Monthly Archives: December 2014

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.

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Hobbit: The Battle of Fantasy Fighting Action

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The final movie in the Hobbit franchise (at least until Peter Jackson decides to adapt the Simarillion into a three or more part epic) premiered last week to an opening weekend total of $90 million. It closed out the storylines of the previous Hobbit movies effectively, and it opened a few links to the Lord of the Rings movies that it precedes temporally. It had an all-star cast, great music, stunning visuals, and it will continue to rake in money over the next few weekends as people take time off during the holidays to finish out this epic series. It has many incredible parts to it, but do the pieces together form a cohesive whole? Let’s take a look at whether The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is worth seeing in theatres.

 

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If you’re going to this movie expecting a lot of plot, you’ll be disappointed. This is the weakest part of the film. Since this is the third piece of a book that takes less time to read than it takes to sit and watch the movies, there is not a lot of story left to tell. Within 10 minutes of the film’s beginning, the largest cliffhanger from the previous movie is resolved, and whispers in the theatre begin commenting, “Well, that was a short movie.” The rest of the movie is spent concluding the quest of the dwarves and conducting the titular battle. Now, to say there is little plot is not to say that there is little action. The whole movie is action, as one would expect from a subtitle like Battle of the Five Armies. Even though we know how some of the action sequences will turn out thanks to the Lord of the Rings movies, that doesn’t detract from the excitement of the fight scenes.

What does detract from the movie is the insertion of two minor plots that steal from the action for no apparent reason. These plots come in the form of the wood-elf Tauriel and the human Alfrid Lickspittle. Tauriel is an elf woman who first appeared in Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug. She’s the equal of (or perhaps even greater than) the ever-popular Legolas in terms of bow skills, beauty and general elven bad-assery. Then she falls in love with a dwarf. While this romance subplot does not diminish her skills, it does somewhat weaken her character. Her choices seem somewhat haphazard in relation to the other characters; whereas they are fighting for their homes or for revenge or for riches (no one ever accused their motives of being noble), she seems to totter into scenes just to shoot things in the pursuit of her dwarf. Her final lines in the movie even fall back on being a romantic cliché. This lack of direction of her character is likely due to the fact that she was created by Peter Jackson for the purposes of these two movies. Tauriel does not appear in the source material, and so she has no plot relevance. A weak personal ending and a lack of direction unfortunately hampered an otherwise impressive character.

 

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel

 

Alfrid Lickspittle, on the other hand, was exactly what you’d expect from someone with the name “Lickspittle.” Long, greasy hair, sunken eyes under a unibrow, a pedophile-type mustache… he’s the quintessential “worm” character. He does everything he can to look out for his own interests, and clings to the person with the most power in the foolish belief that it keeps him secure and well-off. He seems intended to provide comic relief to a movie heavy with death, but he fails at that task. By his third appearance, groans can be heard from most moviegoers. Alfrid does come off as exactly the character he is intended to be, but he was not a necessary part of the film. He could have easily been removed, and no part of the plot would have been altered even slightly. He was another addition by Peter Jackson, though he was based on an unnamed advisor to the Master of Laketown that appeared in a single scene in the original book. Perhaps the movie character would have been better had he received the same treatment.

 

Ryan Gage as Alfrid Lickspittle

Ryan Gage as Alfrid Lickspittle

 

Though it may seem like I’m stuck on the negatives of this film, it does have some powerful factors in its favor as well. Most notable, of course, are the graphic elements. The scenery is gorgeous, with wide, sweeping shots that give a sense of scale to the battle sequences. The special effects and the CGI are expertly done, and no one can ever get enough of exploding walls and glittering elven armies and terrifying orcish hordes and flaming cities and swooping war bats… I mean, unless you’re living through it… There is no part of this film that is not visually stunning. It is well worth the extra money to see it in 3D or in IMAX, particularly when it comes to the battles.

 

Army of wood elves prepare for battle

Army of wood elves prepare for battle

 

The action sequences in the movie are well worth the price of admission. While the movie is mainly focused on the action, it is paced well so that the audience can catch a breath between scenes. The best examples of this happen when aerial views are given of the clashing armies, or when the melee is too hectic to focus on a single character. It’s ironic that the smaller battles have the bigger impact, the more intense fighting. Though, it also makes sense; when the audience can focus on a character that they know and have connected with in some manner, it drives the fight home more. Still, there is plenty of fighting to keep any action fan happy and bouncing up and down in their seat as hearts are stabbed and heads are rolling. On a side note, orcs seem to be the most easily decapitated characters ever created.

