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My Year With Meryl: Into the Woods (2014)

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With Into the Woods, we come to the end of My Year With Meryl, and what a great film to go out on. This funny, fast-paced movie musical that is dark enough for adults to appreciate, while toned down from the stage version enough to appease children, is uneven at times, with a supremely weird third act that throws one surprise at the viewer after another. But the film is an entertaining romp all the way through, with a terrific ensemble cast that features Chris Pine in his most scene-stealing role to date, Emily Blunt in a bravura performance, and Meryl looking like she’s having some of her most fun on-screen in four decades of filmmaking.

Meryl has said in interviews that for decades she had vowed to never play a witch on screen, because as soon as she turned forty, she received offers for three witch parts in one given year (she turned forty in 1989, so the Anjelica Huston role in 1990’s The Witches seems like it could have been one of them). She didn’t like what a witch represents: an older woman, ugly, isolated, with no wants or desires except to bring misery to those around her. Thankfully after nearly twenty-five years she put a hold on that rule just this once to play the Witch in Into the Woods, directed by Rob Marshall (Chicago), written by James Lapine, and based on the 1987 Broadway musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim (Sweeney Todd). Winning Tonys for Best Score and Best Book, among others, Into the Woods ran for 765 performances over nearly two years, and has received national tours, numerous revivals, school productions, and reunion concerts. Now the film adaptation has finally arrived, and while it’s not perfect, it is one of the better movie musicals of the last ten years, and certainly Marshall’s best movie since his Academy-Award-winning debut, Chicago.

Fairy tale adaptations are definitely in right now, with Maleficent a recent blockbuster, and Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella likely to enchant audiences everywhere. Into the Woods is such a welcome delight in that it, like the ABC hit Once Upon a Time, blends numerous fairy tales all into one story. The characters of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel are all represented here, in an original story about a childless baker (James Corden) and his wife (Blunt) who are unable to start a family of their own, until one day the next-door Witch (Meryl) places a curse on them, forcing them to set out on a quest that could make a baby a reality. The duo ends up finding Jack’s cow, Rapunzel’s hair, Red Riding Hood’s cape, and Cinderella’s slipper, but will that be enough to appease the Witch? It’s not an easy adventure for anyone involved, what with Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) climbing up and down the beanstalk, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy) being locked away from life and love, Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) trying to evade the hungry Wolf (Johnny Depp), and Cinderella (a perfectly cast Anna Kendrick) fleeing from the ball on a nightly basis.

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All of these stories and characters being tossed around a single movie might have been chaotic or confusing, but Marshall’s assured direction and Wyatt Smith’s skillful editing keep everything clear from the first scene to the last. The major actors in the film all get at least one stand-out moment (with only Depp being underutilized), and the songs do a terrific job furthering the story and showing the hope and heartache in the characters, rather than ever stopping the movie cold. One element the film handles especially well is understanding that most viewers know these classic fairy tales through and through and don’t need every moment of them visualized on-screen; Marshall wisely avoids showing Jack up in the Giant’s castle or Cinderella dancing in the castle with the Prince (a delightfully goofy Chris Pine) and instead gives us the essentials that are needed for this particular story. Some have complained that the last thirty minutes or so of the movie, which more or less represents the controversial Act II of the stage musical, take the narrative in a misguided direction that feels strained and unnecessary. However, it’s this stretch of the film that the most interesting things actually happen, with the fairy tale endings we know by heart flipped on their heads and often cruelly ripped apart to create a dark, original ending that is in every way unexpected. Not all of the third act works—it does hit a lull or two—but much of it breaks from the norm, making for a conclusion that feels fresh and exciting.

One of the great joys of Into the Woods is seeing great, likable actors in both big roles and small. Kendrick is one of the highlights of the movie, with her pitch-perfect singing and vulnerable characterization of Cinderella that rings true. Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch are sinister as Cinderella’s stepsisters, and Christine Baranski brings a welcome comedic touch to her Stepmother. Daniel Huttlestone is a likable find as Jack, and it’s always fantastic to see Tracey Ullman, who plays Jack’s mother, in a movie. Lilla Crawford is a bit shrill, unfortunately, in the role of Red Riding Hood (and Johnny Depp gets almost nothing to do), but Mackenzie Mauzy is an effective screen presence as Rapunzel. Billy Magnussen is handsome and debonair as Rapunzel’s Prince, but it’s Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince who steals the show; Pine is hilarious and appropriately charming in the role, and his rendition with Magnussen of “Agony” is one of the film’s most memorable moments. James Corden is fine and tender as the Baker, but it’s Emily Blunt who truly shines, with an emotionally rich, tour-de-force performance that allows her to sing, beautifully, for the first time on film. She’s stunning in this.

