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Rating History

Into the Woods
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I have been a fan of Stephen Sondheim for 8 years now and the first Sondheim musical I ever fell in love with was Into the Woods. I had watched the original Broadway cast recording featuring the illustrious Bernadette Peters and Joanna Gleason, along with other names I didn't recognize but who impressed me from start to finish. Going into the woods in theaters yesterday to see the new Rob Marshall rendition of this spectacular show, I had quite a few reasons to be skeptical and expected the worst. Marshall's success with musical renditions is spotty. Chicago was excellent. Nine was not. It was really a question of which Rob Marshall I was going to get.
What I got was an excellent and fun movie musical which has reset the bar for stage-to-screen adaptations. After several years of disappointments, excluding the overly bloated prestige of "Les Miserables," Into the Woods turned out to be a refreshing and charming movie which actually honored the original vision of Sondheim. The music of the piece never stopped, moving us fluidly from one number to another and avoiding the choppiness of old school dialogue-song sequences. I only counted two major musical numbers cut, Ever After and Agony (Reprise), and neither hurt the narrative coherence. They were sorely missed by musical fans, but new and young fans wouldn't miss a beat. The characters still interwove in every way they should have. And OH, the characters! The only giant misstep was Lilla Crawford as Little Red, who brought a sort of deadpan disdain to the character. It was acceptable, but it is hard not to forget the actively sassy Danielle Ferland in the original casting. Otherwise, all were more than capable actors and handled their parts with ease. The whole cast, including Kendrick, Blunt, Corden, Baranski, Ullman, Huttlestone, Magnusson, and Pine each brought a new twist to the piece without destroying the music we all know and love. However, it did feel that they were a bit sterile; no one seemed truly invested or real, a common downfall with musicals. It can be difficult to hit the right emotive notes if you are used to dialogue instead of complex counterharmonies like those Sondheim is revered for. For example, Corden as the Baker had some incredible scenes, but you when the camera zoomed in on his face while he sang, you could almost see the wheels turning as he worked to handle the music technically. Pine also seemed to struggle with this, but given his character it was more forgivable and perhaps even worked to his advantage. Blunt and Kendrick faired a bit better, with Blunt in particular using her showcase song "Any Moment" to play with the character beyond hitting the right notes. Yet still in both there was a kind of inner dialogue and emotional depth that was lacking.
The only exception: Meryl Streep. I tend to get a lot of flack for how much I love Streep, but Streep has proven herself for decades as virtually flawless and she has once again proven to be the exception to the rules. Streep is not the most technically sound singer in the woods, but she knows how to find character motivation in lines like no actress I've ever seen. As a result her witch doesn't belt like Bernadette Peters did, but her role as a complicated parental figure and ethical foil were crystal clear and fully realized. It's in her voice, her body, her eyes. In fact, Streep seemed to find the musical formula the rest of the cast struggled with by straddling the line between live theater and screen techniques. During her songs and lines, she went far bigger than was needed for the screen. Her blocking and comedic timing would have been well at home on stage, honoring the musical tradition. But her serious introspective lines came down into subtle realities of performance which would have made her one of the most decorated actresses in history. As a result, I feel like I have to commit a sin of musical theater and admit that I liked Meryl's witch overall better than I do Bernadette Peters'. There is no doubt to me that Peters is an icon; she had an incredible voice and made the witch into an amazing creation which undoubtedly inspired Streep. Plus, as I mentioned, Streep's voice was not always on point with her emotions so I don't think she could have converted what she did on screen to the stage. In that category, Peters stands alone. However, as a fully realized character, something about Streep felt more cohesive than Peters. Perhaps it is all just the screen v. stage dichotomy and I of course would still watch Peters own the stage in the original performance (that DVD is one of my most favorite of all time). Ultimately though, I was having a hard time figuring out why awards buzz was generating around Streep for this musical, but her nominations are deserved. I do think it would be a travesty for her to win (there was far more critical work this year), but she is Meryl Streep after all.
There were things to be improved upon. The pacing of the music and the movie as a whole at times felt a bit too slow. This is especially troublesome given that the musical's success rests on the balance of comedy and tragedy, but much of the comedy only works with a sort of quick, sarcastic pacing that only a few of the characters (Streep, Baranski, and Ullman, all veterans of musicals) seemed to embody. The critical nexus of the show "Your Fault" was far too slow to be effective and dragged down what was otherwise a solid scene. The aforementioned cut songs would have really helped to lighten an otherwise heavy 3rd act. And, as I feared, the dark morality of the last part of the show dragged down into "meh." It was clear that Disney felt uneasy with how far would be too far for their audience and as a result the movie couldn't find its footing. Given the original show, I think they could have done far better to take it where it needed to go, but there you find the argument of whether you sacrifice audience understanding for a cohesive quality or do you sacrifice some quality to make sure the audience isn't lost. Coming from this musical theatre fan, I think Disney underestimated what their audience could handle and, frankly, deserved to see.
But I'm being nitpicky. Into the Woods was funny, well-produced, well-sung, and featured some excellent performances and one terrific one. Marshall is known for his musicals (Chicago, Nine), and after years of either excessive pageantry or paltry attempts, Into the Woods strikes harmony and finds just the right notes for both new and die-hard fans of Sondheim's masterpiece.

