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Winter's Tale
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by Peter Sobczynski

"I Have Drunk And Seen The Spider"
4 stars

Any cogent critical analysis of "Winter's Tale" has one enormous obstacle standing in its path-the inescapable fact that the film is completely barmy from the first frame to the last and any effort to come to grips with its loopiness runs the risk of making the critic seems just as crazy as the subject at hand. "How crazy is it?" you may be yourself at this moment. Okay, imagine if Terry Gilliam had, against all odds, received the proper funding for one of his delirious flights of cinematic fancy--heavy on ideas and visual thrills and light on narrative cohesion--when tragedy occurs and the cult auteur unexpectedly becomes an ex-Gilliam. Torn between honoring the filmmaker's unique vision and protecting their investment, the producers decide to forge ahead with a new team and with only a few days to spare, they made the bizarre decision to put the project in the hands of the people responsible for "The Notebook," who then rushed to put their own uniquely lachrymose stamp on the material before the commencement of principal photography.

That is "Winter's Tale" in a nutshell--a combination of wild imagery, preposterous plotting, smarmy sentiment and moments that will leave many viewers scratching their heads in pure bewilderment or bursting out in incredulous laughter. By most sound critical standards, the film is a folly of epic proportions for which no logical defense could possibly be mustered. And yet, I would like to see if I can muster such a defense because while I concede all of its failings and confess to the occasional snicker or twelve during the press screening, I have to admit to feeling a certain fondness towards it for its audacity and cheerful willingness to fly right up to the edge of common sense and then take that grand leap beyond. It may go down but it definitely goes down swinging for the fences in ways that make far more compelling to watch than many ordinary films that I could mention.

Based on a 1983 novel by Mark Halprin--which I have not read but which I understand has been greatly reduced in its journey from the page to the screen--the story, after a brief prologue in modern-day New York, zips back in time to 1895 as a couple with an infant son is turned away at Ellis Island because of illness. Undeterred, they steal a model ship from a display case, place their child in it and set it afloat towards New York in the hopes that he can have a better life. Fast-forward to 1916 and that child, Peter Lake (Colin Farrell), is now a roguishly charming thief who has run afoul of local crime boss Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe) and when we first encounter him, he is about to be captured by Soames and his henchmen when a majestic flying pegasus appears out of nowhere to whisk him to safety. If that strikes you as being just slightly peculiar, wait until you discover that Soames is actually an earthbound demon who specializes in squashing miracles before they can occur and is determined to stop Peter before he can fulfill his apparent destiny. Yeah, it is that kind of movie.

The next day, Peter and his horse appear outside the majestic Central Park home inhabited by newspaper publisher Isaac Penn (William Hurt) and his family. Seeing that they are leaving, Peter decides to rob the house but once inside, he discovers that one member of the family has stayed behind--the beautiful, red-tressed and consumption-ridden Beverly (Jessica Brown FIndlay). Forced to stay in a chilly climate to combat the disease that is slowly killing her, she has rarely ventured outside the house and is therefore intrigued rather than frightened of her unexpected visitor. Not surprisingly, the two fall instantly in love and after escaping Soames' jurisdiction, they arrive at the Penn's lake house and spend much time making gooney eyes at each other. Unfortunately, Soames is not to be deterred and shortly after the two make love for the first time, tragedy ensues. Yes, it just dawned on me that this is surprisingly close to the basic plot of the "Endless Love" remake, though that film was surprisingly lax in the magic horse department.

However, as we learn during one of the many chunks of enigmatic narration, true love has the power to conquer death itself and when the story picks up in 2014 New York, Peter is still alive and doesn't look as if he has aged a day, though he has no memory of his past other than an image of a red-headed female that he obsessively scribbles. Using a few clues that he manages to scrounge up, Peter goes in search of his past and along the way, he meets up with (Jennifer Connelly), a food editor for a local newspaper who not only offers to help him out, she even invites him into the home that she shares with her young cancer-stricken daughter (Ripley Sobo) even after discovering evidence that suggests that he is more than a century old. Speaking of old timers, Soames is still out there and when he learns that Peter is still alive, even he is mystified until he finally realizes that he may have killed the wrong redhead and that Peter's miracle is still out there. To make matters even more complicated, there is the late inning arrival of another character, played by Eva Marie Saint, and while I will not reveal who she is, I will tell you that, going by the timeline established by the film, she is old enough to have once had a love affair with Hal Roach that was both fulfilling and age-appropriate.

