Into The Woods

As we wrap up 2014, we take a look at Sondheim’s famous musical Into the Woods, reimagined on screen. Directed by Rob Marshall, the film stars Anna Kendrick, Meryl Streep, and Chris Pine. It is Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material.

Into the Woods takes some of the most famous fairy tales of all time and ties them all together by an original story featuring a baker (James Corden), his wife (Emily Blunt), and their attempt to lift the curse of a wicked witch (Streep).

5.5 out of 10

I am, unashamedly so, a theater kid. If you asked me what home was to me, I would tell you that home was ‘the four building’, the area of my school where the auditorium is. I’ve helped to direct numerous shows, from A Chorus Line to Hello, Dolly! But I’ll be honest, I’m not all too familiar with Sondheim’s stage version of Into the Woods. This was the first time I’d experienced the entire thing from start to finish. However, I do know the basic gist of the story and Rob Marshall’s film stayed pretty true to it, hold for one or two parts. But this is a blog reviewing movies and not plays, so of course I have to stay on course. Therefore, I’m going to try and look at it through two different lenses: one as a theatergoer and the other as a moviegoer.

wolf and red

Looking at it compared to the show, the movie is generally the same. The main characters are the same, the plot is the same, the music is mostly the same. But there are a few differences. First, the two Princes, played wonderfully by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen, are utilized a lot less than they are in the show and a lot less than I would have liked. There is an entire subplot cut out about the Princes having affairs that really would have given the movie the humor it lacked while also making the ending more sensible. Secondly, there is a character in the show named ‘The Mysterious Man’. Now here’s a bit of a spoiler for the stage version, but the Mysterious Man ends up being the Baker’s father, and plays a huge part in the Baker’s motivations and his character in general. This motivation is highly lacking in the film, and while Corden is still very solid, he is definitely not helped by this vacant hole in character motivation.

A friend described a Sondheim show to me as “Love it, love it, when the hell will this be over, love it!” For me, it was just ‘when the hell will this be over’ the entire time. It felt begrudgingly long. The first two-thirds of the movie, which follow the first act of the show, was good but not great. But the last third, which follows the second act of the show, was where the film completely lust its luster and the little interest I had left totally disappeared. The second act of the show is dark and that is why it is so good. The last third of the film lacked this emotional depth, part of the reason I lost interest. 

cinderella

Now that’s looking at it compared to the stage version. As a movie, Into the Woods does a lot of things right. The set design, costume design, makeup, and all those visual effects are downright stunning. Everything is spot on in creating such a perfect fairy tale universe. Marshall, an avid supporter of practical effects over CGI, uses real set pieces and they look great. Kendrick and Pine reportedly got lost on set one day because the set pieces were so gargantuan to the point where they lost their way in the production building.

The cast is also pretty remarkable. I don’t have a complaint against any one of them. Chris Pine was surprisingly great and one of the only sources of humor. Anna Kendrick was stunning and the two kids, Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, were both cute and charming. James Corden was really good, despite his character being slightly ruined like I mentioned. Johnny Depp, though criminally underused, was solid. Meryl Streep, despite her character being more whiny and pathetic than wicked, was good as always. Though, to be honest, I feel like some of the laud she is getting is because she’s Meryl Streep rather than her being incredible. SHADE THROWN! She’s still pretty good.

rapunzel

Now as I said, I got really bored and uninterested and I think this is due to Rob Marshall’s failure at nailing the right tone. The casual moviegoer never thinks about tone as to why they didn’t like the movie, but it really is the reason they don’t. Marshall was going for family friendly (hence the PG rating) and didn’t go far enough with the dark stuff, which, like I said, is part of the reason the second act is so great. Anyhow, since he’s going for this light-hearted family friendly tone but is also using darker lighting and eerier camera shots to do so, they conflict and leave the audience stuck in limbo; “should I be laughing or crying? Scared or happy? I don’t know, maybe I just won’t do either”. That, mixed with failed attempts at humor, made the movie pretty boring.

