Fulfilling a Grimm wish from Sondheim fans JUSTenough, a certain 1987… MoreFulfilling a Grimm wish from Sondheim fans JUSTenough, a certain 1987 musical gets an adequate big screen adaptation. For longtime devotees of the musical, Into the Woods brings the beloved songs and story from the stage version to the big screen with most of the wit and cynical punch intact. For the uninitiated, however, Into the Woods boasts unexpected turns and twists on classic fairy tales with stars shoehorned into the action without detriment. The songbook never held an out-an-out sing-a-long hit so toe tapping gets kept to a minimum here. Also, doing utmost service to the source, the film tackles the themes of childhood and parenthood under the warning of "Be careful what you wish for" to a somewhat decent degree. While those familiar with the stage version know that it retains a pessimistic undertone throughout, those not are now warned: The film really goes dark in the final act with a change in tone and shift not unlike Full Metal Jacket's second act. Indeed, it almost makes Gone Girl's closer look happy and certainly makes the film's PG rating a head scratcher.
In this PG-rated adaptation of the Sondheim musical, a witch (Streep) tasks a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) with procuring magical items from classic fairy tales to reverse the curse put on their family tree.
Director Rob Marshall smartly puts Sondheim over style, letting the celebrated material take center stage with actors who mostly do the original cast justice. Indeed, this isn't a musical that lends itself specifically to an auteur's specific vision as with Sweeney Todd and Tim Burton. Leading a superb cast, Meryl Streep relishes every craven moment and hits every note as a duplicitous spell-caster. Likewise, Anna Kendrick and James Corden simply astonish filmgoers although there's no one true wrong note among the roll call of marquee talent.
Bottom line: Pounce Upon a Time
A custom-made crowd pleaser brimming with good intentions, this… MoreA custom-made crowd pleaser brimming with good intentions, this Pride-ful presentation of oftentimes harrowing real events nonetheless ends up to be moving, earnest, and oftentimes fun in all the right places even when you feel your strings being pulled. An unlikely true story of an unlikely alliance that's unlikely well done, Pride tells the plight of both striking Welsh miners and the hugely persecuted English homosexual community in equal and genuine measure. A heat-seeking crowd-pleaser, the film comes damn close to becoming mawkish without actually tipping over the edge. The climax, for example, assumes a tone that almost feels a bit too cheeky.almost. Regardless, the dynamite performances and rich storytelling always come across as truthful throughout this production, however manufactured it feels. You've hear of designer drugs, eh? Here is a designer feel-good flick and it likewise plays with your body's chemical makeup to make you feel good.
In this R-rated dramedy available on DVD and download, U.K. gay activists work to help miners during their lengthy strike of the National Union of Mineworkers in the summer of 1984.
Boasting a theater CV that includes Ghost: The Musical, Matthew Warchus deftly directs the goings-on with a nimble footed swagger, literally making your toes tap. For a non-musical, this is an impressive feat. For Pride, however, it also proves appropriate. Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine, and Andrew Scott (the wicked wicked Moriarity to Benedict Cumberbatch's wily Sherlock on the BBC) play beaten-down and sometimes tragic figures, but they bring a resolve and vigor to their characters that you never feel sorry for them--just, well, proud. Their performances and the direction get you on your feet in solidarity, yes, but a good deal of credit also goes to the screenwriter. Stephen Beresford's script effortlessly hopscotches from bleak to hilarious moments and back again in a manner that somehow remains reverential to both.
Bottom line: Heart O' Miner
A comedy that quickly elicits a lot of fear and loathing, Johnny… MoreA comedy that quickly elicits a lot of fear and loathing, Johnny Depp's mortifying latest demonstrates his aptitude for gonzo character work and very little else. Mortdecai tries to be a lot of things but funny certainly isn't one of them. Is Mortdecai a man-out-of-time like Austin Powers? Well, he speaks with an almost Victorian vernacular while throwback swinging '60s music plays in the background...but that's not entirely it. Is Mortdecai aping Peter Sellers' portrayal of putzing sleuth Inspector Cousteau? Well, he bumbles and pratfalls his way through a puzzler with similar results...but that's not entirely it either. Is Mortdecai perpetuating British stereotypes in an almost pantomime atmosphere? Well, the events play out like a live action cartoon with lots of potty humor and two Americans laying a practiced English accent on thick...but that's not entirely it at all. In fact, the movie ends up to be a miscalculated and sad attempt at incorporating all of these descriptions (think: Steve Martin's godawful Pink Panther with Jackass-level dick and fart jokes) into a comedy that can't pinpoint its audience. The buffoonish antics might appeal to kids if the R-rating didn't keep them away. On the other hand, the adult material gets handled in a sophomoric manner better befitting a teenage sex comedy, so adults won't warm to it either.