As I said earlier, "Winter's Tale"--which, I suppose I should add, has very little to do with the Shakespeare play of the same name--has one of the goofiest plots in recent memory, a century-spanning mishmash that plays like a mawkish mashup of "Somewhere in Time" and "Wings of Desire" with a battle between the forces of good and evil inexplicably raging in the background. Bear in mind, I haven't even mentioned Soames' enigmatic conversations with none other than Lucifer himself or a restaurant scene that seems to exist only to include the soon-to-be-immortal line "Sorry--we don't got no owl." Presumably all of this makes sense in the original novel but in adapting it to the screen, Akiva Goldsman--whose filmography is as long as it is questionable--appears to have simply selected the bits and pieces that he thought might work cinematically and jammed them together without ever finding a proper way of linking them into a coherent storyline. For long periods of time, it is virtually impossible to understand what the hell is going on and when the characters stop to explain it all, they only serve to confuse matters more. For example, I am still in the dark as to the exact nature of the relationship between Peter and Soames prior to the events that we see or even whether Peter actually lives out those 100 years or if he is just magically zapped from one era to the next. Simply put, the script is a mess and I am at a loss to understand what was on the page that could have attracted the financiers and the numerous big name stars to sign on to the project.

Besides writing the screenplay, Goldsman also makes his directing debut with "Winter's Tale" and surprisingly, it is in this area that he sort of succeeds. If a film of this sort is going to work at all, it needs to have a filmmaker behind it who is willing to go all the way with it and fully embrace its eccentricities--this is not the kind of movie that would benefit from anything resembling restraint. The end result is so odd that most viewers will no doubt reject it out of hand but I kind of like the craziness on display. As a film critic, I seen any number of movies in which virtually every move can be easily predicted along the way--there are times when I am convinced that if any of the actors suddenly forgot their lines, I could actually prompt them if needed. Therefore, whenever a movie comes along that defies most forms of logic and common sense in telling its story, I find myself responding a little more to it as long as it does so in an interesting and entertaining manner and that is the case here. Whatever crimes against the cinema that "Winter's Tale" may commit, it certainly cannot be accused of being boring. Demented, maybe, but not boring.

"Winter's Tale" is not a great movie and even I am able to recognize that. However, I was entertained by it and found myself eager anticipating what bit of weirdness might be coming up next. I liked the heedless nature of the storytelling. I liked the chemistry between Farrell and the luminous Findlay. I liked the gorgeous visual stylings provided by legendary cinematographer Caleb Deschanel. I liked some of the quirky dialogue that pops up from time to time. (While interrogating an angel that became a human, Soames inquires "Was it worth becoming human or was it an impulse buy?") I even liked the flamboyant turn delivered by Russell Crowe as the chief villain--it is a frankly terrible performance, to be sure, but his rampant scenery chewing is a sight to see. Oh, and whomever was responsible for the casting of the cameo role of Lucifer--do not go to IMDb as it will ruin the surprise--deserves some kind of medal because even the film's detractors will have to grudgingly admit that choice is 100% spot-on.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25826&reviewer=389
originally posted: 02/13/14 16:19:34
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User Comments

2/21/14 Bob Dog A pleasantly magical surprise - - leave your logic at home. 5 stars
2/14/14 Robin I loved it! I wanted to see a fantasy in different eras and I got exactly what I wanted. 4 stars
2/14/14 Bert Got better as it went along 4 stars
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  14-Feb-2014 (PG-13)
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