by stepping up to take on a task that the men from the community won’t…or maybe she relates to them more than she cares to admit.  Either way, the journey holds surprising turns for all involved.

Though depressing and an overall stunningly somber film, The Homesman is finely crafted and possesses enough darkly comic gumption to take narrative turns that could upend a lesser work…though a particular game changing twist is dealt with so quickly that should you go to the bathroom and miss it you may think you’ve come back to a different movie all-together.

Jones and Swank have the perfect faces for this material, his showing the crags of a life lived from problem to problem and hers displaying a plaintive wish for a dream that she sees fading each morning she wakes up.  While Swank has two well-deserved Oscars in her possession, she has about a dozen other performances of note that may make you question her strength as an actress.  She redeems herself again here and I’m sad the work isn’t getting more attention at the end of the year.

If you’re waiting to open your Twizzlers until Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) shows up on screen you’ll be waiting a long time as the actress only pops up for a brief cameo late in the film.  Actually, everyone else in the film are really just there for a scene or two before drifting off into the dusty atmosphere of the journey Jones/Swank are on.

Worthy of a look if you’re in the right mood, even with its desolate subject matter The Homesman ends with a bang…a quiet bang…but a bang all the same.

Movie Review ~ The Theory of Everything

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the relationship between the famous physicist Stephen Hawking and his wife, Jane.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Emily Watson, Charlie Cox, Simon McBurney

Director: James Marsh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  At the center of The Theory of Everything is a Hallmark Hall of Fame film just dying to get out.  It seems to have all the ingredients of those celebrated television movies that pile on the need for Kleenex with each successive commercial break.  You have the story of resilience against all odds, the power of love against all odds, and the will to effect positive change…against all odds.  Each of these pieces is covered at some point or another in Anthony McCarten’s workmanlike script and while less cynical audiences will easily gobble up this bit of fluff, I found it hard to let myself get sucked into that blackhole of saccharine.

So why the relatively high rating, you may ask?  Well, it’s because what The Theory of Everything has (in addition to a parade of scenes that feel as if they should end with the populace onscreen starting a slow-clap that ends in a rousing furor of applause) is not one but two award-worthy performances that easily make the film worth recommending.

As physicist Stephen Hawking, Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) takes us from the wallflower schoolboy with a knack for solving impossible mathematical equations all the way through to the man that battles a degenerative nerve disease that leaves him unable to walk or talk.  It’s a tricky performance that Redmayne carefully navigates, giving us a look at not only the effect the disease has on Hawking’s body but on his spirit.  Twisted limbs and a skewed stance was likely murder on Redmayne’s body but the effect is totally believable on screen.

Though she has no physical ailments to portray, as Jane Hawking young Felicity Jones (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) has possibly an even more difficult character to bring to life.  I think it’s easy for audiences to see a disability on screen and be cued into what’s happening under the surface but Jane’s resolve to stand by her man is colored with sacrifice but never resentment.  Take an early scene where Jane makes it clear that she expects the boy she loves to not give up in the face of his diagnosis and play, of all things, croquet.  In one powerhouse shot we see her see him as he struggles but soldiers on and her face tells us she knows what the years to come will bring…and the precise moment when she goes all-in for her love.  It’s maybe one of the best scenes in any movie from 2014.

Even with these two wonderful performances the film never strikes a deep chord, though it does manage to pack in quite a lot concerning the lives of the couple in less than two hours.  Depending on how you look at it, the film has either a happy or a sad ending and being the glass half full kinda guy I am I chose to see the moments that book-end the biopic as a mature, honest, realization of the Hawkings.  I just wish as a whole the film was as complete as the performances from Redmayne and Jones.

Movie Review ~ Big Eyes

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A drama about the awakening of the painter Margaret Keane, her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband, who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.

Stars: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Krysten Ritter

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When I was young I was always frightened of these two paintings in my grandmother’s house.  They were tall, slim paintings each of a ballerina with large eyes and I made it a point to skirt by them without making eye contact with their black orbs.  Now, I’m not sure if these were paintings by Margaret Keane or entries from the numerous knock-offs that came about after the phenomenal success of the Keane Big Eyes movement; but seeing Tim Burton’s film on the life of the woman behind the eyes brought back these memories in full force.