In this R-rated comedy, art dealer Charles Mortdecai (Depp) searches for a stolen painting that's reportedly linked to a lost bank account filled with Nazi gold.
The good news: Johnny Depp, the man who spun Captain Jack Sparrow the rascally pirate off of the page and onto the screen as a fey rock star and ardent fan favorite, still has it. The bad news: What 'it' is, however, is anybody's guess. Oh, you can see how his characterization of dated, randy, dandy Charlie Mortdecai could be humorous...in a Blake Edwards film 40 years ago. Here, even the very few parts holding a smidgen of laugh potential lack the proper pacing. Quicker editing and faster action could've saved some of the physical comedy. The rest, however, is beyond redemption. Worse, the production wastes the prodigious talents of Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Ewan McGregor, and Jeff Goldblum, who all must have lost a heinous bet.
Bottom line: The Stink Panther
Taking aim at realizing it's real-life subject to a harrowingly true… MoreTaking aim at realizing it's real-life subject to a harrowingly true degree, Clint Eastwood's straight-shooting bio-pic presents powerful storytelling and hero worship in equal measure thanks to a compelling central figure. Sure, the film unapologetically waves a patriotic flag at times but it also folds the flag up as a tri-cornered, sober reminder to all that's at stake. For the most part, American Sniper handles the graphic subject matter in an impressively even handed manner. With a more left-leaning bent, American Sniper might have emerged as a tsk tsk cautionary tale; with a more right-leaning bent, it might have emerged as a Hoo Rah blind eye piece of propaganda. All involved deftly put forth the source material's War is Hell moments in a full frontal fashion. Ultimately, however, the film romanticizes nationalism as much as Kyle, which might divide some viewers. Whether or not you agree with this focus, the film takes a stand rather than beat around an objective bush, which informs the story all the more. This happened; Kyle was a proud soldier; film reflects life.
In this R-rated true story, the legendary director recounts Navy S.E.A.L. Chris Kyle's (Cooper) military career, which includes more than 150 confirmed kills.
Since Bradley Cooper acquired the rights to Kyle's autobiography in 2012, this real-life actioner proved a hot property around H'Wood, attracting interest from A-List directors David O. Russell (The Fighter) and Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) before thankfully landing in Eastwood's (Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby) very capable hands. In terms of Oscar caliber quality, Eastwood's recent CV doesn't necessarily inspire confidence (Hereafter, J. Edgar, Jersey Boys), but American Sniper ends up to be one of his most powerful projects to date. His films rarely indulge stylish bells and whistles, which serves the frank and forward material exceedingly well. It also helps that Jason Hall's excellent adaptation documents the sobering emotional toll as well as the high body count, and the titular character comes across as selfish for signing up for more tours of duty while his family waits for him on the homefront. Then, there's Eastwood's lead actor. Not only did his stars voice star in the biggest box office hit of last year (Guardians of the Galaxy), but he also helped to headline back-to-back Best Picture Oscar nominees (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle). Here, however, he actually unquestionably deserves the award. Beefing up physically while maintaining Kyle's straight-talking, humble, dyed-in-the-wool Texas manner, Cooper transforms fully into the troubled heart and soul of this gripping story.
Bottom line: American Bustle
An electrifying presentation of real events that never feels like a… MoreAn electrifying presentation of real events that never feels like a history lesson, Selma's authenticity and timeliness make for a rousing spectacle that feels present and not unreachably epic. The director puts you wholly in the moment, never letting style (and the film boasts a good deal) get in the way of passing down an imperative piece of our country's narrative. Even with so much attention to period detail and historic figures, Selma speaks so truthfully in the present tense not just because current events eerily reflect the story to a startling degree but because the characters come alive to such a degree that you feel like you know them. These are characters, mind you, that have been blown up to mythic degrees on everything from inspirational posters to coffee mugs. Plus, screenwriter Paul Webb's multidimensional characterization of all involved articulates the still-ongoing struggle for equality.
Ava DuVernay's PG-13-rated drama chronicles Martin Luther King's (Oyelowo) campaign to secure equal voting rights via an epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965.