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When talking with other theater people, a lot seemed to really enjoy the movie. They said it was true to the stage version and the performances were great. And taking Into the Woods and adapting it into a film is a tall task. I was turned off by it’s length and its inability to justify the depth of Sondheim’s stage version, but this should not stop you from seeing it. The fact that Rob Marshall cast away the dark tone to gain younger viewers is annoying. However, it is a visual spectacle and all the singing and acting is pretty great.  It is a better movie than it is adaptation, so if you don’t care for it as an adaptation, then it is definitely worth a view.
~Vig

7.5 out of 10

I’m not much of a musical person, both in the instrument and stage-show sense. I played the violin through ninth grade but stopped because I had to face the fact that I can’t keep a beat or play the right tone 95% of the time so I just mess the whole thing up. And I can’t sing worth a damn either (though in my humble opinion my falsetto is spot-on).

jack bean

How odd, then, that I enjoyed this movie significantly more than Vig, the theater director who is around musicals for hours each day. Maybe there are some theater sins the director or actors committed that I just didn’t pick up on, but Rob Marshall has directed multiple musicals before and had working with him the man who originally penned the Into the Woods score, so I doubt that. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that we sat three rows back from the screen and had to crane our necks the entire time.

meryl

What follows are my observations as a movie, not necessarily musical, fan.

Into the Woods is impeccably cast. We knew Anna Kendrick had serious vocal talent from her role in Pitch Perfect, and she delivered yet again as Cinderella. Lilla Crawford and Daniel Huttlestone, as Red Ridinghood and Jack were both fantastic, but again we already expected great performances from them given Huttlestone’s role in the film adaptation of Les Miserables just a few years ago and Crawford’s titular role in the Broadway show “Annie”. It was the typically dramatic or comedic celebrities that had surprising vocal strength that really wowed me. Meryl Streep as the Witch had numerous solos, and though at first it seemed as if the directors were trying to hide her voice, by the end she was alternatively belting out some songs and crooning others. She was great. Chris Pine, as Prince Charming, was another one of those actors who was pleasantly surprising. He often provided much needed levity and comedic breaks. Even Johnny Depp was fantastic as the Wolf, underused as he was. His voice was just a little bit gravelly, which actually worked for his character as the sly but dangerous wolf. All these characters were great, but Emily Blunt was my favorite. I was already a fan of hers after watching Edge of Tomorrow, among other things, and the fact that she’s married to John Krasinski from “The Office” just makes me love her that much more. Objectively, though, she sang beautifully and, like Pine, provided that comic break right when the movie started to seem a bit too ridiculous. Most of these funny moments came when she poked fun at the sheer silliness of Into the Woods as a play and as a movie.

baker and wife

I’m having a little trouble reviewing this next part. I want to talk about the plot but have arrived at an issue: do I fault the movie for the straining plot, or can I not take away points from it given that the movie’s plot was tied directly to the play’s plot and thus couldn’t fix its length and repetition? I think the movie has to be taken as a whole, and so its ties to the musical have to be ignored for the moment, so here goes:

The first two thirds of the movie were great. I thoroughly enjoyed being introduced to some of the most iconic characters in the fairy tale world and the A-list actors portraying them. The songs were catchy and groovy, the jokes were frequent, and the characters’ banter was hilarious. Then the movie seemed to end, albeit in in a corny fashion. The character’s had run their course and the running time had reached an hour and a half – the perfect timing for a kids’ movie and a musical that will start grating on the nerves before long. But then the play just kept going, and it was bereft of but a few songs for the entire remaining 40 minutes. It was just the actors falling into caricatures that quickly grew tiring, and that enchanted feeling that was palpable in the theater up to that point was shattered by people shifting in their seats and checking their phones. What Into the Woods had was lost, but again, how much of that is to blame on the moviemakers and how much is to blame on the source material?

