Movie Review: Into The Woods

 

Meryl Streep plays a witch in control of the fates of fairy tales in the film adaptation of Into The Woods.
Meryl Streep plays a witch in control of the fates of fairy tales in the film adaptation of Into The Woods.

Into The Woods is the latest Broadway musical to hit the big screen. The question is does it entertain and charm well enough for moviegoers?

The film begins just as the fairy tales do so: Little Red Riding Hood is about to go to grandma’s with her basket, Jack has to sell the cow as she’s getting old, Cinderella is being mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, a lonely couple want a child, and Rapunzel is imprisoned in a castle by the Witch. The Witch puts a request on the couple. You first thing it’s just Rapunzel’s hair but she also asks for a red cape, a white cow and a golden slipper.

As they search the stories proceed: Riding Hood is lured off the path by a wolf, Jack goers to market but will only accept an offer that would mean the return of his cow, Cinderella arrives at the ball. However the couple find their way into the story or pass by it: Jack receives magic beans from the husband, the wife tries to swipe Cinderella’s slipper off her feet after running from the ball, the husband passes the tower Rapunzel is kept captive in, and both notice Riding Hood’s cape.

After a series of misadventures, the couple has all the items needed to produce the spell to receive their baby, all the fairy tale characters have their expected happy endings and the witch is able to regain her beauty with the potion. However the ‘Happily ever after’ endings don’t end up being so happy after all. The Baker worries he might end up being a poor father to his son just like his own father, Cinderella loses her charm for prince charming and the lavish life with it, Rapunzel is scared by the outside world, the witch loses her powers with her returned youth and Jack is pursued by the giant’s wife –ahem, widow– who came down to earth via a second beanstalk and demands Jack or she will destroy the village and its inhabitants.

Soon everything goes opposite to what’s planned. Casualties include the Baker’s wife who fell for Prince Charming before her accidental death, Rapunzel as she ran off forever with her prince, Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother, and Jack’s mother. The latter three killed in the Giant’s Wife’s rampage. On top of it, Cinderella and Prince Charming part ways. At first those still standing–the Baker, Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood– think that Jack should be offered back only for them to blame each other. Nevertheless they do work things out, defend against the Giant and there’s the genesis of a new fairy tale the Baker reads to his son.

I have to say as a musical, Into The Woods was probably not the first time fairy tales have been mixed together to surround a main plot. It’s not even the first in motion pictures. Remember Shrek? What it needed to do was stay true to the fables while mixing the story of the baker and his wife as well as the haunting of the Witch during the first half and then allow for a believable twist to the fables we all know to occur in the second half. Even though the twist occurred starting with the giant’s wife appearing, all the twists of the stories had to appear sensible and pertinent to the original story. Some of the twists were very surprising and even tragic but it did come together in the end. That’s how the stage musical of Into The Woods worked.

The next trick was to bring Sondheim’s musical to the screen. Putting a stage musical to screen is a very difficult thing. There’s a lot of decision-making on what from the stage play to leave in and what to leave out. That would fall into the hands of director Rob Marshall and scriptwriter James Lapine who wrote the original Broadway version. However when it’s Disney that buys the rights, you think it would be a big break but there was an added challenge. Naturally with this being a musical about a mish mash of fairy tales, Disney would want to make this a family film and that could be intrusive to the control Sondheim and Lapine have over the play. This was not the case as both Sondheim and Lapine insisted to Disney that any changes would have to be approved by them. Even then, they would have to work within time constraints and keep it to a respectable running length.

In the end, Sondheim, Marshall, Lapine and the production company were able to create a finished adaptation 125 minutes in length that brings the musical to a big screen audience with big-name stars and additional musical talents. I myself cannot compare the film to the stage version since I’ve never seen the stage version. I will start by saying it doesn’t surprise me that Disney acquired the rights to adapting the musical to film as Disney is world famous for bringing fairy tales to life. I will say that one can do a good job differentiating the actors who know how to do musical acting and those who don’t. You just know it. There were some like Chris Pine and Mackenzie Mauzy who struggled, there were some like Billy Magnussen and James Corden who could have done a better job, there are some like Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford and Tracey Ullman who know how to deliver both singing and acting and then there are actors like Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep who are able to deliver a performance in a musical. Meryl was especially excellent as she had the role that would hold the film all together. Musical film is another genre she can add to her list of accomplishments.

I will say that the film adaptation did very well in terms of special effects and set design to give the fell like there really was one terrain in the world where all the original stories happen at once. Colleen Atwood once again knows how to create the right costumes for the movie. The music was not a problem at all as the songs were well-sung and fit the scenes well. The film also did a good job of handling the story where all the fables get their twist in the end. However the film does leave some noticeable things out. There are some times where it felt the story had key scenes left out like the big bad wolf living in the tree about to eat Red or Jack in the giant’s house or Cinderella’s fairy godmother creating her clothes for the ball. There were even some times when one could easily forget that this is a musical and it would take a song some time later to remind you. There were even a couple of scenes that made you wonder if it should have been kept in. I can’t think of a better way to do it but I’m sure there are areas that could have been done better. Rob Marshall did a very good job of directing. It’s fair to say this is his best work since Chicago but there are some areas I feel he could have been better, like not having us forget this is a musical in some areas. It may not completely be his fault as the script was written by James Lepine. Lepine may be an accomplished scriptwriter and director in musical theatre and this may be Lepine’s best musical ever but somehow he could have done a better job at a stage-to-screen adaptation.

The film adaptation of Into The Woods has been long awaited. Now that it’s here, it’s imperfect but very enjoyable and entertaining.

