Moviegoers Assemble – Avengers: Age of Ultron is Worth Seeing

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May 1 marks the release of the much-anticipated second movie in the Avengers franchise. Comic book fans and non-fans alike should take the time to see this movie; it has action, it has humor, it has character development, it has an astounding plot with copious twists and turns, and it sets up for future Marvel movies, including Black Panther, Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity Wars. Without further ado, the good, the less good and the slightly ugly of Avengers: Age of Ultron

 

Avengers Age of Ultron

 

Starting with the negatives, few that they were, the movie starts out a little shaky, graphically. The first scene has a lot of movement and action, but it looks very fake, as if they did not spend as much time focusing on it as they did the rest of the movie. When opening a big movie that has a lot of computerized graphics, it is probably not the best idea to start sloppy. However, by the end of the fight, it comes together much more fully, and the rest of the movie is graphically gorgeous.

That was the strongest negative that could be found in this movie. This was an amazing film, far and away the best in the Marvel lineup, which is saying something, given the strong films they have been producing. The only other disappointment was the lack of an after-credits scene; there is still a mid-credits scene, but nothing at the end of the long lists of names and people thanked.

 

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Turning to the good points of the movie, the humor by far stole the show. Every character had one-liners galore, and there were few scenes that did not at some point elicit chuckles in the audience. Even Ultron himself, the villain of the movie, had some light-hearted moments, mostly thanks to the incredible voice acting done by James Spader.

If there is one reason to go and see this movie, it is absolutely James Spader’s performance as Ultron. Spader has a way of bringing even the darkest and most malevolent characters into the light and giving them a unique sort of twisted humor. Ultron is no different. He finds just the proper balance between homicidal lunatic and smiling savior that makes him a joy to watch.

 

ultron

 

That’s not to say that the rest of the characters are not given their due time. Hawkeye, who got somewhat shafted for screen time and development in the first movie, became one of the most important parts of the sequel. He got significant plot points, the audience learned more about his background, and there were a number of surprise moments that he brought to the film. The other characters who haven’t gotten their own movies yet, Black Widow and Hulk, both got significant development themselves, making the team feel more whole.

 

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-Trailer-1-Hawkeye-in-Snow

 

It’s good to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe expanding, and the addition of the Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and the Vision to the Avengers team certainly fleshes out the world significantly. Even though Marvel doesn’t own the rights to call the Maximoff twins “mutants” like they are in the comics, they did a good job of portraying them as superpowered individuals, and they got a backstory that matched well the actions they were taking.

 

Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch

 

Marvel is particularly good about peppering their movies with Easter eggs, and this film is no different. The film makes reference to Wakanda, the African country that is ruled by the Black Panther, and the Avengers go to speak to a black market trader off the coast of the nation, Ulysses Klaue. Klaue is better known in the comics as Klaw, an enemy of the Black Panther who can manipulate sound and who is constantly after the vibranium that is protected by the tribes of Wakanda.

 

Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-Ultron-and-Ulysses-Klaw-Andy-Serkis

 

Dr. Helen Cho, a friend of Tony Stark’s, is the mother of a hero in the comics named Amadeus Cho, who is an ally to the Avengers; though Amadeus does not show up in this movie, it does leave open the possibility for him to appear in the future. Thor discovers the purpose of the Infinity Gems, the major magical items that have been appearing in each of the phase 2 films, and warns the Avengers of Thanos’ coming war, which is a set up directly for the next Avengers films, Infinity War (which will be released in two parts in 2018 and 2019).

 

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One other discovered secret has to do with some computer chips that Iron Man messes with late in the movie. Though the scene moves quickly, one of the chips is labeled “Jocasta.” In the comics, Jocasta is the name of a robot bride that Ultron makes for himself. This could hint at a return of Ultron in later movies – Ultron never stays dead for very long – with his wife at his side.

 

Jocasta Chip

 

As mentioned earlier, aside from the first scene, the graphics of this movie are fantastic. The fight scenes have a lot of action, and they look realistic and massive. The battle between Hulk and Iron Man in the Hulkbuster armor is particularly wonderful, as they are destroying a massive city between the two of them. Iron Man manages to continue saving people while he battles, a protective side to Tony Stark that isn’t often seen.

 

Hulkbuster Armor Age of Ultron

 

I recommend this movie without hesitation to anyone and everyone. Whether in 3D, IMAX or on a regular screen, go see this in theatres. One of the great parts of this movie is hearing the reactions of others to events as they happen. Age of Ultron is one of the best movies of recent years, another big success for Marvel Studios.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is in theatres now. It was directed and written by Joss Whedon and produced by Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios. It stars James Spader, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor‑Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany.

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Daredevil: Marvel’s Own Dark Knight

Netflix Now Streaming

 

Netflix and Marvel are teaming up to bring four new superhero shows to viewers, showcasing characters that are not as popular in the comics pantheon. The first of these shows, Daredevil, saw its digital premier this weekend, with all 13 episodes in the first season releasing at once. One 13-hour binge watching session later, it’s clear that this is a good show. Good, but not great. It has a lot of action, a lot of fighting and a lot of fantastic stunts, but it also spends a lot of time standing around talking. For this, the source material is to blame: Daredevil simply isn’t that exciting of a superhero. By day he’s a lawyer and by night he’s a vigilante who is simply human, with all the vulnerabilities that anyone else would have. Still, if you liked Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy, this is a show that you’ll enjoy – only the names were really changed.

 

Daredevil-9

 

Matt Murdock, the main character, was struck blind in an accident as a child. He pushed a man out of the way of an incoming truck, and then got dowsed in the hazardous chemicals that the truck was carrying. These chemicals may have blinded him, but they also enhanced his other senses. As a result, he became incredibly sensitive to the smallest sounds, changes in air currents, the slightest fluctuations in temperature and the like. He developed a way to see the world around him without seeing it.

 

Daredevil-using-echolocation

 

His father was an amateur boxer who was in on a scheme to rig fights, and he would often lose intentionally as a way to earn extra cash. After Matt’s accident, his father decides he wants to be a hero to his son for once, and wins a fight he was supposed to lose. The men rigging the fight lose a lot of money because of it, and have him killed, orphaning Matt. While at the orphanage, Matt meets a man called “Stick” who is also blind and who teaches him how to utilize his remaining senses as a fighting technique. Matt eventually becomes a lawyer and returns to where he grew up, the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York. He begins patrolling in the night, using his super hearing to listen for crimes in progress that he can stop. While he starts with petty crime, he soon ends up involved in a battle for the entirety of Hell’s Kitchen, thanks to a case he gets hired onto in the course of his day job. The Russian, Chinese and Japanese mafias are all working together under the leadership of a man named Wilson Fisk – known in the comics as Daredevil’s greatest adversary, “Kingpin” – and Matt is determined to keep his home safe.

