Monthly Archives

November 2014

Movie Review: INTO THE WOODS

The film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into the Woods (out December 25) is an example of how star power can be effective in drawing people to the cinema. I really wanted to see this movie because of the incredible cast, but I don’t normally like musicals and fell asleep when I saw the stage version many years ago, so take this review for whatever it’s worth.

The story is an intertwinement of the Grimm fairy tales about Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and his beanstalk. There’s a wolf and a witch and a prince—two of them, in fact.

into the woods streepTying them all together are a baker and his wife, who must reverse a curse that prevents them from having chilren. The witch makes them go into the woods to procure four items that would help her lift the curse. Lots of singing ensues.

As expected, Meryl Streep is well cast as the witch, bringing humor and a hint of humanity to the role. Johnny Depp’s wolf is appropriately lecherous and predatory and, yes, funny. Anyone who has seen Streep’s and Depp’s turns in Mamma Mia! and Sweeney Todd, respectively, know they can carry a tune.

The revelation is Emily Blunt, who follows her impressive turn as the badass heroine of this summer’s Edge of Tomorrow with another performance unlike anything we’ve seen her do. Her baker’s wife is the most riveting character, sensual without effort, and her singing voice is clear and pure.

into-the-woods pineMore problematic was Chris Pine’s performance as Cinderella’s prince. When he started his first number, “Agony,” I was mortified because he was so cheesy and melodramatic. I thought, “Why didn’t [director] Rob Marshall tell him to tone it down?!” Halfway through the number, I realized Pine was intentionally lampooning the concept of Prince Charming.

Once I understood that, Pine’s performance became very funny, but the issue remains that his scenes are tonally incongruous with the rest of the movie. The other actors play it straight and earnest, including Anna Kendrick as Cinderella talking to birds. It can be argued that Streep’s and Depp’s performances are over the top, too, but witches and wolves are hardly subtle creatures and these two are simply in character. Pine’s portrayal is a parody, something you’d expect to see on Saturday Night Live.

A friend who also saw Woods this weekend told me afterward that the princes are written and played that way in the stage version, too (I don’t remember; I saw it a long time ago and, as mentioned, I fell asleep). She thought Pine was spot on. My friend continued to say, however, that the original production contained more comedy than the movie, so perhaps I wouldn’t have found the princes’ goofy scenes so jarring in tone if the movie were funnier overall.

It is mostly faithful to its roots, for better or worse. It’s too long; whole numbers and scenes could’ve been cut without the storyline being affected. Several threads are introduced and then left dangling. But the movie has its moments, and some of the performances might be worth a trip into the theater.

Nerd verdict: Uneven but diverting trek Into the Woods

Photos: Walt Disney Studios


My Life According to Books 2014

Happy Friday after Thanksgiving! If you celebrated it, I hope you had a wonderful time.

Since holidays include fun and games, this is a good time to post the annual meme in which I post a few sentence starters and you complete it with the titles of books you read earlier in the year. The books could’ve been published at anytime.

I first saw this meme in 2009 at Reactions to Reading and since then have kept it going with my own sentence starters. This year, the illustrious Jen of Jen’s Book Thoughts contributed half the sentence prompts (numbers 6-10 are hers).

My answers are below. If you want to play, either post your answers in the comments or on your own blog and then leave a link in the comments. I love seeing everyone’s answers!

1. Black Friday makes me: Beware Beware (Steph Cha)

2. If you post racist comments on Facebook, I: Want You Dead (Peter James)

3. In my ID photo, I look like: Werewolf Cop (Andrew Klavan)

4. If someone interrupts my reading, I: (give him/her) One Kick (Chelsea Cain) Without Warning (David Rosenfelt)

5. When I read/watch the news, I: (feel) The Furies (Natalie Haynes)

Love story, with murders6. The last time I visited the zoo, I: (was) Watching You (Michael Robotham)

7. If I were a Supreme Court justice, I would: (help) The Forsaken (Ace Atkins)

8. Absolutely nothing compares to: You (Caroline Kepnes)

9. Best advice my mom gave me was: (avoid) Love Story, with Murders (Harry Bingham)

10. My hope for 2015 is: (I’ll experience) The Wonder of All Things (Jason Mott)

Now it’s your turn. Have fun!



Movie Review: WILD

wild movie posterCheryl Strayed’s blockbuster memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail comes to the screen December 3 (in limited release), with Reese Witherspoon playing Strayed as she hikes over a thousand miles of the PCT after her mother died and her marriage failed.

The movie begins when Strayed commences her journey and ends as she completes it, with flashbacks in between to show how she got to the point in her life where she wanted to tackle such a daunting challenge, without any hiking or camping experience.

Witherspoon sheds all makeup and rom-com perkiness to capture the essence of a woman who’s lost in more ways than one. She carries a weariness around that doesn’t just come from the gigantic pack on her back. 