prince

Ultimately the final third of the movie is not able to drag down the ethereal first two thirds, and with the vocal and dramatic talent that the film boasts, Into the Woods will prove to be a massive box-office success, even if it comes away relatively empty this awards season. It would be a shame if none of these actors get nominated for an Oscar (Blunt and Streep were nominated for Golden Globes, but in the diluted comedy and musical category), but don’t expect them to take golden statues away from any of the many accomplished actresses vying for Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress. Into the Woods is also nominated for Best Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy, but it won’t usurp the superior Birdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel. Then again, the Golden Globes are as much about star power as cinematic power, and Into the Woods has star power in excess.
~Will

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Top Five

Up next is Chris Rock’s comedy about a comedian, Top Five, starring himself, Rosario Dawson, and Gabrielle Union. It is Rated-R for strong sexual content, nudity, crude humor, language throughout and some drug use.

Top Five follows Andre Allen (Rock), once hailed as the world’s funniest man, who is now trying to change his image and become a serious actor. This transformation is in response to his reality-TV star fiancée (Union) talking him into broadcasting their wedding on her TV show, something he finds little to no passion in doing. Following his last-minute preparations for the wedding is ambitious reporter and interviewer Chelsea Brown (Dawson). They spend the day in New York together, and unexpectedly, both Allen and Brown begin to rediscover their true selves in each other’s company.

6.5 out of 10

The first thing that came to mind after I finished watching Top Five was that it is essentially Birdman, except with black actors, cruder jokes, a poorer script, and they replace a superhero actor trying to change his image with a comedic actor who is trying to change his image (They are both trying to become serious actors, by the way). Birdman comparisons aside, Top Five has some good moments, but is diluted by its tendency to go too far with the jokes, so much that they almost serve no purpose, in both comedic and intrinsic value. In other words, the jokes are neither funny nor do they help convey the message of the film, one that is so heavy-handed it makes you nauseous.

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Chris Rock is essentially playing himself in this movie (flashback to the Birdman review where I said the same exact thing). Yeah Chris Rock’s funny, but he used to be hilarious. His stand up was incredible. Check out Bring the Pain if you haven’t already. My point is, Chris Rock used to be funny and now he’s not really, like his character in the movie. And that allowed us to get a good amount of Rock’s classic comic voice in there, which was really refreshing to see. But let’s not lie to ourselves, he has never been a great actor. So while he was solid in the role, his dramatic scenes certainly left for something to be desired.

However, for Rock to directly spoof himself is pretty intelligent script writing, which there is, admittedly, quite a bit of in Top Five. Comedy is extremely difficult to write, and a lot of the jokes are really impressively written. But, alas, there is a fine line between the funny jokes and ridiculously crude jokes. For example, there is a group sex scene (not much nudity shown but still pretty weird). It’s in slow motion. The ‘vocals’ are pretty intense. There are pillow feathers everywhere. It was a good five minutes long. My point is, it was funny at first, but just became too much. The film demolishes the line between funny and crude. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with crude, it’s just that it was one ridiculous sex joke after another. 

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Independent of the graphic sex jokes are the jokes dominated with statements about race and gender. And by dominated, I mean they are shooting at us point blank with statements about race and gender. And I don’t have any problem with a movie making a statement about either of those issues, I just think that their placement was unwarranted and pointless in a movie that ended up focusing on true love and doing what you want. All these jokes did was make me awkwardly cough/laugh once or twice. If I, a teenage boy who laughs at literally everything, could not be entertained by this movie, then something’s wrong. I just became uninterested. 

top five 1

On the other hand, I’m not going to pretend like this movie was terrible. It is probably the best comedy of the year and by a considerable margin too. And clearly I’m in the minority as most people seemed to enjoy the movie. There was certainly some good writing and the cameos by Jerry Seinfeld, Whoopi Goldberg, and Adam Sandler were hilarious. The storytelling is pretty solid too, as it all takes place in one day and integrates flashbacks throughout to help tell the story. But where this film fell short for me was in its tendency to go too far. There is no doubt that Top Five has solid moments, but in the end, it is just a mediocre film with jokes that have the potential to be great but instead fall flat.
~Vig

5.0 out of 10

Comedies are supposed to be funny. Anchorman is funny. Dodgeball is funny. 21 Jump Street is funny. Even Birdman, which is equal parts dramatic and satirical, is funny. Top 5, simply speaking, is not funny.