 

Vincent D'Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin

Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, aka Kingpin

 

The show does a good job of balancing Matt’s nighttime activities with his daytime life, as well as the lives of his friends and allies. His law partner and best friend Foggy Nelson, along with their secretary Karen Page and journalist Ben Urich, spend their days working to take down Kingpin using the legal system, not knowing that Matt is spending his nights working outside of the system to accomplish the same goal. At the same time, the show also gives viewers an in-depth look at Kingpin himself. It looks at his background being abused by his father, explores his motivations behind attempting to take over the area (spoilers: his motives are actually noble, though his methods are underhanded), and it even shows his warmth in dealing with those he loves. In many ways, Kingpin comes off as a more believable and likable character than the titular hero.

 

Matt Murdock, Karen Page, Ben Urich and Foggy Nelson

Matt Murdock, Karen Page, Ben Urich and Foggy Nelson

 

Normally, when a show has this many moving parts, it’s hard to keep all of the plates in the air at once. Daredevil manages to keep them aloft by not overreaching with any of them. The characters are not one dimensional by any means, but most do stop at two dimensions. This problem is likely due to the limited number of episodes, and will be corrected with a second season. The plot mostly revolves around the characters finding some new piece of information and then hiding from or getting roughed up by Kingpin’s men until that information can be put to use while Daredevil is either beating up gang members or getting beaten up badly himself. The show does shine during the action sequences, though, and anyone who is a fan of watching acrobatic fighting maneuvers as one man takes out an entire army of gang members will love this show for that. It just begins to feel formulaic and repetitive after a while.

 

daredevil Netflix

 

The show is being praised by many for being darker and grittier than anything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it is at that. It is the first Marvel product to get a Mature rating on television. This fits with the tenor of the comics; Daredevil is more of an antihero akin to Punisher or Batman than he is a hero like the MCU has given audiences so far. This is a trend that is likely to continue in the upcoming Netflix/Marvel shows, as Jessica Jones has a rather dark history, as does Luke Cage. However, just because it is dark and gritty and mature does not mean that it is a great show. That’s not to say it’s bad, and it is, in fact, a good series. However, it is being overhyped due to its realism as stacked next to other Marvel properties, and that is praise it simply does not deserve.

 

Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, coming soon to Netflix as the Defenders

Luke Cage, Iron Fist, Daredevil and Jessica Jones, coming soon to Netflix as the Defenders

 

I recommend Daredevil to anyone who likes the Dark Knight trilogy because that is the mental comparison I made throughout every episode. I recommend it for those who like shows based on comics, particularly if you plan to watch the other upcoming Netflix/Marvel shows leading up to the Defenders miniseries. I recommend it for anyone who just likes to watch action and violence. I do not recommend it for anyone who doesn’t like these things or who is just looking for a new crime procedural or cop drama. This is so much more and so much less than that.

 

Daredevil is a Netflix original series that began streaming on April 10, 2015. It stars Charlie Cox, Deborah Ann Woll, Elden Henson, Vondie Curtis-Hall and Vincent D’Onofrio.

The Play That Killed Love: The Sequel to Phantom of the Opera

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Phantom of the Opera is one of the best known musicals of all time. It has been running continuously around the world since it premiered in 1986, it won six Tony Awards for its original Broadway production, and it was made into a popular movie in 2004. It is the longest running Broadway show ever, having reached 10,000 performances in 2012. So, as happens with many successful franchises, a sequel was developed. Andrew Lloyd Webber, no longer guided by Gaston Leroux’s original work, went completely off the rails in the new story. The story is poorly written, the characters – who had at least some depth in the original show – were flattened to a single dimension each (if that), and the music – usually Webber’s saving grace – was simply bad. Let’s take a look at the sequel that defined horror through its existence and not its story, Love Never Dies.

 

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Love Never Dies takes place 10 years after the end of Phantom of the Opera. Sort of. Webber seems to have forgotten that he set Phantom in 1881, since Love Never Dies takes place “10 years later” in 1907. In fact, the prologue of Phantom shows Raoul as elderly and confined to a wheelchair in 1905. Hurray for continuity. Temporal distortions aside, the story is set in the United States rather than in France, specifically at Coney Island. It turns out that the Phantom was behind the creation of Coney Island because he wanted a method to lure Christine – now a singer famous across Europe – back to him. The grand opening of Coney Island is, somehow, the excuse he needs to invite her to perform.

Christine accepts the invitation and arrives to America with her son Gustave and her husband Raoul in tow. In the 10 years or so between the plays, Raoul has gone from being a passionate and doting lover to a mean drunk who has accrued a large gambling debt that forces Christine to take singing jobs she does not want to take, such as the opening performance at Coney Island. The Phantom has been aided and supported by Meg and Madame Giry, who immigrated to America after the events of Phantom and saved up money to bring the Phantom into the country. In spite of 10 years, give or take, of providing for the Phantom, Meg still cannot get the musical genius to notice her singing and dancing skills. She was working to be the star of the opening night show, but the arrival of Christine bumps her from the spotlight.

 

Not that he's obsessed with her or anything.

Not that he’s obsessed with her or anything.

 

It is worth noting at this point that Christine and Raoul do not know that the invitation to perform came from the Phantom; they do not know who the owner of the theme park is, just that he offered to pay enough to wipe away Raoul’s gambling debts. Raoul learns of the Phantom’s involvement when he encounters Madame Giry in a bar at the same time as the Phantom reveals himself to Christine in her room. The Phantom recounts with Christine the affair they had 10-ish years ago on the night before her wedding to Raoul, and she reveals that, had the Phantom stayed after that one night, she would have left Raoul at the altar for him.

 

At least she's still obsessed with him too.

At least she’s still obsessed with him too.

 

At this point, Gustave interrupts the reminiscing, and the Phantom promises to show him all around Coney Island. The boy eventually ends up in the Phantom’s secret lair, where he avails himself of the assembled musical equipment and shows how skilled he is with music. Far too skilled to only have one musically gifted parent. Shock and surprise, spoiler alert, Gustave is not Raoul’s son, but the Phantom’s. After that highly anticlimactic reveal that was telegraphed from the start of the show, the Phantom launches into a song better suited for Rock of Ages than a show about early 20th century opera singers. After rocking out with daddy dearest, Gustave freaks out upon seeing the Phantom’s real face, just like Christine did in the original. Christine confirms that the Phantom is Gustave’s father, and promises never to tell that to her son.

 

This goes exactly as well as one would expect.

This goes exactly as well as expected.

