Monthly Archives: December 2014

“Into The Woods” sublime and cartoony yet magical

James Corden and Emily Blunt are set out to reverse a curse as they run into many Grimm Fairy Tale characters as they go "Into The Woods"

James Corden and Emily Blunt are set out to reverse a curse as they run into many Grimm Fairy Tale characters as they go “Into The Woods”

I have theorized why “Into the Woods” was something hard to transition to the big screen a lot in my head. A stage musical about fairy tale characters learning there is more to being “happily ever after” and there are some things beyond their reach to which can be controlled. The tongue-in-cheek tone along with certain plot elements made me feel like it would be a challenge to adapt. But I got a nice surprise this Christmas as Rob Marshall directed a version of the stage favorite that is faithful to the source while being light on the alterations. The changes that are made exist to broaden the scope of the story while maintaining its message of “be careful what you wish for.” But it does it all hold together?

James Corden plays a Baker who has a curse of infertility from his wife (Emily Blunt) thanks to his dad who messed with a witch’s garden. The Witch (Meryl Streep) made a trade with the father to spare his life on the terms of getting his next child and setting a curse on his son that being the Baker that he will never have another kid. But as it turns out, the Witch is also under a spell and makes a bargain to remove it on the terms of getting a certain potion. And as it turns out, the elements needed come from fairy tale characters like “Little Red Riding Hood,” Jack from “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Rapunzel” and even “Cinderella.” This must all be done in three nights or else the curse will remain.

As you might guess, the whole premise is unique seeing our favorite fairy tale characters we heard about as kids working off each other and even interacting. This was part of what made the musical work and I’m surprised to see how well it transitions here. The key element here is the woods. In each story, something happens in the deep forest and they have to solve a problem or discover more about their environment than they already knew before. And once they are out, its either back to a normal life or the journey still continues. This works especially for the movie as everything happens in the woods. The first 15 minutes setting up the story is outside to get an idea of what to expect. All the magic in stories come from outside the realm of their homes and this is well balanced here.

The performances are pretty good too adding a comedic layer that doesn’t hammer in the self-aware, tongue in cheek tone but enough to let the viewers be aware this is a fairy tale with a deep message. The only time it gets serious is when a character has an epiphany or when a problem that is too big to handle gets in the way during the final act. The chemistry of James Corden and Emily Blunt is good as they act like a normal couple than something phoned in. Sort of a Medieval Homer and Marge Simpson relationship that are aware of the problem at hand and will do what it takes to lift the curse. Even the kids that play Jack and Little Red are convincing as innocent kids that don’t know better of how big the world is.

Meryl Streep as the Witch in one of the most over the top performances I've ever seen that is surprisingly enjoyable

Meryl Streep as the Witch in one of the most over the top performances I’ve ever seen that is surprisingly enjoyable

But I’m sure one that will be the talk of the town is Meryl Streep as the Witch. While I did admire Bernadette Peter’s portrayal, I enjoyed every minute Streep was on screen. Her take was menacing but not to the point its scary. Its over the top to the point its funny but in a good way. And at times, she can be sentimental seeing she has Rapunzel to look after from the deal she made. But the crowning moment for me that sold her performance was during the “Last Midnight” number. It starts off quiet like a lullaby, but once the accusations get bigger and bigger, so does her anger as it grown while the scene itself gets more manic to the point she goes mad. Its a great moment that I feel rivals Peter’s softer approach.

But I can’t say “Into the Woods” is a timeless masterpiece. There are strange choices and nitpicks I do have that keep me from saying its a flawless spectacle. There are moments when the costume design and certain elements feel like they are taking from modern times. A painful example is The Wolf who is modeled after a “Zuit Suit” variation taken from the Tex Avery cartoon, “Red Hot Riding Hood.” Oddly enough, I recall an interview with the production designers saying this was the intended route. With all that build up to a tale set in a timeless setting, (and I do admit as great as it looks) it feels weird coming across something like that which can take you out of the picture. And while Johnny Depp is entertaining in this cameo, I do wish this hungry predator wasn’t so cartoony.

In fact, there are moments that push for comedic value in a way that is exaggerated but not to the point where its too much. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen are prime examples as two princes that year for more in a song (“Agony”) where they wish for the women they want while running on waterfalls and ripping their shirts up exposing their abs like expected fan service. Again, its funny but there’s a balance seeing how we know the Prince can be a cardboard cutout character for a fairy tale. However, it pays off when we see they is exactly what they are and nothing more. A hallow characterization that claims to be daring and adventurous when they are really cowards.

The only other problem viewers might have is the final act when all is thought to be said and done, a happily ever after does not come. This is an element taken from the actual play that I feel works seeing once our characters get our wishes, they see the consequences of getting them. Even if you know the world a little bit more, your still lost. The ideal family is not what is to be expected as idols can be misleading. The consequence of discovering a new world and so forth. This is the only thing I feel that might turn viewers off seeing how darker and depressing it can grow to be. Without giving too much away, our leads take on a problem so massive that it becomes beyond their control to know how to stop it. Viewers might think it drags things out too much but for the reasons listed above, I think it works in that context.