The funniest part of the night certainly wasn’t the movie. It was probably Vig almost getting denied access to the theater for being under 18 (despite his nice beard) and the movie attendants giving me a suspicious look as I very conspicuously walked into the theater with the outline of a water-bottle in my coat. From that point, the night went downhill.

Maybe Chris Rock’s cultural references just don’t resonate with me (I’m doing my best not to be racist) and I just don’t get his humor. Certainly other people in the theater thought it was funny, as the other 30 or so viewers were laughing hysterically through much of the 1 hour 41 minute running time. Some parts were truly hysterical, which Vig would probably disapprove of me talking about here. There were a few or so of those moments, but that was about it in terms of comedy. The rest was a soppy love-story mixed with frequent attempts at one-liners that ultimately flopped, resulting in a slightly above-average romantic comedy. And for everybody who’s seen a rom com, we all know how they are going to end, and the journey there is never particularly entertaining.

I want to return to my comparison to Birdman for a minute. Birdman is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, second maybe only to Nightcrawler. (I have yet to see many of the probable Oscar movies though). The similarities between Top 5 and Birdman are striking. Both deal with the trappings of fame and a main character struggling to regain the respect of the performing arts community. In both films, the story is at least partially based on the lead actors. In Birdman we see Michael Keaton’s character looking to mount a Broadway show and step out of the shadow of an iconic superhero he played decades earlier. This is also Keaton’s first well-received starring role since Batman. In Top 5, Chris Rock plays a man looking to rebuild his reputation as one of the funniest men in America. Chris Rock may be looking to shed his association with such failures as Grown Ups and regain the respect he had during his stand up days.

Unfortunately for Top 5, these similarities to one of the best films of the year simply highlight its shortcomings. Birdman is superior in every single way. It boasts better star power, with Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, and Naomi Watts among others, whereas Top 5, although laden with comedy power, including Chris Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, and Kevin Hart, does not have the acting chops to match up with Birdman.

Top 5 isn’t as funny as Birdman either, despite its identity as more of a true comedy than Birdman. Top 5 looks to rise on outrageous humor and one liners, which often fall flat, whereas Birdman’s satirical comedy is built up and fanned over the course of the movie.

Birdman’s criticisms of fame and Hollywood’s cash grabs seem more authentic too. Whereas Top 5’s satire is buried under mountains of romantic comedy crud, Birdman is biting and hilarious from start to finish.

The only place where Top 5 and Birdman don’t differ significantly is reviews. Top 5 boasts a 91% on Rotten Tomatoes while Birdman holds a slightly higher 94%. Their Metacritic scores are quite similar as well. For the life of me I cannot figure out why critics are unable to recognize Birdman’s inherent superiority. I was actually checking my phone constantly during Top 5 to see just how much longer I was going to have to be in that theater, whereas during Birdman I was fully absorbed. Expect to see Birdman take home some major hardware this awards season, starting with a significant number of awards in the seven categories in which it is nominated, including Best Picture Comedy, Best Actor (Michael Keaton), and just about everything else you can think of. Expect Top 5 to be left out in the cold, exactly where it belongs.

~Will

SAG and Golden Globe Nominations

Hey all,

In case you didn’t know, the SAG (Screen Actor’s Guild) and Golden Globe Nominations came out Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

You can find the SAG Nominations here and the Golden Globe Nominations here.

