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.

August: Osage County

Quote of the film: “Thank God we can’t tell the future, we could never get out of bed.” — Barbara

Based off the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, August: Osage County (2013) is a family drama, taking place around the time of a family death. The film focuses on Violet Weston (Meryl Streep), and her daughters Barbara (Julia Roberts), Ivy (Julianne Nicholson), and Karen (Juliette Lewis).

When her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard), goes missing, Violet calls on her sister, Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) and daughters for support. Ivy is the only daughter that lives locally, while Barbara arrives with her husband (Ewan McGregor) and daughter (Abigail Breslin) from Colorado and Karen arrives with her new boyfriend (Dermot Mulroney). Addicted to pills, Violet is a harsh and mean woman, attacking — at times savagely — her daughters on various faults and weaknesses. After her husband is found dead, the family prepares a funeral. The film peaks at the post-funeral dinner, where Violet copes with the death of her husband by berating the entire family (aka “truth-telling”), which Barbara — the daughter who can rival her mother’s ferocity — cannot take and physically attacks her mother and disposes of all of her pills. As the plot develops, various scenes focusing on specific families shine light on the faults in everybody’s relationships.

Meryl Streep gives an incredible performance as emotionally dismissive Violet. Her southern accent is impeccable, and she seamlessly switches from cruel mother to high drug-addict.  Her character is mostly bombastic, spewing insults left and right, but a few scenes are retrospective, giving insight to Violet’s childhood with her wicked mother.

The real star is Julia Roberts as Barbara. I was quite surprised at Roberts’ performance. Not once did I doubt her anger, nor did I disbelieve her frustration. For after all, Barbara’s frustration is never-ending: her husband is seeing a younger woman because she’s not a pain in the ass, her daughter is a spoiled brat thanks to her husband’s leniency, her mother blames her for her unhappiness and loneliness for moving away from Oklahoma, and she fears that she will become a wretched and lonely old woman like her mother. There is subtlety to her performance, there’s underlining personal disappointment to her overt disapproval of her mother. Julia Roberts puts on an incredible performance, one deserving of not only the Oscar nomination but the win.

A tremendous amount of drama occurs in the span of two hours, leaving no one unaffected or innocent. While the film is generally a family drama about Violet and her daughters, the film truly is about Barbara and how she ultimately breaks away from the shackles of her mother to pursue her own life — as the final scene in the film shows her driving away to Colorado.