Into the Woods

In the immortal words of doctor Samuel Beckett, ” Oh boy”.

scott-bakula-oh-boy-chuck

Going into this film I had no point of reference. Having never seen the stage show or even hearing any of the songs before seeing the film. Usually I’m a fan of musicals, so long as there are some good catchy songs and it’s not too ridiculous I would be on board ninety percent of the time. Well Into the Woods is part of that ten percent. The film isn’t without its enjoyable moments but overall it’s a mess. You can hear Stephen Sondheim’s musical style here, one song in particular made me think of Sweeney Todd, but none of the songs are particularly memorable. The style of singing in this film is much less pop/ top 40 and more singing exposition repeatedly.

The Direction feels all over the place. The first big musical number,the titular Into the Woods Prologue, sets up all of our characters in their respective stories but the way in which it ping pongs back and forth both in the editing and the singing became grating. The cast has fine singing voices, not great, not bad, just fine. Fine is good for a solo here or there but putting several singers together in a number without a real standout great feels more like a karaoke night rather than a major musical motion picture. The film also suffers from the same problems many people had with Les Miserables, when the camera isn’t constantly moving (because hey! every shot should be done hand-held nowadays right?) it’s in extreme close-ups of the cast. I began to think Into the Woods was a reference to the nose hair they were trying to show. These closeups were especially frustrating when there was dancing or other choreography going on but we can’t appreciate it because for one example we can only see Meryl Streep’s head and shoulders on-screen during her big number.

Speaking of Meryl Streep, she has gotten a lot of buzz going into this film. Well about the same level of buzz she always gets, but here its undeserved. She is fine as a not so much evil but pragmatic witch, that’s all though, fine. There are some scenes where shes very good and fun to watch and some that are so over the top and hammy you get pulled right out of the movie.

Another element that will pull you out is the narration. James Corden, future host of The Late Late Show, plays the baker and narrates throughout the story. While i’m sure in the stage play this would feel more natural, something about his delivery made me feel like I was watching a made for TV movie, or something you would see on Netflix. A recent film I saw on Netflix, Odd Thomas starring Anton Yelchin, had a similarly odd self-aware narration by the protagonist. It didn’t work there either.

The strengths of the film lie in its comedy and there are moments where its damn funny. Standout moments include Johnny Depp’s funny and uncomfortably creepy turn as the big bad wolf, though his screen time was incredibly short considering the ad campaign built up around him. As well as what has to be hands down, bar none, the best part of the entire film (as well as the funniest) the musical number “Agony” performed by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen. Without spoiling it I would have to say that this scene is almost worth the admission alone. There are other laughs to be had sprinkled throughout. Red Riding Hood goes back and forth from humorous to annoying, and Jack’s mom (played by the always dependable Tracy Ullman) has a few good laughs but doesnt get nearly enough to do considering her talent.

Overall there’s just enough to like here that some people are sure to come out having a good time. While at the same there’s enough to pick apart that a number of people will fall anywhere from “meh” to the hate column. Either way nothing sticks out as particularly memorable or iconic to make this a classic musical for years to come. A small diversion if youre bored this holiday but Into the Woods will fade from your mind as quickly as it arrived.

5_Star_Rating_System_2_and_a_half_stars

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Interstellar

Once in a while a film comes along in every generation that is life changing, a piece of artwork that will stand the test of time as a shining example of what film-making can be. Interstellar is not one of these films, but damn does it want to be. Interstellar is a movie about a lot of things. Our place in the world, our future on or off of that world, respect for science ( namely the space program), our duty to our race and our love of our families are all subjects this film concerns itself with. That’s a great many directions for one movie to go and it shows.

With a bloated run time of just under three hours Interstellar is Christopher Nolan’s longest and possibly most uneven film. It’s pacing is awkward and abrupt with an overly long first act it takes forever for us to get to what we all came here for, space travel. While the scenes on earth aren’t completely terrible there are easily fifteen minutes of them that could be truncated or cut entirely. John Lithgow and Mackenzie Foy are a bright spot of these scenes as McConaughey’s Father in law and daughter respectively. The early scenes on earth are well grounded, a very believable future version of earth, it sprinkles some details about this earths history without hitting us over the head or talking down to the audience.

However these scenes are drawn out and can seem a bit cliché at times. Also certain plot points that come about, mostly how McConaughey’s “Cooper” gets involved with the expedition comes off as overly simplified and then we jump straight to the mission, no training is shown or spoken of at all. I suppose in the future space travel is liking riding a bike, plus where are we going to fit any training in a three-hour movie? We might have to miss one of the several Dust storms we get to see, heaven forbid!