As realized by David Oyelowo in a brilliantly layered performance wrongly denied an Oscar nomination, Martin Luther King has never been represented on screen so letter perfectly. In fact, everybody from Carmen Ejogo, who looks like news footage of Coretta Scott King come to life to Tim Roth's on-the-racist-nose portrayal of George Wallace rings completely true...except for Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson. Why DuVernay would go to extreme lengths to flawlessly present the events leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and NOT have the actor nail down LBJ's distinctive Texas drawl is beyond comprehension. Still, this mostly British contingent (DuVernay, Oyelowo, and Wilkson hail from the UK) gets it damn right. Just like with the production team behind 12 Years a Slave (also mostly British), sometimes it takes an outsider to hold up a proper mirror to our society. Regardless, you don't have to be American for this tale to resonate and echo in your heart and mind...and it does.
Bottom line: Civil Righteousness
Slickly directed, well acted, but ultimately lacking the dramatic… MoreSlickly directed, well acted, but ultimately lacking the dramatic punch it needs to sell through the story, The Gambler just about breaks even instead of completely going bust. It tries operating as a cautionary tale on two fronts - gambling away one's money and gambling away one's soul - but succeeds more in dealing with the former. Though Mark Wahlberg proves utterly convincing as a charming, albeit degenerate, gambler, he doesn't make tenure as a troubled associate professor. Oh, he lectures on Shakespeare and Camus to a believable degree but the existential crisis plaguing his character never gets fully explained. The characterization (add troubled rich heir to one of California's largest fortunes into the confusing mix) comes up short.
In this R-rated remake from director Rupert Wyatt (Rise of the Planet of the Apes), lit professor and gambler Jim Bennett's debt causes him to borrow money from his mother and a loan shark while a relationship with one of his students (Brie Larson) further complicates his situation.
Even when some gangbuster action and intrigue keep the story moving at an even clip, the pace grinds to a halt thanks to long rambling suicidal bents that ultimately go nowhere. The blame falls on The Departed scribe William Monahan, who creates an interesting character he doesn't fully know what to do with. Overwritten and overly complex, his character study needs Cliffs Notes. Yes, Bennett stakes his own life as collateral...but why? Filmgoers don't need to know the full story--just enough to stay invested. The Gambler boasts some beautiful photography and some very quotable dialogue but ultimately doesn't come close to earning a spot at the 1974 original's winner's table.
Bottom line: Bookie Nights
Inherent-ly muddled, Paul Thomas Anderson's roll of the Vice satisfies… MoreInherent-ly muddled, Paul Thomas Anderson's roll of the Vice satisfies Thomas Pynchon fans and few others. Of course, this was the point. On the Penguin Press website, the publisher teases a work that's "Part-noir, part-psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon...private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog." So far as realizing this specific vision, one of this generation's most gifted auteurs succeeds to a startlingly perfect 5-Star degree. For filmgoers in general though, especially those who qualified as square in the 60s or weren't even born yet, Inherent Vice proves only mildly entertaining. In fact, the film tends to get downright boring at points. If Raymond Chandler helped to hard-boil detective fiction through his character Phillip Marlowe in the 40s and Robert Altman somehow satirized and elevated the genre at the same time with the idiosyncratic Me Generation film classic The Long Goodbye in the 70s, then Inherent Vice continues this tradition and takes the detective story to the next level--we just don't know what or where that is. Purposely meandering and muddied with sudden Spartan moments of crystal-clear clarity, much like a drug trip and/or a lost soul trying to find their place in a changing culture and society, the story proudly sports a Byzantine plot navigated by a stoner. We get it. Most of us just don't enjoy it.
In this 1970s-set R-rated dramedy based on the novel by the author of V and Gravity's Rainbow, detective Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend through a drug-fueled Los Angeles.
Oh, like all of Anderson's films, it's always interesting. The director's telltale stylistic touches pop up to mostly great effect. Working against type, an amazing cast brings some wild characters to life. His long takes, however, actually feel long for a change. Even after weaving toward the solution, only one thing remains certain about Inherent Vice: It assumes the title of Most Divisive film on Anderson's resume from Punch-Drunk Love.
Bottom line: Bogie Nights
Big on colorful vision and colorful storytelling, Tim Burton's… MoreBig on colorful vision and colorful storytelling, Tim Burton's somewhat uncharacteristic latest Eyes up an exquisitely painted portrait of an artist cheated of self-expression. The framing proves masterful, 1950s San Francisco dyed with a vibrant palette of eye-popping hues matched brilliantly with complimentary set design and period detail. Not unlike the vintage crayon-colored neighborhood featured in Edward Scissorhands, this location pulls you into the fabric even moreseo because its an actual place. Sure, the reality gets heightened--just not to surrealistic lengths like Ed Wood. In fact, this stylish telling of fascinating real events here resembles that Burton picture most of all, presenting history dappled with this auteurs unique verve and wit. Of course, these films share the same screenwriters: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Quirky but fact-filled, their bio-pic scripts (The People Vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon) never fail to gleefully entertain while serving their subjects respectfully.
