The latest from old school horror pioneer Roman Polanski is a dark and brooding thriller that is… very long and brooding. What begins with noir charm and decadence grows thin by the movie’s over-bloated running time – giving new definition to the term “tedium.” The visuals are grim and noirish, but hang forever. Half of the movie is seeing Johnny Depp walk from Point A to Point B; and then the other half is watching him light up a cigarette usually already with drink safely in hand. Depp plays a librarian that doesn’t play by all the rules, or something or other. He’s set out to authenticate the last three books of a Satanic worshiper only to discover they lead to a path of devilish power. By the time Ninth Gate reaches its climax at an Eyes Wide Shut-style group gathering the audience has already hopelessly lost feeling in their ass. The vague ending is a cop-out after what the viewer is forced to go through to finally find out the secrets of these special 15th century books/doorstops. When it’s not carelessly lingering The Ninth Gate has some interest to it, but too often than not, it just rolls ahead forgetful of the audience that paid to come see it.
Nate’s Grade: C-
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
Times sure have changed for famous director Roman Polanski. He’s been filming movies entirely in Europe for years since he fled the United States to escape prosecution for rape charges. He even won an Academy Award in 2002 for The Pianist, though he wasn’t present to accept naturally. However, in a post-Me Too realm of improved scrutiny over the bad habits of bad men with power and influence, Polanski hasn’t had a movie with notable names since 2012’s Carnage. He’s made a few foreign-language films since but his sphere seems notably smaller, more confined, and more shut off from the industry and actors and moneymen that want to work with the famous director. They’ve even attempted to get him extradited back to the U.S. again. All of this cannot help but color re-watching The Ninth Gate, especially when it already plays upon memories of Polanski’s own Rosemary’s Baby. I wondered if this movie might actually be better twenty years later, and for a while I was feeling like my young film critic self was perhaps a little too quick to judgment. However, upon recent viewing, this is still a long and boring misfire.
The premise is slightly intriguing until you realize what it exactly entails. Johnny Depp’s character, Dean Corso, is a rare book evaluator and unscrupulous profiteer. He’s been hired by wealthy magnate Boris Balkin (Frank Langella) to authenticate a book reportedly co-written by the Devil himself and, if real, has the ability to summon Old Scratch to boot. Hey, we got something there for an intriguing horror movie that delves into the occult. And for perhaps the first act, The Ninth Gate works well enough to establish its mood and its central conflict. Then it just kept going. And kept going. And that’s when you realize that much of this movie involves one man traveling to different chateaus and other European estates to simply look at books. There are three copies of this rare Devil-penned tome, so Dean Corso is traveling to at least two different locales simply to compare and contrast books. I don’t think I’m fully articulating just how boring this can get. Imagine a significant other sitting beside you and deep in thought with a dense textbook. Imagine watching them read and make the occasional verbal noise. That is The Ninth Gate. Watching people read is boring, especially when it’s done repeatedly. There are MULTIPLE scenes of simply watching Depp look over a book while music plays. Film is a visual medium, and reading is inherently an internal function unless adjusted in context. It’s not like he’s deliberating over whether to send a text to a special someone, what the personal correspondence means to his concept of his family, it’s a man compare old books for a job. It’s not like he’s obsessed over this book for years or is a true believer of its power.
Some of this might even be permissible if the stodgy 133-minute film wasn’t so tediously repetitive (spoilers to follow). Corso is paid to authenticate the book but every person he encounters that knows a little about this book ends up dead. The book dealer he has stash the book? Dead. The old man with the second copy who says he’ll never sell his book not even if his life depended on it? Dead. The old lady expert with the third copy who despises Boris Balkin? Dead. By the time that wheelchair-bound woman is found to be repeatedly running into a wall, and upon further inspection has her tongue hanging out her mouth in an unintentionally goofy sight, the plot structure of The Ninth Gate has entered farce. Dean Corso doesn’t seem terribly alarmed by any of this or observant of an obvious pattern of events. He has several run-ins with goons and a mysterious blonde woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) that follows his every move. He seems comically oblivious to the danger all around him. Part of this is the repetitive plot structure where over an hour of the movie follows Depp going to a place, discovering one minor addition of information, finding that person dead, being chased, then repeating. It takes over an hour simply to note that there are minute differences in the engravings in the three copies of the devilish book. Then it simply shifts into a game of who can capture all the copies, which it should have been from the start, and would have introduced a very necessary sense of urgency from a prosaic script. Another reason for that general turgid feeling is that Depp seems to be sleepwalking through this performance absent emotion. Even Polanski himself complained.
This is a movie about a special book that can unleash the powers of the Devil, so why is the finished film so boring and frustrating to sit through? It has rival cults and business tycoons fending for ownership over that power. At least it does in theory. The fact that there are competing interests should have been a substantially larger element of the movie. Once Lena Olin’s rich widow character sleeps with Dean Corso to get the first copy back, she disappears from the narrative until the very end, where she’s dispatched without any intervention from her assembled cult of would-be Satanists. Seriously they just stand by and watch a guy strangle her to death and jump at the word “Boo!” They were never a threat even if they were responsible for one part of the mysterious stalkers. The other stalker, our ever-present blonde, will literally float at times and come to kung-fu kicking rescue, which made me snort out loud. It just comes across so goofy. Her identity is clearly in a supernatural answer but the movie never fully explains who she is, what her real motivations are, her allegiances, and even what the ending is supposed to mean. After 133 minutes, it’s egregious that Polanski doesn’t provide a conclusion that feels even fleetingly conclusive. The whole movie is a mystery that moves with irritatingly incremental steps that leads to one big shrug.
I can see the appeal of the idea of this story but I don’t see the appeal of making The Ninth Gate as is, beside visiting some fabulous locations in Portugal and Spain. Why get an actor of Depp’s caliber if he’s going to read on camera and not worry about his encroaching danger? Why does this movie need 133 minutes to set up a plot that could have done it in 100? I think Polanski was eager to revisit the old school horror of his early works and didn’t sweat the details. Mysterious castles of old. Dangerous strangers. Cults. The Devil. Book authentication. Okay, maybe not that last part. I suppose one could charitably say Polanski is trying to establish an unsettling mood with patient-yet-paranoid camerawork and a story that feels unhurried. It feels to me like Polanski doesn’t know what movie he wants to make and is in no rush to get there. The most overtly horror moments fall into self-parody. That’s really where the movie errs for me. It takes great horror story elements and says instead of running with cults and the Devil, what if we focused more on the slow authentication of dusty old books? Not their power or meaning or value to devious men and women, but on whether they are real. That would be like finding a treasure map and then trying to make sure the ink was authentic for its era rather than, you know, hunting for treasure.