Birdman leads SAG with four nominations, followed by Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, and The Imitation Game all of which garnered three nominations. Meanwhile, HBO leads all TV networks with fourteen of the TV-based SAG nominations.

Birdman also leads the Golden Globes with seven nominations, followed by Boyhood and The Imitation Game, which each earned five nominations. For TV, Fargo leads the field with five nominations, one greater than True Detective.

We don’t do predictions for either, but I see Birdman being a big winner, with Michael Keaton taking home awards in both, and the film winning “Outstanding Performance by a Cast” for the SAGs, while being named Best Motion Picture-Comedy/Musical at the Golden Globes. Otherwise, look for Julianne Moore for Still Alice and J.K. Simmons for Whiplash to be big winners at both.

Whiplash

This week, Zach and Vig takes a look at the music-drama WhiplashDamien Chazelle’s second feature film. Starring Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, and Melissa Benoist, Whiplash is rated R for strong language including some sexual references.

Young and talented drummer Andrew (Teller) is attending a prodigious music school and is taken under the wing of one of the most well-respected teachers at the school, Terence Fletcher (Simmons). Fletcher never relents in his abuse towards the students, torturing Andrew on his journey to become the greatest drummer of all time.

9.5 out of 10

I’d seen Miles Teller in two things before Whiplash: The Spectacular Now and That Awkward Moment. In both films, he appeared to play the same whiny and lazy character. Not only that, but he wasn’t really great in either of them. There’s no doubt that he has potential, but so far he hasn’t really shown it. However, Whiplash is an intense, meaningful and well crafted story of determination and hard-work, greatly due to Teller’s stellar performance.

Teller, as aspiring jazz drummer Andrew Nieman, is great. While his tendency to act like a kid is apparent at times, Teller’s intensity is what this movie needs in a lead. He holds his own against J.K. Simmons (who I’ll get to in a second) and never relents. Every decision Nieman makes, even if it is a tad extreme, is believable and interesting. Teller practiced drumming for hours for this role, and let me tell you, it’s pretty damn good. Overall, Teller does a really solid job.

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However, I’m not head over heels about Teller simply because he had to go head to head with J.K. Simmons, who was absolutely incredible. Channeling his inner Sergeant Hartman (from Full Metal Jacket), Simmons, as Terence Fletcher, is relentlessly entertaining as a determined, unconventional, and excessively harsh music teacher. From beginning to end, he is the most entertaining character of this film. If you haven’t seen the “Rushing or Dragging” clip, it’s breath-taking. This transition from nice guy to absolute asshole is the greatest sequence in this film and is one of the greatest individual film scenes I’ve seen in a while. Simmons is what makes the movie great, and I think and hope he wins Best Supporting Actor.

While the acting is really good, the technical aspects are also spot on. The cinematography adapts to fit the pacing of the movie, specifically the fast paced rehearsals or performances. In the final scene, camera shots flow in and out of the drum set, highlighting each drum and cymbal while scrupulously displaying the sweat and blood that pour onto Andrew’s drumset. The shots were unique, capturing the art of drumming in stunning fashion. Meanwhile, the lighting is consistently dark but sets an appropriate gritty tone. It uses shadowing to its advantage, portraying Andrew as the star by lighting him while keeping Fletcher in the shadows, and sometimes vice versa. It isn’t groundbreaking, nor is it going to be winning a ton of awards, but it is still great work by Damien Chazelle.

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Alas, this film was not perfect. There were certainly some parts that were undeveloped, to say the least. Actually, there was only one real issue, and that was with the character of Nicole, Andrew’s girlfriend. Melissa Benoist wasn’t bad at all, my gripe is more with the way she was written. Rather than being an actual character, Nicole was more of an object that was used to get different things out of  Andrew’s character. At first, she was used to show a different side of him: rather than being a drummer 24/7 he actually had a life. But in her next scene, she was used to show how obsessed Andrew was with drumming, really the exact opposite of the first scene. And the worst is that I think there was a lot of potential to utilize her character so much more efficiently. Instead, her two scenes left a bad taste in my mouth because her second, and last scene, was really kind of random and ultimately pointless because there had been no build up. And towards the end, when he *spoiler* kind of tries to get her back, I felt no sympathy.

