Into The Woods (2015)

Into The WoodsWhen a witch (Meryl Streep) reveals an historic curse lies on the Butcher (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), preventing them from having children, they are given a chance to reverse it so that they might finally start a family. Tasked with obtaining a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, the pair set off into the woods. Meanwhile, across the kingdom, a young girl (Lilla Crawford) crosses an inquisitive wolf, farmhand Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) sells his mother’s cow for supposedly magic beans and skullery maid Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) attends Prince Charming’s (Chris Pine) Festival. As her items are collected for her, the witch attempts to prevent adopted daughter Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) from finding a prince of her own.

Adapted from James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s musical of the same name, Rob Marshall’s Into The Woods arrives at a time when crossovers are very much in vogue. A mash-up of several Brothers Grimm stories including Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Rapunzel, the film imagines what might happen after the requisite happy ever afters. Although for the most part faithful to the musical, Sondheim approved a number of small changes at Disney’s behest, toning down the violence and removing references to Snow White and Sleeping Beauty (who previously appeared as adulteresses). A far more intrusive influence can be felt in the austerity, with the studio having given Marshall only $50 million to play with. That’s not an awful lot when your film features a witch, two giants and — most expensively of all — a million dollars worth of Johnny Depp.

Nevertheless, his otherwise budget cast (and as good as James Cordon is as the film’s male lead there’s no denying he’s value for money) more than compensates for the occasionally unconvincing CGI. Streep is obviously spectacular as the witch, and dominates whenever she is onscreen, but she still leaves plenty of room for everyone else to shine. Even with so many cut Into The Woods contains countless musical numbers, with each actor getting at least one song to relish. Blunt and Kendrick delight as the Butcher’s wife and Cinderella, while Pine and Billy Magnussen (as Rapunzel’s unlucky prince) play off one another beautifully during their showstopping and waterfall-impeding duet. Arguably the biggest pleasure, however, comes from watching the various stage actors outperform their big screen counterparts: both Daniel Huttlestone (previously seen in Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables) and Tony-winning newcomer Lilla Crawford bring down the house as Jack and Little Red Riding Hood respectively. Only Frances de la Tour disappoints, though it’s hardly her fault.

Unfortunately, for all of its energy and flourish, Into The Woods just doesn’t work as drama. Lapine (who wrote the film’s screenplay) confidently adapts the Grimm fairy-tales, but he struggles with his own alternative endings. Whereas the musical killed most of the supporting cast off the film keeps them alive for no apparent reason, while the deaths that remain are almost equally meaningless. Nobody suffers more than Rapunzel, who is saddled with the most backstory (actually the Baker’s sister, she was kidnapped by the witch as a baby) only to be ignored when it should be paying dividends. Meanwhile, as much fun as it is to watch the Butcher and his wife interfere with such familiar stories none of the other characters’ interactions work particularly well, and the alliance of the Baker, Cinderella, Jack and Little Red Riding Hood in the final act is neither iconic or iconoclastic. If anything, it’s even more archaic than the source stories, with the women hiding and looking after the baby while the men climb a tree to slay a giant. Anna and Elsa are nowhere to be seen.

Although often on fine form, there is an inconsistency to Into The Woods — lyrically as well as narrively — that ultimately undermines its success. Neither as camp as Mamma Mia! or as stirring as Les Miserables, it’s never clear whether Marshall is playing his film for laughs or taking it all seriously. With such uncertain direction, it’s no wonder his characters spend so much time lost in the woods.

3.5-Stars

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Horrible Bosses 2 (2014)

Horrible Bosses 2Having sent his last boss to prison for a murder he himself planned,  Nick Hendricks (Jason Bateman) has decided to become his own boss. Along with best friends Kurt Buckman (Jason Sudeikis) Dale Arbus (Charlie Day), Nick seeks the investment necessary in order to finance his premiere product: the Shower Buddy. When Burt Hanson (Christoph Waltz) bankrupts their business, before buying up their idea for next to nothing, however, they once again find themselves looking outside of the law for retribution. With the help of their criminal-on-call, Dean “Motherfucker” Jones (Jamie Foxx), Nick, Kurt and Dale plot to kidnap Burt’s son Rex (Chris Pine) and ransom him for the money necessary to buy back the Shower Buddy.