 

Army of Orcs heading into battle

Army of Orcs heading into battle

 

Two other major highlights of the film were the actors and the music. The Battle of the Five Armies has an all-star cast, led by Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen and Richard Armitage. Even small roles had big names filling the part, such as Stephen Fry as the Master of Laketown, Christopher Lee reprising his role as Saruman the White and Sylvester McCoy as Radagast the Brown. This acting talent was backed by a gorgeous score composed by Howard Shore, who has won three Academy Awards for his work on other movies in the Lord of the Rings Saga. His music fills the air perfectly for each situation, and the scenes without music are made more sharply distinct by its absence.

 

The company of Thorin Oakenshield

The company of Thorin Oakenshield

 

Overall, this is a movie worth seeing. Go in expecting action and beauty, but not a lot of substance. See it in 3D or in IMAX to get the most out of it. While The Hobbit probably would have been better served by not being split into three movies, it’s too late to change that now, and the movie should not be faulted for decisions that can’t be changed. The Battle of the Five Armies fits nicely in its place as an ending to the Hobbit trilogy and an introduction to the Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it is fun, pure and simple. So, go to your local theatre and experience The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. It’s the last Peter Jackson directed movie in Middle Earth… for now, at least.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies is in theatres now. It is distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures and directed by Peter Jackson.

How to Make Today a Great Day

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With 104 days at your disposal, what sort of adventures and activities could you come up with to keep busy? For most of us, work or tv or books or video games would consume our time, cementing us to our couches and chairs. We wouldn’t take advantage of all the adventure and excitement that the world holds. The Disney X D show Phineas and Ferb explores this idea of making the most of each and every day, turning 104 days of sitting in front of a screen into 104 days of exploration and imagination. With three seasons and a full-length movie on Netflix, anyone can and should spend time watching how these creative kids spend their time.

 

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Before delving too deeply into this review, I should point out that, yes, this is a cartoon, and one originally aimed at kids. However, Disney is masterful at making cartoons for kids that appeal to adults too. The company knows that the parents are going to be dragged into watching whatever the kids are watching, so small jokes and references are added into most Disney cartoons. Phineas and Ferb takes that to an even higher level. Many of the jokes are ones that kids would never get without explanation, ones that adults will find uproariously funny. So, even if you think that cartoons are for kids, and that you won’t enjoy the show, give it a chance. You may find the show funnier than you imagined. Each episode of Phineas and Ferb follows a pretty standard formula. Without commercials, the runtime of each episode is around 23 minutes, broken into two parts. Sometimes a storyline will take the whole 23 minutes, but most episodes have the two separate stories. Within each story, there are three intermingling plots.

 

Ferb and Phineas with friends Isabella, Buford and Baljeet

Ferb and Phineas with friends Isabella, Buford and Baljeet

 

The first revolves around the titular characters, Phineas Flynn and Ferb Fletcher, step-brothers who are inventive and mechanical geniuses. The pair are not content with just sitting lazily around, they have to be building something new or else they get stir-crazy. These inventions often defy logic, explanation and physics. The science of the world seems to bend itself backwards in order to accommodate the brothers. Also included in their story for the episode are their three closest friends, a bully named Buford, a nerd named Baljeet and Isabella, the leader of the local Fireside Girls troop (think Girl Scouts meet Navy SEALS).

 

Linda and Candace Flynn

Linda and Candace Flynn

 

The next story involves their older sister, Candace Flynn, and their mother, Linda Flynn-Fletcher. Candace is spending her summer caught between trying to “bust” her brothers to their mom – her version of tattling and getting them in trouble – and trying to pursue the boy she likes. Linda tries to keep her daily life going despite all the interruptions by her daughter, and she never manages to see the crazy contraptions that her sons build, much to Candace’s dismay. Over time, Candace begins to believe that there’s a mysterious force at work that is plotting against her, ensuring that their mother never sees what the boys are building. More often than not, though, it’s just the work of an evil scientist fighting his nemesis.

