Tuesday, January 6, 2015

At First It Seems Delirious, But When Explained, It's Nothing Serious

[This poster struck me as outrageously sexist for a company with such progressive values.  So you can’t have a strong female lead without defining her through her male associates?  Is this supposed to imply that she’s her husband’s property or something?  Shame on you, Disney.  I suppose you also think women should pay for birth control with their own money, don’t you?  Kindly STFU and go back to the stone age where you belong.  The times we’re living in...]

The reason for all of Into the Woods’ most egregious and heinous and non-triumphant errors is encapsulated in the soundtrack’s liner notes, so penned by director and apparent airhead Rob Marshall.
“On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I was watching President Obama address the families of the victims.  In an effort to console them, he said with great compassion, “You are not alone… No one is alone.”  That moment stayed with me.  And soon after, I began to think that this beautiful message (unknowingly quoting one of Stephen Sondheim’s most poignant songs) might signal that it was indeed the right time to bring Into the Woods to the screen… The musical explores the consequences of wishes, the complexity of the parent/child relationship, greed, ambition, loss, and perhaps most importantly, unconditional love and the power of the human spirit.  In many ways, Into the Woods is a fairy tale for the 21st century… the comforting knowledge that we are not alone in this world gives us all that glimmer of hope.”
In another illuminating interview, Marshall confessed,
“The musical’s central message [to me is] about how you get through loss and move forward.  You do it as a community, rebuild and get through life.  I turned to John DeLuca, my partner, and I said, ‘It’s the right time for Into the Woods.’  Children today live in a much more fragile, unstable world than when I grew up.  The Giant in our piece is terrorism, school shootings, and even climate change.”
In essence, Rob Marshall is a walking exhibit in why we still need a reading comprehension section on the SAT, his interpretation of Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s dark fairy tale musical being so off-base and diluted through a dreamy left-wing filter that its realization on screen bears almost no resemblance to the source material.  Neither the book nor the lyrics nor the underlying expression of the music have anything to do with recovering from loss, the indomitability of the human will, or unconditional love, much less climate change, Newtown, or Obama’s “compassionate” comfort speech.  Far from leaving the viewer with feelings of hope or spiritedness, Into the Woods takes its audience’s preconceived expectations of a lighthearted fairy tale and unceremoniously smashes them in the 2nd act.  Rather than placating us with a familiar but bland and unsatisfying Happily Ever After, Lapine weaves a grim and weighty fable about the difference between perception and reality that leaves us questioning whether Happily Ever After is even possible in the real world.  His and Sondheim’s work is essentially pessimistic upon its denouement; Marshall’s and Disney’s work, alas, is essentially optimistic, and thus deprives the story of the very element that made it so original and mesmerizing in the first place.

If there’s any remnant of the Broadway production’s themes that’s preserved in the movie, it’s that you should be careful what you wish for because you may not desire it after all and most wishes have unforeseen consequences.  Every character in the plot in pining for something or another – be it a prince, a ball, a child, or youthful beauty – that they realize upon attainment is hardly as priceless or fulfilling as they’d initially and idealistically thought.  Cinderella wishes to go to the festival, and wishes, and wishes, to an obsessive degree, but is struck by how shallow and materialistic her wishes were upon fleeing from the palace and realizing just how little of substance she has to say about the legendary Prince of so many women’s affections.  “He’s a very nice prince,” she weakly tells the Baker’s Wife.  “And it’s a very nice ball… and the prince, well, he’s tall.”  “Did you dance?” the wife asks the scullery maid, to which she bluntly answers, “We did nothing but dance.”  Raised to be “charming, not sincere”, Cinderella’s prince turns out to be a serial philanderer, making love to another woman of royalty and the Baker’s Wife as soon as his chosen wife begins to bore him.  Ella’s tireless pursuit of a lifestyle she erroneously assumes will bring her happiness tragically leads her to ruin, disgrace, and anything but a typical Happily Ever After Disney resolution.  So too does Jack’s love of plundering riches result in the death of his mother, Rapunzel’s defiance and worldliness compel her own demise, and so on and so forth.  Such is the harsh reality of the human condition: life isn’t a fairy tale, happy endings are an illusion, and elders should be careful what they say because “children will listen”.

