Saturday, January 31, 2015

Wide Angle: 2014 in Review

Awards are silly.

Still, that hasn't stopped me from posting an annual recap for the past three years.  And it won't stop me from doing it again.  Consider this an attempt to commemorate the year in film - to beat back the receding tide of memory and acknowledge all the good, bad, and weird stuff that showed up onscreen in 2014.  Simply put, this is my best attempt to contextualize another year of seeing, feeling, and believing in the movies.

Top Whatever

Since adding new feature articles and a podcast to my docket, I sadly don't have the time to review everything I see, but I'm glad I caught up with Blue Ruin - a propulsive revenge thriller that corkscrews its way through a brutally simple yet thoroughly compelling narrative about the sins of our loved ones unfolding across generations.  On a completely different tack, The Grand Budapest Hotel continued Wes Anderson's stellar run, a melancholy comic romp that dazzles with both pure sentiment and continental cool.

Are ambitious international collaborations the future of action movies?  While the idea certainly isn't new, two 2014 films took it to the next level.  The first, The Raid 2: Berendal was a mind-blowing beat 'em up of epic proportions - the ideal marriage of video game action with cinematic verve.  And the second, Snowpiercer, was the freaky, fancy-free blockbuster that Marvel wishes it could make; it's a shame that it was barely released in theaters, but it's already well on its way to cult classic status.

"Lifetime achievement" took on a couple different meanings in Life Itself, a moving tribute to the reigning people's champion of cinema, the late Roger Ebert, and in Boyhood, the poetic longitudinal study of life's milestones and the sometimes profound mundanity that surrounds them.

Frank introduced us to one of the most fascinating characters of 2014, a troubled musical genius trying to navigate his headspace by enclosing it in a giant fiberglass facsimile.  It's a movie about letting the right ones in, however tentatively - which is also the subject of the documentary Harmontown, a portrait of an admittedly self-destructive personality and his army of misfits moved to embrace their own shortcomings as part of themselves.

A trio of voices debuted last year in three films that struck at the gut and the brain with equal force.  Dear White People combined two decades' worth of art-house sensibilities to poke holes in the post-racial myth of the Millennial generation.  Whiplash presented a rivalry for the ages in a story of pride and perfectionism, nicely resolving its central feud while somehow allowing both antagonists to look strong.  And Nightcrawler made satirical hay of a toxic meritocracy arising from the unfiltered spillage of content that's propelling the new American culture.

Finally, A Most Violent Year spun compelling tragedy out of the harsh truth that one person's survival sometimes must depend on another's suffering and sacrifice.  The nobility of our intentions has little bearing on the outcome of our actions - the opposite of which is true in the exemplary Selma, which refused the easy catharsis of other tasteful museum pieces for a full, honest embrace of the interplay of emotions, deeds, and dreams in one pivotal series of events.  If that isn't the definition of great filmmaking, then I don't know what else to tell you.

Other Good Stuff

Quality was found in all corners, from formally and intellectually challenging salvos like A Field in England and Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 & 2 to the pure pop pleasures of Gone Girl and Guardians of the Galaxy.

There was a great film for every mood in 2014.  The quietly devastating The Immigrant and the achingly personal Documented showcased how the other half lives, while Inherent Vice played a swan song for the '60s in an intoxicating, offbeat key.

Other Things I Liked That Deserve A Brief Mention

- the diabolically catchy The LEGO Movie anthem "Everything Is Awesome"
- Muppets Most Wanted's Constantine, the give-zero-fucks poster boy of 2014
- Kathy Bates dancing at a lesbian barbecue in Tammy
- the sound editing and mixing during the crash sequences in Unbroken
- the robot buddy voices of Scott Adsit (Baymax in Big Hero 6) and Bill Irwin (TARS the robot in Interstellar)
- Anders Holm's increasingly ludicrous O-faces in Top Five
- the garish rococo set decoration of the du Pont estate in Foxcatcher

Just The Worst

To be the worst, you've got to really want it, and only one film last year could combine the incompetence of Vampire Academy, the needy indulgence of Chef, and the hackery of A Million Ways to Die in the West in a single foul globule of cinematic antimatter.