 

Raoul, meanwhile, is still off drinking and gambling and generally making terrible life choices. Including his choice to make a bet with the Phantom that Christine will not sing at the opening. If she chooses not to and to leave with Raoul, then the Phantom will pay off all of Raoul’s gambling debts. If she does sing, then Raoul must leave, alone, and may never see his wife and her son again. Betting on one’s wife in a play goes about as well as it has since Taming of the Shrew, and Raoul slinks off, defeated, as Christine begins to sing the titular song.

 

Phantom of the Opera Wins

 

Then, because there wasn’t enough (read: any) action to speak of in the play, the final scene crams a play’s worth of plot into 10 minutes. It turns out that Meg got the money to support the Phantom through prostitution, an unnecessary twist that had zero warning. The fact that the Phantom still chooses Christine over her causes her to descend rapidly into madness, and she kidnaps and threatens to kill Gustave. The Phantom tries to give her an inspiring speech about how she can be so much more than what she is, and he decides that telling her she just isn’t as good as Christine is the right negotiation tactic. This works about as well as one might expect, and Meg releases Gustave so that she can shoot Christine instead. Christine dies after breaking her promise and telling Gustave that the mean, drunk man who raised him for his whole life was not his father, but the creepy, mangled man who kidnapped mommy once and killed a few dozen people actually is his father. The end.

 

The face of a crazed hooker.  In a bathing suit.

The face of a crazed hooker. In a chorus line.

 

This being a musical, there happen to be a number of songs to tell this insipid story. Or rather, that is normally the point of the songs in a musical, to tell and advance the story. In this show, however, the songs have the effect of breaking up the story more than carrying it. Part of this is due to the fact that the songs do not have a unifying structure to them. In Phantom, the song styles were more uniform. They were grand, nearly operatic songs that felt like they belonged in the scenes and the time period. The songs in Love Never Dies are disjointed, scattered haphazardly, and do not fit the tone, tenor or time of the show. This can pull the audience out of the reality that the show is trying to build, not that the audience would really want to stay in that reality anyway.

 

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The Phantom likes to surround himself with freaks.

 

There are only two good songs, and they’re not actually good for the intended reason of “beautiful music and memorable lyrics.” The first is the song “Dear Old Friend,” sung when Raoul encounters Madame Giry and Christine encounters Meg Giry. This song is good because it’s funny to hear the passive-aggressive undertones to the words being said. They are all realizing that their lives are ruined by the presence of these other people who used to be their friends, and they greet each other kindly outwardly, while still letting each other know that their being in that place only means the worst for everyone. The second good song is “The Beauty Underneath,” the rock song that caps the first act. This song is good by how terribly placed it is. This song absolutely does not belong in this musical, and the whole show would be better for it being absent. All the same, it is the only memorable song, and it certainly livens up an otherwise dreary show.

The only thing that could possibly save this show is a good set of characters. Sadly, they’re just as big of a letdown as the rest. Raoul becomes an unlikable drunk, Christine turns out to have only been in love with the Phantom the whole time, Meg and Madame Giry get treated by the Phantom the same way that Webber treats them, as throwaway characters only serving to give the Phantom convenient access to the outside world.

 

Same caption as previous.

Same caption as previous.

 

The whole show seems to be written like a fanfiction intended to show how cool the Phantom is, and to give him the happy ending he deserved over that jerk Raoul. And that’s actually what this show is, fanfiction. Webber takes the characters from the original novel and makes up his own story about them, completely separate from the source material. He rewrites the story the way he wants with the hero he wants. Never mind that the Phantom was the murderous and terrifying villain in the book, and Raoul was the noble hero. The Phantom still deserved to get the girl. And win. Because that is what Webber wants.

 

Love Never Dies was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton as a sequel to Phantom of the Opera. A filmed version of the stage play can be found on DVD, if you really feel the need to suffer.

A Sadly Broken Show

Netflix Now Streaming

 

Netflix’s latest original series, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, began streaming this weekend, a new comedy produced by Tina Fey. Given Tina Fey’s normal comedy genius, this show is a huge disappointment. In the entire 13-episode first season, there were no laugh out loud moments that stick in the mind. The premise of the show is original, the main character – played by Ellie Kemper – is well-written, bright and strong, and some (but distinctly not all) of the supporting roles are entertaining. But, despite that, this remains a comedy that fails to bring the funny. Let’s take a closer look.

 

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt Logo

 

The premise of the show is a novel one that lends itself to a great story: four women are rescued from an underground bunker where they spent the last 15 years believing that they were the only survivors of the Apocalypse, saved by a doomsday preacher/cult leader. Kimmy Schmidt, the main and titular character, is one of those four women, dubbed the “Mole Women of Indiana.” She was the youngest of the group, kidnapped by the cult leader when she was only in the eighth grade. While the other three women choose to go back to their lives and homes in Indiana, Kimmy decides that she does not want to go back to Indiana, where she’ll only be seen as one of the Mole Women, but wants to make a new start for herself somewhere that she won’t be known. She moves to New York City, unaware of any of the major technological, linguistic, historical and cultural events of the last 15 years, and so must learn how to make her way in a world she doesn’t comprehend, with a childlike naïveté regarding everything about 2015 and without even a middle school education.

 

The Mole Women of Indiana

The Mole Women of Indiana

 

Kimmy is a great character, optimistic hard-working, with a great amount of inner (and outer) strength. She was able to resist the brainwashing of the cult leader, she refuses to leave New York even after a slew of bad luck ends with her losing her job and $13,000 dollars in the same day, and she even manages to rally those around her into bettering themselves, to varying degrees of success. Kimmy inspires her GED study group to band together to pass the class, holds together the Mole Women both in and out of the bomb shelter they had lived in, and helps her wealthy boss Jacqueline Voorhees (Jane Krakowski) cope with a divorce that leaves her with only a paltry twelve million dollars. Kimmy is a well-developed character, and the plots surrounding her are what make the show watchable. The storylines around the other characters, however, are of a far lower quality.

 

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

 

When Kimmy first arrives in New York, she answers an ad in a newspaper regarding a place to live. The landlord – played by Carol Kane – placed the ad so that she could find a roommate for her favorite tenant; she doesn’t want to evict him, but he won’t pay rent, so she insists that he get a paying roommate. The landlord is a kook who gets some personal development, but doesn’t receive much time in the overall plot. Her character mostly seems to be wrapped up in the single word “kook.” Her tenant is an unfortunate walking stereotype named Titus Andromedon. Many of the jokes in the show are either originated by him or revolve around him in some way, which explains why the funny is missing. He is a poorly written and poorly developed character whose absence could only improve the show. His only redeeming quality is his singing voice which, while beautiful, is implemented into episodes with terrible timing.