“Into the Woods” may get complex but at the center is a story about being careful of inner desires. Its a throwback to the Grimm tales we heard as a kid and how they hold up today. While I’m bugged to see some songs nixed, I am glad to see some key ones like “Any Moment” or “Stay With Me” are used to full potential. There are parts of this movie I do wish where punched up a bit and again had less light-hearted moments, but as it stands its a respectable adaption. I love the sets, the special effects, the performances and the singing is just pitch perfect. I don’t even remember a moment when I was turned off by a sour note. Its all around a good movie. To best describe, think a better version of this year’s Malifecent but more Les Miserables. There’s so much effort in creating a fairy tale unlike anything we’ve seen that we can’t up but enjoy these “moments in the woods.”

“The Interview” is politically funny yet is it that dangerous?

James Franco and Seth Rogan in one of the most highly talked about movies of the holiday season since Heaven's Gate

James Franco and Seth Rogan in one of the most highly talked about movies of the holiday season since Heaven’s Gate

Never has there been a film that has gotten so much talk then “The Interview.” The only movie I can think of that ever got so much buzz was Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” in 1980. But while that movie get publicity over its disastrous screenings and production woes, “The Interview” is getting this for different reasons. Its a comedy that is attacking political material and string up a lot of trouble with its source of parody that being North Korea and its current dictator. There’s so much back-story that lead to the cancellation of its theatrical release on Christmas Day, that it could be turned into a novel. The short story is that Sony Pictures got pressure from many different fields. North Korea’s government being upset of the depiction of its ruler, a group of Internet hackers that cracked into Sony’s secret e-mails while leaking them upon the public in protest to stop showing the movie and even theater chains not booking “Interview” in fear of possible attacks. Well, now that is getting a limited run in theaters and recently released onto the Internet via streaming sites for all to see, just exactly how “controversial” is this film? Is the parody material really that shocking to the point it is an “act of war”? Personally, I think it depends on cinematic taste.

James Franco stars as a celebrity journalist named David Skylark that delivers interviews on famous celebrities ranging from gossip to all-out reveals. His right-hand partner and producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogan) feels they should do more real news considering how low he thinks of his position delivering news about Rob Low being bald compared to harder stories like America at war. As luck may have it, Aaron manages to get an interview with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, who also happens to be a fan of David’s show, in hopes of escalating their popularity from gossip to something more gripping. This also catches the attention of the CIA who try to convince them to assassinate the leader and you can see where some of the controversy lies.

Its not till we get to North Korea that David has second thoughts about killing Kim Jong-un after spending much time with him as its revealed Kim is more of a party animal that wants to be loved than one to rule with an iron fist. Its weird because the actor they chose to portray this version of Kim Jong-un almost resembles him. What makes it work is that we know its not the real thing and accept it as a mirror parody. If they got an actor that looked like him right down to face and stature, then the comedy would be lost. I understand why some would be upset by this portrayal as it paints a fearless leader into a big kid but I don’t think its focused too much to the point its trying to put him in a negative light.

Randall Park as Kim Jong-un who is played as a kid and less of a fearless leader. The main source of controversy from this performance and how its handled is what set off the anger.

Randall Park as Kim Jong-un who is played as a kid and less of a fearless leader. The main source of controversy from this performance and how its handled is what set off the anger.

I really think the movie is more of an attack on modern day media and how fake celebrities are. This is something Family Guy or South Park would do and its better fitting there as it lasts 30 minutes. Because this is a movie, there’s so much room for satire that we as viewers expect it as a driving force for the story. The first half sets up so well how much news is delivered when it comes to something serious compared to that of entertainment value that I feel its the bigger heart of the picture. So when David sits down with Kim Jong-un for the eventful interview, we ask if all of this is real news or just there for entertainment? I think that is far more clever than poking fun at a tyrant or our own government.

Of course, they do have Kim Jong-un do things like play basketball with Skylark or ride around in a tank to Katy Perry’s “Fireworks.” I’m more surprised to see that is not really the center here. They could have easily done something like The Great Dictator and have Kim Jong-un be this cartoony bad guy. Even at times, you don’t know if you should sympathize or see him for the fraud that he is depicted in the movie. Again, they could have easily done this 1980s stylized depiction where he’s cold and heartless but they at least give some breathing room to avoid that trap.

With that said and done, how else does the rest of the movie fair up? Well, as said before tastes will vary as this is a Seth Rogan/James Franco vehicle. So if your unfamiliar with “The Pineapple Express” or didn’t like that classic stoner comedy, there’s a good chance you might not like this one either. The jokes are the usual sex innuendos and stunts that one would expect from an R rated comedy that is trying to push the boundaries wither it be Rogan shoving a canister in his rectum to avoid troops or erection talks. Its the standard stuff one is to expect from a raunchy comedy like this so it didn’t surprise much. I can’t say I didn’t laugh as I did find most of it amusing but what what you see is very much what you are to expect.