My original review twenty years ago is a bit harsh and angry, though I can understand why especially after such an anticlimactic ending. I would say the movie is more than watching Depp walk from Point A to point B, though to be sure that is heavily represented onscreen. I might even slightly raise my letter grade but the criticisms still stand as stated. Even twenty years later, with a fresh set of eyes, The Ninth Gate is a disappointing story that says too little and takes too long to do so.
Re-View Grade: C
When they adjusted the Hobbit movies so there was going to be three instead of two, it required some very noticeable padding and filler material to meet out that requirement. The second Fantastic Beasts film (of a planned five film series, expanded from a trilogy) feels exactly that way, a mostly table-setting movie with more incidents than plot, a few pertinent revelations, and not much in the manner of resolution. The second Fantastic Beasts does improve on its predecessor in several regards. It introduces a formidable villain that’s well played by Johnny Depp. It introduces a compelling younger version of Albus Dumbledore that’s played by the dashing Jude Law. It also finds more purpose for its hero, the shy magical zookeeper Newt (Eddie Redmayne), as the series inches closer to a wizards-vs-wizards world war. Things take a turn for the darker; within the First Act, a baby is murdered. They didn’t even do that in the new Halloween. The larger world building of Beasts, written by author J.K. Rowling for the screen and directed by longtime stalwart David Yates, has been its biggest draw. The supporting characters are back, though not everyone has much to do. Rowling is improving as a screenwriter but she still has trouble executing exposition-heavy scenes, resorting to sequence after sequence of characters prattling on. Ultimately, it doesn’t feel like there’s much of consequence until the very end, so we endure characters running through underdeveloped and contrived storylines. One of these involves Katherine Waterston mistakenly believing Newt is engaged (his brother is) and somehow, despite having access to magic let alone other forms of media, never findings out the easy truth. It’s stuff like that that show me Rowling was struggling to find material for every character to push them forward on this now extended journey. Crimes of Gindelwald is an overall step in the right direction for the prequel series even if this individual movie has trouble standing on its own magical merits.
Nate’s Grade: B-
It’s been a couple of hours after watching Sherlock Gnomes and I still have alcohol working through my bloodstream (a byproduct of having to watch Sherlock Gnomes) and so I thought why not begin the review writing process and see where this goes. A little pretext first: I had no intention of watching this movie. Every time its trailer came before a movie I was watching, I cringed harder than I ever have. I cannot remember another movie trailer that I would describe as soul-killing as this one, with its emphasis on butt humor and an extended joke about a thong-wearing gnome farting in the mud. To watch this trailer was to look into the empty abyss and have it look back into you. It was this repulsed reaction that entertained my friend Ben Bailey so much that he insisted that we watch Sherlock Gnomes one fateful evening (he paid for my ticket and my suffering). I loaded up at the theater’s bar and the bartender made the easiest upsell he ever did in his life, and I took my tall adult beverage, sat in the theater, and awaited the end, like a man heading toward execution. Then a funny thing happened and Sherlock Gnomes was not the film advertised in its abysmal, life-questioning trailer. It’s still not great, though.
Following the events from the 2011 original, Gnomeo and Juliet, the garden gnomes have relocated to a new home in London. Gnomeo (voiced by James McAvoy) and Juliet (voiced by Emily Blunt) are entrusted with the gnome-specific responsibilities of the garden by gnome leadership. I guess it’s about making the place look nice. Anyway, Sherlock Gnomes (voiced by Johnny Depp) and his trusty sidekick Watson (voiced by Chiwetel Ejiofor) are looking into the disappearance of gnomes all over. One unfortunate day, while Gnomeo and Juliet are away from their garden, the rest of the gnomes have been kidnapped. Sherlock Gnomes and the others vow to find them, believing the culprit to be Sherlock’s longtime nemesis, Moriarty (voiced by Jamie Demetriou).
Remarkably, a solid 80 percent of the trailer for Sherlock Gnomes is not in the finished film. The fart Jacuzzi? Gone. The “no ship Sherlock” bit? Gone? The thong-wearing gnome twerking? Gone. This fascinates me. We’ve long been plagued with trailers that ultimately have moments not in the final product, but I’ve never seen a movie, let alone an animated feature, where the clear majority of its trailer does not exist. Animated films take many years in development and are generally costly. If a live-action film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost those days of work. If an animated film cuts footage in its final edit, it lost months if possible years of toil. How does this happen? Was the trailer an intentional ruse meant to advertise a far more juvenile, base, and dispiriting movie? The trailer features several jokes or references that, I assumed, were never intended for the final product because these scenes involve the other gnomes who were kidnapped. That means they were animated and either radically changed the story or these jokes were cynically constructed to produce a misleading trailer to appeal to children with farts. This truly fascinates me and befuddles me, a worthy mystery for Sherlock Gnomes (UPDATE: theory confirmed!).
The actual Sherlock Gnomes film I sat through wasn’t actively painful but it wasn’t particularly engaging or rewarding either, a mediocre children’s movie that will vanish from memory upon the ride home. There were a handful of moments where I rolled my eyes but no joke, no pun, even approached the pain of that trailer. On the flip side, there was perhaps two jokes that drew a mild chuckle and that was it. For the majority of the 86-minute running time, I just sat and took it all in, never really engaging. It was boring yet inoffensive, colorful yet unimaginative, and derivative yet silly enough to be a trifle. The look of the animation as a bit more polished than I was anticipating. The use of lighting and scale is well balanced. The voice acting was acceptable from the star-studded cast and I didn’t feel any great sadness for anyone’s involvement. The lessons and plot twists will be predictable enough for someone over the age of eight, but hey, everybody needs to learn some time. The use of the Elton John song catalogue (he is a primary producer) is the most forced element in the film, elbowing in one song or another, including “original songs” that you won’t even remember. Much like the rest, John’s contributions are mediocre and easily forgotten.
I kept wondering about the strange world building and its implications. This is a clear application of Pixar’s oft-used formula of the secret-life-of, this time with garden gnomes. Except there’s a segment where Sherlock and Juliet go to a club populated with dolls, stuffed animals, and toys of all sorts. So it’s not just garden gnomes that are secretly alive, it’s also children’s toys. Which means this is essentially the same universe as Toy Story. For whatever reason, and maybe it’s a misplaced sense of novelty, we stick with the gnomes. These creatures worry about being smashed, though can they be put back together much like Humpty Dumpty (except he couldn’t be put back together even with the help of all the king’s men and horses, no never mind this references. Also, what good are horses going to do putting together the shattered pieces of an egg-man? Do horses have thumbs to pick up the broken pieces? I feel like this entire aside might be attributable to the alcohol still in my system). If breaking is their biggest fear, why do these gnomes take such unnecessary risks with their safety and well-being? When Gnomeo is tossing Juliet in the air atop a ladder, I worried for her little gnome life. This cavalier attitude prevails amidst the larger gnome community, and my only conclusion is that these creatures are either thrill-seeking junkies or masochists. Then I began thinking of the life of other garden gnomes. I assume most gnome-owners don’t exactly have an entire menagerie of these things, and so the majority of gnome existence must seem awfully isolated and lonely. Their communities must be few and far between. Then I started thinking about transforming past Best Picture-winners into gnome format, and let’s just say that 12 Years a Garden Gnome was not a good idea for anyone.