 

Carol Kane Shoot Us

 

The parts of Kimmy’s life that aren’t flashbacks or spent at home or with members of her study group revolve around her job, nanny for Mrs. Voorhees’ two spoiled rich kids. Or rather, that’s supposed to be her job, but she becomes more of a caretaker for Jacqueline herself. Kimmy helps Jacqueline gather up the courage to begin divorcing her husband after Jacqueline discovers he’s been cheating on her. Jane Krakowski may be in danger of getting typecast for the “rich, narcissistic woman” role, since she plays almost the same character that she played on 30 Rock, though her backstory in this show is quite different. It is shown, via flashbacks, that blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jacqueline is actually Native American, but decided that she wanted to be a part of white culture, where she could marry rich and live the high life. The ridiculousness was probably meant to be funny, but the show again missed its mark.

 

Jane Krakowski

 

The show had a number of big names as guest stars, including John Hamm, Nick Kroll and even Tina Fey herself. However, their characters were lackluster and uninspired. The show quickly gets to a point where any scene without Kimmy is to be dreaded, and even the scenes that she’s in she sometimes can’t save for the poor execution and writing of the other characters.

 

Tina Fey Jagweed

 

There is little that can redeem a comedy that has no laugh factor. The story premise is original, and the main character is a powerful positive force in the show’s favor, enough so that she makes the show nearly worth watching. But a dismal cast of supporting characters who tell boring and easily-forgotten jokes brings the show crashing down. The show had two seasons ordered by Netflix from the start, so there will be more episodes in the future. Hopefully they can make improvements in the next season.

The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is a Netflix original series. It is produced by Tina Fey and stars Ellie Kemper, Tituss Burgess, Carol Kane and Jane Krakowski.

Kingsman: The Not-So-Secret Success

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Before reading any farther, know that I absolutely recommend going to see this movie. It is action packed, humorous, smart and funny, all rolled into one. It spoofs the whole genre of spy thrillers, but it has a cohesive and entertaining plot without too much overt mockery of other such films. “Kingsman: The Secret Service” deserves to be seen in the theatres, and these are just some of the reasons. Spoilers for the movie may follow, so be warned.

 

Kingsman - Movie Poster

 

The movie focuses on a poor 20-something called “Eggsy” (played by Taron Egerton) who is leading a rough life. He’s had trouble with the law, dropped out of school and the military and his mother’s boyfriend is a violent brute who leads a gang of local toughs. After getting arrested for stealing and wrecking a car, Secret Agent Harry Hart (played by Colin Firth) offers to train him in the craft of being a gentleman spy. Hart belongs to the titular organization, and they are recruiting a new member to replace one of their organization who was killed early in the movie. Each remaining member – all of whom are codenamed for Knights of the Round Table out of Arthurian legend – is allowed to nominate one person who will compete with the other nominees in a series of trials to determine who is most fit to join the Kingsmen.

 

Kingsman - Colin Firth

 

While Eggsy is undergoing these tests, Hart, codenamed “Galahad,” begins investigating the death of his fellow agent as well as the mysterious disappearances of world leaders and celebrities. He discovers that the Internet mogul Richmond Valentine (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is behind these events. Valentine believes he is trying to save the world from the threat posed by global warming. With so many people on the planet using resources wastefully, the risk is evident, to him, at least. He wants to reduce the population of the earth to only those that he has selected as worth saving – the smart, the powerful, the rich and the artists. Valentine comes off as a fairly happy-go-lucky guy, but what makes him truly terrifying as a villain is that he honestly believes he is doing this for the good of the world, and his reasoning is frighteningly astute for the state of the world today.  Though, he is also aided by an assassin who has blades that extend from her prosthetic legs, so she adds to his status as well.

 

Kingsman - Samuel L. Jackson

 

Since Eggsy is the main character, he, of course, ends up being involved in the climactic final battle, though the twists and turns of the movie to get him there are highly entertaining. A lot of tropes from classic spy and adventure movies are present in this film, which makes predicting the general plotline somewhat easy. What makes a movie like this shine, given that, is the use of detail to surprise or distract the audience from thinking about what’s coming next. “Kingsman” uses both comedy and action to this end, and it works in its favor. It’s not often that you get to see Colin Firth take out a room full of thugs with an umbrella, or watch Samuel L. Jackson get nauseated at the sight of blood while simultaneously plotting the deaths of nearly seven billion people. The movie even finds the right balance between drama and comedy, moving seamlessly from a scene where Eggsy gets caught trying to steal a grenade shaped like a lighter to one where Valentine and Hart face off as enemies.

 

Kingsman - Colin Firth

 

The movie has a strong plot and a lot of star power (Egerton, Firth and Jackson are joined by Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and even Mark Hamill), but it also has a great soundtrack and some amazing cinematography. The music for each scene is well-chosen and well-choreographed, particularly when the fireworks start later in the movie, and the fight scenes are beautiful to watch. While the story revolving around the main character starts rather slow, and ends up being rather goofy, this is an uplifting and action packed movie that simply leaves the audience feeling good. It is well worth the price of admission, even if you only go to watch Colin Firth take out the movie’s version of the Westboro Baptist Church and then attend a private dinner catered by McDonalds.

 

Kingsman - Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson

 

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is in theatres now. It is produced by Marv Films and distributed by 20th Century Fox, and stars Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson and Taron Egerton.

Podcast Roundup

Alternate Media Feature

 

In reviewing and commenting on media, looking solely at movies and television isn’t enough. There is such a variety in how people communicate thoughts and ideas that focusing just on the wide-spread, visual media leaves a hole in the global marketplace of ideas. This week’s media feature is on podcasts. As most will know, podcasts are regularly released audio programs, similar to radio shows, that can be downloaded and listened to offline at the user’s convenience. They can be a great source of news, thoughtful information or pure entertainment. Below are four recommended podcasts. Let’s take a look.

 

4. Freakonomics Radio

Freakonomics Radio Logo

The Freakonomics Radio podcast grew out of the best-selling book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything. Now, it’s easy to look at a title like that and ask, “How could a podcast (or book) about economics be that interesting?” It’s a valid question. Most people who have ever had an economics course tend to remember a dry lecture by an ancient professor who just kept drawing lines on a chalkboard. What one wouldn’t remember from econ class is learning about how cheating in sumo wrestling can help predict cheating in classrooms, or how Roe v. Wade could impact crime rates in the 1980s, or how David Lee Roth is like the biblical King Solomon. While those topics wouldn’t be considered in the classroom, those are the types of topics covered in the books and podcast series. Economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Dubner have worked together over the last decade to find the hidden connections in the world – all supported by evidence and data – and share their discoveries. This is a great podcast for people who want to expand their view of the world or for those who want to have more interesting things to say at dinner parties. Most episodes are between 20 and 30 minutes, and they’re a good way to wake up the mind during a morning commute.

