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.

Wreck-It Ralph Review – Arcade Aggressor


Director: Rich Moore

Writers: Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee 

Stars: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer


Release date: November 12th, 2012

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 101 minutes


 

3½/5 

Best part: The video game universe.

Worst part: The sugar-coated humour.

Video games are merely seen as a way of escaping reality. But the imaginative worlds created for every Halo, Call of Duty or Super Mario Bros. game may be small parts of something much greater. This is vaguely the premise of Disney’s new animated feature Wreck-It Ralph. The video game universe is given a new lease of life here. This behind-the-scenes look at our favourite pixelated heroes and villains is a testament to how far technology has come in the past 40 years. It’s a fun, vibrant and heart-warming journey through the 32-bit universe.

John C. Reilly.

Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is one of two main characters in the arcade game Fix-It Felix, Jr. (inspired by Donkey-Kong). His destructive ways have left him isolated from the game’s other characters, forced to watch them side with its titular hero Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer). After a disastrous support group meeting for disgruntled villains, Ralph comes back to his game having not been invited to its 30th anniversary party. Ralph’s existential crisis pushes him to strive for hero’s status. Hopping games inside the grid, Ralph will find his courage and humility in two games; Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush. His illegal pursuit into the realm of Sugar Rush leads to his greatest challenge- friendship. This comes in form of young sugar-fuelled racer Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). Vanellope and Ralph must bond to achieve their goals before the video game multiplex becomes obsolete.

Sarah Silverman.

Wreck-It Ralph is a surprisingly inventive animated feature in the vein of Hoodwinked and Kung-Fu Panda. Disney has learnt from Pixar’s standard of breath-taking animated film-making. Disney animation has developed an epic, brightly-coloured and energetic version of Toy Story set in a multi-layered video game universe. Ralph’s journey towards both a hero’s medal and salvation is exhilarating whilst tugging the heartstrings at just the right moments. Ralph is ostensibly a nice guy in a bad guy’s intimidating exterior. Kids will enjoy this story of self-confidence and determination. Despite using the undying animated film theme of ‘always believe in yourself’, the film depicts a sensitive outlook on how our differences make us truly special. The main characters are all outsiders in their own games. They become the heroes they choose to be and never forget about each other along the way. Ralph and Vanellope’s instant chemistry works out the kinks in their contrasting personalities. Wreck-It Ralph‘s comedic moments however strictly serve the younger viewers. Vanellope’s goofy humour steadily becomes tedious. While Sugar Rush is a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-like plethora of candy related puns.

Jane Lynch.

Wreck-It Ralph smartly bases its characters on the actors portraying them. The characters exude the same interior and exterior traits that make these actors some of the most likeable in Hollywood today. Reilly embodies Wreck-It Ralph with his usual every-man persona. Known for playing likeable characters in dramas such as Magnolia and We Need to talk About Kevin, Reilly’s portrayal of this down-on-his-luck hero comes off as a loving representation of his own indelible on-screen attitude. Silverman energetically voices a fun-loving child. Vanellope’s optimistic attitude keeps Ralph on his toes, proving that persistence is the key to happiness. Her snarky jokes at points crackle, drawing a sense of heart from Ralph’s tough exterior. Glee‘s Jane Lynch is hysterical as the Ripley-esque bad-ass chick. Lynch’s tom-boyish silver haired warrior is in desperate need of a silver lining. While 30 Rock‘s McBrayer plays an enjoyably optimistic character willing to give Ralph a chance.

“When did video games become so violent and scary?” (Wreck-it Ralph (JohnC. Reilly), Wreck-it Ralph).

Jack McBrayer.

Jack McBrayer.

Director Rich Moore is clearly inspired by the great Disney animated features that made the company an overwhelming success. The universe that Moore and Disney have created rivals the luscious landscapes of Pixar’s greatest feature films. The fore and backgrounds are teeming with classic video game and film references. Modern entertainment owes Disney many debts of gratitude for changing cinema throughout the past 40 years. However, this film is Disney’s homage to other popular genres and movements in the entertainment industry. Both adults and kids will have fun pointing out multiple arcade and 3-D video game references. The support group for example includes Pacman’s ghost nemesis, Bowser and Street Fighter‘s Zangief. The grid is also a plethora of video game influences. Any video game junkie will love the realm filled with Halo-meets-Aliens-like first person shooters, Nintendo/Super Mario Kart inspired racing games and every classic arcade game character imaginable. Look out for Sonic the Hedgehog, Mortal Kombat contestants and Q*Berg.

