Into the Woods Review: Show-stopping Streep-tacular


Director: Rob Marshall

Writer: James Lapine (book and screenplay)

Stars: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick


Release date: January 8th, 2014

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 124 minutes


 

3½/5

Best part: The dynamic performances.

Worst part: The final 25 minutes.

Into the Woods, born from acclaimed composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s glorious 1987 Tony Award-winning stage production, serves a specific purpose: making fun of everything you love. Despite the patronising satirical glow, his style allows theatre-goers, fantasy-epic aficionados etc. to laugh with his production and at genre art. Several years ago, fans of Sweeney Todd were treated to Tim Burton’s spirited remake starring white-faced Johnny Depp and soot-covered soundstages. So, does this one hit the high notes or fall to wailing lows?

Tinseltown’s latest Broadway-to-Blockbuster smash is up against this Oscar Season’s biggest hitters. Wholly separating itself from its WWII/manipulative biopic/satirical broadway/Hobbit-starring competition, Into the Woods flaunts its creative consultants, director, and starry cast’s better sides. Placed in the Awards-hungry musical/comedy slot, it compares favourably to every other recent musical-to-screen effort (Les Miserables, among others). This musical deconstructs significant Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales including Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk. In a small village, a wack-a-doo witch (Meryl Streep) tasks a cursed-to-never-conceive baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) to obtain four items – a cow as white as milk, a cloak as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold – before the next blue moon. For varying – albeit well-known – reasons, scullery maid turned princess hopeful Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), peasant boy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) also venture into the dreaded neighbouring woods.

The musical-to-movie switch is a long-standing Hollywood process. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) has dedicated himself to the art form. Even his songless flops, Memoirs of a Geisha and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, reek of flamboyance and grand-scale camp. Marshall efficiently applies his vast skill-set to Into the Woods, delivering a extravagance-fuelled hit rivalling Chicago‘s overt magnetism. The filmmaker, applying a unheard-of rehearsal schedule here, protects the original material’s legacy while lathering his style across each frame. Indeed, Sondheim’s outside-the-box storytelling style and pin-point sense of humour shine throughout this slick adaptation. Appealing to cinema-goers and theatre buffs alike, it snappily pays homage to Sondheim’s enduring legacy. Author/playwright/screenwriter James Lapine valiantly trims his original ground-breaking material down to fit effortlessly. This adaptation aptly carries its own heaving weight throughout its first three quarters. Marshall and co. succinctly interweave all four fairy tales into the central plot-line. Indeed, this Avengers-style gathering of fairy tale favourites draws out that inner-child-esque nostalgic glow. Its balance between anachronistic satire and old-timey fantasy fluff will satisfy families and cinephiles this Oscar season. It’s darker elements – connotations alluding to pedophilia and adultery – are overshadowed by its winning formula.

“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” (Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine), Into the Woods).

Sadly, Into the Woods‘ story topples over with the full force of a giant, a carriage, and Rapunzel’s heavenly locks combined. The original premise, depicting the meaningless of life post “happily ever after” for these fictional celebrities, is preserved haphazardly for the final 30 minutes. The finale, stretching this adaptation into a discomforting fourth act, throws unrefined resolutions and peculiar tonal switches into the otherwise hearty, designed-to-win potion. Eventually, the abundance of character arcs and story-lines sends it down the wrong path. Despite these near-crippling flaws, it’s an ample antidote to our recent slew of dark, dreary fairy-tale adaptations (Snow White & the Huntsman…ZZZZZ). It simply, and smartly, lets heroes be likeable and villains be despicable. However, the cynical twang elevates its forgettable array of musical numbers. The standout, oddly enough, involves a testosterone-fuelled feud between a Hollywood heartthrob and relative newcomer. The charming princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) engage in a hysterically homoerotic number (‘Agony’) comparable to Top Gun‘s volleyball scene. Sadly, despite the cast and crew’s immense talents, the surrounding numbers struggle to escape its shadow. Red and the Wolf(Johnny Depp)’s set-piece – ‘Hello, Little Girl’ – is a mild reprieve. Streep and Blunt, yet again, deliver astounding turns in leading roles. Despite their underutilised supporting characters, Tracy Ullman, Mackenzie Mauzy, and Christine Baranski make a strong case for more big-time female roles.

