Into the Woods reviews

HarryGoldfarb
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Re: Into the Woods reviews

Postby HarryGoldfarb » Tue Apr 21, 2015 12:06 pm

“Any moment, big or small,
Is a moment, after all”.
Prince Charming, Into the Woods (S. Sondheim, 1986)

With Sondheim's lyrics one can not but surrender. Sondheim delivers in both so intricate and creative ways that to call him a genius is, at this point, irrelevant, more of the same and risky of not doing him justice. As a composer, the man has a flair for the unexpected. His minimalism is only apparent, showing a propensity to unexpected changes in inflection, while in harmony lending himself to surprise, to the impossibility of predictability. Always supported by the most boisterous syncopations, he builds the structure of songs that deviate from the “cantabile” to be offered first as an indispensable element in their musicals, as a point of advancing the plot as necessary as the story itself. There is his achievement. But the songs are also musical gems that not only provide the enjoyment of those who want, and can appreciate them in their superb level, in that "other" musical level, but also invite to do some thinking, some reflection.

I was only 18 when in the house of my older brother Eleazar I first saw the PBS’ American Playhouse series recorded version of "Into the Woods". It was perhaps my first formal contact with Broadway. And a great contact it was. The libretto was to me utterly creative: a group of fairy tale characters cross their stories in a forest through the plot of a childless couple (a baker and his wife), who have inherited a cursed from a wicked witch. A first act of simple, unexpected and hilarious encounters leads to a bleak second act in which the characters deal with the consequences of their actions, with a bittersweet ending in which the author asks the audience to watch what you wish, watch your actions and words as "children will listen". A tough final message that leaves a great responsibility on the audience-viewers’s shoulders.

Now again, Sondheim and Broadway and musicals… I think these things are not for everyone. I hesitate to recommend them widely because many people simply do not have the vein to tolerate a musical in its entirety. It is a matter of taste, simple as that. Additionally, in what refers to film adaptations, per every Cabaret (1971), The Sound of Music (1964), Oliver (1968) and Chicago (2002), we have things like Nine (2009), Rock of Ages (2012) , Sweenie Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007) and Jersey Boys (2014). There are excellent adaptations of the genre to cinema, but unfortunately there are so many very poor ones, of dubious quality (at best).

Rob Marshall directed in 2002 precisely this modern marvel that is Chicago; Oscar winner for Best Picture (such a merit, considering Polanski's The Pianist was in the race. Though at the time, to be honest, The Pianist was hardly a factor, having arrived a little bit late to the race). Chicago proved to be a vibrant example of what the genre has to offer. However, the same Marshall gave us the sedated, convoluted, aimless and languid version of Nine, the wonderful work of Maury Yeston who had the misfortune to be the basis of that poor adaptation: the only you can rescue out of that film is the performance of Marion Cotillard. So in terms of musical adaptations, with Marshall, you simply do not know. Last year he returned to the genre with the adaptation of Into the Woods, accumulating a trio of more than respectable titles. I saw it yesterday, guess for some reason I was trying to avoide it, but the film neither add nor subtract the record of Marshall. Far from being a good movie, it's not bad to dry. It is in that limbo of average effectiveness, of incomplete achievement.

There are many good elements: the cast is generally solid. They do a good job and vocally there is so much talent that we lose sight of it: we knew that Anna Kendrick sings and Meryl Streep had shown her vocal skills in that guilty pleasure called Mamma Mia! (2008), but the actors who play Jack and Little Red Riding Hood were pleasantly surprising. James Corden and Emily Blunt as the baker and his wife manage to, I think, create the most humane characters of the movie. And Streep ... well, she’s not surprising except for the fact that she owns classic tunes usually associated to Bernadette Peters (or to Vanessa Williams) in such a powerful yet natural way that you simply forget the original or traditional interpreters of those themes. His vocal work is impeccable and there are some facial gestures (like those at the beginning of Last Midnight) that recall why the woman has 19 Oscar nominations. The work of staging (art direction, production design, costumes, makeup) are first rate. And the sound, as often happens in music, feels very organic, very “designed”. But the problem is, I think, the material itself.

Be aware, this says someone who enjoys this work, but precisely as that, as a play, with all the theatricality that it imposes. Some things are simply not properly translated to the big screen. It is a matter of atmosphere, suspension of reality, intensity, flow...