Also, I think the first two-thirds are more stand-out than the final act. Not to nitpick too much, but the tone shifts to this overly-stylized, action set piece that feels straight out of a Rambo movie. Not to give too much away, but it really pushes the violence to the point its funny in how over the top it gets or gruesome in how bloody it gets. I won’t say its too much seeing how comedic it is portrayed but again, some viewers might be squint at the sight of fingers getting bitten off or soldiers getting shot in the head.  There’s one death I especially found so over the top to the point I couldn’t stop laughing. I don’t think its that gory but again, tastes vary.

So, is “The Interview” really that bad of a movie to go at war over? Personally, I don’t think so. I actually watched this with my mother who also felt that it was pointless to be upset over a dumb comedy (which she surprisingly enjoyed). Even I myself feel its not mocking a leader but more mocking a media’s portrayal. I do give credit for its fierce take without making up a fake country and leader but it makes you wonder what would it have been like if they went that route. Would it have been too safe or is it better to take that risk? I didn’t make the movie but I can say this one is worth checking out just for those reasons I said before. I like the direction of the satire and even if the Seth Rogan/James Franco banter goes on a bit too long , it can be really funny when it is. While I don’t think its a “must-see” picture, I do think it is worth seeing just to understand where the controversy is coming from and again just how the satire is handled. See it for what it is and judge for yourself.

Rental Corner: “Annie is charming but overexagerated

The original "Tomorrow"

The original “Tomorrow”

No, this is not the recent 2014 adaption that got released. Believe me, we will get to that down the road soon. For now, the 1982 Annie is one that often gets mixed feelings. Even today some joyful appreciate it while others wish it never existed for its corniness and it infamous “Tomorrow” number. There seems to be a love/hate appreciation for this film that’s never been this big to my knowledge. Though I’m sure plenty of us had to grow up on this film and maybe that’s why there’s this clash over if it should be considered a good movie or a bad one. There are those who appreciate the nostalgia of how it light-hearted it gets at times and how chipper it can be. But then you have those who say its too happy and too optimistic to the point they will vomit into their popcorn bucket. With that disgusting image out of way, how do I think it holds up? Well, hard to say seeing I saw it on the ending cusp of childhood (be it age 7 or 8) and while I did like it, it wasn’t near anything like Pete’s Dragon or Doctor Dolittle where it was that close. But now that I’m older and have a stricter view, I will admit portions of it do hold up. Or perhaps about half of it does.

Albert Finney as Warbucks who is more Scrooge than...his performace as Scrooge

Albert Finney as Warbucks who is more Scrooge than…his performace as Scrooge

Based on the Little Orphan Annie comic strip of the 1920s and the Broadway smash hit, we see Aileen Quinn as the red-curly headed, dimple faced little girl Annie who spends time in an orphanage with the hopeful promise that her parents will one day return for her. Her personality is not too basic to the point where its generic and forgettable as she acts kind and nice but independent yet feisty when needed like rescuing a dog from street bullies. Its a shame because just when her character gets interesting, these elements start to melt away when she is taken into the Warbucks home for the Fourth of July weekend. You see, Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks (Albert Finney) wants to bring a good image to himself and thinks that having an orphan around the house will soften him up. And at his aid is a mind bending bodyguard/butler named Punjab and his kung fu master chaufer The Asp taken straight from the comics but strangely were not in the musical. I guess you can argue they were crossing the musical with the original comic but I think its cool to see them use two different medias. But as you can expect, enough time goes by to the point Warbucks feels he can’t live without her. Or in film time, small bits of scenes that try to show a relationship but don’t do much to convey an emotion.

Two comedic giants in one. Carol Burnett and Tim Curry side by side!

Two comedic giants in one. Carol Burnett and Tim Curry side by side!

So he gets Annie adopted instead from the floozy drunk owner of the orphanage Miss. Hannigan played by Carol Burnett. She binged on so many alcoholic drinks that between looking after little girls and dealing with her scheming brother Rooster (Tim Curry) that a hangover is probably better than nothing. But its revealed she might have some information on Annie’s parents as the red-headed optimist hopes to find them with Warbucks’ help. But then Hannigan’s brother gets the idea to pose as Annie’s parents because Warbucks sends out this $50,000 reward to anyone who can find them and plan to take the money and set Annie off. And at this point, you can see what the main problem is. The story (or stories) are really all over the map.

Its funny because Popeye came out two years before Annie (as producer Robert Altman made the Paramount/Disney flick to compete with “the Movie of Tomorrow”) and shares similar problems. But Popeye is an original production that has one too many stories yet it tries to have a focus. Annie oddly enough should be the better movie in the story department but it feels like its slowly making one. You could argue that the focus is on Annie hoping for a home with her family but that’s only mentioned once in the beginning and then comes back later as a plot point. If there was a driving focus throughout seeing she does escape at one point and maybe the reason is just to find her lost folks, it would make sense. But this is never really clear. And for something looks and acts like its a spectacle for a good two hours, you wish there was a stronger plot. Maybe the stage show did this better but this is one problem I had with it.

