Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Movie Review: 'Into the Woods' with Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine

Chris Pine as the Prince (Walt Disney Studios).
Sondheim purists always wince when a film adaptation of one of his musicals is planned, mainly due to the disastrous reception A Little Night Music (1977), featuring an unfortunately-cast Elizabeth Taylor, received upon its release.

When it was announced that Tim Burton would be helming an adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street back in 2006, with Johnny Depp as the murderous Todd, fans of the stage version groaned. Happily, Burton delivered an R-rated, gore-drenched black comedy wallowing in the filth and disease prevalent in 1800s London, and Depp — though light of voice — was a fine Todd.

Into the Woods is another piece that had been promised for years, so when Disney finally got around to actually putting it into production with Meryl Streep as the Witch and Rob Marshall as director, fans and industry insiders alike were forced to pause and consider — well, Streep can sing, after all, and Marshall is an Oscar nominee for Chicago — so let’s wait and see.

Critics are always going to be polarized by any film adaptation of a beloved stage production. If they admired the original, they’re going to hold the film version up to the world’s most powerful microscope and howl over every missing detail. But we're talking about two distinctly different animals here.

I first saw the show in L.A. in 1989, and have watched the PBS “Great Performances” version several times since, so I was initially skeptical, especially upon hearing that Disney had lightened the material and cut some songs. However, I can happily give this film version a hearty recommendation, provided the viewer: a) is familiar with the show and knows what to expect; b) loves movie musicals; and c) is open-minded about changes that need to happen in order to make the transition from stage to screen.
Emily Blunt and James Corden (Walt Disney Studios).

As you may or may not know, Woods is a mashup of familiar fairy tale tropes — Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, the Baker, his Wife and — of course — the Witch. The story follows them to their separate happy endings — and then shows what happens afterward.
Woods features a strong cast with good singing voices. Anna Kendrick makes for a lovely Cinderella, Emily Blunt and James Corden are great as the baker and his wife, and Lilla Crawford brings the smarts and sass as Red Riding Hood. Young Daniel Huttlestone and Tracey Ullman are also a delight as Jack and his mother. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are hilarious as the handsome, posturing princes, and their shirt-ripping duet of “Agony” is splendidly staged.

Critics are smacking Depp around for phoning in his performance as Red Riding Hood’s Wolf, but give him a break. The Wolf has always been a campy secondary character, and points must be given to Depp for emphasizing the salaciousness directed toward the young, virginal and underage Red. He even opens his coat to “expose” a tempting selection of candy. If anything, his costume isn't as amusingly lewd as the stage version, in which the wolf's — ahem — gender is clear to see.

Filmed at the venerable Shepperton Studios in Surrey, Woods looks just beautiful, perfectly capturing the ethereal fairytale world. Dion Beebe’s cinematography is luminous, and Dennis Gassner’s handsome production design brings the kingdom to vivid life. There are some well-used special effects, which actually help to elevate the lyrics in some songs, whose recurring themes of exploring and venturing outside one’s own gate become rather redundant onstage with its limited visuals. Here, we can actually see where they’re going and it expands the experience.
Meryl Streep as the Witch (Peter Mountain, Walt Disney Studios).

That said, these effects are almost all piled into Disney’s trailer, convincing some audiences that this is a fantasy rather than a full-on musical. I saw probably 20 people leave the theater about half an hour in, but that's bound to happen. And I didn't see the validity in complaints about lightening the material. Characters still die, and there a couple of nasty blindings and amputations thrown in for good measure. If anything, the minor trimming helped to streamline Act Two, which frankly dragged onstage.

As for Streep? She remains the star here. Ageless, timeless and genre-less, she continues to give everything she’s involved in everything she’s got, whether it’s an embarrassment like the execrable Mamma Mia or a knockout like the small but beautiful Marvin’s Room. With Into the Woods, she delivers the witch that Sondheim — and audiences — deserve.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Best in Television of 2014

It's hard to believe that another year has breezed by, and it's time to look back on the wide world of entertainment. Here are my picks for the year in television.

The big four networks continued to make strides toward irrelevance as they continued to offer such earth-shaking fare as Dancing with the Has-Beens, American Shrieker, Modern Smug and Unfunny Family and Three and a Half Douchebags. Cable, as always, was the place to see imaginative and innovative work.

With Breaking Bad all done and The Walking Dead deteriorating into a bloody bore, FX rushed in to grab the edgy programming mantle from AMC, and brought some good stuff to the screen this year.  

The Master in The Strain
The Strain is enjoyably bizarre sci-fi from Guillermo Del Toro, chronicling an outbreak of alien vampirism in New York.

Multi-layered and constantly shifting through locations and time periods, it's packed with so many ideas that you'd think your eyes would roll into the back of your head from the complexity of it all, but Del Toro and Chuck Hogan, working from their novels, manage to keep it all fitting together like the world's most complicated jigsaw puzzle. And we get trademark Del Toro creepy flourishes, too. I can't wait for Season Two.

Back for its fourth season on FX is American Horror Story: Freak Show. Unless this season makes some serious missteps, it will stand as one of the most unique and moving testaments to "otherness" that television has ever offered. In one fell swoop, creator Ryan Murphy takes on prejudice — against minorities, the LGBT community, and people who just happen to look different — and grabs it by the throat, throttling it until it's (hopefully) dead.