The film has a good rhythm in the first hour, easy thing considering the colorful and humorous first act, but as we enter the realm of the darker (though childish) second act, Marshall seems lost, aimless. His intentions are unclear, as he was incapable of finding not only a focus but a fair atmosphere. He wants to accelerate that ordeal but everything starts to feel rushed yet heavy. The score, which invites reflection, is now shown to an audience that most certainly must be worn out with "that much": so much music, so much syncopation, so many people singing melodies that are hard to remember (here we have musical jewels but nothing as catchy or sticky as Cell Block Tango), so much color filter on the camera, so much blue, so unexpected madness, so much death...

Showstoppers as Agony pass almost unnoticed, they just move a little bit the story forward... you need an audience to laugh with you, that captures the intricacies of the composition, the elegant irony of those letters. Otherwise, the only thing left on screen is a sequence in motion with little substance, very flat and ineffective.

Poor decisions: the wolf. Not so much the choice of Johnny Depp (much criticized in advance but who here is a best vocalist than what he proved to be in Sweenie Todd), but the character design. I understand that the stage version, with the exposed genitals had no place in a Disney musical. But from there to see an overmakedup man with claws instead of hands makes any metaphorical subtlety lost.

It's a film for a 5/10. As a teacher, it's like the student who happens to barely pass: you can not be happy, but there is nothing you can do. There are good elements, but there is so much that makes it feel as an underachievement. I do not recommend it, I can only say: watch it at your own risk. It can be initiatory for any avid viewer of Broadway, it can satisfy the musical fanatic who will comment on the changes made to the source, but certainly it can be a mess for the non sensitized public. 5/10 (and I think I’m being generous).
Life is painless for the brainless.
- Fiyero

Mister Tee
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Re: Into the Woods reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Sun Jan 04, 2015 4:55 pm

Well, occasionally there’s a pleasant surprise. I enjoyed this movie quite a bit. Not to say it’s a triumph, or without obvious issues. But I came out of the theatre happy.

My familiarity with the original is not the same as some of you (BJ, certainly). I saw it within a few weeks of its Broadway opening, which is to say 27 years ago, and have not revisited it since. It’s the only Sondheim show post-Company for which I never bought the cast album (because I found its score not that appealing in music terms – more on that ahead). So, while I remember the show fondly, I’m not wed to every story beat the way many (here and elsewhere) seem to be. I couldn’t have told you which of several songs are missing. I’m judging the movie mostly on its own terms, not in comparison to an envisioned version.

I thought the movie set up its premise and various plots quite elegantly – the way it got all its characters introduced and in motion reminded me a bit of the opening of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. Marshall has assembled a cast of mostly very good actors who can sing (yeah, Depp excepted, but, remembering Depp was one of the least bad singers in Sweeney Todd makes me glide past him here), and whatever stylistic confusion beset Marshall in Nine is absent here: he directs the story coherently and movingly, and the songs feel organically part of the rest. I’m not saying he’s achieved any triumph – the film is competent, not brilliant, and I agree with BJ that Chicago remains a more dynamically realized work. But Chicago was lightweight stuff; this is more textured material, and just the fact that Marshall gets it up there on the screen without getting in its way makes it memorable.

The elimination of the gap between Act One and Act Two does create some narrative issues. As BJ notes, we get no sense that Cinderella and the Prince have spent any time at all together, let alone enough to have grown complacent about one another; the same with the Baker’s Wife vis a vis the Baker – though at least there we have the implied passage of time owing to the presence of the child. But, even given these nagging problems, I’m not sure it was the wrong decision in story terms to go this route. There’s an inherent difference between a play, where intermission is (usually) built into the plan, and where creators strive for a moment of maximum effect at which to break, and a film, where (again, usually) the action is continuous. It works better in keep-the-story-going terms for the giantess to strike at the moment she does. It makes the latter portion of the film about something a little different from what the play covered: rather than being largely about “what happens after happily-ever-after”, it’s dealing with the consequences of the means by which the characters got to that state. Somewhat obscured at the moment of celebration ending Act One is the fact that most of the characters achieved their goals/happiness as a result of Jack’s plundering the giant’s possessions. Act Two here is about them paying the price for their somewhat ill-gotten gains. This makes for a more immediate story-driver than the ennui of having achieved your goals and failing to be satisfied by them.