That movie is Dumb and Dumber Too, a soulless, depressing cash grab that's best described as a Dadaist simulation of humor meant to expose the bone-deep desperation and moral emptiness behind the human need for laughter.

Flawed But Fascinating

Let's take a moment to mourn what The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and The Giver might have been had they not been as hamstrung by poor execution or the lame demands of the marketplace.  However, my choice for so-confounding-it's-good(?) goes to Lucy, a heaping scoop of Luc Besson insanity about a party girl who has drugs sewn into her body that turn her into an increasingly intelligent and vengeful human computer.  (Don't you just hate it when that happens?)  Spoiler alert - she eventually morphs into a flash drive containing all the secrets of the universe.  And Morgan Freeman is there to explain it all via PowerPoint lecture.  It's audaciously entertaining stupidity of the highest order.

Biggest Disappointments

Hyped over the moon, The LEGO Movie was essentially a feature-length commercial that dispensed with any satirical pretense after its first 10 minutes.  It's not a bad film by any means, but it had the potential to be so much more.  I was similarly bummed by The Sacrament, which seems like a big step back for horror prodigy Ti West as he hops onto the found footage bandwagon and loses his unique voice in a musty Jonestown: The Movie premise.

And at the risk of exposing myself as an apostate, I must admit that I was incredibly let down by Captain America: The Winter Soldier.  In truth, I've never been fully on board with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but Winter Soldier shattered any illusions that these films are anything but a salable product line, a way to string people along with half-resolutions and vague promises of cooler things to come - a way to make individual stories less satisfying.  That's an incredibly worrying trend.  To many, Cap 2 is the current apex of the MCU; to me, it looks more like the beginning of the end.

Most Pleasant Surprises

"Fat people comedy" is usually a slippery slope toward ridicule and/or condescension, so I was understandably wary when approaching Cuban Fury, a rom-com starring the stout Nick Frost as a former salsa dancing champion who rekindles his passion to impress his office crush.  But the movie hits all the right notes of sweetness and silliness thanks to Frost's effortlessly charming performance and a genial tone that lets its characters just be themselves without pushing them to extremes.

Whatever you decide to call it, Edge of Tomorrow was one of the freshest summer blockbusters in years, a strange brew of influences from other visual media - manga and video games - that typically have not lent themselves to cinematic adaptation.  Edge has style to burn, yet it's the rare popcorn flick that keeps you thinking after the credits roll; Tom Cruise's playful tinkering with his action hero persona is just the cherry on top. 

Best Performances

As always, my watchword here is inclusivity, which is another way of saying that I try to avoid the performances that have already been lavished with plenty of attention and awards.


Is there anything Tilda Swinton can't do?  From the doddering heiress of The Grand Budapest Hotel to a globe-trotting vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive to a gender-bending fascist martinet in Snowpiercer, Swinton's consistently positive contributions deserve greater recognition.  The word "chameleon" is used to describe a lot of actors who bring a physical affect - a paunch, a walk, an accent - to a role, but Swinton is one of the few who can also change their emotional timbre just as drastically.  Meek or assertive, compassionate or cruel, Swinton makes it all look easy.

Let's be honest: Jake Gyllenhaal has been a very good actor for quite a while.  Those who are trying to frame his 2014 as a renaissance of McConaughey proportions have either forgotten his filmography (there are more Zodiacs than Prince of Persias) or are ignoring the importance of both good timing and good material.  Gyllenhaal guided the audience through the inscrutable Enemy as a timid college professor and his more aggressive doppleganger, an arrogant actor with serious relationship issues.  Yet it's his amazing performance in Nightcrawler that impresses the most, a for-the-ages portrait of an ingratiatingly weird sociopath in which Gyllenhaal is bends the movie to his will the same way his character convinces the world to accept and reward his insanity.