All that’s reduced to “Be careful what you wish for” (blatantly emblazoned on the main poster) and “It takes a village – #NoOneIsAlone” in Marshall’s and Obama’s dumbed-down, post-9/11 retelling of the story, which basically plays out like a poor man’s Coraline that substitutes the eerie and the macabre for whatever fairy tale trope was rehashed on the latest “Once Upon A Time”, itself a poor man’s fantasy mashup show. There’s nothing remotely profound within the movie’s narrative and whatever embers of brilliance it starts to carry over from the play are promptly stamped out by Disney’s need to make an ultimately feel-good picture for the holidays, sufficiently palatable to children but also tolerable to their parents.  Anybody who’s looked at early audience reviews can confirm this clearly didn’t work out the way Disney wanted, with the reactions split largely between those who appreciated the movie’s supposed dark and edgy undertones and those who begrudgingly thought the PG-rating didn’t reflect the (not very well depicted) sexual predator symbolism of Johnny Depp’s character, the steamy and “adulterous” kissing encounter in the woods (which, unlike in the musical, is only a kissing encounter), or such extreme (off-screen) violence as eye-gougings, toe amputations, people dying in general, and other things kids shouldn’t know about at all.  These are basically all the same people who complained about Man of Steel being too heavy and dark for a comic book movie, countered by the obligatory but equally imperceptive people who think themselves really mature and conscious for having the constitution to handle the “uncensored” and morbid material of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales.  Once again I’m going to be the dissenting vote: Into the Woods isn’t heavy, morbid, dark, or deep in any genuine way, not even relative to Disney’s other fairy tale adaptations, which offer much of the same conflict, peril, violence, and scary images.  Into the Woods is just kind of stupid.

A nice picture to get you through the second half of a ridiculously long critique.

Having established that the movie rather sucks as a story and a faithful adaptation, I suppose I could close the review right there, but movies don’t necessarily need a good story to be entertaining or well produced. Unfortunately, Marshall’s direction ensures it’s neither of those things, repeatedly employing boring and static camerawork, ungainly special effects, and aimless choreography.  There are some rare flashes of creative inspiration throughout the film, mainly the scenes of Depp’s Mr. Wolf howling at the sky, his face shrouded in silhouette and appearing creepily nonhuman, Cinderella freezing time on the palace steps to sing about her conflicting emotions, and the witch’s random but spectacular dissipation into some kind of tar pit.  But even this last shot is disrupted by bad placement of musical cues in the editing room; the image alone of the witch vanishing into oblivion is enough to convey the gravity of what the ensemble has lost, but the editor thinks we’re too stupid to process the visual and punctuates the camera movement with one final, completely gratuitous musical note.  Actually, Into the Woods has far too much music playing throughout it, particularly when the characters aren’t singing their feelings and the dialogue is supposed to take prominence.  Sondheim’s score already made extensive use of themes and instrumental textures to accompany the entrance of major characters, but for all his experience with musicals (Chicago, Nine, and an Annie remake for TV) Marshall still takes this technique overboard for a film, breaking out the fanfare almost whenever the Prince or his steward rides onto the scene and coating exchanges between the Baker and his Wife with generic background music.

The production design is decent enough.  Much of the film was shot on location and the fog-drenched woods certainly look real, if not really magical.  Still, the filmmakers deserve credit for not deferring to a cheap studio soundstage and poorly executed green screen, a la Mirror Mirror or every damned episode in the Neverland season of Once Upon A Time.  The effects works on the giants, however, almost made me long for the cheesy scaling effects used on Heidi Klum in Ella Enchanted, which was at least quirky in its low-budget way.  Speaking of Ella, the same girl who played one of the evil stepsisters in that picture is also playing an evil stepsister in this one, which I found distracting but not damning if only because her character as well as everyone else’s is so thinly drawn.

