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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Edge Of Tomorrow (2014)

Edge Of TomorrowFollowing a devastating meteor strike, an alien parasite has invaded Earth and made short work of the human race. Major William Cage (Tom Cruise), a media officer for the military, is summoned by his superior (Brendan Gleeson) and informed that he is to follow the last regiments into battle. Unwilling to comply, Cage attempts to blackmail him, but this quickly backfires as he is branded a deserter, demoted to private and left to deploy with everyone else. Five minutes into battle, however, his regiment is overwhelmed and William Cage is killed, only for him to wake up hours earlier ready to live the day again. Through innumerable repetitions of D-day, Cage learns that the aliens have the ability to time-travel — which explains the speed with which they have overwhelmed humanity — and that by inadvertently killing an ‘Alpha’ he has inherited that ability. Seeking tutelage from Full Metal Bitch, Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), a soldier familiar with the phenomenon, Cage learns to control his newfound power and plots to use it against the enemy.

Based on Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel, All You Need Is Kill, but subsequently renamed Edge of Tomorrow for its theatrical release, Doug Liman’s latest film is a melting pot of influences and a hodgepodge of homages to other, often better movies. Take the time-travel mechanics from Groundhog Day, the creature classifications from Starship Troopers and the creature designs from Grabbers and you have Edge Of Tomorrow, not so much a derivation as a two-hour-long sense of deja vu. You’ve got the grass-roots perspective from Battle: Los Angeles, the aesthetic of The Matrix (the real world sections, anyway) and the foghorn cues from Hans Zimmer’s Inception OST. Some have suggested that Edge of Tomorrow is really a video game movie at heart — that the resets aren’t anything to do with time-travel but rather a return to the last save point as in most platformers — but really that’s ascribing it an originality that it simply doesn’t have.

What is remarkable about Edge Of Tomorrow, however, are the characters that inhabit it. As with The Bourne Identity, Mr and Mrs Smith and even Jumper, Liman has used cliché and contrivance to establish a familiar world only to have his audience view it through rather less familiar eyes. Jason Bourne wasn’t your typical secret agent, the Smith’s were more than just spies and David Rice wasn’t predisposed to use his superpowers for the betterment of mankind. Similarly, Cage isn’t your usual grunt, but instead a cowardly officer who — given the chance — would sooner betray his country than defend it. As character arcs go it is perhaps not the subtlest, but Cruise nevertheless succeeds in making it compelling. It’s Blunt who really shines, however, as someone who once had great power, has been shaped by it, but now must watch powerlessly as someone else seizes her destiny. She too is painted in relatively broad strokes — from Full Metal Bitch to sensitive love interest in the space of a day — but it’s just enough to set Edge Of Tomorrow apart from the norm.

While it’s easy enough to invest in the characters, the plot is somewhat harder to crack. The alien invaders are shown to be incredibly effective killers — with or without the upper-hand afforded them by time-travel — but you get very little sense of how they actually operate. These things bury under-ground, roll over-ground, can swim, and are able to fire projectiles; on the off-chance that their enemies manage to defy the odds and win the ‘Brain’ can simply reset time, having learnt their strategy and reformulated their tactics accordingly. Cage, and before him Vrataski, inherited this ability when they killed an Alpha, though the latter ultimately lost it when it — whatever it might be — left her bloodstream. It’s not entirely clear how she knows this (surely the only way to be sure would be to die and then not wake up again) or how it then entered Cage’s bloodstream (we only see the Alpha’s blood spatter his face), you just have to take the script’s word for it. The biggest problem is the ending, however — “How can they possible get out of this one?”, you might find yourself asking, after the fact, because thanks to scrappy editing and incomprehensible plotting it’s likely that you’ll never be quite sure of that either.

Edge Of Tomorrow is perfectly good fun, with some colourful characters and a time travel device that Liman gets a few good laughs out of. Expect any more than that, however, and you are bound to be disappointed. The film makes about as much sense as its title — either of them.