One of these days - perhaps as soon as the release of the next Star Wars and X-Men installments - people are going to revisit the oeuvre of Oscar Isaac and discover gems like A Most Violent Year, where he gives another understated yet immensely impactful masterclass.  Playing a character who's both a
 beguiling rascal and a sympathetic underdog, Ralph Fiennes is the key cog in the clockwork comedy machine that is The Grand Budapest Hotel.  And Tyler James Williams is the not-so-secret superhero of Dear White People, a shy, gay black nerd who doesn't want to have to answer to any of those labels but finds it necessary to validate his identity in the face of ignorance.


Jenny Slate finally gets a showcase for her comedic gifts in Obvious Child, combining a flair for vulgarity with a low-key vulnerability that gives the film its unexpected emotional punch.  In a similar way, Melanie Lynskey elevates the generational comedy of manners in Happy Christmas by portraying a complex counterpoint to Anna Kendrick's self-involved Millenial - it's obvious that we're supposed to see the future of Kendrick's character in Lynskey, but she pulls it off with grace and subtlety.  Finally, Marion Cotillard absolutely nailed the "costume drama realism" vibe of James Gray's The Immigrant, a film that benefits immensely from her quietly heartbreaking performance.

Duo or Group

Rosamund Pike and Ben Affleck were a pleasure to watch as they spun yuppie love into something cracked and twisted in the marital farce that was Gone Girl, simultaneously portraying and defining 21st century archetypes.  Type-A personalities clashed in Whiplash, where J. K. Simmons and Miles Teller took an exaggerated academic deathmatch and made it believable.  Bickering musicians also took center stage in Frank, but Michael Fassbender and his band ultimately showed that blood runs thicker than water, even in a makeshift family unit.

The Golden Ham

It's really difficult to overlook the inspired craziness of DMX singing/barking Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" during his brief cameo in Top Five for my annual salute to superlative scenery-chewing.  However, Alison Pill's manic turn as a pregnant schoolteacher cheerfully indoctrinating little ones on the brutal caste system of Snowpiercer is an all-timer.  In the space of just a single breathless, bug-eyed monologue, Pill unequivocally establishes herself as the most batshit character in a movie full of lunatics - an impressive achievement on any actor's résumé.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015


Dir. David Koepp

2.5 out of 5

Ever since the first images of a mustachioed Johnny Depp began appearing in bus shelters across the country, the comedic heist film Mortdecai has been met with the same type of anticipation reserved for a plague of locusts.  Here was a film that represented the proverbial fish in the barrel, except you could imagine that the fish were already belly-up, and the barrel pre-drilled with bullet holes.  It was to be Depp's Norbit, Depp's Love Guru - the film that would effectively erase the career of a once-bright talent out of existence.

Shockingly, however, I do not come to bury Mortdecai; in fact, I come to praise it.  Sort of.  Depp plays Charlie Mortdecai - an unscrupulous art dealer, unsuccessful womanizer, and blatant tax cheat - in a globe-trotting farce that's ostensibly about locating a stolen Goya but in reality is about some kind of time-traveling dandy or perhaps an alien visitor who is simultaneously bemused, disgusted, and frightened by our modern world.  He's joined in pursuit of the canvas (which has its own convoluted backstory involving royal skulduggery and hidden Nazi gold) by his simple-minded manservant Jock (Paul Bettany), his far more competent wife Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow), and the MI5 inspector (Ewan McGregor) who still carries a torch for her, not to mention various criminals and gangsters and the most disreputable agents of all - American art collectors.

Mortdecai's bizarre preoccupation with penniless aristocracy and foppish decadence defy 21st-century comprehension in a way that makes the movie seem almost admirable.  Its idiocy is neither cloying nor mean, but defiant, much like director David Koepp's previous film, the similarly brainless and brassy Premium Rush.  And Depp is convincingly unconvincing as a childish playboy; just as Mortdecai's opening narration boasts of his intellectual, physical, and sexual prowess, Depp quickly reveals him to be a simpering, buffoonish fraidy-cat who is generally mortified by human sexuality, with his consistent dog-like moans of discomfort serving as a reminder of his arrested emotional state.  