Green-lit on the back of the original film’s strong performance stateside, Horrible Bosses 2 reunites the surviving cast of Seth Gordon’s original for another go at the box office. The first film was — as Hollywood brom-coms go — something of a pleasant surprise, but by any other standard it was still a contrived, convoluted mess that had little going for it save for the odd gross-out gag or well-cast cameo. Certainly, it failed to deliver on its promise of dark comedy, settling instead for the sort of dim-wittedness that is unlikely to unsettle the masses. Although new to the franchise himself, replacement director Sean Anders keeps things on a remarkably even keel — bringing back screenwriters John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein for more of the same.

As a result, Horrible Bosses 2 is every bit as passable as its predecessor. Ex-bosses Kevin Spacey and Jennifer Aniston are back, at least — the former behind bars after killing Colin Farrell in the first film and the latter busy bedding the various members of her sex addiction clinic — and though in considerably diminished roles they just about manage to carry the film between them. Foxx, meanwhile, gets slightly more to do than before, and in addition to instigating a genuinely entertaining car chase during the third act he is seemingly the only character willing to consider the ethical implications of Nick, Kurt and Dale’s actions. Unlike last time, the supposed heroes of the piece are actually culpable of murder, but the filmmakers once again fail to address the issues of responsibility or justice, instead settling for a re-establishment of the status quo that feels neither earned or wanted.

It wouldn’t be such an issue if the protagonists were engaging enough to warrant a free pass — after all, beloved characters have got away with worse. While Bateman, Sudeikis and Day may have some semblance of chemistry it is not enough to compensate for their wholly unpleasant, utterly uninteresting characters. The uncomfortably unsavoury undercurrents remain, and many of the ‘jokes’ seem to be at the expense of some subgroup or other — never overt enough to cause actual controversy, but dubious nonetheless. It’s difficult to root for characters who are lauded for their ignorance, and unable to simply laugh off flippant displays of homophobia or misogyny you quickly lose any and all interest in their plight. By film’s end you’re ready to flag Jonathan Banks’ Detective Hatcher over and give evidence against all three of them. Having now exhausted murder and kidnapping you daren’t begin to imagine what hilarious hi-jinx might await them in part three.

But the chances are you will laugh, on occasion (I’m ashamed to admit that I did, anyway); but hopefully it will be completely against your better judgement. The actors are competent enough comedians to get their timing and delivery right, regardless of the quality of the gags themselves. That said, the qualifier in the title might just as easily stand alone. This one is Horrible, too.

2-stars

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

Jack RyanTen years on from an ill-fated mission in Afghanistan, following which he was recruited by the CIA, one-time economics student Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is now working undercover on Wall Street. Tasked with looking for suspicious transactions that might be indicative of terrorist activities, he happens across a series of inaccessible Russian accounts. When he travels to Moscow to conduct a routine audit, however, he finds himself the target of an assassination attempt. Now operational, he must help mentor Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) gain access to Viktor Cheverin’s (Kenneth Branagh) offices in order to prevent financial disaster. That and convince his wife (Keira Knightley) that he’s not having an affair.

Jack Ryan has had many faces. The character, created by the late author Tom Clancy, has so far been played by Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck across four largely unconnected movies. For his fifth cinematic outing, a reboot presumably intended to finally kick-start an official franchise, Chris Pine — on temporary leave from the USS Enterprise — has been recruited as what must be the CIA’s most hands-on analyst. Subtitled Shadow Recruit, the film surely couldn’t be any worse than its name.

While not bad, however, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit isn’t particularly good either. Its issues are clear from the off, with director Kenneth Branagh attempting to retread largely redundant backstory in two hopelessly inept preludes. The film opens with Ryan waking on a London School Of Economics bench, before walking silently to a television screen showing the 9/11 attacks in real-time, before cutting to a helicopter in Afghanistan where he saves too colleagues off-screen. These scenes are, one imagines, supposed to show both Ryan’s intelligence and bravery, but in the end do neither.

Despite establishing Ryan’s history in London, Branagh then introduces an American-accented Keira Knightly as Pine’s love interest. As such, much of the first act is spent scratching your head at the curious decisions made by the film’s director. Most bizarre of all is perhaps the decision to cast himself as the film’s Russian baddie, Cheverin, despite the fact that he neither looks or sounds particularly Russian. As such, the film never feels like a cohesive whole, but instead continues to distract as an ill-fitting ensemble act out an incredibly uneven plot. Terrorism! Wall Street! Russia! As a subtitle Shadow Recruit is awkward but accurate — it’s often difficult to place Ryan, geographically or temporally.

