Into The Woods: Misunderstood film an above-average movie musical

Many audiences have left the Disney-produced fairy tale film, “Into the Woods,” disappointed and with little right to be.

Certainly, the studio is to fault for not clearing up the confusion surrounding the film. Too many people have left screenings surprised they just watched a musical and many others probably were in shock when the film doesn’t end with Cinderella’s marriage to the prince.

But moviegoers should have seen this coming.

The film, a clear adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 Broadway musical of the same name, is a darker intersection of several classic fairytales, including “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Giant Beanstalk” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rightly rated “Into the Woods” PG “for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.”

The film is more “Snow White and the Huntsman” than the animated classic “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

Moviegoers, especially those expecting their money back, need to take more care in researching the content of a film before purchasing a ticket. Disney didn’t help matters with an ambiguous trailer promoting the film, but the studio can’t be held entirely responsible.

Setting aside those complaints, “Into the Woods” does a remarkable job of faithfully adapting Sondheim’s award-winning musical to the big screen.

Director Rob Marshall, best known for his work on the Academy Award-winning “Chicago,” is blessed with a talented cast led by “Pitch Perfect” star Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and British sensation James Corden as the narrating Baker.

The best performances in the film are actually given by the biggest — and youngest — unknowns with Broadway’s latest “Annie” Lilla Crawford as Little Red Riding Hood and Daniel Huttlestone, best known as Gavroche in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables, as Jack.

It’s all too common to cast either actors who can’t sing well enough or worse yet, singers who can’t act well enough to be convincing.

What works in both performances, more so than any of their more famous counterparts, is that Crawford and Huttlestone maintain a balance in their responsibility both acting the part and singing the songs.

Huttlestone’s “Giants in the Sky” — along with Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” and Meryl Streep’s “Witch’s Lament” — is a musical highlight.

The film isn’t without its flaws. Chris Pine as Cinderella’s prince is largely overdone in a very William Shatner-esque way, which doesn’t really work throughout much of the film, but is quite hilarious within the shirt-ripping, water-splashing duet “Agony.”

Johnny Depp’s performance as the Wolf felt too campy, though the limited screen time helped prevent the film from veering too close to 2014 “Annie”-bad territory.

Overall, “Into the Woods” is a surprisingly darker, but satisfying retelling of classic fairy tales and a faithful interpretation of Sondheim’s musical worth seeing.


Wild: Witherspoon delivers Oscar worthy performance

Some films are designed for escapism, a chance to remove the viewer from the everyday grind and stresses of real life and pull them into somewhere new and exciting.

Other films are meant to draw the viewer into a cinematic experience, offering us something to learn from along the way.

Cheryl Strayed’s true-life story of a newly single woman hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail as a means to cope with loss isn’t meant as escapism.

There’s a passionate message of empowerment and rebirth in “Wild,” the latest film from director Jean Marc Vallée of “Dallas Buyers Club” fame. The film is an emotional roller coaster that will resonate with anyone who has lost a close loved one or feels alone with a sense of loss.

With a terrific script adapted from Strayed’s 2012 book by Nick Hornby, the film itself centers around Strayed’s journey from southern California to Canada and requires a tour de force performance from its leading actress.

A film like “Gravity,” for example, could have been as good if not a better movie with another actress taking the reins from Sandra Bullock.

You just can’t make “Wild” work without Reese Witherspoon.

Witherspoon plays Strayed with total commitment and honesty, baring her soul and body (quite literally) on screen in one of the most heartfelt performances in several years.

Audiences, especially predominantly female ones, will find themselves drawn to the unbridled vulnerability Witherspoon is able to draw from, pulling viewers deeper into the story.

Laura Dern, often the daughter and never the mother in feature films, provides a subtle, yet important counterbalance to Witherspoon’s at-times manic performance as Strayed’s mother.

The Pacific Crest Trail itself becomes a leading character within “Wild” with its expansive and varied landscapes painting a tremendous background for Strayed’s emotional journey of self-forgiveness.

Vallée’s decision to shoot the trail entirely in natural light is an inspired one that helps to maintain “Wild’s” grounded reality.

