Tag Archives: Into the Woods

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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Top 10 Films to Look Forward To in 2014!

There are still plenty of 2013 films I need to see before awards season heats up, and before I write my top ten films of the year article later this month. Her. Inside Llewyn Davis. Fruitvale Station. Labor Day.

But even though I’m still playing catch-up, it’s not too early to look forward to what’s to come in 2014! Here is just a sampling of what I’m excited to see sometime during the next 365 days…

The Grand Budapest Hotel (March 7)

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Wes Anderson films are always worth watching, and his newest not only boasts one of his most impressive casts — including Ralph Fiennes, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, and Bill Murray — but also looks to be one hell of a fun ride, a period piece set in a famous European hotel. The Royal Tenenbaums and Moonrise Kingdom remain my two favorite films of his. Will The Grand Budapest Hotel surpass either one?

Noah (March 28)

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Each new Darren Aronofsky film is an event, even if his newest has been plagued with some bad press and production delays, and even though it has the massive budget of the one film of his I didn’t care for — The Fountain. It’s true I typically prefer Aronofsky lean and intimate, like with Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan. But this still looks fantastic, with a great cast that includes Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Logan Lerman. Yep, if A Beautiful Mind and The Perks of Being a Wallflower had a child… they’d name her Noah.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23)

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I haven’t been too pumped for an X-Men movie in about a decade, but there’s just too much to get excited about in the newest, imaginatively conceived installment, which blends the casts of both First Class and the original trilogy. Plus, Bryan Singer is back, having even just announced a follow-up to this film planned for 2016. My main worry is that there won’t be enough running time to hold this story and all of these characters, but my fingers are crossed it will work. This is my most anticipated movie of the summer 2014 season!

The Fault in Our Stars (June 6)

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How cool that a comedy romance about two teenagers with cancer is getting a major summer release date? John Green’s book has taken the world by storm over the last two years, so it’s not difficult to see why the studio has faith in this. The Fault in Our Stars was one of my favorite reads of 2012, but what really excites me for this is that it’s written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the screenwriters behind 500 Days of Summer, and it’s directed by Josh Boone, who made one of my favorite movies of 2013 — the underrated Stuck in Love. I can’t wait!

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11)

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If there’s one other big summer movie of 2014 to look forward to — sorry, Transformers 4, I just can’t muster up the enthusiasm — it’s the follow-up to the surprisingly terrific Rise of the Planet of the Apes, from 2011. The new teaser is fantastic, and the possibilities for where this installment can go are endless. Matt Reeves, the mastermind behind Cloverfield and the brilliant Let Me In, is at the helm this time out, and it appears the omnipresent James Franco couldn’t find time in his schedule to make an appearance in this one. Long live Caesar!

The Giver (August 15)

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One of my favorite books from high school finally gets the big-screen treatment. After years stuck in development hell, producer and star Jeff Bridges finally got this project off the ground last year, with the talented Phillip Noyce (The Quiet American) directing, and with a cast that includes Meryl Streep, Katie Holmes… and Taylor Swift?!? I hope they know what they’re doing. I have a feeling this one will either be a home run or a colossal failure. We shall see in August!

Gone Girl (October 3)

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David Fincher could direct a film about dirt and I’d be first in line. Ever since I was dazzled by Fight Club at the tender age of fourteen, I have closely followed his career, and I have yet to be disappointed by any one of his projects. I finally got around to reading the book last summer, and it’s a superbly written page-turner that should make for a brilliant adaptation. With an eclectic cast that includes Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, and Tyler Perry (!), this should be one of the best movies of the year.

Interstellar (November 7)

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Christopher Nolan. Need I say more? Like Fincher, every one of Nolan’s films has absolutely floored me, and the secrecy surrounding Interstellar only makes the project all the more intriguing. Matthew McConaughey has had one of the most astonishing career resurgences in recent history, with his stellar work lately in films like Mud and Dallas Buyers Club, and that should only continue with his lead role in this film. With Anne Hathaway, Casey Affleck, and Jessica Chastain also part of this magnificent cast, Interstellar could well be Nolan’s greatest masterpiece yet.

Dumb and Dumber To (November 14)

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Here I give you the biggest question mark of the year. Dumb and Dumber is one of my top five comedies of all time, a movie I’ve watched so much I practically know the whole thing by heart. I happily avoided the 2003 prequel, but I certainly won’t be able to avoid an official sequel that re-teams Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels, and brings back the directing duo Bobby and Peter Farrelly. The two actors have promised in interviews they weren’t interested in coming back without a great script. Will this be a worthy sequel? Or will it be one of the big disappointments of the year? I am certainly hoping for the former!

Into the Woods (December 25)

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Meryl Streep. Johnny Depp. Rob Marshall. Musical. Christmas. Five things that make me very happy, and they’re all rolled into one project! I don’t know much about the musical this film is based on, but I have a feeling this one will be a return to form for Marshall, who stumbled a bit with Nine. Of course the only thing that really matters here is that Meryl Streep plays a freaking witch. Just that is enough for me to plop my ten bucks down. I can’t wait to see this movie one year from now, and I can’t wait to see what 2014 has in store at the movies!

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