Musical, Reviews

Into the Woods

Into The Woods

Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Story
A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) yearn for a baby but are informed by a witch (Meryl Streep) they are barren because of a curse she put on the baker’s family when his father stole an assortment of greens from her garden due to his mother’s pregnancy cravings. Not realising his father has taken her magic beans, the witch is hexed from a startling beauty into a hideous hag. To lift both spells, she has entrusted the couple to acquire a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold for her in three days’ time. If they fail, they will forever remain childless.

Review
The cinematic version of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award winner has arrived through a faithful reworking from director Rob Marshall whose debut ‘Chicago’ revived an almost extinct genre with extraordinary acting, cherished tunes and deadpan humour are all present in his third foray in the movie musical (‘Annie’ does not really count) after losing steam in the tedious ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, unfocused ‘Nine’ and derivative ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’.

The frontrunner now in remaking existing children’s fables with a twist (‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Maleficent’ and the forthcoming ‘Cinderella’), it does appear like a natural progression that Disney be the one charged in updating this mishmash of classic fairy tales to a generation unfamiliar by Sondheim’s work (‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ did try mainstreaming his composition with an A-list actor and director but the results were moderately fruitful).

Following in the footsteps of ‘Les Misérable’, ‘Into the Woods’ is on course to be another profitable venture and second consecutive win for Streep after her stint in ‘Mamma Mia!’ yielded her the biggest hit of the 65-year-old’s 44-year career. Unlike the Abba-inspired numbers, the original songs are wordy and the recurring melody could sound repetitious after a while. There is no hesitation though that you will find yourself humming to tracks like the titular opening sequence, ‘Agony’, ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ and ‘Your Fault’.

Earning her a 19th nomination in the Academy Awards, extending her record-setting total as the most nominated actor in history, Streep is an enjoyment as the witch with a grudge. She is immensely different and does it with aplomb that it is easy to overlook how Bernadette Peters and Donna Murphy were once legends in their own right. While the stage queens opt for flamboyance, Streep alleviates it with a touch of class but her crooning in ‘Last Midnight’ is merely adequate and not gratifying enough.

Looking repellent and radiant, thanks to splendid artistry from Peter Swords King and J. Roy Helland, Streep’s finesse is only rivaled by Blunt’s compassionate mother-to-be, Corden’s calculating yet affable hero and Chris Pine’s ostentatious Prince Charming. He does get a run for his money in Anna Kendrick nearly knocking him off his pedestal as the enticing runaway girlfriend. Proverbial costume designer, Colleen Atwood’s medieval wear is a feast for the eyes specifically bewitching are the witch’s blue dress and Cinderella’s sparkly garb.

As magnificent as the revered golden shoe, the decision to sanitise the risqué parts does come at a price. Appealing to a younger crowd of Sondheim’s splendour and wit is not only commercially savvy, it also functions as an outlet in reinstating the musical’s declining quality of late. The revised darkness eludes numerous themes (tweaks in plot and lyrics may perturb adult devotees) but statements of growing up, parental responsibilities and infidelity are still intact. I only wish that it is more fulfilling than being just right.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: A
Plot: A-

Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material

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Drama, Reviews

The Theory of Everything

Theory of Everything

Copyright © 2014 by Focus Features

Story
Told through the eyes of Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is on the verge of ascertaining that black holes are contributors to the creation of the universe when he is diagnosed with motor neuron disease. Doctors say he does not have long to live but undeterred, with Wilde’s undying support and love, he does not give up the fight to finish his research. They marry and as their members of the family continues to increase, so does the scholar’s accolades, resulting in the hypothesis of his earlier study being published in 1988.

Review
Time is money. Often taken for granted due to its imperceptible nature, we forget how fragile life can be until it hits you on the head with a loud thump. Blessed with unparalleled intelligence but cursed by a failing body, Hawking’s world comes crashing down into an abyss of despair when he receives the devastating news (he has not more than two years before he succumbs to the sickness). He is now 73 and ‘A Brief History of Time’ was a chart-topper on the British Sunday Times for 237 weeks.

Adapted by Anthony McCarten from the recollections of Hawking’s first wife whose marriage to the scientist for 30 years is an odyssey ripe for an intimate treatment actualised sensitively through James Marsh’s direction. ‘Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’ may be centred from Wilde’s perspective accepting and coping with her husband’s deteriorating condition but Marsh does not neglect the everyday plight our PhD holder from Cambridge has to endure.