Of course it’s about much more, as well. I think this second act is, thematically, as rich as anything Sondheim/Lapine have ever created – delving deep into the way characters’ aspirations gibe or conflict with their wishes for their children (in that vein, “Careful the wish you make, Wishes are children” may be as perfect and as meaningful a couplet as Sondheim has ever written). The tendency for many has long been to brush off the second act as less enjoyable/depressing, but I found its melancholy irresistible. (The woman I went with, who’s seen many Sondheim shows but never this one, said “After the first part, I thought, OK, cute; by the end, I was wowed”) To end a movie musical so wistfully struck me as truly daring. When you think about it, most of the truly commercially successful musical adaptations of this recent era have been of the fun-and-nothing-else variety – Chicago, Hairspray, Mamma Mia! – while the serious efforts – Rent, Nine – have gone down hard. Getting this often sad show into blockbuster territory is quite the breakthrough.
One overall quibble: the visual effects are, as BJ noted, generally cheesy looking. Though, on some level, I didn’t totally mind that: it kept clear the fact that this was , despite surface appearances, not a summer blockbuster.

To the actors…Joanna Gleason was my favorite on-stage (her unexpected Tony win got cheers from my wife and me), and Emily Blunt follows commendably in her footsteps. She’s an actress to whom I just really respond, and her commanding but vulnerable presence is perfect for the role; her “Moments in the Woods” is splendid (and very well-filmed). Corden doesn’t have quite the opportunities – with, as BJ said, his big song deleted – but his engaging, genuine quality keeps the latter scenes well-anchored. Anna Kendrick certainly has a great voice, and she acts well enough – though one could risk offense by saying she’s not exactly the sort of beauty to entrance a prince on first look. Speaking of the princes: yeah, I don’t get the hot early buzz for Chris Pine, unless it was of the “I didn’t think he could act at all” variety; he and Magnussen are both fine, neither exceptional. Lilla Crawford is a strong Red Riding Hood; her “I Know Things Now” is very nicely delivered. Daniel Huttlestone makes a decent Jack, as well, though I did have more trouble making out his dialogue than anyone else’s.

As for Ms. Streep…I have to say, I found her more over the top than I’m comfortable with. She came on like a house afire right from the start, and, though I did laugh at a few of her line readings, for the most part I found her too much. With one big (unexpected) exception: when she was singing. She made “Stay With Me” utterly heartbreaking – it was her most genuine moment in the film. And she did a whale of a job with “Last Midnight” as well.

I mentioned above that I’d found Into the Woods onstage disappointing in musical terms. By that I don’t mean to diminish Sondheim’s work for the show, much of it quite brilliant, especially lyrically. I mean that the show seemed uninterested in providing audiences with the simple pleasures of hearing a song, or being swayed by a number. Sondheim has been accused of this from early in his career – because his work is clearly far more complex than, say, Jerry Herman, many still speak as if “Send in the Clowns” is his only memorable tune. I long thought that a ridiculous charge – the man who wrote “Being Alive”, “Losing My Mind”, “Pretty Women” and “Good Thing Going” was obviously capable of turning out a terrific melody. When he started work with Lapine, however, he seemed to drift toward validating his critics. Sunday in the Park had those five wonderful songs that finished Act One, but also a fair amount of barely tuneful or borderline atonal stuff. And Into the Woods carried the trend further. The score was incredibly intricate, but skittish: it barely slowed long enough to become a recognizable, never mind hummable, tune; it was more like watching operetta, with the numbers closer to a series of recitative than to songs. I remember one critic writing that it was as if the lyrics were deemed so important that the music was drained of distinctiveness so as not to block their path. “Agony” stood out as the one first act number that truly felt like a number. It was minor – reminiscent, in fact, of “It Would Have Been Wonderful”, a throw-in moment from A Little Night Music. But it had a beginning and end, and felt instantly distinguishable from the general mush. Once or twice a song STARTED: I remember when “Last Midnight” kicked in – sung by the great Bernadette Peters – I thought, FINALLY, we were in for a wowser; my body’s endorphins started to flow, anticipating musical theatre bliss. But, after only a few bars, it drifted off somewhere. I kept thinking it was going to come back, clinch the moment…but it never did’ my body went frustratingly limp. I wondered what perversity it was that kept Sondheim from providing this simple pleasure to an audience.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I’m wondering if I’ve been blaming Sondheim for something in which Lapine was complicit or maybe even chief villain. Because here “Last Midnight” clearly registered as a full number – a show-stopper, in fact. So did “Stay With Me”, which had barely seemed a tune in the theatre. (And still does – I looked at the Peters version on YouTube, and got the same feeling of “a few bars and out”) Maybe it’s something as simple as Marshall shooting it in close-up, but it – and several other numbers – read stronger as songs in the film than they did for me onstage. (Exception: “No One Is Alone”, the one song that fully came across in the theatre) Perhaps others who came to the show in a different production have had a different experience from mine. I’ll just say this version is one that finally makes me want to pick up the CD (or download it, or whatever the hell one does these days)

