Into the Woods Movie Review 0 18

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Stephen Sondheim’s successful stage musical, which originally debuted way back in 1986, has finally made its way onto the big screen, under the gargantuan Disney umbrella and sporting a host of famous faces belting out its simultaneously chirpy and dark songs.

The whole conceit is to take all those fairytales we know through and through and intertwine them with one another. There’s the handmaiden Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), living with her evil stepmother and vile stepsisters, desperate to attend the palace ball where she’ll meet but resist Prince Charming (Chris Pine); Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) who trades his family cow for magic beans; Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) on her way to visit her granny in the woods; Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) who’s trapped in a doorless tower… You get the idea.

At the centre of the plot are a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are struggling for money and desperate for a child that they’re unable to conceive. One day they’re approached by a neighbouring witch (Meryl Streep) who sets them a task of collecting an item from each of the other fairytale characters which will both give them a child and lift the curse that has left the witch old and ugly.

It’s a great premise for a big, bombastic spectacle and even more intriguing as a musical. The trouble is that, for all its own gothic glamour and undeniable bravado, there’s something messy and even distracting about the approach to how it mixes its music with the plot and characters.

It’s sung-through, which means most of the dialogue is sung rather than just purely spoken. Now, as Les Miserables showed a few years ago, the idea of taking such a path on the road can work if the songs are distinctive, emotional and passionate enough. But rather that feeling like a musical path with individual songs along the way, Into the Woods just blends them all together into a single bland, one note (pardon the pun) song that goes on forever; it only has a two hour runtime but feels a hell of a lot longer than that.

The cast is where you’ll find most of the pleasures to be had in watching this film. Corden is spirited and committed as the baker, perhaps because he has the most to prove amongst a cast of Hollywood heavyweights; Pine doesn’t take himself too seriously as the Prince – his “I was raised to be charming, not sincere” is a quote highlight – while Streep is spectacular, clearly having a lot of fun as the acid-tongued witch popping up every now and then to steal the show.

Johnny Depp is technically in the film but those expecting a repeat performance of Alice in Wonderland will be disappointed, with his glorified cameo as the Wolf serving merely as a distraction only there to draw audience attention rather than add anything meaningful to the mix (and just reminding us how much better the Sondheim effect was done on film in Sweeney Todd).

It lacks real human emotion in spite of, or perhaps exactly because of, the characters constantly proclaiming what they feel. Musicals are, of course, over-the-top by nature but there’s a difference between being theatrical and just obvious. These songs may have worked on the stage (admittedly I’m a total newcomer to the whole Into the Woods phenomenon) but they’re tuneless and largely unmemorable on the big-screen. And the plot they populate never quite manages to gel together the hodgepodge of fairytale ideas in the manner it would like, coming off as stilted and forced rather than the fluid concoction that I imagine was intended.

All of that is not to say Into the Woods is without its pleasures as there are genuine moments of wit, clever musical timing and bewitching visuals to stop it well short of a time-wasting disaster; the song “Your Fault” is the film’s catchy crowning glory. But the fact that there are flashes of brilliance makes the overall drab, repetitive and clunky musical experience all the more disappointing.

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I'm a freelance film reviewer and blogger with over 10 years of experience writing for various different reputable online and print publications. In addition to my running, editing and writing for Thoughts On Film, I am also the film critic for The National, the newspaper that supports an independent Scotland, covering the weekly film releases, film festivals and film-related features. I have a passion for all types of cinema, and have a particular love for foreign language film, especially South Korean and Japanese cinema. Favourite films include The Big Lebowski, Pulp Fiction and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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Movie Review: Home Again 0 187

This review was previously published at The National.

Despite an obviously talented leading lady in Reese Witherspoon and a family pedigree behind the camera in making this sort of rom-com flutter sweetly off the screen, Home Again struggles to finds its way out of cloying cliché and narrative contrivance.

This is the directorial debut of Hallie Myers-Shyer, daughter of genre stalwart Nancy Meyers (The Holiday, What Women Want). It focuses on the life of Alice Kinney (Witherspoon), a single mum who has just turned 40 and tries her best to raise her two daughters Isabel (Lola Flanery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield) in Los Angeles with her job as an interior decorator.

Freshly separated from her British music mogul husband Austen (Michael Sheen), she embarks on a drunken birthday night celebration that leads to her meeting a trio of 20-something lads – Harry (Pico Alexander), George (Jon Rudnitsky) and Teddy (Nat Wolff) – who are trying their best to break into the Hollywood movie business.