3-Stars

Looper (2012)

In the year 2072, time-travel is being used by a criminal organization spearheaded by The Rainmaker to send targets 30 years into the past so that they can be disposed of by specially trained ‘loopers’. Noting an increase in the number of ex-loopers being sent back to be killed by their younger selves — their loops closed, Joseph “Joe” Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) soon finds himself pointing a blunderbus at his 55-year-old self (Bruce Willis). Knocked unconscious during a moment’s hesitation, Joe is forced to flee from his employers while he attempts to finish the job. Discerning the older Joe’s intent, he travels to an old farm house owned by Sara (Emily Blunt) and her son Cid (Pierce Gagnon) in an attempt to intercept his escaped prey. Read more of this post

The Muppets (2012)

Walter (Peter Linz), the Muppet brother of the coincidentally human Gary (Jason Segel), has struggled to find a place in the world, preferring instead to watch The Muppet Show re-runs at home with his live-in sibling. Invited to Los Angeles by Gary, who has booked the holiday to mark the ten year anniversary of his relationship with unorthodox school teacher Mary (Amy Adams), Walter is disappointed to find the official tour of the old Muppet Theatre all-but disbanded and the building itself in ruin. Overhearing a plot by tycoon Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to purchase the land harvest it for oil, Walter hijacks the romantic getaway in order to reunite the Muppets and save the theatre by way of a money raising telethon.

It does require somewhat of a suspension of disbelief to imagine a world in which the Muppets are out of fashion and long forgotten, particularly given the troupe’s recent runaway resurgence. Since the project was first announced, Disney’s marketing machine has been in overdrive as the brand began appearing everywhere from Children In Need to YouTube to your local cineplex courtesy of the requisite Orange Gold Spot. With a push for the Muppets to host the Oscars, and even an interview with Miss Piggy in The Sunday Times, the long-awaited movie ran the risk of missing its own bandwagon, and really had to deliver something special to justify the considerable hype.

Thankfully, Jason Segel’s script does just that, its alchemic mix of nostalgia and innovation ensuring that fans of the television show and extant franchise are duly honoured, while taking measures to charm newcomers and novices alike. The results are often laugh out loud funny as our heroes are forced to accept that the world has moved on and tastes have changed. From Kermit the Frog’s contact list of yesteryear’s celebrity (we’re looking at you, Molly Ringwald) to ’80s Robot’s reliance on a dial-up modem, the incongruity is played up to great effect. The film also has fun with certain well-worn cinematic shorthand, with montage and map travel both lampooned with a lovably self-aware wink to the audience.

As with his Dracula rock musical from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Segel shows a startling affinity for catchy show-tunes. Kick-starting proceedings with the delightfully upbeat Life’s a Happy Song, the wit and proficiency later exampled throughout subsequent hits Pictures in My Head and Man or Muppet will not only have you spouting half-remembered lyrics for weeks to come but living in wait of Segel’s next musical endeavour. The original music is complimented with a number of recycled hits that shall remain nameless so as not to spoil their impact, needless to say that a certain recent pop hit as interpreted by Camilla and the Chickens comes close to stealing the show.

Even onscreen, Segel (alongside Amy Adams and Peter Linz) cuts a likeable presence opposite the veritable institutions of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and Gonzo. Their introduction is arguably the film’s biggest accomplishment, as the new characters and dynamics are established and we get to see the glowing effects of having a Muppet in your life. As the focus shifts, the trio is even missed, with their development and resolution having to contend with the film’s namesakes for screen time. Not that it’s not nice to have the Muppets back, the ensuing madness truly celebrating all that was great about the characters and franchise, but with a plot so slight it’s a shame that anyone had to lose out at all.

This is a problem, however, and unless you are willing to let the film slide on good will alone you are unlikely to be completely satisfied with the finished product. The careful balancing act of man and Muppet struggles to give each subplot its due; with so many supporting characters, it was always going to be a challenge doing each existing icon their due, even without adding new ones to the mix – however likeable they might be. The result is a movie which doesn’t quite hang together, a miss-mash of narrative threads and secondary characters that are rarely more than the sum of their parts.

With many of the skits involved in the marketing push proving so successful, and many of the gags in the film itself working so well, the film is often at its best during relatively standalone segments and self-contained sight-gags. As soon as director James Bobin attempts tie these segments together the movie starts to fall apart, the film’s punch compromised by a plot so cliché that you’re waiting for a send up that never comes. Although many of the characters are great fun and many of the ideas come together beautifully, there are moments that fall jarringly flat. Take the movie’s “celebrity cameos”: with many of Hollywood’s least funny contemporary performers cropping up in one way or another, the diversions from the already short-changed central relationships ultimately do more harm than good.

