At The Movies: Into The Woods; Unbroken

I’ve mentioned before how I don’t understand how Christmas Day became New Movie Day. Don’t you have better things to do on Christmas than go to a movie? Like play with your new toys? Or read your new books? Or watch your new DVDs?

I can only guess this tradition got started because the shepherds got bored with looking at Baby Jesus after a while and the Bethlehem Cineplex decided to take advantage of the situation.

Whatever the reason, there are roughly a half-dozen new movies out Christmas Day, depending on where you live (and whether or not “The Interview” is among them). I’ve seen two.

Into the Woods

I’m told this Stephen Sondheim fairy tale mashup is popular and yet it hasn’t shown up at The Fox or The Muny (or the late Goldenrod Showboat) since I’ve been writing theater reviews. So I didn’t know what to expect. It certainly surprised me, not necessarily in a good way.

The intricately detailed plot links the stories of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), Jack of the Beanstalk fame (Daniel Huttlestone), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford)  and two princes charming (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen). There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Johnny Depp as The Wolf.

Into_The_Woods_(film)The characters are linked by a Witch (Meryl Streep) who needs Cinderella’s shoe, Rapunzel’s hair, Jack’s cow and Red’s hood to cast a spell that will restore her youth and beauty. To get the items she enlists the aid of a baker (James Cordon) and his wife (Emily Blunt).

If most of the actors’ names are unfamiliar, that’s a good thing. It means director Rob Marshall hired talent based more on singing ability than box office draw. That is the bane of most Hollywood versions of Broadway musicals (Streep is much better here than “Mamma Mia!” — the textbook example of bad musical casting). The singing is very good here which is important because Sondheim’s score is more challenging (for both singer and audience) than traditional verse-chorus songs.

The story moves along in a nice, clever fashion and everything seems to end in happily-ever-after fashion — but then it doesn’t end. The second act goes all dark with infidelity and multiple deaths. Normally I would be all in favor of upending fairy tale traditions but it just seemed so out of place given what had gone on before. The tonal shift was jarring. I also felt things occur in the second half that aren’t clearly explained while other elements (Rapunzel’s relationship to The Baker) aren’t addressed. In fact, Rapunzel disappears for the entire second act.

There were a lot of children at the screening I attended which I guess makes sense given that it’s a Disney film featuring popular fairy tale characters, but I really wouldn’t characterize this as a kid-friendly film.

So, to sum up: the acting’s good, the singing’s good, the score is good, the look and feel of the film is well done. I just can’t get past the monkey-wrench that’s thrown in the second half.

Unbroken

There are few stories more inspirational than that of Louis Zamperini.

A U.S. Olympic track star, Zamperini takes part in the fight in the Pacific theater during World War II. After his plane crashes he spends 47 days adrift in a raft before being rescued by the Japanese, who send him to spend the rest of the war in prisoner-of-war camps. He comes out of the experience driven by forgiveness and service to God rather than revenge.

MV5BMTY3ODg2OTgyOF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODk1OTAwMzE@._V1_SX214_AL_As I mentioned when I wrote about “Rosewood” a few weeks back, “Unbroken” is a movie that’s easy to admire but sometimes hard to watch. Do you really want to spend Christmas Day watching a man slowly dying in the middle of the Pacific, then beaten and abused at various prison camps? There’s no “Ho Ho Ho” to be found here.

Director Angelina Jolie presents the material in straightforward, sentimental fashion. The opening aerial combat scenes are thrilling. The time Zamperini and his buddies spend at sea is moving, with one moment sure to make you jump out of your seat. The prison camp scenes will feel familiar to anyone who has watched war movies centered on prison camps.

Jack O’Connell gives a strong performance as Zamperini while Takamasa Ishihara (a.k.a. Miyavi) is equally compelling as camp commander Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe.

I would’ve liked some time spent on Zamperini’s life after the war but that would’ve carried things on a bit too long.

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