Tuesday, December 30, 2014

INTO THE WOODS -- My review

This is a rave review for a movie that a lot of people didn’t like. It’s based on a musical I loved that a lot of people didn’t like. The music was composed by a genius who leaves a lot of people cold. Such is the magic and mixed reviews of INTO THE WOODS.

Here are the two biggest complaints I hear: 1) It’s too long. 2)  It's too short.  (They cut stuff out.)

Several songs from the musical were absent from the movie (notably the reprise of “Agony”) but a Broadway production can last 2 ½ hours or more. And there’s an intermission. Gone are the days that a motion picture features an intermission. (Gone with the wind) So trims had to be made. Composer Stephen Sondheim wrote an original song for the movie and even that got tossed. There goes the Oscar.

The length issue usually stems from the second act suddenly turning very dark. If you’re not on board with that creative choice you’re in for a squirmy forty minutes.

SIDEBAR: In the musical, act one ends with everyone seemingly living happily ever after. Act two spins all that on its ear. When the musical was first tried out in San Diego, people thought the end of the first act was the end of the show. Sondheim himself had to go out to the parking lot every night and tell people to come back, there was more.

Sondheim’s music is intricate and I have to say that for me, personally, there are times when I’m awestruck by his work and other times I want to yell at the stage or screen “Stop trying to be so fucking cute and clever!” And then a song like “No One Is Alone” comes along and he tears my heart out.

In the case of the movie version of INTO THE WOODS, none of the basic complaints bothered me. I knew the story going in, I knew most of the songs going in, so those weren’t concerns.

But I had my own trepidations before seeing the film. I always hate that studios insist movie stars be cast in musicals, even if they’re not as good or as right as the Broadway cast. Clint Eastwood in PAINT YOUR WAGON for godsakes! Russell Crowe in LES MIS? And I saw that Meryl Streep was playing the witch. Of course she was. Hollywood thinks Meryl Streep can just do anything. Who cares if she can sing? But you know what? She can sing. Beautifully. And she found just the right tone of humor and heartbreak. She made every moment work. Damn her. She CAN do anything.

The rest of the cast was equally sparkling. Emily Blunt – wow. Anna Kendrick – give me her over Anne Hathaway. James Corden – what the hell is he doing giving up a movie career that’s about to take off to do a late night talk show on CBS? Chris Pine – a pleasant musical comedy surprise. Tracey Ullman – another one who can do anything. The only sour note for me was Johnny Depp. What happened to that guy? He used to be a great actor. Now he’s become a cartoon. At least Christopher Walken waited until he was old to become a caricature.
The other concern I always have going into film adaptations of musicals is how weird it sounds when people on screen just break into song. On the stage there is a certain theatricality that allows you to buy it, but the harsh reality of being in the real world in movies often turns the film into COP ROCK. The badass Sharks and Jets singing show tunes and pirouetting in WEST SIDE STORY looked ridiculous.

But since INTO THE WOODS is set in a fantasy world, the singing felt organic. I bought it. And the fact that I love the songs themselves also helped I’m sure.

I find the storyline brilliant. There is so much underneath the clever narrative about parenting and relationships and abandonment. Witches can be right. Giants can be good.

Rob Marshall, who did an amazing job of adapting CHICAGO for the screen, was the perfect director for this project. And James Lapine, who wrote the libretto did the screenplay. What a concept – letting the writer who understands the material the best write the movie.

So I loved the film.  And I recommend it... to people predisposed to love it too. 

And more proof that life is real and not a fairy tale: This is a Disney movie and they had some issues with certain story points and songs. Even the great Stephen Sondheim got studio notes.


Carol said...

I was lucky enough to see Into the Woods on Broadway. I am quite happy to hear all the good reviews, though, and I am going to see this because it is seriously my favorite musical of all time.

I know Chip Zien reads your blog, so I hope he sees this - you were FANTASTIC as the Baker. I know I'll love James Cordon's version, but he'll never be the Baker for me!

I've heard people complain the 2nd act is 'too dark' and to them I say 'that's the point1'

Rick said...

