Disney’s Into the Woods – Movie Review

Based on the 1987 critically acclaimed Broadway musical, Into The Woods is a mashup story of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel. The movie, though, focuses on the story of the Baker and his Wife. The couple has no children. Thanks to the neighboring Witch (Meryl Streep), the Baker learns he cannot have children because of a curse placed on his father for stealing from the Witch’s garden.

Like the stage play, Into The Woods is about wishes. All of the characters have a wish and must complete a mission of sorts in order to receive his wish. But as with life, once we attain our wish, it’s not really what we hoped for. There are also consequences to the choices we make in attaining those dishes too.

Into the Woods 02The Baker and his Wife wish to have the curse reversed and must bring to the witch, Red Riding Hood’s cape, Rapunzel’s hair, Cinderella’s shoe and Jack’s cow. They are not the only ones with wishes. Red Riding Hood wishes to stray from the path and explore the world, but the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp) stands in her way. Jack wishes to get this cow back and steals from the Giants in the sky to earn money to get him/her back. Cinderella wishes to escape the torture of her Stepmother (Christine Baranski) and Stepsisters (Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard) and sees marrying the Prince (Chris Pine) as her escape.

As mentioned below, the movie is based on the musical by American composer Stephen Sondheim and playwright James Lapine. Both played pivotal roles in adapting the play to film. It helps that Rob Marshall is directing the movie. In his Oscar-award winning film, Chicago, Marshall proved that he can perfectly adapt a complicated musical to film and he does an admirable job with Into The Woods.

Into The Woods has all the necessary elements for a musical. The opening number, “Act One Prologue,” has a catchy melody, introduces all the characters and sets the movie in the right directions. As the story progresses, each member of the cast has their own song or monolog. As with any Sondheim musical, the songs are poignant, but at times feel like word puzzles. You really have to pay attention to every word in order to appreciate the brilliance of the song.

Which brings us to the cast, the best musical cast to come along to a movie in a long time. Every role was cast perfectly…almost.  James Corden and Emily Blunt is perfect at the Baker and his Wife. They feel like a real couple and they sing well. James Corden comes across likable and shows his dramatic chops when faced with the reality of parenthood. Into The Woods is a great introduction for him to American audiences when he takes over the Late Late Show.

It’s easy to see Anna Kendrick as Cinderella. She’s beautiful, alluring and a fantastic singer. She kills the song “On the Steps of the Palace.” Chris Pine knows how to play and sing smug. Tracy Ullman is a delight as Jack’s mother.

Unlike the Broadway musical, the roles of Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) were played by age-appropriate actors. On Broadway, it’s actors in their twenties and in the movie they choose actors in their early teens. They had great voices and act well, they just could not bring the required acting necessary for their individual soliloquy songs.

As a movie, Into The Woods is a good movie but many of the long monologgy songs can be lost in translations. It’s hard to have a clear perspective on the movie itself if you are a big fan of the play. Hard core fans will like the movie but feel that some the brilliant is lost. The devices employed in the stage production don’t often translate well one stage. When the witch belts out the song, “Last Midnight.” It leaves a powerful impact because it’s sung on a stage and the audience sits hundreds of feet from the actress. In the movie, the shots are tight on Meryl Streep, who sings it and she is not required to sing it with the power needed and therefore loses its intensity.

Very few musicals have been effectively translated to the big screen. West Side Story and Chicago are the only two to come to mind. Into The Woods had everything it needs to succeed on the screen including heavy involvement from the original creators, the high budgets and production values of the Walt Disney Company, a cast that can actually sing and do justice to the songs and a director who knows the differences between movie and stage. Unfortunately, maybe Into The Woods is just not meant for the big screen.

Big Eyes – Movie Review – Tim Burton

Big Eyes is the most straightforward story told by director Tim Burton to date. With only accents of the Burton look-and-feel to a movie, Big Eyes is the true story of painter Margaret Keane and one of the most epic art frauds in history.

Big Eyes is a fascinating true story, but it is also a predictable story. Why was this film made? Maybe filmmakers Burton and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski wanted Keane’s story documented for posterity. Otherwise, her story may have passed history unnoticed.

BIG EYESCredit goes to the filmmakers for telling a good story. There is nothing inherently wrong with Big Eyes. There is nothing special in the way the story is told. Amy Adams plays the insecure artist, Margaret Keane. Margaret is a role Adams has played to perfection.  Christoph Waltz (Walter Keane) plays the protagonist with ulterior motives flawlessly. But again, there are no surprises and you see the ending coming once the opening credit begin.

Tone is everything in this movie. The movie starts with Margaret and her daughter running from her first husband. As the saying goes, “Out of the frying pan into the fire.” Things never get better for our heroine. Almost immediately, Margaret marries a fellow artist, Walter Keane, who quickly sees potential in her art and becomes her biggest advocate. But you know that things are not as they seem. With warnings from best friend, Dee-Ann, played irresistibly by Krysten Ritter, Margaret chooses security over freedom.

BIG EYESThe movie takes place in San Francisco during the 50’s and 60’s. Walter’s artwork is boring and Margaret’s “Big Eyes” portraits of children are strange, but strange enough to catch the eye of the public. Walter loves the spotlight, while Margaret lives in the background. With little thought, Walter takes credit for painting the “Big Eyes.” It is here that we learn Walter is a charismatic manipulator. Walter brilliantly turns Margeret’s “Big Eyes” painting into a popular sensation that would put Thomas Kinkade to shame. At the same time, convincing Margaret to perpetuate the lie and, at times, help write Walter’s “inspiration” story to the press.