Led by an Oscar-worthy performance from Witherspoon, “Wild” is definitely one of the year’s best films and well worth seeing more than once.


Unbroken: Jolie mishandles World War II drama

“Unbroken” director Angelina Jolie wants viewers to pigeonhole her film into a single word: resilience.

It’s there in all the film’s soon-to-be-cliché catchphrases: “If you can take it, you can make it” and “A moment of pain is worth a lifetime of glory.”

“Unbroken” is a film that insists upon itself, knowing its story is inspiring and refuses to allow audiences to forget it.

The movie shows so much promise in its first act, where World War II hero Louis Zamperini’s pre-war exploits — both as a youth and Olympic athlete — are seamlessly woven into what would otherwise be a routine inspirational film set in an already crowded genre.

Once “Unbroken” moves past the early years and dedicates itself solely to Zamperini’s trials and tribulations as a Japanese prisoner of war, the film largely fails to live up to the grandiose expectations it has bestowed upon itself.

There’s not enough grit within the blinding light of “Unbroken,” an area in which 2014’s other World War II film “Fury” excelled.

And it’s a problem that “Unbroken” needs to be compared with “Fury,” because the two films could not be more opposite in directorial style and cinematography, but it is all too often the case in the World War II genre.

Because of the nature of the story, “Unbroken” can’t seem to separate itself from the rest of the genre.

Jack O’Connell as the resilient Zamperini is effective in keeping the film centered and evoking the support and sympathy of audiences, hitting on all the right notes. Missing from the performance is a larger sense of Zamperini’s development of faith in God, which plays a larger role in the book and cannot be faulted to O’Connell.

The best performance in the film, however, is given by Japanese rock star turned actor Miyavi as POW camp leader “The Bird,” a violent, irrational man whose complexities are poignantly evoked both verbally and non-verbally by Miyavi.

In another year, where J.K. Simmons’ stunning turn as a demanding music instructor in “Whiplash” isn’t also eligible, Miyavi’s mesmerizing performance would make him a clear frontrunner for best supporting actor awards.

For a film whose mantra is “If I can take it, I can make it,” “Unbroken” certainly insists upon its viewers taking every plodding second of its 137 minute running time.

“Unbroken” is a very good movie, just not a great one.


Night At The Museum 3: A fitting tribute to late Robin Williams

Now that the final installment of “Night at the Museum” has arrived in theaters, it’s sad to think that this will be the last time that comedy legend Robin Williams will be shown on the big screen.

Sure, we can hear his voice again as Dennis the Dog in the upcoming animated feature “Absolutely Anything,” but it just won’t be the same.

Things aren’t quite the same in “Secret of the Tomb,” the last of the “Night of the Museum” movies pitting Ben Stiller as a bumbling security guard managing exhibits that magically come to life at night.

The story isn’t really relevant and takes a general backseat to the notion, played up in the film itself, that with the death of Williams, this is the end for a heartwarming era in comedy.

Stiller does yeoman’s work in a pair of roles as the driving force propelling the plot forward, while Rebel Wilson of “Pitch Perfect” fame tries a little bit too hard to throw her weight around in a secondary role as a guard at the British Museum.

Through some sort of bittersweet irony, Williams has an incredibly poignant final monologue that is all the more heart-breaking in the larger context.

“Secret of the Tomb” also marks the final film for another cinema legend, the great Mickey Rooney.

While the film itself isn’t up to the standards set by the franchise original, “Secret of the Tomb” will help provide viewers some closure on the loss to two comedy heavyweights.


Annie: Musical remake falls flat

It’s hard to get behind up-and-coming actress Quvenzhané Wallis as “Annie”, despite being the youngest Academy Award nominee in history for last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”

It isn’t because Wallis is unlikable as the down-on-her-luck foster kid living in a group home. She just can’t sing and it’s not her fault.

“Annie” director Will Gluck knows she can’t sing either and let the whole world in on it through his less-than-subtle directorial tricks.

Annie sings a major solo at a charity fundraiser, but her mouth is almost always obscured by the microphone in front of her.

