Rob Marshall’s film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical Into the Woods (B) is quite faithful in spirit to its fractured fairy tale source material, but the director fails to truly plumb the emotional resonance of its “beyond happily ever after” themes. The film involves a quest that brings together intersecting storybook characters; and although often episodic, it works best when a thematic through-line is evident. Emily Blunt, fresh off her triumph in Edge of Tomorrow, is the breakout musical star here as the baker’s wife on a journey to break a spell that prevents her from having a child. Portraying a lowkey and indecisive Cinderella, Anna Kendrick is also a delight. As the witch, Meryl Streep gets the songs right, but her performance could have used some tighter intentions. I blame that as well on Marshall: you have to edit pretty poorly to put Miss Streep in a bad light. The music numbers including “Agony” and “No One is Alone” and some humorous throwaway bits are highlights (Chris Pine is the male standout as a vain prince). The effects and the drab, monotonous look and feel of much of the film’s second half are drawbacks (No, Rob, shaking the camera is not equivalent to directing an action sequence). The piece famously changes tone midway, and Marshall isn’t quite up to the challenge of sustaining the momentum properly. Not as good or inventive as his Chicago but certainly more cogent than his Nine, this musical adaptation is straightforward but lacks the ambition that might have made it an instant classic.
When film industry legend John Huston made the durable 1982 adaptation of the Broadway musical Annie, he was accused of making a bit too literal and lumbering an entertainment, but fans should likely accept Huston’s creation or Rob Marshall’s 1999 TV re-do as an authoritative version. Will Gluck’s 2014 remake of Annie (C-) starring Quvenzhané Wallis is a beast of a wild card, a modern-day remix of the former Depression-era tale told to an auto-tuned pop beat with basically the same structure as past incarnations but very little of the faithfulness to legitimate song and dance craft. The model here is strictly in the High School Musical quality zone; and only because of the paucity of films in the musical genre is it worth an analysis. Writer/director Gluck, who made the amusing Easy A, isn’t without talent in terms of comedy and sentimentality, but he throws in too many zany elements from smart-home technology to convoluted subplots and too much flash and half-baked jokes when he should really be tightening a bloated story and giving some of those musical numbers a bit more buoyancy. A few mild gross-out gags and inconsistent characters distract from the moments that do actually spark. As the millionaire who takes in the plucky foster child, Jamie Foxx improves in his performance as the film rolls on, ultimately finding some soul in the role. Ditto for Cameron Diaz, whose acting at first seems from another planet: she too gets better as her boozy Miss Hannigan finds her way through the uneven film’s labyrinth. Wallis is largely charming and even gets her own new song, “Opportunity” by pop writer Sia, that adds to chestnuts such as “Tomorrow” and “Hard Knock Life.” The lip-synching and dancing are sloppy and the pace sometimes lugubrious, but overall the positive family vibe eclipses the misfire moments. For every dreadful performance (Bobby Cannavale), there’s a good one (Rose Byrne). For every montage miss, there’s a stirring song. It’s equal parts ashtrays and art, but in a world with few joyful enterprises, perhaps this new deal for Christmas that marches to its own drummer can also pass for an adaptation of this family favorite.
As a director, Clint Eastwood is generally occupied with contemplative exploration of emotion and nuance, often told in a jazzy lower key (think Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby or Flags of Our Fathers), which makes him an odd choice to helm the adaptation of the long-running Broadway crowd pleaser Jersey Boys. But in peeling back the bombastic stand-up-and-dance qualities that made the live musical so popular and mining the biopic for its nerve center, he has fashioned an effective cinematic adaptation (B+) that explores the ups and downs of music making, the bounds of loyalty and the exuberance of a splendid time and place. The popular music is still there and serves the story, but Eastwood trusts an almost reverse “inside voice” instinct in spotlighting the Rashomon-like account of how the individual members of The Four Seasons rose from shady petty crime origins to chart toppers. John Lloyd Young is effective as Frankie Valli, the heart of the piece. His character battles demons and heartbreak that give growing gravitas to his distinctive angel voice. Vincent Piazza is also strong as the tough guy with mob roots who takes the band to the brink. The period detail and art direction in a near-sepia that emphasizes tones of silver, is gorgeous in its retro muted effect, like you’re waltzing into a Whurlitzer. The melodrama is sometimes laid on thick, as is the old-age makeup (Clint, did you learn nothing from J. Edgar?). And the narrative wraps up a little too tidy with what feels like a closing credits music video tacked on with a completely different and more buoyant mood than the preceding film. Still, it’s recommended for folks who enjoy how art is put together, how relationships withstand adversity and how songs become a sensation. Much more a film with incidental music than a “Capital-M Musical!,” it’s nonetheless absorbing and awakens unexpected senses.
Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s animated Disney movie Frozen (B+) mixes up the princess formula with some unexpected twists and largely enchanting results. This Scandanavian storybook adventure is filled with fresh ice effects, compelling heroines, charming sidekicks and winning songs by Kristen and Bobby Lopez. Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel’s power ballads and a snowman’s serenade to sunny climates – by Book of Mormon‘s Josh Gad – are among the highlights.
As a movie musical, Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (A) gets nearly every sonic and emotional note right. Hugh Jackman, Eddie Redmayne and Anne Hathaway are the standout performers in this silver scall-singing spectacular that toggles between moments both intimate and epic. Fans of the theatrical show will have a lot to love, and the modest revisions nearly all serve to clarify the story in its cinematic translation. Themes of rebellion and redemption ring true through the urchins, anthems, baritones and barricades of a gangbuster movie musical.
Jason Moore’s Pitch Perfect (B) is a charming, often funny and very musical look at the world of competitive collegiate a capella singing groups. It’s a great showcase for Anna Kendrick, Skylar Astin and Rebel Wilson, who often steals the show as “Fat Amy.” Just when it seems to devolve into gross-out humor or overly formulaic characters, the film trots out new surprises and dazzles with its bag of vocal tricks. All in all, it’s well worth a watch and a listen.
Marred by Adam Shankman’s uninspired direction (Hairspray fit more like a comfy housecoat) and mainly lifeless performances, Rock of Ages (C-) is a tedious karaoke with the stars. It’s a musical with poorly performed ’80s songs and choreography, and only about five jokes actually land. Tom Cruise is pretty good as Lestat, except that’s not who he’s supposed to be playing. The young leads are lost in the tacky bombast.
Phyllida Lloyd’s film adaptation of her theatrical hit Mamma Mia! (B) is largely a joyful confection, taking its cues from the music catalogue of Swedish hitmakers ABBA to playfully chronicle how the plucky young female descendant of a 1979 “dancing queen” cavorting with three summer boyfriends on an exotic Greek isle endeavors to discover the identity of a dad to walk her down the wedding aisle. Central to the charm of the film is the relationship between Meryl Streep as the mom and Amanda Seyfried as her inquisitive offspring; each has a natural warmth and pleasant singing voice. Some of the supporting subplots and singers (ahem, Pierce Brosnan) are a bit atonal or adrift. The musical numbers are lovely and limber, and the locale adds enchantment to the affair, as if something vaguely mythological is afoot. It’s a rom com within a rom com with karaoke moments to punctuate every Big Emotion. It’s frisky, fun and recommended.
Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd (A-) is a monster musical. Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, neither renowned for their singing voices, sink their teeth into Sondheim’s gruesome tale of a demon barber bent on revenge against humanity that wronged him and his skirted accomplice who makes meat pies out of the corpses from his haircuttery. Atmospheric London sets, lovely tunes and absolutely blood-spewed sequences don’t often go together seamlessly, but Burton orchestrates them quite nicely here, thank you very much. It’s one of the director’s best works in years.
Bill Condon’s Dreamgirls (B) is a musical backstage drama with style and panache, but it’s conflicted about whether or not the characters sing when they are not on stage. Musicals require a suspension of disbelief, for sure, but within the film, it should be consistent. So the stage numbers are great, and some of the personal ballads are too, just awkward. Beyoncé Knowles is compelling as the attractive star of a girl group, and Jennifer Hudson is an acting and vocal powerhouse as the woman behind the group’s hits who is unlucky in love and fame. Jamie Foxx turns in a nice performance, and Eddie Murphy delivers a sly dramatic turn that lights up his scenes. The film is pulpy melodrama with gorgeous production design and art direction, and the talented ensemble showcases acting and singing chops. If only Condon had figured out the musical conceit like he did with his Chicago screenplay, the film wouldn’t seem so self-conscious.
Chris Columbus’ Rent (B+) faithfully adapts the Broadway musical about a circle of bohemian NYC friends coming to terms with mortality and having to pay their dues for living life to their own beat. What he gets wrong in awkward transitions, cheesy sets and cast members (many from the original stage production) who look too old to be twentysomethings, Columbus gets right in honoring and immortalizing the heart and bliss of artistic life and friendships. Idina Menzel, Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson and Jesse L. Martin are standouts in the cast, and Jonathan Larson’s propulsive music fuels a life-affirming experience.
Todd Graff’s Camp (B) is a joyous ode to growing up, making friends and finding your voice. Set at a summer camp for kids who want to be Broadway stars, there is enough backstage drama to fill the great white wilderness as the teens overcome their outcast status and find themselves center stage in their own follies, foibles and friendships. Graff draws out charming performances from newcomers Daniel Letterle, Robin de Jesus and Anna Kendrick, the latter belting out a very memorable and angry “Ladies Who Lunch.” The title’s play on words might imply a film high on kitsch, but it’s actually high on sweetness and coming of age. Showtune fans will rejoice at some unexpected songs and a star cameo. It’s Meatballs for maestros.