AHS: Freak Show's pinheads
Not to mention how far Freak Show is pushing the envelope in terms of violence and sexuality. Almost every episode has a scene or an incident that shocks with its extremism. The sex is "R" territory, the violence is bloody. Kathy Bates is sure to get an Emmy nom as the hilariously Baltimore-accented Bearded Lady, as will Finn Wittrock as the seriously sick Dandy.

I just hope it resists kitchen sinking in the way the first and third seasons did. Murphy needs to trust the plot and character decisions he's made, and resist the temptation to heap incident upon incident until it all comes crashing down. Coven, after a hilarious "who's come back to life now?" season, devolved into a ridiculous Bewitched episode for the finalé. Let's hope that fate doesn't befall Freak Show. Some wags are already complaining, but it hasn't jumped the shark for me yet.

The Silicon Valley gang
Mike Judge came back to the small(er) screen this year with HBO's Silicon Valley, a scathing and absolutely hilarious skewering of the world of tech start ups.

Packed with turtleneck-wearing Steve Jobs wannabes touching their fingertips together and endlessly harping about "making the world a better place," the show centers on a small company, Pied Piper, and its first experiences navigating the treacherous waters of Palo Alto.

Having worked in the Valley himself in the late '80s, Judge has a feel for how these characters talk and behave — and all the inherent pretentiousness. This is another series I'm looking forward to continuing with next year.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, host of Cosmos
Thirty years after Carl Sagan's original, executive producer Seth McFarlane and host Neil deGrasse Tyson were back to blow the minds of a new generation with Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, demonstrating that reality can be much more awe-inspiring than fiction. Quality education and entertainment in one smart package!

Tackling such heady subjects as black holes, the expansion of the universe and the way light works, Tyson made them comprehensible but no less "whooaahhh"-inducing. And the fact that it made so many creationists' heads explode was an added bonus. They even petitioned deGrasse to give them equal time on the program in order to present a "fair and balanced" view of how the universe began. Fair and balanced? Where have I heard that before? ...

Jamie Bell and Seth Numrich in Turn
Speaking of education, AMC did manage to offer something good this year — Turn, the true story of America's first counterspy ring during the Revolutionary War.  It's got intrigue, hissably bad Brits and a look at American history that's not only entertaining but damn fascinating as well. It's also pretty nice to watch, with its lush Virginia locations and convincing CG effects.

Veteran shows that I'm looking forward to continuing with next year are Shameless, Nurse Jackie and Episodes. They all finished strong this year and it looks like the shit is really going to hit the fan for the two aforementioned titles. And what will Sean and Beverly do next? Masters of Sex is another one I'll look in on in 2015, but as I mentioned earlier, The Walking Dead appears to be living up to its title — if the 2014 season is any indication.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Film Review: 'The Theory of Everything'

Anchored by a superb central performance, The Theory of Everything is a well-executed and moving portrait of Stephen Hawking, a man who refused to let a debilitating disease stop him from finding love, happiness and fame as one of the world's most respected physicists.

The story begins in 1963, when Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is a grad student majoring in cosmology at Cambridge. He’s twitchy, socially inept and seemingly lost in his own world, yet he attracts the attention of Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), a beautiful arts major. A courtship ensues, with Jane drawing the misfit out of his shell and Hawking enlightening Jane with his dazzling theories about the creation of the universe.

He begins to notice that he's having  increasing difficulty walking and performing the most basic tasks, however, and when he collapses on campus, he’s taken to the hospital where he is diagnosed with motor neurone disease. His doctor explains that he will continue to lose his ability to move and eventually even breathe on his own, and will probably survive only a couple of years. Faced with this death sentence, Hawking retreats to his room and tries to push Jane away, but she vows to stay with him regardless of how much time they may have.

They marry, and over the course of the next 30 years, have children, celebrate holidays, cope with his continuing infirmities, experience jealousies and temptations — and finally separate. The point that director James Marsh and screenwriter Anthony McCarten make here is that Hawking, whom most people view as a withered genius in a wheelchair, is also a man like any other, with admirable qualities as well as shortcomings.

Marsh’s film moves with a balletic grace, enhanced by Benoit Delhomme’s lush cinematography. Johann Johannsson’s score is rich but not overly sentimental, meshing well with McCarten’s screenplay that wisely keeps Hawking’s famous sense of humor in the forefront.

Redmayne is a revelation as Hawking, contorting his body ever so gradually throughout the film until the uncanny transformation is complete. It’s an admirably subtle performance, one that makes a plea for understanding without begging for pity. He’s matched by Jones’ portrayal of Jane, whose own transformation from happy young wife to embittered caregiver is equally effective. Charlie Cox is wonderful as Jonathan, a lonely choirmaster who becomes emotionally involved with the family, and Maxine Peake is devilishly amusing as the saucy nurse Elaine, who wants Hawking all to herself.

As Jane’s mother, Beryl, Emily Watson appears only in a few scenes, but she does set up the best line in the film. Rightly assuming that Jane needs a diversion from the stress of caring for Hawking, she sits her daughter down with a cup of tea and says, “Jane, I think you should join the church choir,” to which Jane responds, “That’s the most English thing anyone has ever said."

It’s moments like this that give The Theory of Everything its spark.


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