Into the Woods‘ true, uncompromising magic comes from a desire to please audiences rather than shock or repel them. In the midst of imitation games, unbroken actress turned directors, and Timothy Spall’s grunts, this smash hit transitions gorgeously from the Big Apple to the bright lights. Marshall, recovering from tedious recent efforts, wholeheartedly succeeds with this hilarious and arresting fantasy epic. Its journey-better-than-the-destination vibe, for better or worse, separates it from the ‘village’.

Verdict: A family-friendly and entertaining musical-satire.

In Order of Disappearance Review: What’s Cooler than Being Cool…?


Director: Hans Petter Moland

Writer: Kim Fupz Aakeson

Stars: Stellan Skarsgard, Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen, Kristofer Hivju, Bruno Ganz


Release date: December 23rd, 2014

Distributor: Madman Entertainment

Countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark

Running time: 115 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: The scatological humour.

Worst part: The female characters.

Ever tried finding a needle in a haystack? Difficult, isn’t it? Well, imagine looking for a cocaine brick in a snowstorm. Now that’s a frustrating endeavour! This strange dilemma/contemplative thought sums up Norwegian crime-comedy In Order of Disappearance. In a year of unfunny comedies, expansive blockbusters, and cumbersome Oscar hopefuls, This crime-comedy wants to be known simply as: “that little Scandinavian flick that could”. Hey, there is nothing wrong with that!

Stellan Skarsgard as Nils.

In order of Disappearance strives to call out and dissect Hollywood’s sanitized, sanction-heavy practices. In fact, it skewers everything from influential gangster/action flicks to Europe’s crumbling economic status. Sure, this isn’t the first crime-comedy with a mean streak. Boiling-pot satires In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths did this years ago. Enough with this movie’s searing viewpoints, what is it actually about? Well, to put it simply, it’s about everything and nothing simultaneously. This vague statement will become relevant whilst watching it. It follows a near-retirement slow plough driver, Nils (Stellan Skarsgard), dragging himself from one day to the next. Despite being awarded Citizen of the Year by his quaint hometown, he feels unfulfilled and underappreciated by his family. His life takes a shocking turn after his son dies of a suspected drug overdose. As we see in the first few minutes, his son crossed the wrong drug traffickers. From that point forward, Nils’ life spirals out of control. His wife succumbs to shock and rage, his work life becomes a meaningless chore, and his well-being is destroyed. Certain revelations, preventing Nils from ending it all, propel Nils to keep going.

Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen as Greven.

Determined to destroy those responsible, Nils carries out a layered private investigation of a local mob outfit and their Serbian rivals. In Order of Disappearance, from the opening hunter-becomes-hunted set-piece onwards, develops several questionable plot-lines and character traits. Nils, a reliable and submissive worker-bee, can suddenly stalk, trick, and murder vicious criminals without prior experience. The movie leaves several twists and turns without reasonable explanation. Despite said logic gaps, the narrative itself is just so fascinating! Like Nils, you are constantly on the look out for surprises. This crime-comedy delivers constant thrills whilst never talking down to its unsuspecting audience. Keeping us constantly engaged, It places certain affectations and ideas into the backgrounds of certain sequences. The Norwegian drug-runners, led by eccentric douche Greven (Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen), are comprised of blonde-haired, fashion-friendly, bloodthirsty badasses. These characters are given enough development and kooky traits to push the story along. In particular, it examines Greven’s inflated ego, vegan diet options, and modern art collections intensely. But hey, drug-traffickers and gangsters are people too.

“You Chinese are the Jews of Asia.” (Greven (Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen), In Order of Disappearance).

Bruno Ganz as Papa.