But maybe you don’t need a strong story to make a good movie. After all, this is a movie musical. Well, it does deliver but only for the first half. Songs like “It’s a Hard Knock Life” and “I Think I’m Gonna Like It Here” work because the intense camera work and heavy choreography really convey the energy of transitioning a stage musical to film. You really get into the beat of these girls and their hard working time and really marvel at how expansive the Warbucks mansion is from the wide angles and solid footwork. But then you have songs that could have been easily cut like “Dumb Dog” or “Sign” where dialogue could have been a better substitute. From what I heard, at least five songs were written just for the movie and replaced a good handful from the show. And sadly, there are not memorable. Heck, about 50% of them are about the dog character or just there because its a musical and it thinks a truck load of songs are needed.

One painful example that I keep coming back to is “Let’s Go to the Movies” (replacing the show’s “N.Y.C”). It starts off big yet small as Annie and Warbuck’s secretary marvel about the idea of going to the movies but then it just keeps snowballing as ushers give this personal gala permier and then they have the Rockettes perform right before “Camile” begins on the screen. Why? Why is all of this needed? I get it. Its trying to be some kind of Busby Berkeley tribute but it doesn’t work here for this kind of movie. Maybe if the Rockettes bit was a vignette instead of a stage bit for Annie, I can see it working but there’s no transition for this dance break we get. They just go into the theater and get a dance sequence for no reason. You think that’s the first but they do it again. We get a radio show performance of “Your Never Fooly Dressed Without a Smile” but then we see the little girls at the orphanage perform their take of it in Hannigan’s office. What is the point? Yes, you can have big numbers like what you did earlier but you need to balance it out with something soft and quiet. And when they try to do that, it feels unneeded. Like did we need a number telling us that Warbucks is about to adopt Annie or again, two or three songs about Annie’s dog Sandy which to the dog’s credit is a talented pooch.

The infamous "Tomorrow" scene in its corny glory

The infamous “Tomorrow” scene in its corny glory

I also find it weird that many people say that the song “Tomorrow” is overplayed where else here, I think its underplayed. Sure there’s the main credits and the finale but its big moment is done as a quiet scene when Annie visits the President. Well, at first its a quiet scene but then Franklin D. Roosevelt commands Warbucks and his secretary to sing the song to show its lasting power to remind people how optimistic they need to be. Hold on a moment. This is Franklin D. Roosevelt! The man who told us “we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” And what is he doing? Singing a show tune and later during the finale eating cotton candy at Warbuck’s Fourth of July party. There’s only so much corniness that can be done here.

So for all the negatives, is there some positives? Well, as said the technical work and choreography are great, some of songs are shot great and I do like the performances. I didn’t even mention how much I love Carol Burnett’s portrayal of Miss. Hannigan as an over exaggerated cartoon character or even Tim Curry’s slimy yet slick take on Hannigan’s brother Rooster. They have a big number “Easy Street” and surprisingly its perfect the way it is. They just dance about the orphanage while mucking up how much excitement they have in a plan they hope will succeed. You just can’t help but watch in delight how intimate yet fun the performance is.

Albert Finney is decent as Warbucks taking the Scrooge route of his character but there are times when I wish there was more sentimental value to his performance. When he goes mad and over the top, its funny to watch but when he needs to be caring towards Annie, it feels somewhat cold. Its not till she is close to finding her real parents that we get the feeling of Warbucks loosing someone so close to his heart. If Finney really played that out more, it would have been a perfect character.

A rare shot from the unused "Easy Street" sequence that was replaced with the one in the final version as three villains dancing with street folks was thought to be "overstuffed." Some snippets appeared in a behind the scenes special called"Lights! Camera! Annie!" along with the making of this scene

A rare shot from the unused “Easy Street” sequence that was replaced with the one in the final version as three villains dancing with street folks was thought to be “overstuffed.” Some snippets appeared in a behind the scenes special called”Lights! Camera! Annie!” along with the making of this scene

For a while, I tried to put my finger on why this movie didn’t grasp me midway as much as the first half as I felt a lot of stuff in the first 45 minutes was good. But then it dawned on me when I thought about when Annie was released. The movie musical came out in the summer of 1982 in sea of anticipated sequels and a week after Steven Spielberg’s E.T. So for a movie to come out in a sea of blockbusters, it makes sense to have it be this big, grand event film when its source is from a Broadway show set at Christmas. And while Christmas movies do have big business, they can be quiet and soft seeing how cheerful the holiday season is. Maybe if they stuck to the roots of the musical’s setting, it would have benefited better in some way. I did read up on some production problems it had like a version of “Easy Street” that had to be reshot from this grand $1 million set piece to a more lesser grand piece and “Let’s Go to the Movies” originally had this dance break that pushed things further. I can see why they would want to push the story into a bigger film but some of that doesn’t work.

Without giving too much away, a good example is the climax that is meant to be intense and nail biting as it goes into this chase sequence where Annie is dangling on a bridge while trying to get away from the bad guys and Warbucks sends out his bodyguards to save her. First off, what happened to the independent Annie that was all tough but fun? Now she’s hanging off a bridge for dear life. I know she’s a kid and there’s this adult after her, but do you think she would know better? And on top of that, it should be Warbucks rescuing her and not his assistants if he really cares for her that much. In fact, it just makes the movie feel a bit cold and cheap seeing how it builds to a climax that is uneven and lacks suspense. Because we know our main character is going to be safe, we know there will be a happy ending and at this point, we don’t feel much for the characters in jeopardy despite what we get tossed at us.

