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For Christmas time: Meryl Streep as a witch, three films about painters, plus war and gambling

Also in the spirit of the season, the “best of the Year” make a brief return

Look at this. Many of the new movies this week are quite appropriate for the holiday season. No snipers or assassinations; no sign of The Interview locally, just a bit of gambling and p.o.w. abuse  but also fairy tales mixed up gleefully, stories about art and artists and one group’s best of the year choices.

Here’s the list:

Into the Woods:  3 stars

Mr. Turner:  4

Big Eyes:   3 ½

National Gallery:  --

The Best of 2014:  --

Unbroken:  3

The Gambler:   2 ½

INTO THE WOODS: It won multiple awards on Broadway almost 30 years ago. Now, trimmed by about an hour, it’s a family film from Disney boasting glitzy production values and a gathering of big stars but also weighed down by dull singing.  I think it’ll appeal far more to parents and maybe the older kids. They’ll get the fun in this interlocking twist on old fairy tales, most from the Grimm Brothers but also including Cinderella.

 

 It comes to pass that she, Red Riding Hood, Jack, Rapunzel, the wolf and two princes find their paths crossing in the same forest because of the connivings of a witch, played with relish by Meryl Streep.  She’s placed a curse on a baker and his wife because of some stolen magic beans. To lift it, she demands they bring her an item from four of the other characters. That’s how the stories become linked and much running back and forth ensues.

Director Rob Marshall, praised for Chicago but not Nine, keeps it lively and fast moving with lots of surprise encounters. Visually he brings a familiar Christmas style and throws in little modern bits. The wolf for instance (Johnny Depp) is like a pimp with a shifty interest in little girls. It was the witch who locked Rapunzel in that tower because she wants her to “stay a child.” CGI gets a workout when the giant’s wife comes down that beanstalk looking for revenge for his death. There’s an appealing sweetness though from Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and Emily Blunt and James Corden (the future talk-show host) as the couple at the bakery. The songs are by Stephen Sondheim, typically literate but melodically forgettable.  (International Village and suburban theatres) 3 out of 5

MR. TURNER: A grunt can be as good as an eloquent speech from the right person.  That’s one thing I learned from this fine new film from Mike Leigh about the 19th century English painter J.M.W. Turner. As Timothy Spall portrays him, he is adept at both. He moves with a lumbering gait, looking Dickensian in his face and girth and then gropes the housekeeper with only that grunt as a warning. He makes the same sound in any number of conversations. Other times he’ll say lines like “Sir, I beseech you. Brook your ire.” Spall got the best actor award at Cannes for his performance.

 

The film shows Turner in his later years, partially as a working artist, attending group sales and debating with critics, and largely as a man with three women in his life. A mistress who claims he has always insulted her and ignored the two daughters he had with her. The housekeeper he uses up against a bookshelf, and a widow innkeeper he visits without revealing who he is. It’s a rough, gritty portrait and all the more fascinating because it keeps in all the blemishes. At the same time, the film is lavish in its art direction and in scenes that are composed just like a painting. Turner favored land and seascapes and was known as “the painter of light”. That is subtly duplicated in these beautiful images. The film is long, 2 ½ hours, but it does such a good job showing his purposeful force and  co-existing the two sides of him, the vulgar and the artful, that the visit is entirely worthwhile. (5th Avenue) 4 out of 5  

BIG EYES: Some say this is kitsch. I don’t. It’s about kitsch on the surface but actually serves as a valid cautionary tale about women in a patriarchal society. And it’s not ponderous. It’s light and sunny and entertains as well as delivering its lecture directly but subtly. Tim Burton didn’t need to rev up his well-known eccentric side in this one. It’s a true story that has enough that’s offbeat.

 

More in New Movies

Melissa’s forgeries, Rami’s dead-on Freddie Mercury and a cult classic re-imagined

Also: a bit of opera (real with Maria Callas and fictional in Bel Canto) and an ode to BC’s chief geographical feature in This Mountain Life

A touching drama about dementia, a daredevil rock climb and another 007 spoof

Also a teen’s life lessons from skateboarders and a cold war anachronism with submarines
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