Short Takes: Into the Woods, Wild & The Babadook

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Into the Woods – Rob Marshall’s screen adaptation of the stage musical Into the Woods does one very smart thing: it lets the Stephen Sondheim music take precedence over its ridiculously compacted story.  It does other smart things too, like casting Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt as, respectively, a bitter witch and a baker’s wife trying to lift her curse so she and her husband can have a baby.

It’s hard to engage with the movie as a whole though, because although it has a few great scenes, it’s wildly inconsistent.  The more than two-and-a-half hour play is cut down to about two here, but the story still packs in an overabundance of fairy tale mainstays.  Key plot points, and several character deaths, either happen off screen or are too rushed to have any real resonance.  Still, when Marshall lets scenes play out with several characters in the same location instead of cutting sporadically between story lines, the movie version is occasionally thrilling.  Grade: C

Wild

Wild – Reese Witherspoon is an Oscar frontrunner for her portrayal of the soul-searching hiker Cheryl Strayed, though the performance is much less memorable or worthy of praise than some of her better roles.  It’s not that Strayed is an uninteresting character, or that Witherspoon does a poor job of embodying her, it’s that the director, Jean-Marc Vallée, makes such generic work out of her trek.

Strayed decided to hike more than 1,000 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail after the death of her mother caused her to descend into drug abuse and sex addiction.  Wild relies heavily on flashbacks, but rather than being triggered spontaneously or revealing interesting things about Cheryl’s character, they redundantly fill in back story.  Laura Dern injects some genuine warmth into the movie as Strayed’s late mother, and her and Witherspoon are very good in their scenes together.  However, those scenes are buried inside a movie that is often filmed at a boring, unenlightening remove from both the wilderness and Strayed’s life. Grade: C-

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The Babadook- Jennifer Kent’s directorial debut is a disturbing examination of motherhood gone mad.  Anchored by a phenomenal performance by Essie Davis, The Babadook fuses a children’s ghost story to a woman’s deteriorating (or already deteriorated) mental state.  Is a clawed, trench coat and top hat-wearing creature really knocking at the door and terrorizing this widowed mother and her son, or is she abusive and crazy?

Kent does an excellent job at creating and sustaining an atmosphere of panic and dread.  The home where much of the movie is set is as drab and confining as the asylum on American Horror Story.  Despite the movie’s clever formal design, Kent never truly gets inside her mother monster’s head.  Though the art direction is sleek and the editing is more than effective, The Babadook lacks a crucial psychological consistency that would make it truly terrifying.  Grade: B-

 

 

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