A DOZEN COOL THINGS TO SEE, HEAR, READ AND DOWNLOAD THIS WEEK
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No. 1 Into the Woods
Meryl Streep stars in director Rob Marshall’s bewitching version of a Broadway classic
Stephen Sondheim’s fairy-tale mash-up introduces its characters with a merry flounce that’s one of the most complicated ensemble numbers in any musical: The intertwined melodies are as ravishing as a rose, and as spiky, but director Rob Marshall (Chicago) makes it all work. Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and a wickedly sarcastic witch (Meryl Streep) come to life with pop-up clarity. Kind or black of heart, they race into the forest to fulfill their dreams. Sure, and the three little pigs can fly. Everyone sings beautifully, especially Emily Blunt as a baker’s wife who flirts with a prince. There is no “happily ever after” here, only the promised enchantment of “once upon a time.” Why wish for more? (Dec. 25, PG)
No. 2 Annie
Still conquering Manhattan and winning hearts
This second film of the hit musical boots the story to modern day and casts Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Jamie Foxx in the main roles but isn’t ambitious otherwise. It’s a kids’ movie—no bigger than a lunch box but also shiny and filled with puffy snacks. And Wallis sings “Tomorrow” with winsome, touching simplicity. (Dec. 19, PG)
No. 3 Mozart in the Jungle
Gael Garcia Bernal (Rosewater) plays a hot classical conductor known as Rodrigo—you might say he’s a sex cymbal. Rodrigo has been hired to wield the baton at the New York Symphony, a large, dysfunctional ensemble of egomaniacs, whiners, party-lovers and cutthroats. Mozart, which is not remotely highbrow, has a surprisingly happy, youthful buzz—much like Bernal, in fact. It’s also reminiscent of Smash, except that the score of choice is Carmen and not Wicked. (Amazon Prime Instant Video, streaming Dec. 23)
No. 4 The Elephant Man starring Bradley Cooper
Without the help of makeup or prosthetics, the former Sexiest Man Alive physically transforms onstage into cruelly deformed Victorian sideshow attraction Joseph “John” Merrick—a role Cooper inhabits (and embodies) so fully that the twisted, tortured Elephant Man becomes all you see before you. It’s a tender and heartbreaking performance. (Booth Theatre)
No. 5 Charli XCX, Sucker
Brit Charli XCX advances from go-to feature artist (Icona Pop’s “I Love It,” Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”) to pop’s reigning bad girl on her sophomore effort. She sings about love (the single “Boom Clap”), sex (“Body of My Own”) and hedonism (“Famous”) with melodic hooks that have the kick of both bubblegum and punk. Sucker packs a pleasurable punch.
No. 6 Big Eyes
Tim Burton directs this real-life story about ’60s kitsch painter Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), whose canvases of round-eyed waifs were the secret labor of his emotionally abused wife, Margaret (Amy Adams). The acting is superb – Adams starts to resemble the paintings, her frightened eyes as large as moons. (Dec. 25, PG-13)
No. 7 The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
By now some of the magic has rubbed off director Peter Jackson’s epic. You can watch only so many kingdoms rise and fall on account of talismanic rings, stones, resort wear, etc. But Battle aims to be a shock-and-awe war spectacle, and it succeeds. The dwarves are barricaded in the Lonely Mountain, illuminated within by an aurora borealis of gold coins. Outside—determined to breach this fortress—are massive armies of elves, Orcs and more. Jackson is a master of CGI scale, lighting and movement: The major set pieces are dazzling. (Dec. 17, PG-13)
No. 8 The Smashing Pumpkins, Monuments to an Elegy
A collection of pop-rock hits for a new generation of Pumpkins fans
Billy Corgan, the cofounder and lone permanent member of the Smashing Pumpkins, recently raised eyebrows by saying the Foo Fighters’ sound hadn’t evolved over the past 20 years, but to be fair, the Pumpkins’ hasn’t totally either—and that’s a good thing. While the pop-rock songs on Monuments to an Elegy don’t have the same distorted guitar riffs that made Siamese Dream so big in 1993 (was that really 21 years ago?!), Corgan’s voice and melodies are so distinct that you’ll become nostalgic. One thing that is new? The inclusion of the synth on tracks like “Run2Me,” and the lack of angsty lyrics (“the killer in me is the killer in you!”) that Corgan penned so well in the grunge era. The tunes on Elegy are almost … romantic. (Dec. 9)
No. 9 The Best New Books
Tales of a troubled marriage, a gifted goalie and a dad-to-be who has some issues
Grace Chapman is a cookbook editor with a seemingly perfect marriage to a famous novelist who’s actually a raging bully. The couple’s “perfect” new assistant isn’t what she appears either, and Grace soon finds her life unraveling. The recipes ending each chapter feel tacked on, but Green has once again delivered a page-turner.
This book by the American goalie who shone during the 2014 World Cup explains that he credits some of his soccer success to having Tourette’s syndrome. Instead of just causing tics, it endows him with a kind of sixth sense so he can anticipate which way his opponents will go. His story is inspiring and compulsively readable.
BOOK OF THE WEEK
The Rosie Effect
In his bestselling debut, The Rosie Project, Simsion introduced the delightfully original character of Don Tillman, an Australian geneticist with Asperger’s syndrome who sets out to find the perfect wife by using the scientific method. In the sequel, set in New York, Don takes on impending fatherhood in the same clumsy yet endearing way, with results both funny and moving. This charming new chapter in the Tillman chronicles leaves you hoping it won’t be the last.
We Will Survive
The disco legend narrates her book about her own struggles and fans whose lives were changed by her ’78 hit. (Hearing that voice intone the song’s lyrics will give you chills.)
Diary of a Mad Diva
No subject was safe from Joan Rivers’s rapier wit. Anne Frank? “I have written six books. She didn’t even complete one.” Rivers’s genius lives on in this hilarious, irreverent gem.
I Am Malala
Read by The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi, Pakistani education crusader Yousafzai’s memoir moves and inspires. Maybe she’ll get a Grammy to join that new Nobel!
No. 10 Unbroken
Louis Zamperini lived a life made for the movies, going from wayward youth to Olympian to World War II POW survivor. Detailed in Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling book, his story has now been adapted into this much-anticipated film by director Angelina Jolie. Jolie’s approach is almost Spielbergian, with sweeping shots of aerial gunfights, ocean panoramas and grim prison camps in Japan. If at times the film feels more like a newspaper report of events, without enough insight into the characters’ thoughts, British newcomer Jack O’Connell, all skin and bones here, delivers a gritty performance as Zamperini, and Domhnall Gleeson is great as pilot “Phil” Phillips. Overall, Unbroken is a strong effort about a uniquely inspiring man, and that makes it worthy. A word of caution for the squeamish: The torture scenes are intense. (PG-13, Dec. 25)
No. 11 James Newton Howard feat. Jennifer Lawrence, ‘The Hanging Tree (Rebel Remix)’
Jennifer Lawrence has described herself as a “tone-deaf Amy Winehouse,” but her haunting ballad from the latest Hunger Games has been remixed into a radio-friendly hit. The pop track may not ignite a rebellion, but it just might spark a Dance Dance Revolution.
No. 12 Black Mirror
This hit British anthology series takes place in Twilight Zone-like alternate realities and tackles everything from our obsession with technology to New Age terrorism. DirecTV also streams the riveting drama and will air a Christmas special starring Jon Hamm. (Dec. 25)