Movie Review: We’re The Millers

Jason Sudeikis (right) and Jennifer Aniston (left) lead an unorthodox trip in We're The Millers.
Jason Sudeikis (right) and Jennifer Aniston (left) lead an unorthodox trip in We’re The Millers.

At first I wasn’t too interested in seeing We’re The Millers back around when it opened across theatres August 7th. Well guess what? Its eighth weekend has passed and it’s still in the box office Top 10 so I figured I had to see why this is such a hit.

Before I review, I want to give the box office details that sparked my interest. When We’re The Millers first debuted at the box office, they were pitted that weekend against debuts from Elysium, Planes and the latest Percy Jackson movie that weekend. The big-budget Elysium was the winner that weekend with $29.8 million while We’re The Millers was second with $26.4 million. Actually Millers opened the Wednesday that week which gave them a healthy extra $9.5 million. That helped a lot in making back their $37 million budget that Sunday. The following weekend saw The Butler, which I will review at a later date, at the top with $24.6 million. As for last weekend’s debuters, the other three movies started to move down in terms of their weekend grosses while Millers remained in second with a healthy $18 million as compared to the humble $13.7 million Elysium racked up. Yeah, very humbling since Elysium came at a $115 million budget. The following week saw a repeat of the Top 2 with the Labor Day weekend only seeing the One Direction concert movie superseding the two. Even over the weekends in September, We’re The Millers still did consistently well and now sits at #9 in its eighth weekend with its total gross just recently passed the $140 million mark.

Firstly we have to admit that the situation of the comedy is humorously unusual. A veteran pot dealer has to make back money he lost by being a drug mule in Mexico for his boss. However being single makes him a dead giveaway to the police while families are often overlooked by the cops. So you have to admit creating a fake family with a runaway girl, a stripper neighbor who can’t stand him and a shy neglected boy in his block would make for an unusual premise and leave the audience wondering what will happen next. Having a bizarre drug-trading situation also adds to the story as well as another travelling family who’s uberfriendly and whose daughter captures the attention of Kenny adds too. Scenes like the strip-show getaway and the fake baby named Lebron add to the humor as well. The uberfriendly family having the father being a former FBI agent adds to the suspense in wondering what will happen next.  Many of the dramatic moments are somewhat predictable as you mostly know what will happen in the end but it’s still fun to see them played out. Also there are some surprise moments.

The actors themselves also added to the humor of the story. Jennifer Aniston is the one with the biggest resume in the movie. She has starred in hit after hit for so many years. Also adding to this is funny guy Jason Sudeikis. Many Saturday Night Live regulars in the past have gone on to bigger and better things once leaving, but it hasn’t happened to all of them. Very often the first few years after they leave determine whether their post-SNL success will be sink or swim. We’re The Millers is actually a very good boost for Jason Sudeikis. There’s no telling how far his next movies will go but Millers is already a good boost. Also good was the addition of Ed Helms. Funny thing that when I was watching this movie, I wondered if it was written by those involved with The Hangover because I saw a lot of similar humor elements. It wasn’t but including Ed as this off-the-wall cartoonish drug lord added to the humor. Makes you wonder how a yutz like Gurdlinger can be a successful kingpin. The young actors of Emma Roberts, Molly Quinn and Bill Poulter also added to the story as they appeared to be the ones closest to normal, even Casey the street girl. Actually I was surprised Poulter because I didn’t think he’d be the type for sexual slapstick or slapstick of any kind.

Another factor to the movie’s success could be as well is the timing of the movie. This comedy came as big-budget action flick after big-budget action flick were doing less than expected. It almost appeared the summer hype was fizzling out. I will admit that charmingly offensive humor doesn’t have the same heyday that it had back in the late 90’s-early 2000’s. You remember how gross out comedies like There’s Something About Mary, American Pie and Scary Movie surprised everyone by getting loads of people laughing with their low-brow humor and became bigger hits than expected. Since then there hasn’t been as mammoth of hits in the charmingly offensive comedy genre. Nevertheless it’s fair to say there was a steady diet of such thanks to the ‘Frat Pack’ or ‘Slacker Pack’ made up of Jack Black, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell and Owen Wilson. They churned out comedies that kept everyone entertained continuously up until 2008 when people started to tire of them. Since then it hasn’t been as consistent but there have been some hits along the way. The first one being The Hangover. Its hit success proved that obnoxious and even lewd comedy could still draw good-sized crowds. Grown Ups soon followed. Last year was Ted. This year showed that the Hangover formula and the Grown Ups formula were fading. Fortunately We’re The Millers was able to take the place of both and became the surprise hit of the summer this year.

Actually from my own point of view, I found a lot of moment so We’re The Millers funny but also a lot of unfunny moments. Yes, there was the bag of dope disguised as a baby named Lebron. Yes, there was the stripper dance getaway. Yes, there was the idiot Gurdlinger. But all too often it seemed like they were resorting to sex humor or sexual languages for the sake of cheap laughs. It may be because I’ve aged but I’m okay with sex humor as long as it justifies itself in the movie or the script. All too often I can tell the sex humor or sex language is used for the sake of a shock effect or a cheap instant laugh. And that’s what it seemed to be doing all too often in Millers. I know I should be expecting this especially since the writers have The Wedding Crashers, She’s Out Of Your League and episodes of Married With Children to their writing credits. Even the director has Dodgeball to his directing credits. Nevertheless I felt it tried too hard to deliver shock-laughs at times. Hey, I know comedy is the hardest thing in the world to do but still…

We’re The Millers is a surprise hit of the summer and for a lot of good reasons. I often feel it’s National Lampoon’s Vacation meets The Hangover.  However it’s not to say that its over-the-top humor can come across as desperate for shock laughs at times. It’s all a matter for the audient to decide whether it’s funny or not.