Into the Woods

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DIR: Penny Marshall • WRI: James Lapine • PRO: John DeLuca, Rob Marshall, Callum McDougall, Marc Platt • DOP: Dion Beebe • ED: Wyatt Smith • DES: Dennis Gassner • MUS: Stephen Sondheim • CAST: Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt

To be perfectly honest (and in the name of laying out all personal biases before we start), this movie had two strikes against it before the lights even went down. One, it was a musical and two, it featured James Corden in a leading role (the third strike came when it started and it turned out he was also the narrator). So it came as quite a shock when it turned out that this is probably the most pleasantly surprising movie to emerge since The LEGO Movie and for a lot of the same reasons. Being won over by a musical isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility but a film making James Corden not only tolerable but bordering on likeable? That’s nothing short of divine intervention…

In keeping with Disney’s recent output, Into the Woods is another revisionist fairy tale. This time the twist is that several different fairy tales are happening simultaneously with an overarching story that features a baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) trying to collect four items for a witch (Streep) so that she’ll remove a curse that’s making it impossible for them to conceive. The items are, naturally, each from the various fairy tales; Red Riding Hood’s (Crawford) cape, Cinderella’s (Kendrick) slipper, the cow Jack (Huttlestone) is taking to market and Rapunzel’s (Mauzy) hair. As each of the various characters end up passing through the titular woods, the baker and his wife spend their time frantically running around trying to find the items while each of the other characters try to go through the motions of their respective stories despite the interruptions. There is singing, there are cameos and sprinkled liberally throughout is healthy dose of sardonic humour and a surprising amount of casual violence.

It’s hard to think of any movie in recent memory that wants so badly for you to be simultaneously laughing *at* and *with* it. The overall look is in keeping with a lot of revisionist fairy tales (a slightly hyper-real but ultimately authentic-looking fantasy setting) while the dialogue is made up largely of jokes poking fun at the ridiculous conventions of the very story it’s trying to tell. And in that particular area, this is Emily Blunt’s movie. Not only does she get most of the best lines and moments but in a film filled with good (and genuinely funny) performances, her particular style of acting preposterously casual in situations that warrant the opposite, or bordering on a barely subdued mania make her an absolute joy to watch. The rest of the cast are also pretty good by and large. Corden is, as mentioned earlier, tolerable, Kendrick is her ever likeable self, the child actors are surprisingly funny and Meryl Streep is… mixed. There are moments where she Meryl Streeps like she’s never Meryl Streep-ed before while for most of it, she’s merely there and then, when she finally seems to be coming into her own, the film unceremoniously drops her just when it needs a performance like hers to keep things going. Depp on the other hand…

In some ways Depp personifies everything that’s right with the movie even though he himself is a bit off. He plays the wolf in the Red Riding Hood portion and couldn’t be characterised as more of a sexual predator if he had the very words tattooed across his forehead. Dressed like what an especially trippy Japanese anime might design a caricature of a seventies pimp to look like, complete with whiskers and tail but otherwise human, he’s just downright creepy in his vocal and physical mannerisms. As I said, he typifies the movie as the rest of the film is relentless in flitting schizophrenically between high camp (Pine and Magnussen’s number where they try to have a Handsome Prince-off being a possible high point) and acknowledging the creepier, darker undertones of the stories these fairy tales are based on. If you’re wondering why this got a 12s rating, it’s for that second one. There is a lot of hilariously brutal violence in this movie, largely off-screen, but still played for laughs. And it’s wonderful.

