Into the Woods

I’m not the biggest fan of musicals (blame it on a couple of extra enthusiastic exes of mine), so I was procrastinating seeing Into the Woods (2014). I had heard that, to make it a family-friendly film, much of the second act had been removed, which irked me. All of these preconceived notions kept me from actually seeing the film, and now that I’ve seen it, I must confess: it was much better than I expected.

That being said, let’s talk about musical movies. The way I see it, musicals should be made into movies as a way to bring musical productions to a wider audience. Not everyone can catch Broadway shows in NYC or on tour, especially those in smaller towns. But when musicals are made into films, Hollywood rejects the star power that makes musicals special and vibrant; they value name recognition over vocal talent, and that makes me irate. Throw in a big name if you must, but these productions should do well if the musically-experienced actors are cast. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at Les Misérables (2012). Yes, Anne Hathaway won an Oscar, and she and Eddie Redmayne gave very powerful performances — but overall the film was mediocre at best. The production was extensive and the live-singing idea certainly was interesting, but Les Mis is a tough musical, even for Broadway singers. When you cast some of the bigger/tougher parts with inexperienced singers, it just becomes a mess. We can all agree that Russell Crowe was a disaster. And Amanda Seyfried’s hummingbird vibrato was distracting. Yes, they have star power, but their inexperience detracts from the artistic package. It could have been absolutely magnificent if they had cast appropriately, like Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, a musical theatre veteran. Ok, I’m stepping off the soapbox.

With that out of the way, I’ll say that I enjoyed Into the Woods much more than I did Les Mis, even though it didn’t have as impactful individual performances. As soon as you drop the live-singing idea, things already get much better. Anna Kendrick,  having plenty of musical chops, is a strong Cinderella; Lilla Crawford, also a Broadway veteran, shines as the ever-hungry Little Red Riding Hood; Daniel Huttlestone, perhaps the greatest part of Les Misérables, excels as the lonely Jack; using experienced actors for musical roles is invaluable. Emily Blunt, the baker’s wife, has a gorgeous voice and she performed beautifully both in and out of song. Chris Pine, a charming Prince Charming, apprehensive about his musical abilities, performed a pleasant and entertaining “Agony”. Not surprisingly, even with all that talent, Meryl Streep, who plays the witch, steals the show.

I must confess that, when she received her 19th Academy Award nomination, I was a little skeptical. I thought she was just nominated because she’s Meryl, but her performance was impressive. She’s had experience in musicals before, perhaps most notably in Mamma Mia, but she really nails it out of the park in “Stay With Me”. In the span of that one song, she explores many different emotions and moods and convincingly conveys them all. She starts the song furiously reprimanding her daughter Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), then retracts into a mousy version of the witch that we haven’t seen yet. She’s vulnerable and attempts to explain her intentions for protecting her daughter so extensively. She sings beautifully but meekly, showing us a side to the witch that you maybe didn’t think existed. She then adds the power as she tries to convey just how much she loves her daughter, even though her actions don’t necessarily show that. She withdraws again, finishing her song quietly. Streep explores many different emotions in three minutes: frustration, shame, love, confusion, hope. And what makes it even better is that her performance is daring. She makes the song her own. She doesn’t just perform a nicely-tied-bow of a song, she roughs up some edges and doesn’t shy away from exploring her vocal abilities. She gave me chills with performance, because it moved me and I saw the many dimensions of The Witch.

What made an impression on me when I first saw the show live was the second act and how it tears down the idea of “happily ever after”. In some ways, the film succeeded in it, but in other ways, it did not. Disney produced a very enjoyable film, but taking a dark musical and producing a family-friendly Christmas-time film doesn’t completely work. What moved me most in the musical were those dark, bleak moments that forced me to reflect on the often problematic and dogmatic lessons that fairy tales teach children, and how a myriad of our modern stories have those same problems engrained in them. Into the Woods did not risk fully exploring what could have been a real experience, and that’s a shame. For that, you’ll have to go see a live production of the musical.

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) is the second installment of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot, following Star Trek in 2009. The film brings back the all-star cast in the newly altered Star Trek universe, where anything goes.

The 2009 Star Trek film gave a breath of life to the decrepit Star Trek franchise. Mix together a cast with great chemistry, that goes to the absolute core of the original characters, with an exciting and unprecedented story line  and a great action blockbuster is formed. While many devoted Trekkies were scandalized by Abrams’ complete dismantling of the entire Star Trek universe, it opened many doors for new — and equally as important — familiar stories. The first film excited and shocked audiences, and the second film makes use of its most valuable tool: reinterpretation.

Many criticize Star Trek Into Darkness  as being a mere remake of A Wrath of Khan, but to believe so is to miss the whole point of the first film. Changing time as we know it opens the door for anything. It was entirely possible that the Enterprise would never encounter Khan in this new timeline, but isn’t it exhilarating that even though time was altered so significantly, this epic encounter still exists? It’s almost as if the confrontation is fated, an idea that I imagine Spock would seriously disagree with, yet this theme can now be considered due to Abrams altered timeline.