This is a sequel and combined spin-off for the animated gnomes world, so the holdover characters often feel superfluous. This is clearly more of a Sherlock vehicle and there are even references to the Hound of Baskervilles and The Final Problem, among others. This is trying to establish a Sherlock Gnomes franchise first and foremost. The Gnomeo and Juliet subplot feels rushed and foolishly resolved. Now tasked with running the garden, Juliet feels overwhelmed with pressure and Gnomeo feels like he isn’t getting attention. Rather than support her, or see things from her perspective, he pouts and accuses her of taking him for granted. To conclude this storyline, she actually apologizes, and I shouted, “Apologize for what?” A better rendition of this storyline is realized with Sherlock Gnomes repeatedly being indifferent to Watson’s contributions. When the main theme, character arcs, and plot points involve new characters, you might as well get rid of the holdovers and go all-in on Sherlock Gnomes. Was there a picky audience that would have said, “I will only accept another gnome-related children’s film if it has the tiniest connection to the last gnome-related children’s film”? Also, there’s another garden gnome children’s film on the horizon, Gnome Alone, so stay tuned, gnome aficionados.
The victory is that Sherlock Gnomes is not the seventh-seal-breaking apocalyptic event that its reprehensible, punishing, life-sapping trailer suggested. Hooray for you, Sherlock Gnomes filmmakers. The finished product is still a mostly middling time-waster that feels like a Gnomes relaunch. I fully admit this movie was never intended for someone my age, but I attempted to see its merits for its intended audience. If you have young kids, this is a reasonable 86-minute time waster while you, presumably their parent, can do something better with that time. Go back to that novel you keep pushing off. Have some alone time with yourself or another person. Or simply close your eyes and enjoy the silence. Whatever you do, Sherlock Gnomes is an adequate comic adventure that will afford you time to think.
Nate’s Grade: C
Side note: While looking up images, I came across an entirely gallery of Sherlock Gnomes poster parodies for movies like I, Tonya, The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Darkest Hour, The Disaster Artist, The Post, and even Call Me By Your Name and All the Money in the World. Even All the Money in the World but in gnome form! This is inane!
UPDATE: Thanks to the amazing connectivity of the Internet, someone closely involved with the Sherlock Gnomes production contacted me to inform me that my theory about the trailer discrepancy was correct. Paramount’s marketing team wrote the trailer and insisted the production spend valuable time animating it. The more juvenile jokes were designed, as this source indicated, to put as many butts in the seats opening weekend, and that the marketing department said they knew best, and that was that. The production spent time creating scenes for a trailer they had no intention of ever being in the finished film with scenes that badly characterized what kind of movie it would be. This drove the production team crazy. You can blame Paramount’s marketing department for the soul-killing trailer. Thanks, Sherlock Gnomes source, for reaching out and clearing up that mystery.
Take my opinion with all the caution you need when I say this: I’m not a fan of Agatha Christie mysteries. Sacrilege, I know, but I just don’t find enjoyment from a mystery that is too convoluted, oblique, dense, and purposely unable to be solved until the clever detective explains everything. That’s not a mystery that engages an audience; it’s a problem that is followed by an intermediate period of downtime. Murder on the Orient Express is a remake of the 1974 Oscar-winning film, this time with Kenneth Branagh directing and starring as Christie’s brilliant Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot. The original film’s appeal wasn’t the story (see above) but in spending time with the colorful suspects played by many older actors decades removed from their Hollywood peak. It was scenery chewing of a first order. The 2017 Orient Express has some slick production design and requisite big name actors but that’s about it. There are a few alterations here and there but the big moments are the same as is the ending, which means it’s another mystery primarily of obfuscation. I just don’t find these fun to watch. I wasn’t bored but I wasn’t really involved. It failed to provide ways for me to connect, to put the clues and pieces together, and confused volume with development. The new actors feel wasted, especially Judi Dench. I was most fascinated by Branagh’s extensive mustache that seems to have grown its own mustache. If you’re a fan of Poirot, Christie, or the original film, there will probably be enough in this new edition to at least tide you over. I wasn’t too sad to get off this train by the end.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Rest assured fans, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a definite improvement over its waterlogged 2011 predecessor, but I can’t help feeling like the magic of this franchise, and even the high spirits of the immediate sequels, has been squelched. It’s a multi billion-dollar franchise born from a theme park ride and now I think I’m ready for that ride to come to an end.
Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is once again in the middle of some high seas hijinks. Everyone is on a collision course with the world’s most infamous, swishy, and soused pirate. The ghostly Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) and his undead crew are looking for a release from their curse and of course vengeance against Sparrow, and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is their key to reaching their target. Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), the son of Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner, is looking to retrieve the mystical Trident to erase all nautical curses, thus freeing his father’s indentured servitude aboard the Flying Dutchman. Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario) is looking to discover the whereabouts of her father via clues tied into astronomy. All the parties are fighting to be the first to discover the location of the Trident and get what they feel is deserved.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales has some advantages that are worth discussing before attention turns to what’s wrong with the franchise as a whole. Unlike Rob Marshall, directors Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) understand how to expressly direct action sequences. They have a strong sense of visuals and know how to hit some majestic big screen imagery, whether it’s a see-through silhouette of a zombie shark, or Salazar’s ship splaying like a retracting ribcage, or a runaway bank heist with a literal runaway building. There’s a terrific scene of visual comedy and action when Sparrow is trapped in a spinning guillotine, with the blade coming perilously close only to fall away from gravity and then repeat the process. That was a moment that made me think of the original 2003 film’s comic inventiveness. Instead of just having cool ideas and concepts (carnivorous mermaids, a psychically controlled ship), Pirates 5 at least puts them to better effect. It feels like greater care has been put into meaningfully incorporating the elements of the story, though there are still noticeable shortcomings. I loved the look of Bardem’s villain and the CGI texture that made him seem like he was underwater. It added an unsettling dreamlike quality. Jack Sparrow is thankfully once again a supporting character. There are also several other characters that are worthy of our attention, plus the welcomed return of Barbossa. The movie comes together quite well for an extravagant final set-piece that reasonably serves as an emotional climax.
For the last couple days since my screening, I’ve been turning over in my head reasons why the Pirates sequels, especially of late, have felt so removed from the original film and even the lesser sequels from 2006 and 2007. I think I have deduced the three essential missing ingredients: clarity, urgency, and characters.
