Into The Woods (Flick’s Review)

Posted on | January 2, 2015 | 1 Comment

I traveled into the woods with a different perspective than some. I had never seen the play and was not familiar with Sondheim at all, other than knowing who he was. But, the story? The characters in the film read like a “best of” of fantasy storybooks, all conceived by the Brothers Grimm. Rapunzel, Jack (and his beanstalk), Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and more all come together. So why did Sondheim throw them all together into one big interwoven fairytale that is a musical, a tragedy, a romance, and a comedy? I’m not sure why, but 29 years ago he did. Now Rob Marshall, returning from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, a massive flop, is back in his comfort zone with a big, showy musical.


He’s brought along quite the dramatis personæ, too. The compact cast makes up for it’s size in strength. Nearly every one of them contributes a memorable moment to this memorable ensemble. You won’t forget Lila Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood’s duet with Johnny Depp as The Wolf, nor will you forget Chris Pine’s pipes in “Agony”. (Depp is the weakest leak of the cast. While he is as entertaining as ever, he’s still playing the same role he’s been redoing since the first Pirates.) Meryl Streep apparently has another trick up her sleeve left and this one comes in the form of surprisingly high notes. Streep’s “Stay With Me” is quite good for an actress who is now 70, but the creepy fingernails, wretched face, and blue hair she inhabits and pervades the way she does all of her characters, are sublime.

There are so many central characters, so many plot lines, so many starts and stops that the film shouldn’t work as well as it does. Somehow, Marshall has managed to cram all of the storylines together with the help of James Lapine’s, who also co-wrote the play, tight script. At just over 2 hours, the film never really stops. One scene involving the Wolf seducing Little Red Riding Hood segues into another involving the Baker and his Wife arguing over who should go (you guessed it) into the woods. While not all of the storylines are strong as the others, they all collide into one another so often that if Johnny Depp’s Wolf is all too familiar, Meryl Streep’s high notes will be sure to show up in the next scene.

The film is not without it’s faults. It doesn’t really know who it’s for and Marshall can’t decide whether he wants a full on musical or a much more safe Disney moneymaker. Is the film for young Disney princess toddlers? No, not really. Is it for Sondheim enthusiasts? Maybe, but it’s not entirely faithful. Is it for Depp and Streep fans? Possibly. In the end, it’s really for all of these people and maybe that’s a good thing. A mix of these groups did see the film and placed it at #2 at the Box Office, hopeful to those looking for something more original and not involving dwarves or red haired girls.


As I sat in the theater watching trailer upon trailer, a preview for the new Cinderella played. As I watched the following film, it dawned on me that these characters have been reworked multiple times in very recent years to varying degrees. Jack the Giant Slayer in 2013, Red Riding Hood in 2011, Tangled in 2010, and more have reimagined these characters over and over, with no end in sight. The Cinderella trailer only reassured me that Hollywood’s obsession with rehashing every franchise possible, especially Disney, will continue to cascade down on those looking for more thoughtful cinema.

While it may not exactly be “thoughtful cinema”, Into the Woods does achieve what few would have guessed, myself included, and that is being crowd-pleasing, while thoroughly well-done at the same time. What the film achieves so wonderfully is it’s ability to dodge the stereotypes that chase down so many films produced by Disney and the like. In subverting the clichés of the genre, Into the Woods achieves something less and less fantasy films of recent years have: It is a fantasy in the true sense of the word. Who would have guessed that Marshall and his team would be brave enough to embrace the grim side of the Brothers Grimm while also imbuing their film with some seriously funny scenes? Not me.

We Are The Best! Is An Irresistible Feminist Punk-Rock Comedy (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | December 23, 2014 | Add Comments

Three girls form a punk-rock band in the irresistible We Are The Best!It’s become a cliche to say a music film “isn’t really about music”, but that description certainly applies to We Are The Best!, Lukas Moodysson’s big-hearted 80’s-Stockholm comedy of punk-rock girl power. The film has a message: Who cares if you can’t play a single guitar chord? When you’re 13, and you’re with your best friends, and you’re punks, and you think you are the best, well, that’s all that matters.

The protagonists of We Are The Best! are clearly not the best, however. Shy, self-concious Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and confident, charismatic Klara (Mira Grosin) have never picked up an instrument in their lives. After a series of coincidences, they wind up with a weekly practice space and a drum set and bass guitar to borrow. They bang and strum noisily, and begin writing a surprisingly political punk anthem “Hate the Sport” about their disgust with sports lovers who ignore current events. At a school talent show, they’re floored by the talents of Hedvig, a girl guitarist who’s booed mercilessly. They invite her, a fellow loner, to join their band, and she attempts to teach them how to play. The girls fall in love with other boy punks, fight, cut each others hair, and practice for a Christmas concert where they’ll perform their song.