That being said the Dust storms are done fantastically, the effects here, like the whole film, are top notch. It’s also a very interesting direction to go for a pre-apocalyptic earth, rather than nuclear war or the normal reasons we get a much more likely and for me that much more frightening scenario of falling food production and dust storms ravaging as our foe. No bad guy here, just lack of human foresight and unalterable mother nature.

Once we get to the actual mission the film really takes off ( pun intended). The visuals are incredible, a definite must in IMAX if you have the option. The sound design has gotten a great deal of press coverage and its easy to hear why. Parts of the film sound muddled or drowned out by the mix of  sound effects and vocals. I however did not have any issue with this, the scenes where the actors are hard to hear seems to me completely intentional. The dialogue they are delivering in these moments is not really important, whats going on in the rest of the scene is the real focus. It also illustrates what the characters are hearing in those moments as well, sometimes when a rocket is going off yes it is hard to hear people and that makes things for pilots that much more difficult and frightening. I found one particular moment amazing as engines were throttled up the bass was beating so hard I could feel it in my chest almost like experiencing G-force speeds, it was almost difficult to breathe.

Moments like that through the film are part of why when taken as a whole its a tragedy things don’t come together more even and cohesive. The middle two-thirds of the film are by and large amazing, but the beginning and end of the film don’t really reach the same heights. The last fifteen minutes or so feel rushed, like Nolan didn’t have an ending and then had to make something up on the day. While not the worst ending you’ll ever see there are plenty of questions and plot holes left glaring at us when the dust settles (see what I did there?).

If you have the desire to see this film, seeing it in the theater is definitely the way to go, as the experience of the large and loud makes up a lot of the wonder.  We go from Armageddon to 2001: A Space Odyssey and back again in terms of narrative and artistic quality, luckily we spend the bulk of our time in 2001. While its great to see a big Hollywood film be so pro science and pro exploration, their reach, no matter how altruistic, certainly exceeded their grasp.

5_Star_Rating_System_3_and_a_half_stars

Checked Out: Nebraska

This is the first Checked Out article of this Blog. Checked out is where I visit films that got a lot of attention when they came out and I finally got around to seeing. Being that they are older than most of the things I’ll review there will be some lite spoilers but no major plot points will be revealed.

Nebraska is the 2013 film starring Will Forte and Bruce Dern as Woody and David Grant, Father and son. The film was nominated for 6 academy awards and rightly so. It’s funny to say that the film is completely deserving of all its nominations but not deserving of actually receiving any awards its nominated for. This probably sounds ridiculous but let me explain. The film is a story about a father, a salt of the earth, old-fashioned type man, who is in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimers. Basically he’s in that point that we all have seen where at moments he’s there and the next he’s talking about nonsense or just staring into space. This particular man receives a letter that we all have gotten, a sweepstakes winning ticket… IF your number has been drawn and if you come in person to pick it up etc.

Bruce Dern is fantastic as an aging and ailing father, if you’re someone who grew up around that type of old school hard-shelled quiet type of man you will have a lot to connect to.  Will Forte also does an excellent job as a son who is seeing a shell of what his father was and balancing the empathy he feels with the frustration of taking care of a parent. The father son dynamic is really where the film shines. The two leads feel like a real father and son, you can see a lifetime of love and resentment just under the surface all the time. Bob Odenkirk does an adequate job as Will Forte’s older brother though at times his scenes feel a bit forced not quite as natural as Forte’s.

The film feels a bit unfocused though and while the performances elevate the material some, when it comes right down to it there’s not a whole lot going on here. We get some allusions to regrets by both father and sons about paths not taken or dreams not followed. We also get a hint at what their father was and why he became what he is now but there’s no singular focus to the narrative. The prize money is just a macguffin here, just there to put our characters into different situations than normal. The rest of the movie is scatter-shot, while pleasant enough it’s fairly forgettable and feels more like a great student film than a studio release.

The strongest element of the production would have to be the cinematography. The film is presented in black and white and while there is a version of the movie available in color you’d be doing yourself a disservice to not watch it in its intended format. The contrast in the shadows is gorgeous and there are some great shots of a battered and broken mid-west of yesteryear.

If you’re bored one night and come across it on cable it’s a fine way to kill two hours but I doubt it’s a film you’ll be talking about in 2 months much less two years down the road.

 

 

5_Star_Rating_System_3_stars