More information about Freakonomics Radio can be found here.

 

3. Thrilling Adventure Hour

Thrilling Adventure Hour Logo

The Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast is a series of stories performed in the style of old time radio broadcasts. The podcast is recorded in front of a live studio audience once each month. Each recording session includes multiple stories that are then released over the course of the month to podcast listeners. Since there are many different stories that all are released under the heading of the Thrilling Adventure Hour, it is possible that listeners may find they enjoy some of the tales more than others. The most popular and most regular stories are “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars” and “Beyond Belief.” Sparks Nevada is about a man from Earth who, along with his companion who is a native of the red planet, is in charge of upholding law and order on Mars. This tale has a dedicated storyline that must be listened to in the proper order, and it is packed with excitement and adventure and humor. Beyond Belief is about an upper class married couple who also happen to be able to see and talk with ghosts. Their drinking time is constantly interrupted by supernatural occurrences that only they can handle. The wit and sarcasm in this segment leads to constant laughter from both the audience and the listeners. Other segments happen with less regularity, but are often equally entertaining and full of adventure. Listeners learn what segments they prefer and can pick those out from the list of episodes. Most segments are about 25 minutes long and are good entertainment for relaxing or before bed.

More information about The Thrilling Adventure Hour can be found here.

 

2. Welcome To Night Vale

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The Welcome To Night Vale podcast is an ongoing story in the style of community radio. It’s released on the first and fifteenth of every month and tells of the happenings in a small desert town in the southwest of the United States. On its own, that may not sound so thrilling. And things in this town are pretty standard. From hooded figures outside a dog park that citizens aren’t allowed to enter to a vague yet menacing government agency working to control everything behind the scenes to a menacing glow cloud (ALL HAIL) that can control minds and that drops dead animals as it passes, life in Night Vale is just the same as it is anywhere else. Stories from small towns like Night Vale, Twin Peaks, Hemlock Grove and Derry, Maine, always seem to capture the interest of outsiders for some reason. Listening to the goings on and interactions between well-recognized town citizens in these small communities is just fun. The tales from Night Vale are heartwarming and bone-chilling all at once, and listening to love and rebellion and death and victory in 25 minute increments is a wonderful way to keep from sleeping at night.

More information about Welcome to Night Vale can be found here.

 

1. Critical Hit/Major Spoilers

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This entry is somewhat cheating because it’s two different podcasts on the same podcast network. However, both are shows of merit and deserve mention, and Critical Hit would not exist without Major Spoilers. The Major Spoilers podcast is a show that collects and talks about the big nerd news each week, movies and tv shows, but the particular focus is on talking about comic books. The group reviews and rates that week’s releases, and, as the title suggests, they don’t hold back on the spoilers. Given the geek revolution of recent years, there is usually a lot of news to cover, so the podcasts do run a bit long. However, the group is dedicated to their work and seem to have a lot of fun with it, so the show never seems to drag. It comes out every Tuesday, and it is a good way for listeners to catch up on anything they might have missed in the week. Critical Hit is a spinoff show from Major Spoilers that releases every Saturday. It is a Dungeons and Dragons podcast featuring a group playing and discussing the Fourth Edition (and recently Fifth Edition as well) of the classic role playing game. The game has been going now for long enough that it has been broken into seasons, and this has given listeners a lot of time to connect with the characters. For anyone who has ever wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons but has never had the time or the social group to do so, this is a great way to get introduced to the game. Experienced players will enjoy experiencing the story and watching it develop, even those who have expressed dislike of the Fourth Edition system. Some may find that dislike melting away as they join in on the adventure and learn more about the gameplay. Again, the episodes run fairly long, but there is a lot of action and a lot of story, and the time commitment never feels like a burden.

More information about Critical Hit and Major Spoilers can be found here.

 

These are some of my personal favorites. Any readers who would like to share the podcasts they most enjoy, please do so in the comments section below. I’ll listen to them, and you may see your favorite in a future Podcast Roundup.

Galavant…ing Around Quality

Hulu Now Streaming

 

The eight episode first season run of Galavant on ABC has only just ended, though with the promise of more to come. For four weeks, Sunday nights had an hour dedicated to a “musical comedy extravaganza.” At least, that’s what the commercials said. The reality is different. For every joke that landed, three missed. For every catchy song that could be hummed for days, there was another that just had to be suffered for the sake of getting through the show. The plot was formulaic and predictable, but that isn’t to say that it was unenjoyable; in fact, it was often amusing watching it play out. The real high point to the show, though, is the cast and the way that the actors portray the characters. The show even brought in a series of well-known guest stars to augment the regular players. While the cast and characters are the main reasons to sit down and watch the show, let’s take a look at the highs and lows that one should consider before watching Galavant.

 

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The first thing to consider in any “musical comedy” is the music. The show’s theme song, which is used with different words throughout the first episode and at the start and end of each week’s pair of episodes, is powerful and fun. It was a great way to start the series, and it’s the type of song that hooks viewers up front. Unfortunately, it also creates an expectation for the rest of the series that is never met. No other song in the season stands out nearly so much. There are others that are good, but when stacked up against how the show opens, they simply aren’t that memorable. Normally at this point, a list of what songs are good versus what songs are bad would follow, but Galavant throws a curve ball into that aspect of reviewing: the song styles vary. From doo-wop to drinking song to traditional Broadway number, there is no predominant song type. As such, opinions on which songs are the best are based on the tastes of the individual. The show does a good job of covering genres, so there is something for everyone. But the wide variety also means that everyone will have songs they greatly dislike as well.

 

 

A similar thing can be said about the comedy. It tries too hard to cover too many types of comedy, and so it both amuses and disappoints in turn. By far the weakest attempts at humor were the ones predicated on situational irony, mostly because the show was too easy to predict. If the audience knows what’s about to happen, there’s no laugh to be had when it does happen. Anachronistic jokes often fell just as flat; one character spends minutes trying to convince others that the idea for a zipper is a great plan, while his companions mock the thought. Having said all that, there are a number of one-liners and sarcastic asides in each episode that do hit home. The show may be inconsistent in its comedy, but when every line is intended as a joke, getting a laugh for even a quarter of them still makes for a decently funny show.

 

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With the music and the comedy out of the way, let’s look at the “extravaganza” part of the show, the plot and the characters. The show starts as a classic tale of an evil king kidnapping a fair maiden and a gallant knight riding to rescue his true love. Then the opening song ends and every part of that last sentence gets thrown out the window. Madalena (Mallory Jansen), the damsel in distress turns out to be quite a distressing damsel, choosing money and power over love and generally making hell the lives of everyone else in the show. The evil King Richard (Timothy Omundson) turns out to be a pushover and a wuss who only wants to be liked, even if he has to invade neighboring kingdoms to accomplish that mission. And the brave knight Sir Galavant (Joshua Sasse), the titular character, falls into a year-long depression, trading all his fighting skills and his sense of self-worth for kegs of ale, despite the efforts of his loyal squire Sid (Luke Youngblood).