If there’s a major issue it’s that the songs aren’t particularly memorable. They’re fine. They’re all very well produced and performed but none of them stick in your brain for even a second after they’ve finished. On top of this, the film is too long. It seems to reach a natural endpoint around ninety minutes in but then decides to turn into Disney’s Attack on Titan: The Musical for the last half an hour. Now, while the additional running time eventually justifies itself narratively in that, rather than wrapping up absurdly neatly, the whole thing ends in a bit more muddled but much more satisfying way; from a pure momentum point of view, the film really struggles to keep going after the “traditional” ending is reached and passed by. There’s a great one-hundred-minute movie in here somewhere but the two-hour film we’ve been given is ultimately just shy of being something approaching a minor classic. It is, however, nice to see a Disney film that eschews the usual good and evil dynamic and instead advocates a much more morally relativistic tone and ending.

In the end then, this is a bit of a no-brainer. Much like a film such as Airplane!, this is one of those movies where despite it being as precision-tuned as an atomic clock, it still manages to feel so effortless in its own anarchy that it almost feels like improv. If you liked The LEGO Movie and its specific sense of humour, you’ll enjoy this. Or to put it another way, Into the Woods is to Disney movies what 21 Jump Street was to buddy-cop, action movies.

Richard Drumm

PG (See IFCO for details)
124 minutes.
Into the Woods is released 9th January 2015.

Into the Woods – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

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DIR: Kenneth Branagh WRI: Adam Cozad, David Koepp PRO: David Barron, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Mace Neufeld, Mark Vahradian DOP: Haris Zambarloukos  ED: Martin Walsh MUS: Patrick Doyle  DES: Andrew Laws  Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh

I imagine writers of espionage thrillers must miss the Cold War terribly. A collective baddie of such implied menace as the socialism-wielding mother-Russians that ambled behind the Iron Curtain for the better part of fifty years last century has not been since. In such a manner may the Kenneth Branagh (helmed and starring) Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, the latest in a series of attempts to kick-start Tom Clancy’s CIA analyst’s adventures as a franchise ongoing since his 1984 inception, be called a work of nostalgia; There is no shortage of big bad Russians or the sort of non-cynical plot structuring and exposition that was kicked unceremoniously to the curb by a certain Bourne lad a little over a decade ago.

The set-up and plot are nothing awe-inspiring to wow at. Jack Ryan (Chris Pine taking most of his cues from the highly watchable Harrison Ford outings) falls in love with his doctor (a surprisingly endearing Keira Knightley) moments before being recruited by a shady CIA operative (the always excellent Kevin Costner) to keep an eye on Wall Street for terrorism funding. Skip ten years and meet Branagh’s forgettable big bad who’s been doing something with stocks and bombs and looks like he may be trouble and we’re revving to go.

What is most surprising in this film is the places it soars and fails. The hidden career tension between Knightley’s Cathy and Ryan is surprisingly engaging but anything else occurring on American soil falls relatively flat. In fact, any credit this film is due is earned, for the most part, from the moment Ryan’s plane touches down in Russia.

Branagh’s camera has fun swooping around the city, through opulent hotel lobbies and shiny bank offices. Well over half the decor of each interior gleams a potentially offensive red and brings one to mind of Tony Monatana’s office. There is a sense in the scale of the city that Ryan is truly alone there and this is nicely helped along by the sheer lack of Russia on-screen in most Western cinema. It is an excellent spot for some rough-and-tumble and Branagh delivers this in spades.

There is a one-on-one hotel bathroom fight that barges on screens and drags our bums to the edge of their seat a moment or two, very much the aesthetic descendant of Casino Royal’s opening and Torn Curtain’s midway murder, which Hitchcock famously shot with a mind to show how difficult it is to take life, an ideal ably communicated here. The remainder of Ryan’s Russian holiday is nicely decorated by a talky restaurant scene that might be a heist and a genuinely thrilling car chase. The Americans thankfully depart moments before it becomes clear we’re watching Mr and Miss American Pie vs. The Russian Stereotype, though this is a taint that lingers on the edge of every frame shot in Moscow.

The finale is constructed with all the surprise and intrigue of an actual Tom Clancy novel, which is to say there is not a great deal; it manages to abruptly pull the punch from what shaped up to be a rather rollicking second act and thus defuses the film’s purpose.

