I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Mystic Pizza”

Thanks to Meghan-Annette for suggesting this film for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!”

I have a confession to make: I’ve never watched “Mystic Pizza” before now. It’s one of those girl things I hadn’t partaken in like manicures with your BFF or synchronized periods. My main point of reference for this movie was an episode of “30 Rock” where Jenna Maroney is in “Mystic Pizza: The Musical.” I knew Julia Roberts was in it and there was some pizza involved, but that was about it. To be honest, for the longest time I thought it was a movie about an interstellar pizzeria, which would be a pretty great movie.

“Mystic Pizza” is about three friends–Kat Arujo (Annabeth Gish), Daisy Arujo (Julia Roberts) and Jojo Barbosa (Lili Taylor)–who work at Mystic Pizza in the small town of Mystic, Connecticut. The film follows the three of them as they navigate romance and balance it with tensions arising between them, their lovers, family and friends. Kat babysits for Tim (William R. Moses), a married older man she finds herself falling for before heading off to Yale to become an astronomer. Daisy meets Charles Gordon Windsor, Jr. at a bar and they hit it off instantly, but the class difference could pose a problem. Meanwhile, Jojo has been dating Bill (Vincent D’Onofrio? Vincent D’Onofrio.) for a while and wants to have sex with him, but Bill wants to get married before they have sex.

It’s clear to me having watched this movie why it’s kind of a beloved film from the ’80s. It’s a nice cozy film about three young women on the verge of really starting their lives, fighting over relationships and being there to console each other when things go wrong and they feel betrayed. It’s the type of movie focusing on things many women have been through and seems like the type of movie many women would watch as a double feature with “Dirty Dancing”*.

The thing about “Mystic Pizza” is it’s a nice movie that feels like comfort food, but there’s nothing stunning or horrible about the film. The only thing I can fault the film for is that I only really care for Daisy, because Kat’s affair with Tim is doomed from the start and Jojo has serious boundary issues. Yes, it is kind of dickish that Bill renamed the fishing boat he works on the Nympho after you, but you are sex crazed and really need a good lesson on consent because Bill really doesn’t want to have sex, so stop it. Everything in the scene where Bill is telling Jojo he doesn’t want to have sex, but she has his pants pulled down around his ankles is so horribly gross and it’s deeply unfortunate the scene is played for laughs, but unfortunately this is the least harmful sexual assault to occur in any film for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!”

The film features a terrific, nuanced performance from Julia Roberts that feels like a star-in-the-making performance, as well as a restrained performance from Vincent D’Onofrio. The movie also tackles class issues, which largely works well except in a scene where the audience is clobbered by the concept when Daisy has dinner with Charles’ family. The movie excels for being a movie about characters and exploring their problems instead of making it a problem about concepts, which some filmmakers and writers could do since it’s largely about working-class Portuguese-Americans.

Although “Mystic Pizza” isn’t a movie I would normally watch, it’s a movie that is well-made and one I can see many people being able to watch over and over. In the realm of “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!” it’s certainly the best film I’ve watched so far, it’s just not a film I can enthusiastically recommend. But it would at least be a good movie to curl up on the couch with a friend and watch.

*I don’t know why people treat “Dirty Dancing” as a feel-good movie. It’s kind of sad and a huge plot point is someone needing an abortion. But Jerry Orbach is there and I remember that being a big draw for me when I was a kid.

I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Mrs. Doubtfire”

“Mrs. Doubtfire” is one of those movies my generation probably feels nostalgic for. It’s a Robin Williams comedy with three adorable children he’s fighting to keep. It’s one of those movie you have to rewatch for a nostalgia check, like a Disney cartoon you loved or “History of the World, Part One.” And, like movies you often watch for a nostalgia check, it doesn’t hold up to the fond memories.

Daniel Hillard (Williams) is a irresponsible father whose behavior has been continually annoying his wife, Miranda (Sally Field), until a raucous birthday party for their son, Chris (Matthew Lawrence), is the last straw. They divorce and Miranda is granted full custody of Chris, Lydia (Lisa Jakub) and Natalie (Mara Wilson). Daniel, desperate to spend more time with the kids, decides to answer an ad for a housekeeper and pose as kindly English lady Mrs. Doubtfire, with help from his brother, Frank (Harvey Fierstein). Meanwhile, Miranda reconnects with old friend Stuart (Pierce Brosnan), whom Daniel despises because he’s not over Miranda.