In Order of Disappearance shoots down modern genre conventions and pop-cultural stigmas in a fiery bloodbath of comedic jabs. Like Nils stalking his victims, this crime-comedy pits modern Hollywood crime/action flicks against those from other countries. Paying homage to Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and Martin Scorsese, multiple scenes – in which henchmen delve into profound philosophical discussions – illustrate the movie’s intentions immaculately. It even rubs against the veteran-action-star trope. Nils’ sociopathic behavior repels us from the typical Liam Neeson/Denzel Washington/Keanu Reeves archetypes plaguing cinema screens today. Oddly enough, its comedic moments resonate more than the story or characters. The spirited direction and visual flourishes heighten the tension and profound emotional impact, giving its wacky moments greater impact. The slapstick sequences, hyper-violence, and witty dialogue add to the movie’s ever-lasting, self-referential glow. The movie lets its characters off the leash – henchmen frolic in the snow before their mission commences; Greven and his ex-wife’s quarrels become increasingly silly and idiotic; two homosexual gangsters seek to dispel common misconceptions. Somehow, it’s all in good taste.

Above all else, Skarsgard’s magnetic performance, as the deadly third-wheel, elevates this spirited crime-comedy. The top-tier character-actor, known for supporting roles in everything from Thor to Melancholia, excels as the silent yet soulful avenging angel. Thanks to its charismatic performances, insightful references, and attention to detail, this crime-comedy is a genre-bender willing to place Hollywood and Scandanavian crime-thriller on the chopping block.

Verdict: A fun and ferocious crime-comedy. 

The Interview Review: Rogen’s Rampage


Directors: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg

Writer: Dan Sterling

Stars: James Franco, Seth Rogen, Lizzy Caplan, Randall Park


Release date: December 26th, 2014

Distributor: Columbia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 112 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: Franco and Rogen’s chemistry.

Worst part: The sluggish middle third.

Oh boy, wasn’t 2014 a big year for entertainment?! As music, art, and fashion become universally applicable talking points, cinema almost dropped off the map of public appeal and critical interest. Suffering the lowest cinema attendance numbers in 20 years, Hollywood was taken down a peg. Most importantly, The Interview revealed more than any parody, satire, or documentary could ever hope to. This comedy, offending everyone in North Korea, forced hacking set-up Guardians of Peace’s hand. Seriously, we’re threatening to go to war over this movie?!

James Franco & Seth Rogen.

Don’t get me wrong, The Interview is a decent product. Its light-hearted, fluffy allure makes it a worthwhile 2-hour distraction. Despite the controversy and commercial losses, it doesn’t deserve this much hatred. More-offensive comedies The Great Dictator and Team America: World Police previously took aim at the world’s biggest dick-tators. In a parallel dimension, this would have been crushed under a wave of birdmen, imitation games, and theories of everything. Its formulaic plot and typical casting choices sink any chance of true greatness. We meet Jimmy Fallon-esque talk show host Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapoport (Seth Rogen) celebrating their 1000th episode of tabloid pap Skylark Tonight. After a profound realisation, Aaron’s affection for the show wears thin. Dave – accustomed to pulling dark secrets out of Tinseltown’s brightest stars – promises Aaron he’ll deliver more legit news bulletins and features. Their wishes are granted by way of a peculiar long-time fan. North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) requests a live interview with Skylark. The CIA, led by Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan), tasks the celebrity-destroying duo with assassinating the ruthless dictator.

Franco, Rogen & Lizzy Caplan.

Besides the string of mind-blowing behind-the-scenes events, there is little difference between The Interview and anything else Rogen and co. have delivered over the past decade. Rogen, directing and crafting the story alongside partner Evan Goldberg, were simply reaching for previous effort This is the End‘s critical and commercial success. The dynamic duo certainly meddle with intriguing concepts. They, refusing to bow down to studio pressures, have much to confess about the studio system. The balance between by-the-numbers plot and bonkers satirical commentary works throughout The Interview‘s opening third. Skylark’s show is a silver lining-free dark cloud over Hollywood. These skits – mimicking the same shallow flash and pizazz as Entertainment Tonight or TMZ – deliver the biggest laughs. Certain set pieces – featuring big-names Eminem, Rob Lowe, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt – let Rogen and co. off the leash. The standard straight man/kooky guy dynamic clicks immediately. The second third, however, crawls slower than United States/North Korea negotiations. The Rogen/Franco formula is pushed aside as Jong-un comes into the picture. Predictably, the central conflict (take a guess what happens here!) stalls this otherwise enjoyable and thought-provoking action-comedy. Despite the second-act flaws, Jong-un nearly steals the show. The baby-faced dictator even gets a convincing and well-rounded character arc. Here, instead of Team America‘s petulant-toddler image, the North Korean leadership is filled with misunderstood nobodies.