A reminder to live each day like it is your last, Marsh ensures the message is not lost in mawkishness and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score unobtrusively allows Redmayne and Jones to excel in their Oscar-nominated performances (edged out by the former only because he replicated an exact physicality of the real Hawking which has been rewarded handsomely so far from the Globes, SAG and BAFTAs for the ‘Best Actor in a Leading Role’; the real shocker would be if he actually loses in the Oscars).

It is difficult to compare if fellow nominee Benedict Cumberbatch of ‘The Imitation Game’ who played the part the first time a decade ago is any better (or different) but Redmayne’s delivery is nothing short of being phenomenal. As his ailment leaves him speechless, the ‘Les Misérable’ star can only convey the hurt and frustration via a lift of a brow or a half smile yet these mannerisms speak volumes of his character’s perseverance and strength to his family and friends.

Heavily invested as the epitome of patience and loyalty in a trying household and not falling behind is Jones’ poised and restrained grace which could have gone stereotypically nagging or prickly if not carefully represented. Akin to the pairing’s contrasting faith in God, neither Redmayne nor Jones will be complete without each other. Even with Jonathan Jones (Charlie Cox) and Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) stepping in midway, the couple’s unbreakable bond works wonders whenever they are together.

I could be just nitpicking but it would have made for more insightful viewing if details about Mr and Mrs Hawking managing their finances and family’s reaction to Wilde’s ever growing responsibilities are examined further instead of skimming over fleetingly (Emily Watson in particular barely registers). But because Marsh and McCarten have chosen the theory about life, it is (almost) everything a Hawking movie should be although they do intermittently stumble on the man’s scientific breakthrough.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: A
Plot: B+

Rated PG-13 for some thematic elements and suggestive material

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Comedy, Reviews

The Grand Budapest Hotel

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Copyright © 2014 by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Story
In the Republic of Zubrowka, the Grand Budapest Hotel is frequented by the elite and at their beck and call is Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), a senior and loyal concierge who doubles as an escort for the affluent but insecure female lodgers. When one of them ends up dead, he becomes the prime suspect and jailed for her murder. Along with his trusted lobby boy, Zero Moustafa (Tony Revolori), he escapes from incarceration to prove his innocence.

Review
If ever there is a word to describe a Wes Anderson picture, I think surreal would be it. Comparatively offbeat with the likes of ‘Amélie’, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ and ‘Burn After Reading’, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ is archetypally Anderson but distances itself from his earlier ensemble pieces (‘The Royal Tenenbaums’, ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ and ‘Moonrise Kingdom’) through political unrest portending an austere end amid a homicidal pursuit in as well as out of prison.

Dominating in the BAFTA and Oscar nominations, it is not hard to see why Anderson’s latest is a mighty contender for the top honour. A multiple award winner and critic-approved lensing a 1930s-themed crime caper replete with characters as brightly hued as the hotel itself without depriving any of the Andersonian facetiousness looks like a lock for the ‘Best Original Screenplay’ at the very least. In lesser hands, I would have balked at the idea of it even working.

Gratefully, it does. The cinematography from Robert Yeoman is exquisite and adds an air of mysticism to the location’s divinity. None of the scenes feel extraneous, the costumes glow (the staff’s purple uniform in particular) and the production design is simply brimming with authenticity. Pulsating the movie into five lively segments which do not peter out anywhere in its economical running time is the large company of actors collectively enriching Anderson’s imagination.

Like a reunion of sorts, identifiable faces from the director’s prior works pop up the screen and are distinct enough for their minute appearances (Adrien Brody, Harvey Keitel and a completely transformed Tilda Swinton are prominently delightful as a vengeful son, shirtless inmate and wealthy elderly respectively) but ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’ owes its sterling reputation mainly to Fiennes’ cultured and poetic metrosexual.

Better known for dramatic parts, he is a riot as the perfume-spraying and poem-reciting concierge with an affinity for the pleasures of his older female guests. A validation of such intensity can be seen from ‘Schindler’s List’, ‘The English Patient’, ‘The Constant Gardener’, ‘Skyfall’ and the ‘Harry Potter’ series that we forget how waggishly adept he is in something lighter yet insightful. Still, the duo would not be whole without Revolori’s ethereal participation.

