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Entries in meryl streep (4)

Thursday
Dec252014

Into the Woods

There’s a certain joy that washes over me when I watch a good musical. Movies and music are wonderful mediums for artistic expression, as each find their own truths and meaning in their own distinct, separate ways, but combining the two is complete bliss. Both complement each other, the music giving the visuals an extra flavor that would be missing had they been accompanied by silence, and vice versa. When those visuals are as striking and the music as wonderful as they are in “Into the Woods,” it’s impossible not to be entertained. This is visually one of the best musicals since 1940’s “Fantasia,” full of all the grandeur and wonder that one might expect from a Disney movie.

Adapted from the 1986 Stephen Sondheim musical, “Into the Woods” tells a story that mixes together numerous childhood fairy tales. In a small town, there is a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are desperate to have a child, but whose family lineage has been cursed by an evil witch (Meryl Streep), making it impossible. She tells them she will break the curse if they can obtain four items for her in the surrounding woods: a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood and a shoe as pure as gold. On their search, they run into Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who is attending the Prince’s (Chris Pine) ball, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who is on her way to see her grandmother, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), who is stuck in a tall tower with no stairs or doors, and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who is heading to town to sell his cow, but will end up trading it for some magic beans. The baker and his wife, thrust into the middle of all these stories, will do their best to get each of those items however they can.

“Into the Woods” is a magical film, one that combines the natural wonder of the fairy tales it portrays with terrific songs that simultaneously poke fun of those tales and lovingly embrace them. It doesn’t shy away from the darker moments of these Brothers Grimm tales, including the death of major characters—and yes, you’ll get to experience the evil stepsisters getting their toes cut off in an attempt to fit their feet in the golden slipper—but it never gets dark enough to lose its whimsy. Chris Pine, in particular, steals every scene he’s in with a self-deprecating performance that adds a satirical spin on fairy tale machismo as it upends the traditional character gender roles so many of these classic stories exemplify.

But Pine is merely one part of one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Streep, as is expected at this point, gives one of the best performances of the year as the wicked witch. The nuance she brings to the character makes the witch all her own, as she crafts someone who is both terrifying and also immensely likable. Even as she threatens and frightens the baker and his wife, she charms, as does Kendrick, cast perfectly in the role of the disheveled, but nevertheless lovely Cinderella. She has proven her vocal talent in movies like “Pitch Perfect,” but whereas that movie mostly featured an a cappella group singing together, she gets to shine alone here. Her story is the funniest and most emotional, so her songs bring with them added weight and she performs them with aplomb.

For those more interested in visuals, however, the star of the show won’t be Kendrick or Pine or Streep or even Stephen Sondheim, but the fantastic art direction that somehow manages to give colorful life to the dark settings. The costumes, props, sets all create a vivid world, one that would be desirable to live in were it not for the witch curses and giants stomping about. If you don’t mind a pervading sense of dread in your visuals, “Into the Woods” will amaze you, even if the songs and story don’t.

It’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t, though, as almost every moment in this two hour movie is a delight to watch, the sole awkward part being the song sang by the Big Bad Wolf, played by Johnny Depp, which is full of enough (presumably intentional, but still uncomfortable) sexual innuendo towards Red Riding Hood to derail the mood up to that point. Luckily, it’s early on, so it corrects itself quickly, but in every other regard, “Into the Woods” proves itself as an absolute gem of a musical.

Into the Woods receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Jan092014

August: Osage County

It must be tough being an actress in Hollywood knowing that no matter how hard you try and no matter how terrific your performance is, it will always be overshadowed by Meryl Streep. Streep, plainly put, is acting perfection. She never misses a beat and manages to give Oscar worthy performances year after year, even if the movie she’s in can’t live up to her talent. Take 2011’s “The Iron Lady” as an example, a film that was utterly wretched, but had a central Streep performance that was absolutely sublime. Only a year off will allow her competition to shine, but she shows no signs of slowing down after “August: Osage County” where she gives another breathtaking performance. The movie has some problems, but Streep (and the supporting cast) elevate it beyond its troublesome material. Expect Streep to soon be clutching yet another Oscar.

