Into the Woods (Marshall, 2015)

Into the Woods is a strange Witch’s concoction – a rarity from its inception, its old-school big-studio musical style places it in a genre from a bygone era. The plot is uneven, its emotional tones overlap too quickly, and its narrative intersections are too often painfully contrived. It might seem rich expecting more from a film based on fairytales, but the film’s subversive second half shows director Rob Marshall’s willingness to experiment with the drummed-into-the-ground fairytale character arcs and archetypes.

But let’s backtrack. Into the Woods is a hotchpotch musical throwback, based on numerous fairytales which intertwine, often tenuously, inside a mysterious woodland realm. Amongst the ensemble are the characters and segmented tales of Cinderella, Red Riding Hood, Jack (replete with Beanstalk) and Rapunzel, amongst others. It’s as if the local panto was inexplicably given fifty million dollars: instead of d-list celebs swanning about the stage in search of self-affirmation, it’s Meryl Streep, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine and co.

So what about the songs? Sondheim’s lyrics are reliably verbose and impressively erudite, managing a few moments of true mastery in the weaving of different characters into a common refrain. No one will claim the tunes themselves are classics however, and you’ll struggle to sing more than a few of them after exiting the cinema.

There is some saving grace however. Splitting neatly into two halves, the film becomes infinitely more interesting after the midway point. It looks as if the film is wrapping up to an entirely expected Happily Ever After, before ripping the pretence down completely. Refreshing and subversive, this re-appropriation is an adrenaline shot to the picture, and indeed the languishing audience. Post-midway, the songs click into place, their bite felt more with something original to seek their teeth into. The characters are forced out of their established roles, and progressive morals germinate from this most unexpected of fanciful flowerbeds.

After the point where most fairytales close the book, the characters of Into the Woods break loose from their chains: Princesses talk of female independence, peasants fraternise with princes (Pine’s Prince is revealed to be all surface: ‘I was raised to be Charming not sincere’), causality and the notion of personal blame is debated. It is in this fallen paradise that the film finds unique voice, delivering atypical, ascerbic humour which finally raises laughs (after an hour of titters at best).

There are moments outlying the norm in the first half – it is more darkly violent than anticipated, a nice honouring of the fairytale genre’s Grimm past – but they are inconsistent (fast becoming a theme). Depp’s Wolf is devilishly disturbing, but tempered by blink-and-you’ll-miss-it screentime, and hampered by a non-cohesive wardrobe and tone from the rest of the cast. Emily Blunt, playing the baker’s wife here in a narrative composed to bring all the others together, is the only thespian who strikes the correct tone all the way through. She lands between parody and melodrama without ever fully indulging each. The rest swing like metronomes between the two poles, sometimes hitting the mark, sometimes falling well short.

Emily Blunt and James Corden constitute an unlikely marriage

Emily Blunt and James Corden constitute an unlikely marriage

James Corden, Blunt’s baker husband, provides his second completely unnecessary, patronising narration in less than a month – the previous being in the BBC’s otherwise heart-warming ‘Esio Trot’ – which mercifully follows the film’s theme of inconsistency, not persisting, it seems, past about the two thirds mark. Otherwise, his performance is bearable (admittedly I’m not a fan) and he even raised a few chuckles somewhere in the mix.

Into the Woods’ biggest failing is its uneven register – the much darker source material does not take well to its Disney host, who rejects some of the material completely by cutting away from key scenes and letting the worst happen off screen. It is a cop out, unevenly squared with the continuing lyrical subversion of Sondheim’s superior stage production. There is much to love in the film, but there is much more to be frustrated by. I was eventually won round by the post-happy-end collection of aborted narratives, I just wish it had taken less time to get there.