A hugely affable affair which confirms that the Muppets are back in a big way, The Muppets is an absolute joy from beginning to end. With Jason Segel gifting us with one of the most charming, witty and tongue in cheek scripts of the year so far, and a love and admiration for the franchise which goes beyond simple nostalgia, this is undoubtedly the comedy to beat in 2012. With one of the film’s key morals being that relevance is overrated, however, I just wish all involved hadn’t been so preoccupied with shoehorning in timely celebrity cameos.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011)

For Matt Damon, 2011 appears to be the year of the paranormal. Having first fought to live a normal life in Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, Damon is now fighting to live a normal life in The Adjustment Bureau, both movies throwing the heavens in his path. His bitten tongue apparently healed after True Grit, the Bourne actor is firmly back playing the everyman who resembles the no man. After falling in love at first sight with Emily Blunt – life sized this time – David Norris (Damon) finds his attempts at wooing the quirky Elise (Blunt) blocked by a Bureau determined to keep the two apart so that it might not interfere with The Chairman’s plan.

Advertised Bourne meets Inception, the poster blurbs appear to promise a gritty, action packed meditation on philosophy that, like, looks really cool and stuff. Prepare to be disappointed, then, as The Adjustment Bureau is nothing more than a half-baked science fiction premise that fails to fuel a feature film, better suited to the short story that it is loosely based on. According to the movie’s mythology, there is a team of behatted creatures whose job it is to keep the instance of chance to a minimum by discretely nudging their human charges back onto the paths laid out on them by God The Chairman. Gifted with magic hats, the angels Bureau are able to cross the city instantaneously using a series of enchanted doors, their powers hindered only by water. It really is as stupid as it sounds.

It really doesn’t help that Emily Blunt’s character remains completely unsuspecting throughout most of the movie as David Norris staves lobotomisation at the hands of The Bureau by keeping his knowledge of them to himself. Spaced across four years, the movie requires us to believe that their mere hours of interaction are enough to keep themselves invested in a relationship that by all means shouldn’t exist.  They are likeable enough, Blunt in particular, but their romance has a contrived feel that no amount of cutesy flirting can compensate for. Had this been a generic rom-com, it would have enjoyed more chemistry than the entirety of Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey’s back catalogue’s combined; as an existential rom-sci-fi, however, it fails to bring the humanity to a film universe with precious few human characters.

The Bureau is a fun creation, their naivity even humorous in small doses. Embued, as they are, with such omnipotence, however, it is difficult to see how there is enough conflict to carry an entire narrative. Contradiction after contradiction deprive the film of any real physicality, as Norris’ presumed importance to the plan is consistently undermined by talk of alternative futures and Bureaucratic leniency. When Norris has been let go with a warning for the umpteenth time, any real threat is frittered away, leaving the last minute chase scene to flounder, particularly when compared to the undeniably similar scene from Monsters Inc.

The Adjustment Bureau is not Bourne meets Inception. Instead, it is a tedious actioner which is too ridiculous have any real dramatic effect. A solid array of likeable turns from its principle cast are sadly not enough to save this uneven blend of genres from a cripplingly embarassing laughability. And you thought Hereafter was bad.

Gnomeo and Juliet (2011)

Gnomeo is the property of Ms. Montague, a gnome affictionado who is engaged in a bitter rivalry with Mr.Capulet, her neighbour and fellow gnome enthusiast. Divided by colour, Gnomeo (a blue) finds himself inconveniently in love with a red, Juliet. As their respective clans’ garden warfare escalates, their relationship is put to the test and their lives placed firmly in danger. Backed by Elton John’s voice box and with the assistance of a statue of Shakespeare, Gnomeo and Juliet must put an end to the feud if they are ever to live happily ever after and avoid their namesakes’ tragic fates.

It really is frustrating how charming Gnomeo and Juliet is, because that’s really all it has going for it. Basically a one-note gimmick stretched to feature length, Gnomeo and Juliet boasts a few fun visual touches, the odd laugh and some respectable animation. If everybody wasn’t so likeable it would have faded from memory quicker than you could say Despicable Me. As it happens, however, Gnomeo and Juliet is perfectly functional – nothing more, nothing less.

