Holiday Movie Roundup: “Into the Woods,” “The Imitation Game”

Into the Woods

Fairy tales come to life, and some die, in Into the Woods, Disney’s long-awaited screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s beloved Broadway musical. Director Rob Marshall struggles with the trickier second part of that equation, but for the first hour or so, he conjures an engaging blend of Brothers Grimm fairy tales, soaring musical numbers and lively performances.

The film opens, as the musical does, with a lengthy musical number that introduces the key players and sets them on a path…into the woods, of course. The evil witch (Meryl Streep) pays a visit to the Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), letting them know that they won’t be able to bear children until they find four mythical items in the woods and bring them to her. Those items – white cow, red cape, gold slipper yellow hair – just happen to be floating around the woods. Red Riding Hood dons her red cape and heads into the woods to bring food to her granny, young Jack goes to sell his white cow and young Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) goes to visit her mother’s grave, where she acquires the adornments necessary to attend a ball hosted by the charming prince (Chris Pine). Meanwhile, long-haired Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) lies dormant in a tower at the Witch’s mercy.

As the plot description suggests, these characters spend the next few days bumping into each other, falling behind and surging ahead in their separate and interlocking quests. There’s plenty of fun to be had in watching the characters bounce off each other, and the casting is mostly excellent. Streep is perhaps two notches too hammy, but Blunt provides pathos, Corden provides pratfalls, Kendrick provides sincerity and Pine (Captain Kirk in the Star Trek reboots) shows off his unexpected comedy chops.

The movie’s biggest flaw, aside from the problems with the second act, is the drab visual design, apparently a reflection of the slim $50 million budget. The CGI is competent, but the lighting is dim, the colors washed out and the big moments – most notably the appearance of the giant – fall victim to Marshall’s often clumsy direction. That clumsiness is particularly intrusive during the movie’s trickiest narrative section, in which the appearance of “happily-ever-after” gives way to the real-life consequences that most fairytales ignore. Cinderella gets to marry the prince but wonders if she ever wanted him in the first place. The Baker and his wife have their baby, but the Baker feels ill-prepared for fatherhood, and his wife longs for something more. The Witch regains her comely physical appearance but blanches at the loss of her magical powers.

Marshall’s adaptation doesn’t shy away from this reality so much as stare at it with blank bewilderment. The sense of narrative and thematic momentum in the first half gives way to shapelessness – scenes seem randomly placed and incidental to the plot, and the plot itself feels tacked on instead of commenting directly upon the events that came before.

Perhaps the idea of grafting the complexities of Into the Woods onto the facade of a charming Disney musical was inherently doomed to fail. But the movie gets some of its points across even amid its clumsiness. It doesn’t misunderstand the musical so much as cut corners. And it’s not without awe-inspiring moments – the musical numbers “Agony” and “On the Steps of the Palace” take full and delightful advantage of cinematic techniques that can’t be replicated onstage. Even compromised art is valuable, if only as an invitation for viewers to discover Sondheim’s musical. As a Sondheim novice myself, I plan to do just that. On that level, the movie succeeds.

***

Imitation Game

The Imitation Game cuts corners in its own way. Written by Graham Moore and directed by Morten Tyldum, this movie is a suspenseful but wholly conventional yarn about the fascinating life of British codebreaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). I enjoyed watching the movie, but thinking about it is another story. Its structural devices are more annoying than illuminating, and it frequently seems afraid of delving into the complexities on the margins of the story. Historians have dinged the movie for fudging the facts. I’ll ding it for failing to interrogate them.

Cumberbatch portrays Turing as an insensitive, well-intentioned, precocious young man, as inept at social cues as he is adept at mathematics. As Turing enters and eventually takes charge of the secret operation dedicated to breaking German military code and gaining secret insight into the enemy’s strategy, he alienates his co-workers and incenses his supervisors. When it comes to emotional rationality, he’s a regular Sherlock Holmes, which makes him ideal fodder for Cumberbatch’s rubbery face and wiry body.

Turing gets along well with his team’s lone female member, the doe-eyed and bright-minded Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley, who does her best with an underwritten part). In fact, at one point, he marries her, though it’s clear to us, if not to the characters, that the marriage is a sham. Turing was gay and eventually persecuted by the British government for his sexual orientation. The movie presents this fact as a character trait, but it falls short of humanizing that trait. Clumsy flashbacks reveal that Turing was in love with his childhood classmate Christopher, who died at a young age. But the romance blossoms entirely offscreen, only materializing in expository dialogue. Instead of making a case for the human suffering that Britain’s strict anti-homosexuality policies enforced, Moore settles for checking these events off among the others in Turing’s lifespan.

And that’s not the only instance of The Imitation Game telling when it should be telling. No fewer than three characters utter a sentence that’s clearly intended to be the movie’s oft-quoted pearl of wisdom, but it’s better perceived as an unnecessary two-sentence summation of the movie’s perfectly obvious themes. Meanwhile, the filmmakers tiptoe inelegantly around the complex mathematical theory that goes into breaking the code and solving the puzzles that eventually help end the war. I didn’t expect a full-bore lesson on the intricacies of codebreaking, but Moore’s script often betrays the intelligence of its characters.

It’s not inherently a compliment to say that The Imitation Game has all of the possible trappings of an Oscar contender – stately production design, orchestral music, British accents (the Academy loves to appear cosmopolitan without ever actually embracing foreign film), historical subject matter, triumph over antiquated social conventions. And indeed, The Imitation Game is an entertaining movie that never rises above the standards of its genre. It made me curious to explore the enigmatic Turing in more detail. But it didn’t convince me that its quintessential Hollywood reinterpretations of documented history did anything other than push the movie closer to convention. It lacks perspective. Like Into the Woods, it’s better viewed as a flashy prologue to more stimulating works of art and history that lie elsewhere.

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