Monthly Archives: December 2014

Grimm & Grand

Disney version of hit fairy-tale mash-up musical hits all the right notes


Into the Woods

Starring Meryl Streep, James Cordon & Emily Blunt

Directed by Rob Marshall


Composer Stephen Sondheim’s award-winning 1987 Broadway play, a marvelously intertwined tapestry of several Grimm fairy tales laced with decidedly grown-up themes, debuts on the big screen with an all-star cast—and enough Disney tweaking to make it marketable to younger audiences.

Sondheim’s musical mash-up takes well-known characters from “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Jack in the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and “Cinderella,” adds a few others, and puts them all on a woodland collision course of fate and fortune—and sometimes, alas, misfortune.

“Anything can happen in the woods,” goes a line in one of the songs.


Emily Blunt and James Cordon

And it certainly does, as a kindly baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt) embark on a journey to find the magical ingredients that will break a generational curse cast by a witch (Meryl Streep) that has prevented them from having a child.

Before they go, they send Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) traipsing off with a basket of baked goods to see her granny. Soon enough, they come across Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) fleeing from an arduous prince (Chris Pine), and the young village peasant Jack (Daniel Huddlestone), whose trade of a beloved milk cow for some magic beans will come to have calamitous effects for everyone.


Anna Kendrick

As anyone familiar with the musical knows, Sondheim’s storyline and wonderfully clever, crafty songs work on multiple levels. They traffic in some serious, decidedly heavy topics—parenting, choices, decisions, guilt, forgiveness, infidelity, murder and mortality. But they pack in some soft, tender moments, too, and some hilarious highlights, as well. Younger kids may think Johnny Depp’s two-scene cameo as The (big, bad) Wolf is just a howl-y hoot, but adults will easily catch the “sumptuous carnality” in the role’s campy pedophilic undertones. And you won’t come across many more amusing surprises than “Agony,” the preening, prancing “prince”-off duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, whose royal character yearns for the tower-trapped damsel with the golden hair, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).


Meryl Streep

Other recognizable faces include Tracey Ullman as Jack’s mother and Christine Baranski as Cinderella’s stepmother. Everyone sings, and does a terrific job. You might have known Streep and Kendrick, from previous movies, had the pipes for their roles, but prepared to be blown away by everyone else, especially Blunt (who was—ironically—pregnant during much of the shoot) and Cordon, who you’ll be seeing even more of when he takes over The Late Late Show on CBS in March.

This fractured fairy tale might get a bit grim, especially for overly sensitive little ones; it was never intended as a sweet-dreams bedtime story. Disney has softened some of its coarser edges and made other modifications, but the “Be careful what you wish for” morality-tale message in the show’s not-always-so-happily-ever-after remains intact.

Yes, anything can happen in the woods. Who knows, you might find magic beans, witches, princes, big bad wolves, and much more—like the year’s best, most delightful, star-packed movie musical.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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All-American Hero

Angelina Jolie tells Louis Zamperini’s story of survival and inspiration

Unbroken 4


Starring Jack O’Connell, Takamasa Ishihara & Domnhall Gleeson

Directed by Angelina Jolie



As far as real-life, all-American heroes go, they don’t get any red, white and bluer than Louis Zamperini, the U.S. Olympic runner, World War II bombardier and prisoner-of-war survivor whose amazing story was told in author Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling 2010 book, Unbroken.

Now Angelina Jolie, making her second theatrical outing behind the camera as a director, brings Hillenbrand’s book to the screen in a grandiose dramatization of Zamperini’s epic ordeal during the war, with flashbacks to his rascally boyhood in Torrence, Calif., his surprising success as a high-school track star, and his wide-eyed trip to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

Unbroken 5The movie begins with a bang—quite literally—as we’re taken inside the belly of a B24 bomber, alongside Zamperini (Irish actor Jack O’Connell) and his crew mates as they crack jokes, then crack down and delivering their goods, fend off a fierce attack by Japanese Zeros and finally bring their badly damaged plane in for a very rough landing. A later mission sets up the dire circumstances that put Zamperini and two of his fellow crewmen (Domnhall Gleeson and Finn Whitrock) adrift in life rafts and finally into the hands of Japanese captors.

Zamperini (who died earlier in 2014, at age 97) would spend more than two years in Pacific prison and work camps, and the heart of the movie is the torment he received from a young, terrifying prison warden called “the Bird” (Japanese singer-songwriter Takamasa Ishihara, making his acting debut), whose soft, “feminine” appearance masked a grotesque sadism.

O’Connell gives a tremendous, star-making performance, transforming his entire physicality to depict the ravages of his ever-worsening conditions. Ishihara is galvanizing in an unforgettable “bad guy” role that hints of much more complexity and ambiguity than the script gives him rein to fully explore.