So…is the film going to do anything at the banquets up ahead? I’d bet on Emily Blunt winning the Globe (HFPA is committed to Birdman in best comedy/musical film, so Blunt is the best way to indulge their musical jones) The film seems a natural for Academy nominations in design, costumes and sound (and would have been for make-up, except the fickle branch left it out). Streep seems quite likely in support, whatever my misgivings. Best picture is the wild card. The film’s outsized commercial success would seem to offer a big boost, but we’re in a very weird year, with a lot of late-breaking hits (Unbroken, American Sniper, even A Most Violent Year) fighting for what look like just a few slots. (If, indeed, we even get to 9 or 10 this year – wide splits may keep films from getting that initial 5%) I’ll just say that there are films spoken of with considerably more respect – Foxcatcher, Whiplash and Theory of Everything – that I think aren’t as worthy.

Oh, and my hope? That the film wins exactly one Oscar (costumes most likely, but maybe sound), thus continuing the tradition that every Sondheim-only musical made into a movie (Forum, Night Music, Sweeney) achieves this.

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Re: Into the Woods reviews

Postby Mister Tee » Wed Dec 17, 2014 9:44 pm

Don't quite know why there was such a late embargo on this. They certainly didn't need to hide from these reviews.

Variety
Scott Foundas
Chief Film Critic @foundasonfilm

“Be careful what you wish for” warn the ads for “Into the Woods” — an apt summary of the movie’s theme, and also the mindset of many a Stephen Sondheim fan ever since it was announced that the composer’s popular 1987 Broadway musical was being turned into a film. But such fears are swiftly allayed by director Rob Marshall, who, um, marshals Sondheim’s cavalcade of fairy-tale all-stars on to the screen in a faithful, never particularly inspired, but supremely respectable version — one that outclasses Marshall’s prior “Chicago” and “Nine,” to say nothing of this season’s two-ton musical monstrosity, “Annie.” Strong reviews and family appeal should earn Disney much more than a bunch of magic beans at the holiday box office, with a long shelf life to follow.

It certainly took Hollywood long enough to see the forest for the trees where “Into the Woods” was concerned. A film version was first bandied about in the mid-’90s at Sony (with Goldie Hawn, Cher and Steve Martin among the potential cast), then put into development deep-freeze for the next two decades. During that time, “Woods” was revived twice on the New York stage (including director Timothy Sheader’s brilliant open-air production in Central Park in 2012) and could be felt as an influence on the “Shrek” movies and (especially) Disney’s “Enchanted.” But the announcement that Disney was finally making “Woods” still brought with it no shortage of anxieties (some fueled by a misquoted Sondheim interview): namely, that the Mouse House would sand down the less family-friendly elements of the show, including its lascivious pederast wolf, an episode of marital infidelity, and a second-act body count to rival Sondheim’s own “Sweeney Todd.”

For all those reasons and more, the chief virtue of this “Into the Woods” is a feeling of relief. Marshall hasn’t made one of the great movie musicals here, but he hasn’t bungled it, either — far from it. Aficionados who know the show by heart will fully recognize what they see here (and actually be able to see it, after the frantic, seizure-inducing editing of “Chicago” and “Nine”), while new audiences will more than get the gist, a touch condensed and Disneyfied perhaps, but to little overall detriment. If so much as one tween viewer adds Sondheim to his or her iPod playlist alongside the likes of “Let it Go,” all will have been worthwhile.

Taking greater inspiration from “The Uses of Enchantment” author Bruno Bettelheim than from Uncle Walt, Sondheim and book writer James Lapine (who also earns a screenplay credit here) pluck a dozen or so characters from the iconic fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, add in a few of their own invention, and set them on a tragicomic collision course in which “happily ever after” comes with a litany of fine-print conditions.

The lineup includes a humble baker (the very appealing James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), whose bake shop is frequented by a bratty, shoplifting Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), and who live next door to a haggard old witch (Meryl Streep) with many axes to grind. Long ago, the witch abducted the baker’s infant sister, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and cursed the baker himself with sterile genes — punishment for the sins of his estranged father (who stole magic beans from the witch’s garden, once upon a time). But the curse can be reversed, the witch announces, provided the baker and his wife procure the necessary ingredients in the span of 72 hours: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.