That said, there are elements that work, almost despite themselves. Pine and Knightley have very little in the way of chemistry, but their characters do somehow complement one another. Referred to simply as “Doctor”, they both turn around, and this is emblematic of an equality that runs through the movie. Pine is perfectly fine as Ryan throughout, but only ever really distinguishes him from the Ethan Hunts, Jason Bournes and Jack Reachers of this world in the immediate wake of a killing, when — unusually — he takes a moment to compose himself. Elsewhere it’s business as usual, only Ryan is fighting henchmen where 007 would be fighting supervillains. That said, though he may lack sharks and lasers Branagh does know his way around a lightbulb.

Although it seems content to play little-league espionage using small-town methods, there is enough going on in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to make it worth a watch, if only to redeem Kevin Costner following his poor turn in Man Of Steel. Individually, many of the elements prove surprisingly effective, whether it’s a bathroom brawl or a dinner table diagnosis, but unfortunately Branagh can’t quite pull it all together. At least, not with the same success he had with Thor.

2-stars

Rise Of The Guardians (2012)

Rise Of The GuardiansJack Frost (Chris Pine) remembers only darkness, and yet since emerging from a frozen pond some time in the 1800s he has spent the intervening years bringing light to everyone he encounters. Having initiated a snowball fight in the present day, inspiring a young boy named Jamie (Dakota Goyo) to believe, Jack is abducted by yetis and transported to the North Pole. Once there he learns from Santa Claus (Adam Baldwin) that the Boogeyman has returned, and is invited to join The Guardians Of Childhood — along with Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Easter Bunny (Hugh Jackman) and the Sandman — in their attempts to stop him.

Despite being considered something of a flop back in 2012, Rise Of The Guardians nevertheless received strong reviews at the time of release and has since gone on to recoup its considerable costs on DVD and Blu-ray. Peter Ramsey’s film didn’t deserve the indifference it was met with, and it’s reassuring to note that the film has finally found an audience. With DreamWorks Animation continuing the good work it started with Kung Fu Panda and How To Train Your Dragon, cultivating in-house talent and seeking consultations with filmmakers such as Guillermo del Toro and Roger Deakins, Rise Of The Guardians is further indication that their efforts are paying off.

The opening scene is one of the most astounding of recent years, with Jack Frost experimenting with his newfound abilities and delighting in innocent mischief. The subtlety of the animation is truly exceptional, the image of Jack floating lost in front of a silent moon proving both immediately iconic and endlessly compelling. The computer effects go from strength to strength as the other Guardians are introduced; a tracking shot following one of Tooth’s fairies as it darts down from the rafters is particularly impressive, as are the tendrils of sand that alert Jack to the Sandman’s presence. Just as remarkable are the cityscapes, a number of which feature during the Guardians’ first mission: to collect lost teeth from across the globe.

While that scene might be as jaunty and energetic as any out of DreamWorks Animation’s other 2012 release, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, Rise Of The Guardians is by and large a much more muted affair. Arguably Ramsey’s biggest success is in striking the perfect balance between slapstick and sentiment, for Jack’s journey towards self-discovery goes to some pretty dark places, relatively speaking, and yet the film never gets too bogged down in schmatz. Pine is perfect in the leading role, convincing as a care-free maverick while also hitting the more sombre notes with sensitivity and sincerity. The script may not be as quotable or even as clever as some of the studios other features, but it builds an atmosphere and mood that few animated children’s movies could lay claim to.

Also worthy of note is Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack, which is almost as eccentric as the images onscreen. By turns haunting and playful, different tracks not only have to reflect different emotions but different seasons and cultures. That it all harmonises into one single, coherent score is testament to Desplat’s talents as composer, and both beautifully mirrors and compliments a film that is just as complex. The plot may be certifiably insane, hanging as it does on tooth memory, magic snowflakes and a man on the moon, but the themes are so strong — both musically and figuratively — and the animation so breathtaking that it doesn’t really matter.