Large segments of other songs — including the classics “Hard Knock Life” and “Tomorrow” — are filmed with Wallis’ back to the camera, at an extreme angle or at a great distance in an attempt to hide Wallis’ flaws as a singer.

For all the grief given to Tom Hooper for his extreme close-up choices during major scenes in 2012’s epic musical “Les Misérables,” at least the audience could tell with absolute certainty that the performances were genuine and authentic.

Outside from the musical spectrum, “Annie” could have actually worked as a family-friendly comedy.

Wallis is charming and lovable aside from her singing, while Jamie Foxx as her rich caretaker is the absolute best thing in the lackluster film.

Choosing Cameron Diaz, however, to fill Carol Burnett’s shoes as Miss Hannigan was a major misstep as Diaz horribly overacts in a very disinterested performance. Burnett would be rolling over in her grave if she had one.

Despite the intentions of producers Will Smith and Jay-Z to modernize the classic tale of an orphaned girl during the Great Depression, this modern “Annie” just doesn’t click, trading in classic songs for cliché references to Twitter and the film industry.


Exodus Gods and Kings: Bibically-inspired epic takes left field turn

Biblically-inspired 3D epic film doesn’t really sound like a very appealing genre, especially after Russell Crowe’s dud “Noah” released to much derision earlier this year.

There’s a lot of unevenness to Ridley Scott’s latest feature, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which re-imagines the Biblical story of Moses as action-adventure fodder.

Oscar-winner Christian Bale picks up sword not staff to play Moses, a highly conflicted character uncertain of what actions are morally just.

Understandably, “Exodus: Gods and Kings” might not play very well with devout Christians, who could find the liberties taken in the depiction of the plagues and God’s interaction with Moses off-putting.

In fact, if an uninformed, non-religious person watched “Exodus” with no prior knowledge of the Biblical story, religious aspects of the film could be explained away entirely as natural disasters, disease, famine and a schizophrenic man. The film is perhaps the most secular way possible of examining Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt.

The film, which clocks in at well over two hours, could also benefit from a couple of extraneous scenes being left on the chopping room floor.

While “Exodus” is placed heavily on Bale’s broad shoulders, the former Batman is not the true star of “Exodus.” Joel Edgerton, who plays Moses’ brother and future pharaoh Ramesses II, stands out in a thankless villain role that probably would have gone to Ben Kingsley 20 years ago.

It would be easy to simply play Ramesses in a stiff and formulaic manner, but Edgerton — whose work in “Warrior” alongside Tom Hardy is first-rate — rises above the lesser fray and gives a more well-rounded performance than other cast members.

Kingsley and “Breaking Bad” star Aaron Paul each appear briefly as Moses’ chief advisors, but neither actor is given much to work with.

A lot of care — and time — is taken up early in the film to develop a brotherly bond between Bale and Edgerton, giving the inevitable rift between the two real stakes.

Edgerton actually does a better job of evoking pain and conflict about Ramesses’ relationship with Moses than Bale does. Perhaps it’s the fault of Scott, who doesn’t give Bale enough to do in coming to grips with the situation, or more likely Bale himself, who doesn’t give enough credence to showing the necessary emotion to match Edgerton.

“Exodus: Gods and Kings” is best enjoyed when the viewer can get past the film’s criticisms — both its Biblical flaws and lack of diversity in casting — and simply enjoy the ride.


The Hobbit Battle of the Five Armies: Six movies later, the journey finally ends

After years of waiting, the ride through Middle Earth seems to be at a close with the release of the final film in the “Hobbit” trilogy, “The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies,” a darker, more violent picture than the previous two films.

Continuing a trend established throughout Jackson’s Middle Earth films — the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies — “Battle of the Five Armies” shines brightest in its grandiose battle sequences, featuring towering monsters waging medieval war on men, dwarves and woodland elves.

Just like its Oscar-winning predecessor before it (the Rings trilogy’s “The Return of the King”), the final film in the “Hobbit” trilogy is leaps and bounds the best, visually stunning and impactful from the opening moments all the way through the titular battle of the five armies.