The actress also has to go further than she’s ever gone on screen to do some of the risqué and reckless things Strayed has done. No doubt Witherspoon is good in a role that’s different for her, but I’ll stop short of saying she blew me away.

The beauty of the movie for me, besides Yves Bélanger’s cinematography, is Laura Dern as Strayed’s mom, Bobbi. Dern made my heart ache every time she appeared on screen.

I didn’t read the book so I don’t know how Bobbi was depicted there, but Dern plays her as relentlessly optimistic even though life dealt her some lousy cards. Bobbi could find the bright side in the darkest places. It’s because she refused to cry for herself that sometimes reduced me to tears. Dern’s performance made it easy to understand why the loss of Bobbi could send Strayed into such despair.

Not a lot happens on the trail, but the story is more about the emotional journey than the physical one, and some of Strayed’s moments of discovery and catharsis are potent. When it comes to character studies, director Jean-Marc Vallée, who helped Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto win Oscars for Dallas Buyers Club, is the right tour guide.

Nerd verdict: Tame but well-acted Wild




In one scene in American Sniper (out Christmas day), Navy SEAL Chris Kyle comes home from his first tour in Iraq. Though he’s sitting still and claims he’s fine, a doctor slaps a blood-pressure cuff on him and reads his blood pressure as 170/110.

If that doctor had put that cuff on me as I sat in the theater watching this movie, my blood-pressure reading probably would’ve been 500 over 499.

This movie is INTENSE.

Based on Kyle’s autobiography of the same title (cowritten with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice), Sniper details Kyle’s four tours in Iraq, where he earned the nickname Legend for racking up the most confirmed kills in U.S. military history. Between his SEAL training and deployments, he gets married and fathers two children. I won’t reveal any more if you don’t already know the rest of his story.

I expected some cockiness and showboating from Bradley Cooper as Kyle—how else to portray a man called Legend, right? Instead, a beefed-up Cooper gives a subtle but incredibly effective performance as a man haunted by his war experiences, though he might deny it to everyone including himself. The actor plays Kyle with the quiet confidence of a man who knows his own talent and doesn’t have to brag or lord it over anyone.

The most gripping moments included nothing but a closeup on Cooper’s eye, as Kyle contemplates—sometimes agonizes over—whether or not a target is friend or foe, and should live or die. His breathing would be the only sound we hear (I stopped breathing altogether in those scenes) as he makes these impossible decisions, sometimes within seconds. We see what it costs him. And when he sights down his rifle at a child? Forget it. I could not watch.

As his wife, Taya, Sienna Miller has chemistry with Cooper but not every emotional note she played felt true to me. I didn’t quite believe her when she expressed her frustration and fear every time Kyle went back to Iraq. It’s not clear if this is because of the way the role was written (Jason Hall adapted the book) or directed.

Otherwise, Eastwood’s lean direction is on target. He tells the story in a straightforward way; when you have facts like this there’s no need for embellishment. The soundtrack is also sparse because war doesn’t require a fancy score.

At times, Sniper reminded me of The Hurt Locker, which is also about a soldier in the Iraq War who’s very good at his job but maybe not so much at just living a civilian life. But Chris Kyle’s story is real, and like the bullets that flew from his rifle, its impact is devastating.

Nerd verdict: Heart-stopping Sniper

Photo: Warner Bros.



Awards season is in full swing in L.A. and I’ve been going to a lot of screenings. Tonight is Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper with Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle and later this week is Into the Woods. Both movies will be released December 25. Check back for those reviews.

imitation-gameToday I’m talking about The Imitation Game (out November 28), based on Andrew Hodges’s book Alan Turing: The Enigma, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing, who’s widely regarded as the father of digital intelligence and the modern computer.

The film covers the period during World War II when Turing built a machine that cracked the Germans’ Enigma encryption, helping the Allies win the war and saving millions of lives. Turing and his colleagues were not allowed to talk about their work, and instead of being heralded a hero, Turing was prosecuted for indecency because he was gay.

Cumberbatch’s performance is top-notch. I wonder if he’s being pigeonholed as the go-to actor to play abrasive, antisocial geniuses, but here he has moments of vulnerability not seen in his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series or Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Even more heartrending is Alex Lawther, who plays the young Turing in flashbacks. Lawther has mastered the trick of displaying no expression on his face while showing clearly the emotional devastation that lies right beneath his skin.

The actors playing Turing’s fellow cryptanalysts, including Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke and Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander, are all solid. Director Morten Tyldum, who had previously directed another screen adaptation of a book (Jo Nesbo’s crime novel Headhunters), manages to inject an element of suspense into a story mostly about people sitting around trying to crack a code. Game moves you and makes you feel smarter—the type of film Hollywood needs more of.

Nerd verdict: Smart Imitation 

Photo: The Weinstein Company