The cast is pretty much perfect in terms of acting and vocal ability, but the script doesn’t give them much of anything that’s particularly interesting to portray.  One of the upsides of directing a mainstream big-screen production on a $50M budget is having the resources to show action which wasn’t formerly feasible in a stage show that’s already too long for the majority of this generation’s consumers.  But rather than delving more deeply into the individual characters’ exploits or motivations, Into the Woods carves so much out of the original play that many lyrics and actions seem incomprehensible.  E.g., Red sings that Wolf “showed [her] things, many beautiful things, that [she] hadn’t thought to explore,” and that “he made [her] feel excited – well, excited and scared,” but the only interaction we observe between the two is a brief flower-picking episode in the woods.  Granted you can only take this obviously twisted relationship so far without demolishing the PG boundaries, but one would think a studio and an artist dedicated to crafting high art would put the logic of the characters’ development before concerns of age appropriateness.  In the extremely professional rendition of Woods I was privileged to see before Marshall took a swing at it, Red sensually approaches another wolf while singing of her lost innocence before slitting the beast’s throat in his trance.  This staging represents the character’s evolution both visually and lyrically, showing us Red’s newfound strength instead of asking us to take it on blind faith.  Marshall simply motions Red to prance around the Baker and assumes we’ll trust she’s speaking sincerely.  So too does the spontaneous disloyalty of Cinderella’s Prince feel unnatural in the film, as we’re given no evidence leading up to the scene with the Wife that such behavior is consistent with his personality, whereas this moral foible is shown more extensively in the play.  Nor do we get to see his meetings with Ella inside the festival, something omitted in the musical that would probably have provided crucial context for a film so barren of reasons for its key events.  Instead we’re treated to an overabundance of scenes concerning Rapunzel, who’s all but forgotten in the final act and comes across as a tool for fleshing out the Witch.

Into the Woods wants to be an uplifting epic of hope and redemption but it’s hard to summon much joy seeing so many competent performers so utterly wasted.  Anna Kendrick makes a lovely Cinderella, vocally and otherwise – as my crazy, unrealistic 19-year-old friends will unanimously testify –, but an incredibly dull one all the same, while Chris Pine as her prince proves he’s as good at singing as he is at sitting in a chair and barking orders to crewmates, which is about as captivating as the role he plays here. Emily Blunt is good as the Wife, though it’s the kind of the performance that’ll leave you thinking, “Who is that lady?  Oh, the commander from Edge of Tomorrow!  She was so awesome in that movie!”  The same is true of Meryl Streep and Johnny Depp, who gets maybe twice as much screen time as he did in the trailers.  At least he can sing, and the music is truly the only reason you should even consider watching this, though I wouldn’t recommend letting the movie sour your opinion of the album.  Then again, maybe you’re one of those suckers who think that Frozen’s soundtrack is the pinnacle of modern musical composition, in which case you’d probably find Sondheim’s polyphonic rhythms and fast-paced lyrics confusing and non-catchy.  Just let it go.

If you wanted to see a revisionist, whitewashed version of Into the Woods with liberal doses of Hope and Change sprinkled atop the final chapter, or if you didn’t even care about the Broadway show to begin with, then Into the Woods will probably offer enough attractive stars in glittery costumes to amuse you for a tedious two hours.  If you care at all about thought-provoking storytelling or strong character development, then Into the Woods is just another addition to the wastebin of Disneyfied faerie stories, which is an immensely more depressing plot twist than any of the characters’ fates.  Would that somebody had fed this to the same giant who nearly devoured the narrator in the Broadway play, the narrator who actually served a purpose in the framework and didn’t exist solely to read the action that’s already happening on stage.

I wish.

Funny story: I thought I was being really horrorshow clever twisting this Cinderella quote around on the filmmakers.  Somehow I didn’t see how clever I was being until the picture was done.   I am good.