Meryl Streep sang "He's My Pal" in a fantasy sequence in "Ironwood" in dramatic 1930s recording style. She's playing a habitual drunk who imagines herself as she used to be as a radio singer for a few moments as she sings in a dive. She's great in it. Having seen that I knew she could sing The Witch in "Into The Woods" well.

Hamid said...

Will you be reviewing Selma, AKA Oprah's latest Oscarbait movie? She will win an Oscar eventually just through sheer attrition.

Roseann said...

It takes a real 'musical comedy' type to get musicals. They are what got me into the biz to begin with. Saw Brigadoon-in the round-in CT and I was bitten by the ShowBiz bug.
I loved Sondheim musicals- not much comedy there- from the get-go. I saw Sweeney Todd 5 times, Follies several times and Into the Woods at least 3 times and Sunday in the Park with George at least 2 times on Broadway. And those are the repeats that I can remember.

I've seen Into the Woods: the Movie and I wouldn't give it a rave but anytime someone is exposed to musicals or Sondheim I'm all for it. Perhaps it was a bit overproduced and the second act left me a bit confused for sure but that may be because I already knew the stage musical.
I'm really impressed that a California Sitcom/TV guy like you can actually write about a Movie Musical and Sondheim so eloquently. Judging by the massive (not) number of Comments it's not something discussed in LA very often. You really are a Show Biz Renaissance Man.

Thanks, Ken, for feeding my Musical Comedy soul.

PS Chip Zein- I see you and hear you everytime I think of Into the Woods. Had I seen Merrily I might think of you, too. (You were in Merrily, right?).

SarahB said...

I'm one of those people who gets annoyed that Meryl Streep gets all the good roles for women over 40. But she was great. She deserves an Oscar nomination for this role.

I was surprised how well cast this movie was. Johnny Depp was odd though.

There were little things I would have changed but the ending was perfect. I've always liked the reprise of Agony but I can see how it didn't fit into the movie. "Your Fault," "The Last Midnight," and "No One Is Alone" made me forget most of my complaints anyway.

blinky said...

I love Warner Bros cartoons. Can't get enough: Bugs, Marvin, Elmer. But as soon as they start to sing, I AM OUT OF THERE! I hate musicals. So Into the Woods and Les Mis will remain mysteries to me.

Mary Stella said...

I never saw all of the play and what I saw was a bit of the DVD from my nephews' high school production. So, my knowledge was a little sketchy going into the movie theater.

I loved the movie. I was invested in the characters and rooting for them so the turn to dark instead of the happily ever after ending tore at my heart a bit. However, it was necessary. I'm glad they didn't pretty it up. The resolutions all worked.

For me, every one of the main characters gave us standout performances. Brilliant!

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Minor nitpick: there was an inermission in a movie as recently as 1984 - ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA.


Mike Schryver said...

I love most musicals, but don't care for Sondheim at all. Just tone deaf to his style, I guess.

Igor said...

Ken, that was both entertaining _and_ a fantastic explication of the film. Thanks.

Igor said...

Oh, and some day maybe, Ken, you could explain why "Send in the Clowns" is the saddest song ever. Even apart from its lyrics. At least for me, it's at a visceral level.

I know the song from Judy Collins' recording in 1975. Maybe that's part of it. And yet, now, just hearing the opening chord gets me to the quick.

Casey C said...

Nice to hear Meryl Streep didn't "f*ck it up"

You stated the new songs ("Rainbows" and "She'll Be Back") were cut from the theatrical feature; were they not even played during the credits? I've read somewhere that if a new song is used to cue the credits it could be considered for Best Original Song...

If you're down for more Sondheim, search: Don Sebesky Symphonic Sondheim "Into The Woods Suite"

Jon C said...

It seems you have seen quite a few musicals in theater and movies. Do you think your enjoyment of the musical in either form depends upon whether you are already familiar with the music from either listening to the soundtrack prior to seeing it or seeing it multiple times? Or in the case of a play turning into a movie at least having seen the play first? I ask because I often find it difficult to follow a musical when I go in cold without knowing the songs or plot. Following the actors, the props, in addition to trying to piece together the plot through the words of the song is extremely difficult and often leaves me a few paces behind the next scene. I had no such problem with the Who's Tommy because I already knew most of the words and music so I could sit back and take it all in. Just curious as to your experience with the genre.

cadavra said...