The movie looks fantastic, thanks to the camera work of award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, who brings a prestigious, pedigreed master’s touch to every scene: the danger—and the excitement—in the air; the desolation, desperation and drama of floating for weeks the ocean;Unbroken 3 the soul-sucking abominations of the prisons, where days and months seep into years.

The script—whose unlikely collaborators include Joel and Ethan Cohen, not typically known for such un-cynical, snark-free, drama—focuses a lot (perhaps too much) on suffering, agony and endurance, and not enough on just how, exactly, Zamperini came to circle back on the words of a sermon we watch him squirming through, as a boy: “Love thy enemy.”

One sequence depicts a weakened, starved and beaten “Louie” forced by the Bird to pick up a heavy wooden beam and hold it above his head for what the movie ticks off to feel like hours. Jolie presents it like a scene from The Passion of the Christ. That incident may very well have happened, but making Zamperini look like a saint—or more—seems like unnecessary sermonizing.

He wasn’t a saint, but he certainly was a great, inspiring man. And now his legacy includes a handsome movie monument to remind even more people of his service, his sacrifice and the incredible reserves of strength and resolve he used to keep his will, his faith, his courage and his call of duty to his country “unbroken.”

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Little Girl Lost

Modernized ‘Annie’ is an underwhelming, quasi-musical mess

1111746 – ANNIE


Starring Quvenzhane Wallis, Jamie Foxx & Cameron Diaz

Directed by Will Gluck


“You’re such a special little girl,” one character tells the world’s most famous little orphan during this latest musical remake of her well-traveled tale.

And it’s certainly true: Little Orphan Annie, the eternally young waif, has cut a 90-year swath across pop culture, from comic strips to the Broadway stage and beyond. You’ve got to be some kinda special to live nearly 100 years and never look a day over 9.

But most people who are familiar with Annie today know her from the 1982 musical made about the 1970s Broadway production, and that will be the standard—for better and for worse—to which much of this new Annie will be compared.

Perhaps it’s finally time for Little Orphan Annie to come out of the 1920s and into the modern world, and this version does that, all right, putting a shiny contemporary spin on an old, familiar story. But just how well will Annie fans take to mashed-up, hip-hop songs, miscast performers, and a production that sinks far more than often than it soars?

Quvenzhane Wallis and Jamie Foxx

Quvenzhane Wallis & Jamie Foxx

The new Annie, Quvenzhanè Wallis, who received an Academy Award nomination when she was 6 for her starring role in as the unflappable bayou child in Beasts of the Southern Wild, has a relaxed, natural charm and undeniable cuteness. But she’s no “stage kid,” and she’s clearly out of her element in a role requiring extensive singing and dancing.

Jamie Foxx plays Will Stacks, the contemporary equivalent of Daddy Warbucks, now a fat-cat tech tycoon running for mayor of New York. Cameron Diaz is Miss Hannigan, the boozy-floozy foster mom raising Annie—a several other preteen tykes—in a welfare-funded tenement. Bobby Cannvale and Rose Bryne are Stacks’ campaign manager and personal assistant, working hard to humanize his cool, aloof image.

Fine performers all, they’re hamstrung by cinematography, choreography (or lack of it) and staging that leaves them stumbling, bumbling, flailing, wailing and sounding like their vocals have been pumped into an Annie atomizer. Director Will Gluck, whose previous films include the witty teen comedy Easy A and the sexy relationship farce Friends With Benefits, had never directed a musical before. This makes you wonder if he’d ever paid much attention to one, either.

Enter Annie—now a foster child instead of an orphan—in an encounter than becomes a YouTube viral video and a campaign godsend for Stacks, and the opportunity for the moppet to work her magic.

1111746 Ð ANNIEExcept there’s not a lot of magic to be found—certainly not in the signature show tunes, like Tomorrow, Hard Knock Life and Little Girls, which are revised with new lyrics and urbanized, boom-box-y arrangements, and supplemented with some new tunes entirely. The storyline, though mostly hewing to Annie basics, dazzles it up with contemporary window dressing, including a Big Apple setting, jazzy lingo (“janky,” “Bam!”), celebrity cameos (Hey, there’s Michael J. Fox! And Austin Kutcher—and Mila Kunis!) and a breathlessly “today” subplot driven by cell-phone tracking and Twitter postings.

But it all makes for one big, underwhelming quasi-musical mess. Little Orphan Annie has been a kitschy, pop-cultural treasure for nearly a century, arcing across generations with a message of spunk, sunshine, adventure, uplift and the possibilities of better, brighter tomorrows. But most viewers will probably be disappointed to watch this Annie fall—and ring—achingly flat, reminding them mostly of much more enjoyable yesterdays.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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