Into the Woods


Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

(2014) Musical (Disney) Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Lilla Crawford, Tracy Ullman, Johnny Depp, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Annette Crosby, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding, Richard Glover, Pamela Betsy Cooper. Directed by Rob Marshall

We all of us grow up with fairy tales. The works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson are known to us if for no other reason than the Disney animations based on them.

In 1986 legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim took the characters from a number of different fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and turned it into a Broadway musical. The thing got rave reviews, a legion of fans and a boatload of Tony Awards. It is revived regularly to this day. Now Disney is taking it to the big screen and has enlisted Rob Marshall who was successful doing the same for Chicago.

\In a small village on the edge of a dark and deep forest lies a village in which lies a Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt). They are basically good and decent people who yearn to have a child of their own but they can’t seem to make it work. Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) stops by their shop and begs for bread to give to her ailing grandmother (Crosby). The good-hearted couple and Red takes a lot more than they bargained for.

They are then accosted by the Witch (Streep) who lives next door who informs them that their line is cursed because the Baker’s father (Beale) stole some magic beans from the Witch’s garden. Dear old dad fled and left the Baker on his own to run the business. However there’s a way out – if the Baker can gather a cow as white as snow, cloth as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, she can create a spell that will lift the curse and allow them to have children. There is a deadline however for the spell to work.

Elsewhere Cinderella (Kendrick) lives with her Stepmother (Baranski) and that lady’s two daughters – Florinda (Blanchard) and Lucinda (Punch) from a previous marriage – and is being generally ridiculed and abused by the three women. She longs to go to the King’s Ball but that isn’t going to happen; the girl is basically dressed in rags but a gown is required. She is met in the forest by Prince Charming (Pine) who notices the girl’s plucky courage at walking in the woods by herself.

Young Jack (Huttlestone) is somewhat dense and something of a dreamer. His mom (Ullman) is exasperated with the boy; they are very poor and the harvest was bad, their milk cow Milky White wasn’t giving milk and there simply won’t be enough food to last them through the winter. She tells him that he must sell the cow at the market in the village and sadly, he leads his only friend away to market.

Jack and the Baker meet up in the woods and the latter convinces the former to exchange the cow for some beans he had in his pocket which the Baker convinces Jack are magic beans. Jack takes the beans, the Baker takes the cow and when Jack’s mother finds out she furiously chucks the beans away. Turns out that those beans that were the magic beans the Baker’s father stole and had left in his hunting jacket that he’d left behind and which the Baker now wore into the woods. A giant beanstalk grows and you know what happens after that.

Actually, you know most of what happens up until about the middle of the story. Then things start going sideways. Happily ever afters are relatively rare in this or any other world and there are consequences for the things that we do and they aren’t always pleasant ones.

Marshall knows how to bring big production values to his stage adaptations and he utilizes them here. While the movie was mostly filmed on sets, the woods actually look like woods (the set was so realistic that Pine and Blunt got lost in the woods and had to be rescued by a production assistant). The singing which was mostly pre-recorded is also quite adequate, particularly by Streep who has an excellent set of pipes as we learned from Mamma Mia. In fact her performance as the witch is one of the standouts here; she gives a character who is ostensibly wicked depth and feeling, making her a more sympathetic creature than perhaps she has any right to be. Blunt, as the Baker’s wife, is flawed and makes mistakes but she has a wonderful heart and really tugs at the heartstrings late in the film. She also has some pretty fine chemistry with Corden.

Pine and Magnussen both provide comedy relief in the form of a song called “Agony” which involves much posing by a waterfall. We are reminded once again that fairy tales – and Disney for that matter – are all about the princess for a reason. In fact, most of the musical numbers are staged well, although the general complaint that I have with Sondheim is that he tends to overwork his musical themes to death and that is certainly the case here.

The juvenile actors are a little bit less satisfactory. While Crawford is adequate, Huttlestone overacts and sings like he’s in a junior high school play. I normally don’t like taking shots at young actors but it really was distracting from the overall film and lessened my enjoyment of it.

If you come into the theater expecting Once Upon a Time or Galavant from ABC (a subsidiary of Disney) you’re going to be shocked. The tone here is dark, very dark – particularly in the second act. There is some violence, people do get killed (sometimes onscreen as we watch) and people deal with grief, cheating spouses and imminent peril from a very pissed-off giant.

Nonetheless this is still more entertaining than I expected it to be, given that Marshall’s track record since Chicago has been pretty uneven. It also doesn’t have the magic I hoped it would have, given the love that the musical has enjoyed for decades. It’s good enough to recommend, but not good enough to rave over.

REASONS TO GO: Decent performances and some unexpected twists and turns. Fairly strong representation of the Broadway show.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A few disturbing images, a suggestive scene involving adultery and some adult thematic material as well as fantasy action and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ironically, Emily Blunt who plays a woman unable to have a baby was pregnant during the shoot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Two Faces of January

Jack the Giant Slayer


Think of it as "rural renewal".

