INTO THE WOODS
I'm a big fan of Steven Sondheim but not, I must confess, of Into the Woods, so I wasn't expecting to like this. However, I enjoyed it more than the stage show. CGI - vanishing witches, the Beanstalk, the giant (giantess) - works much better than clumsy stage effects and helps to link this subversive musical to the Disneyfied Grimm Brothers' stories that it incorporates.
Meryl Streep, who as we know from Mama Mia really can sing, steals the show dramatically and musically as the wicked Witch who bargains the Baker and his Wife into stealing Jack's cow and Cinderella's slipper and other memorabilia to break the curse on her. Chris Pine is the best of the supporting cast, totally ditching his action boy image to play a Prince with a (very) roving eye.
In the good old days, musical-wise, it was common to cast actors who couldn't sing and dub them with singers who presumably couldn't act (West Side Story, Carmen Jones, etc, etc). Now actors who can't - or shouldn't - sing do their own singing, often with painful results. Think Piers Brosnan, think Russell Crowe. In Into the Woods James Corden is the one whose singing voice is - how can I put this? - less than a joy for the listener.
Sondheim's lyrics have never been less than brilliant (all the way back to West Side Story) and they are very clever here (occasionally a bit "clever-clogs" clever). The tunes are not the kind of thing you walk out humming (rarely the case with today's musicals - excuse me while I have a whinge). But the structure of this revisionist fairy-tale is amusingly intricate and la Streep is (when isn't she?) on fine form. A show worth popping into on a grim - Grimm! - winter's day.
Another biopic. They're coming in bunches this winter.
Another biopic. They're coming in bunches this winter.
Not a lot to say about Wild. It's a crowd-pleasing small-budget movie about a woman who trekked 1,000 miles across California in an effort to clear her messed-up head. Not a lot happens. Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) walks over rivers and mountains and deserts. She sees some nice scenery, a wolf and some cows. She meets some nice folk (only a couple of near-nasties).
Reese Witherspoon's performance - convincing and appealing - is reminiscent of her role as Mrs Johnny Cash. For me there was a problem with Nick Hornby's script, which drip-feeds the back-story through the movie - her mother's death, her decline into drink and drugs and reckless sex. I would have preferred a more 'linear' treatment: her bad times in a single chunk, leading up to her decision to break free and try to sort herself out.
Also, there's no transitional moment. You don't feel that she has achieved Redemption or even Catharsis, although I guess she's a bit less messed-up by the end of her "pilgrimage". The final-reel Cheryl could easily have slipped back into her bad old ways (I hope she didn't). Overall, this is no more spectacular than one of those TV travelogues about 21st-century Man (woman) out in the primeval Wilderness - and not too primeval, with trekking signs and lodges and post-offices along the way.
Bradley Cooper, bearded and beefed-up, sheds his glamour-boy image and delivers his best performance to date as real-life US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, his country's keenest sniper, who in four tours of duty in Iraq took out over 150 enemy combatants. Two of Kyle's first targets in the movie are a young boy and his mother, preparing to throw a grenade. In the moral quagmire that is modern warfare (perhaps in all wars) your enemy is not always a uniformed soldier. Both in Iraq, where his team-mates fall beside him, and at home, visiting hideously wounded and mentally scarred veterans, Kyle sees the full horror - and the true cost - of war. The movie's final moments, subtly mixing diminuendo with crescendo, powerfully underline the theme that the end of fighting is no longer the end of a war.
Men at war: this is territory that movie-makers have been visiting for decades, most recently and viscerally in Black Hawk Down and The Hurt Locker. At 84 Clint Eastwood has lost none of his edge; his direction here is just as tight as Kathryn Bigelow's or Ridley Scott's.
Britain's Sienna Miller is very convincing as the party girl turned home-maker who frets that Chris's devotion to his country is making him neglect his duties as a husband and father. The tension in their marriage is finely balanced against the tension on the rooftops of Baghdad and Fallujah. There's not a lot that's new in American Sniper, but it's two-and-a-half hours that remind us that in all wars there are ultimately no winners.
THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING
Once in a long while a film comes along in which every element is just perfect; you wouldn't want to change a single frame. Some Like It Hot is an obvious example. Or Fried Green Tomatoes or L.A. Confidential. There are others, but not too many. Here's a new one. The Theory of Everything is a finely tuned study not only of the physical disintegration of one of the modern era's greatest scientists but also of the gentle disintegration of his perfect marriage.
Eddie Redmayne is already winning awards. He ought to scoop the lot. The gawky kid who charmed us in My Week With Marilyn is now the geeky cosmologist who wins the heart of a girl at college, enjoys a happy life with her and their children and conquers the scientific world with his theories about the birth of the universe even as Motor Neurone Disease takes away his mobility and his speech, but not - against all the odds - his dignity or his humour.
Stephen Hawking is a scene-hogging role like Dustin Hoffman's in Rain Man, but Felicity Jones manages to steal some of his limelight much as Tom Cruise managed to steal from Dustin. Her Jane Hawking is believably impossibly perfect - the wife who lovingly supports her increasingly frail partner and then with exquisite discomfort falls in love with somebody else. There are no scenes of violence or vitriol: Stephen and Jane's love survives the collapse of their marriage. The supporting actors in this quiet drama are not big names, which lends their performances added conviction.
A more poignant story would be hard to imagine: triumph and tragedy delicately brought to life. There is no air of contrivance in this movie. Poignant and flawless.