Movie Reviews: 'The Interview,' 'Into the Woods,' 'Unbroken'

PHOTO: James Franco, as Dave, and Seth Rogen, as Aaron, in a scene from Columbia Pictures "The Interview."Ed Araquel/Columbia Pictures/Sony/AP Photo
James Franco, as Dave, and Seth Rogen, as Aaron, in a scene from Columbia Pictures' "The Interview."

"The Interview"

Starring James Franco and Seth Rogen

Rated R

Two-and-a-half out of five stars

Let me put this in the appropriate parlance for a Seth Rogen-James Franco movie: Holy !@#$. "The Interview" is extremely mediocre, and this is coming from a fan of their past films, such as "This Is the End!" The opening scene, an interview between Franco’s goofy TV talk show host Dave Skylark and rap superstar Eminem -- playing a version of himself -- is the comic highlight of the film. Problem is, when that ends, we still have about an hour and 47 minutes to fill and there are more misses than hits.

By now, you probably know the premise: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) is a big fan of Dave’s show, "Skylark Tonight." So Rogen, who plays Dave’s producer, Aaron Rapaport, reaches out to North Korea and arranges, as Dave puts it, “the biggest interview since Frosty-Nixon”: a sit-down with the leader himself. But when Dave announces the upcoming interview on his show, the CIA comes calling in the form of Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), who asks Aaron and Dave to assassinate Kim.

Here’s the thing; the people who would've gone to see this movie because they are fans of Rogen and Franco will not be offended by the misogynistic, homophobic and racist jokes, some of which are funny, some of which are not. But because of the publicity the movie has garnered, many people who don’t care for this sort of humor will see the movie and be offended. And to that I say, “Good!” You should be offended, and while you’re busy being offended, be proud you are part of a society that gives filmmakers the freedom to execute this kind of artistic expression and humor.

One of the scenes in the movie concerns Rogen’s character trying to hide the container with the poison destined for Kim Jong-un so North Korean soldiers won’t find the “payload.” So where does he hide it? He forces it up his, well, you know. Yes, that is an actual scene in the movie that so upset a foreign power that it perpetrated a cyber-attack on our country.

My reality rating here is two-and-a-half out of five stars, but "The Interview" has also earned my very first honorary five out five stars. Pay to see this film, even if you hate it, because for the first time ever, watching a man (James Franco) pull his hands out of his pants and smell his fingers is, quite simply, the only patriotic thing to do.

**

PHOTO: Emily Blunt and James Corden are pictured in a still from Into the Woods. Peter Mountain/Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Emily Blunt and James Corden are pictured in a still from "Into the Woods."

"Into the Woods"

Starring Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden

Rated PG

Three out of five stars

Hollywood loves a good musical, especially one where Oscar and Tony bona fides meet -- like director Rob Marshall and Meryl Streep, for example. That's what we have with "Into The Woods," the Tony award-winning Broadway smash that has been reproduced by junior high and high school students hundreds, if not thousands of times, over the past 20 years. There's also been a national tour, a London production, anniversary celebrations and even a few Into The Woods-themed sweet sixteens. In other words, there is no shortage of love for one of the Stephen Sondheim’s more popular musicals.

Fans' sentimental and often passionate connection to the music is just one of many challenges facing anyone trying to adapt a popular show for the big screen. In many ways, though, the magic of cinema is the perfect vehicle to tell a story that aspires to turn several of our most popular fairy tales inside out.

For the uninitiated, "Into The Woods" features beloved fairy tale characters Little Red Riding Hood, Jack, of Beanstalk fame, Cinderella and Rapunzel. While the basics of their stories are familiar, here, they're all part of a bigger picture having to do with a witch (Meryl Streep) and the curse she puts on a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt).

To avenge the way she was treated by his father, the witch curses the baker and his wife, preventing them from ever having children. In order to reverse the curse, the couple is required to bring the witch -- in three days' time -- a cape as red as blood, a cow as white as milk, a slipper as pure as gold and hair as yellow as corn. In order to do so, they must travel -- you guessed it -- into the woods. That's where, conveniently, Jack will be walking in order to sell his cow; where Cinderella will be running to after leaving the ball; where Little Red Riding Hood will be skipping to get to Grandma’s house and where Rapunzel’s tower happens to be. Get it?

