"Unbroken" (PG-13) 3 stars (out of four)
There's no doubt Angelina Jolie can act, and she also proves she can direct with "Unbroken," the harrowing true-life story of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini who survived 47 days on a life raft in the South Pacific during World War II, only to be captured and brutalized in a Japanese prisoner of war camp for two years.
Based on the best-selling novel by Laura Hillenbrand ("Seabiscuit"), "Unbroken" only tells part of the author's expansive tale, focusing on his endurance as an Olympic athlete and travails during World War II.
While the narrative is hit-and-miss compared to the source material, Jolie still manages to capture a grand, cinematic feel that definitely echoes the time period. At the heart of the film, though, are the beatings and mental abuse Zamperini (Jack O'Connell) suffer in the POW camp, and while the scenes are tough to watch, the tale feels watered down because of the film's PG-13 rating. If Jolie would have gone the R-rated route, it would have truly illustrated the horrors this man went through for viewers to gain a greater appreciation of his amazing tale of survival.
While the book "Unbroken" tells of Zamperini's association with the Rev. Billy Graham and concentrates on his faith after the war, the film version merely tells of a promise Zamperini made stranded at sea to devote his life to God if he survived his ordeal. The film epilogue notes how he kept that promise, but the lack of any Graham mentions may be noted by faith-based viewers.
"Into the Woods" (PG) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
While she's only credited with a supporting performance (or at least being pushed as such during awards season), Meryl Streep casts a wicked spell over the landscape of "Into the Woods," director Rob Marshall's ("Chicago") atmospheric adaptation of composer Stephen Sondheim's classic stage musical.
A tale that intertwines the stories of several Grimm's fairy tale characters, Streep's wicked witch character tasks a childless baker and his wife (James Corden and Emily Blunt) with finding a batch of items including Little Red Riding Hood's cape and Cinderella's slippers, which all together will lift a curse bestowed upon witch and the couple.
"Into the Woods" boasts an impressive cast, featuring Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and Johnny Depp, who gives probably the creepiest performance in his career in his short, 10-minute appearance as the Big Bad Wolf. Fans of the stage musical are sure to hum along with the songs, while those new to the production should quickly become engrossed in the Broadway maestro's catchy tunes.
The biggest surprise of "Into the Woods" is its willingness to travel down some dark paths. It's surprising how, well, grim(m), the musical can be at times, paving the way to an unexpected, bittersweet conclusion.
"Big Eyes" (PG-13) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Director Tim Burton delivers his tamest visuals yet one of his most satisfying narrative to date with "Big Eyes," the fascinating true-life tale of Margaret (Amy Adams) and Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), and arguably the art world's strangest case of art fraud.
Margaret Keane, who is still painting at 87, was eventually credited with painting striking yet spooky portraits of big-eyed children in the 1950s and '6os. But at the time, where women's places in society were greatly under-valued, Walter led Margaret to believe that the art world would never take her work seriously, and took credit for all of her paintings. Suffering in silence as Walter quickly rises to worldwide fame, Margaret eventually finds courage to reveal the couple's dirty secret, leading to a courtroom showdown that you could only find in a Burton movie.
A sketch artist and painter since childhood, you can feel Burton's passion all over "Big Eyes," which was expertly co-written by his "Ed Wood" screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. He cast the film perfectly, from Adams, who gives a soul-stirring performance as Margaret; and Waltz, who oozes slime as the conniving Walter.
You don't have to be an art fan, necessarily, to appreciate "Big Eyes," especially if you've been on the short end of work that somebody else took credit for. There's such of a thing as the art of a con, and Burton paints a picture-perfect portrait of it.
Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for BringMeTheNews, “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.