Make no mistake - Mortdecai is certainly no underrated gem, with large chunks of screentime devoted to its dull and nonsensical caper plot populated with faceless villains and predictable story beats.  Its general style of comedy is also broader than I am suggesting, though it does have its offbeat moments of inspiration (its preoccupation with mustaches surprisingly gives rise to the film's best running gags).  Yet while Depp's previous bombs exploited his quirkiness in desperate and misguided attempts to please, there's something attractive about the tug-of-war going on in Mortdecai, a film both revels in and is embarrassed by its most off-putting extremes.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Red Army

Red Army
Dir. Gabe Polsky

4 out of 5
In the 1970s and 80s, the Soviet national hockey team was one of the most dominant sports dynasties the world had ever seen.  Gabe Polsky's Red Army, is eulogy for a system that churned out world-class champion athletes with a ruthless consistency that somehow also works within the underdog narrative endemic to most fictional sports stories.  The film zeroes in the heyday of Russian hockey, briefly examining what made the Soviets such a perfect Hollywood foil for America's famous "Miracle on Ice" at Lake Placid, then telling the much less heralded, almost forgotten story of the group that emerged from that embarrassing upset to dominate international ice hockey for the rest of the decade.
The movie's Rosetta Stone is Viachaslav "Slava" Fetisov, the English-speaking former captain of the Soviet national squad, who describes the glory days with a fascinating mix of nostalgia and resentment.  Like all Soviet athletes, Fetisov and his teammates were supposed to represent the superiority of socialism with their elite level of play that emphasized teamwork over individual skill.  Yet such a system also demanded that players sacrifice their personal agency for the good of the collective, as coaches who moonlighted as Politburo members strictly controlled nearly every aspect of their lives.  In many ways, Polsky simply verifies the anti-communist talking points of the Reagan era with testimony from those who lived through it.
However, what makes Red Army interesting is its willingness to praise the system's achievements as it simultaneously condemns its methods and confound the conventional Cold War narrative.  Several of the film's experts note that the Soviet hockey juggernaut was built on style of play actually emphasized innovation and creativity, a style that ran contrary to the foreign stereotype of the Soviets as agents of a rigid, unfeeling communist bureaucracy.  The film also builds a convincing case for the success of puck-aided perestroika.  As the 20th century came to a close, hockey was one of the few Soviet institutions that could actually support itself, leading a cash-strapped government to take the unfathomable step of leasing its state property - its star players - to the National Hockey League.
Red Army admittedly relies a bit too much on Fetisov, seemingly the most accessible and charismatic figure from the era explored by Polsky, as its main conduit for information.  The old captain spins an interesting yarn, but the late-breaking revelation that Fetisov is now a cabinet minister in Vladimir Putin's Russian government suddenly casts his commentary in a different light.  (It also explains his contradictory tendency to be both blunt and evasive.)  Note that this does not have an entirely negative effect: if Fetisov was truly as insubordinate to Soviet leadership as he claims, his status in the homeland today is actually quite remarkable.  In the end, Red Army finds a novel way to deal with the heady conflation of sport and politics by illustrating how an ideology can take deep root within a culture, whether its comes from a government or a game.

Monday, January 19, 2015

American Sniper

American Sniper
Dir. Clint Eastwood

3 out of 5

If there is one quality I admire about Clint Eastwood, filmmaker - and it's probably a quality that contributes to the immense popular appeal of his films - it's that he has no interest in appearing fashionable.  His latest work, American Sniper, takes the memoirs of a famed Navy SEAL and spins it into modern day Sergeant York-style mythmaking, a mostly uncomplicated portrait of an American war hero and, by extension, the American mission abroad.  In the film, Bradley Cooper portrays Chris Kyle - considered to be the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history - during his four harrowing tours in Iraq, and the toll his job takes on his family, particularly his wife Taya (Sienna Miller).  It's another one of Eastwood's well-executed, fundamentally-sound blue collar art projects, a paean to the average man in extraordinary circumstances.

