’Tis the season for lots of big-profile movies, so we’re rounding up short reviews on the biggies. UNBROKEN | C+
Let's dispense with the Angelina-Jolie-got-robbed narrative. Her well-intentioned, handsomely mounted, and frustratingly redundant ode to suffering and patriotic heroism is as old-school and predictable as it gets. If a movie could have a jutting jaw and steely eyes Unbroken would be the prototype.
Yes, the true-life tale of American World War II POW and Olympic distance runner Louie Zamperini is truly extraordinary — tailored made for the silver screen — but the movie's script (penned by five top-notch writers, including the Coen brothers) is more dutiful than inspiring, a dramatic jigsaw puzzle about the nobility of sacrifice and perseverance.
And that's how Jolie directs it. She handles the big set pieces with skill but seems locked into a single tone and pace, rarely letting us get to know the man behind the hero. Unbroken respectfully salutes what Zamperini achieved and endured but never bothers to understand or explore who he was.
Rated PG-13. 137 minutes. FOXCATCHER | B
There's a grim, funereal pall that gradually descends over Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher. The camera keeps its distance, the tone is hush and chilly with an undercurrent of dread that permeates every frame. Small instances of humor spark but never warm. It's a serious movie that fools you into thinking there's a mystery at the heart of its real-life tragedy. There isn't. Instead, the strange tale of Olympic gold medal-winning wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) being pulled into the world of eccentric multi millionaire John du Pont (an almost unrecognizable Steve Carell) is a factual but still fascinating march toward devastating tragedy. Why? Bennett and his screenwriters, Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye, are unwilling to commit to an answer. But they've attracted a superlative cast, with Carell and Channing delivering dramatic career bests. Even more impressive is Mark Ruffalo as Schultz's guileless and more celebrated brother Dave.
We are a long way from the gritty pluck of Miller's Moneyball (which benefited immensely from Aaron Sorkin's impish script and Brad Pitt's charm) and stepping back into the muted, severity of Capote. It's an unfortunate choice since there's no clever celebrity genius for audiences to latch onto this time. Instead we watch as two lost and lonely men desperately seek hollow victories, believing that the myth of self-actualization will save them from themselves. Foxcatcher is probably a bit too sad, slow, and disjointed to appeal to popular audiences, but as an exploration of American masculinity and the abuse of power, it's strangely seductive.
Rated R. 134 minutes. INTO THE WOODS | B+
It seems happy endings are possible. Sorta. Fans of Stephen Sondheim's rather brilliant musical deconstruction of fairy tales (Bruno Bettelheim would be proud) reacted with trepidation when it was announced that Disney would be bringing the beloved musical stage-play to screen. It's an understandable concern given the studio's aversion to thematically dark material. Especially with characters so integral to its wholesome success. And, yes, there is some meddling (Rapunzel's tale seems neutered to protect future sequels of Tangled) but director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) delivers the goods.
Or should we say his cast delivers the goods. Most of them anyway. Meryl Streep (as the witch) and theatrically trained Anna Kendrick (as Cinderella) are particularly adept at singing Sondheim's maddening mix of gorgeous melodies and tongue-twisting verbal workouts while keeping their character intentions clear. Emily Blunt (as the Baker's wife) brilliantly balances the demands of her songs, comedic gags, and emotional shifts while Chris Pine (Cinderella's preening Prince) chews the scenery with hammy glee. (His duet with Billy Magnussen, another charming Prince, is a hilarious show-stopper.) And a special shoutout to Johnny Depp as the Wolf. He's finally found another suitable vehicle for his self-conscious weirdness.
It's the younger cast members Lilla Crawford (Red Riding Hood) and Daniel Huttlestone (Jack) who struggle to keep up. Marshall (or is it Disney?) has stripped their vignettes of all sexual subtext and neither are particularly convincing actors. Marshall also has a way of confining his visuals, robbing the titular woods of any potential majesty or presence. His shooting style is a bit too cramped.
In the end, however, these are small stumbles in an otherwise smart and energetic adaptation. Into The Woods first depicts the eternal desire for "happily ever after," but then dares to ask, what happens next? What is the price of getting what we wished for? Are we happier for getting it? In the case of Marshall and screenwriter James Lapine's script, the singing and dancing answer is, thankfully, yes.
Rated PG. 124 minutes.
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