The first three Pirates films were gloriously complicated and convoluted, a series of spinning plotlines that weaved in and out, intertwined with conspiracy, collusion, and reversals. They’re overly plotted affairs, and eventually the third films succumbs to the pitfalls of convolution. However, something readily apparent in those movies was a sense of clarity in the individual scenes. Perhaps the overall picture was murky but in the moment you knew what needed to happen, which characters had opposing goals, and what those conflicts were. It’s those opposing goals that provide much of the enjoyable confrontations and complications in the film. Take for instance the first meeting with Jack Sparrow and Will Turner in the blacksmith’s shop. Jack is looking to free himself of his shackles and escape. Will is looking to capture Jack, for his believed assault on Elizabeth, and he’s also looking to prove himself as a swordsman. One of them wants to leave and one of them wants to delay that leave. It’s clear. The scene plays out as the characters clash but we, the audience, know the needs of the scene, and it allows each to reveal their character through action. The majority of the first three films follow this edict. The allegiances are all in conflict: Barbossa wants to alleviate his curse, Jack wants vengeance and to regain his ship, Will wants to rescue Elizabeth, and none of them trust the other. While the dynamics are complicated they are built upon classic storytelling devices of conflict/opposing goals and there’s a genuine clarity in the micro. You know what the characters need scene-to-scene and why they are in conflict and what those goals are. In Pirates 5, the goals are too vague or overly generalized, and from scene-to-scene there’s little internal logic established for the actions to have significance.
The next missing element is urgency, which is a natural byproduct of clarity. If you don’t know what your characters are doing or what their goals are then it’s hard to maintain a sense of urgency. The stakes of this franchise have felt a bit wishy washy after the culmination of 2007’s At World’s End. Before, the characters felt like they had something to lose, something that might not be accomplished. Look at the first Pirates film and you see that those goals are being accomplished poorly. There are complications and unexpected detours, but the stakes felt real because there were ongoing challenges. I think the absolving of stakes in the franchise has gone directly hand-in-hand with the series becoming more jokey. Once characters become cartoons the sense of danger dissipates and then anything can become lazily excusable. There is no recognition of an over-the-top anymore, which then makes the characters feel limitless. That’s not good when they’re supposed to be going against supernatural villains who present their own special powers. In Pirates 5, the characters bumble through every sort of scenario, and while they may not be in control at the moment, you never really fear for them. It’s a safe series of chases and escapes like a Saturday morning cartoon you know will merely reset its characters back to their starting positions by the next adventure. It feels weightless, which is shocking considering the Macguffin everyone is after eliminates all known curses.
Finally, with the series becoming jokier, it’s become more of the Jack Sparrow Show to its overall detriment. Maybe it’s too much of a good thing, or maybe it’s a latent realization that Sparrow was never the main character of the original trilogy, but Depp’s iconic figure has simply lost some of his luster. It feels like Depp is on sashay autopilot. He’s still a charming rogue but it’s become drastically obvious that he needs supporting characters that can stand on their own to serve as foils. He’s a character that leaps off the screen; however, if he’s our only focus, then his act starts to curdle into schtick. There are sequences that only serve to deliver misapplied comedy, like a beachside wedding where Jack is strong-armed into marrying an ugly woman. Jack should not be the lead character but he also still needs to be a character with a sufficient storyline and arc, which has not happened since At World’s End. He’s become the Halloween costume of Captain Jack Sparrow, content to coast on audience good will repeating the same act and delivering the same punchlines. Likewise, the characters supporting Jack Sparrow need their own individually compelling stories and motivations to alleviate some of the pressure.
Fortunately, one of the more noticeable improvements with Pirates 5 is that there are some interesting supporting characters, chiefly Scodelario (The Maze Runner). She could have been a discount version of Keria Knightley, much in the same way that Thwaits (The Giver) is so bland he comes across as a discount Orlando Bloom. While she follows the same feisty, independent-woman-ahead-of-her-time model, she manages to separate with her own identity, a woman who loves science, pushes against authority, and is desperate to discover the whereabouts of her father. Her discovery of her lineage provides the film with an unanticipated degree of emotion. She’s a fun character who can provide a rich, exasperated sense of irony as a learned woman constantly being mistaken for a witch, and then when called upon, she provides the heart of the story with her family drama. Likewise, Barbossa has always been one of the series highlights and in particular the MVP of On Stranger Tides. As he’s waffled between friend and foe, Rush has always found a way to make him worthy of our attention. He gets what I’ll call the Yondo treatment in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (supporting character elevated into force that can legitimately elicit audience emotion). He comes into the film late but he dominates the second half. Pirates 5 also has a superior villain to On Stranger Tides. Javier Bardem (Skyfall) eats up every second as his ghostly captain and his enjoyment is infectious. He’s weird and creepy and just the right kind of crazy to make him even more dangerous.
Also worth noting is a flashback scene that explores the personal connections between Sparrow and Salazar, though Salazar’s back-story is still rather weak even with the mysterious Caribbean volcanic lava pits. The sequence is noticeable for the fact that it employs the de-aging CGI technology on Depp, making him look like a plasticized version of himself circa… Edward Scissorhands? It’s a neat trick and it seems like nobody does the de-aging effect better than Disney at this point (Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, Robert Downey Jr. in Civil War). But then the movie keeps featuring the effect, showcasing it in ill-advised close-ups, and the magic starts to fade and we’re reminded of its fakeness. It’s a moment that inadvertently sums up the later Pirates sequels: a neat trick undone by sloppy repetition and a lack of self-control.
If you’re a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, by all means you’ll find enough to satisfy your appetite with the fifth installment. At this point audience expectations have become entrenched, which is one of the reasons why Jack Sparrow has morphed into a Looney Tunes cartoon rather than a fleshed-out comic character with depths of danger. I don’t regret seeing the latest Pirates film but I would also shed few tears if this were the last time we visit this universe. The recent sequels leave the inescapable impression of listless fan fiction. They’re trying to recapture the magic formula of the original but missing the crucial elements that made a movie about drunken pirates and zombies a zeitgeist-harnessing, culture-defining classic. The sequels have lacked consistently effective clarity, urgency, and characterization to register as anything but generally incomprehensible, vacant, disposable mass entertainment. It’s become product, and maybe that was inevitable for what once felt like something so different and subversive, especially coming from the Mouse House. Age softens all franchises and a safe sense of routine creeps in. They start becoming imitations of themselves and then imitations of the imitations. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is a fitfully entertaining venture that saves its best stuff for last, has some solid supporting turns, and decent fantasy-horror visuals. It’s also a reminder of what has been lost and, unless the franchise changes course, will continue to be lost.
Nate’s Grade: B-
The Harry Potter publishing universe is almost twenty years old and has racked up more money than can be printed, so it was only a matter of time before some enterprising soul thought about expanding from author J.K. Rowling’s seven novels. I wasn’t anticipating that it would be Rowling as the one reopening her world for untapped franchise potential and financial windfalls.
Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is one of the world’s foremost experts on magical creatures and will one day write a definitive magizoology textbook for students to doodle inside while they sit bored in magic class. He’s traveled to New York City in 1926 and through a series of misunderstandings he exchanges briefcases with Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a factory drone trying to secure a loan to open a bakery. Inside Newt’s briefcase is a collection of colorful and unique magic creatures with goofy Dr. Suess-styled names, and they break free and need to be rounded up. Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) is a disgraced magic authority agent who tries to regain her reputation by helping Newt gather his living contraband before they are discovered by muggles, or as the Americans refer to them, no-majs. Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is a gravely serious magic official keeping a close watch on the alarming activity. He also has an unclear interest in a fringe political movement that believes witches are real and a real threat. If only they knew the full extent, as a mad wizard-supremacist is also on the loose.
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a better franchise catalyst than it is a movie, with several competing storylines that don’t really gel or feel properly developed. This feels like a series of set pieces in search of a movie to unify them. Much of the movie involves dueling storylines that dawdle until they are smashed together at the very end, much like Rowling’s storytelling habit of keeping so many characters and storylines on the fringes and simmering until they are called upon for revelatory disclosure. Storyline number one follows a daffy British magizoologist as he scours New York trying to retrieve his strange and adorable magical creatures. It’s relatively light and mostly fun. Storyline number two is a buddy movie with Newt and Jacob, which is also light and mostly fun. Then storyline number three is an abusive anti-magic movement that may be conspiring to kill wizards that stand in their way, revealing to the wider world the magical realm and the potential threat it poses. This storyline is much darker and adult and it contrasts sharply with scenes like Newt doing a silly dance to present himself for mating with a gigantic rhinoceros creature in heat. It’s hard to reconcile whimsical magic creatures one moment and stern child abuse the next. The varying tones don’t ever gel. The majority of the film is watching Newt scamper around trying to recapture his creatures and stumbling into bigger plot events that are kept on the edges of relevancy.
This movie is more about laying a foundation than telling a relatively complete and gratifying story. The narrative brick laying may be essential for future sequel success but it doesn’t make for the best experience in the theater. Rowling’s first crack at screenwriting has a few hallmarks of novelists-turned-screenwriters (cough, Cormac McCarthy, cough), namely the fuzzy narrative clarity and digressive asides that deter the film’s progressive momentum. It’s hard to critique certain themes and characters that feel useless (Jon Voight for starters) without knowing whether Rowling will decide they are secretly important three movies onward. I don’t know what this movie is about other than setting up lucrative sequels.
Another area of concern is whom Rowling has decided to be the leader of this voyage back in time; Newt Scamander is quite a lackluster lead character for one movie, let alone the prospect of up to five of them. I found this protagonist rather boring. He’s a kind figure and cares for his exotic animals but the man is pretty much the exact same person by the end of the movie as he is at the start and with only passing hints at a secret tragic past as something to enliven what is assuredly a dull, mumbling character. I’m not against Rowling’s decision to catapult a mild-mannered, shy, polite man as her main character especially in the face of paranoia and fear mongering, but the guy has to at least be interesting. There is not one interesting thing about this character outside of his briefcase full of magical creatures. He is a void of character, a blank slate that isn’t any more filled in by the conclusion. The lack of substance also allows Redmayne to retreat into his actorly tics playing up Newt’s social anxiety, almost to a degree that seems recognizably autistic (at least it was with my friend who saw it with me who is on the spectrum). He feels sensitive to the point that his body is going to collapse inwardly upon itself. I saw the same impulses with his overrated, overly mannered performance in The Danish Girl. When lacking significant depth to his character, or at least something of significant interest, he overcompensates with what he’s given and that’s not usually for the best. Just see Jupiter Ascending if you’re truly brave enough or equipped with enough liquor.
I think the stronger lead character would have been Newt’s buddy, Fogler’s no-maj Jacob Kowalski. He’s already our entry point into this older time period so why not make him the focal point? Jacob is a far more interesting character and he’s actually astonished by the revelations of a magical world right under his nose, adding to the general sense of discovery for himself as well as the audience. He’s the more relatable character as he discovers the world of magic and develops fluttery feelings for a magical lass (Porpetina’s psychic sister, Queenie, played by Alison Sudol). The sweet and flirty stutter-stops of a possible romance with Jacob and Queenie are far more heartfelt and engaging than whatever the film tries to pretend has been set up for Newt and Porpentina. By the very end, the movie expects a few smiles and arbitrary sexual tension to compensate for the rest of the film’s 133 minutes that did not establish one passing moment of attraction. Sorry, Rowling, but cinematic romance doesn’t work in spontaneous vacuums. If you want us to fee for the characters and compel them to get together, we need to see your work if you want the coupling to be remotely satisfying.
The rest of the actors do what they can with the thin scraps of characterization that Rowling provides. Fogler (Fanboys) is a reliable source of comic relief. His sincere pleasure from the magical world and its inhabitants makes him endearing, seeing this world through necessary fresh eyes. Waterston (Inherent Vice) is a screen presence that stands out from the pack, though her character is too muted to leave the same impression. Her character’s goal is to clear her name but she seems to readily forget this motivation. Until writing this review I had no idea that Sudol (Transparent) was the songstress A Fine Frenzy, an artist I’ve enjoyed for a decade. Her acting isn’t quite as accomplished as her singing but Queenie is something of a walking ethereal, sad-eyed psychic kewpie doll. Rowling treats her more as a handy plot device when she needs some item explained or intuited. Queenie’s budding relationship with Jacob makes her more interesting. There are plenty of familiar faces that are stranded in underwritten and confusing roles. The likes of Colin Farrell, Samantha Morton, Ezra Miller, Zoe Kravitz, Carmen Ejogo, Jon Voight, and Ron Perlman, as a mo-cap goblin, must have simply been happy to participate, and I can’t blame them considering the fortunes that await this franchise.
The world building is hazy yet the world of wizards in 1920s New York City is intriguing enough to keep me hopeful that a better movie could emerge later. We’ve never been stateside before in this universe so my first point of interest was the difference between the magical authorities from across the pond. Apparently the magic-inclined aren’t legally allowed to romantically mix with no-maj folks (call it muggle miscegenation laws). That’s interesting but we only get a glimpse. The Second Salem movement in the United States seems to believe that witches and real danger. They seem like a fringe political conservative movement. It’s interesting yet we only get another glimpse at best. Then there’s an evil wizard who wants to wipe the world of the unclean, surely a setup for You-Know-Who and his malevolent Death Eaters. He’s kept further to the background and only bookends the movie. I just looked it up and Voldermort was born in 1926, so expect even more foreshadowing in the future. I wanted to know more about the world inside the Magical Congress of the United States of America. Why do they have a killer magic tar pit and what does it really do to people? There are passing references to the pre-established Harry Potter universe, small morsels for the crowd to hold onto to get them through this muddled expository journey. Still, there is an undeniable entertainment value of seeing magic interact with a 1920s American landscape. A magic speakeasy is a delightful moment to open up this world in amusing historical ways. Newt’s suitcase and its vast interior world is also a great source of wonder and a potent highlight.