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Birdman, or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance (Iñárritu, 2014)

Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film is an intoxicating meditation on self-validation and the mechanism of fame. As the first of its two titles suggest, it discusses these topics largely through a pastiche of superhero films; seldom using tropes from the genre itself, instead focusing on what happens next for the actors who play them. Iñárritu’s muse is Riggan Thomas (Michael Keaton), an action hero has-been who strives for continued relevance in an increasingly disposable, viral marketplace. His chosen method – to direct, write and star in a Broadway play – brings him closer to the edge than sanity allows, his narcissistic personality spiralling in on itself in the face of younger, superior talent. Thomas strikes an increasingly tragic figure as the film develops, repeatedly striving for moments of meaning and imparted knowledge, failing hilariously. His key flaw, as his ex-wife describes, is that he ‘confuses love for admiration’. This failing is brought to the fore time and time again, as his attempts to connect with his compatriots circle back to discussions of him and his life. He is incapable of empathy.

Yet somehow Keaton makes him empathetic. His portrayal seems close-to-the-bone, as is Iñárritu’s camera more literally, as we remember his faded glory days as Burton’s Batman (1989). Here, Keaton is self-deprecating (never more so than in a hysterical walk through Times Square in nothing but tighty-whities) and honest, laid-bare by the demands of a new medium and a new time, his ego subjected to escalating bruisings. Through it all, he remains pathetically funny and fascinating in equal measure, from his fluctuating on-stage performances (which correlate so beautifully with his off-stage narrative) to his supernatural powers which can only be practised in solitude. Keaton’s troubled soul, not to mention his hilariously gruff alter-ego, is tremendously watchable.

Birdman flits between objective and subjective beautifully, and when we happen to find ourselves alone with Keaton, rare moments of quiet in a whirlwind production, the space is instead inhabited by another voice. Birdman is somewhere between Dafoe’s Green Goblin and Bale’s Batman, a fusion of the former’s demented, destructive narcissism and the latter’s more humane brand, in tandem with his grizzled, hyper-masculinised vocal range. This split is what happens when you have the inflated ego of a superhero without the powers to back it up, the black flip-side to Family Guy’s Adam West comedy caricature.

Keaton’s performance is just one piece of a rich cinematic jigsaw however. Iñárritu’s wonderfully weightless, unbound camera flows between one vignette to the next, like the unbound consciousness of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). It’s an entrancing visual style, which can inspire some strange reactions – some viewers report feeling weightless, literally ‘swept away’ by Birdman as it were. Personally, I felt a peculiar disembodiment. On walking out of the cinema, it seemed like the sounds of the street were the work of foley artists on set, that my walking rhythms were coordinated in the same manner as Iñárritu’s labyrinthine action paths. The seamless transitions, which surely must use CGI but I’ll be damned if I can spot the real/unreal barrier, work so well that they permeate a certain barrier of veracity, mimicking a continuous relationship to the real world which is universally shared. It’s breathless, heart racing cinema.

The film’s undeniable artiness is predictably polarising, and if you have an aversion to artworks which may be considered ‘pretentious’ then perhaps seek a narrative with more typical appeal; or better, hold off the cynicism while letting Iñárritu’s intoxicating camera lure you into this tale of a man struggling in vain for meaning and recognition. For in the end, I don’t believe the film to be pretentious at all – it has many things to say about the hypnotic vice of fame, the post-modern relation of an actor consumed by a role (a note on Thomas’ mirror ironically states ‘A thing is a thing, not what is said of a thing’), and the crushing self-doubt inevitable in post-peak narratives. It delivers on its aesthetic promise with well-developed characters who satirise the industry and members of the Twitter generation simultaneously. Edward Norton’s turn as method-actor Mike Shiner is hilarious, and it’s a treasure to see two great, often forgotten American actors play off each other. Emma Stone delivers another solid performance as Thomas’ daughter, his pot-smoking PA who brutally reminds her father of his (indeed everyone’s) meaningless position in the universe. Not to mention the sterling support delivered by Zach Galifianakis’ smart-talking lawyer, Lindsay Duncan’s frosty critic and Naomi Watts’ confused co-star. Birdman is the sum of all these parts, and still more.