There are very clear problems with the comedy and jokes made in the script, largely because they haven’t aged well and are, quite frankly, very offensive. But the two biggest problems are with the protagonist, Daniel, and the length of the film.

First I’ll get to the length of the film. “Mrs. Doubtfire” is more than two hours long and there’s a lot that could have been cut out. At this point I want to already penalize any film longer than “Myra Breckinridge” because one of the few things that film has going for it is it’s only 94 minutes long. There are giant portions of the film that exist for very trivial reasons. There’s an overly long bit of the film where Williams does a bunch of voices for a social worker. There’s a montage of Williams doing things as Mrs. Doubtfire with the kids, set to “Dude Looks Like a Lady” that feels unnecessary. There’s an entire scene with the social worker that plays like a bad farce that goes on for too long and feels horribly contrived. If you cut those scenes out, I feel fairly confident the film would be under two hours in length.

It also suffers from odd pacing. Although it’s understandable the film needs to set up the ending, everything in this film takes place in the last 45 minutes. Ultimately, very little happens in the first 75 minutes other than a lot of shenanigans with the occasional plot point. As a result the film is a slog until this sudden shot of frantic energy is injected right at the end for the climax.

But really, the core problem with this film is Daniel Hillard. It is entirely likely I will not watch a film for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watch This!” with a character as eminently punchable as Daniel Hillard. Tris was boring, Ryan Phillippe Regan Pierce a sad-sack, Riddick a fascinating mercernary and Myra Breckinridge an over-the-top caricature in a performance where more scenery is chewed than Ian Barford in “Catch Hell.” Daniel Hillard is a jag bag who is thoroughly unlikable. He takes advantage of so many people in the movie, including his brother, the make-up artist, who helps him get the mask and look of Mrs. Doubtfire, but they first have to do a crazy montage–which could have also been cut–even though Daniel has already established Mrs. Doubtfire will be a kindly, elderly British woman. He becomes belligerent to his wife and then wonders why she doesn’t want him spending time with the kids. And then, after it is revealed he has been posing as Mrs. Doubtfire, he gets mad at Miranda for him having to do supervised visits with the kids, once a week. You just committed fraud, broke the custody agreement and almost killed an old friend of Miranda’s. Do you wonder why you have to do supervised visits?

And although it’s nice, and honestly still a little progressive, for a film to have a male character who is crazy about the ex instead of a female character, the hatred Daniel feels towards Stuart is bizarre. Stuart is, ultimately, nothing but nice towards Mrs. Doubtfire, even if a comment is made about her accent. Daniel responds by telling his children, while Mrs. Doubtfire, that, oh, Stuart had liposuction. Then Daniel has to do a walk-by fruiting–which would be a great name for a gay street gang–and assault Stuart with a lime. Finally, he tries to sabotage a romantic relationship between Stuart and Miranda by telling Stuart Miranda has crabs and then putting pepper, which Stuart is allergic to, in his jambalaya.

(By the way, this is a film released in the 1993 when people treated allergies as an incredibly serious issue. It’s not like now where you say, “Oh I have a food allergy” and people scoff at you because of pseudoscience blogs saying, “Say you have an allergy so you can avoid this food I told you is evil” and give you food with those ingredients all the time. Why is Daniel shocked by Stuart’s reaction to the pepper?)

The biggest problem with the film is a lot of the humor now feels incredibly dated and very offensive. It’s not just humor you really can’t get away with now–like half of the jokes in “Blazing Saddles”–it’s humor that is in poor taste. The premise of the film involves a man who cross-dresses to be close to his kids. That’s fine. There are plenty of perfectly good movies involving drag and cross-dressing. One of those films even has Robin Williams. But there’s rampant jokes that at worst come off as transphobic, such as one of the fake nannies Williams poses as before calling as Mrs. Doubtfire being a Russian woman saying she doesn’t work with male children because “she used to be [male].” First of all, what the hell is with that line? Is this going back to some bizarre stereotype transgender women are crazed misandrists a la Myra Breckinridge? Second of all, the joke reads as, “Oh, ha ha, someone who used to be male is a woman and would consider being a nanny.” What? It’s cringeworthy and, in a lengthy montage of oddballs Williams creates to answer the ad, is something that would have been better left on the cutting room floor.

