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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Les Misérables

lesmis2

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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