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Into the Woods (2014)
What happens after 'happily ever after'
Into the Woods is a cautionary tale that is not for all tastes. Those who are open to new experiences will enjoy this visual feast that features familiar fairy-tale characters like Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack who went up the beanstalk. The 'woods' of the title is really a wilderness in which the characters encounter trials, temptations and times of testing. Those who survive this wilderness will come out learning about love and forgiveness.
This is a big-screen version of the Broadway musical by Stephen Sondheim. The music will not appeal to all listeners; those who are not familiar with this work will either be turned off or end up as fresh fans. Such audience will likely find that the movie improves with repeated viewing.
Speaking as a long-time Sondheim admirer, Into the Woods is not among my favorite works of his (see below for that list). Nevertheless, this musical has its share of songs that I have enjoyed from the first time I heard them. My favorite, Giants in the Sky, is performed with great poise by Daniel Huttlestone, who gives Jack a commanding presence in the film. If Broadway or the West End is looking for the perfect Artful Dodger in a revival of Oliver!, young Dan Huttlestone is the obvious choice right now. Tracey Ullman is also very convincing as Jack's world-weary mother, while long-time Sondheim fan Anna Kendrick gets to strut her stuff as a Cinderella torn between heart and home.
Besides Giant, other numbers that i love include Emily Blunt's and James Cordern's It Takes Two (a delightful duet between the Baker and his Wife); Anna's On the Steps of the Palace (wistfully sung by Cinderella); Meryl Streep's Last Midnight (powerfully belted out by the Witch); Anna's and Lilla Crawford's No One Is Alone (a reassuring duet); Meryl's Stay With Me (tender rendition by the Witch); Emily's Moments in the Woods (the Baker's Wife reflecting); Daniel+James+Anna+Lilla's Your Fault (four characters blaming each other); Chris Pine's and Billy Magnussen's Agony (two dashing princes hamming it up in a catchy duet) and Children Will Listen (the haunting final number). Audiences will do well to heed the advice in the lyrics: "Careful the things you say, children will listen; Careful the things you do, children will see... and learn. Children may not obey, but children will listen; Children will look to you for which way to turn, To learn what to be... Careful before you say 'Listen to me', Children will listen!"
The opening montage that introduces the various characters is handled very well. The production design and costumes are marvelous too. Years ago, there was a made-for-TV version of this musical that may be worth checking out for comparison.
(Just for the record, my favorite Sondheim musicals are Company, A Little Night Music, Follies, Pacific Overtures and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.)
Harmless fun at best, another missed opportunity at worst
People who are not attached to the original material will find this version of Annie harmless fun at best. For me, however, this was just yet another missed opportunity. I've been fond of Annie, the Broadway musical, from the beginning. When the 1982 movie version came out, I found it a disappointment; the casting did not deliver, the story was clumsily handled, and some of the songs were changed but not for the better. This second big-screen effort was a major disappointment for me too. The only bright spot was that Quvenzhane Wallis was a slightly better fit for the title role than Aileen Quinn in 1982, despite her not having red curls and freckles. Her Annie, a foster child rather than an orphan, is more adorable than cute. The rest of the movie was an attempt to update the story at the expense of many of the musical's original songs which, to me, is a waste, since their replacements did not have the same charm (except maybe for Jamie Foxx's new NYC song, The City's Yours), though some may still grow on you after a while. The new storyline also took on a bit more than it could chew, and was not more engaging. The rest of the cast were okay, although some players came off as too earnest. The saddest thought is that this may mean the last attempt to make an Annie for the big screen, which will really be a big shame.
The performances kept me glued
I'd been wanting to see this movie a long time for the cast, and the performances didn't disappoint. Anna Paquin blew me away with her compelling turn as an outspoken and idealistic schoolgirl who tried to right whatever had been wronged, only to be disappointed again and again. I was never a big fan of Paquin and I'm not sure how much I really like her character Lisa in this movie, but she finally won me over and even made me sympathize with Lisa, regardless of how much or little I liked her. Other cast standouts include Jonathan Hadary (great delivery of lines), Michael Ealy (charming), Matt Damon (quietly appealing), Allison Janney (superb death scene) and J. Smith Cameron (long-suffering mother). Good support also came from Mark Ruffalo, Jeannie Berlin and Matthew Broderick. As a fan of Kieran Culkin, I would have liked to see more of him. I was only disappointed with the screenplay which, in the classroom scenes, made certain political statements that were left hanging; but that's my personal grouse. The cast alone made me glad to have watched this.
