Into the Woods (2014)

INTO THE WOODS

Y’know, if you’re going to PG-13ify something like this, at least crank up the camp and let the seriousness slide away a little bit. By the second half it’s shot almost entirely in the titular woods (played with aplomb by Helena Bonham Carter) and everything is muted green, greys and browns. It’s remarkably painful to watch at times, so bland is the camerawork. Like, you’re given four fairy tales to spin into gold and the sole moment of visual intrigue you can provide is a brief Alice in Wonderland homage?

James Corden is startlingly bland as the Baker, an uncharismatic borderline non-entity in a film that feels obsessed with him when he’s about as interesting as the dough he kneads. A narrator here should convey wonderment and grandeur but he sounds like he’s introducing a new brand of water cracker. He’s propped up a hell of a lot by a great Emily Blunt performance, but my god, imagine if she weren’t there to make him look better.

Meryl’s pretty good too, though her Witch’s emotional beats fall kind of flat courtesy of inept pacing that saps even the better songs of some of their impact. Otherwise the cast is pretty uniformly good (though I’d happily have offered up Huttlestone to the giant, and Johnny Depp needs to take a decade off), with Chris Pine proving a stand-out playing a pretty unique and fun fusion of poncey and douchey. Special mention to Christine Baranski and Lucy Punch for making the most of distressingly small roles.

Into the Woods‘ crumbliness suggests that Marshall doesn’t know what the musical means as a movie. He’s made this with little concern for how it reflects on a broader cinematic canon of fairy tale adaptations; in a way, it almost feels as though he doesn’t quite understand the deconstructionist bent of Sondheim’s book. It looks pretty ugly – we get it, sunlight filtering through trees, augh – particularly the giant stuff which is almost inexcusably lazy. I understand the impulse to refrain from covering well-trod territory like Cinderella’s ball or Jack’s sky-high excursions, but it ultimately makes the film feel less than whole and even more staccato.

Truthfully, there’s not enough here to sustain the running time and it becomes almost numbing in the final act, such that the already fairly anticlimactic ending fails to feel pointedly so. It’s all the more frustrating to watch because it so obviously could have been great and ravishing and fun and silly and dark in equal measure. I think Into the Woods sums itself up nicely when, during “Agony!”, Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen’s grandstanding stops just short of them tearing their shirts off in a waterfall. A great adaptation of this would’ve done more than just pop a couple of buttons.

★★☆

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Review: In Defense of The Great Gatsby

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I’m just not sure I buy that this is as much of an intractable disaster as most seem to think. It’s flawed in ways, surely, but estimable.

Without having read the book – though being familiar with the plot – I was, perhaps, in a less complex position when I sat down to watch than most. But it solidly held my interest, and thanks to the involving performances of DiCaprio, Edgerton and Mullligan, I felt invested too; perhaps not viscerally, but in a detached way.

Like most, I’d love to recast Tobey Maguiugh, edit it down and in a more languid fashion, and take out the post-production embellishments like the on-screen text which, just, I don’t know. Similarly, I’d unfuck the soundtrack; I clung to any brief glimpse of actual jazz or score like a life raft. It was my green light.

I feel as though the focus on the visual excess both before and after the film’s release indicates something of an unwillingness to look past it. It’s not so much that people were wishing it to fail, but I feel like the internet has slowly convinced itself that this is quintessentially poor filmmaking, where I just don’t see that. As though critical discourse has been crafted so that this kind of direction, design and style has become everything that everyone hates. Therefore it was doomed to fail, in a sense.

Again, I’m not trying to say that this is a case of “you wanted to hate it, so you hate it”. And very few hate it, most are simply disappointed. But I think if Luhrmann has committed one so-called ‘crime’, it’s this: being unfashionable. This kind of film simply isn’t en vogue, and therefore most see it as being a bit rubbish. It’s everything we’re told to not want in a film: lavishness, excess and bombast. If it’s not gritty or vague and elliptical or emotionally bare – all qualities I admire in a film – then it’s not very now, and as a result, The Great Gatsby suffers largely by being not of its time.