I’m even surprised to see a lot of people complain how light and cheery “Annie” gets when I found some parts of it to be too dark. Hannigan is always threatening the girls, there’s an assassination attempt at Warbucks that happens once and goes nowhere, Hannigan is always sleazy around every guy she sees, kids are tossed into peril at times, and the already mentioned climax. Even for a PG this is borderline depressing. But maybe that’s part of the charm. For every negative, there is a positive but even that is just pushing. I’ve obviously ragged on for too much on this film and if I go further, this opinion would become a novel.

The short version is that I think Annie is decent on its own. Its not ground breaking or timeless even if it attempted to be but the effort does show. Its not a movie I would watch on a constant basis but its worth revisiting just for those reasons I listed; the choreography, the performances and some of the numbers. I can’t say its the best seeing there are better movie musicals but I can’t say its the worst seeing how much everyone is trying to deliver. Not a big fan but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it. Some of it was good but I just wish it was stronger in story and wasn’t too corny in places it didn’t need to be. A mixed bag but take it for what it is.

Rental Corner: “Jersey Boys” and its singing can’t save uneven execution

It can carry a good tune but this movie sadly doesn't

It can carry a good tune but this movie sadly doesn’t

“Jersey Boys” is one movie musical that I was a tad hyped. But upon its release, it was eaten by the hungry jaws of critics and swept under the rub among the other musical flops like “Rock of Ages” or “Sargent Pepper’s Lonley Hearts Club Band.” Still, I pressed on thinking that maybe it was a case where the execution and elements going into it would work. To describe the end result is something like Mad Libs. The director will be Clint Eastwood. Ok, he’s done good movies before like Million Dollar Baby so maybe his gritty direction might add something. The style is gritty biography. Strange seeing the source is based from a typical Broadway show but maybe getting that realistic tone. And the musical numbers are treated like Ray where the numbers are seeing being performed or recorded than treated like flashy productions with the exception of the finale for the end credits. Ummm…what kind of movie am I watching again? If a movie doesn’t know what aspect to take itself in, you can tell there is trouble.

Much like the stage musical, it centers on the musical group “The Four Seasons” and their rise to stardom. But along the way, the movie shows us the turmoils and problems they get into that is the usual way of how bands break up. One guy wants to quit for family reasons, one has creative differences with his lyrical work and one has disagreements despite owing a huge debt of money and acts like he is the leader when he is not. Its the basic story of how a group of people get together for a musical group and split. And I’m aware that is the story of “The Four Seasons,” but its executed in a way that has not much flare and feels dull. Its like you have heard this story before and there’s not next to no point in telling it.

Its a shame because the way “Jersey Boys” is executed feels like two movies in one. One side is the autobiographical aspect as we see the band members and what they go through. Again, the Broadway show incorporated this into the story but it feels lost here. There are moments when a character will have a devastating moment like losing a family member or even going against the group. The emotion is there but we don’t feel it because its told on auto pilot. An example is when something terrible happens to Frankie Valli’s daughter. With little focus on this character, we get the reaction but there’s build up to her moment. Its a tragic scene but the movie delvers this without any proper execution. It sort of happens and that’s it.

Even Clint Eastwood’s direction shows his style is just not right for movie musicals. 90 percent of the time its filmed with wide shots and barley a close-up or an establishing shot. Its like this movie was filmed from a distance without any care into thinking how a song sequence should be handled or showing emotion in a character. When a song plays in a movie musical, we get to see the expression of the character and more because there is no limit. This is not a stage show. We can see faces and other things. Clint never takes that opportunity and even stranger is the color palette being muted and have less saturation. The color is so toned down its like watching a bright color painting being watered down to a dull state. Never have I seen a movie musical that feels dull in execution and color.

Even some of the choices to tell this story are strange like having one of the band members tell it from their point of view. Ok, that I can see working in maybe a flashback way but here, they start with one of them talking to the viewers what is going on and what will happen. I would have been ok with this but then another band member would take up telling the story and then another and another to the point there’s no focus. Perhaps this worked better in the stage show but seeing this is a film with a budget, there’s no need for it. This could have been again a flashback within or even narration. Even odd choices like having Christopher Walken in a minor role feels weird. To Walken’s credit, he tries but with such a great actor on deck, its a shame to see he’s not giving much to work with.

The only good thing I can think of that is positive are the song numbers. In fact, the soundtrack to this movie is more worth your time than ironically the movie itself. When they sing a tune or play a note, that’s when I got engaged because of how good it was. The only nitpick I have is the tempo and pitch being sped up a bit but the singing was really good. Which is a shame because it doesn’t save the movie. “Jersey Boys” could have been anything but with these elements in play, it doesn’t come to life aside from when they sing. If this movie played more like Dreamgirls by mixing the autobiographical elements in a musical manner, there would be something salvageable. But it really doesn’t know if it wants to be a movie musical or just tell the true lives of the Four Seasons. Like I said, when your movie has songs worth listening to more than seeing them in the movie itself, its best to get the soundtrack and skip buying the film altogether.

Rental Corner: “Herclues” is action routine but still fun

He's got the bulk and the act. But can Dwayne Johnson be Hercules? You would be surprised...