Fantastic Beasts doesn’t quite rise to the level of fantastic implied with its title, though if you’re a Potter fan it could be a welcomed and promising start. That’s really what this movie is, a start, and not so much a complete story. It’s a Potter prologue that provides just enough to get an audience interested but not enough to perhaps get them excited. The main character is a total washout and the varying tones and storylines fail to gel. Rowling has some screenwriting novice growing pains and her general world could use more texture amidst all the special effects sequences. Those magic critters are cute I’ll give them that. There just doesn’t seem like there’s enough here of genuine substance in any capacity, other than setting up a playpen for its four sequels. Director David Yates has shepherded the Potter universe for five movies now. The visual continuity from prequel to main story arc reminds me of Peter Jackson’s turn at reviving the Hobbit trilogy. Actually, Fantastic Beasts reminds me of the Hobbit films in more ways than one. They were both somewhat crass moneymaking ventures inarticulately stretched and padded to ensure more movies and more profits. They are also decidedly lesser than the main story arc. To my movie muggle tastes, Fantastic Beasts ranks toward the bottom of the Potter franchise, just a step above Half-Blood Prince. Too often it feels like textbook Potter stuff minus the character investments. It’s a series of set pieces and latent possibilities and less a full movie. Then again, take my so-so critique with a relative grain of salt, Potterheads.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Kevin Smith has been a filmmaker who has flouted expectations. When people didn’t think the Clerks guy could make a religious thriller, he did it. When people said a movie about a man being transformed into a walrus creature was undoable, he did it. I was a moderate fan of Tusk, that man-as-walrus-as-Frankenstein movie that started as a joke premise from Smith’s popular podcast and then given strange cinematic life. Yoga Hosers is the second part in Smith’s “True North” trilogy of Canadian-set horror films. I wasn’t expecting much with Yoga Hosers and I felt like I got even less than that.
Colleen Collete (Lily-Rose Depp) and Colleen McKenzie (Harley Quinn Smith) are bored clerks at a Winnipeg convenience store. Their world is turned upside down when an attractive senior boy invites them to a “grade 12” party. Too bad they have to work, though even when on the clock the girls hardly work, instead preferring to jam in the back storage room as a fledging rock band. The girls have bigger threats than unruly customers. They’ll have to battle bad Satanists, forgotten Canadian Nazis, and tiny bratwurst men who leak sauerkraut when smashed. What’s a Canuck to do?
The two areas that have always been the hallmarks of a Kevin Smith movie, his idiosyncratic characterization and ribald humor, are both strangely absent and desperately needed. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, I turned to my friend and confided, “I think I hate these girls already.” It’s somewhat ironic that Smith has gone back again to the bored convenience store clerks as the platform for his heroes. Where Dante and Randall were railing against pop-culture, adult responsibility, and a society that constantly made them feel inferior for their menial occupations, these girls aren’t railing against anything. If anything they’re retreating from the world, their noses constantly glued to their smart phones and social media. The excursions with youth culture feel rather inauthentic. The teen dialogue lacks comic snap and repeats phrases too often that it feels like set-up for T-shirt slogans (“Basic!”). Smith is far from his territory of dick and fart jokes and esoteric pop-culture detours. We’re introduced to many new characters with a slam edit of an Instagram-like cover page accompanied by an irritatingly chirpy 8-bit score. The intro graphics appear so quickly as to have little impact other than annoyance. The lead characters have no engaging personalities. They have an infatuation with older, cute boys, a love of yoga, a general attitude against authority, and a common level of self-involvement, but they’re not characters. They’re goofy but rarely are they grounded or better developed. One girl is daft and the other girl is… less daft. I’m not expecting these characters to have depth considering this is a movie with one-foot tall killer bratwurst Nazis, but some degree of personality is demanded. It’s the bare minimum.
Smith’s millennial satire is fairly toothless, which sadly is much like the comedy of Yoga Hosers. I hope you like puns and jokes about how funny Canadian accents are. The Colleens say “soory aboot that” and isn’t that hilarious? How about a convenience store called “Eh-2-Zed”? How about a yogi whose name is Yogi Bayer? How about an off-brand version of Lucky Charms called Pucky Charms? Why are there so many freaking puns? Then there’s the re-emergence of Johnny Depp’s wacky Quebec investigator, Guy Lapointe, allowing Depp to indulge his tendency for prosthetics and heavy accents. The shticky Lapointe character absolutely derailed Tusk and whatever unsettling momentum had been built, but he feels far more at home in the goofy world of Yoga Hosers. I might even say his presence is one of the highlights, as once more Depp gets to sink his teeth into all the Peter Sellers physical comedy tics he’s been holding back.
There’s just not enough comedy to go around here. There are goofy elements that crash into one another, like the Brat-Zis and a gigantic Goalie Golem, but it feels very much like Smith is just throwing a lot of dispirit elements together and expecting cohesion. He might even be expecting the audience to be satiated just in seeing something “different.” While Red State and Tusk were films that had sharp tonal shifts, Yoga Hosers never really settles into the silly supernatural teen comedy it desires to be. I laughed here and there but it was mostly attributed to Smith letting his more capable comic actors go off on tangents, like Justin Long’s yogi with his unorthodox poses. Ralph Garman, Smith podcast regular, shows up late as a Nazi who prefers to discuss his plans via celebrity impressions, a talent of Garman’s. It’s the kind of “hell, why not?” plotting that dominates the movie and makes you wonder if there ever was a finished script.
I doubt any version of this story would have materialized if it wasn’t starring the daughters of Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp, and I don’t have a huge issue with this. Nepotism has been a core function of Hollywood for over a hundred years, and if Smith wants to create a vehicle for his daughter, by all means. The two young ladies have a pleasant chemistry and are believable BFFs. Their back-and-forth will occasionally elevate the jokes, like their insistent yet limited Batman impressions. Harley Quinn Smith has an enjoyable mugging quality that shows she’s studied her expressions from the school of Silent Bob. Her companion, Lily-Rose Depp, may be the real breakout. She’s the more consistent actor and the stronger anchor for the film. Even when the dialogue lets her down she still infuses a notable energy into her performance. There’s an emerging talent under the surface that looks ready for discovery, and perhaps the French film Planetarium with Natalie Portman will make others take notice. I get the impression that Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp are proud papas and just wanted to have fun together as a family. Consider the movie the equivalent of a quirky sweet 16 birthday party.