 

Perry the Platypus and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

Perry the Platypus and Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz

 

The third plot line centers on the family’s pet platypus, Perry. While it’s weird enough for a family to have a pet platypus, this particular platypus also happens to be a secret agent named Agent P working for a group known as OWACA – the Organization Without A Cool Acronym. OWACA utilizes unusually smart and strong animal agents to combat evil; though the animals are talented, they cannot speak – they are just animals, after all. Perry the Platypus spends his days fighting Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, an inept evil scientist scheming to take over the Tri-State Area. Dr. Doofenshmirtz has a new device – which he calls an “inator” (as in “forgetinator” or “turn everything evil-inator”) – that complements whatever painful backstory he has in mind that day. The fight between Perry and Dr. Doofenshmirtz follows roughly the same formula each episode: Dr. Doofenshmirtz traps Perry in an overly elaborate trap, gives his backstory monologue, begins to activate his machine (which invariably causes whatever the boys are doing to escape the notice of their mother), and then Perry escapes, blows up the machine (and Dr. Doofenshmirtz at the same time) and flies back home, where he resumes his secret identity.

In the course of these three interwoven stories, there is always at least one musical number. The music is original to the episode, and the songs are often catchy enough that you’ll find yourself humming them days later (one of the most popular songs can be found below). Disney even released a cd of the top songs from the first season, well worth a listen. The songs are usually either funny or touching, sometimes both, and the stellar vocal cast that the show has gathered performs them to perfection. In fact, the musical numbers have earned the show four Emmy nominations, an impressive feat for an animated show.

 

 

One of the best features of this show that separates it from other cartoons is how it deals with the characters. Most cartoons – especially ones aimed toward children – will give the main character some sort of flaw that lasts for exactly one episode, and that they must overcome in order to beat the bad guy and resolve the story. Phineas and Ferb doesn’t do that. The characters have remained fairly stable since the beginning. Major changes in character are due to long-term story arc changes or due to outside forces such as one of Dr. Doofenshmirtz’s devices, not some personal failing that suddenly surfaced just in time for the character to learn some important lesson.

The language used in the show is a key factor in its appeal to adults. Now, by that, I don’t mean to suggest that the cartoon kids are doing their versions of the “Seven words you can’t say on tv.” Rather, the show does not talk down to the audience, either the kids or the adults. In fact, at times the show’s use of words may be beyond what a child could handle. Words such as sesquipedalian, techno-mimetic and septuagenarian have all appeared in just the last few episodes that I re-watched. The show managed to work them in seamlessly, too. Sesquipedalian is not an easy word to use in a punchline, but Phineas and Ferb found a way.

 

Final shot of the musical episode "Rollercoaster: The Musical!"

Final shot of the musical episode “Rollercoaster: The Musical!”

 

No show is perfect, though this one comes close. Apart from the pains of waiting for more episodes to go up on Netflix and the suspense of whether the show will continue to run, the only downside is in comparison to itself. The show has some phenomenal episodes, including two episodes that featured Disney’s recently acquired properties Star Wars and Marvel Comics. While there are no truly bad episodes of the show, some are weaker than others. This is mainly noticeable if you watch multiple episodes back-to-back in marathon style, though it can also be seen in the first few episodes of the series, while the show was still working to set itself up. Fortunately, there’s no real over-arching plot, so you can skip the early episodes and come back to them once you’re a devoted fan of the show.

 

The Phineas and Ferb/Marvel crossover event titled Mission: Marvel

The Phineas and Ferb/Marvel crossover event titled Mission: Marvel

 

Overall, I rank this in my favorite shows, so I recommend it to anyone of any age. I was introduced to the show by my 40-year-old high school physics teacher and my 22-year-old (at the time) best friend, independently of each other. I was resistant at first, thinking it to be a show for kids, and then laughed my way through the whole series. Multiple times. I’m even re-watching it as I write this review. There’s a lot of humor that will resonate with people of all ages. Give the show a try; watch two episodes, and if you’re not in love with it by then, you don’t have to watch any more. But I’m willing to bet you’ll be singing along to the theme song as you make the choice to start the third episode.

Phineas and Ferb is written by Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh and airs on Disney and Disney X D. Three seasons and the movie are available to stream on Netflix Instant.