I think time will be kind, here. Time is generally a kind mistress. There is, to my mind, plenty to like here; Elizabeth Debicki is a glorious, sardonic, waifish wonder, and like most I cannot wait to see her in a leading role that befits her obvious talent. DiCaprio is more impressive than he’s been in some time, exuding a charm that I’d never really felt from him before. The design is lavish, the parties exquisitely debauched, the ugly sheen of these dourly rich people compellingly cold. It’s simplistic in ways, and too much in others, but this isn’t amateurish spectacle. Luhrmann knows how to tell a story in his way, and he tells it well.

Luhrmann has seemingly recast Gatsby as a kind of tragic ’20s fairytle; a grotesque fantasia of warped extravagance echoing throughout the empty halls of wealth. When Gatsby speaks of how splendid his cavernous mansion looks with Daisy climbing one of its staircases, he hints at something I thought the film quite cleverly parallelled; for all the beauty wealth and class can construct, it’s nothing without human warmth inside. With this film, I can’t help but think people are looking too intently at what lines the walls rather than who lives between them.

Les Misérables

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In news that will shock few of you, Tom Hooper is not a great director. Sure, he won Best Director for 2010’s Best Picture winner The King’s Speech, but that award – as many will attest – was spurious at best, given that the film was, like its central figure, a modest one. In short it was fine but, mercifully for Hooper, buoyed by the gift of a terrific Colin Firth performance and a good one from Geoffrey Rush to boot.

So naturally, Hooper’s follow-up to it has been subject to much anticipation. It felt like a make or break moment. “Here,” the universe said, “show us what you can do with an adaptation of one of the most well-known and revered musicals of all time.” Having seen the film, it now feels like he was set up to fail. Trading an intimate tale of a meek man triumphing over moderate odds for an epic, grandiose fable of love and compassion. The problem, then, is that Hooper has decided to approach the latter in the manner of the former, leading to a two-and-a-half hour film that feels like a few episodes of television stitched together. Suffice to say, I have many problems with it.

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This Is 40 (Minutes Too Long)

Judd Apatow gets a permanent free pass from me for Freaks and Geeks, one of the best TV series ever made. The fact that he made The 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up, two extremely funny feature films, helps a lot. Then came Funny People where he started to move into darker adult territory (as opposed to the dark territory plumbed surrounding the lives of teenagers in Freaks and Geeks, that is). And now This Is 40, which attempts to find the balance between the two, to slightly-above-average results.

Taking the Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) characters from Knocked Up, this film attempts to tackle reaching middle age through a distinctly Apatowian lens. They both have new businesses which are each struggling – Pete’s record label was obviously always a terrible idea and it’s unclear if the film really acknowledges that, and Debbie’s clothes store finds itself missing twelve thousand dollars, leading her to investigate her two employees (played by a pretty great Megan Fox and a woefully misused Charlene Yi).

There’s not a huge amount of narrative flow as it jumps between fights, daddy issues for both of the couple, more fights, financial trouble, fights, kids, fights, party, fights, etc. Apatow does keep it quite funny throughout, of course, with Melissa McCarthy typically stealing her scenes (and oh boy, you’ll want to stay during the credits for her phenomenal scene of out-takes, which is easily the funniest part of the film). But there are so many nothing characters that it becomes frustrating. Jason Segel’s trainer is bland, Chris O’Dowd gets nothing to do as Pete’s friend and work-mate, Charlene Yi’s character is, again, poorly written and almost entirely unfunny, Annie Mumolo gets too little to do as Debbie’s friend, Albert Brooks just has nothing particularly amusing to do, and Lena Dunham only gets a handful of lines.

The focus, though, is undeniably on Pete and Debbie, and I think that this project simply was never going to fully work from its incipience. Because it’s such an autobiographical account of Apatow and Mann’s (whom he is married to) real marriage, he’s become bogged down in making it authentic rather than entertaining. Rudd and Mann have terrific comedic chemistry, and again it must be said, the film is funny all the way through thanks to them. They play the emotional beats well, and Apatow’s children are good playing the children of the film’s couple as well, with the younger Iris being particularly great. The older Apatow, Maude, is funny at turns but spends so much of the film screaming and being petulant that it really does feel like you’re her parent, which is both clever and not really something you want in a film like this. She’s like Dana from Homeland on speed.