What sets “The Hobbit” apart from other, lesser science fiction and fantasy genre films is the heart brought to the series by British actor Martin Freeman as the titular hobbit Bilbo Baggins.

Freeman brings a genuine lightness to the screen which counterbalances so effectively with his rougher, tougher costars to make Jackson’s film cohesive.

Ian McKellen leads a wonderful and large supporting cast, including Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Cate Blanchett and a standout performance by Richard Armitage as blinded, conflicted dwarf king Thorin Oakenshield.

The film suffers, however, in its overly long ending after the extended battle sequences. At more than two hours in length, the third “Hobbit” stalls out when the emphasis is on dialogue and not in beautifully constructed CGI scenes.

Of the action sequences, only the rescue of Gandalf early in the film feels out of place, like a high quality video game boss battle rather than a cohesive action sequence.

Fans of the prior two “Hobbit” films as well as the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy should be extremely pleased with Jackson’s final foray into Middle Earth, a fitting end to a wonderfully dynamic series of cinema.


The Theory of Everything: Hawking biopic astounds

Eddie Redmayne better be nominated for an Academy Award.

He might not win, but with a pitch-perfect performance requiring such specific nuance in physicality, Redmayne certainly deserves acclaim for his turn as famed physicist Stephen Hawking in the British drama “The Theory of Everything.”

An hour into the film, it’s all too easy to forget that Redmayne is an actor portraying a character on screen.

While the film certainly deals with Hawking’s emergence as one of the world’s premiere scientists, “The Theory of Everything” focuses more on the development of Hawking’s relationship with his future wife, Jane, amid the onset of his debilitating ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

One part biopic and two parts love story, the film works only because Redmayne’s heartbreaking portrayal of Hawking pairs perfectly with Felicity Jones’ understated, yet firm Jane.

In fact, the film is at its best when it avoids the complex physics and sticks with the simplest notion of unbridled love and emotion.

The story, while following true events and a lackluster screenplay from Anthony McCarten, is elevated by both lead actors’ performances as well as the light, delicate touch of director James Marsh — best known for his Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire.”

Each scene is carefully detailed visually, from the movement of the camera — especially in memorable 360-degree rotation moments — to the richness of the colors captured by cinematographer Benoît Delhomme.

While not on the upper echelon of cinema to be released this fall, “The Theory of Everything” is a poignant and bittersweet biopic worthy of making an effort to find before the Academy Awards early next year.


Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas: Feature film needs direct to DVD release

The message of “Saving Christmas,” featuring “Growing Pains” star Kirk Cameron, is that celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ can be found hidden inside some of the traditional imagery of Christmas — Santa Claus and decorated trees, for example.

The film, which celebrates “the reason for the season” and does a pretty good job explaining the relationship between the secular and religious aspects of the holiday, falls short cinematically and thereby fails in its overall mission of educating the public.

“Saving Christmas” is constructed a lot like the documentary “America: Imagine the World Without Her” by Dinesh D’Souza. Both films rely heavily on re-imagined accounts of historical events to help accentuate the points made in the film.

However, in both features, these re-enactments are often distracting and visually jarring, especially early in the films before explanation is given as to their necessity and meaning.

It’s unfortunate that the film will largely miss its target audience due mainly to an uneven screenplay and poor time management. As a 60-minute, direct-to-DVD release, “Saving Christmas” would work incredibly well and would likely be received much better than it has been.

But in its current form, with unnecessary hip-hop dance sequences and multiple endings that don’t really end, “Saving Christmas” misses the mark and keeps audiences at bay.


Horrible Bosses 2: Comedic sequel underwhelms

It’s easy to tell when a screenwriter is actually trying and when they’re filling in the blanks around a tired, formulaic plot.

“Horrible Bosses 2,” the sequel to the aptly named “Horrible Bosses,” is a fill-in the-blanks kind of movie — largely unfunny and 100 percent a cash grab sequel in a “Spaceballs 2: The Quest for More Money” sort of way.

Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Bay reprise their roles from the original, which saw the trio poorly attempt to murder their terrible bosses.

Scenes between the trio, which worked well in the original film, fall much flatter in the sequel as none of the characters have developed beyond the loose framework created in the original.