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But in the end, there is no doubt that Whiplash is an excellent film. Music is a volatile yet beautiful thing, and this film shows both sides of it. You can love it more than anything in the world, but it can also drive you to the brink of insanity. This film’s success is derived from the passion and intensity of both lead actors, interwoven with the intimidating task of discovering the answer to one not-so-simple question: What does it take to be great? The answer, in the end, is Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons and the power of sheer human will.
~Vig

9 out of 10

Whenever I have a pretty hard-line teacher, I’m torn up. On one hand, they are pushing me past my limits and slapping me with genuine truths about the competitiveness I’m going to face in the real world relentlessly. But on the other, they’re, well, in the most eloquent word choice of my career, dicks. At least, in the moment they are.

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But whenever I’m leaving a really strict teacher’s class (Thankfully, I haven’t encountered too many) I almost always find myself wanting to impress them and defy their view of me. There’s a nagging thought that throbs in my head: what can I do to win this guy over? Whether its about passing those high standards they set or stickin’ it to ‘em, that aspiration to stand out is always there.

Whiplash is an ode to this- prepare yourself – whiplash in thought. Like the drums its main character thrashes, it’s a surprisingly fast-paced picture, filled with crashes and booms.

And there’s simply no getting around this: it’s damned brutal. This is coming from me here. The guy who loves Tarantino, has always had high tolerance for gore and did not even squinch once during Gone Girl. Whiplash tight-ropes the line between “amazingly real and impactful” and “mean and brutal” (You know, the one Darren Aronofsky plays jump-rope with) and it luckily most leans towards the latter. But there are charged, charged scenes in this thing with some (Somewhat questionable but afforded) brutal twists and abrupt turns.

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Who navigates these sharp-curving courses? The actors of course! And this movie has got some terrific ones. Teller (Whom I’ve honestly never heard of before this, sorry) entrusted to play an ambitious character without being arrogant. This is yet another line the movie straddles with astounding ease: Teller’s character can, occasionally, come off as selfish but his actor plays this role so that we mainly see a student chasing his dream (Which has been distorted by a startlingly competitive atmosphere).

Simmons delivers one of those performances that I can say so much about yet so little at the same time: it nearly speaks for itself completely but its so polished, layered and well-done that I’m tempted to dedicate the entire review to it. I’ll give it a paragraph. Remember that “whiplashing” feeling I talked about with strict teachers? I had flashbacks. I sat in disbelief at how well he can evoke the conflicted feelings (and suspense!) a strict teacher often commands.

Meanwhile the directors and editors are there to make music exciting. When I heard of this and one of my friends raved to me that it was “incredibly exciting”, I kind of laughed it off in my head. Yet my friend wasn’t lying. I compared the pacing to the drum sets played in this film and the editing completely compliments it. Percussion is no background score for this film: it’s the heart of the band, one that hammers with an undying excitement as the plot increasingly closes in. The music is entrancing and intense-just like the class it’s played in.

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If I had to assign one arching idea to Whiplash its the conflict between talent and education. How much talent can we squeeze out of ourselves and what is it in the first place for that matter? When did arts become so gruelling? I remember talking to my a group of colleagues about those grad schools that teach film, art and music and asking whether it was a true way to go about discovering your talents ($50k to have a professor discover them for you is a little steep) and one guy capped it off with this single, albeit arguable conclusion:

“If you find yourself trying really hard and impressing others, then it stops being art.”

Bonus: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqUq2Da7d5c

(Couldn’t resist)
~Zach

Like Whiplash? Hate it? Let us know in the comment section below!