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.

into the woods

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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Transcendence

Hey all, this week we’ll be looking at cinematographer Wally Pfister’s feature film Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Kate Mara, and Morgan Freeman. It is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action, bloody images, strong language, and sensuality.

Transcendence follows Dr. Will Caster (Depp) and his wife Evelyn (Hall) as they create a machine that is all-knowing, while combining it with the full range of human emotions. His experiment, a very controversial one, makes him the target of many anti-technology terrorist groups. In their attempt stop Caster, they instead motivate him to become a participant in his own experiment. Will slowly develops an unhealthy desire for power and knowledge that makes it seemingly impossible to stop him.

4.5 out of 10

Reviews of this have been mostly negative, and I can understand why. We’ve all seen those extremely complex movies that are just too much for us to comprehend, and Transcendence was actually looking like it would avoid being one of those movies. The concept is so great in theory. If anything, it’s extremely original and let’s be honest, Hollywood has lacked in that area of recent. The originality, along with Johnny Depp’s capabilities led us to believe this was something real special. Not to mention it was directed by Wally Pfister, the main cinematographer for Christopher Nolan. Damn, this movie had so much potential. And I think that’s the reason the reviews were so negative; It just could have been so much better.

The cinematography was beautiful, and there was an abundance of fantastic visual sequences. There were some fantastic shots, no doubt the work of an experienced cinematographer. However, the struggle was with the purpose of these shots. Pfister kind of threw in random shots of plants and stuff just to show off his ability to work with a camera. It was visually stunning, but completely unnecessary. Didn’t really help with moving the film forward at all. It was all just for effect, and while that was really appealing, it was kind of just random and showboaty. 

The screenplay was mediocre at best. The characters, like this movie, had so much potential. Depp’s character in particular had the opportunity to be so much more interesting that he actually was. Most of the time he was just there, not really doing or saying much that added to his character. There was so much more to explore with Caster. Depp did the best he could with such a poorly written character, so i guess that’s a positive. Morgan Freeman was just Morgan Freeman, as always. Rebecca Hall wasn’t bad either, her character wasn’t overly exciting as well. She was kind of just a pawn from beginning to end, and she really could have been so much more. I guess that seems to be the theme of this review.

I was really waiting for something super intense to happen, but it never happened. The whole movie was building action that just turned out to be bland. Nothing exciting or memorable ever happened that changed the mood or the direction of the film. It was all too gradual for the sci-fi thriller that it was supposed to be. Though it was supposed to be a thought provoking, mind enthralling thriller, it could have used a moment of intense action and extreme emotion, but there really wasn’t. It was all pretty lame to be honest. I guess that’s the whole reason the movie felt pretty boring to me.

This movie was no doubt supposed to make you think, and for a minute there, it did. I was honestly forced to think about what this movie had to say, but the only problem was, it didn’t last. I didn’t really feel enthusiastic about it enough to care for more than five minutes. The message was way too clear-cut. It was obvious what they were trying to do. They were obviously trying to question technology and its benefit, or lack thereof, on society. I’m pretty sure they asked it, in those exact words. Be more discrete!

This movie had so much potential which is why it is so disappointing. It fell short in so many categories. It was just so mediocre. Even the cinematography some how fell up short, in a way. The more and more I think about this movie, the more and more I realize how dumb it is. Poor Johnny Depp.
~Vig

5.5 out of 10

Science fiction is a hell of a genre.

In fact, it’s probably the strongest sub-category of drama one can hope for. The average sci-fi movie, with just the right amount of characters and a myriad of CGI (Maybe too much in some cases) could tell us a lot about our relationship with science in a very negative (See any time-travel movie) or positive (See…Matrix, maybe?) way. Most often, it lands neatly between with the perils and problems balanced by the endless possibilities.

Transcendence is an….interesting film about robotics and AI. We watch a scientist named Will slowly become accustomed to a new robot body but, you guessed it, things get sour when the limitations of artificial-intelligence are dramatically pushed to the edge by experimentation and so on and so on and so on.

In that respect, Transcendence’s story is pretty standard. Nothing bad, nothing good. It’s a typical sci-fi story if you boil it down. But part of me thinks that Transcendence lost a lot of interesting things in its leap from page to screen. Its the kind of premise that somebody like Isaac Asimov would have cradled but Hollywood suffocated to a point.

Start with the good stuff, shall we? Transcendence DOES have a lot of interesting things going on. It’s been done a good amount of times but plots where humans are somehow rebuilt as computers and how other humans related to those compersons are interesting. There are a lot of questions there: is that computer a person if they feel? Are those emotions genuine? Are our emotions genuine or are they the product of a bunch of patterns that can easily be repeated?

So Transcendence’s story has a lot of weight to it but does it have the right tools? Yes, yes it does. Poor Johnny Depp continually tries hard but never gets the right stage. And you never can go wrong with Morgan Freeman among others (Morgan Freeman has really embraced the Morgan Freeman Effect). The score, as many a IMDB reviewer has remarked, is moving.

freeman transcends

Yet Transcendence has some squirming flaw that took me a while to name exactly: it’s a smorgasbord. A heap of filtered sci-fi tropes of the past couple of years. Aside from that, there’s trouble with whether its an encouraging piece for technology or not. I’m not asking for a straight answer but the film can’t quite balance the positives and negatives of science as much as it wants to (It alternates between showing the merits of AI Will’s plans along with its more sinister elements with noticeable unease). Meanwhile, the characters are…eh. There’s not too much to say. Most of them are cogs that gear the story further. A character in a sci-fi film could be more than a cog but, here, they’re just kind of going through the story.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Otm4RusESNU. And that disappoints me. With some proper balance, more character development and execution this could have worked very well. But those holes are huge, gaping holes. Enough to make its solid grounding unsteady.
~Zach

IMDB: 6.3
Metacritic: 42
Rotten Tomatoes: 19%