Stone and Norton share a moment on the theatre rooftop

Stone and Norton share a moment on the theatre rooftop

It is Thomas’ flawed, solipsistic spiral of evasion which remains the film’s most touching focus. He shies away from any outside influence which goes against his view of self, an exaggerated trait which may be found in the best of us. Couple Keaton’s sensitive, triumphant return with an adventurous and uncanny visual style, and the result is an entrancing film which has physical and emotional resonance on any prospectively open-minded audience. Be swept away.

Pride (Warchus, 2014)

Pride is a stirring rendition of little-known true story, set amongst the societal chaos of the 80s miners strikes. The maligned minority, represented by a Welsh mining town, receive a show of support from an unlikely, but similarly maligned, camp of the Gay and Lesbian community. The film shows how Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners (LGSM) rallies around another minority seeking representation, to the eventual public and private benefit of both parties. This is not to say their support is accepted whole-heartedly, with adverse reaction coming from both sides, initially and throughout, as tensions and prejudices run high.

There is much to admire here. Homosexual activism is shown to be considered, politically thoughtful and engaged, and pro-active in response to heavy criticism. In reply to a label of ‘perverts’ in the press, the pressure group adopt the label and wear it proudly, providing a link with ‘Queer’ activism which would explode in the following decade. Pride shows us just how useful utilising those words designed to hurt can be when used as part of one’s defence.

The characters neatly split down the middle, the gay rights activists from cosmopolitan London town, and the more conservative (definitely with a small ‘c’) Welsh citizens of the mining community. The two groups, one largely older and settled, the other primarily youthful and revolutionary, have a consistently interested and funny dynamic. On the Welsh side, Bill Nighy as Cliff is reliably brilliant, delivering an understated yet hilarious performance as part of the town committee – gradually graduating from apprehensive mumble to gleeful acceptance in the visiting presence of the ‘gays’ from London. Amongst the committee’s other members are Imelda Staunton as Hefina and Paddy Considine as Dai, each bringing warmth and humanity to their portrayal of their inspirational real-life counterparts. On the flipside, Dominic West also features in a brave turn as Jonathan, one of the first men to be diagnosed with AIDS in the UK. He remains irreverent, outspoken and fabulous despite this ‘death sentence’. His partner Gethin, played by Andrew Scott, will be recognisable for many as the face of Moriarty in the BBC’s hugely successful Sherlock reinvention. He’s a far cry from supervillain mode here, playing an anomalously quiet member of the activist group, a man for whom Wales is a site of recollecting past strife and exclusion, not an opportunity for positive social generation.

Tough sell: Dai explains the homophobic attitude of the miners

Tough sell: Dai explains the miners’ homophobic attittude

Of course the film benefits from the veracity of its subject, and so it should, raising awareness for this forgotten tale of solidarity against the tyranny of the majority. The film celebrates diversity, showing the LGBT community to be varied and non-conformist, even among its own members; towards the end, Gay and Lesbian for Miners are encouraged to join the ‘fringe’ groups in the huge Gay Pride march in London 1985. This is clearly shown to be a rich, thriving community which refuses to be homogenised.

While director Warchus’ style is admittedly simple, it allows the warmth and humour of Beresford’s script to shine through. Sometimes contentious issues need to be carefully told; and while the humour helps to un-demonise these often misrepresented groups, there can be no chance of equivocation when it comes to the film’s presiding message. The opposition to LGSM is infuriatingly dogmatic, often relying on Conservative (big ‘C’ this time) religious beliefs to support their stolidly non-progressive arguments. It is a decidedly liberal film, which is probably why I am endeared to it. It reminds us of the cultural diversity of Britain, and how this is a strength and not a weakness, instead an opportunity for unlikely alliances and affirmation of one’s own identity in comparison, but not against, those who are different. Pride provides a resounding refutation of Thatcher’s infamous anti-society proclamation, presenting two fringe groups who bind together out of common need and common decency, eventually choosing to ignore differences in lifestyle and generation for the greater good of all; a message worth remembering.