 

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Sid the Squire (Youngblood) and Sir Galavant (Sasse)

 

The show picks up a year later when a beautiful princess named Isabella Maria Lucia Elisabetta of Valencia (Karen David) comes seeking the mighty hero Sir Galavant to help her reclaim her kingdom from King Richard. Richard had conquered the land in order to find the fabled Jewel of Valencia, which he believed could buy him Madalena’s love. Isabella enlists Galavant’s help by lying to him, telling him that Richard had beaten Madalena and that Madalena longed for Galavant. Richard knew this story would draw Galavant to the castle so that he could be executed, and he threatened the lives of Isabella’s parents in order to motivate her to tell it.

 

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Luke Youngblood, Mallory Jansen, Joshua Sasse, Timothy Omundson, Vinnie Jones and Karen David

 

While Galavant, Isabella and Sid travel toward the castle and the waiting trap, Richard realizes that Madalena doesn’t respect him and never will until he proves he can be a strong person and a strong leader. He enlists the help of those around him – his personal bodyguard, his personal chef and the jester that his wife is openly cheating with – to teach him how to be a better man, though these efforts prove fruitless. Madalena, realizing that she wants power and wealth without the burden of Richard, becomes the evil bitch she feels she was always meant to be, orchestrating layers and layers of plots designed to leave her the sole ruler. The three stories finally converge at the castle, and the season finale leaves the audience less hanging from a cliff than rolling down a mildly sloping hill. It clearly sets up for a second season and leaves many dangling threads, but there is no impending doom or danger for any of the characters.

 

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The plot is fairly predictable throughout, but it is heavily driven by the interactions of the various characters, and the actors do a wonderful job bringing them to life. They are over the top caricatures, they fit standard tropes and they are deeply flawed, and these qualities make them a pleasure to watch. The three-story structure also allows a lot of guest stars entry into the show, whether as a wizard named Xanax whom Richard visits to help him relax (Ricky Gervais) or as a rival knight whose go-to response is “Yo mama” (John Stamos) or as a monk who has taken a vow of singing (Weird Al Yankovic). These quirky side characters add a lot to the show, and the audience’s excitement over their inclusion can help to cover up the somewhat haphazard storylines that incorporate them.

 

Weird Al Yankovic and Ricky Gervais in Galavant

Weird Al Yankovic and Ricky Gervais in Galavant

 

Overall, it’s not a bad show, but it’s not the great show it was touted to be. The first episode was fun and set up the story well, and the second was a good follow up. The excitement and novelty of the idea dies down near the beginning of episode three, but by then there is a sense of investment in seeing the characters through the remaining episodes. At that point, the remainder of the season is short enough that it ends before it gets to be too much to slog through to finish the story. In the end, it’s a fun waste of a few hours, and a few songs and jokes might stand out, but don’t expect too much from it.

Galavant just ended its first season on ABC and is now available for streaming on Hulu. It was created by Dan Fogelman and stars Joshua Sasse, Timothy Omundson, Vinnie Jones, Mallory Jansen, Karen David and Luke Youngblood.

The Political Thriller of the Year

Youtube Now Streaming

 

Tuesday night saw part six of a seven part miniseries that airs only one episode each year. The show was heavily plot laden with compelling characters – including antagonists who utilized the power of sitting still and silently as their primary weapons and the country’s favorite quirky sidekick, who forgot to unbutton his jacket while he was sitting. While the story was a bit meandering and had been heavily spoiled by previews in the weeks leading up to the air date, it had some humor and plenty of moments that will be discussed and argued about around water coolers for the remainder of the week. With the leading protagonist played by President Barack Obama, it’s time to discuss the 2015 State of the Union Address.

 

State of the Union Logo

 

The United States Constitution requires that the President “from time to time” report to Congress on the state of the union. This requirement has turned into one of the largest political events of the year, a set opportunity for the President to address a joint session of Congress and the American people at the same time. During the speech, the President discusses how things are going in the country – politically, socially, economically – and he lays out his vision of what can and should be done in the next year. Applause and standing ovations interrupt the speech every minute or so, at least from those in favor of whatever statement the President has just made. Many of the more partisan ideas touted by the President will result in half of the room standing to clap while those in the other half vie for the title of “Most Disgruntled-Looking.” Since seating is, for the most part, unassigned, Republicans and Democrats rarely intermingle in their seat choices, resulting in a clear line down the center of the room that divides the aisles. General procedure now explained, let’s move on to the specifics of tonight’s show.

 

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President Obama’s speech did not contain any surprising elements, particularly given that the White House has spent the past weeks talking about what to expect from the address. Topics of note included: free tuition to community college for those willing to work for it; closing the Guantanamo Bay detention camp; raising taxes on the rich so as to ease the burden on middle-class families; reforming immigration; closing loopholes in the tax code; opening relations with Cuba; raising the minimum wage; defeating ISIL and terrorists worldwide; focusing on infrastructure development; continuing economic policies that have brought the country out of recession; climate change and energy alternatives; and the need for bipartisanship. One particularly high note in the speech was President Obama’s call for more civil dialogue and elevated debate between the parties. While the sentiment is truly meritorious, it might have had greater impact if it came in a speech that did not so often subtly (and occasionally overtly) insult Republican leadership and positions.

 

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Every word said in the speech is going to be parsed and rehashed in the next few weeks by pundits from both sides, but what deserves mention is the showmanship of the night, by both sides. President Obama is a powerful speaker, and he knows how to stir an audience. His speechwriters wrote a strong speech, and they knew what points needed to be hit to resonate with the American people. More than that, though, the speechwriters knew how to frame the points that Republicans were most likely to attack during their rebuttal. The Democratic members of Congress got an exhaustive workout during the evening, based on how often they were standing and sitting. The Republicans, on the other hand, had all individually found that one comfortable position in their chairs, and they were determined not to lose it. Even during scenes that focused on the President during periods of applause, the reactions of the separate parties could be judged based on the behavior of Vice-President Joe Biden and Speaker of the House John Boehner, both of whom sat behind the President. The points where Speaker Boehner did not clap or was reluctant to clap will give Republicans across the country a clear idea on the points they should argue with their Democratic coworkers in the morning. His lack of hand movement also suggests that many of the projects proposed tonight by President Obama are not going to pass the Republican-controlled Congress.

