The Silver Bullet ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017)

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Synopsis: An adaptation of the classic fairy-tale about a monstrous prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Release Date: March 17, 2017

Thoughts: Gosh darn it, there’s no denying that Disney is sure on a winning streak with re-purposing their animated fairy-tale canon as live action films. After the winning success of 2015’s Cinderella and the eye-popping visuals of The Jungle Book, Disney is unleashing the big guns in 2017 with their production of Beauty and the Beast.  Already well represented in the flesh in a Broadway show and touring companies around the world, the stars are aligning for this to be one beauty of a movie. This first teaser gave me legit goosebumps, mostly due to the creative use of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s haunting score and the briefest of first looks at Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) as Belle and the voices of Ian McKellen (The Wolverine) and Ewan McGregor (August: Osage County) as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively.  In future trailers I’m sure we’ll see more of Dan Stevens (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) as Beast, Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) as Gaston, Audra McDonald (Ricki and the Flash) as Garderobe, Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) as Mrs. Potts, and Kevin Kline (The Big Chill) as Maurice.  Directed by Bill Condon (Mr. Holmes), I’m praying it’s light on gimmicky CGI and retains the heart that made the animated film such an instant classic.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Jungle Book (2016)

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Synopsis: An orphan boy is raised in the jungle with the help of a pack of wolves, a bear, and a black panther.

Release Date: April 15, 2016

Thoughts: You’ve got to hand it to Disney, while other studios are remaking/rebooting their films (sometimes cannibalizing them along the way), the House of Mouse is taking an interesting approach and remaking their classic animated endeavors as larger than life live-action spectacles. With the success of the rides turned movies like Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (let’s forget The Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears happened, shall we?) and a splendid live-action of Cinderella, it’s looking like it is going to become a yearly event to see cartoons come to life. First up is The Jungle Book and it’s a challenging property I wouldn’t have thought Disney would take on so early but the first look presented here feels like an exciting take on the much loved story of a Mowgli and his jungle friends. Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and featuring the voices of Bill Murray (Aloha), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3), and Christopher Walken (Jersey Boys), it’s a wild gamble that I’m sure Disney is hoping will pay off…especially with a live-action Beauty and the Beast being prepped for 2017.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Finest Hours

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Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.

Release Date:  January 29, 2016

Thoughts: I’m happy to see that the Walt Disney Studios continues to give a fair share of their time to produce live-action films to balance out their animation division.  True, I think the time has passed for the classic entertainment of their hey-day of the ‘50s and ‘60s but they seem committed to releasing stories that resonate with audiences.  It’s also true that the efforts can be hit or miss.  I loved 2015’s McFarland U.S.A. but was fairly underwhelmed with 2014’s Million Dollar Arm…thanks to Jon Hamm’s lackluster leading man performance and story told from the wrong perspective.  The director of that film, Craig Gillespie, is on board for Disney’s 2016 film The Finest Hours and it already looks like an improvement over his previous effort.

The true life tale of the “most daring rescue attempt in Coast Guard history”, this period piece boasts a nice assemblage of character actors and Chris Pine (Into the Woods) as the leading man.  As usual, I think the trailer is too long and gives too much away for a film of this nature…but if the final product captures that old-school Disney storytelling magic all will certainly be forgiven.

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.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Into the Woods (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: A witch conspires to teach important lessons to various characters of popular children’s stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel.

Release Date:  December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Though some have turned their noses up at Stephen Sondheim’s musical being given the big screen treatment by Walt Disney Studios, this final trailer for Into the Woods looks positively charming. Considering the budget was “only” 40 million dollars, I’m happy to see that a lot of that money was seemingly spent on actual sets and not some CGI created world for the impressive roster of actors to play out Sondheim and James Lapine’s sly take on the fairy tales we all grew up with. Meryl Streep (Hope Springs) sounds like a perfect Witch and while I’m not too keen on the notion of Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) as Cinderella or Johnny Depp (The Lone Ranger) as a zoot-suit wearing Wolf, I’ve got a feeling director Rob Marshall will wrangle this into one enchanting evening.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to The Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

Release Date:  May 1, 2015

Thoughts:  Summer 2014 isn’t quite a distant memory yet (though with the paltry offerings it very well should be) but audiences are already looking toward the treasures that 2015 has to offer.  First on most every “must-see” list is this sequel to the super-duper big time hit of 2012 Marvel’s The Avengers which sees the whole gang in front of behind the camera reunited to drum up some more box office gold for Walt Disney and Marvel Studios.  Like The Dark Knight, I wonder if the bar has been raised so far that the sequel won’t be able to reach the same heights…but never count dependable writer/director Joss Whedon out because it’s clear he knows what he’s doing.  The countdown to May 2015 has officially begun with this nifty little tease at what deadly force The Avengers are about to face…I know I’ll have that dang Pinocchio tune in my head for days now.

