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INTO THE WOODS

Devotees of the musicals of Stephen Sondheim have learned to approach screen adaptations of his work with trepidation, simply because the track record has been so mixed. “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” was—apart from the helter-skelter editing—a pretty straightforward transition, but that early work is hardly characteristic. Harold Prince’s “A Little Night Music,” on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster, and even Tim Burton’s 2007 “Sweeney Todd” drew some criticism, though by and large it was pretty faithful to the source.

Rob Marshall’s take on “Into the Woods,” Sondheim’s dark 1987 fairy-tale musical, represents the culmination of a long effort to bring the piece to the multiplex, and the composer’s aficionados have fretted over the fact that it’s finally been made under the Disney imprimatur. Has it been defanged as a result? The simple answer is yes, but only to a modest degree; and enough survives, especially in what remains of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics (which is quite a lot), to make it at least the equal of Burton’s “Todd.” A good indication that the film is no bastardization of its source is that the script was written by James Lapine, author of the original stage book, who can be expected to have been a mite protective of the material, and generally is, even if some changes were required (the most notable being the ultimate fate of one important character). Still, while some of the darker elements have been toned down, Marshall’s film is still recognizably the Sondheim-Lapine piece.

“Into the Woods” is, of course, a mashed-up version of fairy-tales that Disney has used frequently elsewhere, but one in which the “ever after” doesn’t prove nearly as “happily” as in the Mouse House’s animated efforts. The medley of interlocking tales comes about as the result of on a curse by a witch (Meryl Streep) that has left the couple living next door—the town baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt)—childless. Their loneliness is punishment for the theft by the baker’s father (Simon Ruddell Beale) of the witch’s magic beans from her garden. But the witch promises to lift the curse if the baker will deliver within three days four items she needs for a time-sensitive incantation: a milk-white cow, a scarlet cape, corn-yellow hair and a golden slipper. It doesn’t take much sleuthing to realize that their quest to secure them will involve Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), for whose beloved cow they trade the purloined beans; Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), whom the baker rescues from the stomach of the lascivious Wolf (Johnny Depp); Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), imprisoned in her tower by the witch; and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), brutally treated by her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski). Other characters along for the ride are Jack’s mother (Tracey Ullman); Red Riding Hood’s grandma (Annette Crosby), and Cinderella’s stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch)—as well as Cinderella’s prince (Chris Pine) and his younger brother (Billy Magnussen), who falls for Rapunzel.

Lapine and Sondheim crafted a predictably intricate, deliciously droll scenario for Act One of the musical, in which all the characters’ stories dovetail with one another as the baker and his wife get, lose and then retrieve the necessary ingredients for the witch’s brew, and all seems to work out happily for everyone. But then the repercussions begin, and they bring with them destruction, betrayal, deaths (though not quite as many as on stage), and the melancholy realization that everything carries a price tag. While the dark elements of Act Two have been somewhat mitigated here, there’s certainly enough left to convey the idea that though wishes may come true, their fulfillment can bring unexpected, and unwanted, consequences. And that—along with the general character of the piece—is enough to suggest that while “Into the Woods” is fine for older children, very young ones probably won’t be much taken by it. Still, adults will no doubt be most receptive to the undercurrents that the authors have drawn from the tales they’ve reworked.

Of course they’ll also be won over by Sondheim’s lovely music and amazing lyrics, presented here by an exceptionally able cast of singer-actors (and, it should be noted, in the original orchestrations). Streep has a field day hamming it up as the witch, but one may well be amazed, after the travails of “Momma Mia,” at how well she belts out the songs, being particularly careful with the articulation so important to them. After the strain he exhibited in “Todd,” Depp might also seem a worrisome choice, but here he manages his single number with aplomb, and offers a seductively sinister manner that’s perfect. Kendrick’s vocal prowess, along with her charm, will come as no surprise, but the similar combination brought by Blunt might raise an eyebrow, and Corden cuts an immensely likable figure as the baker, delivering the musical numbers with absolute authority as well. Even youngsters Crawford and Huttlestone don’t disappoint, even if their characters are a bit milder than they were onstage.

And then there are Pine and Magnussen, who send up the charming princes in a style that recalls “The Princess Bride.” Their duet “Agony” is doubtlessly the single greatest crowd-pleaser the score has to offer, and as staged, acted and sung here it would be an absolute show-stopper if the projector allowed for such a thing. Pine also manages to deftly pull off the prince’s second act encounter with the baker’s wife (again, made milder than on stage), though Magnussen is shortchanged by the alterations his prince and Rapunzel undergo.

One can imagine a more magical visual setting for the sometimes jovial, sometimes Grimm convolutions of the piece, but it’s probably a good thing that Marshall opted for a smaller-scaled screen translation, in which effects and spectacle play second fiddle to the score and the performers. Still, there’s nothing wrong with Dennis Gassner’s production design, the art direction supervised by Chris Lowe, Anna Pinnock’s sets or Colleen Atwood’s costumes; and Peter Swords King’s make-up and hair design is extravagantly eye-catching, especially in Streep’s case. All is bathed in the glow of Dion Beebe’s luminous cinematography, and special thanks are due to the sound team headed by John Casali, who allow the words to register without losing the effect of the orchestral backing.