Trailer reviews (with bonus reviews from Edge of Tomorrow and Interstellar, which I’ll probably hold off reviewing until closer to the video release date)
The Gambler – I’m still recovering from what Mark Wahlberg and his writers did to the Transformers franchise, but this looks boring regardless.
Fast Seven – Cars falling out of planes, buses falling off of cliffs, girls falling out of clothes – yeah, it’s another Fast and Furious movie.  The opening looks pretty cool, though.
Chappie – So this is really just a rehash of that other Hugh Jackman Rock Em Sock Em robots movie by way of Elysium’s art direction with a weird South-African rapper duo thrown into the mix.  Been there, seen that.
The Avengers: Age of Ultron – I honestly wasn’t too excited for another Avengers movie until this came out, but what action movie fan doesn’t want to see giant Iron Man take on the Hulk?
The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies – Enough is enough.  I have had it with these money-grubbing franchise flicks on this mind-throttling Hollywood train.  From this point forward I refuse to indirectly validate these tripartite or dipartite features with my words.
Mockingjay Part 1 – Ditto.  But seriously, did the Capitol firebomb the movie’s marketing campaign or something?
Sex Tape – A married couple determines to spice up their sex life by recording a video of themselves getting intimate, which presumably would give them the opportunity afterwards to pleasure themselves by watching themselves doing it instead of just cutting to chase Jase and actually doing it.  Upon completion of said video, couple immediately regrets having made it and resolves to delete it later, which kind of defeats the purpose of making the tape in the first place, but an automatic backup procedure spoils their plans and releases the sordid video to the web, prompting our aspiring filmmakers to embark on a heartwarming and hilarious retrieval mission replete with Siri and cloud jokes.  On the plus side, Jason Segel absolutely nails the creepy-guy persona with that “helloooo”, a noise that’ll certainly haunt you throughout the comedy, your ride home, and your very dreams should you throw your money away on this pathetic tape.
Get On Up – Watch the casts of The Help and the secular, liberal Jackie Robinson movie sing your grandparents’ favorite music, dance, jive, drop double-negatives, and generally leave their stupid whitey record producers in the dust.
The Expendables 3 – The epic conclusion brought to you by writer Sylvester Stallone and a bunch of old-timers reminiscing about their youth.
Tomorrowland – The main actress is kind of lame from what this shows, but otherwise a very well constructed teaser trailer, plopping us in the middle of what could be the final shot of Portal 2 while interweaving shots of the mundane with something very fantastical and strange.  Not counting Marvel productions, this is probably the most intriguing trailer Disney’s thrown together since the Tron: Legacy reveal.
Nicholas Sparks movie with Jennifer Lawrence lookalike, the name of which escapes me – What is this editor trying to sell me?  The reverby, ethereal music by BANKS cues me in that this some kind of sizzling drama, ripe with jealousy and scandal, but then I’m told it’s “from the producer of Fault In Our Stars” and I can’t respect any of it, even with the love stories criss-crossed by Fate and the oh so sappy Hozier song.
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 – Paul Blart is back and the stakes are higher than ever before with a larger hotel/mall to defend, more bad guys, and everything else you would instinctively expect from a pointless sequel to Paul Blart: Mall Cop.  And no, the final gag of the commercial is not a total copy of the final gag from the first Paul Blart commercial.  You see, in Paul Blart Mall Cop 1, Kevin James slides short of the planter due to his weight and has to push himself forwards to hide behind it, but in Paul Blart Mall Cop 2, he overcompensates by neglecting the slippery floor and shoots out ahead of the planter, pushing himself backwards to rectify his error. The editor only wanted you to think they recycled the same joke.
Jupiter Ascending – New, delayed film from the Wachowski Brothers looks like a spectacularly generic and eye-boggling space opera about a chosen one from earth having to bail some alien civilization out of a tight spot.  Begs to be taken seriously, but with Channing Tatum at the helm it’s just so hard.
Black or White – This is the movie about the selfish, crazy old white man who wants to steal the little black girl away from her rightful black daddy, a drug addict, because he’s scared of those people.  “Do you dislike black people?” the impartial judge asks him, to which he replies, “Not all of them.”  RACIST!!!  The moral profundity we’re supposed to glean, too important to leave in the film, is helpfully pound signed for our consideration.  LoveHasNoColor.
Martin Luther King Jr. movie with Oprah and rap music #marchon – We get it, already.  America is racist.  Gaw.  How many movies do you need to pound this message into our skulls?

Proceeds likely going to the #NojusticeNopeace “peace” fund.  Sure to give a very well-rounded, provocative, human portrayal of Mr. King’s life and legacy.

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