It is that quest which leads the childless couple into said woods, and into contact with all manner of fellow travelers running to or away from something: the farm boy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), reluctantly off to market to sell his beloved but milk-dry cow; Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), giving chase to a confounded Prince Charming (Chris Pine); and Little Red herself, weighing mother’s advice about strangers against the dandyish charms of a certain Mr. Wolf (a lip-smacking Johnny Depp, in slanted fedora and a kind of hirsute smoking jacket). For Sondheim and Lapine, these woods are as much a psychological space as a physical one — an existential crucible where innocence is lost, wisdom gained and the difficulty felt of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, be they golden or giant-sized. Freed from the literal belly of the beast, Red Riding Hood sings that her lupine adventure made her feel scared, yes, but also excited, before concluding, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot?/And a little bit not.” Meanwhile, after her own illicit wooded liaison, the baker’s wife wonders, “Is it always ‘or?’/Is it never ‘and?’” — one of those deceptively simple Sondheim lyrics that feels like a definitive expression of life’s unending compromise.

Marshall, who’s never seemed to know quite what to do with a movie camera and an editing machine, is helped considerably here by the fact that “Woods” (unlike his previous musical films) has no major dances to flash-cut into incoherence. And where both “Chicago” and “Nine” labored to present their musical numbers as fantasy sequences, lest multiplex-goers be alarmed by the sight of actors suddenly bursting into song, “Woods” harbors no such concerns, embracing its theatricality down to the smallest details of costume and set design. (“The trees are just wood,” Sondheim’s characters sing, but the ones in Marshall’s film, care of production designer Dennis Gassner, look closer to fiberglass.) We’re a long — and probably wise — way here from the bigger-budget version of the film originally proposed, complete with elaborate creature effects from the Jim Henson workshop. The movie doesn’t need the extra razzle-dazzle because the real magic is there in Sondheim’s music, which Marshall allows to come through mostly unimpeded (save for a few deleted reprises) in Jonathan Tunick’s marvelous original orchestrations, conducted by longtime Sondheim collaborator Paul Gemignani.

Both men also worked on Tim Burton’s 2007 film version of “Sweeney Todd” (starring Depp as the eponymous demon barber), a stylistically bolder and more accomplished film than “Into the Woods.” If comparisons must be made, however, then “Woods” is the better sung of the two, by a generally superb cast who catch the tricky tonal shifts from cheeky satire to pathos and back again. Decked out with a long gray mane and a face of Grand Canyon crags, Streep brings a most amusing petulance to the witch (whom Bernadette Peters played as more of a cloying Jewish mother in the original Broadway production). Pine makes for a hilariously preening, clueless Prince, as does Billy Magnussen as his equally charming and insincere princely brother (who longs for fair Rapunzel). Their witty duet, “Agony,” performed in the midst of a babbling brook, is one of the film’s most dynamic numbers. But as onstage, the richest part here is that of the baker’s wife, a loyal helpmeet who can’t help but wonder if she’s cut out for grander things, and who pays dearly for that curiosity. And Blunt (once again under Streep’s thumb, as in “The Devil Wears Prada”) has just the right nurturing yet wistful air to make the character heartbreaking in spite of (or rather, because of) her all-too-human flaws.

For the screen, Lapine has somewhat condensed the show’s second half, diluting the sense that the characters, having achieved their ostensible goals by intermission, still long for something more. Mostly, though, the second-act doozies are still here: the deaths, the betrayals and the buck-passing standoff with a very angry female giant (Frances de la Tour). All of that should send wise children and their parents out into the night mulling the complex nature of love and loss, taking responsibility for one’s own actions, and the things both good and ill we pass on from one generation to the next. “Anything can happen in the woods,” goes one Sondheim lyric, and the same might be said of Hollywood musicals. Sometimes, by happy luck, they manage to get one right.


Hollywood Reporter
David Rooney

The Bottom Line
As enchanting a screen version as the show's fans could desire

The tentative 21st century rebirth of the movie musical has been one step forward, two steps back. But Rob Marshall, who directed a commercially successful example in Chicago and a misconceived dud in Nine, hits a sweet spot between cinematic and theatrical with his captivating film adaptation of Into the Woods. This twisty fairy-tale mash-up shows an appreciation for the virtues of old-fashioned storytelling, along with a welcome dash of subversive wit. It benefits from respect for the source material, enticing production values and a populous gallery of sharp character portraits from a delightful cast.