“August: Osage County” takes a look into a dysfunctional family that comes together after their father commits suicide. Barbara (Julia Roberts) is the oldest child of Violet (Streep), an overbearing painkiller junkie suffering from mouth cancer who takes her pain and anger out on those around her. Barbara is having marital issues with her husband, Bill (Ewan McGregor). Their daughter, Jean (Abigail Breslin), has become more standoffish now that she has reached her teenage years, though much of it could be due to the neglect from her parents. Barbara’s sister, Karen (Juliette Lewis), shows up with her new boyfriend, Steve (Dermot Mulroney), who eventually reveals his own sick perversions. Meanwhile, their other sister, Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), has sparked a romantic relationship with another member of the family, Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch), a timid fellow who is distraught after missing, or perhaps intentionally skipping, his uncle’s funeral.

And the list goes on. There are even more characters to discuss, each seemingly with something to hide, and their secrets are revealed at a deliberate pace. While some of it is truly surprising and meaningful within the context of the story, much of it is superfluous in nature, including the true (and rather disgusting) relationship between certain members of the family. In particular, the relationship between Charles and Ivy is left unresolved, eventually dropping before any real effect from their actions can resonate. With so many side stories packed into a mere two hours, the film finds itself at an inconsistent pace, unable to keep up with everything it has foolishly introduced.

Where the film hits its stride is in its more focused approach, generally from a bringing together of each family member into one place. One masterful, prolonged sequence around the dinner table exemplifies this well. The scene is uncomfortable, scary, traumatic and, given all the emotions on display, kind of heartbreaking. The dialogue flows naturally, but nevertheless comes quick. Appropriately, given the source material the movie is derived from, this scene is like a play come to life and it’s fantastic. It’s this scene that allows the talented cast to show their acting chops. Roberts gives what could be the rawest performance of her career and understated performances from the likes of veteran actors Chris Cooper and Margo Martindale give the scene real weight.

This scene is also where some of the film’s dark humor becomes most prominent, though it feels incongruous when coupled with such deep drama. While there are certainly some laughs to be had in “August: Osage County,” much of it falls flat, coming off as unnecessary and, due to the source material’s dramatic intentions, kind of mean. The movie does a good job of making you uncomfortable with its drama, as it should; it needn’t fall back on harsh humor to help.

The awkward family dynamic on display in “August: Osage County” is easy to relate to, as all of us have some type of dysfunction in our own families, but upon reflection, one can’t help but wonder what the point of it all was. The material doesn’t provide any real insight into anything in particular and so much of the story is left on the table that it doesn’t resonate. But, as with December’s “Out of the Furnace,” this is a case of the acting sustaining the structurally weak film. This is hands down the best ensemble of the year and with so many standout performances from both Streep (who the Academy should just give the Oscar to now and save themselves some time) and the cast around her, it makes it easily recommendable. But if you’re looking for insight, you won’t find it here.

August: Osage County receives 3.5/5

Wednesday
Aug082012

Hope Springs

It’s not often movies aim at winning over the above 50 crowd. We have movies for children, adrenaline fueled young men, overemotional teenage girls and nearly everyone in between, but the older crowd is continually shafted when it comes to the movies. Where are the thoughtful, mature films starring older actors in a story about problems that detail the struggles they have to endure? They’re pretty rare, the last mainstream one I can think of coming in the form of 2009’s It’s Complicated starring Meryl Streep. This week’s latest, Hope Springs, which also coincidentally stars Meryl Streep, is more in line with that film than most that have come out in recent years. It’s for older folks, those who have lived a long enough life to know what real troubles are and what true love is. Being a male in my 20’s, I can’t say how well it captures such a life, but I can say we need more movies like it. Hope Springs is contemplative and deliberate, taking its time to tell its story in an age of fast action and frenetic edits. It’s by no means perfect, but it’s worth seeing.

Streep plays Kay, a housewife who is in a rut. Every day it’s the same routine. She wakes up, makes eggs and bacon for her husband, Arnold (Tommy Lee Jones), and has dinner ready when he arrives back home, which he eats before falling asleep in his La-Z-Boy watching the Golf Channel. She has become increasingly unhappy with her marriage since her kids moved out and she wants to fix it, so she books a flight to Maine where noted couples therapist Dr. Feld (Steve Carell) works. She has paid for a week’s worth of his consultation hoping it will save her marriage, but first she has to contend with her unwilling husband.

Despite inevitable comparisons to the aforementioned It’s Complicated (especially considering both are aiming for the same demographic), Hope Springs is quite different. It’s Complicated tried to spice things up a bit, shoehorning in internet lingo and references to MTV shows in a desperate attempt to be hip. In this regard, Hope Springs is more adult, even if it does sacrifice much of its energy and laughs in being so. This isn’t a movie about a woman who’s sleeping around and juggling multiple men like It’s Complicated. It’s about a woman who wants to reconnect with the one love of her life after having grown distant.

