Into the Woods (B-). I had never seen this musical before, and all I really knew about it was that it was some kind of mash-up of various fairy tales. The film version brought together a lot of talent–lyricist Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd), director Rob Marshall (Chicago), and actresses Meryl Streep (The Devil Wears Prada), Emily Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow), and Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect). But the result was only a little better than mediocre, in my opinion. The plot blends four familiar fairy tales (Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, and Cinderella) with one original one involving a baker, his wife, and a witch’s curse. The performances were fine, and the musical numbers were fine but not particularly memorable. (One notable exception was a duet by two charming princes about the agony of love; that one was pretty entertaining. Chris Pine (Star Trek) made a fine comedic Prince Charming.) The main thing I liked about the movie was that it was unpredictable; it definitely kept me curious about what was going to happen next. Oh, and having Emily Blunt (The Adjustment Bureau) in the movie certainly didn’t hurt. I’d say it’s worth the price of a matinee. Note that it is rated PG for thematic elements (whatever those are), fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.
The Homesman (B). Westerns are such exotic creatures, I like to try to see them whenever a new one is released. Of course, they are frequently terrible, like the January Jones vehicle Sweetwater, but I admire directors who try to breathe life into this wheezy old genre. I assumed this one would be laughably bad from the capsule reviews I read: Hilary Swank (Million Dollar Baby) stars as Mary Bee Cuddy, a tough-as-nails farmer in the Nebraska Territory who agrees to transport three pioneer women back East because the three have gone stark raving mad from the tragedies and hardships of life on the frontier. It turned out to be not half bad. Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black 3) directs and co-stars as a crusty old ne’er-do-well who agrees to help Cuddy attempt the six-week trek through dangerous and desolate Indian country. Swank gives a brave performance as a lonely 31-year-old spinster who gets told to her face, more than once, that she is a very plain-looking woman, and bossy to boot. It’s a pretty grim tale, with some moments of dark humor to lighten (?) the mood. I’d give it a higher grade but for a serious twist that seemed pretty unlikely to me. You’ll be impressed at how many famous actors Jones persuaded to be in his pic, including Meryl Streep (Hope Springs), John Lithgow (Interstellar), James Spader (Lincoln), Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit), and Miranda Otto (Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers). Meryl Streep’s daughter Grace Gummer (Frances Ha) plays one of the crazy women.
Hope Springs (B). Despite the presence of funnyman Steve Carell (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World), this is no comedy. Tommy Lee Jones (Batman Forever) and Meryl Streep (It’s Complicated) star as Arnold and Kay, a long-married couple out in Omaha, Nebraska. Kay is desperately unhappy, and who can blame her? He’s a gruff old coot who pays way more attention to TV shows about golf than he does to her. Kay picks up a book about improving your marriage by Dr. Bernie Feld (Carell), and before you know it she has signed herself and Arnold up for a week of intensive couples therapy with Dr. Feld in the charming Maine town of Hope Springs. Arnold, of course, fights tooth and nail against it the whole way, but of course he has to relent and go along with the therapy a little or else there’s no movie. I thought it was pretty good, although perhaps a real-life week of intensive couples therapy for two sixty-somethings wouldn’t focus quite so single-mindedly on their sex life.(?) Elizabeth Shue (Adventures in Babysitting) and Tom Cruise’s First Wife (Lost in Space) show up in bit parts.
Lions for Lambs: Titan actors Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, and Tom Cruise star. Redford directs. But viewers sleep thirty minutes in. Redford is a political science professor at USC trying to encourage his most talented student to take action to shape the world and the country. Streep, a television journalist, is interviewing Cruise, a GOP Senator, on his strategy for the war in Afghanistan.. The movie tries to be a high-brow thought-provoking look at political and military action in America. But the movie turns into a Sunday episode of Meet the Press. Peter Berg is great as an Army Colonel that sends soldiers on a dangerous mission based on Cruise’s plan. This movie was more lamb than lion. Grade D+
The Living Sea (B-). Once again, Little Rock’s IMAX theater puts itself on the cutting edge by showing a fresh documentary from . . . 1995. Narrated by Meryl Streep (It’s Complicated), this is a pretty standard ocean-going documentary, placing a slight extra emphasis on the interconnectedness of all the oceans. There was some wasted time, as with extended footage of a bunch of surfers, but there were also some decent stretches, such as a look at a peculiar salt-water lake in the Pacific island nation of Palau. Considering the price tag was under $6 for the movie ticket, popcorn, and coke, I thought it was a pretty good deal.
It’s Complicated (C-). With a cast headed by Meryl Streep (Manhattan), Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), and Steve Martin (Bowfinger), you can’t really blame the cast for the lameness of this movie. I blame writer/director Nancy Meyers of The Holiday and Something’s Gotta Give fame. Oh. Well, it’s not like her other movies were any good either. Anyhoo, the versatile Streep stars as Jane Adler, a divorcee who has it all — a successful career as a cafe owner, a beautiful California house with ocean view, three lovely and virtually grown-up children, and enough money to hire architects to design a total remodel of said house. But she’s not over her ex-husband Jake (Baldwin), and even though he has remarried (a much younger and much less pleasant woman), Jane and Jake start an affair when they are reunited at their son’s college graduation. But her architect Adam (Martin) is a much nicer guy and is plainly interested in going out with her. What is a woman to do? It had a few laughs, but on the whole it was just kind of tawdry and unpleasant. Skip it.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (B+). I was unfamiliar with the children’s book this movie is based on, but I still got a kick out of the movie. Filmed in claymation, it is basically the story of an escalating war between Mr. Fox (voiced by George Clooney, The Peacemaker) and three mean farmers. In this world, foxes, badgers, possums, beavers, and rabbits live basically like civilized people (except they live mostly underground). The problem is that Mr. Fox cannot resist his natural urges to steal chickens and whatnot from the farmers, despite having promised his wife (voiced by Meryl Streep, Mamma Mia!) long ago that his stealing days were over. The movie is a treat visually, and the quirky dialogue and plot are perhaps no surprise given that the movie is directed by Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums). The finger-snapping rat voiced by Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man) steals every scene he’s in. An odd, amusing, and entertaining little film. Even the soundtrack is odd, including the seldom-heard “Heroes and Villains” by the Beach Boys and a track by the almost-forgotten Bobby Fuller Four (known almost entirely for “I Fought the Law”).