Lucky Stiff, from director Christopher Ashley, is a hard sell. It’s a dark comedic adaptation of an off-off broadway musical, from the creative team who would go on to create Ragtime. The musical numbers and between scene animations derail the normal slice-of-life grittiness that carries a lot of dark comedies, however, while the musical numbers are not intricate or tuneful enough to eradicate the criticisms usually leveled at musical theater. Critics of either dark comedies or musical theater should turn their attention elsewhere for an evening’s entertainment, as Lucky Stiff is unlikely to create new converts. But it is not without its charms. Read More
Last year, Telltale Games released a video game called “The Wolf Among Us.” The interactive story re-imagined fairy tales of lore – from Snow White to Georgie Porgie – as a community of troubled New Yorkers caught up in a multiple homicide investigation. You play as Bigby Wolf, a detective with a past as coarse as his beard hair, now a man doing his best to pay penance for the huffing and puffing of his past.
Rob Marshall‘s Into the Woods has its own Big, Bad Wolf – Johnny Depp with a crumpled mustache and a rapey solo track. He bays at the moon while singing about how badly he wants to gobble up Red Riding Hood. It’s weird, off-putting and noxious – essential Depp 101. Where Telltale was able to take familiar characters and weave a story around them that benefits from our understanding of their respective fables, Into the Woods relies entirely on mimicking the collective conscious of lore, spoon-feeding back a narrative that’s more anecdotal smorgasbord than anything refined and singular. It’s one big inside joke that’s sure to tickle musical fans pink while leaving those on the other side of the fence howling for respite.
The story starts out in precious sing-song with a baker and his wife wailing their woes of a womb left barren, a pernicious Little Red (Lilla Crawford) embarking to grandma’s with a basket brimming with baked goods, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) unwittingly off to trade his milky white cow for some magic beans and a spindly witch played by Meryl Streep hemming and hawing about an aged curse and popping in and out of frames in daffy gusts of smoke. Their paths, for one reason or another, have all been pointed into the woods. And so we embark with ballad after ballad, lungs brimming with gusto.
It’s within said woods that The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) must gather a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as gold as…gold? in order to break the curse that Steep’s witch placed on their house many years ago. Many songs follow.
For those turned off by musical numbers, Into the Woods is an auditory onslaught that fails to break from the repertoire of singing, singing and more singing long enough to develop a story beyond the patchwork of colliding fairy tales. Chris Pine steals the show with in-film brother Billy Magnussen in a number called “Agony” but clever moments of tongue-in-cheek nods to the adults in the audience like this are woefully sparse.
The cast is admittedly stellar – Anna Kendrick, Corden, Blunt, Pine and, to a lesser degree, Streep all own their numbers, even if I personally found some of those numbers grating. But such is the nature of the musical. You’re either in it or you aren’t. It’s just not my cup of tea. What I completely fail to understand is any Oscar buzz surrounding the film as the mere idea of Streep with a nomination frustrates me beyond belief (in a year stuffed with excellent, unsung female performances.) She’s played the Academy Darling card too many times recently, earning a nod nearly every time she puts her face to celluoid. The Iron Lady doth protest too much, methinks.
Clint Eastwood‘s latest biopic, Jersey Boys, paints Frankie Valli as some sort of falsetto-ing saint – an absentee father, yes, but a take-it-on-the-chin, bootstraps machismo with the voice of an angel and a bleeding heart for his down on their luck, criminally-inclined best buddies. And though the man has a range that reaches into the high soprano section like a eunuch in a Roman cathedral, this cloyingly old-fashion, family friendly biography follows the familiar conceit of rise-fall-rise that we’ve seen in many biopics of pop stars past. No matter how many high notes Valli hits and how hard the familiar musical numbers pop, it’s a tedious and long-winded encounter that fails to deviate from the course of previous entries into the genre.
Based on the Tony-Award winning jukebox musical of the same name, Jersey Boys sees a young Valli transform from a mop boy into a certifiable All Star and the many bumps in the road along the way. Now if you can only ignore the fact that the story begins with a 16-year old Frankie Valli (born Francesco Castelluccio, but I don’t think we have to get into why he slimmed down that clunker) being portrayed by a 38-year old, grown ass man (John Lloyd Young) then you’re probably off to a pretty good start.
The film begins amicably enough with a light-hearted heist-gone-wrong, window-dressed with an amusing visual gag and narrated in fourth-wall breaking virility by a slick-backed and vain Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza). In media res, DeVito retrospects on how Valli was essentially his creation and of course, he has the tale to convince us. Christopher Walken stops by as mob boss-lite Gyp DeCarlo and sheds some quick, unearned tears over Valli’s warbling descant. Keep up your exercises, he cautions, you’re gonna be a star some day.
Bing, bang, boom, lo and behold Castelluccio becomes Valli and The Four Lovers become The Four Seasons and start churning out poppy top charters like hot cakes at a Sunday morning Dennys. Still, no matter how many bitter berries are spread throughout the lives of Valli and his compatriots, the story still deals with their lives in a syrupy, surface-level manner. I will credit Jersey Boys for giving me a new found appreciation for Valli and The Four Seasons but I wouldn’t say that I actually understanding how these people operate.
The fact that none of the cast is particularly stirring doesn’t make it any better. There’s nothing especially poor about the performances that pepper the film so much as there’s hardly anything in them worthy of note. Considering that Young received an acting Tony for the very same performance on Broadway speaks largely to the contrast between what works on stage and on screen, as his Valli never feels like a living, breathing character so much as a stage version of a character. That’s not to say his portrayal of the pop icon is to blame for the shortcomings of the film as Eastwood’s troubled hand adapting it from one forum to another is the real issue at stake. Even during the high points (which surprisingly enough came during the songs for me), it’s easy to spot some janky lip-singing and the musical numbers reach a stasis when they drag on for too long or hit one right after another.
With all the high-pitched crooning and retro set pieces and costumery, Jersey Boys just feels like a dated effort, an breezy, over-the-plate adaptation of already beloved source material that fails to bring anything new to the table. Fault Eastwood’s more recent tendency to miss the forest for the trees or his inexplicable need to put young actors in old people’s makeup. To quote Murtaugh, I think he’s getting too old for this shit. As it stands, Jersey Boys is probably exactly the entertainment your grandma is looking for but may prove tiring for all once it snails over the two hour mark.