But is it extraordinary enough?  While American Sniper exists to honor Kyle, it also feels like a missed opportunity to delve deeper into the extreme lives of combat veterans.  Eastwood, along with screenwriter Jason Hall, quickly discards the biographical format for a more conventional good-versus-evil struggle, giving Kyle a nemesis in the form of an enemy sniper whose legend is nearly equal to his own.  It sets up a nice dichotomy with plenty of dramatic opportunities, but it also lends the story a slickness that turns most of Kyle's colleagues into one-dimensional ciphers, save for one SEAL (Luke Grimes) whose views on the war gradually evolve into a sort of agnostic professionalism.  (I'd love to see his movie as well.) 

American Sniper also suggests internal turmoil in Kyle's own increasing difficulties adjusting to life stateside.  This is as close as the film gets to thinking critically about any of the larger implications about what Kyle - and an entire generation of Americans - was asked to do.  Eastwood's movie has the whiff of propaganda, but in many ways its straightforward attitudes mirror those of its subject, a committed patriot, soldier, and family man.  Additionally, Cooper's portrayal hints at facets of puckish humor and philosophical intractability (he characterizes a comrade's doubts about the U.S. mission in Iraq as "giving up") that prevent the film from making Kyle a pseudo-saint.  American Sniper is about as good as an unchallenged reading of war can be, humanizing a war hero and mythologizing a war.  It isn't nearly as interesting or daring as other contemporary films on the topic (see: The Hurt Locker, Jarhead, and a dozen documentaries about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan), yet in today's balkanized cinematic climate, aiming for the middle might be a more radical move.

Sunday, January 18, 2015


Dir. Michael Mann

2 out of 5

Cyber-thrillers are notorious for aging poorly - the rapid progress of real-life technology makes it all but inevitable as the cutting-edge quickly turns into kitschy junk.  In one sense, that makes it easier to appreciate the efficiency of Blackhat, Michael Mann's film about a legendary hacker plucked from behind bars to hunt down and neutralize an unstoppable techno-terrorist.  Blackhat has the courtesy to be completely ludicrous right this moment, often for reasons that have nothing to do with its dull, prosaic approach to its otherwise timely subject matter.  One only hopes that technology advances far enough as to make Blackhat seem woefully obsolete and give audiences a reason to revisit the film, as there's almost nothing else to compel them otherwise.

After a shadowy figure commits a cyber-attack on a nuclear reactor in China and electronically manipulates the global commodities market, the U.S. and Chinese governments reluctantly team up to stop him.  The latter sends a brother-and-sister team of cyber security consultants to compare notes with the Americans' trump card: Nick Hathaway (Chris Hemsworth), a convict set to win his freedom if he helps capture the bad guy.  Hathaway represents a new breed of the Hollywood hacker, which is actually the same as any standard action hero.  He's a computer whiz who's also found the time to become a top-notch detective, spy, combat strategist, bare-knuckle pugilist, and all-around MacGuyer-ish master of improvisation.  In fact, he's rarely seen behind a keyboard; it's as if Indiana Jones had been hiding in tech support all along.

Interestingly, Blackhat identifies technological supremacy as a feminine trait, at least early on.  The main Chinese agent (Leehom Wang) liaising with the FBI insists on deputizing his sister (Wei Tang), a hotshot systems analyst who falls for Hathaway almost immediately.  Viola Davis also co-stars as the American agent in charge of pursuing cyber crime, but she's given little to do besides take phone calls and stare at computer terminals.  Indeed, Blackhat's glaring flaw is its weak characterization, an issue that starts with its protagonist.  Hathaway projects an aura of invulnerability that dissipates any sense of tension the movie can muster, and his brassy confidence seems misplaced in a story that should be thriving on mystery and insecurity.  Further more, Hemsworth - best known for playing Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe - brings a god-like presence and a bad American tough-guy accent to a role that is completely wrong for him, but he's difficult to blame when saddled with such underwhelming material.  