The film suffers from the same fate “The Hangover 2” did as neither sequel is able to replicate the humor or maintain the momentum created by the first film despite trying to copy the original beat for beat.

Jamie Foxx, in a slightly larger role this go-round as a vaguely successful criminal, provides the best work of the film and delivers most of the best lines.

Both the old and new “bosses” are underwhelming. Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston are milder caricatures of their already broad stereotypes from the original film, while new “bosses” Chris Pine and Christoph Waltz both fail to bring anything substantial to their father-son roles.

It’s especially disappointing for Oscar-winner Waltz, who cannot seem to gain ground as an actor outside of a Tarantino film.

Hardcore fans of the first film will likely find the shortcomings of the sequel more forgivable, but those unfamiliar with the original would be wise to stay away.


Penguins of Madagascar: Animated sequel just does enough to enjoy

Dreamworks’ latest animated franchise feature film plays up what happens behind the scenes with some of your favorite characters when they’re alone.

In this case, those lovable penguins from the “Madagascar” series are secret agents.

Ironically enough, this very loose and broad plot structure plays out much better than “Horrible Bosses 2.” It could be because of the lighter nature of the film, which targets kids 8-12, or just the fact that viewers are more forgiving of animation than regular film.

While the four penguins themselves are voiced by lesser known actors, the supporting cast is littered with big name actors, including Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich, who always plays a compelling villain regardless of whether or not you can see his face.

Adults will enjoy the special homage to spy films of yesteryear as the lovable foursome replicate a secret takedown of Fort Knox ala “Goldfinger” and dodge ruffian octopi in the waterways of Venice in a hilarious take off from the Venice chase scene in “Moonraker.”

The film is bright and colorful, jumping from landscape to landscape as the penguins trot across the globe on their mission to save penguin-kind and it’s that lightness that keeps viewers engaged and the movie afloat.

No prior knowledge of the “Madagascar” franchise is necessary to enjoy this humorous, yet slightly long animated comedy that will delight adults and children alike.


The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 1: Jennifer Lawrence proves critical to franchise success

Lionsgate got really lucky.

The movie studio, hoping to leapfrog on the success of the “Twilight” film franchise, dove headfirst into the young adult book trilogy market, coming away with a violent dystopian world and needing a female lead to match Bella of “Twilight” fame.

When they cast the girl from “The Bill Engvall Show,” they probably had no idea that she would become the most successful young actress in years, dominating multiple movie franchises and single-handedly carrying the studio forward in much the same way that Katniss carries the rebellion in Lionsgate’s latest installment of the “Hunger Games” series.

What separates the “Hunger Games” films from “Divergent” or the “Maze Runner” is the difference between Lawrence and Shailene Woodley.

Woodley, a nice up-and-coming actress in her own right, could settle into a Kristen Stewart career arc with a little less venom from the general public.

Lawrence, on the other hand, is an Academy Award-winning transcendent talent on screen, who makes “Mockingjay Part 1” something more than a cheap sequel in a way Shia Lebeouf was never able to pull off following the original “Transformers” installment.

As the famed Joan of Arc-like Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence provides the character much more depth and emotional layering than the series deserves.

“Mockingjay Part 1” is much darker than the previous two installments in the Hunger Games franchise, which is surprising to say, based on how much “Battle Royale”-esque violence pervades the first two films.

The film isn’t without its major flaws.

Julianne Moore is an abysmal choice to play the rebellion’s president, a wholly unlikeable character lacking in emotion or depth.

It’s as if Moore intended on copying Kate Winslet’s static performance in “Divergent” while reading lines from the Suzanne Collins novel.

Forcing Elizabeth Banks’ Effie back into the movie was also a mistake as her presence provides an unwelcome distraction and only muddles an already verbose script.

The film overly glorifies planning and exposition for exposition’s sake, with its two-hour running time easily needing a good 20 minutes hacked out of the middle.

A tremendous effort from Lawrence and a surprising, yet impactful supporting performance from Josh Hutcherson — especially in the film’s final moments — make “Mockingjay Part 1” salvageable and the inevitable “Part 2” something worth looking forward to.