There’s also a bunch of other bizarre moments of “Oh, ha ha, a man in a dress” or jokes are made regarding gender expression and identity that simply don’t land. This includes moments like Frank expressing joy when Daniel arrives asking to look like a man, which does feel like a joke and it only really works because of Fierstein’s delivery. The bus driver at one point sees Daniel’s hairy leg under his Mrs. Doubtfire outfit, which leads to a very creepy come-on from a driver. And why don’t any of the passenger’s yell, “Hey bub, I got a kid with a fever and I need to get home. Get moving”? I want to yell that at a bus driver when they wait even 30 seconds before moving from a bus stop.

One scene that has an incredibly uncomfortable feel now is when Chris sees Daniel peeing, standing up, while dressed as Mrs. Doubtfire. He runs into Lydia’s room and tells her to call the police because Mrs. Doubtfire has a penis. At this point, they find out Mrs. Doubtfire is their father, but it’s very uncomfortable to know that today there are thousands of transgender women who could face serious problems if that situation happened in real life. Here it’s meant as a humorous moment, complete with a son horrifically saying, “I saw everything” about his dad’s junk.

The film also features the Standard Butch-Femme ’90s Gay Couple and an odd joke about how many British Pakistanis there are in London, coming in the form of a puppet on the TV show at the end of the film saying people in England speak Pakistani. Normally, I would angrily point out people in Pakistan speak English and Urdu, but this film has managed to drain me of my outrage over art.

What the film has going for it is Chris Columbus did a nice job directing the film. There’s nothing revolutionary about it, but there’s nothing incredibly bad. It’s just nice. What he does manage to do is get fantastic performances from the actors, right down to an adorable Wilson. It keeps the film from being incredibly painful to watch, it just is a film that fails to entertain.

It’s not surprising this is a film that managed to be incredibly successful and a beloved family movie. When it was released it was during the fury of films with transphobia–“Silence of the Lambs,” “The Crying Game,” “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective”–and this has a bittersweet story about family. But unfortunately the film’s most sympathetic characters are Miranda, the bread winner, and Stuart, the rich British man who adores Miranda and her children, taking them away from Daniel. As a result of bad writing and dated gender politics, “Mrs. Doubtfire” is a misfire on many levels, never reaching the level it could be with such a phenomenal cast.

(And I didn’t even get into how implausible this film is and all of the issues with reality. Really, those are minor quibbles compared to everything else in the film.)

Me, watching

Me, watching “Mrs. Doubtfire.”

I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Riddick”

Thanks to Meghan-Annette for suggesting this film for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!”

After watching “Myra Breckinridge” I found myself explaining to people on social media that I was mentally fine after enduring that film. However, the fact that it’s been more than a month since I wrote a post for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!” suggests that watching “Myra Breckinridge” did break me a bit, but any suspicion of that may be backed by how I feel about “Riddick.”

“Riddick” follows interstellar outlaw Riddick (Vin Diesel) who has been stranded on a planet after being asked to go home to the planet Furya. As you can imagine, he is not taken back to Furya. After battling various creatures on the planet, Riddick signals a distress beacon to try to get back to Furya. Two mercenaries arrive, one led by Santana (Jordi Molla) and the other led by Johns (Matthew Nable). Both have reasons for getting Riddick, one for getting a large bounty if he is returned dead, the other for personal reasons.

The main problem with watching “Riddick” on its own is it’s the third film in a trilogy. Even with the plethora of flashbacks, I found myself going, “Wait, what’s going on?” On the other hand, it makes a lot more sense for me to feel lost watching the third film of a trilogy or than the first film of a trilogy or a stand-alone film. That said, “Riddick” largely suffers from being a slog to watch because the pacing is very slow due to flashbacks as the title character remembers how he got where he is now.