Movie Review ~ Thor: The Dark World

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Faced with an enemy that even Odin and Asgard cannot withstand, Thor must embark on his most perilous and personal journey yet, one that will reunite him with Jane Foster and force him to sacrifice everything to save us all.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgård, Idris Elba, Christopher Eccleston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Zachary Levi, Tadanobu Asano, Jaimie Alexander, Rene Russo, Anthony Hopkins

Director: Alan Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I wasn’t the biggest fan of 2011’s Thor, feeling that for a modern day superhero adventure it was awfully slow and relied too much on special effects imagery to create its fantasy lands in which our hero fought various villains.  Though it was a well-made affair, it paled in comparison to the shoot for the moon efforts from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and lacked the nostalgic feel that Captain America: The First Avenger brought forth.

Well, with a few years and another film appearance under his belt (2012’s Marvel’s The Avengers) Thor has returned and if he’s not better than ever, he’s at least stepped up his game in an attempt to go to bat with the big boys of summer.

The plot for Thor: The Dark World is so convoluted that even if I weren’t a spoiler-free type of critic I wouldn’t know how to succinctly describe the events of the film.  All you’ll need to know is that once again the forces of darkness have set their sights on conquering Thor’s land of Asgard with a greater scheme of reducing our Earth to smithereens for total world domination.  So, in Marvel speak, just another day at the bad guy office.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Snow White and the Hunstman, Cabin in the Woods, Rush) meets up again with Jane (Natalie Portman) but instead of fighting the battle within her world he brings her back to Asgard because she holds the key to its survival…and destruction.  This leaves some of the earthbound players of the first film with mere cameos and beefs up the presence of the Asgard folk that were sidelined in the original.

Hemsworth sports a better wig and about five more expressions than he had the last time and in general seems to have more fun with the role.  As the star of the show, he has to work extra hard to keep the focus of the audience because Tom Hiddleston’s Loki returns as the bad guy you love to hate.  Loki wants to take a lot from Thor that isn’t his…and in doing so Hiddleston the actor nearly scampers off with the movie as well.  In his third go at the role, Hiddleston’s characterization only deepens so that the audience, like Thor, doesn’t really know where his loyalties lie from minute to minute.

Even with more screen time, Portman has precious little to do here but lay helpless as a dark force begins to take over her body.  It was widely reported that Portman was resistant to return to the film after a female director she brought on board was let go by the producers as filming approached.  I’m not sure if that affected what happened in the script but it’s surprising to see Portman play such a one-dimensional role this far into her career.

Television director Alan Taylor makes his feature film debut with a film that feels more cohesive than the overly theatrical gusto of the Kenneth Branagh helmed predecessor.  Even with its kitchen sink plot, Taylor manages to keep things in line…which is why Marvel may have chosen him over Portman’s original selection.  Though these films are designed to stand on their own, there’s little doubt that a larger game plan for future installments and crossovers hasn’t already been etched out somewhere in the basement of a Hollywood film studio.  In that respect, Thor: The Dark World seems to be content in being part of something bigger and not trying to reach so far ahead of its limited appeal in my eyes.

A strong improvement over the original, I’m still hesitant to give myself over fully to the Norse god that wields that powerful hammer.  Though he’s now shown a softer side and his ability to play well with others, there’s an otherworldly aura to both Thor films that has kept this viewer grounded instead of taking off.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Muppets Most Wanted

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Synopsis: While on a grand world tour, the Muppets find themselves wrapped into an European jewel-heist caper headed by a Kermit lookalike and his dastardly sidekick.

Release Date:  March 21, 2014

Thoughts: The Muppets never go out of style so it’s nice to see that a sequel was created to follow-up on 2011’s pleasant but not very ground-breaking attempt to re-boot our fuzzy felt friends.  It’s hard to put a finger on exactly why that movie didn’t play as well as it should have – I think it’s because the presence of Jason Segal and Amy Adams overshadowed the true stars of the show a bit too much.  I’m excited that the sequel seems more Muppet focused in an old-school sorta way with stars popping up in cameos and a few familiar faces taking on supporting roles.  We have to wait until spring of 2014 to go on another spree with the Muppets and this teaser is a nice glimpse at what we can expect.

Movie Review ~ Oz The Great and Powerful

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A small-time magician arrives in an enchanted land and is forced to decide if he will be a good man or a great one.

Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bruce Campbell

Director: Sam Raimi

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  When this project was first announced I remember being both horrified and excited at the prospect of a prequel to The Wizard of Oz.  The horrified part of me couldn’t imagine why a studio would want to get within ten feet of one of the most beloved films in history.  Excitement came from the rundown of talented artists that would be bringing Oz to life for Walt Disney Studios: director Raimi, composer, Danny Elfman, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, and an award winning crew of visual effects craftspeople.

