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Friday, 23 January 2015

Into The Woods

(PG) ★★★

Director: Rob Marshall.

Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford.

"Nothin' suss," said Johnny Depp, who had apparently fallen on hard times and become a furry.
CROSSOVERS are a big deal these days, especially in superhero films - Batman will battle Superman, Iron Man and Captain America team up with the rest of the Avengers, and the old X-Men meet the new X-Men.

But before there were comic book characters, there were fairy tales, where similarly fantastical beings and magical happenings collided in a world where good hopefully triumphed over evil.

So why not have a crossover with all your favourite fairy tales and mash them up into one mega-Disney musical?

That's the idea behind Into The Woods, the big-screen version of the long-running Broadway play written by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine, where the narratives of Rapunzel, Cinderella, Jack & The Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood intersect in weird and wondrous ways.

Central to the tale is The Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt) - a childless couple who discover the reason for their inability to breed is a hex placed on The Baker's family by the neighbourhood witch (Streep). In order to reverse the curse, they must collect four ingredients, setting in motion a chain of events that will forever change their faraway kingdom.

Meanwhile, Cinderella (Kendrick) wants to go to the ball to meet the prince (Pine), Red Riding Hood (Crawford) is being harassed on the way to Grandma's house by a wolf (a creepy cameo from Johnny Depp), Jack (Huttlestone) is on his way to market to sell his beloved cow, and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) is destined to meet a prince of her own (Billy Magnussen).


The first half of the film is whimsically silly, filled with airy songs, light-hearted gags and nothing more serious than a whole bunch of characters seeking their hearts desires as their paths intersect in the titular forest.

The second half is a decidedly darker affair with a distinctly different tone, as if it's flown in from the next theatre over. While the latter half of the film is the more interesting and thought-provoking of the two halves, it sits awkwardly with the first half, making for a disjointed and slightly off-putting whole that doesn't quite work together.

Fortunately there are excellent performances and some good humour along the way to make it all go down a little bit more smoothly. Blunt and Corden are great - their song delivery is fantastic, but their comic timing is even better, while Kendrick is as charming as any fairytale prince.

The film's actual Prince Charming - Pine - almost accidentally steals the show with the song Agony, the only out-and-out hilarious number, while Streep is at her usual level of brilliance, relishing the eccentricities of her witchy role.

Everyone does their darnedest to hold this misshapen mash-up together, but no amount of good acting, quality singing and clever songs can cover the fact it feels less like a crossover and more like two movies stuck together.

If maybe there was more darkness in the first half, or more light in the second, then Into The Woods wouldn't feel so clumsily crafted.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Unbroken

(M) ★★★

Director: Angelina Jolie.

Cast: Jack O'Connell, Takamasa Ishihara, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney.

The race was going so well until Jack was attacked by a giant ribbon.
WAR is hell, but few soldiers endured as much purgatory and perdition as Louis Zamperini.

As such, his story is a compelling one that shows just how much the human spirit and body can endure. Unfortunately this tale of survival has little else to offer beyond its tale of survival.

It begins with Zamperini's time in the US Air Force during WWII, dipping in and out of bombing raids to recall his pre-war life in Torrance, California, as a troubled kid who turns his life around and becomes an Olympic runner.

But one fateful mission over the Pacific Ocean indirectly lands Zamperini in a prisoner of war camp, with the experiences that follow best likened to Dante's Inferno and its many layers of hell.


Largely unknown English actor O'Connell gives a breakout performance as the ill-fated runner/soldier, effectively portraying the pain, stoicism and large emotional range the role requires.

But it's certainly no fault of O'Connell's that we don't get a clear understanding of what made Zamperini tick. That fault lies with the script, which is so focused on its events that it forgets to give us much in the way of characters.

As a result, Zamperini is portrayed as little more than "the guy that survived" - we get no sense of what he was like as a man beyond the fact that his spirit was "unbreakable" and that he was a fairly decent guy. We are left with no idea about what really drove him and kept him going through such horrific experiences, and even less of an idea about his fellow POWs, whose names we barely even get to know.

Because of this it's a while before we gain any real empathy or context for characters, despite them enduring some terrible things.

An audience is always going to care more about people if they get to know them, but there is little in the way of introductions or development for these POWs. It's really only the relentless weight of their suffering that allows the film to break through emotionally, and as such it feels like Unbroken sells its subjects short.

This is certainly no fault of the cast, who acquit themselves well, especially O'Connell but also Ishihara as POW camp commander Mutsuhiro "Bird" Watanabe, who conveys the right amount of repulsiveness in his turn.

It's hard to fault Jolie's direction too much either. The film takes a little while to get going but moves at a decent pace in its latter half. She also avoids making the necessary violence gratuitous, while Roger Deakins' cinematography (which has earnt him an Oscar nomination) gives the film a classy look.

The problem lies with the script and its "events, not characters" approach. The film is not filled with scintillating dialogue or amazing set pieces - although the opening aerial dog fight is pretty cool and the Olympic sequence is done well - but without character depth to drive the necessary emotional punch we are left with little more beyond an hour of hardship.

The film is certainly worth a look as it's a compelling story, but you will walk away knowing what happened to Zamperini, and not who Zamperini really was.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Imitation Game

(M) ★★★★

Director: Morten Tyldum.

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Allen Leech, Matthew Beard, Rory Kinnear.

"Good Lord, I've cracked the Enigma code."
"What does it say?"
"'New phone. Who dis?'"
CERTAIN things happen when true stories get turned into films.