Wendy: Branagh's HAMLET (1997) had an intermission.

Casey: The Academy changed the rules a few years ago to prevent new songs being used only in the end credits from being eligible.

As for me, I saw WOODS in its original Broadway production, and I loved this film--maybe the best of the year. I was a little leery of the Disney-mandated softening, but with one exception (no spoilers from me) I went with it.

One point about the change in tone that Ken mentioned in passing but didn't emphasize: The shift in tone was easier to take in the theatre because of the intermission. In the movie, the action is continuous and thus newbies may be taken aback by it.

Diane D. said...

The first time I heard Streep sing was in Postcards From the Edge. At the end of the movie she sings
"I'm Checkin' Out" twice in 2 completely different styles, both fabulous. It was amazing.

I haven't seen Into the Woods yet.

Kathleen said...

@Diane D
Postcards is one of my favorite movies and I think it's one of Streep's best performances. I loved her singing (she also killed "You Don't Know Me" earlier in the film).

Dan Ball said...

What's a Meryl Streep?

My favorite Meryl Streep movie is probably THE RIVER WILD. So sue me. It's a perfectly serviceable action movie with a great cast and a great score by Jerry Goldsmith.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy Kendrick. Think she has a big future in movies. I stopped believing everything Depp did after the first Pirates movie was top notch. It seems like people were elevating him to sainthood after that. It all seemed to go downhill really fast. He took the money and RAN.
Janice B.

Scooter Schechtman said...

"Paint Your Wagon" is pretty good if you think of it as a deadpan "Golden Throats Go West."
Marvin is pretty good too.

Pat Reeder said...

Ken, this post is right up my alley. I not only co-wrote "Hollywood Hi-Fi," the book on celebrity singers, but I believe you and I might be the last straight male Broadway musical nuts still alive. That's why our book had information on obscurities like "I Had A Ball," the Broadway musical that starred Buddy Hackett, and the immortal "Two's Company" with that musical comedy girl, Bette Davis.

As for "Into the Woods," my wife and I also enjoyed it, more than I expected. It's one of my favorite stage shows. I've seen numerous productions, have the original Broadway cast album and DVD of the PBS special made of it, and recently saw Bernadette Peters in concert from front row center. BTW, she wore a skintight blue sequined gown that I will not soon forget (Try not to think of the conference table scene in Mel Brooks' "Silent Movie.")

My reaction to the film was pretty similar to yours. I was sorry they cut the first act finale song ("We're so happy you're so happy...") and the hilarious "Agony" reprise ("Dwarves are very upsetting..."), but as long as they left "Your Fault" intact, I can forgive the cuts. It also made us wonder if James Corden might be rethinking his decision to sign with CBS. Most of the singing was surprisingly good for non-musical actors. I knew Anna Kendrick could sing, but Emily Blunt was a surprise in a vocally demanding role. In the old days, they just would've had Marni Nixon dub her. Meryl Streep isn't a great singer, but she's a pretty good singer and a great actress. She acts the songs so well that she convinces you she's a great singer, until you relisten to the same songs by Bernadette Peters and think, "Oh yeah, that IS much better..." As for Johnny Depp, he mostly huffed and howled, but he was playing a wolf, so this time, at least, it was reasonably appropriate. And he had only one song, thank God (although it sounds a lot better when a real singer like Greg Edelman sings it). But whoever cast him in the movie of "Sweeney Todd" deserves to be plopped down in Sweeney's barber chair.

Overall, it wasn't as complete or moving an experience as the stage version, but I was pleasantly surprised that it was that good and that Disney allowed them to keep the last act, which is indeed the entire point. Ironically, when we saw it, it was prefaced with a trailer for a new Disney version of "Cinderella" that included all the romantic, fairy dust cliches. I told my wife, "They sure picked the wrong movie to run that in front of."