Think of it as “rural renewal”.

(2013) Fantasy (New Line) Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Ian McShane, Stanley Tucci, Bill Nighy, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Christopher Fairbank, Simon Lowe, Mingus Johnston, Ralph Brown, Warwick Davis, Joy McBrinn, Lee Boardman, Tandi Wright. Directed by Bryan Singer

Fee, Fai, Fo, Fum…I smell the blood of a Hollywoodman. A beloved fairy tale is given the reel CGI treatment and turns out a cut above other recent celluloid fairy tales.

Jack (Hoult) is the son of a farmer recently passed of the plague. He lives with his uncle (Fairbank) who is stressed out – money makes the world go round even in the world of Grimm. As a boy, Jack’s father read him the bedtime story of the mighty King Erik the Great, who fought the evil giants who lived in a land between Heaven and Earth and has used magic seeds to grow enormous beanstalks that rose to the land of th Giants. It was only through the use of a magic crown forged from the heart of a giant that allowed Erik to vanquish his much larger and stronger foes.

Isabelle (Tomlinson) has heard the same tale only from her other the Queen (who, like Jack’s father passes away before the opening credits) and yearns for adventures of her own. Her good but misguided father, King Brahmwell (McShane) has betrothed his headstrong daughter to his advisor Roderick (Tucci), a man she thoroughly loathes. She is constantly slipping out of the castle to mingle among the common folk much to the consternation of Sir Elmont (McGregor), the brave and noble knight charged with the protection of the Princess. Not an easy task to say the least.

Roderick has in fact discovered the magic crown and remaining beans and means to use them to get to the Land of the Giants and lead them in conquest of the entire Earth (why have one kingdom when you can have it all?) or at least the parts they can reach. A monk (Lowe) has stolen the beans and manages to pass them on to Jack while he is at market trying to sell his horse. Jack takes the beans home, not knowing what they are.

In the middle of a rainstorm, the Princess (who is out on one of her adventures) seeks shelter from a storm in the farmhouse Jack lives in. The two hit it off but accidentally activate the beans which of course grow a beanstalk, sending the farmhouse up into the clouds. Jack is knocked senseless in a fall, discovered by the King and Elmont who are out searching for the wayward Princess.

They quickly discover the story of the giants was no myth and the giants, led by the fearsome two-headed General Fallon (Nighy) have quite the mad on about humans and also the treachery of Roderick is revealed. Jack will have to rescue the princess and warn the King before it’s too late – but who will believe him?

If you gathered 100 people together, I doubt you’d find even one who would name “Jack and the Beanstalk” their favorite fairy tale and therein lies the main obstacle for the filmmakers. They need to take a story that is well-known but not necessarily beloved and make it appealing for modern day moviegoers. That’s no easy feat – ask the makers of recent fairy tale adaptations like Mirror, Mirror. There needs to be a balance between light and dark to appeal to children who prefer the light but at the same time dark enough because as Christopher Nolan will tell you dark sells.

Nicholas Hoult, who has shown promise in recent roles like Warm Bodies is an engaging hero, likable and charismatic. He is still a bit raw but he shows every sign of graduating up the ranks into the pantheon of A-list stars. He’s not quite there yet but his work here illustrates that he has the tools to get there. He’s come a long way since About a Boy.

Tomlinson I’m less sure about. Her performance isn’t particularly memorable but to be fair she’s given kind of a lousy hand to play with. Sure, Isabelle has spunk but then she spends most of the film being rescued. Note to filmmakers: the reason little girls are so obsessed with Disney princesses is that they are given girls who are not only glamorous and beautiful but also self-reliant and heroic. Most Disney princesses will like as not be the ones doing the rescuing; they don’t need a prince to do the job for them.

The giants are kind of fun, although there’s not a single giantess – apparently these humanoids reproduce asexually. They have a variety of looks which is to the good, from the two-headed Fallon to the squat-headed Fum. They are kind of goofy-looking and not particularly scary, but they unleash a good deal of mayhem and find human flesh to be a delicacy. It’s not so much the look of the giants but their actions that might induce nightmares in the very young.

The CGI is fairly impressive in most places, with the beanstalks themselves some of the best of the computer generated filmmaking here. They are labyrinthine, semi-realistic (real world physics would collapse the structure of the beanstalks if ever a magic bean makes its way to our dimension) and impressive. The castle of Cloister and the Giant’s Castle are both impressively rendered, a tribute to the set designer as well (Gavin Bocquet, take a bow).