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And then, lastly, there’s Meryl. Into the Woods marks her third and last supporting role in a 2014 film, and after appearing in underwritten, disappointing parts in The Giver and The Homesman, Rob Marshall’s musical finally gives her great things to do as the Witch, who is given depth, power, and fragility in her perfectly placed moments. Like Heath Ledger’s the Joker in The Dark Knight, the character of the Witch is in Into the Woods just the right amount, with Meryl freakishly good in a role that really amounts to two different people. The first is a wounded, bitter, outrageous old witch, with shaggy gray hair, scars and wrinkles on her face, and crusty, yellow fingernails. Meryl has rarely played a character this ugly before, but it’s the Witch’s love for her daughter Rapunzel that makes her far more than a one-dimensional villain. The Witch slowly becomes someone we’re rooting for just as much as the Baker and his wife. The second character is the post-transformation Witch, a stunning beauty with curly blue hair and a regal blue gown that is alternately Meryl’s most gorgeous minutes on film. She is a hoot in the third act, with winning moments of both humor and raw emotion.

The number one joy of this movie, though, is getting to hear Meryl sing on-screen once again. She has show-stopping numbers in Ironweed, Postcards from the Edge, A Prairie Home Companion. She danced all around Greece in the musical blockbuster Mamma Mia, still to date her most successful movie. And now in Into the Woods we get three fleeting but extremely effective Meryl numbers that may mark the best her voice has ever sounded in a movie. Maybe behind all that crazy hair and make-up she felt more free, and maybe the fantastical, theatrical nature of this material convinced her to go bigger, but Meryl is a powerhouse singer in Into the Woods like she’s never been in a film before. Her “Witch’s Lament” is quietly haunting and only sad in that it doesn’t go on longer, and her emotionally powerful “Stay With Me” will likely be the clip that runs at awards shows. But it’s her final big number—“Last Midnight”—that impresses most of all, with Meryl big and alive like she rarely gets the chance to be on-screen anymore, having what looks to be, after four decades in movies, the ultimate time of her life.

There’s a scene toward the end of Into the Woods where most of the characters come together, and in one single frame Meryl stands with Christine Baranski, her Mamma Mia co-star; Emily Blunt, her The Devil Wears Prada co-star; and Tracey Ullman, her Plenty co-star. It’s not a majorly significant scene—all the characters are confronting the angry female Giant—but it was this moment, where Meryl stands with three previous co-stars, that it hit me: My Year With Meryl is finally over. What a privilege and a joy it has been for the last fifty-two weeks to watch this actress evolve, surprise, affect, and entertain. She is the best we have, the most awarded and nominated actress we have, the most incredibly talented movie star in the world, and in Into the Woods, she gives us yet another of her astonishing performances.

Thanks for an amazing year, Meryl. I will miss you.

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My Year With Meryl: The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

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When people think of movies that gross big bucks in the summer time, they’ll often think of action films, sequels, bloated studio tentpoles that cost 200 million dollars or more; most people don’t think of movies made for a female audience, and they certainly don’t assume a film with a lead actress who’s—yikes—older than fifty could possibly star in a movie that makes money. Studio executives have been known, now more than ever before, to make their summer movies for a specific demographic—teen boys—and any movie aimed at women that happens to earn a few dollars is typically regarded as a fluke. In the summer of 2006, when blockbusters like Poseidon and Superman Returns were failing, a sharp, clever, exceedingly funny film broke through and became a modern comedy classic. The Devil Wears Prada is not only one of Meryl’s most entertaining films but it was arguably her first true blockbuster.

Meryl has had a few noteworthy stages in her career. In the late 1970s, she was a supporting actress, appearing in small roles in five films and one mini-series that started to get her noticed. Throughout the 1980s, she appeared in one heavy drama after another, in complex roles that netted her a whopping six Academy Award nominations for Best Actress in a span of just seven years. From 1989 to 1992 she stretched her comedic muscles by making four comedies in a row. She moved into action with The River Wild, gave a startling performance in The Bridges of Madison County, then played it sort of safe for the rest of the 1990s with a series of mediocre dramas. In the first half of the 2000s she made a few memorable turns in Adaptation and Angels in America, and started becoming more unpredictable with her choices. And then in the second half of the 2000s she became something truly unexpected, probably by no one more than Meryl herself—a box office superstar.

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She made The Devil Wears Prada when she was fifty-six years old, an age when most actors, especially women, have been relegated to the role of the supportive mother or the wise schoolteacher. Women in their fifties almost never receive exciting lead roles in movies, and it’s practically unheard of for a woman in that age bracket to be able to open a movie. So when The Devil Wears Prada opened to twenty-seven million and went on to earn 125 million in the United States alone, more than a few people turned their heads. The only movie Meryl was a lead in prior that even came close to such a mammoth box office take was Out of Africa, in 1985, with eighty-seven million—and that won Best Picture. Many assumed The Devil Wears Prada’s high gross was a rare success story, but then it kept happening. Two years later, Meryl’s female-driven Mamma Mia opened on the same weekend as The Dark Knight, and still made 144 million nationwide (and 610 million worldwide!), her highest film gross to date. A year later Julie & Julia soared to ninety-four million, and It’s Complicated topped out at 113 million. Even 2012’s Hope Springs, a low-key relationship dramedy, made sixty-four million. For the last few years, Meryl has enjoyed a fascinating new stage of her career, and it all started with The Devil Wears Prada.