“Haters gonna hate, and ain’ters gonna ain’t!” (Dave Skylark (James Franco), The Interview)

Randall Park as Kim Jong-un.

Once again, however, Rogen and co. appear to have more fun making these movies than we do watching them. Though drifting above the Grown Ups series’ stench of laziness, it comes off like a million-dollar get-together. The performances elevate The Interview above Rogen’s recent efforts. Franco’s non-stop charisma and whacky timing bolster several well-thought-out zingers. Rogen’s reserved demeanour balances out Franco’s manic persona. Park’s nubile performance saves several lackluster second-act moments. It ticks all the common-theme boxes. Its anti-celebrity agenda is worth several ironic chuckles. The second-two thirds sharply commentate on US/NK relations. Tearing both countries down, Rogen and co. illuminate several relevant and idealistic viewpoints. For once, the stoner has the right idea! Who Knew, huh? Thankfully, the final third kicks this tiresome comedy into overdrive. The interview sequence, though hammering its pro-freedom/anti-bullying message into the ground, is chock-a-block with hysterical gross-out gags, over-the-top gore, and cute one-liners. Rogen and Goldberg experiment with action, scale, and practical effects. The tank chases, shootouts, and high-flying stunts show off some of the budget. However, despite the chaos and hilarity, its near-two-hour run-time severely dampens the allure.

The controversy surrounding The Interview, including the intense criticism over its subject matter, has little to do with the movie itself. Certainly, it’s not worth the world-destroying hoopla. However, it’s still an enjoyable silly and hysterical ode to Mel Brooks, Abbott and Costello and every bumbling comedic icon in between. Rogen and Goldberg’s raucous sense of humour, solid political messages, and fun action beats are worth the online download price. However, Rogen’s hands-on control is suffocating everything he touches. That beard and belly laugh only get him so far with us Western devils!

Verdict: A hit-and-miss political-comedy.

The Water Diviner Review: Wing-clipped Crowe


Director: Russell Crowe

Writers: Andrew Anastasios, Andrew Knight

Stars: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Yilmaz Erdogan


Release date: December 26th, 2014

Distributor: Universal Pictures, Entertainment One, Warner Bros. Pictures

Countries: Australia, Turkey, USA 

Running time: 111 minutes 


 

2½/5

Best part: Crowe’s performance.

Worst part: His topsy-turvy direction.

Many A-list actors, After working on multiple high-demand projects with acclaimed directors, follow a ‘monkey see, monkey do’ approach. This year, several good and bad actor/director projects came to fruition. African-American comedian Chris Rock struck gold with heart-warmer Top Five. However, Hollywood heart-throb George Clooney fumbled The Monuments Men‘s intriguing premise. This Oscar season pits Angelina Jolie’s World War II tear-jerker Unbroken against Russell Crowe’s directorial début The Water Diviner. Sorry Rusty, in this instance, Ange has the edge.

Director/actor Russell Crowe.

Actor/director Russell Crowe.

I’m going stifle this review by outlining my intentions and opinion. I believe the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps’ WWI efforts were valiant and prosperous. The Battle of Gallipoli, soon to celebrate its 100th anniversary, is a defining point in our history. This is where I separate the socio-political talk from my Water Diviner critique. indeed, it’s a heartfelt love letter to our island nation. The story is as ‘true-blue’ as a cockatoo riding an emu riding a kangaroo. It kicks off in 1916, as the Turkish Army – led by Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan) and Jemal (Cem Yilmaz) – witnesses the ANZACs retreating from the Gallipoli Peninsula via the Dardanelles. It then jumps to 1919, and farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) finds water on his expansive estate. However, he and wife Eliza (Jacqueline McKenzie) struggle to overcome their three sons’ demise. Eliza’s depression and eventual suicide kickstart Connor’s mission to find his children’s war-torn graves. Before his real quest begins, he inadvertently comes across petulant hotel owner Omer (Steve Bastoni), his sister-in-law Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), and her son Orhan (Dylan Georgiades). His journey takes him to Gallipoli’s accursed battleground, watched over by Lt. Col. Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney) and his forces. Connor believes, against all odds, his eldest son, Arthur (Ryan Corr), may still be alive.