The thematic concern of This Is 40 is, obviously, reaching that age, readjusting priorities, reflecting upon your marriage and so forth. It’s a fun way to attack it rather than the usual, which is boring indie dramas where one spouse cheats on the other and so on. This is nearly the funnier, more scatological and less saccharine Crazy, Stupid, Love. I found it entertaining all the way through, but as a comedic film it suffers from severe flow issues, sadly underwritten supporting roles and serious bloat.

Some will inevitably find it tedious and unfunny, as with all of Apatow’s films to this point. Others will appreciate his slight detour into semi-dramedy for its realism and truth, and there’s a lot that will resonate with viewers of any age who have been in a long-term relationship. But most will leave the cinema feeling like you’d been at a friend’s house where a couple had a screaming match: it was uncomfortable and you laughed at it, but you kinda wish that it hadn’t quite gone down that way.

Rating: 6.1

Skyfall

Having first been introduced to Bond films at an early age by my dad, I like to think I have a relatively well-tuned ability to appreciate the franchise. It’s hard to describe the boyish thrill I felt when first seeing the updated Casino Royale, but it suffices to say it was an incredibly nostalgic experience. Quantum of Solace, however, didn’t have the same impact. Coming two years after the previous instalment, it felt rushed and this was reflected in the quality of the film (that heinous Jack White/Alicia Keys collaboration on the theme song didn’t help, hard to believe they passed over a Shirley Bassey contribution for it).

But four years seems like the perfect amount of time to wait for a new Bond. Like the four years between Die Another Day (ugh, I just remembered that Madonna song) and Casino Royale, it gave time for the franchise to breathe. It’s common belief that massive film franchise are subject to significantly diminishing returns, and usually this is the case – look at the precipitous drop from Iron Man to Iron Man 2. Skyfall has waited this long, and the hype has built and swirled around it for some time now – with no small thanks to the promise of Sam Mendes’ direction and Javier Bardem’s casting as the film’s villain. Mercifully, the wait was not for nothing.

Typically, the film opens with an action-packed set piece. Motorcycles, bazaars, trains, that sort of nonsense; it’s reminiscent of the excellent one that sets the stage for Casino Royale. In this case, the initial sequence segues beautifully into the mostly terrific title sequence, which is let down only by two things: bad CGI for Chinese dragons, and the slightly underwhelming nature of Adele’s titular theme song, which is good but never great. Even in a cinema with terrific sound, it lacks the punchiness of a classic theme. That said, it’s certainly the best of the three Craig films.

After a failed mission, Bond (Daniel Craig) disappears. Obviously, he’s not dead, and so we find “grief-banging the entire Pacific Rim”, to quote Archer. If you haven’t watched that phenomenal TV show, I suggest you do so either before or after Skyfall, there are an alarming number of parallels – appropriate since the show’s lead character is loosely based on Bond, but even moreso because several plot points in the film bear more than a passing resemblance to episodes of Archer. An attack on MI6 headquarters reveals that M (Judi Dench) is in danger, so Bond returns to help fight the threat.

The threat is revealed through Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe in an excellent appearance) to be Silva (Javier Bardem), whose past connection to M proves him to be a considerably menacing threat. Skyfall is very preoccupied with the idea of new versus old. Bond is seen to be part of the old guard, a parallel pushed by the introduction of the new Quartermaster, or Q, played by Ben Whishaw. Whishaw’s role has been talked up a lot by some but I didn’t feel his presence was a particularly significant one. The whole thing seems very much like the franchise wrestling with itself to separate it from the Bond of old and the Bond of new.

And distinct categories they are. Those who rush to proclaim this the “best Bond ever!!!!!!” are wildly off the mark. This is a distinctly different Bond, clearly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s game-changing take on the Batman franchise. The Bond films of old were coloured – and I use that word deliberately – by a sense of the fantastical. Camp, if we’re being honest. These days, however, grittiness is what it demanded, and grittiness is given; this is not necessarily a bad thing by any means, but I think a line definitely has to be drawn somewhere. And I draw that line just before Skyfall being babbled about as the best Bond film of all time. It is excellent and deserves inclusion in the Bond canon, but newness lends itself to hyperbole.