Voiced almost entirely by Brits, the film has a strangely home-grown feel that verges on endearing. Emily Blunt displays some effective comic timing, continuing her tendency of lending charm to movies otherwise devoid, as previously evidenced in Gulliver’s Travels, while James McAvoy does little to make anything approaching a impression. Jason Statham is similarly entertaining, though the fun is generally in identifying the voices rather than in what they have to say. It is Ashley Jensen’s Scottish frog and Richard Wilson’s characteristic curmudgeon that delight the most, without them Gnomeo and Juliet might have been as lifeless as the studio’s previous feature: 9. You know, 9? Like a joyless Little Big Planet?

Not a member of the film’s target audience, however, maybe it’s only natural that I find my own distractions in the lack of Pixar-esque characterisation or DreamWorks’ trademark humour. What exactly is a gnome supposed to do with a flower? How, precisely, do you ride a lawnmower? Isn’t this just Toy Story but with garden ornaments? Can a plastic flamingo’s one true love really be replaced with such ease? Why am I not laughing?

Ultimately, Gnomeo and Juliet is a relatively serviceable children’s’ animation that doesn’t pander to an adult audience, and why should it? Making light of its lack of originality from the outset, there are enough gags to keep this mowing along at a reasonable pace. As Shakespeare meets Toy Story, however, it’s hugely disappointing.

Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

An out and out loser, Lemuel Gulliver has spent the last umpteen years working in a New York City newspaper’s mail room. As his latest employee quickly become his newest employer, Gulliver finally decides to man up and admit his years long crush to the paper’s travel editor, Darcy. Failing miserably and instead fraudulently landing himself a travel assignment to the Bermuda Triangle, Gulliver soon finds himself alone at sea. Whirlpooled into Jonathan Swift’s literary classic, the nobody lies himself into a somebody when he is adopted by the minitature town of Lilliput. Repeating the same mistakes with all the inevitability of a Jack Black karaoke-thon, Gulliver is slowly (oh so slowly) brought the the realisation that he is a giantnormous douche and his own worst enemy. And there are more pop-culture references than you can shake a Shrek at.


With six hours to kill (don’t ask), I decided to massacre two of them in the most unforgivable way possible. That’s right folks, I watched Gulliver’s Travels.

Once again presenting an unsympathetic manchild who goes to superhuman lengths to sabotage his own adulthood, Gulliver’s Travels is yet another attempt by Hollywood to cash in on Jack Black’s taste-defying popularity, soiling another great work of literature in the process. Paving over Swift’s satire and thematics with a combination of Coca-Cola and karaoke, Gulliver’s Travels simplifies the story to the point in which chavs, babies and your popcorn itself might understand what is going on. The relatively simple Lilliputians are reliably British while the (there are not enough quotation marks in the world) “heroic” Gulliver is embarrassingly American – he doesn’t drink coffee, he drinks Joe. No creative license spared there then.

The mock indignation worn by a phone-selling Jack Black in the inescapable Orange advert, which overstayed its welcome in cinemas by an ocean-full of Wednesdays, is hypocrisy at its most hypocratic. Taking a break from Rockband only to swig Coke and check his iPhone, Black’s heart is in this movie less than Apple’s assorted products. As he spoofs innumerable movie posters (from “Gavatar” to *guffaw* “Gulliver’s Origins”) and prances around to distracting power ballads, dignity takes a back seat to gags that not even Keenan Ivory Wayans would touch. If even Jack Black believes this film to be so beneath him, then why should we not too?

Beyond the tired characterisation (Jack Black is an crass buffoon with all the social maturity of a whoopie cushion, the empathy is supposed to kick in when exactly?), lazy jokes (even IMDb only chalks one ‘Memorable Line’) and truly disastrous special effects, Gulliver’s Travels’ biggest problem is its supporting cast – they dare to be charming. That’s right, although struggling with material  written by a certifiable oddity of evolution, the smaller (come on!) characters somehow act their way out of total embarrassment. Billy Connolly is a riot, Catherine Tate positively usurps the background and Emily Blunt charms her way out of even The Wolfman’s craterous shadow. The biggest problem, for Gulliver at least, is that Chris O’Down is just so damn likeable – until his moronic transformation into a Transforminator that is. Sharing the audience’s own frustrations from the get-go, it’s a pity he didn’t cast Gulliver off to Brobdingnag sooner.

Lazy, juvenile and overwhelmingly tedious, Gulliver’s Travels are a neverending smorgasbord of unfunny jokes, uninspired pop-culture references and unwitting direction. That anyone escapes this unscathed is miraculous, that they did so with such verve defies belief.