Anna Kendrick, who got her start as a child actress on Broadway, plays Cinderella. Chris Pine, a.k.a. Captain Kirk in the rebooted "Star Trek" films, plays Cinderella’s prince and Christine Baranski plays her evil stepmother. Lila Crawford, who starred in Annie on Broadway, plays Little Red Riding Hood, while Johnny Depp is the Big Bad Wolf. Daniel Huttlestone is Jack and Tracey Ullman is his mother. As you can see, there is no shortage of talent here.

As I mentioned earlier, the story lends itself to the magic of cinema because I don’t care how gifted your set designer is: they’re not going to be able to craft a beanstalk that reaches to the sky or, for that matter, create a convincing giant. On the other hand, there’s nothing quite like hearing an amazing voice live in person, and a show that only contains one really catchy tune (“Into The Woods”) and only one real show-stopping number (“Stay With Me” -- superbly performed by Streep, who is great, of course) needs the excitement and emotional impact of a real live person. But that’s not to say "Into The Woods" doesn't have its share of entertaining moments.

Pine is going to surprise a lot of people. Besides possessing a golden voice, he’s hilarious. Joining him is the relatively unknown Billy Magnussen, who plays Rapunzel’s prince. A Tony nominee, Magnussen is a scene stealer. In fact, the whole cast is fine, but if you have no sentimental connection to the original show or its music, chances are you’re going to be bored by a story that clocks in at 2 hours and 5 minutes.

Of course, this is the sort of thing that screams Oscar bait, and it's already been nominated for the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy. Blunt and Streep have also received nominations. Me? Three out of Five stars.

**

PHOTO: Pictured is a still from Unbroken. Legendary Pictures
Pictured is a still from "Unbroken."

“Unbroken”

Starring Jack O'Connell, directed by Angelina Jolie

Rated PG-13

Three-and-a-half out of five stars

"Unbroken" is an incredible story. It is not an incredible movie.

Angelina Jolie directs this film, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book about World War II veteran Louis Zamperini, a former bombardier and POW who also represented the United States in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Zamperini (the younger version played by C.J. Valleroy, the older version by soon-to-be superstar Jack O’Connell) was the child of Italian immigrant parents. As a kid, he was a bit of troublemaker who seemed as if he was going nowhere fast. In fact, he was actually a very fast runner, a gift that caught the attention of his older brother, Pete (Alex Russell), who convinces Louis to try out for the school track team. Before we know it, Louis is running the mile faster than anyone in the country. Little did he know he wasn't just training to become an Olympian: he was training to survive.

Before long, we see Zamperini as a bombardier. During a rescue mission, his beat-up B-24 crashes into the Pacific, with only Zamperini; the confident pilot, Russell “Phil” Phillips (Domhnall Gleeson); and Francis “Mac” McNamara (Finn Wittrock) surviving. During over a month on a raft at sea, the three actors undergo a stunning transformation before our eyes, as Mac slowly starves to death and the other two struggle to stay alive. They’re eventually rescued -- unfortunately, by the Japanese -- and spend the next two years in a POW camp, where it will take everything Zamperini’s got to survive.

There’s plenty of evidence in "Unbroken" that Jolie has what it takes to become a great director, but she’s not there yet. The film employs flashbacks to Zamperini’s childhood throughout the story, giving us interstitial glimpses of the foundation of his fortitude. At first, the flashbacks seem organic and help move the story forward, but soon they begin to feel manipulative and superfluous. The movie may have been better served by instead telling the story in chronological order.

It’s in the tight quarters of the lifeboat, adrift at sea, that Jolie is at her best: putting us in that raft, capturing the struggle, feeling the starvation, desperation and helplessness. That journey alone would have made an excellent movie. But then, we wouldn't have seen what happens in the POW camp.

There are harrowing moments depicted there, mostly at the hands of the sadistic camp guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. “The Bird” (played Takamasa Ishihara, a.k.a. singer/songwriter Miyavi). However, those moments are betrayed by Jolie’s desire to make this movie look beautiful, and I’m not just talking about setting up gorgeous shots of Jack O’Connell getting beaten. The other men in the POW camp look like they were captured during a raid on a Calvin Klein photo shoot. It detracts from the gritty realism so deftly created in the raft, and ultimately from what could’ve been a far better film.

Instead of making an incredible movie based on an incredible story, with "Unbroken," Angelina Jolie has created a good movie based on an incredible story.