If you come for a movie where Vin Diesel is in Tough Guy Vin Diesel mode, blowing shit up, that really doesn’t happen in the movie. There’s a lot of conversation and huge portions of the movie where Vin Diesel is not on screen. Yet somehow it works because once you figure out the premise of the film, it’s fairly straightforward, even if it feels like you are watching three different films, each one of which could be a fantastic film. Tough Guy Vin Diesel surviving on a planet would be a fantastic film. Tough Guy Vin Diesel negotiating with the mercenaries would be a fantastic film. The ending would be a fantastic film. Unfortunately, all three of those concepts are pieced together to create one film, but somehow this is the most enjoyable of all of the films because at least all three of those films are interesting, even though they essentially just exist. It’s different from “Myra Breckinridge” where we have stock footage, combined with a campy take on Gore Vidal’s novel, combined with whatever the hell Mae West is doing because even though it’s also from Vidal’s novel, it feels like a completely different movie. All three of those films are trainwrecks a viewer can’t look away from, creating the greatest cinematic trainwreck to ever exist.

This may be a sign of how my brain is a little worn from watching the last two films in this series. The problem is there’s nothing compelling about this movie. There’s nothing that will make me rush out and tell my co-workers to watch this. It’s a perfectly competent science-fiction movie and that’s really the best I can say about it. The special effects are great and there’s something oddly enjoyable about watching Riddick spend time with an extraterrestrial hyena.

The jarring moment in the film comes in towards the end when Dahl (Katee Sackhoff) is holding Riddick and says something along the lines of, “So when are going to have sex?” (I’m paraphrasing.) This sticks out because the characters keep pointing out Dahl is a lesbian. Earlier in the film characters keep saying Dahl will have sex with Riddick, which comes off as a form of torture by forcing a prisoner who is gay to have sex with another prisoner. But then she is attracted to Riddick, which comes off more as the film asserting to us how masculine Riddick is. There could also be the possibility Dahl is suddenly feeling sexual feelings for someone of the opposite sex, but this unlikely since bisexuals are cinematic unicorn.

Ultimately, a lot of this seems like a way to show how Riddick is an alpha male of science-fiction. He can fight bad guys, be stranded on a planet and play mind games with people who want to kill him, all without blinking an eye. The problem with this movie is it doesn’t succeed at being a great movie or a terrible movie. Fewer things are more disappointing than a bland movie.

I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Myra Breckinridge”

I remember reading “Myra Breckinridge” about five years ago after perusing the selection of Gore Vidal novels at the Harold Washington Library Center in Chicago. I found the novel to be delightfully wicked in a way only Vidal could do and, in the context of when he wrote it, a fascinating critique on masculinity, femininity and what was considered “deviant behavior.” (I regret what I’ve read of Vidal’s work is rather small and I need to rectify that problem.)

I later learned there had been a film adaptation done and since the novel seemed impossible to film and also has a premise that only seems eclipsed in absurdity by a Chuck Palahniuk novel, it felt like it deserved a place in “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!”

At the start of the movie we meet a young man who is about to undergo sex reassignment surgery. The young man is named Myron Breckinridge (Rex Reed) and we jump forward to California where Myra Breckinridge (Raquel Welch) has come to take a job at an acting academy owned by Myron’s Uncle Buck (John Huston). Myra, as it turns out, used to be Myron and is hell-bent on destroying the very idea of masculinity and ensuring female dominance. She befriends student Mary Ann Pringle (Farrah Fawcett) and sets out to destroy the hyper-masculine student, Rusty Godowski (Roger Herren). Meanwhile, there is an agent and recording artist named Leticia Van Allen (Mae West), whom Myra tries to get to represent Rusty.

The biggest problem with transferring “Myra Breckinridge” from a novel to a film is it loses all of the nuance of Vidal’s novel. What works as a very effective satire of gender and sexual norms at the time comes across as an exploitative film with an edge of transphobia due to Myra being a crazed misandrist who uses sexual violence to emasculate a man. Although this isn’t too far from the premise of the novel, a lot of the message of the book ends up being muddled because of how this film is made. However, Vidal’s intended irony of the incredibly gorgeous feminine woman being transgender would potentially come off as transphobic no matter how you would make the film today.