The film exhibits scandal from the very beginning, at least it does for Trekkies. The crew of the Enterprise is on planet Nibiru, inhabited by a primitive alien race, and they plan to drop a device into the planet’s volcano to make it dormant, which would alter the natural course of life on Nibiru — a overt violation of the Prime Directive. This violation of the most important regulation in Starfleet is highly shocking, but it develops Captain Kirk’s (Chris Pine) character: a brazen young Captain without accountability. One of the film’s transformations is that of Captain Kirk, from egoistic impulse to selfless leader.

A similar transformation is scene in Spock (Zachary Quinto). Quite possibly after Vulcan’s demise in the previous film, Spock has made even greater effort to stifle his human half. Even after Kirk saves Spock from volcanic doom, Spock struggles to make any emotional connection with Kirk. After relationship trouble with Uhura (Zoë Saldana), experiencing Admiral Pike’s (Bruce Greenwood) dying moment, and experiencing that same moment with Captain Kirk, Spock’s human half surfaces in a shriek of absolute anger, an homage to A Wrath of Khan.

This film’s brilliant villain, Khan, is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. His peculiar countenance lends to being a villain, and it’s backed up by an incredible performance which includes subtleties like sitting up perfectly straight and speaking with arrogance — after all, he’s better at everything. Khan’s climactic (though, to some, anti-climactic) identity revelation brings much scrutiny. Because of the way Khan’s character was introduced in the Original Series, The Wrath of Khan is filled with a heavy intensity. To viewers new to the franchise, Khan’s identity does not mean as much, but it is still packed with superhuman and eerie mystery which keeps viewers invested. The meaningful part of this entire film is that it tells the same story in a new time; while details change, a new generation can participate in and appreciate an older story.

The film’s brilliance culminates in a few wonderfully shot scenes. These scenes focus on four different characters and their facial expressions, which are meaningful in that they express emotions seemingly opposite of what those characters embody. The first is Kirk; as Admiral Pike is chastising him for lying in his report, Kirk slips into a state of vulnerability. The camera stays on his reddened face, peering into his deep blue eyes which show a softened quality hardly ever seen from his character. The magnificence of that shot is that Kirk retreats inwardly instead of acting aggressively. The next scene showcases Pike. As he lays dying before Spock, the camera again stays on his face, which is usually strong, sure, and fearless, but what the camera shows is terror. It’s a terror that is shocking, especially on a face that’s never shown such fear. His eyes are absolutely moving, even to stoic Spock. Thirdly, as Khan explains how he and his frozen crew became part of the picture, the camera yet again stays on his face. As he tells his story, about trying to save his crew — his family — the anger takes over his face, flaring his nostrils and bringing tears to his eyes. The camera doesn’t move away from his face, letting the viewer fully appreciate this surprisingly show of emotion from this ruthless killer. This scene denies any sense of one-dimensional villainy for Khan. The last scene is for Spock, at his transformation in the film. He’s speaking with Kirk as he lays dying, again expressing his vulnerability. Spock, who has only lost his composure over his mother’s death and Vulcan’s demise, is clearly emotional. His colleague — and friend — lays dying and can’t control himself. The camera, again, stays on his face as tears fall from his eyes, a particularly stark sight from anything ever expected from Spock. That, followed by the iconic “KHAAAAAAN!”, express a side of Spock never seen. These four scenes are the magic of the film, taking four characters and turning them inside out in ways never experienced.

This film is an exciting and captivating story — all up until its coda. After Kirk’s death, the film is aimless and wraps up much too quickly. The story could have benefited from the way A Wrath of Khan ends, which would have been more emotional, as well as quite the cliff-hanger for any sequel. Along with those criticisms fall the characters of the rest of the crew. Uhura, who has the potential of being a strong and badass character unfortunately falls into the role of “girlfriend” for Spock. Even though she has a big scene with the Klingons, the majority of her actions are motivated by her being with Spock, not for the good of the order. Karl Urban, who portrays Dr. McCoy exactly, along with Anton Yelchin, as Chekov, received little roles in this film. Even John Cho, as Mr. Sulu remains mostly secondary in this movie. These characters have the potential for more than just comedic relief, something that Simon Pegg’s Scotty was able to achieve. Scotty in the first movie was only humor, but he basically saves the day in this film. Perhaps the rest of the crew will get more screen time and plot lines in the next film.

Star Trek Into Darkness is the first voyage into Star Trek’s new alternate universe. It brings the Enterprise together with a familiar villain in an entirely new light. With plenty of action, lens flares, and  Michael Giacchino’s fantastic soundtrack, Star Trek Into Darkness brings a story and villain back to life in an entirely new light.