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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Revisiting 12 Years a Slave and what it means to ‘connect’

Chiwetel Ejiofor. Man oh man.

Trying to parse why I – and so many people, it seems – feel or felt left at arm’s length by this film. So many people say they admire it more than anything, that for all the world they can appreciate its beauty but it just doesn’t connect.

And I begin to realise that, well, that’s kind of the point. The first time I saw this it seemed as though the aloofness of McQueen’s approach the material was a bug, but really it’s a feature. There’s an extent to which I think we all want to watch a film like this and come away with a greater sense of understanding, a better comprehension of exactly how a story like this comes to be made truth. Every time McQueen severs the audience’s connection, or prolongs a scene to the point of it snapping like a string on a violin, it’s a deliberate affront. We – and I use the royal we with specificity and in self-reference to my exceeding whiteness – can’t comprehend this.

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Review: Captain Phillips (some spoilers)

I guess I could see why this would be as highly praised as it is. It’s crafted in all the right ways, and ending with an utter gut-punch, thereby closing on your strongest scene, is a clever way to beef up reactions to your film. That said, I wish it cut to black on Hanks instead of that stock-standard aerial zoom-out of the ship which stopped it from being a basically perfect ending.

But if it ended with its best, then it started with its utter worst. Poor Catherine Keener. Is that seriously all you can do with one of the basically only two female characters? That car ride to the airport was phenomenally stilted; by the looks of it I’d say it was butchered in the editing room but left in because cutting Catherine Keener entirely might have been even worse. But that’s what they should’ve done, for the film’s sake. [Side note: this and the previous paragraph are what prevented it from being a 3.5.]

The good: it’s definitely a good thriller. The first half is wildly tense and propulsive. Unfortunately, the second half sags a but under the weight of repetition. Captain Phillips does/says something -> shouting -> threatening -> navy holds them up -> repeat. And during all of this, the score BLASTED to remind the audience that SUSPENSEFUL STUFF IS HAPPENING BECAUSE SUSPENSE. This also made it occasionally difficult to understand the English of the African actors because their enunciation was flattened. I kept wishing for it to become Zero Dark Thirty and trust the audience to feel the burden of silence and the ocean that, in different ways, tortured the main characters.

Further to that: Phillips himself was a bit vanilla, in spite of Hanks’ work. He comes across as a bit of a taskmaster but this isn’t much explored; if the stories that have appeared are reliable, it may have made a much more complex film if Phillips’ characterisation tested our sympathy for him even a tiny bit. The Muse character was much more interesting, and quite mesmerising as played by Barkhad Abdi, who I’d love to see get some recognition for his performance.

But complexity was not the rule of the day. It briefly glosses over first world capitalism’s desolation of the Somali fishing industry as the fundamental cause of the rise of piracy (which was at least more than you could say for A Hijacking which was more concerned with showing the corporate brutality that leads to it, rather than its actual effects), all this in spite of the fact that – while I was more thrilled by much of the rest of the film – I was never more interested than in the scenes in Muse’s village. That was fascinating stuff rarely portrayed on screen that was both tense and intellectually stimulating.

But it’s well-directed – I’ve never seen a Paul Greengrass film before other than bits and pieces of a couple of Bournes, but he seems to know his way around this sort of thing – and it builds tension admirably when it’s not trying to conjure it out of nothing. There was some fine cinematography in there too; the parachuting silhouettes against the grey night sky actually took my breath away, and the use of light and shadow was quite nice all round.

As a whole, though, it’s only the final scene that transcends and it really threw the emptiness of the rest of it into sharp relief. It was content to tell the story and leave it at that, so I’m content to like it well enough and leave it at that.

[Stray observation: it took me about an hour, but I finally realised that the 2IC, Shane, was played by Michael Chernus who is Taylor Schilling’s brother in Orange is the New Black. And it took me until right now to realise that one of the crew was Hank Jennings from Twin Peaks.]

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