He’s got the bulk and the act. But can Dwayne Johnson be Hercules? You would be surprised…

Why is it that a move on the demi-god Hercules is hard to make these days? Is the idea of a stronger than average man taking up twelve tasks not interesting enough for a movie? Do we remember the good old days of sword and sandal films that were cheesy and fun? Well, that is where “Hercules” comes in. The only problem is that is an adaption of Steve Moore’s comic and I’m unfortunately not familiar with it.  Which makes me wonder how close to the source it was or just how diverse it gets? Neither one would surprise as being a film on its own terms, its enjoyable but for the wrong reasons.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays out title character who’s stories have been known far and wide as he has a band of mercenaries by his side in a major crusade. There’s an archer, his story-telling nephew, a prophet that can look into the future, one that throws knives and one that chucks spears. So yeah its The Expendables meets the TV show Hercules with Xena’s production. And that’s basically what it is. The whole movie has this weightless action/adventure tone that is nice but feels uneven seeing how expansive and grand it looks and feels at times. This is basically modernized telling of the Hercules mythos complete with modern terminology add to its action scenes and dialogue. Now its not bothersome to the point it pulls you out, but it does get wear thin seeing how massive yet Shakespearean it feels. Think Dragonheart but more lighter and action-oriented. But while Dragonheart didn’t feel too dated seeing the mannerisms and characters could fit a medieval setting, Hercules suffers because it doesn’t feel like this could all be set in its own time. Everything just screams modernization. Even right down to how the action is on par with today’s action movies.

But there are some upsides to it. Dwayne is surprisingly good as Hercules that it makes you wonder how he would be if this movie was taken seriously. Dwayne is able to carry out the fun of the film as he takes his roles with charm and entertainment. He doesn’t feel dull or act too serious but enough to at least show a variation of the Greek myth. This is where the mercenaries suffer because they all feel like cliches from action movies like The Expendables. These are characters I can sort see in modern day just by how they act upon one another. Its like a Diet Coke version of The Avengers but less personality. Once in a while they can be fun but mostly feel like basic characters.

Aside from standard action, the only real reason to see this movie is for John Hurt. Not that I’m a big fan but for the fact that he saves the movie from feeling mundane. He plays a tyrannical ruler that uses Hercules and his band for invasion with a simple motive to be in power to the end. On paper, its routine but John’s performance makes it unique starting off noble and Shakespearean and only going over the top for the end when needed. Had the movie gone this route of being serious, maybe it wouldn’t feel a tad forgettable.

As “Hercules” stands, the production value looks nice and the actors do their job well keeping the viewer entertained. But if your expecting a grand telling of the myth, you will be disappointed. I have no problems with a modernized take just as long as its evened out and enjoyable. Its risky to balance between making a story of the past and give it a modern take and while it doesn’t feel too dated, it makes you wish this was taken more seriously considering the scope and scale of the visual elements. But I can’t deny entertainment value when I see it. Only worth it for those elements listed above and if you really need some mindless fun.

Rental Corner: “Expendables 3” packs action but little boom

They say the third is never as good as the previous two....and this is sadly proof

They say the third is never as good as the previous two….and this is sadly proof

While I’m not a big fan of “The Expendables” franchise, what I do admire is how they are taking well-known action stars and crossing them over. The plots are nothing special as they tread cliche storylines from movies like Rambo or Die Hard. The franchise concerns a group of mercenaries that are set out to do missions outside the American soil to avoid terrorism and stuff like that. The first film was explosive seeing Sylvester Stallone work with Jet Li or Jason Statham along with how much effort it took to get these stars together. The series itself is very tounge-in-cheek but not to the point where its too “wink to the camera.” The third one on the hand has some good ideas and concepts but feels lacking.

Barney Ross (Stallone) returns as they plan to track down a new baddie played by Mel Gibson who is targeted for a never-ending line of war crimes. But when one of his crew mates gets injured close to death, Barney has no choice but to rely on a new crew to try and take out the wanted fiend. And this is where my main problem comes in. Not the concept of having a new crew but where they take it. Maybe its because I’m not up to date with the current trend of today’s action stars but I found Barney’s new members forgettable. They are all labeled by their personalities and what they do than rather let them be diverse. But isn’t that the point of a team? They have to have different abilities in order to feel like an important part. True but there’s nothing outside of what they do that makes then stand out. Jason Statham’s character of Lee Christmas was more than a knife expert as he was always fun to watch for his angry personality but knew when to be serious and kid around. Outside of knowing technology, there is nothing else I remember.

The worst of the batch being Antonio Banderas who is surprisingly the only one I recall but for the wrong reasons. His character Galgo only exists to be annoying comic relief but to the max. Every time he’s on screen, he doesn’t remain silent. Every ounce of his dialouge can be summed up as being typed by Jar Jar Binks and acted out by Chris Tucker. In fact, if this character was played by Chris Tucker or Eddie Murphy, then I can see the comedy working for a comedic actor that be annoying but likable. But it doesn’t work knowing how slick and fast Antonio can be. This is Zorro here and all he does in this movie is talk about having social issues and constantly hitting on one of the new recruits during a raid near the end. Nothing personal as Banderas is trying to have fun with the role but I just found him unfortunately obnoxious.

