Friday, January 9, 2015

Double Review: Unbroken and Into the Woods.

With Oscar season in full steam recently, I’ve been able to get around to a few new titles (and hope to get around to some more) vying for awards attention. Today, I’ll be reviewing Angelina Jolie’s World War 2 drama Unbroken, and Disney’s big release of the holiday season Into the Woods. Hope you enjoy reading my thoughts on them.

It’s not hard to see why the life of athlete and war veteran Louie Zamperini (who passed away months before this film’s release) would be a fascinating one, as this man endured hardships most of us wouldn’t have the stomach to take. After his plane crashed into the ocean during a rescue mission, he and others were trapped floating on a raft for almost seven weeks, before crossing paths with a Japanese ship, and being held captive in a POW camp for two years. It certainly gives Angelina Jolie (herself a friend to the late Zamperini) a chance to prove her skills as a director, but despite her skill and competency with the craft, a fascinating life story alone does not necessarily a good movie make.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the film’s craft or direction in anyway, but most of the blame can be placed on this screenplay. Attributed to four different writers (Including the prolific Brothers Coen, Joel & Ethan), the film carries the vice of too many authors trying to tell their version of the story. The film suffers from repetition and broken pacing, but above all is simply flat as a character study. Zamperini may be an inspirational figure, but the film plays that up too far, refusing to paint him as anything other than a sinless saint. There’s a Christianity subtext that tries to add in some depth to this persona, but this intention ultimately backfires, instead feeling more lazy than compelling.  Not to mention that the film demonizes and stereotypes his Japanese captors as easy villains, with the only depth to them belonging solely to his camp’s commanding officer, “The Bird” Watanabe (Excellently played by a devilishly abusive Miyavi).

However, in spite of these glaring script issues, I still found Unbroken to be quite an engaging movie. Jolie proves to be very skilled and precise as a director (some shots feeling straight out of a Clint Eastwood movie), and her capabilities in both the film’s craft and acting are top notch. Zamperini’s character may not be strong, but Jack O’ Connell gives the role much more conviction and vulnerability than it deserves. Ditto can be said of Miyavi, whose character’s backstory is intentionally kept vague, but the actor gives it such a commanding intimidation, and also a hint of respect for Zamperini despite his grueling brutality. The craft is no less impressive, with the hardships endured by Louie stunningly realized by graphic makeup, and the legendary Roger Deakins providing some beautifully composed images. Honestly, if it weren’t for the script, I’d probably love this movie, but, alas…

*** / *****

Into the Woods:
Based on Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s musical of the same name, Into the Woods is the latest live action offering from Disney, set in the world of various fairy tale characters (specifically those from the stories of the Brothers Gimm) who cross paths with each other in the mysterious forest surrounding their homes, and in their quest to find their happily ever afters, instead unleash consequences that will gravely affect them. Into the Woods is directed by Rob Marshall, best known for his 2002 Best Picture winning adaptation of Chicago, but has fallen into a slump of critical failures ever since. That’s why I was never particularly hopeful for Into the Woods, and upon finally seeing it, I think it’s absolutely campy and overblown…

..And I enjoyed every minute of it! Dazzling to the eyes and ears, and filled with thoroughly entertaining performances, Into the Woods is Rob Marshall’s only other movie I have ever liked.

Unlike the adaptation of Les Miserables in 2012, I have little familiarity with the original musical, but was happy to be introduced to it this way. As a total sucker for the musical genre, I was completely won over and charmed by this movie’s staging. Marshall mainly ditches the experimentalism of his films like Chicago and Nine for more intimate numbers, but not entirely, including one sequence with Anna Kendrick’s Cinderella debating the dilemma of her prince discovering her true identity. The sequences usually tend to feel subdued, but never lose a key sense of playfulness and consistent rhythm. I found myself hooked by all of the songs, especially during standout number “Your Fault”, where the characters interact with addicting rapid-fire bickering and seamless counterpoint.

The cast is uniformly strong, and benefits from some truly inspired casting decisions such as James Corden as the determined Baker, Chris Pine as Cinderella’s charismatic but vain prince, Emily Blunt as the graceful but conflicted Baker’s Wife, and Anna Kendrick (who has the most technically impressive voice in the film) as the cheery but doubtful Cinderella. Standout notice goes to Meryl Streep as the witch, both dubious and heartbreaking in equal measure, with Streep never taking the role more seriously than it requires, and in her more sinister scenes, is a blast when she decides to go all out and have fun with it. She’s too irresistible to ignore.

If I had any complaints with the film, it would only be a couple big ones. One is that the second half of the film loses a bit of its tonal footing, but not enough to fatally damage it. The second lies with Johnny Depp’s cameo as the wolf. Depp isn’t bad in the role, per se, but his character still feels like a bit of an eyesore. When the trailers first debuted, going so far as to obscure Depp’s face, I thought that was their clever way of hiding some potentially excellent creature design. The final product is not the case, with the makeup work absolutely jarring, and the cartoonish zoot suit costume (reportedly of Depp’s personal suggestion) being the only blemish on Colleen Atwood’s otherwise fabulous wardrobe. It would have been preferable to integrate the wolf by way of motion capture, but he’s not in the movie long enough to ruin it.

And yes, the film looks gorgeous. Dion Beebe provides some striking photography, Dennis Gassner’s production design aces the realization of the fairy tale world, and the makeup work of Peter King is imaginative and clever. As said before, the standout of the crew is costume designer Colleen Atwood, who deserves this year’s Oscar for Best Costume Design without hesitation.

I can certainly understand why others may and will not be keen to this movie, including fans of the source material, but everything about it felt custom tailored to charm me from beginning to end.

**** / *****

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