The would-be thrills of Blackhat are too obscured by techno-babble and unclear objectives to make deciphering it all worth the effort.  It manages to be both bloated and underwritten, doddering along until its incongruously insane climax, which involves the villain - who isn't established until well into the second hour of the film - and Hathaway squaring off in the middle of an Indonesian spiritual festival.  Blackhat is also perversely banal for a Michael Mann film, as any visually compelling sequence is ruined by its far-fetched plot conveniences, or rushed character development, or shockingly bad audio dubbing.  A frustrating, confused misfire, Blackhat is an inept game of cat-and-mouse that unfolds at a snail's pace.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015


Dir. Ava DuVernay

4 out of 5

It's tempting for a film based on real events to take the easy way out.  I'm not speaking of the simplification of complex people and events, or tweaking historical figures to portray them in a more positive (or negative) light.  That is to be expected of fiction.  What makes Selma special, among many other things, is its sincere commitment to both mental rigor and visual dynamism; it proves that history written with lightning does not have to be glib or cloying, nor does it have to blindly and blandly follow a straight line to a predestined moment of uplift.  Selma is determined to earn all of its highs and lows by skillfully balancing the grit and the gloss in an example of Hollywood filmmaking approaching its noblest aspirations.

Explaining what I mean by this starts with the fact that I haven't even mentioned that Selma is nominally a Martin Luther King Jr. biopic.  It certainly is that in one sense, but it's also about a great many other things, chief among them the exhausting nature of activism and its attendant political sausage-making.  Selma picks up more than a year after the "I Have a Dream" speech, with Dr. King (David Oyelowo) returning from accepting the Nobel Peace Prize to help organize opposition to Alabama's discriminatory voter registration laws, culminating in a 50-mile march from rural Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery.

What Selma does, however, is show the gradual, grueling path to arrive at that last sentence being printed in a million history textbooks - the wheeling and dealing with President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his sympathetic administration, the squabbles over tactics with activist leaders of every stripe, and the threat of violence looming at every turn.  Director Ava DuVernay is especially diligent in spelling out the causes and effects of the violence in Selma during the spring of 1965, turning these incidents into small, tragic arcs of their own.  Two of the film's most powerful sequences come from the flashpoints that pushed Selma into the public consciousness (or as King astutely notes, the "white consciousness"): the murder of protester Jimmy Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield) by Alabama state troopers and the events of "Bloody Sunday," the first attempt to launch a Selma march without the blessing or protection of the federal government.

Secretly an ensemble piece masquerading as an MLK biopic, Selma gets at something that's both specific and essential.  "Civil rights" is a slowly creeping river with many eddies, but DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb use one very famous - and yet still largely overlooked or misunderstood - example to show how a trickle becomes a mighty torrent, while neither scrubbing nor sentimentalizing the sacrifices along the way, while the magnificent cast brings the icons back down to earth: not just the brilliant Oyelowo, but also players like Tim Roth bringing a wry priggishness (and prickishness) to George Wallace, or Carmen Ejogo giving Coretta Scott King moments to be something more than a dignified, beaming wife.  Befitting a film that identifies inertia as one of its main antagonists, Selma moves the line forward, allowing us to embrace and engage with our feelings about the past instead of simply holding it up as a tasteful museum piece.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year
Dir. J.C. Chandor

4.5 out of 5

The sole shootout in A Most Violent Year consumes a small fraction of its two-hour runtime.  It produces no visible blood and no serious physical injuries.  The scene even ends with its adversaries fleeing the cops together.  However, it does have long-lasting repercussions for many people not present - and that, in a nutshell, is the film's entire modus operandi, showing how ill-fated, emotionally-compromised choices create a ripple effect that not only destroy years of careful planning, but also beget even more opportunities for frustration and chaos.

