Cinema Stocking Stuffers: Big Eyes, Into the Woods, and The Hobbit Finale 

We're in the homestretch. A few months ago, I was prepared to write off 2014 as an annus horribilis at the movies. Weeks of lousy films turned into months, and by summer's end, it was clear that audiences were staying away from the nation's cineplexes. There were a few major exceptions: Boyhood, The Lego Movie and Guardians of the Galaxy basically saved Hollywood's bacon, but that's a terrible batting record, considering that the laughable reboots of Godzilla and Transformers are in the top 10 for this year's box office receipts.

Forget all of that, though, for we bring you good tidings of great joy. This Christmas is just like the ones we used to know: full of dandy surprises.

Into the Woods

In 1987, I was sitting in what was then the Martin Beck Theatre (now the Al Hirschfeld Theatre) on Broadway. The curtain had just come down on a fabulously original new musical, Into the Woods. The audience was enthralled and as I grabbed my coat to head for the exit, I saw a very young girl anxious to see it again—right away. Her mother was aghast, having just plopped down the then-sky high price of $50 for the ticket, but the girl's experience, like that of others her age, was akin to rewinding a video tape of The Little Mermaid or Beauty and the Beast, which allowed the VCR-generation to watch musicals to their endless delight. The mother explained to the girl that live theater was a rare treat and the child was ultimately disappointed—not in the show but because it was so deliciously entertaining that she wanted to relive its magic again, sooner than later.

That young girl is old enough to have children of her own now, so I imagine she's out there somewhere, anxiously anticipating the big screen adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim classic, which opens on Christmas Day. And, oh my, it has been worth the wait. For nearly 30 years, there have been multiple attempts to adapt the Broadway production to film to no avail. Director Rob Marshall finally captured the hints of darkness and mystery that weave in and out of the intertwined stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel. The cast, particularly Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep and star-in-making James Corden are wonderful, and I can't recommend this enough to children of all ages.

Big Eyes

Here we have the baffling, yet sweet story of Margaret Keane—the American artist who painted those sad big-eyed children that gained implausible success in the 1950s and '60s. And no director intersects bafflement and sweetness more than Tim Burton. In Big Eyes, Burton weaves the twisted tale of how Keane's husband Walter took credit for her work, raking in untold amounts of cash and fame. Amy Adams is perfectly cast as the vulnerable Margaret, who musters up enough gumption to take on her rather evil spouse (Christoph Waltz).

The film builds to a brilliant climax when the two quite literally face off in a paint-off in front of a jury who will ultimately decide who is the artist and who is the charlatan. We know how the story will end, but Burton puts together an inspiring true-life fable.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

For the record, I am not the biggest fan of director Peter Jackson's return to Middle Earth. I felt the first two parts of his treatment of The Hobbit lacked the joy of adventure he so wonderfully corralled in his Lord of the Rings trilogy.

But something wickedly fun this way comes with his final Tolkien journey, which has been going now for nearly two decades. Epic-lovers won't be disappointed: the pre-opening credit scenes of Smaug the dragon raining down fire and desolation is awesome and almost worth the admission price alone. Two-and-a-half hours later, balance is restored and emotions flow right along with all the thrills.

Special kudos to the marvelous Martin Freeman as Bilbo; he's not accorded half the praise he deserves for holding this gazillion-dollar thrill ride together. When Freeman is not charming, he's hilarious; and when he's not either of those things, he's heart-tuggingly scrumptious.

Next week, we'll wrap up 2014 in a bow with our annual movie-madness bracket. We'd also love to hear from you, so let us know what your favorite films of 2014 were in the comments on

Now Playing

Big Eyes, Into the Woods, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug are not showing in any theaters in the area.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 3D
Rated PG-13 · 160 minutes · 2013
Official Site:
Director: Peter Jackson
Producer: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins and Carolyn Blackwood
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Orlando Bloom, Cate Blanchett, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, John Bell, Jed Brophy, Adam Brown, John Callen, Stephen Fry, Ryan Gage, Mark Hadlow, Peter Hambleton, Stephen Hunter, William Kircher, Sylvester McCoy, Graham McTavish, Michael Mizrahi, Dean O'Gorman, Mikael Persbrandt and Aidan Turner
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Rated PG-13 · 144 minutes · 2014
Official Site:
Director: Peter Jackson
Producer: Carolynne Cunningham, Zane Weiner, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Alan Horn, Toby Emmerich, Ken Kamins and Carolyn Blackwood
Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Lee Pace, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ken Stott, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Orlando Bloom and Stephen Fry
Into the Woods
Rated PG · 124 minutes · 2014
Official Site:
Director: Rob Marshall
Producer: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Marc Platt and Callum McDougall
Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Johnny Depp, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Annette Crosbie, Frances de la Tour, Joanna Riding and Simon Beale
Big Eyes
Rated PG-13 · 106 minutes · 2014
Official Site:
Director: Tim Burton
Producer: Tim Burton, Lynette Howell, Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Jamie Patricof, Katterli Frauenfelder and Derek Frey
Cast: Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Danny Huston, Krysten Ritter, Jason Schwartzman, Terence Stamp, Jon Polito, Delaney Raye, Madeleine Arthur, Elisabetta Fantone, Farryn VanHumbeck and James Saito
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