So even if the final project isn’t everything some dreamed it would be, the more I think about Oz the Great and Powerful (and I have found it on my mind a lot in the week since I’ve seen it) the more I appreciated it.

Getting right down to it, this prequel to the events that take place before Dorothy drops in is really just a re-telling of that later story but with the would-be Wizard taking the place of the girl in blue gingham and ruby red slippers.  The film opens on a county fair where magician Oz (a miscast Franco…more on him later) is wowing the small town crowd with his tricks.  Not a bad magician, he has no heart so he can never be truly great…and to top it all off he’s a blowhard lacking in the charm department.

It’s not long before a twister tunnels by and sweeps Oz away in a hot air balloon to the magical land of…well…Oz.  It’s a sign!  At least that’s what naïve witch Theodora (a marginally miscast Kunis…more on HER later) thinks when she witnesses Oz fall from the sky.  Taking him to meet her sister Evanora (a perfectly cast Weisz), Oz eventually finds himself on the hunt for the Wicked Witch terrorizing the land with her flying baboons.  Along the way he’ll meet another witch or two (one of the green variety) and learn a thing or two about friendship, honesty, and finds out there’s more to his magic than meets the eye.

That’s the gist of things and fans of The Wizard of Oz (either the movie or L. Frank Baum’s library of Oz-ian tomes) need not fret that this film will sully the image of Oz…that will surely be done by 2014’s Legend’s of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.  Like the stage musical Wicked, this movie connects a few of the dots to its 1939 predecessor and those paying careful attention will see that the filmmakers have inserted a number of references to the previous film like using magical Oz-ian characters as Kansas counterparts .

Two bits of casting have received the most attention since the film was released and I can’t say that some of the gripes haven’t been justified.  Franco is simply not the man for the job here and he’s painfully miscast as Oz.  When you consider Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were the first choices for the wizard an extra pang hits you for the performance that might have been.  Kunis (Ted) isn’t as bad as the reviews say but she struggles quite a bit for at least the first 2/3 of the film.  I felt she got better as her character progressed but it never really lands like it should.

The good news is that Weisz and Williams are so good as Evanora and Glinda that you almost forget they are sharing scenes with lackluster partners.  Weisz wipes the floor with them all, though, in a cleverly coy role rife with lip smacking and glinting eyes.  She’s the one actor that doesn’t let the sumptuous effects dictate her performance.  Williams is strong too but at times it felt like she hadn’t fully shed her Marilyn Monroe persona as Glinda the Good (or is she?)  Braff and King steal their fair share of scenes in dual roles and Raimi peppers his supporting cases with journeymen actors from his stable.

Effects-wise, Oz looks incredible.  Produced by the same team that brought us the mind-crushingly awful Alice in Wonderland reboot a few years back, they’ve wisely stayed away from that super fake looking Wonderland world for a slightly more realized take on Oz.  It’s still too CGI heavy for me but there’s no denying that the movie is a true feast for the eyes.  Elfman’s score doesn’t stray too far from his norm of notes but he’s tailored it to whip up some magical moments of his own.

Very rarely do I find that 3D is really worth the upcharge but Oz is a film that really should be seen through a pair of 3D glasses.  The opening shots in glorious black and white are presented in a small aspect ratio (picture size), emulating a film from that era.  The 3D is purposely less “deep” in these shots to play in nice contrast with the added depth once we get to the Technicolor Oz.  Though prices for the 3D experience have risen, this is one film that’s more than worth it.

When the screening I saw was through, I wasn’t quite ready to make a final call on what I thought of the film but found that it was on my mind often in the following days.  No, it’s not a perfect film or the most original storyline…but it’s a visually arresting wonder that impressed me the longer it lingered in my memory.  Rumor is that plans are afoot for another sequel and based on what I saw here, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.  Would it be weird to recast Franco, though?

The Silver Bullet ~ Oz: The Great and Powerful – Trailer #2

Synopsis: How the Wizard arrived in Oz and became the ruler. A prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Release Date:  March 8, 2013

Thoughts: As I mentioned in my review of the teaser trailer for Oz: The Great and Powerful, I’m getting a strong vibe of revisionism along the lines of Tim Burton’s misguided Alice in Wonderland.  Still, the Oz books have a wealth of adventure to them and I’m interested to see what screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and whip smart playwright David Lindsay-Abaire bring forth.  The visuals certainly look stunning and never underestimate the power of Oz…though with this trailer I’m officially on the fence about the value of Franco’s contribution to the film.  He’s such a modern style actor that I’m not convinced (yet) he’s the man who would be Oz.  Thankfully, he’s backed up by a trio of dependable ladies (Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Mila Kunis) that should even things out.  Director Sam Raimi has worked wonders in film storytelling in the past – he might be the true man behind the curtain of the success or failure of the film.