4-Stars

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into DarknessDemoted after an attempt to save an alien race results in the U.S.S. Enterprise breaking the Prime Directive, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) finds himself playing First Officer to Christopher Pike’s (Bruce Greenwood) newly reinstated Captain. When Starfleet headquarters is attacked by a rogue officer called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), The Enterprise is given the responsibility of tracking the terrorist to an uninhabited region of the Klingon homeworld and destroying him with a payload of special, long-range photon torpedoes. When Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) unease convinces the Captain to capture rather than kill Harrison, however, the very future of the Federation is thrown into jeopardy. Read more of this post

Carriers (2009)

Following the outbreak of a highly contagious virus, brothers Brian (Chris Pine) and Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci) flee their home along with the former’s girlfriend, Bobby (Piper Perabo), and the latter’s school friend, Kate (Emily VanCamp). With the aim of waiting out the pandemic at a remote family hotel, the foursome are forced to join forces with a desperate father (Christopher Meloni) and his infected daughter (Kiernan Shipka) when their car breaks down in the middle of nowhere. With nothing but face masks, rubber gloves and an apparently inexhaustible stockpile of bleach to protect them, the travellers’ carefully orchestrated rules and precautions are thrown into disarray as the virus begins to spread amongst them.

Subjected to a particularly limited release courtesy of Paramount Vantage, Carriers was timed precisely to capitalise on Chris Pine’s recent success in J. J. Abrams’ acclaimed quasi-reboot of the Star Trek franchise. With Pine once again falling back on his cocksure charisma to carry a cast of relative unknowns, his presence is certainly one of the film’s biggest pulls, particularly given the invariably hackneyed premise which boasts all the hallmarks of your typical outbreak movie; zombie or, as is the case here, otherwise.

Viewed in retrospect as it is here, my oversight in 2009 finally reconciled with the help of Film4, it is easy to spot stylistic similarities with Breck Eisner’s remake of The Crazies from 2010 and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion from 2011. With the plot carefully pieced together with the usual tropes, it is relatively easy to predict who will succumb to infection next from their personality alone, each casualty signposted by the completion of some meagre character arc that isn’t so much hinted at as lit up like the fair ground rides of Zombieland. Although any comparisons drawn through hindsight might be unfair, it is impossible not to note that directors Alex and David Pastor lack both Timothy Olyphant in a leading role and Soderbergh’s unsettlingly visceral touch.

While Carriers may not be particularly ground-breaking, or even the best example of its genre, it is a perfectly serviceable little film, and one undeserving of its maltreatment by Paramount Vantage. The cast – which also includes Coyoye Ugly‘s Piper Perabo and Emily VanCamp from TV’s Brothers & Sisters – are perfectly affable, with Pine managing to tread the line between confidence and arrogance as the group’s leader and elder-most sibling. Each character has just enough depth and likeable qualities to sell their evolving dynamic and keep the audience onside even as they start having to make the hard choices.

A fine way to spend 84 minutes, Carriers is as agreeable as it is unremarkable. One of those rare late-night surprises, it has just enough style and substance to compensate for an almost unavoidable lack of originality and a slightness that doesn’t quite satisfy.

This Means War (2012)

Having failed to foil an international sale of weapons of mass destruction while on covert deployment in Hong Kong, a case which resulted in the death of their target’s brother, FDR Foster (Chris Pine) and Tuck Hensen (Tom Hardy) find them grounded upon their return to headquarters. When his partner scores a date online, FDR offers to bail Tuck out should the evening prove a bust, and positions himself in a video store around the corner from the chosen restaurant. Unwittingly, however, he finds himself chatting up the same girl when she stops by to rent a movie on her way home. With both men now vying for the affections of Lauren Scott (Reese Witherspoon), a gentleman’s agreement forged almost as quickly as it’s forgotten, they use the equipment at their disposal to make sure that they are the one who comes out on top.

For McG, the much maligned director of such contemporary classics as Charlie’s Angels and, er, Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, This Means War must have been one big balancing act. Ostensibly breaching the perky gender divide with its perfect ratio of action to romance, the film also had to paint FDR and Tuck as equally worthy candidates for Lauren’s affections without making her out to be some sort of easy, unsympathetic whore. You know, like FDR. This is Hollywood, after all, and sexism is still the name of the game. If This Means War succeeds at anything, and my God that’s a big if, it is in pandering to just about every demographic going, with its infantile narrative, it’s pretty cast, its numerous explosions and its near-puritanical approach to profanity.