Yoga Hosers is a movie for a very select group of people, perhaps only Smith’s immediate family, friends, and most ardent of podcast listeners. I doubt that’s me. I’ve been a Smith fan since my own teens. His was one of the cinematic voices that awoke my own sense of what movies could be. I miss the caustic wit that separated Smith from the indie pack. The man was one of the few writers who could spin crass vulgarity into Shakespearean gold. He was a writing talent that many emulated but few could reproduce. Smith’s whip-smart comic perspective has always been his biggest cinematic draw, but with Yoga Hosers it feels decidedly neutered and wound down. I know he has gone on record saying he’s making the movies he wants to make without interference, but it doesn’t feel like the same Smith. Admittedly, a filmmaker in his early 20s is going to have a different perspective and creative impulses than a husband and father in his mid 40s. This apparently means that Smith has veered away from his conversational comedies and button-pushing topics and bought fully into genre filmmaking, mixing a pastiche of horror elements and varying tones. As an artist he doesn’t owe me or any other fan anything. Yoga Hosers might be a one-off, a love letter to his teen daughter and her bestie, or it could portend what is to come. Kevin Smith is making movies for himself at this point in his career. If you feel left out in that equation, like me, that’s okay. We can always go back and watch Clerks again. From my viewpoint, it feels like Smith is voluntarily erasing what made him a unique cinematic voice and choosing to disappear into the benign morass of schlocky genre filmmaking.
Nate’s Grade: C-
It’s not going to be called conventionally appealing, or successfully funny, but Mortdecai is not exactly the colossal unwatchable bomb that critics brought out their knives for in the first month of 2015. It’s a curiosity that has some merit in its failure but it’s hard to lambaste this lark too much because it never takes itself too seriously. Johnny Depp plays Mortdecai, a roguish art dealer who also traffics in stolen paintings. Gwyneth Paltrow is his co-conspirator and wife. Paul Bettany is Mortdecai’s long-suffering manservant always getting into dust-ups or occasionally shot by his master. The weird left turns the comedy keeps taking don’t exactly make the movie better but they save it from being completely unmemorable. Your enjoyment factor will weigh heavily upon your tolerance for Depp in full foppish mode, an effete dandy who struggles with his conflating love of his mustache and his wife’s distaste for it. The entire story is a shaggy dog caper about stolen art that involves the Russian mafia, MI 5, and Nazi gold, and nothing matters. The actors look to be having a good deal of fun, playing dress up and trying on silly accents. I can’t say I laughed out loud but I did occasionally smile at the absurd commitment. I mostly sat wondering how something like this gets made, and then I saw that Depp was one of the producers and that answered that question. Mortdecai may not be worth the invective but that doesn’t mean it’s good.
Nate’s Grade: C-
For decades, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) was the most feared man in Boston. After being released from Alcatraz, he returned home to his Massachusetts roots and consolidated power with an iorn grip. He and his cronies ruled Boston’s criminal underworld and were given protection from none other than the FBI. Thanks to agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood pal of Bulger’s, his crimes were given an implicit blessing (as long as he didn’t go too far) as he served as an FBI informant. In reality he was just ratting out his competition and abusing his power. This charade lasted for decades until Bulger went on the run, not being caught until 2011.
Black Mass really suffers from its two core characters, Bulger and Connolly, who are just not that interesting, which is a great surprise for a true-story about corruption and murder. Crime drama have an allure to them and this is accentuated by their colorful and usually larger-than-life figures that we watch commit all those terrible yet cinematic acts of vicious violence. Being the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s crime lord in The Departed, you’d assume that the real-life Bulger would have a menace and personality that fills up the big screen, leaving you asking for more. Shockingly, he doesn’t. He’s a mean guy and he has his moments of severe intimidation, but he’s also practically a 1990s action movie villain with a sneer and one-dimensional sense of posturing. He doesn’t come across as a character but more as a boogeyman. We see him help some old ladies in the neighborhood, but you never get a sense he has any care or loyalty for his old stomping grounds, especially as he pumps drugs into the impoverished community. We don’t get any sense about how his mind works or what motivates Bulger beyond unchecked greed. We don’t get a sense of any discernable personality. We don’t have any scene that feels tailored toward the character (even though I assume many are based on true events); instead, Bulger feels unmoored and generally unimportant to Black Mass because he could be replaced by any standard movie tough guy. How in the world has a movie about notorious criminal Whitey Bulger found a way to make him this boring?
Then there are the underdeveloped supporting characters of Connolly and Bulger’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). The guy responsible for Bulger’s misdeeds getting the green light should be a far more important person in this story but he’s mostly portrayed as a stooge. He wants to look out for Bulger but despite one “you’ve changed” speech from his beleaguered wife, you don’t truly get any sense that Connolly has changed. You don’t get a sense of his moral dilemma or even his desperation as new leadership in the FBI starts to see through his poor obfuscations. He’s a stooge from the beginning and we feel nothing when his self-serving alliance comes to an unceremonious end. There is even less when it comes to Billy, a character that seems to pretend his brother is a different person. Billy works as a state senator. His political position must have supplied more inherent drama than what they movie affords. Black Mass is doomed when its three central characters are this dull.
Another problem is that the movie makes Bulger too protected for too long to the point it becomes comical. The script follows a routine where an associate of Bulger’s knows too much or is going to confess to the police, and within usually the next scene that character is easily dispatched, sometimes in broad daylight and with scores of witnesses. There are several recognizable actors who must have filmed for a weekend. I understand Connolly was protecting his meal ticket here with the Bureau, but Bulger is so brazen that we as an audience need more justification for how Connolly could cover for so long. It feels like Bulger has free reign and that extends into the screenplay as well. Without a stronger sense of opposition, or at least watching Bulger rise through the mob ranks, we’re left with a collection of scenes of the status quo being repeatedly reconfirmed.
I’ve figured out the way to revise Black Mass and make it far more entertaining. As stated above, Bulger is just too much a one-note boogeyman to deserve the screen time he’s given, and his onscreen dominance hampers what should be the movie’s true focus, Agent Connolly. Here is where the movie’s focal point should be because this is the transformation of a person. Bulger is the same from start to finish, only shifting in degrees of power, but it’s Connolly who goes on the moral descent. His is the more interesting journey, as he tries to use his childhood connections to get ahead in the FBI, but he consistently has to make compromise after compromise, and after awhile he’s gone too deep. Now he has to worry about being caught or being too expendable to Bulger. This character arc, given its proper due, would make for a terrific thriller that’s also churning with an intense moral ambiguity of a man trying to justify the choices he has made to stay ahead. It’s a more tragic hero sort of focus but one that has far more potential to illuminate the inner anxiety and psychological torment of the human heart rather than constantly going back to Buger to watch him whack another person. It’s far more interesting to watch a man sink into the mire he has knowingly constructed, and that’s why the narrative needed to shift its focus to Connolly to really succeed.
Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) takes a few steps back from his more eccentric oddballs to portray the unnerving ferocity of Bulger, and he’s quite good at playing a human being again, though Bulger strains the definition of human. He underplays several scenes and his eyes burrow into you with such animosity that it might make you shudder. He’s a thoroughly convincing cold-blooded killer, though I wonder if part of my praise is grading Depp on a curve since Bulger is so unlike his recent parts. Regardless, Depp is the most enjoyable aspect of Black Mass and a reconfirmation that he can be a peerless actor when he sinks his teeth into a role rather than a series of tics. He also handles the Boston accent far better than his peers. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Edgerton (The Gift) are more than capable actors but oh boy do both flounder with their speaking voices. They are greatly miscast as two native Massachusetts sons.