Finally, a trivia note: Stephen Sondheim probably wouldn't be too concerned about the star's voices because he once raved about how great Marlon Brando was in the movie of "Guys and Dolls." He thought that Brando's "naturalistic" vocal style would set a whole new trend in musical theater. In fact, Brando's vocals were pieced together from tapes of dozens of takes, and he complained that they didn't leave enough space for him to inhale, so he nearly passed out while lip-synching to them. And this was many years before Marlon Brando became so fat, he could pass out just from moving his lips.

Dan Ball said...

I forgot to mention my dad works with Johnny Depp's cousin.

As for Johnny himself, I wish he'd just play some straight roles for a while and save the "characters" for special occasions. What's he trying to prove? That he deserves to be the most overpaid actor more than Adam Sandler? It'd be nice to see him care more about real roles and try to get parts in serious artsy films like Wes Anderson's projects, where he'd probably fit right in. Before PIRATES, I think that's where we all thought he was heading: to the Wes Anderson-level of quirky brilliance. Instead, he sold out and now he cashes huge paychecks for just phoning in caricatures. Still entertaining to watch, but it's weird to see someone keep performing the same old thing for an audience once the audience has lost most of its interest. You'd think Hollywood would catch onto this and save a buck by not hiring him to repeat LONE RANGER's performance. PIRATES 5 is just asking for that kind of bombing.

Diane D. said...

Kathleen, I had forgotten about "You Don't Know Me" from Postcards; you are so right, she gave a fabulous performance of that song as well.

Dan Ball, I think I will sue you. Although she can make something out of any role she is given (as evidenced by the fact that no one else could have pulled off that role in the ultra sappy Bridges of Madison County), The River Wild was the movie that made me realize I couldn't depend on her name alone to ensure a good movie (IMHO). I've always thought she made that movie because it had to have been so much FUN--hell with the writing.

Pat Reeder, enjoyed your comment very much and can't wait to see the movie.

Mike said...

I love the musical on Broadway. I liked the film. To me, part of what makes this show great is its very theatricality (though I'll freely admit the female giant is an awkward narrative device on stage). The recurring title song is mostly jettisoned in the film (as "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" was for that film), and I can see why -- it's a theatrical device. But I miss it. I was wondering how the show's heartbreaking final songs would work on film, and largely they're just skipped over. I can see why -- again, a theatrical device -- but it means that the end of the plot is the end of the movie, where the show is more about the legacy you leave your children and how you face your fears. Those themes are only glanced at in the film.

I also very much miss the reprise of "Agony" and the song "No More" (though yes, I can understand their omissions).

Still, a good movie. But not a replacement for the theatrical experience. To me.

Roger Owen Green said...

The last movie I attended with an intermission was Reds. Wish it had ended there with the singing of L'Internationale.

Anonymous said...

Meryl Streep can sing? Fans of "Mama Mia" would beg to differ.

Pat Reeder said...

To Jon C:

I definitely enjoy a musical more if I can hear the score before seeing it the first time. It takes away some of the surprise, but with a lot of musicals these days, many of the songs that convey important plot points come from characters and choruses singing different lyrics over each other, and it's impossible to decipher them on the fly. My wife is deaf in one ear, so imagine her trying to figure out a triple-time Sondheim patter song with everyone singing different contrapuntal lyrics at once!

Also, it's human nature to like a song more after you've heard it a few times. Cole Porter's wife had a pet peeve about critics who didn't recognize that fact. For decades, she kept a scrapbook of reviews of Cole's musicals to show to guests, pointing out that nearly every critic sniped that the score of his latest show wasn't as good/tuneful/memorable/etc. as his last one, even if they'd said the same thing about the last one. And we're talking about shows like "Kiss Me, Kate," "Anything Goes" and "Silk Stockings." You'd think a professional critic could recognize a great score without having to hear it a hundred times, but no.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Pat R -- I am proud to have owned a copy of both the book and the CD of Hollywood HiFi.