Its skeptical view of happy endings makes this release a tricky fit for the holiday family niche. But Disney should do nicely over the long haul with a classy film that will entertain youth audiences yet contains enough sly humor and narrative complexity to keep adults engaged.

Arguably the most accessible, though not the best, of Stephen Sondheim's musicals, the 1987 Broadway hit is stuffed with themes that might easily have turned sugary in a screen treatment from this studio: the parental urge to teach and protect; the child's propensity to learn more by experience and error; the marvels and menace of the world beyond home; the pain of loss; and the solace of community.

But screenwriter James Lapine, adapting his own book for the show, has retained the balance of dark and light, shaping a cohesive story of resilience and maturation out of multiple strands without leaning too hard on the sentiment. What was played for gallows humor onstage is often treated more earnestly here, and the violence and tragedy are suggested more than shown. But there's enough Brothers Grimm in the tone to offset charges of Disney-fication.

Marshall has mercifully avoided the wearisome trend of turning revisionist fairy tales into dour action fantasies set in digitized kingdoms out of a video game. (See Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunter, Jack the Giant Slayer, Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Huntsman ... no, better yet, don't.) CGI effects are used with intelligence and economy, primarily where the story's magic dictates, and the mix of soundstage sets with atmospheric locations is for the most part harmonious.

A virtuoso opening sequence signals right off the bat that Marshall and Lapine know what they're doing. In roughly 12 minutes of song and interspersed dialogue propelled by the musical motif "I wish," they introduce the major characters and identify the quests that will take them through the woods.

Those key figures include a handful of classic fairy-tale recruits: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) toils in the scullery of her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski), dreaming of attending the royal ball; feisty Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) sets off to visit her granny; Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) is forced by his exasperated mother (Tracey Ullman) to take his cherished but milkless cow to the market to be sold.

An original story converges with those timeworn tales, concerning the village Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt), unable to conceive a child. This is due to the curse of a Witch (Meryl Streep), whose beauty was destroyed when the Baker's father (Simon Russell Beale) raided her garden and stole her magic beans. But she gives the young couple a chance to reverse the curse, with a series of tasks that set the journey in motion.

That would be more than enough plot to sustain most movies. But this musical's raison d’etre is its exploration of the happily-ever-aftermath of wish fulfillment, as the characters face the murky consequences of their moral compromises. The most frightening lesson is never piss off a Lady Giant (Frances de la Tour, as sparingly glimpsed as the shark in Jaws). But there are other takeaways regarding blame and responsibility as the survivors confront an unknown side of themselves revealed during their time in the woods.

Like the prior collaboration of Sondheim and Lapine, Sunday in the Park With George, this is a show whose distinct halves require a significant tonal shift that not every production navigates fluidly. Marshall does well enough, even if the momentum falters after the buoyancy and cleverness of the first hour. But that's also partly due to the thematic clutter of diffuse material that has always tried to cover more ideas than the fanciful conceit can fully support.

However, those reservations in no way diminish the charm, humor and poignancy of the overall experience. A key reward for the show's legions of fans will be the sophisticated treatment of the score, which is orchestrated by Jonathan Tunick and conducted by Paul Gemignani, both longtime Sondheim collaborators.

The cuts are invariably smart ones made for pacing reasons — with some lyrics reworked as dialogue and melodies repurposed as underscoring — but the majority of the songs are represented. And unlike Tim Burton's film of Sweeney Todd, which jettisoned the magnificent title ballad that sets the tone for the entire musical, the sacrifices are justifiable. The most missed of them will likely be "No More," sung by the Baker and his father, but its emotions are fully conveyed by Corden without slowing the late action.

Streep is quite wonderful, delivering something far richer than her karaoke turn in the clunky Mamma Mia! Her performances in the film adaptations of stage hits Doubt and August: Osage County are among her less remarkable work of recent years. But she reinvents this role from scratch, bringing powerful vocals, mischievous comedic instincts, bold physicality and raw feeling to the Witch. Her entrances and exits alone are priceless.

She also aces some of the musical's best songs: the furious waltz "Last Midnight"; the beautiful cautionary anthem "Children Will Listen"; and "Stay With Me," a wrenching plea to Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), the adopted daughter she has imprisoned in a tower, ostensibly for the girl's safety.