The only outstanding thing outside of the action scenes, the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger says “get to the chopper,” and we get to see Harrison Ford fly a fighter jet, is that Mel Gibson gets to play a villain right. This is his second time being the antagonist and I think he does a great job here. There’s one scene when he tries to get inside Barney’s head and manipulate him that is effectively creepy and intense. Every time he was on screen, I felt engaged by his personality and menaced by his Hannibal psychology. Its a shame there’s not enough of him in it to save the movie.

Maybe the idea was to parody how lackluster the “third” film can be, but even that can be a huge risk. Satire is fine as long as viewers are rewarded. The only reward here is mindless action and seeing there was some effort in character depth here, I felt somewhat cheated. I know “The Expendables” franchise is all explosion and less brain but it doesn’t hurt to have both. “Die Hard with a Vengeance” was able to pull that off with McClaine’s character pitted against a bitter Samuel L. Jackson that made up for some great comedic moments while being entertaining. I just wish the story was stronger and the cast of new recruits were more than just a plot element or at least interesting. I don’t care if you get Wesley Snipes tossing knives or have exploding buildings. I know its an action movie but it feels too routine and one-note for me to recommend.

“Hobbit” 3 boasts epic end but feels decent

Grand end it promises, but is it worth seeing?

Grand end it promises, but is it worth seeing?

The biggest problem I have with “Battle of The Five Armies” lies in the opening 10 minutes. At the end of “Desolation of Smaug,” the dragon Smaug is awoken from its perch on the mountain and swoops down as impending doom on the small village bellow. A whole year was waited to see this finally conclude and it does so quickly that we wonder what else is there to explore for The Hobbit. Well after much thought, the only thing I can see that was attempted to be the driving force is the treasure the beast leaves behind. But with so much attention to Smaug in the previous two films, it doesn’t feel much like a driving force when you look into it. But to my surprise, I didn’t walk out disappointed. This is part of the Lord of the Rings franchise. And if you really felt engaged in Bilbo’s journey, I’m sure you will have a good time. But as a stand-alone movie, that is when its faults start to show for me.

My biggest criticism throughout these three movies is that with so many characters and stories, that it can be hard to see what is the main focus. For Lord of the Rings, the center is the One Ring and there’s so much surrounding one thing that it feels connected to it. Here we go from Thorin’s greed to the elves trying to get revenge on the dwarfs for stealing their prized possessions to the Orcs trying to go after Throin for his head and then you have the people from the small village trying to regroup in this ghost town of a kingdom. In short, its all over the place. I feel like there is so much attention devoted to answering things for the Lord of the Rings movies while also setting up its mythology that it can be hard to endure. I can’t say its not that its information that affects the world of Middle-Earth but there’s only so much that can be set up or answered. I get the feeling Peter Jackson and his crew really wanted to tie up all the loose ends but sometimes less is more and it gets disappointing as ever open question comes to a close that is either satisfying or feels like it could have been stronger.

Bilbo (Martin Freeman) is placed to the background as again the focus is on the treasure and everyone who is connected to the dwarfs seeking payment for their debt or just straight up revenge. Its not that he doesn’t do anything as there are a couple of things he takes part in but for a trilogy called “The Hobbit,” you do wish there was more focus devoted to our main character. But from a different stand point, “Unexpected Journey” is on Bilbo, “Desolation of Smaug” is on the treasure and how it is affecting everyone and this one is more on the dwarfs as well as the mythology of Middle-Earth before “Fellowship of the Ring.” I’m not saying its a bad thing but with 2/3rds of the movie devoted to this massive battle, its a shame to see your central character reduced to just standing by or watching the chaos.

So it sounds this opinion is turning out to be negative? Well, not actually. There are elements that keep it being enjoyable. I do like the character arc of Thorin as he questions the greed that grows in him. There’s a really good scene later on where he’s walking on a floor of gold left from the previous movie where he contemplates the person he’s slowly becoming. Its well done and beautifully executed as he realizes there’s more to a mine full of gold. In fact, there’s a good handful of quiet moments in this movie that are well done like how Gandalf and Bilbo meet up after so much has gone on. Its not delivered in lines but a simple glance and a smoke. No words are needed. Just basic emotion.

And that is the key word here, emotion. This is not relying on story but more on the weight of these characters and how far they have come. This is the last trip into Middle-Earth so it does make sense to wrap things up. I do wish some elements were handled better but for the most part disappointment will be few. There are some times when it will get serious and times when it can be comedic when it needs to be. Ryan Gage’s performance as Alfrid is so exaggerated that it comes off enjoyable than be forced comedy as Lee Pace’s presence as Thranduil feels menacing to the point we wonder if he has any heart to him. To best describe this movie, its the opposite of what “Pirates of the Caribbean: At Word’s End” did. They set up to a massive battle that takes up the bulk of the film but what leads into is well paced. So it feels less like filler and more rewarding in the end.