Two of the many standout lines in ITW (forgive me if I paraphrase):

"Nice isn't the same as good." (Welcome to the workplace, Red.)

"You're the one who blinded me!" "And you left ME on a tiny island in the middle of a swamp!!" Reply: "I was just trying to be a good mother."

Anonymous said...

From Jan:

I really enjoyed the movie. I had seen a stage performance of the play only once before at a local summer theater, and mostly I remember liking it despite the fact that most of the time--on this stage, anyway--the lyrics can't be understood. (Sometimes the music is too loud, sometimes it's the sound system, and sometimes it might be the performers, but performances there are pretty much up for grabs.) So I was delighted to be able to understand the very clever lyrics in the movie, and now I really would like to see a professional stage production of it.

DontRainOnMyPrada said...

I thought Johnny Depp was amusing and I enjoyed his performance. I think it's become fashionable to bash him. Emily Blunt delivered a multifaceted and poignant performance, and I don't know why she isn't part of the Oscar buzz.

Anonymous said...

Well, the acting was done well and the costumes were interesting, but there were several parts of the movie that I actually found very disturbing. When the wolf is singing to Little Red Riding Hood it became uncomfortable and almost seemed as if a predator literally a different kind of predator was stalking a child. Then this wicked stepmother cuts off part of her daughters feet and this was also rather diisturbing not to mention when they cut open the wolf. Then to have the Baker's wife and the prince cheat together and then it seems that the princess makes off with the butcher's husband was more like a nightmare. The actors did a great job portraying the characters, but the story was more like the recent display of the story of Noah. I felt like I was watching a version of reality from someone who was dark and on drugs. I think it did the great singing and acting an injustice. I do think there was too much singing and the first act should have been the end. Working in a unique concentration of psychology, I did see the strange mixed messages of the writing. I don't see this becoming a classic.

Fran in NYC said...


It already IS a classic!

The original stories were very adult and meant for adult listeners before they were sweetened for child comsumption. Sondheim and Lapine were only harking back to the originals with additional psychological layers.

RCP said...

Great review, but I have to disagree about the Sharks and Jets in West Side Story being 'ridiculous.' I've always thought they were 'amazing and cool.'

Happy New Year, Ken and Everyone.

Pikay said...

Very disappointed in the changes to the second act. Rapunzel's death, gone ... witch's motivation, gone ... the time lapse that explains Cinderella's disillusionment gone ... baker's wife's affair, gone ... and on and on. I have played this musical some 60 times and love it. Not trying to be a purist, but the second act is what makes this musical truly special and gives it legs ... makes it resonate and leaves you lying awake at night thinking. Very sorry Disney felt the need to Disnify it, and very sorry Sondheim let them do it, though it was, of course, his prerogative, and I remain grateful to him for his talent, hard work, and amazing creativity.

Dixon Steele said...

Just saw INTO THE WOODS yesterday, my first time in any medium. Classy, well-done, etc. Liked it/didn't love it, but a true class act, and certainly worth a look.

NO ONE IS ALONE - I'd like it more if the first few bars didn't SO resemble Willy Wonka's THE CANDYMAN.

What's with the Anne Hathaway hate? I guess he's just too talented, beautiful, successful, etc. for some people. There's been an ugly media backlash going on against her the last few years and I suspect the reasons are mentioned above.

James Corden - Love him, wonderful. But a movie star? Not really.

Johnny Depp - Let's face it, the Wolf is creepy buy I think he did it as well as anyone. Why blame Depp?

Ken, you write about WEST SIDE STORY like it was a flop that didn't work, not a hugely popular Best Picture winner.

Hamid, you may not be from here, so perhaps SELMA doesn't resonate with you. Let me assure you that Winfrey didn't get involved for the "Oscar bait", and to suggest it is, frankly, odious.

chuckcd said...

All that stuff will be included in the extended version of the DVD/bluray when it comes out.

Unknown said...

OHHHH, Johnny depp and Anne Hathaway both are my favorite actors. Has Johnny Depp has done any other movies with anne hathaway? I would love to watch them. Anne is really an amazing actress friends. What you say?