Disney’s latest animated feature is perfect for the holidays. Swerving away from Dreamworks’ generic pop-culture obsessed animated material, Wreck-It Ralph is a pacy mix of delectable set-pieces and likeable characters.

Verdict: A nostalgic and colour-saturated thrill ride.

John Carter Review – Kitsch’s Catastrophe


Director: Andrew Stanton

Writers: Andrew Stanton, Mark Andrews, Michael Chabon (screenplay), Edgar Rice Burroughs (novels)

Stars: Taylor Kitsch, Lynn Collins, Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong


Release date: March 9th, 2012

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 132 minutes


 

2½/5

Best part: The Tharks.

Worst part: The cliched narrative.

The perfect way to describe this adaptation of the Barsoom series by Edgar Rice Burroughs is by comparing it to every classic action adventure film of its type. Charming yet tedious, John Carter is a sci-fi fantasy flick that will leave you underwhelmed, as great actors and a beautiful visual style are dragged through a slow pace and unoriginal script.

Taylor Kitsch.

The clichés begin with a young Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) reading from the memoirs of civil war veteran and all around badass John Carter (Taylor Kitsch). Suddenly we are taken back to the end of the civil war, with Carter looking for lost treasure while trying to avoid both the cruel american forces and savage native american indians. Carter’s dangerous discoveries and run ins with the law of the land lead to his transportation from Earth (Jarsoom) to Mars (Barsoom). With the realisation of his new home comprising of warring factions not resembling any nationality on earth and a spiritual alien tribe, its up to Carter and feisty princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) to save the dying planet from the forces of evil, with their hearts skipping a beat for each other along the way.

Lynn Collins & Ciaran Hinds.

John Carter is Avatar, Star Wars and Dances with Wolves all rolled into one. The film wears its cliches and influences on its sleeve, without displaying an even vaguely imaginative sci-fi action fairytale simultaneously. Despite this series of books being written in the early 20th century, this film was clearly the result of box office successes such as Avatar and Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. Carter’s exploration of Mars is surprisingly dull due to the very simple quest our characters are placed in. Unlike Avatar, the film quickly loses focus and spends little time with its most unique characters. Whereas Avatar saw to the detailed exploration of a planet’s native inhabitants, The ‘Tharks’ in John Carter stand only for plot devices and comic relief. Unfortunately, the film focuses almost entirely on the warring Romanesque factions. Despite several clever moments of comedy, the human characters throughout are two dimensional at best while bland performances from British actors Ciaran Hinds and Dominic West prove costly for this already unenterprising adventure. Mark Strong is charismatic as the snarling, shape shifting Thern but suffers from a one dimensional character used specifically as a plot contrivance. This film proves that Hollywood’s fresh crop of young lead actors aren’t up to the task of carrying major Hollywood blockbusters.

“When I saw you, I believed it was a sign… that something new can come into this world.” (Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), John Carter).

Mark Strong.

Kitsch and Collins are completely dull. Their thick accents and lack of expressions add to the tedium as they soon become uninteresting to watch. Their developing relationship also feels forced upon finding out Carter’s recently troubled past. This largely predictable quest and tale of love among the stars is not without its share of enjoyable moments. The technical aspects of the film reign supreme, especially when dealing with the alien characters. The Tharks are depicted as war ravaged and spiritually guided praying mantises. Their tusks, four arms and slender figures create a wonderful interpretation of the ancient Earth bound tribes from Africa to North America. While their strange body movements and reactions to  John Carter himself create many fascinating character interactions. Willem Dafoe, Samantha Morton and Thomas Haden Church provide their usual screen prowess in their motion capture turns as tribe members Tars Tarkis, Sola and Tal Hajus respectively. The setting of Mars is also used to full effect. The idea of undiscovered worlds carved into the bright red planet is expressed through giant mechanised cities, flying machines, scary creatures, gigantic battles and alien inhabitants sticking to the old ways; brought to life through impeccable special effects and sickeningly harsh desert landscapes.

John Carter, for all the bravado and good-will of its typical summer blockbuster vibe, can’t help but trip over its own two alien feet. Despite the epic scope and fine cast, the movie comes off like a slap-dash studio decision. Sadly, Avatar‘s shadow is still too big!

Verdict: A perfunctory and uninspired sci-fi blockbuster.