In making Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, esteemed Shakespeare guru Kenneth Branagh, as he did with Thor, has stepped out of his comfort zone and into that of commercial movie marketing. As the unsolicited offspring of James Bond and Ethan Hunt it barely succeeds, as a fun action romp it has as many hits as misses but as a film in general it brings nothing new to the table and may aptly be counted as Branagh’s least interesting work to date.

Donnchadh Tiernan

12A (See IFCO for details)
105 mins
Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is released on 24th January 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit – Official Website

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Cinema Review: Rise of the Guardians

 

DIR: Peter Ramsey • WRI: David Lindsay-Abaire • PRO: Nancy Bernstein, Christina Steinberg • DES: Patrick Marc Hanenberger • CAST: Chris Pine, Alec Baldwin, Hugh Jackman

Christmas and Easter have come at once in the animated Rise of the Guardians, quite literally. The eponymous Guardians are a ragtag group of iconic (whisper it, in case the kids are reading) fictional figures who are tasked with safeguarding the children of Earth. There’s Santa Claus, reimagined as a burly, sword-wielding Russian. The Easter Bunny – voiced by Hugh Jackman in his natural Aussie accent – is a grumpy, boomerang hurling action hero. The Sandman is a silent fellow of miniature stature, while the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher) is… well, the Tooth Fairy. Mischievous Jack Frost (Chris Pine) is volunteered by the moon itself – I’m not making this up – to join this group of righteous warriors when the Boogeyman (Jude Law, because British accent = Evil) makes his unwanted return to basically try and destroy all childhood hope. Initially reluctant to join, Jack is slowly persuaded to join the good fight, and will inevitably learn something about himself along the way.

 

Listen, films like Rise of the Guardians put reviewers in an awkward position. This is very much a film aimed directly at a young audience, so it’s a challenge to discuss through more cynical adult eyes. The moral dilemmas, characters, jokes and story will almost certainly engage young audiences. But this isn’t Toy Story. Heck, it isn’t even How to Train Your Dragon. There are few concessions made for parents and guardians. This, I guess, could be considered both a positive and negative.

 

The visuals offer relatively pleasant eye-candy. One review has already equated the film to ‘a toy box exploding’, which isn’t too far off the mark. It’s so colourful and energetic that even the silly old three-dimensional glasses cannot dim the vibrancy. A sojourn to the Easter Bunny’s multi-coloured layer is a mid-film highlight. Naturally, it can all get too busy, especially during the hyperactive action scenes, but Dreamwork’s rendering farms have mostly been put to good use. Composer-in-demand Alexandre Desplat keeps things buzzing with a suitably frenetic score that probably isn’t as good as his work on The Tree of Life, in case you were wondering.

 

The characters are familiar, but a mixed success in terms of execution. The Sandman – perhaps not entirely coincidentally the only one who cannot speak – is the most charming of the lot, and regrettably absent for much of the plot. It’s nice to see alternative takes on old Mr. Claus and the Easter Bunny, but the portrayals feel a tad off here. Jack is a bland protagonist, although the Boogeyman is an even blander adversary.

 

Mostly, Rise of the Guardians passes the time inoffensively. Some parts are downright silly. The frequently verbalised moral of the story is ‘You should believe what the moon tells you to’, which makes only a little more sense in the context of the film itself than it does written down here. Given that Toy Story 3 has irrevocably upped the game when it comes to tear-jerking family cinema, this is comparatively cheesy. Also (warning: critical pretension alert!) the whole film might well be a thinly veiled Christian analogy. Cheeky Dreamworks!

 

Still, the kids who were in attendance were gasping with delight, shock and awe throughout the screening: a simple, telling fact that pretty much renders anything else I had to say about the film completely redundant.