It’s nice to see Tim Burton (Dark Shadows, Frankenweenie) make a film featuring not one actor he’s worked with before (thanks for sitting this one out, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter) based on a subject that has some curio cultural significance.  However, the film feels de-Burton-ized so much that it’s hard to pick out much of anything that indicates the man behind Batman, Beetlejuice, or his much better biopic Ed Wood was running the show here.

Early buzz indicated that Amy Adams (American Hustle, Her) would land another Oscar nomination and win for her role as painter Margaret Keane and she just may have stood a fighting chance had the script from Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski not presented Keane as such a wet noodle.  As the picture opens she’s leaving her husband and taking her young daughter hundreds of miles away to San Francisco with no real prospects.  In that time that would have been considered a fairly gutsy move so it’s odd that no sooner has she set up a home, a job, and a weekend painting gig in a local park that she’d succumb to the charms of the first man that comes calling.  Adams is a bright presence on screen but comes off rather dull here.

Margaret’s relationship with Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz, Django Unchained…more on him later) may have been a saving grace for the young mother but when he starts to indicate to the outside world that he is responsible for the big eyed waif paintings she’s created it’s an amazement that it takes her over a decade to break free of his slimy grip and even longer to lay claim to her work.  Keane herself acknowledges that she was fairly complicit in the charade but the film always makes it seem like she was under duress (literally being locked in an attic with a paintbrush and easel) and helpless.

If anything really puts a pin in the underwhelming nature of it all it’s Waltz’s bizarre performance as the duplicitous Walter.  The usually reliable Waltz is totally on a raft out to sea here, barely hiding his German accent (Walter was born in Nebraska) and devouring every bit of scenery and several of Colleen Atwood’s (Into the Woods) striking costumes.  By the time we get to a courtroom denouement Waltz is in full Joan Crawford mode, acting the hell out of a cross-examination of himself as he’s acting as his own attorney.

Burton’s penchant for CGI effects is thankfully kept on a tight leash here and the picture is lovely to look at, but it’s an overall shallow affair that finds Adams gamely treading water through a Waltz storm of melodramatic acting.

The Silver Bullet ~ In the Heart of the Sea

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Synopsis: Based on the 1820 event, a whaling ship is preyed upon by a sperm whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home

Release Date:  March 13, 2015

Thoughts: I can’t help it – just as they say that man has always been drawn to the sea, so have I always been drawn to films about the sea.  That includes any number of undersea creature features (like, say, Jaws) to deep diving epics such as The Abyss.

Knowing that, you wouldn’t be surprised that the newest film from Ron Howard (Parenthood) caught my eye based just on the poster alone.  Based on the novel by Nathaniel Philbrick which charts the tragedy of a whaling ship ravaged by a sperm whale (which inspired Herman Melville’s Moby Dick) this could be a nice little piece of historical action from a director that has experience in both genres.  Teaming up again with his Rush star Chris Hemsworth (The Cabin in the Woods), Howard could get some new wind in his directorial sails from this one.

As you know, I love a good teaser and hate a too-long preview…so I’m presenting you with a few options.  The teaser below is a nice bite while the two below may give away a tad too much.  The choice is yours.

 

Trailer #1
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs-JfPjgiA4

Trailer #2
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IdfGWfbNYI

Movie Review ~ The Gambler (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Both an English professor and a high-stakes gambler, Jim Bennett bets it all when he borrows from a gangster and offers his own life as collateral.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange, Brie Larson, Michael Kenneth Williams

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: If you must remake a movie, you should at least aim higher than the film you’re giving a new shine to.  That’s sage words of advice for any filmmaker but a message those behind The Gambler didn’t pay much attention to.  The original 1974 film was no classic but it’s leagues better than this sluggish rethinking that never antes up to the table though it has several aces up its sleeve.

Considering the script from Oscar winning screenwriter William Monahan (The Departed) was based on James Toback’s original I was surprised how very different the two movies are.  In fact, it may be wrong to call the movie a remake at all because although the structure follows the original in a very rough sense, many other changes have been made that don’t do any favors for anyone involved.