If you’re a fan of crime thrillers steeped in true-life details of heinous men (it’s typically men) committing heinous acts, even you will likely be underwhelmed or marginally disappointed by Black Mass. There just isn’t enough going on here besides a series of bad events that don’t feel like they properly escalate, complicate, or alter our characters until the film’s very end when the plot requires it. The screenplay has propped up Bulger by his rep, told Depp to crank up his considerable glower, and called it a day. It’s a Boston mob story that needed more intensive attention to its characters to survive. Black Mass is a crime story that dissolves into its stock period details and genre trappings, becoming a good-looking but ultimately meaningless window into a hidden world.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Theater fans, take this review with a Broadway-sized grain of salt because I’m going to admit I’ve never seen Into the Woods prior to its film release. I consider myself a Stephen Sondheim fan, especially with Sweeney Todd. Now with all that established, I found Into the Woods to be a thoroughly uninvolving and middling musical without any memorable tunes and a series of annoying characters that just kept running in comic redundancies. Perhaps it’s my own ignorance to the original 1987 theater production, considering subversive and edgy and not the most natural fit for the Disney brand. Perhaps I’m just not hip enough to Sondheim’s academic use of melody. Or perhaps others out there will share my opinion that Into the Woods is a tuneless bore.
In a fantasy kingdom, a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are trying to conceive a child but having difficulty. A witch (Meryl Streep) reveals that the only way to undo the infertility curse is to gather a series of magical items. The baker ventures into the aforementioned woods, desperate to find these items, often running into the likes of other fairy tale icons like Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Prince Charming (Chris Pine), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk, and the entrapped Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).
It must have been more relevant back in 1987, but today we are awash in the darker side of fairy tales. Analyzing the implications of “happily ever after” in a more adult and pessimistic way is nothing new. We’re saturated with TV shows and movies that have explored these issues before, revealing the darker truths to some of our favorite fairy tale characters, so it’s hard for a Woods novice to approach the show without a sense of ”been there, done that.” It’s unfair for Sondheim but that’s the reality that greets an adaptation of a musical that’s almost thirty years old. Because of this context, the insights and subversions with the fairy tale characters never feel somewhat pat. The fact that Little Red Riding Hood might be featuring a sexual awakening related to the dangerous Big Bad Wolf is the only striking one that adds dimension to her character. Other “twists” given to the characters are either predictable or just underwhelming. Oh, Prince Charming isn’t so nice and marrying into royalty isn’t the fantasy it’s made out to be? Then there are character betrayals that come out of nowhere, without any proper setup, that feel like the musical is just flailing around in transparent shock value. Just because someone suddenly does something out of character does not mean it was a good plot choice. The guilty party even sings, “I’m in the wrong story,” admitting the identity crises. I wouldn’t have a problem with these wrinkles if they felt better setup or there was more commentary attached. Instead, as delivered in the film, it feels rushed and unearned.
Music is inherently subjective (then again so is film, I mean…), so I’m sure others will vociferously disagree with my stance that Into the Woods is mediocre. True to Sondheim’s works, he establishes character-based melodies that fold and cascade atop one another, weaving in and out. The problem is when none of those melodies captures your attention. These are not humable tunes. To my ears, the songs just collided into one another forming one long string of tonal mélange. The singing is more than adequate by the performers (though Pine’s crooning is a bit subpar) but the songs just flatline. I just took a break from writing and listened through Amazon.com’s soundtrack for the show, sampling every song one again, and they all just blend together. There isn’t one song that burrows its way inside your brain, taking residence beyond the immediate. Then again, if you’re one of the fans of the show who loves these songs then having a fresh coat of Hollywood production will make them sound even better for you, especially with Corden and Blunt and Streep as the top performers.
Another hindrance for me was that I found many of these characters to be insufferably annoying. I found Red Riding Hood and Jack to be irksome and thieves, and so I didn’t feel much sympathy when Jack’s breaking and entering and giant manslaughter lead to dire consequences in the last act. Does not the lady giant deserve her vengeance? Her home was broken into, pilfered for its valuables, a small portion of which would have been sufficient but Jack cannot help his felonious ways, and then the boy killed her husband in a hasty escape attempt. If anything, I would have preferred the lady giant picking her teeth with the plucky lad. I also wanted Little Red to remain in the belly of the wolf (spoiler alert?). Cinderella lost my interest with her wishy-washy behavior. I believe it’s meant to be funny that she keeps returning and running off for three days in a row of princely balls. Another way of looking at that behavior is frustration. The only characters I actively cared about were the Baker and his wife, and the calamitous plotting of the musical’s second half tested even those allegiances.
The story gets to be rather redundant as well once the main characters are established and their plight is set in motion. I suppose I can now understand why Into the Woods is one of the most popular stage productions to perform at high schools and colleges: the scarcity of scene changes. Much like other aspects of the film, the setting just blends together and becomes tiresome. My pal Eric Muller remarked, “It’s called Into the Woods and not Into Multiple Sets.” I got sick of the woods. The plotting requires the various characters to keep running into one another again and again. It’s amusing at first but once it keeps going, and going, and going, the repetition loses its charm. You start to feel like the show is as lost as the characters and just going in circles to bide its time.
Acting-wise, I cannot fault the big-screen version. Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) has a great singing voice and has shown great range as an actress in 2014. Streep improves upon her shaky start to musical theater from Mamma Mia. She’s still the great Meryl and seems to be one of the few people having fun. She enlivens every scene she’s in. Pine (Star Trek Into Darkness) is enjoyably self-involved as his caddish prince. Depp (Transcendence) is suitably lascivious though he only has about five minutes on screen. Corden (soon to be the new host of CBS’ Late Late Show in 2015) is the real standout. The man has a self-effacing likeability to him that serves as an anchor for the show. He’s funny and tender but he’s the heart of the story, and the film is at its best with Corden as its center.
If you’re a fan of the original Into the Woods, chances are you’ll likely find enough in this adaptation to enjoy. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) and his crew re definitely fans and you can feel their appreciation for the source material. However, if this is your first exposure to the Broadway show, then you may too find the characters annoying, the commentary underdeveloped and dated, the songs tuneless and unmemorable, and the plotting to be redundant and tedious. The actors do what they can but it was ultimately a losing cause to my ears. I found the film more exhausting than transporting. I’m at a loss how people can work up such passions for a show that feels so thoroughly blah. I await the Sondheim crowd to tar and feather me as an ignorant heathen, but there you have it. Into the Woods is an underwhelming musical that made me want to turn on the radio.
Nate’s Grade: C