The young men improbably end up staying in Alice’s guest house while they work on finishing the script for their first film. Before long they become an integral part of her life, from Alice embarking on a romantic relationship with Harry to George helping out Isabel with her school play. To quote the title of the director’s mother’s 2009 film – it’s complicated.

Except the film mistakes the kind of enjoyably frothy complexity exemplified by the best of the genre for skin-clawing convolution that renders much of the romantic and comedically-tinged drama of Alice’s life lacking in authenticity. Not that it needs the ring of truth that comes with, say, a Ken Loach picture but you need to be able to invest and believe in these characters’ lives as presented.

The approach to gender and generational relationships is simplistic which, of course, is nothing new to a genre that, at least in its Hollywoodized state, so often throws up films meant to be taken as easy-going fluff. But it’s particularly frustrating here when it squanders the potential thrown up with the initial concept of a woman trying to find herself again once she’s out of a stale relationship by entering into one with a much younger man.

It strangely seems far more interested in the plight of the three young men working as three cogs of one creative machine – director/producer, writer and actor – to get ahead in the movie business.  But even then it smacks of implausibility, like a cheap rom-com version of the bromance found in Entourage but without any of the snarky wit or Hollywood satire. Despite decent chemistry between a likeable assembled cast, Home Again is a tough pill to swallow as it rings false through and through.

3.5 out of 10

Movie Review: Goodbye Christopher Robin 0 212

This review was previously published at The National.

The world of celebrated children’s author A. A. Milne and the creation of his beloved Winnie the Pooh stories are chronicled in this frightfully polite biopic from director Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) that flirts with dipping its toes into darker waters but steadfastly clings to safe tropes and always with its top button firmly fastened.

We start off in 1941 where we find an ageing Milne (Domhnall Gleeson in questionable make-up and greyed hair) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) living on their secluded East Sussex farm. They receive a telegram informing them that their son, C.R. Milne, is missing presumed dead after heading off to fight in World War Two.

We then jump back in time to Milne on the front lines of the First World War. He returns from the fighting a changed man; suffering from PTSD (popped balloons evoking sudden gunfire et al.), becoming increasingly sick of just making people laugh with his West End plays and the general hustle-bustle that comes with big city life.

He convinces his reluctant wife to move to the country for some peace and quiet and where his infant son, Christopher Robin (played by Will Tilston at the younger age, Alex Lawther as he gets older), can go on the childhood adventures he deserves with the support of loving nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald).

Settling into the kind of serene life he craves, he is inspired to create Winnie the Pooh and the rest of his soon-to-be-beloved friends inspired by the stuffed animals with which his young son has become so enamoured. Unfortunately for Christopher – referred to by everyone as “Billy Moon” – his father uses his real name in the stories, turning him into one of the most famous boys in the nation.

Despite the obvious attraction of it exploring the world famous Pooh stories, it’s a film much more interested in the effect it has on a fractured family clinging on to peacefulness, not least the unwanted attention thrust upon a young boy who simply isn’t equipped to handle it and how his parents carry on oblivious.

If anything it takes a curiously bleak outlook on what these stories mean to the world once they’ve been put out there, conveying a somewhat confusing message for a film that ultimately wants us to celebrate these stories as immortally cherished tales; that the Winnie the Pooh embraced immediately by the public and has now stood the test of time for almost a century is in some way missing the point of what it truly means to the author and a son who, inadvertently or not, was used as a tool of innocence to sell the idea of an idyllic childhood in Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood.

It’s bolstered by almost uniformly moving performances; Gleeson plays Milne with a kind of damaged empathy that makes you feel like you get to know the author beyond the public persona. Macdonald is oftentimes heart-breaking as Christopher’s devoted caregiver and Tilston walks away with the film as the adorably sweet-natured young Christopher. It’s only with Robbie that the film makes a misstep; she’s miscast as Milne’s wife and never stepping out of the shadow of cold motherly cliché.

In spite of its darker leanings, the film remains too buttoned up to properly wrestle with those themes in any sort of lasting way, far too polite to ever dive head first into the murky waters into which the drama intermittently peers.

Wrapped in Ben Smithard’s handsomely old-fashioned cinematography and soaked in Carter Burwell’s perpetually swelling score, it’s an aesthetically and emotionally appealing but nevertheless fairly vanilla period biopic best suited to being enjoyed on a rainy Sunday afternoon with tea and biscuits.

6.5 out of 10