For a newcomer, this 18-year-old displays maturity beyond his years and his subtlety is gratifying throughout the course of frenzied and perilous high jinks. He grows up to be F. Murray Abraham from ‘Amadeus’; though outwardly different, both men capture Moustafa’s sadness and pain of loss in unison. A loss indeed if you did miss the chance of a firsthand stay in an establishment every bit as heavenly as Herr Mendl’s prized courtesan au chocolat.

Rating
Entirety: A-
Acting: A
Plot: A-

Rated R for language, some sexual content and violence

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Animation, Reviews

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6

Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Story
A child prodigy in robotics, Hiro Hamada (Ryan Potter) frequently participates in illegal robot duels and his older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney) is troubled by his sibling’s actions. He takes Hiro to his university and introduces him to his friends and creation, Baymax (Scott Adsit), a personal healthcare companion hoping that the skilled inventor will enroll there as well. For his entry project, Hiro’s originality amazes Professor Robert Callaghan (James Cromwell) and is accepted instantaneously. The good news is short-lived as his project thought to be lost in the fire is actually stolen by a masked fender bent on seeking revenge for a personal loss. With Baymax, Go Go Tomago (Jamie Chung), Fred (T.J. Miller), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr), and Honey Lemon (Génesis Rodríguez) by his side, Hiro must now save San Fransokyo from obliteration.

Review
Can Disney and Marvel go any wrong? I am quite sure this is not one of them. A helluva year for comics realised by a returning pioneer (Bryan Singer) and indie favourites (the Russo brothers and James Gunn) whose combined efforts amassed a whopping $2.3 billion during their run in the cinemas. Animation has less to cheer about. Known properties underwhelmed in global takings (‘Mr Peabody & Sherman’) and did not impress critics (‘Rio 2’ and ‘Penguins of Madagascar’).

Only two survived the onslaught in the overcrowded roster; ‘The Lego Movie’ and ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’ which looks poise on nabbing the third Oscar for DreamWorks Animation in the ‘Best Animated Feature’ category after the former has been shut out of the race (sniff sniff). Unite both genres together, hey presto, ‘Big Hero 6’ is the unique blend for unparalleled potency (in itself is a literally unparagoned synthesis of East meets West).

Ever since John Lasseter is lassoed back in, Disney’s own productions have gone from strength to strength (‘Meet the Robinsons’, ‘Bolt’, ‘The Princess and the Frog’ and ‘Winnie the Pooh’ are underrated picks but no less whimsical than their recent behemoth successors of ‘Tangled’, ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ and ‘Frozen’). It is pretty daunting considering the Ice Queen from Arendelle took the world by storm and just could not let it go from her snowy grasp.

But Lasseter has done it again. Yes, the visuals are gorgeous, the action is rousing enough not to irk concerned parents and it is yet another origins tale for the umpteenth time. As with the retro-influenced ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’, what distinguishes it from plunging into mediocrity is a humourously-plotted script boosted by a huggable health attendant-turned-crime fighter (Adsit at his most endearing steers the movie in its breakneck pacing with the right dose of warmth).

The mystery surrounding the passing of a loved one and the disappearance of Hiro’s invention used for malice is passably engrossing, possibly because there are not many suspected felons to begin with, you do not need a three digit IQ level for the big reveal. For a brief instance though, it would appear that the tale may go into darker territories but is held back by messages of forgiveness, familial ties and friendship. The perpetrator’s motivations echo these sentiments (a box of Kleenex nearby can come in handy).

If that is not enough, the loss of a comrade will temporarily overload the senses with grief and despondency, simply as a means to neutralise the comicality power-packed in the first half of the fable. Henney and Potter are commanding as the leader and leader-to-be whereas Miller’s daffy appeal becomes increasingly textured as the narration advances (do not miss the post-credits scene for more Fred and his dad).

However, nothing can compare to Baymax’s sweet and caring disposition. A calmer version of C-3PO, he will have you rooting for in any sticky situation. He is the kind of buddy you would want around as the city falls apart and when the healing commences, he will be with you through thick and thin. A sublime embodiment of Wall-E and Optimus Prime, I am undoubtedly satisfied with my care. You should be too.

Rating
Entirety: A-
Acting (Voice): A-
Plot: B+

Rated PG for action and peril, some rude humor, and thematic elements

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