Perhaps even more than on stage, the muddled ways in which parents bestow their love are illustrated with touching compassion, whether it's the lengths the Baker and his Wife will go to have a child or the fierce protectiveness of Jack's mother, her affection often tempered with a cuff to the head. Even Cinderella's materialistic stepmother acts out of a crazed desire for the happiness of her daughters (Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch), a pair of odious airheads.

In the central roles, Corden and Blunt have disarming chemistry, in both the comic and romantic sense. He's sweet-natured, guileless and burdened by the sins of his father, while she's a shrewder type, willing to stray from the path. Kendrick has never been more luminous, and her big song, "On the Steps of the Palace," is among the highlights, performed as a moment of suspended time. Lapine's smart touch of having her deliberately leave behind a shoe remains a gem.

As the Prince who confesses, "I was raised to be charming, not sincere," Chris Pine is a hoot, preening and posing with self-satisfaction, and baffled that any maiden might resist him. Billy Magnussen is equally good as the Prince's younger brother, blinded by love for Rapunzel. Like campy escapees from some overheated bodice-ripper, the Princes compete to outdo each other in melodramatic intensity — and pecs — in the hilarious "Agony," sung while prancing about a rocky cascade.

The younger actors are excellent, both nailing their signature songs. Huttlestone captures the dreamy wonder and excitement of "Giants in the Sky," while Crawford (star of Broadway's recent Annie revival) is appealingly precocious. When she sings "I Know Things Now," you believe her.

The one actor lost in the shuffle is Johnny Depp as the Wolf. He looks perfect in costumer Colleen Atwood's Tex Avery-inspired lupine zoot suit, and salivates over his human dinner with gusto. But the role is an enjoyable cameo with little impact. And in an ugly CG sequence that jars stylistically with the rest of the movie, Marshall botches the detour into the Wolf's stomach to liberate his prey.

But elsewhere, the film is ravishing. Cinematographer Dion Beebe paints the widescreen canvas in seductive shadow, light and muted color, keeping the camera movement sedate unless its agility is in response to the music. Dennis Gassner's handsome production design evokes classic English fairy-tale illustration; the farmhouse where Jack and his mother live is just gorgeous. Atwood's costumes playfully mix time periods with an eye for character detail; her gown for the transformed Witch is a couture-drag knockout. And editor Wyatt Smith smoothly integrates dramatic scenes with songs, charging ahead from one number to the next without seeming rushed.

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Into the Woods reviews

Postby The Original BJ » Wed Dec 03, 2014 7:35 pm

Partly due to my enthusiasm for the source material, partly due to the fact that I still have PTSD from Nine, I went into the Into Woods movie prepared to grumble about how much it had been butchered. But, I have to say, I had a surprisingly enjoyable time. I don't think this screen mounting is anything bracing -- some of the harder edges of the show have been softened, and not everything about the adaptation works -- but I had a lot of fun, and I think audiences will really enjoy this one. I know most people have had a wait-and-see attitude with respect to its awards chances, but the Golden Globes will obviously bite big time, and given that I think it will be viewed as a mostly successful stage adaptation, a Best Picture Oscar nomination seems well within reach.

The best aspect of the movie, simply, is the chance to hear all those wonderful songs performed by (surprise!) a cast that's almost entirely up to the challenge of singing them. Much was made of Les Mis's attempts to capture vocal performance live -- it was almost impossible to determine whether or not that approach worked or not given that roughly half of that film's cast was deficient in the singing department. But here, the combination of musical theater performers and movie stars with singing chops results in a cast that really delivers in a crucial area, but one that rarely seems to be a priority in modern movie musicals. I also think Rob Marshall deserves credit for something significant -- nearly across the board, these actors find consistently interesting acting beats in their numbers, either delivering lyrics with unexpected humor, or a surprising physical gesture, etc. When one actor makes this kind of impression, it's easy to give credit to the performer, but when a whole cast is doing so, it's pretty clear a guiding force had a hand in it.

This is not to say that I think Marshall stages the musical numbers with the same level of invention that he did with Chicago. In that film -- an overall more exciting piece of moviemaking -- one song after another came along with staging I found consistently imaginative and surprising. I think Marshall does a decent enough job in this department with Into the Woods -- the numbers have an overall fluidity to them and nifty visual conceits pop up here and there. But few of the musical numbers feel as freshly conceived as the majority of songs in Chicago were.