Moodysson’s script, adapted from a nonfiction graphic novel by his wife, is both conventional in it’s setup and surprising in it’s specifics. The story of children working together and having fun is familiar, but we’ve never seen a movie about punk-rock girls from Stockholm rebelling against their parents and gym teachers and school bullies. Moodysson, directing his eighth Swedish feature, has an ear for the awkwardness, humor, and friendship of young-teen conversations, as well as a love for punk-rock (the film has a Swedish soundtrack of pummeling drums and electrifying guitars). He’s done a rare thing: he’s made a feel-good movie that never feels fake.

Punk-rock, friendship, and teenagers in We Are The Best!Much of that credit goes to the three child stars: Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin, and Liv LeMoyne. They all exude energy and flesh out their characters individually. Barkhammar is quiet and timid, self-assured Grosin is possessed with winning confidence, and LeMoyne is the lonely guitarist who learns to love punk and helps the others learn how to play it.

During it’s tight 102 minutes, We Are The Best! sometimes falters. It occasionally runs out of things to do, and overdoes it’s adorable-ness in one scene. But you’ll forget all that when you watch the winning final scene, during which the three girls perform their song in front of an audience of haters. The boos drown out the music, but they scream “We are the best!” and keep playing. That’s punk.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Flick’s Review)

Posted on | April 5, 2014 | Add Comments

2 1/2 stars

Think back to 2008, long before Marvel Studios was at it’s current world dominating state, when the first Iron Man film came out. It was a witty, fun film that had a hero who wasn’t as perfect or brave as Superman, nor as dark and brooding as Batman. He was somewhere in between, with added parts wit, snark, and humor. Now skip ahead six years, to 2014. Not only have two more Iron Man films been made, but Thor and Captain America films have also been added to the mix. They have all had a couple of sequels, and as if that wasn’t enough, they’ve been thrown together along with other heroes in The Avengers. And now, here we are, in 2014 with Captain America returning to the big screen.

This time around, brothers Anthony and Joe Russo are squeezing into the director’s chair, taking over after Joe Johnston directed the first installment, The First Avenger, but they unfortunately lack any artistic flair that you can tell is theirs. With Thor, Kenneth Branagh put his Shakespearean stamp on the caped demigod and in Iron Man, Jon Favreau mixed witty humor with frightening realism. Here, the Russos don’t seem to know where they want to head with the film, other than follow the lead of Kevin Feige, the mastermind president of Marvel, who has schemingly connected all of these superheroes into one, big money-sucking giant. I’m pretty sure I would have liked the film a good deal more if there was less of the Marvel universe setting-up and more of a down-to-earth superhero story.

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are back in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

That being said, once I realized that the film wasn’t going for superheroism told through poetic direction, I did manage to sit back and enjoy the never-ending twists and turns of the film. And boy, are they fun. Every scene involves some new character being either thrown into the mix, being reintroduced, or dying, to the point that that the film reaches beyond exhaustion and into guilty, giddy fun. The film is part sci-fi, part paranoia, part mystery-thriller, part action caper, part rogue-on-the-lose…and that’s much of what makes it enjoyable. The fact that the film isn’t going for an obvious tone (i.e. Shakespearean or witty-dark) gives it an all-over-the-map aspect that is ridiculous, but also crazy fun in it’s own right.

That brings me to one last point and that is the fun. If you were asked what a superhero film was ten years ago, you might have answered “a fun, enjoyable adventure”. But today, that is becoming less and less true. Superhero reimaginings almost always seem to go darker and more violent and that is certainly true here with The Winter Soldier. The fun of the ’40s shtick in the first film gives way to the “Don’t trust anyone!” tone that is evident from the beginning. Early on in the film, Captain America is tasked with rescuing captive members of the S.H.I.E.L.D. organization who are being held by pirates. When Cap lands on the ship, I expected him to heroically maneuver his way past the pirate guards. But, I was shocked to see that he instead went straight for the kill, knocking them off in different, equally violent ways. As I watched the film develop, I yearned for the excitement and adventure of not only the first film, but other earlier superhero flicks. Unfortunately, the way Marvel is heading, the chances of an honest-to-goodness adventure, are becoming slimmer and slimmer.