It’s worth noting at the time he wrote the novel and this movie was made transgender women were likely viewed as horribly cartoonish women who had masculine features and feminine features. There weren’t prominent transgender women like Laura Jane Grace, Candis Cayne and Laverne Cox to shatter the preconceived notions of what transgender women are. Still, a lot of the things Vidal does in the book could in a critique today be viewed as poor satire, but in the context of the target of his satire the novel arguably works. (It’s worth noting the novel was published pre-Stonewall and although LGBT people existed prior to Stonewall, that was the spark that ignited the LGBT rights movement and after that awareness of LGBT people arose.)

If you push aside how Vidal’s razor-sharp writing is not well transferred to the film and came to this with no knowledge of the book, it would still be a terrible film because it feels like three different films were being made at once. The Van Allen subplot, which works out well in the novel, feels tacked on and West does not feel like she’s in the same movie as the rest of the actors. You could honestly cut out the character of Leticia Van Allen and maybe have a better film. But it wouldn’t be that much better largely because of director Michael Sarne constantly using archival clips from old films throughout the movie. Although this sometimes works for a comedic effect, it mostly serves as a distraction from what is going on during the course of the movie. Did we really need a clip of George Sanders applauding in “All About Eve” while Myra is raping someone using a strap-on dildo? No.

There’s also muddled scenes like one where Myra gives Myron a blowjob, which is either the world’s weirdest fantasy, or just a scene that seemed like a good idea to Sarne at the time–he wrote the screenplay–and doesn’t work well on the screen. The ending also lacks the impact of Vidal’s novel, but really anything in the movie lacks the impact of Vidal’s novel.

What is possibly the weirdest cast assembled in Hollywood history gives the most inconsistent overall performance. Fawcett and Reed give very lovely and natural feeling performances, while Herren and Huston feel performances where it feels like Sarne yelled, “ACT MASCULINE” and then pointed a camera at them. Welch gives what is a delightfully campy performance, but it would only work if everyone around her were being equally campy. Meanwhile, I have no idea what is going on with Mae West’s performance.

Finally, I would really like to watch a movie for “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!” where there is no sexual assault. All three films in this series have featured sexual assault or attempted sexual assault and I’m a little tired of seeing it in these movies. If it pops up in whatever the next movie is, I might just skip watching it.

Verdict: Skip the movie, read the book, unless you enjoy watching confusing trainwrecks.

I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Divergent”

Divergent poster.I think I need to watch Dominic West dancing in “Pride” first.

(watches clip)

Okay, I’m back.

“Divergent” is based on the first book in a trilogy by Veronica Roth and as is the trend now, this is part of a movie series that will be a quadrilogy. In “Divergent,” we are taken to futuristic Chicago where people are divided into factions. At a certain age, people are tested to find out what faction they will join, but apparently they can choose. Beatrice “Tris” Prior (Shailene Woodley) is from an Abnegation family, which means she is from a family of selfless public servants. She is given her aptitude test and it comes out that she is a Divergent, which means she has attributes for multiple factions. She is warned to keep it a secret because Divergents can think independently and can’t be controlled. Tris goes to select her faction and she goes for Dauntless, who are the brave train jumpers who also serve as the military force and are kind of viewed by Tris as the cool kids, which I will get to in a minute. Tris struggles in training, but eventually excels and people become suspicious. Meanwhile, a plot is being hatched by the Erudite, who are the smart people who want to be in power. Oh, and since a love interest is required for film adaptations of Young Adult novels, she falls in love with Four (Theo James).