While McG might have been sure not to offend his audience, however, he has taken an equally conservative approach to trying to entertain them too. There are a few witty lines peppering the script (Lauren: Oh, I think I’m going to hell. Her best friend Trish: Don’t worry. If you’re going to hell, I’ll just come pick you up), but largely it all boils down to clichéd bumper sticker philosophies and the two leads expounding their love for one another at literally every available opportunity. Of course, you rarely get a full exchange between characters, as McG will compulsively throw in an exploding table, a few eye-gouging quick edits cut to a montage before anyone says anything too intelligent or revealing.

Outside of his trigger-happy grasp, the poor film clings on to its central love triangle for dear life. Chris Pine has by now perfected his cocksure onscreen persona, bringing a variant of his James T. Kirk to the role while Tom Hardy follows rom-com tradition with a bumbling British accent. Reese Witherspoon, meanwhile, tries her best to aid audiences in finding some way of relating to a kooky product testing executive, clearly making the most of her time in this: her First Proper Action Movie. She’s even given something half kind of interesting to do during the film’s explosive finale. With the filmmakers having apparently forgotten that the usually reliable Til Schweiger is even in their movie, it’s left to Chelsea Handler to steal the show as the no-nonsense Trish, however, and I would have quite happily exited the film with her, afloat in a roadside pond.

Affable more than memorable, amusing rather than funny, This Means War is somewhat of a step in the right direction for McG, one he was in desperate need of after 2009’s utterly joyless Terminator: Salvation. With the amount of effort expended by all to make the rickety contrivance at the film’s centre hang together, however, you will invariably leave the cinema wondering if it was actually worth it.

Star Trek (2009)

Born in the heat of battle, when an ambiguous Romulan threat destroys the U.S.S. Kelvin with one acting captain George Kirk (Chris Hemsworth) still aboard, James Tiberius Kirk (Chris Pine) is left to pursue a few decades of rebelliousness in his patriarch’s absence. Talked into joining Starfleet by Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood), Kirk is soon butting horns with the Academy’s resident Vulcan (Zachary Quinto as Spock) over the latter’s “Kobayashi Maru” simulation. When Nero (Eric Bana) rises again, however, the two must join forces if they are to save Earth from annihilation, rescue Pike from his Romulan captors and put into motion a friendship that once upon a time persuaded a group of loyal fans to don prosthetics and teach themselves fluent in Klingon.

If there’s one word I could use to describe J. J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of the Star Trek, well, phenomenon, it would be kinetic. From the Federation’s first contact with Eric Bana’s disgrunted Romulan, the film picks up a staggering momentum that doesn’t let up until the film’s massively satisfying finale. Carried by a soundtrack that – parden the pun – hits all the right notes, Star Trek takes a group of well-worn characters and their famous vessel and reconfigures them into something fresh and contemporary while maintaining the same sense of infectious optimism originally envisioned by Gene Roddenberry all those years ago.

If there is another word – or more accurately words – I would use to encapsulate this reimagination, it would have to be Star Warsy. Star Trek has never been particularly high on cool, until now anyway. Taking a leaf tree out of George Lucas’ book, Abrams has peppered his movie with elements of the former’s once great creation without falling into the same pitfalls, such as the over-reliance on greenscreen and a preference for jargon over dialogue. As such, we have blasters rather than the more traditional phasers, rather more exotic aliens, space battles to hail home about and a half-decent “there’s always a bigger fish” moment without Gungan intrusion.  Oh, and the film culminates in a desperate attempt to prevent the destruction of a planet. The Force is strong with this one.

Throw in characterisation that successfully navigates the fine line between interpretation and caricature, enough lens flares to light the final frontier and some truly iconic sound design, and you have a movie which is almost impossible to dislike. Taking the time to honour what came before (there’s a welcome nod to Captain Archer’s beagle) while forging ahead on a new, creatively licensed adventure that is high on jeopardy and thrills, Star Trek is the ultimate remake, the rare reimagining which actually adds to the original. Bana might be wasted and a few plot points may hinge on some pretty convenient contrivances, but when you’re able to traverse 25 years (from Kirk’s birth to his promotion to Captain – never mind the 129 rewritten by Spock senior) of narrative with such expert dynamo and fluidity, such niggles are forced into perspective.

Bright, fun and thoughtfully executed, Star Trek is a massive success for Abrams and his team. It is nothing short of a new hope for a failing franchise, as well as a beacon of light in a blockbuster season otherwise lost in the shadows.