Craig is solid as ever as the tortured Bond. He has the perfectly expressive face to portray this incarnation’s tortured self, tough but sad in equal measure. Performances and casting are great all round, with Naomie Harris and Ralph Fiennes giving good turns, and a terrific Albert Finney bringing light and depth in a relatively brief role. Bardem as the villain Silva is, typically, fantastic. Intimidating, menacing, and just a touch of the flamboyant, he feels like a nod to the Bond of old both literally and metaphorically. A brief scene of “sexual intimidation” that Silva initiates is clever for the way it directly addresses the inherent and often overwhelming homoeroticism of the Bond character and films.

Judi Dench also gives a notable performance as M, a character she has played since 1995, and it’s nice to see the character explored in a little more depth. The film is photographed beautifully by Roger Deakins, proving that cinematography is hugely key to the modern action film. Deakins’ use of space and colour hugely enhances Skyfall as viewing experience, and helps give John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s script both lightness and weight where required. The set pieces are uniformly great, fight sequences well-choreographed and photographed, and the seemingly daunting two hour and twenty-three minute runtime flies by.

Realism in Bond is something I can now appreciate but still struggle with to some degree, solely because part of the fun of films like Goldfinger and so on are their sheer silliness. Realism in a film like this also raises intriguing moral conundrums – mostly about innocent casualties, in the case of Skyfall. I’d like to see one of the future films explore the impact of terrorism on a larger scale. Presently, Craig’s Bond is extremely bogged down in the personal, and it almost makes the character come off as selfish despite the film’s insistence otherwise. There are many roads down which they can take 007 beyond his 50th year, so hopefully the 24th and 25th movies are willing to think a little bigger. So no, not the best Bond ever, but a damn good one all the same.

Grade: 8.3

The Master’s Meaning

If you follow film with any degree of doggedness, chances are you have heard of The Master. Hell, it is nigh impossible – Paul Thomas Anderson directing a film about a cult? It set the film world on fire; after the triumph that was There Will Be Blood, we all waited with bated breath for five years for his next work. The run-up to its release now seems to very much echo the film itself: lurching, staggering and vague, but crafted, clever and ultimately beautiful. It’s a powerful film that only seems to loom larger in the rearview mirror as you speed away from it across a dry expanse on a motorcycle.

An intoxicating character study, as you view it it unfolds with an almost confounding lack of structure or narrative thrust. But The Master unfolds like the intricate work of a master wood carver. As he works, he appears only to be whittling away at an unsightly piece of wood. To the eye it is different from every angle, and just when it seems as though progress is made, it is gone as soon as it appeared. Yet it is only when he steps back from the finished work, breathes and brushes away the shavings, chips and splinters of labour do you realise that you are suddenly considering an achievement and a vision that is wholly his.

The finished work in this case, however, is no delicate chaise longue. It seems to be more along the lines of arborsculpture, something distinctly crafted but natural in its unnaturalness; something haunting and recognisable but also distinctly wrong. After all the proclamation and all the hype we are left with a film that courts the eye but tantalisingly pushes away the mind. It now feels almost typical of Anderson to essentially be the Oscar-frontrunner practically since the film’s announcement, only to produce something that even the Venezia jury seemingly could not quite wrap their head around.

That is not to say The Master is, for example, on par with 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of ambiguous brilliance. This is a film with defined faults – unavoidable ones, to be truthful – though relatively minor in hindsight. Throughout the second half it will be common for audiences to be asking themselves, “Well, where exactly is this going?” and the film will, by the end, have made very few steps toward answering that question of its own accord.

Thankfully, that is what we have critics for, yes? You would think. Not only is it nearly impossible to not have heard of The Master, it is also nearly impossible to not have heard of its ties to Scientology. Yes, most interviewers and many reviewers seem to tacitly say, this film is about Scientology. See, there is a burgeoning cult movement borne of the 1950s! There is a method similar to the practice of Dianetics! And they all rush to the supercilious conclusion: cult. 1950s. Processing. SCIENTOLOGY.

It is rare that, as an avid consumer of film criticism, I feel rather disappointed with the approach to a film of so many. But this recurring inability to separate actual Scientology from the very obvious metaphor that The Cause – the cult in question – represents in the universe of The Master is baffling and infuriating in equal measure. As critics, is it not our job to avoid the most obvious, superficial analysis of a film and dig deeper? And what could possibly be more superficial than an entirely fabricated religion steeped in science fiction? And then, many months after Anderson himself essentially said, “Nope, it’s not really about Scientology, guys.”, to press the question in interviews? It came as a complete surprise.