May we please talk about the beginning logic of the film? I understand the whole faction thing since it’s not too far off from dystopian social structures seen in “The Hunger Games” and the fantastic “Legend” triology by Marie Lu. But with “Legend” we see a similar test where people find out where they belong in life. In “The Hunger Games” there are the 12 districts that each specialize in something and those districts are theoretically keeping the harmony of Panem together. But with “The Hunger Games” there’s a very clear upper-class that is served by the districts. The biggest glaring problem with the social structure in “Divergent” is there’s an entire group known as the factionless who live under the L tracks. They serve no purpose in society and it seems odd that in a society where at least one faction is hell bent on killing those they feel are a threat they don’t go and kill the factionless. They serve no purpose other than to be helped by the Abnegation.

But then there’s the fact that all 16-year-olds get tested to find out what faction they belong in, but apparently they can choose–although Tris makes a comment to Jeanine (Kate Winslet), the Erudite leader, that she would rather people don’t go with a choice that strays from what the test told them. So if people can choose and could be cut from their factions if they don’t pass the training, why does the government even administer the test?

Now that I’ve gotten through the problems with the logic, to the other problems with this movie. Woodley and James are just not compelling lead actors. Her acting feels wooden and stiff compared to the supporting actors and she has no on-screen presence. James at least feels like he’s trying, but he is playing Stock Handsome Love Interest and doesn’t do much with the role. Worse is when Woodley and James’ characters kiss I felt like it warranted a shrug, not a cheer. This is THE couple for the movie and I didn’t care that they finally kissed, largely because I didn’t feel like Woodley had any chemistry with James.

I also don’t really care about the characters. Whenever something happens to a character I find myself being unfazed by it. Characters are killed and there’s no emotional resonance whatsoever because there’s not really a connection the audience can make with any of these characters.

There is also an odd unintentional tonal issue with this film. Tris mentions having respect for the Dauntless and almost admiring them and it’s made very clear they are the security forces in Chicago. This feels a little uncomfortable now because of the dialogue occurring in this country around police shootings and police brutality. We have a film set in Chicago–which has a horrible history of police torture–where the main character chooses to join this group that later in the film, while under mind control, does start murdering innocent civilians. It’s completely unintentional, but that aspect of the script and the character feels a little uncomfortable particularly in the current climate.

The film also has horrible pacing because a good half of the film is spent having the new members of Dauntless be trained. Imagine if the training sequences of <i>The Hunger Games</i> occupied as much time as the actual games. After those are done we leap to the climax of the film, which seems abrupt and comes out of nowhere, as if it was realized something needed to happen other than watch Tris train to be a member of this faction. It’s a joyless slog of a movie which features an ending that led me to wonder why there are three more films after this. On the other hand, a good save in the event the film does poorly like “City of Bones” or many other failed YA film-adaptations.

On one final note, this is the second film in this series where there has been an attempted rape of the main character. In “Catch Hell,” Regan Pierce is drugged and Junior attempts to rape him, only to be suffocated by Pierce and then eaten by a gator. In a test given to see Tris’ proficiency as a Dauntless, she is put in a mental simulation where she has a series of trials. In the final trial a virtual Four goes to rape her and she knees him in the nuts and escapes. Please, screenplay writers, for the love of all that is holy, stop using sexual assault as a plot device because you can. Unless you’re going to explore the aftermath of sexual assault, just don’t use it in your plot. Even then I’m not even sure if I want to see sexual assault used as a plot device.

Verdict: Avoid at all cost. You could do so much better things with your time. Even watching “Catch Hell” would be a better use of your time.

I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!: “Catch Hell”

Welcome to “I Can’t Believe I Just Watched This!” a new blog post series where I watch movies that sound bad and then write about them, mostly to see if they’re worth watching. The first film is “Catch Hell,” which was written and directed by its star, Ryan Phillippe.

Regan Pierce (Phillippe) is an actor seeking a film to catapult him back to the top. He goes down to Shreveport, Louisiana and stays in the world’s saddest Holiday Inn, preparing to shoot a new film. The day after he arrives, he’s picked up in a van by Michael (Ian Barford) and Junior (Stephen Louis Grush), who are basically the stock terrifying rednecks you find in a movie. They kidnap him, take him to a shack in the middle of the swamp and proceed to torture him over the next few days and leak nude pictures and send anti-Semetic and homophobic tweets from his account as retribution for Pierce sleeping with Michael’s wife, Diane (Joyful Drake).