As far as the script goes, it's a fairly faithful adaptation, with those stellar Sondheim lyrics preserved in all of their glory. But the first act is far better preserved than the second, and once the movie gets to the end of act one, some of the seams start to show. Understandably, the filmmakers needed to smooth over the transition between the mostly wrapped-up first act and the brand new issues of the second -- "Ever After" has been cut in attempt to accomplish this. But here, the movie really starts to rush through its narrative, and I think a major theme gets a bit muddled, that of the characters realizing that the "happily ever after" they thought they wanted didn't turn out to be quite as fulfilling as they hoped it would be. Without showing any passage of time, the first act barrels right into the second, and as a result, I didn't think all of the story beats quite made sense. (When Cinderella says "My father's house was a nightmare, your house was a dream. Now I want something in between," I thought, did she even spend A DAY living with the Prince?) The character of the Mysterious Man has been cut...except for when he appears in his act two reveal to the Baker (as a ghost, I presume?), an appearance which feels more random than anything else, because he hadn't been around at all before. And "No More" has been sadly excised, depriving the Baker of his big emotional number, and a fairly necessary cathartic resolution for that character, as the movie races to its finale.

Probably to no one's surprise -- this is a Disney movie after all -- some of the brutality has been lessened in translation. For starters, the body count isn't nearly as high as it was in the original stage show. But, more noticeably, the movie has a really bizarre hang-up about actually showing characters die -- multiple times, the movie just cuts away before anything really grisly happens, and then we just find out what happened to them later. Luckily, the major story points haven't been wildly altered to a significant degree -- certainly any unsuspecting viewer expecting something light and frothy is going to be caught off guard -- so I guess the glass half full attitude is just to be appreciative for that.

The design elements are hugely eye-catching, though I must confess to being a little bit iffy on certain aspects. I thought some of the visual effects looked surprisingly chintzy. Most of the costumes were hugely eye-catching...but The Wolf's zoot suit sticks out like a sore thumb as a bizarre choice that doesn't jive with anything else around it. And there were times when I wondered how small the woods set actually was -- it feels like half of the movie takes place in about the same three or four locations, and I could have used some more variety, though clearly there are sumptuous locales on display as well.

As for the cast...

MVP: Meryl Streep. I'm aware that by now people feel she gets awards attention by rote, but in this case, I don't think the bloggers were wrong to highlight her as a potential candidate. She's a howl throughout the first half of the movie -- finding a ton of wild humor in this big character -- but she shows quite a bit of range in this performance as well, with her moving act two ballad "Stay With Me" showing a more poignant side of The Witch, and ferocious rendition of "The Last Midnight" stopping the show completely. I know a lot of people aren't interested in seeing Streep as a Supporting Actress candidate -- and in theory, I'm not either -- but I don't think she'd be unworthy were she to receive a nomination.

Anna Kendrick: If there's any doubt that she's the movie musical genre's bright shining star, this should put it to rest. Cinderella isn't a tour de force role, but she's quite lovely throughout -- hugely poignant, but finding a lot of humor in the part along the way. Eager to see what she does with The Last Five Years coming up.

Emily Blunt: It's hard for anyone in this role to measure up to memories of Joanna Gleason, who took a not-dominant character and made her feel like the star of the whole show just through her tremendous warmth and good-humor. Blunt doesn't quite measure up...but she, too, is perfectly winning across the dramatic-comedic-musical spectrum. A Golden Globe nomination is assured. As for Oscar, if she made it in Best Actress, it would be as a coattails nominee in a thin field, but in this case, that sounds like more a pejorative than it should be, for an actress who has been on the verge of recognition for some time, and who contributes plenty of value to the character and film.

James Corden: Quite winning in his scenes with Blunt, most likely a Best Actor Golden Globe nominee, but no more, especially given that his eleven o'clock number has been excised.

Chris Pine/Billy Magnussen: Not really getting the buzz for Pine as a Supporting Actor candidate; he's basically a hambone throughout, funny, but not showing the weight or range usually required for an awards campaign. Plus, Magnussen is way funnier, and sings better too.

Tracey Ullman/Christine Baranski: Both a hoot, and add nice color to the margins of the movie.

Daniel Huttlestone/Lilla Crawford: Obviously less trained than their adult counterparts, but both are appealing, and well-directed in their solos.

Johnny Depp/Willy Wonka: The worst. Can we just agree that 80% of the time he's a completely grating presence? And it goes without saying that he's the weakest singer of the lot. At least he isn't around very much.

On the whole, not among the year's most exciting pieces of cinema or anything, but worthy simply for taking such a great stage piece and preserving a lot of what was memorable about it.


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