Sci-Fi and Survival Abound in Fall Film Offerings, Out Now

Posted on | November 10, 2013 | 1 Comment

Sandra Bullock in Gravity (2013)Before Gravity opened on October 4, this year was seeming like another rather ho-hum year for movies, after the very good year for cinema of 2012. But perhaps this sudden flood of great movies should be expected; after all it is awards season. So far, I’ve seen three fall films: Gravity, Robert Redford boating drama All Is Lost, and sci-fi book adaption Ender’s Game. Sci-fi and survival seems to be the current trend in movies, because all three films focus on staying alive under the hardest circumstances and/or jaw-dropping special effects with a dash of scientific smarts. Here are my takes on these three films.

Alfonso Cuaron’s stunning science-fiction masterpiece, Gravity, is one of those films that comes along every so often and simply blows your mind. It’s incredible, beautiful, thrilling haunting, and full of heart; not to mention special effects filled set pieces that you’ll be replaying in your head for weeks. The premise here is fairly basic: Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is a medical engineer on her first trip to the moon. Leading her mission is seasoned space vet Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). Everything is going fine when, you guessed it, things start to go wrong. Debris hits, the shuttle is destroyed, and Stone and Kowalsky are separated. As Dr. Stone tries to find safety, a deadly survival adventure begins.

A chaotic space disaster in Gravity (2013)The genius of Gravity is how Cuaron takes this standard disaster movie plot and turns it into a riveting contemplation on life, death, and letting others go. Clooney is funny and likable but he’s basically playing, well, George Clooney The Astronaut. The real surprise here is Bullock, who, as our inexperienced protagonist, gains our sympathy and hope from a brilliant performance. Oscar is sure to come calling.

Gravity is a must-see movie. A must see movie on the big screen. If you didn’t catch it in IMAX 3-D, try just the 3-D, which is probably the most gorgeous, terrifying, and brilliant use of the medium to date. In fact, all of the visual effects are beautiful from the opening pan over Earth to the more showy spacecraft explosions. With awe-inspiring spectacle, terrific performances, and a dazzlingly flawless script, this is truly the best movie of the year so far. From conception to cinema, it took 6 years for Cuaron to make this masterpiece. But trust me, it was worth it. Gravity reminds us of the power of life. And the power of the movies. 5 Stars

Robert Redford fights the ocean in All Is Lost (2013)Another tense adventure, All Is Lost stars Robert Redford as a nameless guy in his mid-70s on a simple boating adventure. When his 39-foot yacht hits an abandoned shipping container and his boating electronics lose power, he must use his tools, his books, and his will to survive against all odds.

Redford is quite good as the only character in the film and his near-wordless performance is harrowing, beautiful, and achingly amazing. But apart from some truly spectacular moments, I can’t say this is the “performance of a lifetime” acting showcase that most critics have been raving about. In fact, I’d prefer the witty daredevil character type that Redford perfected in classics like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting over the brooding, elderly everyman we get here.

But the film’s big problem is director J. C. Chandor (Margin Call), who does just an okay job with the script. We know nothing about the only character in the film and most of the running time consists of Redford being tossed around his boat. That’s not to say there aren’t moments of greatness. The cinematography is ravishing, the scenery is terrific, and Redford’s breakdown moment is truly affecting. But these stronger elements can’t save the film from feeling a little bit empty… and occasionally lost. 3 Stars

Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield in Ender's GameEnder’s Game, the young adult sci-fi adventure based on the classic 1977 novel by Orson Scott Card, is a surprisingly good film. The first reason is the high caliber cast of Oscar all-stars including Harrison Ford, Viola Davis, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfield, and Abigail Breslin. These performances vary from slightly laughable to totally enjoyable, bit parts to major characters, but everyone is a blast to watch. Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield plays Ender, a boy who’s a cunning genius at military tactics and battle commands. He must train to lead an army of kid soldiers against an imminent attack by the evil aliens called Formics who almost destroyed the human race long ago.

Battle Room thrills in Ender's Game (2013)Director Gavin Hood keeps the story interesting thanks to a smart script and eye-popping special effects. The sequences inside the zero-gravity training environment, The Battle Room, are worth the ticket price alone. When Ender first steps into the room, I got a sense of “I haven’t seen that one before” magic. The film isn’t flawless, however. Thirty-six years after the book was published, the story isn’t really anything new and the movie occasionally drags. But Ender’s Game is still a worthwhile thrill-ride with a smart script and gorgeous visuals that make it worth seeing. 4 Stars

Well, that’s it for now! Expect an early Oscar race analysis soon…