Oh boy.

The biggest problem is I don’t care about Pierce at all. This is his story, one where he triumphs over his kidnappers and I just don’t care about what happens to him. He, like all of the other characters, feels generic. There are moments in the film where it feels like attempts are made to bring depth to the characters–okay, just Michael and Junior–but it never happens for Pierce. He’s just a generic celebrity. What attempts there are to give the captors depth comes with Junior showing kindness to Pierce and revealing he’s gay and maybe Michael trying to reconcile with his wife. But that’s it.

Another problem with the film is how poorly paced it feels. The first fifteen minutes has moments of trying to feel suspenseful, such as a scene where Pierce is in the fitness center of his hotel, but we just jump to him being kidnapped and then that goes straight to the torturing, which goes straight to 11 in terms of intensity and instead of building gradually. Although this may speak more to Michael being a terrible captor, it doesn’t work dramatically for the film.

The odd thing is the film is somehow entertaining. There are moments meant to be suspenseful that end up being humorous, like Pierce working out in the fitness center as a housekeeper slowly wipes off the window, which does lead to it being an entertaining film. But the film manages to not be unbearably bad because Grush and Barford give fantastic performances in this film. Although they are given rather cartoonish characters to play–Barford more so than Grush–the performances help make the captors a bit human.

The problem is they are not giving transcendent performances in this film that suddenly makes it worth watching. I had already seen Barford and Grush in something and it was “The March” at Steppenwolf, which I enjoyed. The film is ultimately rather dumb in terms of plot points and is supposed to make us rally around someone, but there’s no one worth rallying around. But I have to give it credit for keeping me entertained and not having an entirely baffling premise.

Also, the end credits play over footage of Junior dancing in a gator skin while Pierce laughs. So, that’s amusing and a bizarre note to end on.

Verdict: Skip, but if there’s video of the end credits, watch that because it’s bizarre enough to warrant a watch.

There Are Giants in the Sky

You should see my nectarines. “Into the Woods” is a film people have been anticipating with either glee or dread. On the one hand, it’s an adaptation of a relatively beloved musical–at the very least, one of the most well-known of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals–with an all-star cast that doesn’t leave one largely wondering who thought it was a good idea to cast that actor or actress. On the other hand, it’s produced by Disney and is directed by Rob Marshall, who did the delightful “Chicago”–which along with “Moulin Rouge!” helped resurrect movie musicals–and the bizarre and barely tolerable “Nine,” among other films. (He also did the made for TV movie of “Annie” with Victor Garber, Kathy Bates, Audra McDonald and Alan Cumming, which I truly enjoyed and is the only time I’ve enjoyed “Annie.”)

As “Chicago” is fun, but not astounding, and maybe the best movie he had made, there was a bit of concern, especially after “Nine.” “Into the Woods,” however, is a faithful adaptation although not incredibly inventive. It will at the very least satisfy most musical theater nerds and provide a good introduction to the show for the uninitiated.

“Into the Woods” follows the familiar fairy tale characters of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who we know from “Jack and the Beanstalk.” We are also introduced to a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who are childless. They find out from their neighbor, a witch (Meryl Streep), that she placed a curse on the baker’s family that they would not have any children after the baker’s father stole magic beans from the witch’s garden. The witch tells the baker and his wife they can have the curse reversed if they bring her the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, the slippers as pure as gold and the cow as white as milk. The baker sets off on a quest, with his wife following closely behind, while Cinderella tries to go to the festival, Little Red goes to granny’s house and Jack sets off to sell his cow, Milky White, and the character’s paths cross throughout the film. Eventually Cinderella gets her prince (Chris Pine), the baker and his wife get a child and everyone gets their happy ending…until a giant (Frances de la Tour) begins terrorizing the kingdom in search of Jack, who killed her husband when he chopped down the beanstalk.

I should first say “Into the Woods” is not my favorite Sondheim musical–that would be “Sunday in the Park With George”–although I have found as I get older I enjoy “Into the Woods” more. I do not have as much of an emotional stake in this as some people may, but “Into the Woods” still got a lot of play on my iPod in high school and I had a habit in college of watching the PBS film of the original Broadway production. Ultimately, I enjoyed this film possibly more than the musical and found myself getting choked up in some parts.