 

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The Republican response was delivered this year by Senator Joni Ernst from Iowa. She told stories about growing up poor, having to make it to where she is through hard work and determination. She spoke about her time in the military to highlight how important the defense of America is, and how important it is to stop ISIL. She spoke of the tragedy of the terrorist attack in Paris. And she did it all without emotion or intonation. The problem that Senator Ernst ran into was that her response was pre-written. She was clearly reading lines that had been worked and molded over a series of weeks, but that failed to actually respond to any points raised during the President’s address. The show would have been much improved if the party spokesman had been given talking points instead of a script and had been able to attend the event so that points from the address could be brought up and rebutted. While her military background and the fact that she’s a young, female, Republican Senator may have made her an appealing choice to represent a party that is often seen as being filled with only old white men, she was not the impressive speaker that the Republicans needed to counter the highly charismatic President Obama. Senator Ernst did as she was asked by her party, a noble endeavor, but she was simply not the right person for the job.

 

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Senator Joni Ernst giving the Republican Response to the 2015 State of the Union Address. Full transcript can be found here: http://nydn.us/1yJegRU

 

President Obama has one more State of the Union address to give, one that will help set the tone of the 2016 election year. He will be working with a Republican Congress for the rest of his presidency, which has caused many to already declare him a ‘lame duck.’ However, he is still trying to serve the citizens of the United States as best he can. On January 21, 2015 – the day after his 2015 State of the Union address – he is digitally hosting what is known as “Big Block of Cheese Day,” a chance for citizens to talk to White House staffers about issues that impact them, to ask questions and to give feedback about the state of the union from outside the capital.

 

 

The importance of the State of the Union address has been in question of late, but it is hard to deny the show quality of the event. Anyone who likes political dramas such as House of Cards, West Wing or even Scandal would enjoy the political intrigue at play. Those who don’t enjoy such shows will still find it entertaining and enlightening, and it may impact your vision of the country and its leaders. But, above all else, it is good television.

The 2015 State of the Union Address starred President Barack Obama, Vice-President Joe Biden, Speaker of the House John Boehner and Senator Joni Ernst and can be found in full on YouTube, and likely many other news websites as well. The full script will be posted online in coming days. The next episode will air live in early 2016 on every broadcast network and every cable news channel.

The Simpsons Serves Up a Stinker

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While many people are talking about the recently aired Simpsons episode penned by Judd Apatow, let’s take a moment to look back at the midseason premier episode. In 26 seasons of any show, there are bound to be a few episodes that drop the ball, but “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” was one of the worst in a long time. For a show that has always been an industry leader in terms of storytelling (there’s a whole South Park episode dedicated to things that The Simpsons did first), airing an episode like this one that substitutes disjointed jokes that are past their prime in place of a character driven plot is disappointing at best. Spoilers, such as they are, for the episode follow.

The Simpsons has followed a fairly regular pattern in recent years. The first few minutes are joke heavy, leading into a setup for the “meat” of the episode. The plot heavy middle has fewer jokes that are laugh-out-loud funny, but they are wittier and more likely to make viewers think for a second. The end generally goes for either heartwarming or a solid ending joke. “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” tried hard to follow this pattern, but it forgot the funny start, it forgot to stick the ending, and there is less“meat” in the middle than there is in a Krusty Burger.

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The reason that most of the jokes didn’t measure up is that they seemed both dated and recycled. It almost seemed like the episode wanted to be a clip show, given how many references there were to older episodes. The beginning segment featured a family vacation to “Diznee Land,” a parody park that first appeared in season two. The kids were doing an “Are we there yet?” routine that was funnier in the first few seasons than in the 26th. When they finally get to the park, what follows is a series of jokes that have been made about Disneyland since 1955. The lines are too long. The prices are too high. Bag checks are tedious. It’s too hot. Everything is merchandized and given a kitschy name. The most unique joke came in the mockery of the “It’s A Small World” ride, where the song threatens Bart’s life if he tried to leave the ride. That was the only joke that elicited a laugh in the entire episode.

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The middle of the episode begins when the Simpson family finds a new ride that no one else is on titled “Rocket to Your Doom.” The ride is a trap set by Kang and Kodos, who are making a rare appearance outside the Treehouse of Horror episodes (which Homer notes, saying, “But this isn’t Halloween!”) As the family hurtles towards Rigel Seven, two more famous jokes from past episodes get rehashed. Homer opens a bag of chips in zero-gravity, which leads him to try floating around to catch them, like he did during his time as an astronaut. However, Bart and Maggie continually beat him to the chips, a callback to the episode where Santa’s Little Helper has puppies that like to eat Homer’s chips before he can enjoy them. It actually gets obnoxious how many times Homer’s famous catchphrase of “d’oh” is used in this 30 second joke.

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Once they arrive on Rigel Seven, and after a series of ill-conceived and ill-executed bodily function jokes (Rigelians give birth, then seconds later, those birthed give birth, and so on, but there seems to be an ending point after four continuous births? Their river is made from the drool of the dead, but the dead are dumped in halfway down the river?), the Simpsons are put on display in a zoo. A Rigelian with a doctorate in humanology comes to make sure they are comfortable, mistaking many aspects of human culture and biology. When Lilo and Stitch scoops you on a joke, don’t use that joke.

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The humanologist tells them that one of them is going to be ceremonially eaten, and Homer is, unsurprisingly, chosen. Homer is on stage to be eaten when a teleport tube materializes around him (and gets stuck, in a gag that has been used on the show more times than can be counted). He is rescued by rebel Rigelians, peace-loving hippies who just want to learn about earth’s achievements and party. They offer him a way back home, but Homer won’t leave his family on the (literal) chopping block. He returns to the ceremony just in time to join his family in being eaten, but a section of his ass poisons the Rigelian queen when she eats it. The family is released (after Kang tells them that everyone should forget this happened), and spends the end segment mimicking the original Star Trek.

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Having Kang remove this episode from canon may have been intended to excuse the disjointed nature, an attempt to say that this was just meant to be whimsical, not a serious episode. But most of the episodes aren’t serious, and almost never does anything carry from one episode to the next (except character deaths outside of the Treehouse of Horror episodes). Expanding the background of the Rigelians, particularly Kang and Kodos, could be a great story. In each of the 25 Treehouse of Horror episodes, the viewers have gotten to learn a little more about our favorite aliens. Spreading the stories out, focusing on them once each season, has worked. That’s more time and focus than most of the hundreds of Simpsons characters get in a season. This episode was not necessary, not engaging, and not funny; yet, it still pulled in the highest ratings of the night. The ability to win ratings should not leave writers complacent and willing to put a half-assed episode into circulation.

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I am not holding this episode up as an example of declining quality in the show as a whole. One bad episode does not denote a pattern. However, this episode was just that: bad. Lazy writing and old and boring jokes combined to make an episode that should not have aired. “The Man Who Came To Be Dinner” leaves a bad taste in the mouths of viewers, who hope the rest of the season will wash away this bitter pill.