God, the Devil and John

NBC Now Airing

With the winter hiatus upon us and a lack of new episodes until mid-January at the earliest, now seems like a good time to take a look back at one of this season’s newest gems. Constantine premiered late in the season in the timeslot vacated for Hannibal’s season break. NBC didn’t stray far in swapping out the two shows – they’re comparable in terms of blood, mystery and number of gnawed on humans. Production on Constantine’s inaugural season halted after only four episodes had aired. However, right around the time of the fifth episode, things started picking up. Viewership increased, ratings went up and the plot began to truly resonate with the audience. Unfortunately, because the show hit its stride after the decision was made to halt production, we may only get to see the 13 episodes already made before this show is gone. That is, unless it picks up more in ratings and viewership. So, here’s why your date night on Friday, January 16th should involve a date with your couch and an NBC show about a British detective… who hunts demons.

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Constantine – based on DC Comics’ Hellblazer series – centers on supernatural detective John Constantine and his companions as they fight the often referenced “rising darkness.” John’s core support team is his seemingly immortal friend Chas Chandler and the clairvoyant mystery woman Zed Martin, both of whom appear in the original comics in some form. Heaven’s support of the team arrives in the form of an angel named Manny, whose cryptic clues often frustrate John onto the correct path. How can a show get more interesting than when it has a spellcasting detective, a psychic, an immortal and an angel fighting evil? You add in a haunting backstory, powerful and threatening villains, and easter egg allusions to other DC properties.

Harold Perrineau, Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya and Charles Halford as Manny, John Constantine, Zed Martin and Chas Chandler respectively.

Harold Perrineau, Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya and Charles Halford as Manny, John Constantine, Zed Martin and Chas Chandler respectively.

Though the show is based on a comic book line, it’s not a direct port to the screen. John’s backstory in the show is from an arc that happened early in the Hellblazer run, but the detective’s introduction to the supernatural world happened differently in the comics and the show. Constantine opens with John in a mental hospital after a trauma from years before – the accidental casting of a young girl’s soul into Hell – finally caught up with him. The show has done a good job of building on this background with each episode while not rubbing it in the audience’s face. In these first eight episodes, John has teamed up with a number of others who were a part of that exorcism gone wrong, all of whom are dealing with the psychological damage in their own way, from drinking to drugs to joining a convent. Meanwhile, the mystery of Zed – who saw visions of John before they met and who is learning from him how to control her clairvoyant powers – is dangled tantalizingly both in front of the audience and in front of John himself, as Zed refuses to share any details about her past.

To counter such a crack team as this, the forces of evil moving against them have to be compelling and believably strong. While the show has started as a “monster of the week” type show, using the phrase “rising darkness” as a catch-all for the things going bump in the night, the individual villains don’t feel forced or out of place in this story. The only antagonist to show up more than once so far is a character named Papa Midnite, though his motives tend more toward personal gain and less toward outright evil. Papa Midnite is another character straight from the comics, and he’ll likely make more appearances in the back half of this first season. While remaining free of spoilers, it should be noted that the presumed cause of the “rising darkness” is introduced in the eighth episode, the cliffhanger episode that aired leading into the hiatus.

Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnite

Michael James Shaw as Papa Midnite

One thing that makes tv shows based on comic books fun is the connection to the source material. With such a rich and extensive history to look at, fans who have read the comics have the opportunity to speculate on what might happen next based on what they know of the characters and plotlines already. Not only that, but the linked nature the DC universe allows for other popular characters to show up unexpectedly. While we likely won’t see Batman or Superman or any of the other big names of the Justice League on the show anytime soon, there have already been some hints toward the characters Dr. Fate (his helmet was in the first episode) and Swamp Thing (mentioned in a message if you call the phone number on John’s business card). Jim Corrigan, known to DC Comics fans as the man who becomes The Spectre upon his death, showed up in episode five; his return as The Spectre was hinted at through Zed’s clairvoyant visions. While this does give a little extra treat to those in the audience who have read the comics, not recognizing these add-ins doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the show at all.

Every show has its growing pains, but Constantine got them out of the way early. It has become a solid show that deserves more than one truncated season. With over 25 years of source material to draw from and a skilled cast to bring the characters to life, the only thing this show lacks is the dedicated fanbase and audience to keep it on the air. January 16th, the return from hiatus, will be a key night in deciding the future of this show. In the meantime, new viewers can catch up on Hulu and NBC.com. I highly recommend this show to anyone who is a fan of fantasy, science fiction, comics, horror movies or any good, character-driven dramas with witty and sarcastic humor.

Constantine stars Matt Ryan, Angélica Celaya, Charles Halford and Harold Perrineau and airs Fridays at 8/7c on NBC, at least for five more weeks.