I’m a person that rarely goes to a casino and if I do, if I find myself even $10 up I’m ready to cash out and head home.  So it’s particularly frustrating me to watch films like The Gambler where characters can’t resist making that one last bet that obliterates their winnings.  It’s a scenario that happens over and over again here and it makes for exhausting viewing.

Mark Wahlberg (Transformers: Age of Extinction) is a floppy haired spoiled rich kid cum failed writer that teaches at a local college and has a nasty gambling habit.  Losing a nice chunk of change and borrowing from a gangster (Michael Kenneth Williams, RoboCop) to cover his losses, it isn’t long before he finds himself caught in the middle of the people he owes and having to figure out how to pay them back while keeping all of his appendages intact.

In Monahan’s script, all the women in Wahlberg’s life are either ice queens (Jessica Lange, Cape Fear, drastically underused and over Botox-ed as his chilly mother), moon-faced admirers (Brie Larson, The Spectacular Now), or strippers/prostitutes with little redeeming value.  At least in Toback’s original script the women represented some quality he was lacking.  Here they have virtually no purpose but to be roadblocks or doormats.

Especially troubling is the storyline that puts a star pupil (Larson) in position to be a love interest for Wahlberg.  Possessing no chemistry, the actors go through the embarrassing motions of courtship that culminates in an out of nowhere kiss that had one audience member at my screening exclaim “Are you KIDDING me?”

Between long soliloquies in the classroom setting that show how well Wahlberg can recite dialogue that makes him appear as if he could be a lit scholar and too many visits with a just this side of deadly loan shark (John Goodman, Argo) the film is less than two hours but feels 40 minutes longer than that.  Capping off with an eye-roll of a coda, this Gambler doesn’t even deserve a place at your cinematic table.  Skip it.

Movie Review ~ Unbroken

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a near-fatal plane crash in WWII, Olympian Louis Zamperini spends a harrowing 47 days in a raft with two fellow crewmen before he’s caught by the Japanese navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp

Stars: Jack O’Connell, Garrett Hedlund, Domhnall Gleeson, Finn Wittrock, Miyavi

Director: Angelina Jolie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’m still kicking myself for not finishing Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling novel about the life of Louis Zamperini but time just got away from me.  Unlike most films based on books that I’ve seen before reading the source material, the film treatment of Unbroken actually makes me want to go back and read the book.

The story of Zamperini’s fight for survival first on his 47 days on a raft in the ocean and then as a POW in WWII is the stuff that should have made for a movie with more impact than the one presented here on screen.  With a script from Joel and Ethan Cohen (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie (Maleficent) in the director’s chair I really expected this to be more of a winner than it winds up being.

It’s a strange occurrence, really, because Jolie has herself a strong leading man (Jack O’Connell) handling the life-changing moments of Zamperini with a believable air of resilience and an unbelievable true-life story with a seemingly endless supply of emotional twists.

All through the film I kept waiting for a time when I was moved to feel something beyond what was being presented in the current scene.  Several weeks after screening the film I’m still struggling to find where the film missed the mark or, perhaps, where I missed that moment.

Maybe it’s because aside from (and in addition to) O’Connell the rest of Jolie’s cast is filled with GQ-ready soldiers that look as if they were picked from an MTV casting session.  With their chiseled jaw-bones, washboard abs, and hair that stays perfectly coiffed even after two months exposed to the elements, Jolie’s soldiers felt like play-actors rather than true face of WWII soldiers.

The central villain of the piece also fares poorly on screen with Miyavi (a rock star in Japan) playing his devious Japanese guard more like a Bond villain than the unyielding tyrant Zamperini encountered.  Actually, Miyavi’s performance reminded me more of Jolie herself in Maleficent with his lines delivered in a soft purr that I’m guessing were intended to convey more of a sense of terror than they do.

On the production side, Unbroken’s atmosphere hits a bulls-eye.  From the striking costumes of Louise Frogley (Flight) to the production design of the various camps Zamperini encounters to Roger Deakins (Skyfall) sumptuous cinematography to Alexandre Desplat’s (Godzilla) unobtrusive score the effect really makes you feel like you’re watching a film of that time and era.  Even some muddled special effects somehow are forgivable.