The film takes place in the winter of 1981 in New York City, where Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) owns a thriving heating oil business, built upon years of hard work, sacrifice, and his bootstrap-pulling attitude.  His next big move involves the acquisition of a waterfront storage facility that could give him a huge advantage over his competitors - a deal contingent on the approval of a critical bank loan.  Unfortunately for Abel, it's a rather inconvenient time for anyone to scrutinize his business.  Someone is sending armed thugs to hijack his delivery trucks, threatening the safety of his drivers and Abel's standing with the Teamsters union.  And if that weren't enough, a crusading district attorney (David Oyelowo) is investigating the heating oil industry for financial fraud, and is suspicious of the books kept by Abel's wife Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a old-school Brooklyn gangster.

Morales' tale unfolds like a Greek tragedy - and, at times, exhibits the same penchant for dramatic coincidence - while Isaac carries the film with the same commanding-yet-somber presence that propelled the equally excellent Inside Llewyn Davis.  A staunchly moral man, Abel is fighting for his family's future as well as his own mortal soul.  The character has his own kind of sanctimonious hubris, ignoring the counsel of his pragmatic legal adviser (Albert Brooks), but his greatest challenge is preventing the city itself from infecting him with its sleaze and corruption.  A Most Violent Year is obliquely a Mafia thriller, though writer-director J.C. Chandor wisely assumes that we've seen plenty of those.  Instead, he offers a spellbinding meditation on moral decay and the struggle to keep fear from compromising our deeply-held principles - a conflict that's just as gripping without any bloodshed.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Into the Woods

Into the Woods
Dir. Rob Marshall

3.5 out of 5

There's more than a bit of irony in seeing the Disney logo appear before the long-awaited film adaptation of Into the Woods, Stephen Sondheim's musical deconstruction of fairy tale archetypes.  The studio's animated canon has often been criticized for smoothing out the wrinkles of folktales in search of unequivocal happy endings.  Indeed, Disney's interpretations of the Brothers Grimm tales and other traditional stories might be most responsible for launching critiques like Sondheim's.  In recent years, however, Disney has embraced a type of self-awareness in films from Enchanted to Maleficent, an agenda that dovetails with a commercial climate that favors remakes, reboots, and other methods of telling old stories in new ways.  Where Into the Woods was once a bold outlier, it now represents sound financial strategy.

That doesn't mean Into the Woods is any less deserving of an adaptation that recognizes its pioneering ambition, and director Rob Marshall is able to preserve much of the musical's thematic richness in its transition from stage to screen.  The film imagines several famous characters from folk literature - Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack the Giant-Killer (Daniel Huttlestone), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) and her prince (Chris Pine), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) - suddenly crossing and re-crossing paths when a young baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) try to gather the necessary talismans to satisfy a witch (Meryl Streep) whose curse has rendered the couple childless.  Yet more impressive than Woods' narrative plate-spinning is its sharp commentary on the morals embedded in these stories, exposing them to real-world ambivalence and uncertainty that troubles their supposed function as instruction manuals for romance, redemption, grief, or any number of emotional experiences.

Into the Woods successfully walks a fine line, balancing its darker, more knowing elements with its broad appeal as an uplifting, insightful, and often humorous take on well-known characters.  Yet while the film makes very few isolated missteps (Johnny Depp's hammy turn as the Big Bad Wolf being the most glaring) and gives its talented cast plenty of individual moments to shine, it still feels like there is some wasted potential here.  Marshall has trouble finding a rhythm with the interlocking stories, which don't track as easily outside the more intimate confines of a Broadway theater.  He also misses certain opportunities to tailor the material to the medium, particularly near the end of the movie, where the luxury of showing instead of telling should probably trump any sense of fidelity to the stage experience.  

Nonetheless, similar to the divisive 2012 adaptation of Les Misérables (which I liked), it's not the technical, nitpicky stuff that matters in a musical adaptation.  It's the emotional journey that counts, and Into the Woods sustains a live-wire excitement on the strength of Sondheim's and screenwriter James Lapine's moving observations about the joys and sorrows of love, family, and filial responsibility.  Much like the fairy tales it re-imagines, the movie is not about the veracity of the its external details but the internal changes it provokes, willing us to recognize some part of it that we can also see in ourselves.