The film rightfully refuses to take sides, showing that Kay and Arnold have both been compliant in allowing their marriage to crumble and they both behave as you would expect. Kay wants to express her feelings while Arnold wants to keep them inside. He’s nervous about the whole situation and is embarrassed to talk about their sex life, something he considers to be deeply personal, with Dr. Feld, which could be any random person for all he cares. Throughout the film, Arnold complains about what they’re doing, using sarcasm and general meanness as a defense mechanism to hide his true fears about losing his wife, which is both the strongest and weakest aspect of the film. He and his wife are in a serious situation, one that threatens to destroy everything they know, but these one-liners and sarcastic quips are the central comedic aspect of the film. It’s hard to make the dialogue be both meaningful and humorous. Hope Springs never fully succeeds in doing so.

Still, their evolution is convincing. Even as Arnold slowly comes out of his shell, his reservations still show through. In time, he realizes he must do something if he wants his wife to stay with him, but he doesn’t know what. Neither character ever fully figures it out, but they change anyway in an attempt to make things better, which, in a sense, is really what love is all about. By the time it ends, Hope Springs has delved deeper into that topic than what many will expect. It’s profundity isn’t necessarily apparent as you’re watching it—perhaps our brains are more tuned to less grounded, Hollywood manufactured takes on love—but upon recollection, it shows its beautiful face.

Hope Springs receives 4/5

Friday
Jan132012

The Iron Lady

There isn’t a movie buff out there who would argue that Meryl Streep is a bad actress. There probably isn’t even one who would argue she’s only good. The fact is she’s great. She always has been and she continues to impress year after year. Her yearly nominations in awards shows of all types are all wholly deserved. The same can be said for her performance in The Iron Lady. She is phenomenal and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her clutching an Oscar a couple months from now. That said, the movie is awful. It’s so bad on so many different levels, it boggles the mind. It may very well be the worst movie I’ve ever seen with a truly phenomenal, applaud worthy performance. Meryl Streep is fantastic. Everything else is rubbish.

Streep plays Margaret Thatcher, the first Prime Minister of England. The film, in the loosest and strangest way possible, traces the steps through her life, from a young adult with dreams of political grandeur to the old maid she became. Though a biopic in nature, The Iron Lady tries to be more. Director Phyllida Lloyd, whose only other notable feature is Mamma Mia!, doesn’t trust in the inherent intrigue of such a life and tries to spice up Thatcher’s story with premonitions of her dead husband and child, panicked zooms, slow motion, extremely out-of-place canted camera angles that serve no metaphorical or narrative purpose and pretty much every other over-stylized technique in the book, including an awkward shot where Thatcher floats down the hall while a crowd of people walk behind her. The pizzazz is misplaced. Add some scary music and half of this movie could play as horror.

What The Iron Lady really boils down to is a brilliant performer at the top of her game in front of the camera and a pretentious director behind it. The movie is over-stylized nonsense, a visual mess. But its problems exist in every other facet too, including the terrible editing where it would be too much of a compliment to say it doesn’t have a good flow (that would imply it has a flow at all). There are multiple cuts between past and present, some of which give no indication the switch was even made, and there are multiple moments where a time lapse happens, but the audio stays the same. Take, for instance, an early scene where young Thatcher’s point of view (and thus, position in the room) changes while her father’s words continue uninterrupted. These are rookie mistakes and they pervade the entire film.

To see those mistakes, however, you’d first to have to get past the writing, which is heavy laden with unbelievable and grating dialogue. Thatcher, a powerful figure and intelligent (though controversial) woman, comes off as a joke in the film, always speaking in “speech,” as if she’s addressing a crowd or nation. Even when she goes to the doctor’s office for a check-up, she goes off on an unnecessary rant made all the more laughable given that she’s in a patient’s robe. By the time, you get to the end, you’ve already stopped caring (if you ever did at all), but the movie still manages to amaze by offering a silly, stupid, inane conclusion to the premonition plot thread.

The Iron Lady is dry, bland, slow, boring, pretentious, over-stylized, grating, amateurish and pretty much every other negative adjective in between with one shining star in the middle. As much as she deserves it, Streep’s shoe-in awards nominations will only give the film more exposure and lead more people to watching it, wasting precious hours in their short lives. Perhaps, just this once, we should ignore the power of Streep and let her movie fade into oblivion. We'll be doing the world a favor.

The Iron  Lady receives 1/5