Crowe & Olga Kurylenko.

It’s been a critically successful year for period pieces, the Australian film industry, and grizzled protagonists. Crowe, in bringing these great tastes together, creates a derivative and flavourless stew. Certainly, his ambition, intentions, and ideas are exceedingly commendable. More so, his cast and crew choices, determination, and buying power work wonders here. Though his heart is in the right place, he can’t wrap his head around the material. Sadly, The Water Diviner‘s many issues stem from his directorial inexperience. Crowe, handing himself complete control in front of and behind the camera, carries that vanity project aura. His reach exceeds his grasp; causing a rift between his larger-than-life process and tight budget. Certain sequences needed several thousands more to appeal cinematically. Though supported by several companies, from Universal and Warner Bros. Pictures to Channel 7, the movie’s made-for-TV vibe is obvious and inexcusable. It tussles between misplaced vanity and student art-house vibes for extended periods, with certain sequences wholly missing the point. For every heart-wrenching scene or monologue, a cheap-looking and cumbersome set piece bowls over it. His directorial flourishes and shooting style appear inappropriate and uninspired. Lacking Ben Affleck and Mel Gibson’s directorial prowess, his glorious sheen unceremoniously punchers the final product. C’mon Rusty, handing yourself one of the world’s most beautiful women is a plain obvious manoeuvre!

“I measure man by how much he loves his children, not what the world has done to them.” (Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko), The Water Diviner).

Jai Courtney.

Jai Courtney.

The Water Diviner is a soulless concoction of Oscar-bait touches and peculiar decisions. In fairness, The movie’s greatest flaws stem from Andrews Anastasios and Knight’s tonally inconsistent screenplay. The central conceit, a regular man searching for answers whilst righting his wrongs, is a fascinating conceit…one we’ve seen in several blockbusters. Connor’s exasperating and awe-inspiring journey through decrepit war zones, thanks to the Crowe’s vision, excels throughout. However, the movie veers into harlequin romance territory for unending periods. Connor and Ayshe’s burgeoning affections turn this war-drama into the English Patient lite. The Istanbul sequences, depicting well-known Aussies playing Turkish caricatures, never convince. Isabel Lucas and Megan Gale immediately distract from the its silky flow. The farm life, father-son bond, and marriage aspects remain underdeveloped. Crowe, thankfully, faithfully develops every Australian and Turkish character. The opening scene, despite the shoddy CGI and single-block-of-land scope, depicts the Turkish characters successfully defending their country. From there, the movie efficiently discusses both sides’ ideals. At times, Crowe’s patriotic side – the ‘Strayan characters saying: “righto” and “mate” profusely; Connor teaching the Turkish characters how to play cricket; the British characters look down on him with snarly glee – shines through.

The Water Diviner is a commendable and ambitious effort willing to discuss major issues. The project, despite Crowe’s bloated aura, is suitably subtle and touching at opportune moments. However, compared to Peter Weir’s war classic Gallipoli, this drama is our film industry’s latest great misfire. His hubris crushes this modest and heartfelt ode to the past and present Australia. Pandering to the ANZAC spirit, the movie’s shoddy production design and lack of focus resembles Crowe’s character: well-meaning yet lost.

Verdict: An ambitious yet messy war-drama.

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Mr. Turner Review: Masterstrokes & Milestones


Director: Mike Leigh

Writer: Mike Leigh

Stars: Timothy Spall, Paul Jesson, Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey


Release date: December 26th, 2014

Distributor: Entertainment One

Country: UK, France, Germany

Running Date: 150 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Spall’s mesmerising performance.

Worst part: The anti-climactic denouement.

Review: Mr. Turner

Verdict: A mesmerising and meticulous docudrama.

The Captive Review: Think of the Children!


Director: Atom Egoyan

Writers: Atom Egoyan, David Fraser

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Rosario Dawson, Scott Speedman, Mireille Enos


Release date: December 12th, 2014

Distributor: A24

Country: Canada 

Running time: 140 minutes


 

2/5

Best part: The dynamic performances.

Worst part: Egoyan’s direction.

Review: The Captive

Verdict: A lifeless and inconsistent kidnap-thriller.