Stephen McNeice

Rated G (see IFCO website for details)
97 mins
Rise of the Guardians  is released on 30th November 2012

Rise of the Guardians  – Official Website


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Cinema Review: This Means War

A man called McG on the loose

DIR: McG • WRI: Timothy Dowling, Simon Kinberg • PRO: Simon Kinberg, James Lassiter, Robert Simonds, Will Smith • DOP: Russell Carpenter • ED: Nicolas De Toth, Jesse Driebusch • DES: Martin Laing • Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Chris Pine, Tom Hardy, Chelsea Handler

Remember McG? The barely named director was seen as a Hollywood wunderkind in the early 2000s after his kinetic, girl power nonsense take Charlie’s Angels was released. One intelligence-insulting sequel and a Terminator reboot with more plot holes than six viewings of Inception later, McG has managed to keep himself in the game by producing semi-popular schlock TV, such as The OC and Supernatural.

Now he’s back in the director’s chair with this self-important action comedy. This Means War is a confused film that attempts to be the ultimate date movie, pitting two best friend super-spies against one another for the hand of the girl they both fancy. Dripping in eye candy for women and full of Sex and the City-style ‘witticisms’ about penises while boasting less-than-inspired action, few men are likely to come out of this feeling they got a fair share.

Chris Pine and Tom Hardy play FDR and Tuck, two top CIA agents reduced to deskwork after a mission goes awry. FDR is cocky and up for anything. Tuck wants to settle down and is inexplicably English. One day, at separate times, the pair each meet Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a feisty, no-nonsense girl who is fed up with disappointing men. Tuck falls head over heels. FDR finds he may want more than just a quickie for the first time ever.

Of course, the friends soon realise they’re dating the same girl, and a high-tech pissing contest soon begins as they use the CIA’s facilities to recon their target, find out what she likes and sabotage each other’s efforts to woo her. It’s entirely as morally inexcusable as it sounds. Not only have they bugged her apartment, but their competitiveness over her reduces Lauren to little more than a sack of meat prize with all spoils going to the victor.
Of course, Lauren is hardly free of blame. Bolstered by her jealous, seemingly miserable married best friend (Chelsea Handler), she proceeds to date two men at once because, sure, guys do it all the time.

This Means War really is about as sexist as a film can get these days. Women are portrayed as irrational, self-centred, needy and borderline bipolar. Sure, men get it pretty bad too – they’re portrayed as being aggressive, competitive and insecure – but comparatively these character defects seem hardly as negative. The film is so convinced it is a modern tale about a woman getting to choose between two near-perfect men, but really it’s more conservative than It’s a Wonderful Life and without a fraction of the charm.

And all this might be excusable if it was well made, but it isn’t. The writing is simply abominable, featuring some of the laziest dialogue you will find. The agents’ boss talks like a mission guide between computer game levels. One of Chelsea Handler’s Carrie Bradshaw-est moments, where she compares a man’s penis to a poltergeist, sounds like it was written by picking nouns at random out of a bowl. Determined to ruin the manlier aspects of the film too, the shaky action sequences are shot by a cameraman who appears to have a bee inside trousers. One sequence, a strobe light-heavy shootout in a strip club, seems determined to seek out the person in the audience with epilepsy and give them the seizure of a lifetime.

In fairness to the actors, the three leads are all up for it, and give their portrayals far more effort than the material deserves. Chelsea Handler brings down the tone enormously however, injecting sheer misery into the film as its “comic” relief.

While the sabotage scenes are fun, they’re not enough to save a film so utterly out of touch with its audience that when the villain wants to track down the film’s two heroes, he goes to FDR’s London-based tailor to find out where the owner of his one-of-a-kind suits lives. No one would care about the film being a sexist tale of the sex-lives of the wealthy if the thing were at least entertaining. Realistically the only viewers who could enjoy this film will be those with uncontrollable lust for Messrs Hardy and Pine and pop culture academics revelling in the simmering homoeroticism at the heart of the movie’s bromance.

David Neary

Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
This Means War is released on 2nd March 2012

This Means War   – Official Website

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsAqVvlR5DQ

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