“How much of the film is based on Scientology?”
“Is the Lancaster Dodd character essentially just L. Ron Hubbard?”
“WHAT DID TOM CRUISE THINK?!??”

Considering that the film actually opens with a scene in which a group of World War II veterans are told about the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), you would think the pervasive themes of psychology – and to some degree, psychosis – would be slightly more plain. Roger Ebert said, “…when I reach for it, my hand closes on air.” but how can a film universally agreed-upon as being dense and difficult be non-corporeal to so many? If nothing else, we all seem to agree on one thing: the film is stunningly shot – almost impeccable purely on a level of craft – and has an Oscar-worthy score of lush beauty and frenetic anxiety courtesy of previous Anderson collaborator, Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.

My immediate reaction (and that of many others, it has turned out) to the film was, “I need to stew on this.” and I think this is a clear representation of how hype and immediacy are affecting film criticism. Immediately after The Master‘s surprise premiere we already had advance reviews flowing in and tweets battering down our doors. This is the kind of films that stews and is stewed on. You can react instantly to Dredd 3D because of its sheer simplicity and straightforwardness, whereas The Master shrouds itself in opaque folds of its own theses that simply cannot be brushed aside within 48 hours of viewing. Somewhere, in between the sprint to praise and the rush to condemn is the appropriate middle ground, one which we will likely never reach. With the desire for immediacy so characteristic of how film criticism operates nowadays – and we are all guilty of that – a film like The Master is given but a fraction of the scrutiny it requires before opinions are jettisoned off to be clawed at in the Rotten Tomatoes comments section.

I have found myself waiting nearly two and a half weeks to properly put finger to key and write my thoughts on this film, and I am extremely glad I did. That said, when asked almost immediately after the screening what the film was about, my first answer was, “Well, if I had to say anything at all, I think it was about mental illness. But I don’t know.” Now, however, I feel quite confident that I was and am correct. The Master oscillates between delicacy and brutality in its exploration of two broken men, each shattered in incredibly different ways. The clever symbolism of the churning seawater left in each man’s wake is a wonderful leitmotif of their seething illnesses and addled natures.

While Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd is a confident, controlling superego, Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell is a primal, raging id. They are, seemingly, complementary parts of a whole, with enough cracks in the façade of each to reveal flashes of the other. Freddie’s animalism is repeatedly pointed out, his erratic behaviour often likened to that of a dog. He suffers from PTSD and, put simply, has lost his humanity. He handles this by drinking toxic concoctions that allow him to separate his mind from his actions and his thoughts from reality. Phoenix’s mind-blowing performance is, again, the unnaturally natural – he has all the appearance of a human, but he is grizzled and gnarled and twisted from years – perhaps a lifetime – of harsh winds and extreme conditions.

While Freddie’s violence often shocks, Dodd’s charismatic reservedness is arguably all the more terrifying, and dangerous. At any sign of a loss of sway, an absence of control, Dodd snaps. Dodd refuses to bend or twist, but strains upward toward a light above the canopy of reality he can never reach. Here is where Scientology does legitimately factor into the film: religion as metaphor for mental illness, military service as a cult of masculinity, processing (based roughly on L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics) as education. Essentially, the ways in which a brainwashing cult mirrors so many aspects of what we assume to be normality. The fact that, if heightened only slightly, things that should be commonplace become wild and dangerous.

Dodd’s perilous desire to ‘repair’ Freddie, and how his inability to do so slowly destroys him and his precarious dominion, constitutes the central conceit of the film, the one around which almost all scenes revolve. It is also the parallel that gives The Master its theme and its title a sly double meaning. Any attempt to restrain our essential humanity with superficial vagaries, grandiose proclamations and hysterical superstition sap us of freedom, of openness. We may claim to be, say, writers, doctors, nuclear physicists, theoretical philosophers, but above all, we are simply human, so to speak. Hopelessly inquisitive, nonetheless, but never can we be ‘The Master’.

Argo

Directed by Ben Affleck, written by Chris Terrio, starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, Alan Arkin

As every review and all the promotional material will tell you, Argo is based on a true story. It even reminds you at the start of the film – something I always find a little tacky. It’s like a subtle way of saying, “Go easy on me, this kinda happened once.”

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