I do wish “Battle of the Five Armies” was stronger in certain spots, but for a film series that kept building and building to a finale, it comes off decent. I’d recommend this one only for those who really felt engaged with the first two films and want to see it come to a fitting close. I’m positive you won’t be disappointed but a bit underwhelmed. Maybe if the first 10 or 15 minutes were tagged onto “Desolation,” it would be easier to see this as a film on its own and I can see it working that way with the focus on Thorin and the fate of the treasure. My only guess to why it begins that way is that audiences wouldn’t pay another movie ticket to an entry that feels like filler. There’s many theories but at least “Battle” didn’t fail as far as third movie sequels go. Not the best holiday movie but worth checking out if (and ONLY IF) you want to see how it all ends. For everyone else who was never big on The Hobbit or felt underwhelmed by its predecessors, might have to give this an unfortunate rent. But you have to agree, its beautiful shot knowing its Peter Jackson at the director’s chair and he’s resourced with the source material. So perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to see it after all…just on an IMAX  screen.

NBC’s “Pan” surprisingly soars

Allision duels it with Walken in the most anticipated event of 2014

Allision duels it with Walken in the most anticipated event of 2014

Having a nostalgic hunger for live musical telecasts, I wondered how the “near dead” genre would get back on track. Well, last year’s “Sound of Music” was the kick starter to it and despite having not seen it, I do give credit for again taking a lost tradition and giving it new legs. Or else, I would have not seen one of the most amazing live televised events. Well, perhaps I shouldn’t hype it too much. After all, some of us thought the new “Peter Pan Live” was going to be a flop. But to my surprise, this not only does the original musical right but also even the source material to a new generation. Being someone who grew up on the Disney version and Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” (which is one of my favorite films), I always liked the idea of a kid that never grew up and lived in a world where pirates where the adults and kids were trying to maintain their young selves. Now having not seen the original J.M. Barrie production and only the 1960 musical recording with Mary Martin in the title role, its going to be hard trying to compare and contrast among sources. But seeing its developed from the 1954 Broadway play and some portions of the J.M. Barrie play, its an interesting cross that doesn’t feel insulting. It shows research was done well.

Allison Williams is surprisingly well cast as Peter Pan respecting the charm of the character but also an added tragedy. The fact that the world around him is growing up and yet refuses to grow with it. I can’t reveal why as it would spoil but it very much follows a unique reason for the character’s eternal youth that I never thought before. Its lost childhood that was never experienced and only wishes to remain in that form because of how grand it feels. I know its strange to have a woman play Peter Pan but I see why. Picturing a male lead would be hard to carry much charisma and whimsy for such a notable character.

The biggest hype of the evening I’m sure everyone was waiting to toss vegetables at is Captain Hook being played by Christopher Walken. This could have gone wrong but I best remind you how much of a song and dance man Walken is. He can carry a tune and his footwork is phenomenal. While he doesn’t go over the top, the role is a surprisingly good fit. Its a more laid back take that is not cartoony giving a fresh new take on the character. Its more interrogating and serious which brings more comedy when he tries to take something so absurd like poisoning Pan with a cake while making it diabolical. If I did have a nitpick his performance a bit, it does get too relaxed at times for even when he has to react to a man in a crocodile suit. The timing of his reaction is funny but not big enough to be hilarious. When the croc was around, Hook would be in a fit. Here, he just slides away like its a spider in a window.

The updates to the show are good too; production wise and story. There’s a lot more time spent between Pan and Wendy (Kelli O’Hara) to get an idea of their relationship as Wendy wants to be a more motherly figure while Pan keeps reminding his Lost Boys to always be a kid. It makes for some great comedy while also getting some drama while Wendy finally understands why Pan never wishes to grow up. It becomes more heartbreaking than a simple shrug in the original. I also think the Lost Boys depicted as English school children is clever rather than lost orphans on an island.  But the biggest update I think everyone can agree is the Natives. In the past, they were seen more as the comic relief and I don’t think it was the right aspect. I know it was of the time but it just got too campy at times and I never found them that funny. In the “Live” production, they are given a better direction that is easy to stomach with. Though, did they have to give them a skimpy grass skirt? Even for a TV-G production its questionable.

Past the story changes, there are some additional notes to the melody that I think help it out. “Ugg a Wugg” I don’t think will be missed much as it gets a decent re-write and Captain Hook has one or two extra tunes that add on to the character’s hate for Pan that get really catchy. The biggest addition is a number called “When I Went Home” that was originally cut from the 1954 production. Perhaps its reinstatement to this version is more suitable here as the past was more campy and light. This number in general that talks about a past memory Peter has fits what this version is doing but adding character depth while not too much to the point its too sad. The Pan here is more than just smiles and games. Its a kid that doesn’t wish to be something he doesn’t want. Its better reflected here.

“Peter Pan Live” is not just an upgrade but a welcome production that I’m sure will be talked about for a while. While I can’t say its 100% perfect as it does have some wires hanging about here and there while some studio lights in certain shots but that’s part of the fun of a live production. If it were a movie, that would be a different case. Your more amazed with how they have a small blooper like that and just go with it. Your expecting them to break character but yet impressed to see how they role with it and do their part. That is good acting to me. A perfect stocking stuffer I declare for this musical gem.