Meryl’s 2006 blockbuster is not a perfect film by any means. It’s predictable most of the way through, and while Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, and especially Emily Blunt shine in their roles, the movie would not work nearly as well without Meryl’s memorable portrayal of the boss from Hell. Hathaway, who received a major career boost of her own with this project, plays Andy Sachs, a recent college graduate who comes to New York to be a famous journalist and ends up working as second assistant to Miranda Priestley (Meryl), one of the most important and notorious fashion magazine editors in town. Working alongside first assistant Emily (the hilarious Blunt), Andy tries to survive under the dictatorship of her maniacal boss who expects everything and more for those who work for her. Miranda barks seventeen orders at Andy, then changes them, then demands her to find an unpublished Harry Potter manuscript in a matter of hours. It at times gets to be too much for Andy, especially as she tries to make a relationship work with her boyfriend Nate (Adrian Grenier). As the year goes on, however, she hits her stride at work and becomes Miranda’s most trusted assistant. Will Andy ultimately become the next Miranda Priestley and abandon the person she used to be, or will she get out before it’s too late?

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David Frankel, who had previously directed episodes of Sex and the City and Entourage, made The Devil Wears Prada colorful and fun, with a brisk pacing that almost never falters. From the quick-moving opening titles to the various fashion montages to an ending that wraps things fast and satisfactorily, this is not a slow-moving drama that takes its time. The Devil Wears Prada is meant to be a crowd-pleaser from beginning to end, and on that level, it shines. It’s a movie that knows what it wants to be but at the same time never panders to its audience. The screenplay by Aline Brosh McKenna, which was adapted from Lauren Weisberger’s popular novel, has a familiar structure, but it’s the dialogue throughout that makes this film stand out from others. Miranda’s vicious speeches and outrageous demands always yield laughs, and Emily’s put-downs to Andy might be the funniest of all. Many movies in this genre can feel too pedestrian, too manipulative at times, but such is never the case with The Devil Wears Prada.

Casting always makes or breaks a film, and in this case, the casting of the four major characters is perfect. While Andy’s boyfriend Nate could have been played by anyone—Grenier is OK but doesn’t have a lot to work with—and Simon Baker is adequate but nothing special in the role of the scheming Christian, the four leads all leave memorable impressions. Anne Hathaway was most known for playing a Disney princess before this movie (Meryl was reportedly skeptical of Hathaway’s casting in the beginning), but it was her completely charming performance in The Devil Wears Prada that signified a new chapter of her blossoming career. She is appropriately dowdy in the beginning, wearing awkward sweaters and eating onion bagels, and as well as her outer transformation into the more fashionable Andy works, it’s the change on the inside that pops off the screen. Hathaway holds her own against Meryl all the way through. Emily Blunt was plucked from near obscurity for this movie—she had mostly acted in British television productions before—and was an inspired choice for the smart-mouthed, hot-tempered Emily. “I’m one stomach flu away from my goal weight” is probably the line people remember the most but she has countless zingers all the way through. Stanley Tucci, who went on to play Meryl’s loving husband in Julie & Julia, makes the role of Miranda’s right hand man Nigel an original and ultimately endearing character, when he could have been played more selfish and stereotypical by another actor. He is at his best here, too.

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Meryl received her fourteenth Academy Award nomination for The Devil Wears Prada, one of the few she has nabbed for a comedic film, and she, more than any other actor in the film, takes a role that could have easily—very easily—been one-note and obvious, and makes it three-dimensional in every way. Remarkably, Meryl gets us to care about Miranda by the end of the movie, no small feat. When we are first introduced to her, she is the tyrannical boss who trudges down her office hallway like a Tyrannosaurus Rex willing to squash anyone who gets in her way. The early scenes where she spits out one venomous line of dialogue after another give the film some of its best entertainment value, and the monologues when she voices her disappointment in Andy are always shockingly vitriolic. Despite her being the villain of the movie, Miranda can’t always be a hateful witch, and no one knows that better than Meryl herself. Occasionally we see traces of Miranda’s personal life at home, but it’s in a heartbreaking scene in a Paris hotel room, when Meryl wears no make-up and trembles as she talks about the break-up of her marriage, that shows more than anything else Meryl’s mastery. She finds just the right balance of Miranda’s vulnerability and still brewing cynicism in this moment, the scene that made Meryl want to do the movie, and probably the scene that netted her the well-deserved Oscar nomination.

The Devil Wears Prada will never be viewed on the same level as Meryl’s masterful dramas like Kramer Vs. Kramer and Sophie’s Choice, and in a career that has seen two comedic gems—Defending Your Life and Death Becomes Her—this film might not even be considered her great comedy achievement. But in the year since its successful release it has become one of Meryl’s most beloved movies and features what will always be one of her most memorable performances. Meryl could have played the role of Miranda as a superficial villain but instead infused in her just enough humanity to show why she became this way and what she really wants out of her life and career. The Devil Wears Prada is grand entertainment every step of the way, and it remains one of my all-time favorite Meryl movies.

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