Blue Jasmine (2013)
Woody Allen at his most Tennessee Williams
In Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett is in familiar territory. She was a terrific Blanche duBois on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire. In this movie, the titular character is similar to Blanche in many ways: she is a well-heeled woman who lost her husband, and in a desperate situation, goes to live with a younger sister who is more grounded and also loved by a loud man wearing a tank top. Later, this woman is pursued by a gentleman but the relationship is stopped by a revelation. The woman then descends into further depression. This comparison is not meant to be a put-down of one of Woody Allen's best works of the past decade. We all know that the master filmmaker is a lover of cinema and is proud to imitate the works of those who have inspired him. As one who loves both the Tennessee Williams play and this latest work by Allen, i therefore had the pleasure of enjoying what is arguably an updated Streetcar. And as usual, the standout performances come from the women in his cast. Blanchett and Sally Hawkins (whom i have never really liked until now) playing different personalities light up the screen every time they are on. Here is a movie that is both inspired and topical as well.
The Conjuring (2013)
40 years after The Exorcist, here's a new classic
Like The Exorcist made 40 years earlier, this feature is based on a true story, taken from the case files of husband-and-wife paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. Although the set up is familiar enough, the execution and delivery are solid and assured in the capable hands of director James Wan. The screenplay nicely balances the drama and suspense, and unlike many other offerings in this genre, has hardly any gaps in logic. The acting is superlative; Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor are especially affecting as the wives/mothers particularly vulnerable to the proceedings. There are horror movies like Jeepers Creepers that just aim to scare and succeed in that department. The Conjuring, on the other hand, is not just about being scary but leaves the viewer gasping because what took place really happened and can happen to anyone. Let this therefore be a cautionary tale as well.
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Star Trek's stunning superior sequel
I enjoyed the Star Trek reboot that was released in 2009, so much so that i thought that would have been hard to top. This superlative sequel proved me wrong. Kudos to the writers for a character-driven action screenplay that is laced with smart humor. Director J.J. Abrams nicely balances the action, suspense and drama without losing any steam in the middle but with regular edge-of-the-seat moments. The cast is a fine ensemble, but Chris Pine's standout performance as Captain Kirk confirms him as one of the finest actors of his generation. Also adding to the movie's attributes are the special visual effects, well-choreographed fight sequences and the sublime music score. A truly spectacular effort that exceeds expectations.
The Hangover Part II (2011)
A sequel that is very hard not to like
The hangover boys are back, and this time, they're in Bangkok. Sounds like a great location for a follow-up. I liked the first Hangover, though i found the story far-fetched, over-the-top and way too surreal. This sequel actually plays out more believably, believe it or not, despite a more convoluted plot. I was prepared to find fault, but i just ended up liking this movie far more than i expected. The wolf packers are as funny as ever, and i especially love the droll acting by Paul Giamatti. Ken Jeong is funny as ever, although less outrageously this time, while newcomer Mason Lee comes across as highly likable. One also can't help but grin when seeing the photographs shown during the end credits.
A time in history well worth recalling and remembering
Here is a time in history that's well worth recalling and remembering. Steven Spielberg's Lincoln focuses on the final months of the great president's life, when he worked with rivals and supporters in government to pass the 13th constitutional amendment -- that's the one that emancipates the slaves. It's a handsome well-mounted production, with the drab look reflective of the period. Once again, Spielberg extracts superb performances from his mostly celebrated cast. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays the beleaguered president as a dignified and at the same time, very human, figure. However, my favorite character was Tad Lincoln played by the young Gulliver McGrath; amid all the (necessary) conniving and manipulation taking place in the capital city, he comes across as so innocent and carefree... until the tragic moment at the end. See this movie as a lesson on how clever political maneuvering by the wily president enabled the successful passage of a controversial bill.
Cloud Atlas (2012)
An amazing, astounding and astonishing Atlas
The Wachowskis have once again come out with a mystical masterpiece, co-written and co-directed by Tom Tykwer. Cloud Atlas interweaves several stories set in different times and locations, but which turn out to be linked. It is a breathtaking experience to watch what starts out as unrelated narratives being introduced one after the other, and their respective plots then taking turns being unveiled layer by layer. This device has been employed on film before, but Cloud Atlas' intricate editing really takes the cake. Adding to the fun are the actors playing very diverse characters in the different stories. The movie is a visual delight and despite its three-hour running time, one feels the length is justified.
Life of Pi (2012)
Life-affirming tale that resonates
I should first confess that i have not read Yann Martel's novel, am not a vegetarian, and do not believe that all religions are the same. All that notwithstanding, i love this movie with the inspiring message that if life throws you lemons, make lemonade. When Indian boy Pi Patel faces taunts in school, he turns that to his advantage. When, as a teenager, he becomes shipwrecked and shares a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, he learns to deal with the situation and because he never gives up hope, he gets to be amazed by the wonderful experiences brought about by his predicament. Suraj Sharma injects his performance with a combination of innocence and tenacity, while the virtual tiger named Richard Parker is an impressive work of art. Both complement each other beautifully. The screenplay is sharp and observant, while the music score is striking yet unobtrusive. Yes, director Ang Lee has delivered yet another masterpiece.