Film reviews: Into The Woods | Foxcatcher

James Corden has a tug of war with Lilla Crawford for Red Riding Hood's cape. Picture: AP

James Corden has a tug of war with Lilla Crawford for Red Riding Hood's cape. Picture: AP

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WALT Disney and Stephen Sondheim make for an odd pairing. Disney’s style is wholesome while Sondheim promotes scepticism. With Disney, you expect sweet confections, Sondheim is another kind of snack: bitter and salty.

Into The Woods (PG)

Director: Rob Marshall

Running time: 125 minutes

***

Yet here they are yoked together for Rob Marshall’s adaptation of Sondheim’s 1987 hit musical, where famous fairytale characters are confronted with the reality of living happily ever after.

The starting point lies with a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who consult their neighbour, a blue-haired witch (Meryl Streep) about the cause of their childlessness. She admits she has put a spell on them, which can be broken if the couple embark on a Grimm-style scavenger hunt for four objects that will break her curse.

Their quest sends them into the woods, where they chat about shoes with Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), persuade Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) to swap his cow for a handful of beans, rescue precocious Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) from Johnny Depp’s Big Bad Wolf, and locate Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) in her tower.

Marshall keeps the criss-cross, multi-thread stories moving, while the cast keeps things tuneful, if you discount Depp’s Tex Avery cartoon of a wolf, who wears a zoot suit and sings like an injured coyote. This is hardly news to those of us who heard him do Sweeney Todd, and it hardly matters given that he only has two scenes, and unleashes a leering moxy for his first (and last) number Hello, Little Girl, where he courts Little Red with a song so ripe with problematic sexuality that you silently salute Disney for holding its nerve and keeping it in the movie.

However, worshippers of the original Sondheim stage show will notice plenty of absences, especially in the second act. Two characters, several songs and a few narrative turns have apparently been excised, and perhaps that is why Into The Woods, after an enjoyable first 80 minutes, feels abrupt and truncated after taking a sharp tonal shift from fairytale playfulness into something more morally and psychologically complex. Into The Woods is a PG, but parents should be aware that unless your child is inseparable from their original cast recordings of A Little Night Music or Sunday In The Park With George, they might find the adult disillusionments contained in the second half a little puzzling, or downright bleak.

This film is a mixed pleasure. It doesn’t contain much in the way of memorable tunes, but one unexpected highlight comes from Star Trek’s Chris Pine, who offers an insight into Prince Charming when he duets on Agony, with his brother (Billy Magnussen), and turns it into a competitive chest-bearing prince-off. And while Streep, coloured and styled to resemble those trolls children used to have at the end of their pencils, offers a full-throttle turn, and Kendrick proves to be the best at handling Sondheim’s intricate tongue-twisters, it’s Emily Blunt who provides real enchantment with a performance that is funny and then poignant, without any false notes.

On general release from Friday

Foxcatcher (15)

***

Can a prosthetic nose sniff out awards? Nicole Kidman’s hood ornament won an Oscar for The Hours, and Sean Penn strapped one on and took home best actor for Milk. So Steve Carell’s substantial toucan beak should make him a shoo-in. Actually there’s a lot more to admire about Carell’s performance in Bennett Miller’s true-crime drama Foxcatcher. As the eccentric billionaire John du Pont, he is authentically creepy, and sometimes pathetically funny.

“Most of my friends call me ‘Eagle’ or ‘Golden Eagle,’” he says, as he courts slightly dim Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). It’s obvious even to Schultz that du Pont has no friends apart from the ones he imports to his sprawling Foxcatcher estate and puts on his payroll. Schultz and his more capable, charismatic brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo) have been bought in to build a US wrestling team that will restore America to greatness, and incidentally allow du Pont to mingle with and lecture the athletes while everyone pretends that their boss isn’t a leotard full of crazy.

This is meticulous, controlled filmmaking, but as stiff as a board. Miller’s previous films include Moneyball and Capote, both intriguing biopics, but du Pont’s desperate delusion can’t bear the same weight, especially since the film’s energy is deliberately kept at a low wattage, paced practically to slo-mo, for added epic portentousness. It makes Foxcatcher a ponderous chore.

On general release from Friday

Rosewater (tbc)

***

Humour isn’t often associated with prison memoirs but The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart has made a movie out of the arrest and incarceration of Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, where a sense of the ridiculous is essential to the story. In 2009 Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal, below) left his London home and pregnant wife for what he assumed was a routine assignment to cover the elections in Iran. While there, he participated in a jokey Daily Show skit about spying. Unfortunately Iranian intelligence fails to grasp the joke: Bahari is arrested, imprisoned and interrogated by a man (Kim Bodnia) that he identifies from his rosewater cologne. Rosewater is so clueless that he mistakes Anton Chekhov quotes on Bahari’s social media spaces as evidence of a Russian Facebook friend, categorises a DVD collection that includes Pasolini’s Teorema and The Sopranos as a porn habit, and is enthralled by Bahari’s fictionalised stories of New Jersey fleshpots. Bahari’s use of satire as a psychological tool to keep his spirits up feels fresh, but devices such as conversations with dead fathers are more shopworn. You also wonder why a sharp ironist such as Stewart chose to cast a Mexican as Bahari, a Dane as his torturer and decided that everyone should speak in accented English.

Selected release at Cineworlds

National Gallery (12A)

****

Frederick Wiseman’s behind-the-scenes look at Britain’s most famous art museum runs at three hours, but the perambulation makes for a rich guided tour, steered by the institute’s experts. Besides nuggets of art history, there are sweeps through life drawing classes, eavesdrops at budget meetings and a wonderful sequence where partially sighted visitors experience Pissarro’s The Boulevard Montmartre At Night with the aid of braille-endowed copies.

Cineworlds, plus Glasgow Film Theatre, 11 and 13 January; Edinburgh Filmhouse, Belmont Filmhouse, Aberdeen, and Eden Court Theatre, Inverness, 11 January

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