The Theory of Everything (Marsh, 2014)

A remarkable life, such as that of legendary scientist Stephen Hawking, deserves a remarkable portrayal. The astronomer can rest easy in his iconic chair after the release of The Theory of Everything, which sees his life brilliantly realised by Eddie Redmayne; he delivers a performance worthy of the great man himself, and will surely be rewarded with consideration for the cinema world’s highest honour. The young British star is overwhelmingly good. He fully assimilates himself into his onscreen persona, a role whose veracity is never in question. From Hawking’s fully-functional Oxford youth to debilitating middle age and beyond, it’s a performance that necessarily manifests itself in the minutiae of facial expression, in the twitch of a cheek and the raise of an eyebrow, and of course those wild, insatiable eyes. They are a symbol for the great man’s resilience and thirst for life, an inner showcase of his battle against his own body, which Redmayne impossibly captures. When his eyes fill with water, so do ours.

The film takes as its source material Jane Hawking’s memoir ‘Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen’, (not Hawking’s own, decidedly less cinematic, ‘A Brief History of Time’), and the added focus on the relationship’s female part is a revelation. Despite being undeniably beautiful (played by the irresistible Felicity Jones) and intelligent, she strikes a tragic figure for the most part. She is the unappreciated devotee, dedicated to alleviating the mounting challenges of her husband’s Motor Neurone Disease. It’s a commitment she makes genuinely, but in the midst of her innocent, romantic youth, a position incapable of foreseeing the endless hours of housework and the menial tasks carried out in the shadow of her undeniably brilliant husband. She deserves huge credit for what she gives of her life to Stephen, which he seems to rarely give her, but she also deserves the right to a life of her own. Which he eventually, and reasonably, grants her.

Hawking (Redmayne) discovers the terrible depths of his disease

Hawking (Redmayne) discovers the terrible depths of his disease

In the mould of other growth-of-a-genius films (a la A Beautiful Mind), we have the youthful, fruition years at a prestigious university, the struggles for brilliance against balancing a ‘normal’ life, culminating in an illustrious hall full of adorning peers, applause reigning finally on our central subject, work vindicated, life affirmed. So far, so typical. But where The Theory of Everything adapts the formula, in addition to the special focus on Jane, is in the rendering of Stephen’s debilitating condition.

The film foregrounds bodies, making their most mundane actions appear miraculous – in Stephen’s eyes, which we are transposed into so effectively through Redmayne’s performance and Marsh’s sensitive direction, just raising cutlery to one’s mouth to eat dinner is an incredible feat. Hawking’s perseverance makes the audience thankful for what we have, even if it’s only conducting our bodies in a way that we have control over. It is of course a great cosmic joke that the man who redefined so much of our understanding of the universe, our collective exterior, struggles so much with what the vast majority find so easy. The first question Hawking asks post-diagnosis in The Theory of Everything is ‘What about the brain?’; not pausing to reflect on his body’s failings, instead savouring his essence, his true self. Marsh’s film posits a refutation of our bodies, their image and their failings, as defining who we are (as does Hawking’s life more widely). For a life and work so obsessed with what we can measure and prove, it is ironic that it prizes, above all, that which we cannot: the nebulous substance of human interaction, of insatiable desire, of the nurturing thirst for knowledge, and of unconditional love.

In addition to this wonderful counterpoint, the film features a heart-rending score from Jóhann Jóhannsson, which soars appropriately during the narrative’s peaks, capturing something of the nature of inspiration, even if it is an impression and not the artefact itself. The cinematography by Benoît Delhomme is sensitive and varied, taking us from the rustic warmth of 60s Oxonian halls and quads to the harsh, unforgiving light of the operating table with a beautiful expertise. The focus is often shallow, blurring figures in the distance, making the characters and their interactions immediate. We are forced to take each moment individually, each day as it comes, as Hawking is forced to in his unstable biological state. Overall, the film sutures us to Stephen so effectively, and so resoundingly, that it is hard not to be incredibly moved upon the narrative’s termination, which of course has the added emotional weight of truth. But even with this factor considered, it is a supremely affecting film in its artistry and extraordinary performances. Unconsciously, I barely moved during the duration, so natural did these characters seem, so genuine their torment, and so gratifying their enduring success. It is a wonderful film.