Some Sondheim loyalists may still be dismayed over any adjustments to a modern classic like “Into the Woods.” For them, the 1989 “original cast” performance filmed for PBS is fortunately still available on disc. But it’s heartening that at a time when movie musicals remain an endangered species, such loving care has gone into bringing one of Sondheim’s most ingenious, affecting works to the screen without unduly compromising what makes it so special.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

By the standards of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” series—not, by any stretch of the imagination, the equal of his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy—“The Battle of the Five Armies” isn’t bad. In fact, it’s the best of the lot, provided that you don’t mind watching roughly two hours of sustained CGI battle scenes (including a few one-on-one confrontations tossed in for variety’s sake) without much else to intrude on the mayhem. Despite the frenetic action, it’s actually easier on the eye than the previous installments, the first of which suffered from the still-imperfect 48-frames-per-second 3D format.

The movie picks up exactly where “The Desolation of Smaug” left off, with the dragon attacking the human-populated Laketown, whose buildings are incinerated or crushed while the residents attempt to flee, at times successfully. Only bowman Bard (Luke Evans) chooses to try to bring the beast down, assisted by his equally courageous son Bain (John Bell). Meanwhile the band of dwarves led by Prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) have taken possession of Smaug’s treasure within the Lonely Mountain that dominates the kingdom of Erebor, and Thorin, increasingly possessed by the greed the gold induces, grows despotic, refusing to share the hoard with anyone and demanding that his fellow dwarves find the much-desired Arkinstone. His personality change distresses peaceable Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), the hobbit who’s accompanied the dwarves at the behest of Gandalf (Ian McKellen), and has in fact discovered the stone, though he keeps it to himself.

Soon elf king Thranduil (Lee Pace) shows up with his army to demand that Thorin hand over some jewels that are part of Smaug’s trove. Bard tries to mediate, but much to Bilbo’s unease Thorin refuses any compromise. The forces of Thranduil and Bard prepare to assault the mountain fortress, but Gandalf, freed from captivity through the intervention of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Saruman (Christopher Lee), arrives to warn of the approach of a huge orc army led by Azog (Manu Bennett) that they must face together. The engagement is further swelled by a dwarf host led by Dain (Billy Connolly), and eventually by a flying squadron of Great Eagles led by Radagast (Sylvester McCoy).

While all this tumult is going on, Thorin must overcome his lust for power to join the fray, while the romantic triangle involving elf bowman Legolas (Orlando Bloom), lovely Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) will be decided as the three engage in combat against some brutish orcs. And, of course, the narrative must be taken to the point where it can act as a springboard to the “Rings” trilogy, while Bilbo’s return to the shire has to be added as a genial postscript, which allows for the brief return of Ian Holm as his older self, always an ingratiating sight.

It will aid your enjoyment of “The Battle of Five Armies,” of course, if you recognize all the curious characters named above and understand their relationships and past encounters. But even if you don’t, the movie still can entertain with its virtually non-stop action set-pieces, which are meticulously choreographed and rendered with Jackson’s customarily exquisite CGI work, though they do tend to go on to the point of near-exhaustion, especially since the addition of one new contingent after another can grow wearisome. One can also appreciate the sweetness of Freeman’s performance , and some might find Armitage’s stentorian Thorin impressive, though there’s more than a hint of low-grade Shakespeare in his ravings. A few might even be amused by Ryan Gage’s sniveling Alfrid, the erstwhile aide to Laketown’s mayor (Stephen Fry, in what amounts to a cameo), although most will probably find his antics more grating than funny. Otherwise the actors—even the hammy McKellen—play second fiddle to the visuals.

But they are marvelous visuals, done up in the cutting-edge technology for which Jackson has become famous (or infamous, if you dislike such razzmatazz). His special-effects team have worked their usual wonders, from the fire-breathing Smaug to the many varieties of grotesque orcs, and there are some stunning scenes of massed elf archers and the Lakeside city ablaze. And this time around, the images are unaffected by the problems the craftsmen faced in the first “Hobbit” entry, where the high-frame rate 3D gave extra clarity to the bigger scenes but otherwise resulted in an artificial, plastic look. Here virtually everything is crisp and clear, although there are a few instances in which the computer-generated simulacra of real actors fashioned for stunts no human could manage look like the CGI creations they are. (That’s particularly evident in the culminating fight scene for Bloom’s Legolas, though the actor certainly isn’t at fault.) For the most part, though, Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is top-drawer, and editor Jabez Olssen is to be congratulated for bringing in the picture at 144 minutes—relatively short when compared to the earlier, more meandering and digressive, installments. Once again Howard Shore contributes a score that complements the action sequences while making use of some pleasantly scaled-down melodies in the relatively rare intimate moments.

All told, “The Battle of the Five Armies” represents the pinnacle of Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy, even though it still can’t match any of the three “Lord of the Rings” installments. Nevertheless that’s a better outcome than George Lucas’ second “Star Wars” trilogy managed.