The Stepford Wives
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

Not a bad film, all things considered. I can't say I enjoyed the message of the film. Overall the script was extremely hackneyed and underestimated the audience to read between the lines. I appreciate the intended message of feminism and cultural critique, but generally it's not a wise idea to batter your audiences over the head with it, especially when the ideas presented are not exactly novel.

So why 3.5 stars? Because the cast was absolutely delightful and committed to perfect comedic timing, which I always think elevates a script to it's fullest potential. So the script was lackluster, but the performances were strong. The ensemble as a whole was terrific but 2 especially strong leading ladies stand out. Kidman cut a fierce silhouette as a simultaneously confident and sharp businessperson, yet undermined by self-doubt brought on ironically by her own ideological commitments. As I watch more of Kidman's movies, I find myself more and more appreciating the nuances she utilizes, making her one of the more realistic actresses brought to life. The other performance really worth mentioning is Glenn Close. For most of the movie she strikes you as just another Stepford Wife, yet you can't help but feel there is something else boiling underneath. When the other wives are confused by an outsider's remarks, you don't sense total confusion from Close. What you sense instead is the wheels turning, an active and calculated "what's next." Her final monologue is actually quite moving and you see the genuine emotion rise through her. Overall a funny movie worth a laugh on a bad movie night.

Bewitched (2005)
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I remember enjoying this movie when I saw it in theaters. Watching it again, I was apparently an easy-to-please teenager. This movie was pretty low on the magic. Wide-eyed naivete and adult-sized temper tantrums should never be used as substitutes for jokes, a sin Ephron, Kidman, and Ferrell should know well as experienced Hollywood insiders. Additionally, the metanarrative premise was too heavy handed at times; at other times, it was missing key components that alluded to the original Bewitched. Dedicated fans of the old show (myself included) will find themselves wishing the allusion would be more complete and handled with greater care.

So why the halfsies rating? Well, despite the carelessness, it's relatively inoffensive movie with a few very small moments of cute charm. Additionally, a few of the more veteran cast have their moments. Kidman is nowhere near as charming as Elizabeth Montgomery, but in this new universe she has a unique character which makes for an acceptable protagonist. Despite the fact that you can practically see her mourning her career as she says each line, she's still Nicole Kidman; there's no denying she can act. Michael Caine handles the role of Nigel Bigelow deftly and, although he can't carry the story, he clearly invested in the allusion to Sam's father in the 1960s series. However, the biggest props go to Shirley MacLaine as a practically perfect replication of Endora and Steve Carell as the much needed obnoxiousness that is Uncle Arthur. In fact, Carell provided my one moment of laughing out loud.

So all in all, Bewitched is a scholocky, hokey attempt to mine money out of an excellent show that should have remained as it currently exists: A beautiful and nostalgic piece of television history.

The Truman Show
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I think it would do this movie an injustice to deconstruct it critically right now, as it does a sublime job of deconstructing itself and the very culture which spawned it. The message, while heavy-handed, made questions of media culture and transparency that much more layered. A film that saw well-beyond its years, buoyed by a remarkably grounded performance by Jim Carrey.

The Muppet Christmas Carol
2 years ago via Rotten Tomatoes

I haven't watched this since elementary school, but its timeless nostalgia is perfect for the season. That nostalgia is only enhanced by the fact that this was an exquisite effort of craftsmanship in 1992. This is a film that could have been made even 1 year ago and the world would still find it appealing in production values and narrative. It's held up for 2 decades and for many decades to come.