Though I feel the film is missing a chunk of time to connect a few dots, it’s when we see the real Zamperini near the end when I felt that lump in my throat I’d been missing the last 120 minutes.  Perhaps Unbroken would have been better served going the documentary treatment rather than a dramatized one.  While it lacks overall impact and doesn’t exactly signal Jolie’s arrival as a significant director, it’s a story worth taking in. Reading the book may be a better option, though.

Movie Review ~ Into the Woods

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour, Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, Simon Russell Beale, Tammy Blanchard, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Richard Glover, Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If there’s one take-away from the big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s Into the Woods it would be that director Rob Marshall proves once again that it’s possible to transition a stage-bound work quite nicely to the silver screen.  As he did with his Oscar-winning Chicago (which, to be fair, was a far trickier beast to wrangle), Marshall brings a sense of wonderful theatricality to the proceedings that helps keep a saggy second act afloat.

Arriving on the heels of the disappointing remake/reboot of Annie, the first 75 minutes or so of Into the Woods is a gleefully wry take on the fairy tales we all grew up with.  There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) spunky as all get-out, even when faced with a zoot-suited Wolf (Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger) intent on making her his next meal.  Depp is, pardon the pun, howlingly bad in his brief cameo and you’ll be glad to know that his total screen time amounts to about 5 minutes…which still feels too long.

We also get Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) fresh-faced and clarion voiced even under a pile of soot.  Kendrick has true musical theater chops and Marshall gives her a wonderful moment to shine in a delightfully reimagined “On the Steps of the Palace” which takes place in a bit of suspended time as Cinderella ponders her next move.

Then there’s the Baker (James Corden, One Chance) and his wife (Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) so desperate for a child they agree to fetch items for a next-door Witch (Meryl Streep, Hope Springs) who promises in return to have the ‘curse reversed’.  Venturing into the woods (a-ha!) to find the items they run into Little Red, Cinderella, as well as a pre-Beanstalk Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and a variety of other storybook figures.

It’s within the first half of the film that the best scene arrives featuring two puff-chested Princes (Star Trek’s Chris Pine and Broadway newcomer Billy Magnussen) hysterically belaboring their romantic entanglements (one with Cinderella, one with Rapunzel) while traipsing around a waterfall.  It’s the crown jewel of a film sparkles quite a lot.

Then something happens…and if we were in a theater I would say it was Intermission.

You see, it’s in the second half of the film that I found the same sort of problems I have with the stage show.  I know that the whole point of the second act of Into the Woods is to show what happens “after happily ever after” and that’s all well and good but where the stage show becomes somewhat intriguingly heavy handed the screen musical loses its spark and never fully recovers.

That’s due in some small part to the ‘Disney-fication’ of the film.  With the House of Mouse forking over the dough for funding certain adjustments were necessitated and that includes softening of more than a few rough edges that helped define the stage musical.  Now, certain tragedies that helped drive the musical to a conclusion onstage are rather toothless here…with some changes downright confusing from a narrative point of view.  Even die-hard fans of the show may be left scratching their heads wondering what just happened.

Were the performances not so strong, this type of late in the game mishap may have spelled certain doom for Marshall and company but he’s assembled a frothy cast with several unexpected delights.  Streep is, of course, right on the money with her hag witch popping up (and in and out) at just the right moments.  She eschews the delivery of any previous Witch and makes the part wholly her own.  I question the decision in the second half to give her a peculiar set of buck-tooth veneers that have a worrisome impact on her speech but otherwise she looks and sounds exactly how you’d imagine.

The roly-poly Corden and ethereal Blunt make a nice pair and the two play off of each other quite nicely.  Both have pleasant voices with Blunt the real surprise as she tackles the difficult passages Sondheim created.  Crawford, Mauzy, and Magnussen acquit themselves nicely but as the film progressed I found that Pine’s bo-hunk royal, with his affected upper-crust accent, didn’t work for me.  Pine takes the cartoon-y nature of his character a bit too far and Marshall should have reined him in a bit.

With a gorgeous production design (the majority of the film was shot in a man-made forest) and Colleen Atwood’s trusty duds the film looks like a fairy tale come to life.  Even with a slower second half the film doesn’t feel long and breezes by as fast as Sondheim’s score.  Worth a trip into the theater.