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.

Still Alice

The 87th Academy Awards may well have a Best Actor winner and Best Actress winner both portraying persons with debilitating and arduous illnesses. Still Alice (2014) tells the story of brilliant Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), an accomplished linguistics professor at Columbia, happily married to her husband John (Alec Baldwin) with three grown children. Being a master of words, when she starts forgetting words, she suspects something is awry — and she unfortunately is right. She’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. But wait, it gets worse: she has a very rare familial form of Alzheimer’s, which means any of her children who have the gene *will* get it. Oof. Chances are that if you’re about to see Still Alice, you more or less know what this film is about, so the experience comes from watching a bright, resourceful woman transform into a shell of a human being, in the span of 101 minutes. Again, oof.

Much like Eddie Redmayne’s role in The Theory of EverythingJulianne Moore scenes were not filmed chronologically, which means she had to switch from one stage of Alzheimer’s to another in the same day. Her knowledge of this woman’s deterioration was so heightened that she was able to find the right stage for each scene, creating what is a heartbreakingly seamless film. Alzheimer’s disease is the cruelest of all diseases, and that despair is featured by Moore’s incredible performance. In many, many instances, a book is usually the better form for a story, but I imagine that one can only go so far in his imagination of a disease like this. It’s profound to the utmost degree to actually see a woman diminish before your very eyes. You see the spark fizzle from her eyes. You see the personality evaporate. You see her presence vanish, as she becomes a ghostly shell of a human being. Only Julianne Moore can achieve such a nuanced and bleak transformation. She is committed 100% and is unyielding — much like the disease she is emulating. Whether it’s from solo scenes where she is speaking to one person or interacting with her family, you literally see Alice disappear into nothing, which is devastating.

The film is well made, using camera dissolves and fades to illustrate Alice’s episodes. While that is something that can be described thoroughly in a book, this way the audience can see her episodes on screen. The music also aides in that respect. The soundtrack is mostly sweeping and melancholic, but when Alice has an episode, the music becomes dissonant and anxious, aurally personifying the panic that Alice is feeling. It’s very affective and even uncomfortable.

Moore is supported prominently by Kristen Stewart, who plays Alice’s daughter Lydia. Lydia is a struggling actor in LA with a history of butting heads with her mother, but she becomes the person who most connects and helps with Alice’s condition. Stewart delivers some of the classic detached twenty-something persona expected from her, but there’s a layer of depth underneath her eyes when she interacts with Moore. While you can see the frustration that Lydia feels sometimes toward her mother, there’s a deeper, thick layer of love that grounds both of them.

I recommend seeing Still Alice only on your best of days, because you may be somewhat functional afterwards. Don’t see it if you’re already sad. Still Alice is a tragic tale whose ending you already know. The experience comes from watching her demise into oblivion and thanking God that your parents are healthy.

The Theory of Everything

The Theory of Everything (2014) is a biopic/love story based on the memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen by Jane Wilde Hawking. Directed by James Marsh, the film charts the life of Stephen Hawking from his life at the university, his diagnosis of ALS, and through his marriage with Jane.

Eddie Redmayne, who gives an extraordinary performance as Stephen Hawking, has established a pattern of bringing me to tears. He moved me to tears in Les Misérables (2012), specifically in his rendition of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”, and he brought me to tears time after time in The Theory of Everything. Before the movie begins, you already know it’s going to be a sad story: a brilliant mind cursed with a deteriorating body. To watch it unfold before us is truly humbling and debilitating, an experience made possibly only by Redmayne’s visceral and gripping performance. At the beginning, we fall for the young scientist, as he makes his awkward yet sweet advances toward Jane (Felicity Jones). Redmayne’s interpretation of Hawking is a man with an innate and effortless genius, blanketed in charisma and a big smile. While Redmayne has already established himself as an actor with a mastery of the emotional, this role shows his dexterous abilities as he demonstrates a careful and impressive nuance with physical acting. His scenes were not filmed chronologically, so he created and reviewed a chart of all of Hawking’s deteriorating motor skills at each scene throughout the film so that once the scenes were edited together, his performance would be as organic as possible. The amount of thought and attention to detail is evident, as Redmayne walks with bowed legs and crooked feet, as he pushes himself out of a chair with folded and useless fingers, as he speaks with lips that can’t function correctly — and he makes that all look natural. Stephen Hawking himself noted that as he watched Redmayne on screen, he thought at times that he was watching himself. His portrayal is absolutely poignant and masterful, and his performance itself contributed to about half of my cries in the film. With such a powerful and moving performance, in both the emotional and physical spectra, it’s his Oscar to lose.

For a film based off a memoir by Jane Wilde Hawking, it’s interesting that her depiction isn’t as positive as one would imagine. Towards the beginning she’s characterized as a lovely girl who has the mind to keep up with Hawking. Then she’s the impetus that drives Hawking to hold on to life as long as he can after his diagnosis. So far so good, but as the film progresses, she is depicted as a woman who is frustrated with the hand that life dealt her and a woman who flirts dangerously close to having an affair with another man — all while keeping Hawking an entirely likable character. The fault is not on Jones’ portrayal of Jane but falls on the writers. Her character could have been a force to rival Hawking’s, whose development would explore and explain much about their relationship. Hawking as a husband and father could have been developed further to show that it wasn’t all about rambunctious riding in his wheelchair and making jokes to his children when Jane tried to have an actual conversation about their relationship. Jane had a legitimate burden on her shoulders, regardless of how much she loved her husband, and that should have been explored more evenly.

While many posit this film as obvious Oscar bait without any merits, I must disagree. While there are folds in the story and priorities manipulated for the scope of the film, The Theory of Everything is moving and inspiring. The film is the story of a man who holds on to life as long as he can, for the sake of his contributions to science and the world, which in itself is captivating. But the more important point is the inspiration that a story like Hawking’s can give any of us: we can walk and run and take control of our lives. None of us will ever be a fraction of the genius that Hawking is, but we all have a contribution to the world. What we do with that power is up to us.