Do you think you know how this will all end? Yes, you’re right. When telling a good story, life often has to hit rock bottom before it gets better and it does.

Also speaking of tone, this is by far Tim Burton’s brightest films. He uses a great deal of light, white colors and contrasts it with 60’s pastels. There are a few moments, when Margaret has panic attacks and manifests itself surreal Burton-esque moments. Big Eyes may not find itself near the top of the pantheon of Burton films, but it is a nice palette cleanser for his next movie.

Before seeing the movie, I had never heard of the artist Keane, nor seen any of her paintings. I’m glad to have seen her story, because this fascinating event during the early 60’s, might have gone unnoticed if not for passion of Burton to make it. It will find its home on endless loops on Pay TV.

Top Five – Movie Review

“Top Five” refers to the top five songs on your playlist. When you have a hard time being able to describe yourself to another person, the top five is the window to unlocking your soul.

In Top Five, Chris Rock plays Andre Allen. Allen is a stand-up comedian who finds himself on the top of the A-List after a series of movies featuring his character Hammy the Bear. Allen is now about to marry the biggest reality star, Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), whose comparison to Kim Kardashian could not be clearer. On the eve of his bachelor party, Allen is in New York promoting his first dramatic movie, Uprize, about the Haitian Revolution.

While in New York, Allen is to be followed around by Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), the entertainment reporter for the New York Times. Ironically, the New York Times film critic, James Neilson, has been the most critical of Andre Allen’s film career. This makes doing an interview with Brown even more distasteful.

Top Five 01The first half of the movie involves Allen and Brown walking the streets of New York and commenting on various topics related to politics, relationships, and the press. Allen then heads into the SiriusXM studios to promote his film, Uprize. This all leads to the wild story of the moment that Allen finally hit rock bottom; was saved by his fiancée, Long; and enters rehab.

The two soon develop a rapport and decide that the best thing they can do is to conduct this interview with “Brutal Honesty.” This is the halfway point of the movie and the moment things start getting better for the movie.

The first half is what you’d expect from a Chris Rock comedy. It includes interesting, not necessarily hilarious observations of life, politics and race. Then ramping it up to crazy antics at the SiriusXM Studios. Ending with an over-the-top, wild tale of early years of a stand-up. These moments are at times funny, but uninspired.

Top Five 03The second half of the movie is where we see a new side of Chris Rock and his maturity as an actor and writer. It is at this point, we are promised “brutal honesty” and we get it. The character of Andre Allen has been playing it safe in life ever since he became sober. He’s given up the life of stand-up. He is about to marry a high profile woman and now is choosing film projects that have “meaning.” But is Andre happy?

Another highlight of Top Five are the numerous cameos. J.B. Smoove is likable and endearing as Allen’s bodyguard. Ben Vereen is memorable as Allen’s father. The best cameo comes from a honest discussion about fame with Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler, and Whoopi Goldberg.

Top Five has the humor and observations expected from any Chris Rock project. The real joy of Top Five seeing the Rock bring moments of “brutal truth” and honesty about the fame and being a kid who was not yet prepared for it.

The Key – Movie Review

The Key is a beautiful, artistic, erotic, outside-the-box movie from filmmaker Jefery Levi. Based on the 1955 novel by Nobel Laureate Junichiro Tanizaki, The Key is a visually stunning and erotic story of a couple finding themselves at a sexual crossroads. Twenty-one years into their marriage, Jack (David Arquette) is a passionate artist, who worships his wife Ida as his sexual prize, unwilling to ever give her up. Ida (Bai Ling), on the other hand, insists that she married the wrong man and cannot decide whether she despises Jack or blames herself for the loveless marriage.

The story is told through the eyes of both Jack and Ida as their private journal entries serve as narration for The Key. Filmmaker Jefery Levy takes us on an artistic journey that examines of Jack and Ida’s marriage; focusing on themes of sex, a tired marriage, and a lustful affair.

The Key is an experiment in filmmaking by Levy. Rather than present a straightforward story, he uses the narrative of the couple’s journal entries and overlays the narration with artistic imagery of the “facts” and “emotions” of each character. The movie effectively becomes a beautiful cinematic coffee-table book.

David Arquette as Jack

David Arquette as Jack

No shot in The Key is a traditional shot, you would expect from a normal movie. Images and scenes are painstakingly planned and pieced together with clear thoughtfulness by writer/director Levy. Some shots are overlayed with accents of decaying celluloid while others feature stylized imagery from filmmakers of the past. Levy utilizes an extensive use of bright lights and filters; creates simulated still shots using a film camera and actors standing still. He also created a bullet-time effect during one of the sex scenes by placing Arquette and Ling on a rotating bed, spinning it and shooting multiple frames per second.

The story itself is akin to a Harlequin-style romance. The lead characters describe their sexual experiences with brutal honesty. Jack’s description about the lengths he will take in seducing his wife, can be read as controversial, even disturbing. Then immediately followed with Ida’s emotions about the seduction can take the edge off of the controversy but still leave you wondering if this is right. But maybe uncomfortable is how we’re supposed to feel.

There is an intense amount of visual imagery and surreal moments  in this movie. Levi found the right balance of story, imagery, and editing the movie that flows at the perfect pace and will hold the interests of its audience. As with any erotic thriller, there is a healthy amount of nudity, especially Bai Ling, but the nudity comes off as art without ever approaching the line of pornography.

Jefery Levi successfully creates a beautifully artistic interpretation of Junichiro Tanizaki, The Key. Audiences may not be used to this style of art, but this is a film that deserve a chance because it’s unique and outside-the-box.