Film reviews: Into The Woods and Foxcatcher

David Gritten / 09 January 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten reviews the big-screen musical version of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods, and the taut psychological drama Foxcatcher.

The film industry has certainly taken its time in getting around to adapting Stephen Sondheim’s lustrous Broadway hit musical Into the Woods, which first surfaced back in 1987. But then it’s a forbidding piece of work – a sophisticated mash-up of classic fairy tales that seems to be proceeding to a ‘happy ever after’ ending for all concerned, only to blow that notion sky-high in its subversive final act. It’s smart, tuneful and often enchanting, but it’s not exactly comforting. Still, if there’s one movie musical you see this winter, make it this one.

Its plotting is ingenious: it starts and ends with the words “I wish,” and what happens in between carries the implicit warning “be careful what you wish for – especially if you resort to devious means to get it.”

The familiar characters include Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), two handsome princes (Chris Pine, Billy Magnussen), a young boy named Jack (of beanstalk fame), Rapunzel and her petulant witch of a mother, (Meryl Streep), Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf (Johnny Depp).

But the two characters closest to the emotional heart of Into the Woods were freshly minted by Sondheim and his screenwriter James Lapine: a humble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), who wish above all for a child.  These two British actors are by no means the starriest names in the cast, yet surprisingly they steal the show.  

I’ll put my cards on the table here: I’m hopelessly devoted to Sondheim and his works, and I love Into the Woods, having seen half a dozen productions of it on stage. The news that it would be made into a movie filled me with trepidation, especially when I knew Disney were behind it: I feared the element of darkness common to all Sondheim’s work would be airbrushed out. It didn’t help to learn that Rob Marshall would be directing; on film he already ruined for me another favourite musical, Chicago, with his jittery editing marring its dance sequences.

Given all that, Into the Woods comes as something of a relief. It’s well acted and sung, and Marshall has broadly respected the integrity of the wonderful musical score.

Not that it’s perfect: some of the star casting is distracting. Streep does her best as the witch, without quite letting us forget that it’s Meryl Streep we’re watching, while Johnny Depp is simply an inappropriate choice to play the wolf. It’s also a pity that Marshall abandoned Sondheim’s original notion of having some of his actors doubling up on roles.

There’s also a problem that no film can truly solve. The stage play has an interval, bringing down the curtain just at the point when a universal ‘happy ever after’ has eluded these characters. The rest of the work then deals how they all deal with diminished expectations: they have what they wished for, but not in the way they wished for it. Dramatically, this works best when there’s a clear delineation between these sequences. But of course the film just rolls on continuously, and its last half-hour feels both faintly relentless and anti-climactic.

Yet there is much to delight here, and there are several passages when the genius of Sondheim shines through. His fans will be harder to please than most audiences, who will rightly judge it a superior entertainment.

Foxcatcher has a lot going for it, including three terrific performances from its lead actors Steve Carell, Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo. It’s a brooding drama that holds one’s attention and doesn’t let up.

Set in the 1990s, it’s based on a bizarre true story: oddball multi-millionaire John DuPont (Carell), heir to a family fortune, became fascinated by wrestling, and nursed the ambition to create a USA wrestling team who could become Olympic champions. To this end, he secured the services of two world champion brothers Mark and Dave Schulz (Tatum, Ruffalo) and signed them up to his luxuriously equipped training centre. The needy younger brother Mark fell under DuPont’s sinister influence, while his brother Dave, an easy-going family man, resisted him.

Carell, breaking out of his usual repertoire of comic roles,  plays DuPont as an eerily detached character; one can sense his grievances and neuroses being kept on a tight rein. This triangular relationship, its emphasis constantly shifting, dominates Foxcatcher. What it promotes is a sense of real unease: something clearly has to give, but what? Director Bennett Miller, who marshals his actors expertly, takes his time (arguably a little too much time) in bringing the story to an unhappy climax. Still, it’s compelling and skilfully written, even if it offers few moments of comfort or joy.

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