Saturday, January 17, 2015

Capsule Reviews: "Into the Woods," "Unbroken," "American Sniper," "Ida," "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night"

Into the Woods
Dir. Rob Marshall

The law of diminishing returns has been particularly unkind to Rob Marshall. After the fabulous thrills of Chicago, the director fumbled with the passable-yet-wobbly Nine. The third time isn't the charm in Into the Woods, despite some enjoyable work from a mostly charming cast. Condensing Sondheim's three hour show to a neat two is the biggest undoing of the story, given that there are so many characters (by contrast, cutting an hour of material worked wonders for Sweeney Todd). Into the Woods has some fun, witty moments of musical mischief, but they're unable to gather momentum. The film's first half fares better, with more energy and an actual plot mechanism. Once the story moves beyond the fake-out Happy Ever After moment, the increase in darkness weighs the storytelling down. Into the Woods doesn't even start off being light on its feet, but the second act can be downright leaden. 

Still, the film isn't without its pleasures. Emily Blunt is delightful as the wife of the Baker (an unintentionally slap-worthy James Corden), and does the best job of singing without losing expressiveness. On the other hand, Meryl Streep sometimes over-emotes, while Anna Kendrick, despite having the cast's best voice, rarely changes expressions. Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, as a pair of witless princes, do the best with the material's comedic elements, best highlighted in the hysterically funny number "Agony." Les Miserables' Daniel Huttlestone is engaging but poorly served as Jack (he of the beanstalk), and the same goes for Tracy Ullmann as his mother and Christine Baranski, Lucy Punch, and Tammy Blanchard as Cinderella's (Kendrick) stepmother and stepsisters. Less enjoyable are Lilla Crawford as Red Riding Hood, with a sharp and nasally voice, and Mackenzie Mauzy as the completely useless Rapunzel. Costumes and sets clearly have a lot of detail put into them, but are done a huge disservice by the photography and coloring, which renders scenes in dull autumnal browns and depressing shades of blue. 

Grade: C+

Dir. Angelina Jolie

A punishingly dull work that proves that extraordinary historical events do not automatically translate into compelling drama. Angelina Jolie's direction is respectful and solid, but it's not strong enough to elevate the sluggish screenplay. Even cinematographer Roger Deakins is on autopilot, serving up some of his least-inspired visuals and framing. Inexplicable new "it" actor Jack O'Connell continues to be serviceable as Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete who became a soldier who became a POW (and so on...). But Zamperini has little to do but suffer. His motivations are so base that Unbroken can't even make them relatable on a purely visceral level. Zamperini, who died in 2013, lived one hell of a life, but Unbroken is so intent on making him a Christ-like American victim that he doesn't register as a compelling lead.

Grade: C-

American Sniper
Dir. Clint Eastwood

Some of Clint Eastwood's recent output has been quite stale, but in American Sniper, the director has found material he can work into something a point. Eastwood's intentions (remember, he opposed the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq) appear to be the creation of a character study examining the psychological toll of modern warfare. Those intentions somewhat come through thanks to Bradley Cooper's consistently compelling work as the titular sniper. But writer Jason Hall doesn't dramatize Kyle enough as a character. The real Chris Kyle almost certainly lacked the shades of grey that Eastwood's film hints at. Yet by merely hinting, American Sniper winds up as a dismissible, watered-down version of The Hurt Locker. Credit where credit is due, however: the final fight sequence, set during a sandstorm, is a knockout.

Grade: C+

Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski

Poland's Foreign Language Film submission (and now nominee) is simple in set-up, and only clocks in at 81 minutes. Yet by the time the story's last act rolls around, Pawlikowski's spare, beautifully photographed drama is already running out of steam. The story, about a novitiate nun who discovers she's of Jewish heritage, wastes no time in sending Ida (Agata Trzebuchowska) on her transformative journey. Her initial adventures with her aunt Wanda (Agata Kulesza) are restrained, yet dynamic thanks to the contrasting performances from both actresses. Kulesza, in the flashier role, does a superb job at charting Wanda's struggle to cope with her past, even as she's forced to explain it to her niece. But once Wanda exits the story, Ida loses its sense of purpose. The finale reveals the weaknesses in Pawlikowski's screenplay. Namely, Ida is written as such a blank, passive character that her eventual fate is neither convincing nor stirring. Plenty of films accomplish a lot with short run times, but Ida doesn't have enough successful subtext to justify its anemic narrative.

Grade: B-

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Dir. Ana Lily Amirpour

I've saved the best for last. Ana Lily Amirpour's feature-length debut may have a few issues in its writing, but this black-and-white neo western Iranian vampire drama is a triumph of atmospheric filmmaking. Set in a decrepit Iranian ghost town (Los Angeles is a mostly convincing double for Iran), Girl tracks the budding relationship between a hijab-clad vampire (Sheila Vand), and a down-on-his-luck mechanic (Arash Marandi). Blood and gore are in short supply, but Amirpour pulls off the handful of on-screen deaths brilliantly. Rather than become obsessed with piling on graphic visuals, Amirpour cranks up the atmosphere, extending the various kill sequences to the point where you almost hate to see the fangs finally appear. The story's feminist undertones (the vampire's victim's are almost exclusively predatory men) give the the narrative an extra punch. But the most thrilling part of Girl is the way Amirpour mixes and matches various tropes of westerns and vampire films to create something that feels new. Sound work and music choices are critical to creating the film's hypnotic heights, and the script's sense of humor keeps everything grounded. 

Grade: B+

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