Real people become characters with easily defined and exaggerated traits, while real events get condensed, altered and just plain made up in order to make the realities of life fit more easily into the typical three-act structure and dramatic tension we expect in a movie.

The Imitation Game is a perfect example of that, and therein lies the film's only weakness - by squeezing this story of World War II codebreakers into the required formula, it tends to feel contrived, relying on clichés to tick the necessary narrative boxes.

But otherwise, this is a powerful and fascinating fictionalised account of the life of computing pioneer and bona fide genius Alan Turing, driven by Cumberbatch's engrossing performance in the lead role.

Skipping back and forth between three time periods, the story examines Turing's formative school years, his work cracking the Nazi's Enigma code during WWII, and his later persecution for being a homosexual in an era when such a thing was still illegal in the UK.

The main focus is the war years, where Turing is portrayed as having an Asperger's-like demeanour that puts him at odds with his fellow codebreakers (played by Knightley, Goode, Leech and Beard) as he struggles to build the machine that he believes will break the code and help win the war.


It's Cumberbatch's performance that dominates and powers the film. He is utterly mesmerising and, among a growing collection of excellent turns, this is his finest to date.

Also great and potentially in career-best form is Knightley, whose role as fellow cryptanalyst and Turing's fiancée Joan Clarke is overshadowed by Cumberbatch but no less important or impressive despite its comparative lack of dramatic fireworks. A top-notch supporting cast, particularly Goode, Strong and Dance, round things out nicely.

In general this is a fantastic story well told. With its themes of secrets and what defines a person, set against a backdrop of WWII intrigue and topped off with a sadly real coda about the persecution of homosexuals in a less enlightened time, The Imitation Game is packed with plenty of interesting ideas and plot elements.

Where it falls down is in its overly obvious efforts to fit the true story into something resembling the traditional flow of a movie. As a result we are left with such tired clichés as a race against the clock, a eureka moment, and an "if he goes, I go" speech, all of which genuinely feel out of place and lead to some moments of ham-fisted melodrama that are only saved because the cast is so damned good.

There's also the non-linear presentation, which creates some pacing issues and strangely timed reveals as the plot dives in and out of Turing's school years, war years, and post-war years.

At least Tyldum (best known for the Norwegian actioner Headhunters) and cinematographer Oscar Faura (The Impossible) give each period a subtly different look, and the direction overall is effective, even if its occasional brief war sequences are largely unnecessary.

Generally though, The Imitation Game is impressive, particularly due to Cumberbatch and Knightley and the highs and lows of Turing's truly remarkable life.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Penguins Of Madagascar

(G) ★★★

Director: Eric Darnell & Simon J Smith.

Cast: (voices of) Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich, Ken Jeong, Annet Mahendru, Peter Stormare.

The Wandering Sea Chicken is renowned for its chameleonic abilities.
THERE'S always been something pleasantly average about the Madagascar films.

They've never packed the emotional punch of Up or one of the Toy Stories, they've never been as deep as the How To Train You Dragon movies or The Incredibles, and they've never been as funny as the early Shreks or Monsters Inc.

Instead, the Madagascar franchise has simply coasted along on its wacky charms and a healthy dose of way-over-the-top slapstick. Spin-off film Penguins Of Madagascar is very much cut from the same cloth. There is little in the way of deeper themes or big ideas - just plenty of enjoyable silliness, bad puns, and inventive set-pieces.

The focus is on the waddling quartet of Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private, who were side characters but scene-stealers in the Madagascar trilogy thanks to their ad hoc militaristic approach to everything.

Set in the wake of Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted, the feathered foursome stage a daring raid on Fort Knox where they come face-to-face with their hitherto unknown nemesis Dave The Octopus (Malkovich), who is hell-bent on ridding the world's zoos of penguins.

While the penguins are keen to stop Dave, so is The North Wind - "an elite undercover inter-species taskforce dedicated to helping animals that can't help themselves" - and Skipper and co find themselves battling The North Wind as much as their eight-legged foe.


Naturally there's a "work together" motif here, but it's minimal. The filmmakers are more interested in absurd sightgags (penguins in lederhosen or riverdancing), insane action sequences (penguins hijacking a Venetian canoe to escape evil octopuses), and some terrible puns involving actors' names (which will go right over the kids' heads and aren't even that funny anyway).

It's a good thing the penguins themselves are so likeable and well voiced because the film is an empty vessel making a lot of noise otherwise. McGrath, Miller, Knights and Vernon voice their characters well, with the lead birds of Skipper and Kowalski getting all the best lines.

Strangely, given the talent involved, Dave The Octopus (Malkovich) and North Wind leader Agent Classified (Cumberbatch) seem miscast - their voices just don't seem quite right for the characters, possibly due to Malkovich and Cumberbatch really underplaying things. It's a minor quibble really, because they're not that bad, but you would just expect more from two such charismatic performers. And why isn't more made of the fact that Cumberbatch can't actually pronounce the word "penguin" properly (Google it if you don't believe me)?

There is nothing necessarily wrong with Penguins Of Madagascar - it's just merely a bright and noisy diversion rather than being truly great all-ages entertainment like Big Hero 6 or just about any Pixar film.

In fact, there is a spy-movie undertone here similar to Cars 2, which happens to be the only bad film in the Pixar back catalogue, but it has to be said that Penguins Of Madagascar does it better.

If nothing else, that's a win, but really this film just continues the Madagascar franchise trend of being pleasantly average.