Sadly the story doesn’t pass muster. It’s fairly predictable and despite McGregor’s and Tucci’s best efforts and bringing comic relief, it lacks a lighter side that will make this more palatable for parents. However, thanks to Hoult and director Singer’s acumen with action scenes and CGI, the movie actually is much better than I expected it to be. In a year which has been off to a rocky start in terms of quality movies, that’s as good as a goose that lays golden eggs.

REASONS TO GO: Hoult has A list potential. McGregor and Tucci are fun. Some fairly decent eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Some fairly significant plot holes.

FAMILY VALUES:  While most of the giants aren’t terribly frightening in looks, the damage they do (and is done to them) is and there are a few foul words thrown in for good measure.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: D.J. Caruso was initially set to direct but was replaced in 2010 with Singer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 51% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100; the reviews were fair to middlin’.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Love Crime

Puss in Boots


Puss in Boots

Some cats are just cooler than others.

(2011) Animated Feature (DreamWorks) Starring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Zach Galifianakis, Billy Bob Thornton, Amy Sedaris, Constance Marie, Guillermo del Toro, Ryan Crego, Tom Wheeler, Conrad Vernon, Nina Barry. Directed by Chris Miller

Some characters are larger than life. Others are life-sized. Some are one size fits all. However, there are those characters, rare as they might be, that leave such an indelible impression that it doesn’t matter what size the canvas is, they seem to dominate it large or small.

Puss in Boots (Banderas) is a kitty raised in an orphanage in the tiny town of San Ricardo under the loving guidance of Imelda (Marie). He befriends Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Galifianakis), an egg who endures constant humiliation at the hands of his fellow orphans. Humpty longs to go on adventures, particularly finding the magic beans that will grow a beanstalk that will take them to a castle where the goose that lays the golden eggs resides. Such a goose would make him wealthy beyond imagining.

Humpty proves to have few scruples and ends up robbing a bank which the felicitous feline is framed for. Puss goes on the run, becoming an accomplished cat burglar, the finest in all of Spain. When he hears about the magic beans turning up in the hands of a couple of unsavory sorts named Jack (Thornton) and Jill (Sedaris), he runs into another party who is interested in the same merchandise – Kitty Softpaws (Hayek), a competitor of like skills.

It turns out Kitty has been meant to bring Puss aboard a more elaborate attempt to capture the beans, one masterminded by Humpty. Puss trusts the egg about as far as he can fry him but Humpty proves persuasive and the quest begins. Can Puss redeem himself and give up the outlaw life?

This is meant to be a prequel to the events of the Shrek movies and to the credit of the writers and filmmakers they take it far away from the landscape dominated by the jolly green ogre and place the action in what is identified as Spain but looks more like the California of the Zorro series (there are many allusions to Zorro, a nice touch as Banderas famously played the part in two hit movies). That reminds me a little bit of Rango, but there is definitely more of an Old California feel to it.

The Puss character that Banderas has brought to life is a compelling one. He is in many ways a stereotypical Latin hero – brave, loyal, honorable and irresistible to the ladies. He’s no different than Zorro in that regard.  However, he has the feline cockiness that is absent in the masked hero, plus a hint of a sophisticated cat thief a la David Niven in Pink Panther.

He has an able adversary in Hayek, who has worked with Banderas extensively in the El Mariachi series from Robert Rodriguez, among other films. She gives Kitty a certain sauciness (sorry, couldn’t resist) and a bit of a sexual tension (as sexual as tension can get in a family animated film anyway). They make a fine duo.

Humpty is not a terrific character, although Galifianakis gives it a good go. Unfortunately, he’s too much like the Syndrome character from The Incredibles as voiced by Jason Lee for my comfort. He’s just…a rotten egg (I’m having trouble resisting today).

This is a good looking movie that has some of the sass of the Shrek series but not enough of it, although it distances itself wisely in other ways. Puss could certainly carry a franchise all by his lonesome and I don’t doubt given the opening weekend success that a sequel that might bridge the gap between this movie and Puss’ first appearance in Shrek 2 might not be unwelcome.

I liked the movie and it has a good shot at a Best Animated Feature Oscar next February, with this being an off-year for animated features in terms of quality. However, this seriously doesn’t measure up with the best of the Shrek series let alone any of the Pixar gems; it’s kind of upper middle of the pack in that regard. Hopefully the next one will be better; until then, good enough will have to suffice.

REASONS TO GO: Puss is a compelling character and taking him completely out of the Shrek landscape was a smart move.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot is nothing much to write home about. Nothing really got a huge laugh.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few jokes that are on the rude side.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally meant to be a direct-to-DVD release but DreamWorks decided because of home video market conditions to make it as a theatrical release instead. It is the first film in the Shrek franchise not to be set in Far Far Away, Duloc or Shrek’s swamp.

HOME OR THEATER: If you have kids you’re going to see it in a theater sooner or later. Might as well make it sooner.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Daredevil