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

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Red Riding Hood


Red Riding Hood

Gary Oldman reacts to charges that this is Twilight with werewolves.

(2011) Romantic Fantasy (Warner Brothers) Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Shiloh Fernandez, Max Irons, Virginia Madsen, Julie Christie, Lukas Haas, Shauna Kane, Michael Hogan, Adrian Holmes, Cole Heppell, Michael Shanks. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke

The woods are deep and dark for a reason. There are things there that defy the world we know and keep to the shadows, leaping out only when some helpless unsuspecting maiden passes by.

Valerie (Seyfried) lives in a bucolic village in the woods surrounded by snow-capped mountains. It is winter and the woods have become dark and threatening. It is full moon night and a sacrifice is being left out for the wolf that has beset their village for generations.

She has been in love with Peter (Fernandez), a woodcutter who works with her father Cesaire (Burke) who mostly drinks. Her mother Suzette (Madsen) however has promised her to another – Henry (Irons), the blacksmith’s boy and considerably well-to-do in a village like this. It’s a great match – only Valerie loves Peter, not Henry.

Things start to go wrong when Valerie’s sister turns up dead at the hands of the wolf. The townspeople go out to hunt the beast dead. It turns out the hunters killed a beast but not the beast. They call in Father Solomon (Oldman), an expert hunter who asserts they have a werewolf at work – and the beast lives among them in their human form.

Suspicion turns on everyone, from Valerie’s quirky grandma (Christie) living out in the woods by herself to Valerie herself. At first the villagers pooh-pooh the good Father but when the werewolf crashes their celebration, there is no longer any doubt that they are dealing with a diabolical beast. But which one of them is it? And can they stop the beast in time?

Director Catherine Hardwicke last did Twilight and obviously this is the kind of thing that is in her comfort zone. It has all the elements that made that movie a hit; a virginal lead forced to choose between two hotties that have a secret that involves the supernatural. However, what this movie lacks is that sense of tragedy that makes the hearts of teen girls go pitter pat. Twilight works because there’s that knowledge that Bella and Edward can never be together and because if they do, they will both be changed forever.

That’s not here at all; there’s nothing epic about the romantic angle at all and say what you will about the Twilight series, that quality is there in spades. You have to care about the couple in a romantic fantasy or else it doesn’t work. Here, the sparks never really fly. Seyfried is a fine actress and Fernandez and Irons are both pretty good in their own rights, but the chemistry fails here.

The location is really beautiful which is inevitable because it’s mostly computer generated. Majestic snow-capped mountains, endless dark green swaths of forest and quaint vaguely-Germanic villages make it a fantasy setting right out of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. In a sense, the location is too perfect, too bucolic – at times the sense of menace that should be palpable is overwhelmed by the charm of the setting.

The werewolf itself is also a bit of a letdown – it’s more of a big shaggy dog than anything else and the wolfish side which should be wild and untamed is suborned by a silly ability to communicate telepathically with Valerie. He comes off like a talking animal and less of a ferocious monster. So as a horror movie, this doesn’t really work either.

So it boils down to suspense, figuring out who the werewolf is. Quite frankly, it’s not that hard – Da Queen figured it out pretty damn quickly, even more so than her movie-loving husband. Still, it’s not difficult to spot the wolf, as it were – and that is also a problem.

It’s a movie that needed more guidance from the writer; it’s almost as if three different studio executives with three different ideas for the movie were telling the writer “More romance. No, more horror. No, it’s gotta have suspense.” In trying to be something for everybody it ends up being nothing to anybody.

REASONS TO GO: Some beautiful-looking sequences. Some of the music is impressive.

REASONS TO STAY: Isn’t terrifying enough to be horror; not sentimental enough to be romance; too mundane to be a suspense film.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s violence and sensuality, along with some creature feature-like thrills.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Actor Max Irons is the son of Jeremy Irons.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the wide CGI vistas are best seen at the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Inugami

New Releases for the Week of March 11, 2011


March 11, 2011

Even alien invaders love to blow a good smoke ring.

BATTLE: LOS ANGELES

(Columbia) Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan, Ne-Yo, Michael Pena, Ramon Rodriguez, Noel Fisher. Directed by Jonathan Liebesman

Those pesky aliens are back and they are after Los Angeles in a big way. Having taken over most of the rest of the world, they only have L.A. to take down and then Earth is theirs. Mankind will make its last stand in the City of Angels, which could be bad news for mankind;  saving the planet might have to wait if there’s really bad traffic.

See the trailer, promos, interviews, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Science Fiction Action

Rating: PG-13 (for sustained and intense sequences of war violence and destruction and for language)

Even the Rain 

(Vitagraph) Gael Garcia Bernal, Luis Tosar, Karra Elejalde, Raul Arevalo. A film crew making a movie about the landing of Christopher Columbus in the Americas becomes involved with the fight of native aboriginals of Bolivia to secure water rights in the small village of Cochabamba. The concurrent story of Columbus’ affect on the natives as well as their fight for rights in the 21st century makes for a powerful juxtaposition.

See the trailer and a clip here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Drama

Rating: NR

Mars Needs Moms

(Disney) Starring the voices of Seth Green, Dan Fogler, Joan Cusack, Mindy Kaling. From the folks that brought you The Polar Express comes this new motion capture film about a young boy who, like most young boys, resents his mother because she demands soooo much from him. When she is kidnapped to provide some mothering to Martian children, however, he accidentally stows away and realizes he must find a way to bring her back home and along the way gets an interesting new perspective on what it means to be a parent.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard, 3D, IMAX 3D

Genre: Animated Science Fiction Feature

Rating: PG (for for sci-fi action and peril)

Red Riding Hood

(Warner Brothers) Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman, Billy Burke, Virginia Madsen. When a werewolf terrorizes a small village, a famed wolf hunter is called in to help hunt down the beast. When he declares that the beast is human by day, suspicion falls on a young girl and several who are close to her. When it appears she has a connection with the werewolf, she becomes prime suspect numero uno – or, failing that, bait for the beast.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Release formats: Standard

Genre: Horror

Rating: R (for violence and creature terror, and some sensuality)