Sunday, December 28, 2014

Are we there yet? - a review of "TheTrip to Italy"

"The Trip to Italy," (Now on DVD) directed with some authorial input by Michael Winterbottom and starring comedians Steve Coogan as "Steve" and Rob Brydon as "Rob" who improvised their way around Italy, is essentially a "behind-the-scenes" view of a research trip for a travel article.  Steve is on a writing assignment from the Observer to produce an article on Italian food.  When Steve's girlfriend declines, his friend Rob agrees to accompany the writer on the adventure.

The film is "behind-the-scenes" because there is a comic dissociation from the ostensible intention: to write about the food.  The videography is on point with luscious panoramas of Italian hill towns, dramatic vistas of the Amalfi Coast and most importantly kitchen scenes of chefs at their work followed by mouthwatering closeups of exquisitely plated dishes.  Yet the two characters do not discuss the food except in the most off-handed and casual way.  We never get a clue as to how Steve will approach the subject of his writing assignment.

The action is entirely occupied with the rolling dialogue between Steve and Rob on the road as they drive, waiting for a meal to be served, as they dine and when they stop at historical landmarks of the romantic poets.  Neither the dialogue, nor the characters do much developing and in the end we forced to resign ourselves solely to eavesdropping on a meandering conversation between friends.

This film fills the "I don't have any witty friends available, so I'll hang out with these two guys for awhile," niche.  And they are witty, sometimes.  Then again there are times when one or the other just becomes annoying, or worse, tiresome.  Early on Steve gets Rob to promise that he will not do impressions.  Unfortunately, Rob doesn't keep the promise.  

There are amusing conversational performances and interactions by Steve and Rob, but in the end I was glad I only had to endure the 115 minute film version of the weeklong road-trip.  When the credits rolled, I was left with a sense of gratitude for my own friends.

Friday, December 26, 2014

No Way Out - a review of "Into the Woods" (2014)

The story, in the tradition of fairytales, begins appropriately with "Once Upon a Time," a phrase designed to transport us from chronos to kairos.  The plot is a mash-up of fairytales.  All of the fairytales share the same woods.  And, as the "woods" are a traditional story-place where characters are tested and assume a new sense of purpose, the film depends upon a comic sense of synchronicity as different sub-plots are woven into one dramatic finale.  Of course each of the individual fairytales had to be twisted, snipped and spliced in order to be threaded into the uber-narrative of the film.

This is a musical and the videography is close as it was in Les Miserables, but unlike Les Mis the vocals do not exhibit the reality of imperfection when songs are sung from the center of a passion.  This is Disney and it is ordered and meticulous.  The characters sing beautifully and their notes are true as though they were at Carnegie Hall, not stuck in the woods.  Disney has a way of reminding us that what we are experiencing is just a fiction.

Despite the civilized orderliness of the music, it is the soundtrack that carries the film.  The lyrics are clever and entertaining.  The character's often sing against each other and do so with skill and precision.  The vocal abilities of the younger actors were a pleasure both to watch and to hear.  The sets were downplayed and stuck me as more fitting to a staged musical than a high-budget film.  

The film was well casted.  The vocals were very well done and so was the acting.  Of course Johnny Depp was wickedly funny and Meryl Streep was dramatic and emotive, but my favorite actor was Lilla Crawford who played Little Red.  She radiated a complex representation of innocence and indulgence with every appearance.

I think I can add without being a spoiler that I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the wisdom (it was a bit much to be considered a moral - or amoral for that matter) of the film.  'In the Woods" teaches us

What we wish for may not appear in the way we expected;
Even if we get what we wish for, we should not expect it to last long;
There are untold causes which bring about both the good and bad;
(i.e. we all share in the responsibility for each); and
We never get out of the woods, we have to learn to learn to support each other in the face of adversity and uncertainty which is often beyond our control.

For me, this movie overcomes much of what I have found lacking in the worlds of Disney. Instead of characters who are on the side of good or evil, "In the Woods" presents characters just trying to get by in the face of misfortune and the competing interests of others.  Instead of a happy ending, this film offers the  more modest promise of happiness in phases which arise from time to time in the ever changing world for which we are all responsible.  There is no way out, but we do have each other and we can help to create a clearing in the woods for the happiness of ourselves and others.