Tim Burton's (Dark Shadows,) PG-13-rated drama centers on the awakening of painter Margaret Keane (Adams), her phenomenal success in the 1950s, and the subsequent legal difficulties she had with her husband (Waltz), who claimed credit for her works in the 1960s.
Played beautifully by Amy Adams, Keane emerges as much more than a rough sketch and her fight resonates as social commentary without becoming too heavy-handed. Aside from a few arch moments (a trial verging on cartoonish chief among them), laughing comes to crying comes to understanding. The same goes for Burton. Usually purveying a sort of Gothic hyper-reality as picture postcard America (Beetlejuice, Batman, Sleepy Hollow), he instead channels this dark undercurrent just below the surface with Big Eyes. Controlled but still characteristic, the sun-dappled Northern California suburbs (not unlike those in Frankenweenie) hold a lot of stylized beauty but there's a sense of real world dread pouring through the cracks in the sidewalks. It speaks the truth, as do the brilliantly layered performances by Adams and Christoph Waltz.
Bottom line: Big Fishing Deal
Going back to the Mills for another fisticuff-filled… MoreGoing back to the Mills for another fisticuff-filled man-against-the-clock mystery, Liam Neeson unwittingly remakes The Fugitive in his unfortunate three-quel. Taken 3 takes awhile to really get its blood pumping but, once it does...well, the movie only boasts a few real thrills because it mostly rips off a certain 1992 Who-Done-It. Part 3 clumsily tries weaving its DNA into the proven man-on-the-run formula that made The Fugitive such a smash success, injecting the leads hard-hitting detective skills into the mix with middling success. It must get stated, however: Brian Mills, you are no Richard Kimble. Hell, Taken 3 isn't even on an entertainment par with U.S. Marshals, the unnecessary Fugitive follow-up that Harrison Ford smartly skipped. Most of the repetitive goings-on of this flick offer standard issue action with very little intrigue. Sure, it easily one-ups the painfully redundant sequel that precedes it, but moviegoers have seen better fist-pumping action in some wedding videos than in Taken 2.
In this PG-13-rated actioner, ex-government operative Bryan Mills gets accused of a ruthless murder of his beloved ex-wife, so he brings out his particular set of skills to evade police, find the true killer and clear his name.
All in all, this is not to say that Liam Neeson is a Poor Man's Harrison Ford. He believably doles out clenched fist revenge just like in Taken and Unknown and Taken 2 and Non-Stop. Truthfully, this very likeable actor has gone to the Mills one too many times. Meanwhile, Forest Whitaker makes the most of a supporting role that's largely beneath his certain set of skills, assuming Tommy Lee Jones's Fugitive role as a duty-driven cop who kinda sorta believes that the protagonist is innocent. Also, here's a final word of advice: No villain comes off as menacing when he sports the page boy bowl haircut of Jim Carrey in Dumb and Dumber.
Bottom line: Taken Asunder
When given an intelligent adaptation of a somewhat familiar tale… MoreWhen given an intelligent adaptation of a somewhat familiar tale that's played out by an amazing performance and framed with stellar direction, filmgoers can't help but get Wild about Reese Witherspoon's latest. Unless its Into the Wild, which falls far from being merely Wild with less estrogen, films about redemption borne out of rugged journeys usually head down one particularly formulaic road. Everything from Harry and Tonto to Eat Pray Love pretty much has somewhat of a Pick-Me-Up bouquet waiting for audiences at the end. Oh, this doesn't intend to take anything away from Strayed's real-life personal struggles, which comprise the true story framed here so beautifully in digital. Sure, Wilds redemption tale doesn't present the most original two hours on-screen but therein lies the A-Ha moment: the film proves more about maintaining some semblance of order in a world of chaos. Plus, the powerful lead performance and non-linear storytelling present enough of a twist to keep viewers riveted.
In this R-rated drama based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir by the same name, director Jean-Marc Valee chronicles a recovering addicts (Witherspoon) 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from the death of her mother (Laura Dern).
Stripping herself bare in more ways than one, Reese Witherspoon anchors the film with a ridiculously emotional performance that never feels anything but full-tilt authentic. Also, Nick Hornby's wonderfully glib and devilishly detailed reordering of Strayed's memoir moves the story forward even though its hop-scotching around her life. Without Valee at the helm, however, these brilliant spokes wouldn't turn as smoothly. Giving all involved a very worthy follow-up to The Dallas Buyers Club, he invests the sadness and joy with a verve that keeps us on track to a satisfying end.
Bottom line: The Mostly Great Outdoors