The Simpsons was created by Matt Groening, stars Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer and airs Sunday nights at 8/7c on Fox.

I wish…

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Disney gave audiences a great gift this Christmas in the form of Into the Woods, a cinematic version of one of Stephen Sondheim’s most popular Broadway musicals. It’s a story that retells and interweaves classic fairytales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. With a solid storyline to adapt for the screen, a Tony Award-winning soundtrack and a stellar cast, this is a movie worth seeing.

 

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If it’s not evident from the opening paragraph, this movie is a musical. Go into the theatre expecting lots of singing. Songs move a lot of the action in the film. I feel this needs to be clear and stated up front because as I walked out of the theatre, a surprising number of people were saying, “I didn’t know it was a musical,” or, “There was too much singing.” If you’re not a fan of musicals in general, no matter the genre, don’t go see this movie. If you’re open to giving musicals a try, however, and you like fairytales, this is a great starter musical.

Note that I won’t be critiquing the fairytale logic used in terms of the storytelling. Things such as people getting eaten by wolves and surviving, beanstalks growing to the sky overnight, climbable hair and people being able to talk to birds are just accepted as magical. I’m not looking to quarrel with the Brothers Grimm about precisely how far a giant would have to fall to be killed.

 

Emily Blunt and James Corden as the Baker and his Wife

Emily Blunt and James Corden as the Baker and his Wife

 

Additionally, given how much of a fan I am of the original play, I’ll do my best to be impartial and judge the movie on its own merits. That does not mean, however, that I won’t make some comparisons between the two.

For example, many of the problems in the film come from simple differences between screen and stage. Though Sondheim himself was involved in all aspects of the movie except the editing, the film does stay remarkably true to the play’s script, down to exact lines being repeated. However, a straight adaptation of a play to a film often does not work. One such point is the transition between plots. The first half of the play and the movie both involve the main characters traveling through the woods to get their dearest wishes. The second half happens sometime later, but involves the characters discovering that wishes have consequences, and that happily-ever-after doesn’t always last. This divide in plots works well for the stage show, where intermission can separate the two halves. In the movie, however, there is no divide, and it’s somewhat jarring to go from a celebration that many in the theatre thought was the end of the movie (people were standing to leave) to another 45 minutes of a new plot.

 

Meryl Streep as the Witch

Meryl Streep as the Witch

 

The other poor transitions from stage to film were not nearly as major. There were points at which Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) seemed to be overacting a little, but that could only be seen during close shots in his big number “Giants in the Sky.” Huttlestone sang the piece wonderfully, but he looked constantly surprised. While this was probably meant to be portraying his shock at finding giants living in a palace on the clouds, it looked more like he couldn’t believe the sounds coming from his own mouth. This overacting, which can help in the theatre when people in the seats might be too far away to see small facial changes, does not work for the big screen, where every tic and gesture is hard to miss. The other overacting scene belonged to the two princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) during the song “Agony,” though that was surely intentional, meant to show the characters’ over-the-top nature; it turned out well, and was a funny scene to accompany a funny song.

 

Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine performing "Agony"

Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine performing “Agony”

 

Audiences should also go into this movie realizing that the focus is on the characters and the score, not on the scenery – another holdover from the stage. While the backgrounds are beautiful and well designed, they are also fairly static. A lot of the sets are seen multiple times, and it can be hard to tell different sections of the forest from others. There are a few grand, sweeping shots, but, on the whole, the point of the movie is not where the characters are so much as what they’re doing and saying. The special effects were rather muted too, but again, not the point.

Now, saying that the focus isn’t on the scenery and effects doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t visually striking. The costumes are impeccable; the outfit for the Wolf (Johnny Depp) is particularly imaginative (I will say, though, the Wolf costume from the stage show has its own, shall we say, anatomical merits; I recommend an image search…). The actors are all incredibly attractive people too; even while Meryl Streep as the Witch is complaining about being cursed with ugliness, she’s still one of the most beautiful women on the planet.

 

Johnny Depp as the Wolf

Johnny Depp as the Wolf

 

Speaking of actors, aside from the overacting issues mentioned, the characters are brought to life by an incredibly talented cast lineup. The main cast is made up of six actors: Daniel Huttlestone (Jack), James Corden and Emily Blunt (the Baker and his Wife), Meryl Streep (the Witch), Anna Kendrick (Cinderella) and Lilla Crawford (Little Red Riding Hood). While the cast is rounded out by actors such as Christine Baranski (Cinderella’s step-mother) and Tracy Ullman (Jack’s mother), these six carry the action and the story. The jokes are delivered with precise timing, the personality of the characters is found and displayed expertly and, more than anything, these actors can sing.

 

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella

Anna Kendrick as Cinderella

 

The soundtrack for this movie is nothing less than beautiful. Even compared to the soundtracks from the staged shows, this soundtrack with these actors is a powerful musical selection. I’ll admit to a bit of apprehension about the soundtrack before it was released; Johnny Depp in Sweeny Todd and Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia were not at their best vocally. My fears for this movie, however, were quickly scattered. Though Depp is perhaps the weakest singer of the group, even his number “Hello, Little Girl” was solid, and he was a great choice for the role; he played the pedophilic wolf with a level of weirdness audiences have come to expect from him. Daniel Huttlestone and Lilla Crawford, despite their young ages, are quite talented musically; Jack and Little Red Riding Hood have some fun but challenging songs in this film, and they were beautiful to hear. Anna Kendrick was a good fit for Cinderella, and her voice stood out in every song she sang. James Corden and Emily Blunt seemed to have a lot of fun with their songs, and their enthusiasm showed through the music. Meryl Streep, however, was far and away the star vocalist. The Witch gets the largest number of solos in the movie, and all of these songs are emotional and powerful and beautiful. For sheer hilarity, however, my favorite song is “Agony,” sung by the princes about how unfair life is to them (video below).

 

 

Stephen Sondheim’s fairytale play about taking care what you wish for and your wish’s ability to bring you happiness suffered some hiccups in the transition from stage to screen, but it is one of the best film adaptations of a stage musical to date. It is a PG-rated Disney movie, so it is appropriate for all ages, though it did lose some of the dark edge that makes the staged show so popular. There is a filmed version of the stage show on DVD and Netflix, if you’re ever in the mood to see the original. In the meantime, however, the film adaptation is an amazing rendition of a classic play, and one that I would recommend to any fan of good music, musical theatre or fantasy and fairytales.

Into the Woods is in theatres now. It is directed by Rob Marshall, distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures and is based on the musical play of the same name by Stephen Sondheim.