There are some numbers that are eliminated from the musical, although I only found myself missing “No More,” whose absence is handled well. The movie also tones down the sexual nature of the interaction between the wolf (Johnny Depp, giving what is one of his more restrained performances in the past decade) and Little Red Riding Hood, the brutality of some of the deaths and completely eliminates another character’s death. These changes work in this adaptation since Little Red Riding Hood is played by a girl rather than a teenage girl, although that doesn’t stop “Hello, Little Girl” from still being creepy. The death of both characters are still tragic, although the elimination of the death of Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) does lower the emotional stakes of the witch a bit. (The witch kidnapped Rapunzel from the baker’s parents as payback for the baker’s father taking her greens.)

The musical also isn’t incredibly inspired with how it’s staged. In a way, this works because it avoids from being too inventive and also acts like the characters just sometimes burst into song rather than that they go off into a fantasy world where they sing on stages, as was the case in “Chicago” and “Nine.” The musical numbers largely occur on set pieces where the characters run into each other and sing in the woods, which works and feels safe. There is little in this musical to offend most musical theater fans–I say most because the most ardent will be upset about something. Moments of cleverness in this film arrive with the staging of “Agony,” a comedic self-pitying number from the prince and his brother (Billy Magnussen); and “On the Steps of the Palace,” where time actually stops as Cinderella contemplates her situation.

However, this film is gorgeous to watch and feels natural. It avoids being too chaotic and has performers who never feel stiff. It may have one of the best casts assembled for a movie musical in years where the weakest performance given by one of the lead actors is from Corden, who still gives a good performance, just not as good as the other leads.

Streep’s performance will either be read as another over-the-top performance given by her or one that works well. She twists and contorts prior to her transformation from an old hag to a glamorous blue-haired woman, which is gone post transformation. Her witch sells that she is to be feared and will have revenge without blinking an eye. Once transformed into her younger self, she spends much of the remainder of her on-screen time walking around looking like she’s sick of everyone’s shit, but when she is left by Rapunzel she shows her heartbreak very subtly. During “Last Midnight” her performance builds from the admonishment of everyone to the ache and fury from a woman who is alone, angrily singing the last half of the song. It helps that a furious storm appears, whipping up the leaves, which swirl around her before she disappears, but she breathes new life into the song, making it hers.

Streep doesn’t even give the the best performance in the film, which is divided between Kendrick and Blunt. Kendrick plays Cinderella as clever and caring providing the character with depth. Blunt fills her character with warmth and nervousness where it’s needed while also having a good singing voice. Both her and Kendrick inhabit their characters fully, bringing them to a new life. Every second they’re on screen is a delight.

Crawford manages to provide great sarcasm when it’s needed without it being forced and Huttlestone brings a fantastic eagerness to his role. Elsewhere, Tracey Ullman keeps Jack’s exasperated mother from being too one-note and Christine Baranski tends to steal every scene she’s in as Cinderella’s stepmother.

The film also has lush orchestrations of Sondheim’s score that never feel canned and generally amazing costume designs, although I’m still not sure what to think of Depp’s zoot suit. The film is well-paced, never lagging at all. It even manages to remove parts in Act One of the musical that I felt always dragged the show down a bit.

It is however not a feel-good family film or really even a movie for the whole family. Even if it is not nearly as bleak as the musical, it is still very dark and not something I would take a young child to. If children are taken to see “Into the Woods” the content and themes of the film are worth discussing.

In the end it is one of the better film adaptations of theater to occur in recent years and Marshall’s best film to date*. Although it has some faults, it is enjoyable and manages to simultaneously have a cast of stars–Corden gets to be a star since he won a Tony and is taking over The Late Late Show now that Craig Ferguson is leaving–and a good cast of stars who do not feel miscast. It does not disservice Sondheim’s work and hopefully introduces a new generation to an excellent introduction to a good musical.

*”Chicago” was fun, but not a great film and “Memoirs of a Geisha” was beautiful to look at, but dull as hell.