Reviews Too Late: Catch Them When You Can

by wjw on January 26, 2015

I often use this space to complain about the wretchedness of what I’ve been watching, so I thought I’d do a change-up and praise a couple films that practically everyone else seems to hate.  Both movies have colossal star power and intelligent scripts, but the problem seems to be that they’re much more intelligent than their audience and, I suspect, most of the critics.

Into_The_Woods_(film)First up is “Into the Woods,” from Disney, taken from the musical by Stephen Sondheim, and directed by Rob Marshall, who directed “Chicago.”  We’ve got Meryl Streep (who knew she could sing?), Anna Kendrick, Emily Blunt, Chris Pine, James Corden, Tracey Ullman, Billy Magnusson, “and Johnny Depp as the Wolf.”  (He’s only in the movie for maybe 10 minutes, so if you’re going solely to find out what ridiculous piece of implausible stage makeup Depp has stuck on his mug this time, you needn’t bother.)

You should really read the host of one-star reviews on IMDB to get an idea of the audience’s reaction to the movie.  First, the trailer didn’t mention the film was a musical, and the fact that the movie was full of people singing made a lot of folks hate it.  (The fact that the trailer was full of music, and that it shared the same title as a goddam famous Broadway musical seems to have gone over people’s heads.)

Next, even those who figured it was a musical thought it was going to be a cute Disney musical based on a fairy tale, like Beauty and the Beast, only sweeter and more suitable for children and with even more happily-ever-afters.  Instead they got clouted over the head by a multiple-Grammy-winning adult musical produced in the 1980s by a bunch of sophisticated New Yorkers.

Oh, the screaming!  Oh, the angst!  Oh, the utter poisonous hatred at the thought that there might be a musical intended for grownups!

Oh, the brainless people on IMDB!

For those unfamiliar with the source material, “Into the Woods” gives us a braided plot featuring Cinderella, Rapunzel, Jack (and his beanstalk), Little Red Riding Hood, a Baker and His Wife, a Wolf, a Witch, and a brace of Princes.  During the first half, the characters negotiate their fairy tales successfully, and have their Happily Ever After endings.  And then the second half explores what Happily Ever After actually means, because life just keeps going on, and delivering challenges and disappointments and angry giants and sometimes death.  And being on a journey in the woods becomes a big heaping metaphor for navigating your way through your own story, whatever story that may be.

All the characters are, basically, self-aware New Yorkers, not unfamiliar with Freud, who know perfectly well that they’re on a journey, even if they can’t quite see where it is they’re going.  Woody Allen could have written these characters.  (“Isn’t it nice to know a lot… and a little bit not…” says Riding Hood.)

They’re aware that they might be going into some kind of peril, but they also know that peril is part of the journey.

As Jack sings, “And you scramble down, and you look below at the world you left, and the things you know. The roof, the house, and your mother at the door.The roof, the house, and the world you’d never thought to explore. And you think of all of the things you’d seen. And you wish that you could live in-between. And you’re back again, only different than before.”

Anna Kendrick is about perfect to play Cinderella as a calculating big-city girl— in this version, she’s fleeing the ball not because she’s about to transform into a scullery maid, but because she can’t make up her mind whether she wants her Prince or not.  She isn’t dumb, she isn’t naive, and she isn’t wrong.  (He was, as he himself points out, “raised to be charming, not sincere.”)

Chris Pine and Billy Magnusson, as the Princes, have a wonderful duet, “Agony,” where they get to go completely over the top, tearing their shirts open and literally beating their breasts over their various romantic disappointments.   (For anyone harboring a wish to see either of these gentlemen’s bare chests, this is your opportunity.)

I was also struck by the amount of fetishism in these classic stories.  Foot fetishism in Cinderella, hair fetishism in Rapunzel . . .  and as for what’s going on between the Wolf and Riding Hood, the less said the better.

The Disney version makes some changes to the story.  The Wolf’s pedophilic attraction to Red Riding Hood is toned down, so possibly it might go over the heads of children.  Rapunzel is given an actual HEA, whereas I seem to recall that in the play she was stomped into the dirt by a giant.  The second act seems rushed in general, and the happily-ever-after song that opens Act II is missing.  And I confess myself disappointed that Emily Blunt’s character was arbitrarily killed for committing adultery, whereas her partner went off singing and scot-free.  (Though that, alas, is the way of the world.)  And I couldn’t help but notice that Jack’s cow was actually a steer, which kind of explains why it wasn’t giving milk, and the scenes where folks are trying to milk him more than a little . . . odd.  (And what was Meryl Streep drinking from that cup?)

But, y’know, minor stuff.  I had a great time, though of course I also knew what I was getting into.

200px-Inherent_vice_coverMy other thumbs-up movie is ‘Inherent Vice,” based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“Magnolia,” “The Master”), and starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Reese Witherspoon, Serena Scott Thomas, Benicio del Toro, Eric Roberts, Katherine Waterston, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, and adult film star Belladonna (“Spontaneass,” “Buttface”) as Clancy Charlock.

Despite all the amazing star power in this flick, it did only $328,184 on its opening weekend, so my advice is to see it while you can.

There are certain challenges to making a film based on a Pynchon novel— they are, for starters, essentially plotless, with characters and incidents related thematically rather than by cause-and-effect.  But Inherent Vice is probably the easiest to adapt, because it’s ostensibly a hard-boiled Los Angeles mystery, and that gives it direction, if not quite a plot.  (Though I’ve had a movie of Gravity’s Rainbow running through my head for decades now, and I’d like to make it, so somebody give me a couple hundred million dollars, okay?  I promise to make more than three hundred grand on the opening weekend, honest!)

Pynchon’s novels are given to paranoia and conspiracy, so an investigation never quite leads to a resolution, because diving into skulduggery only reveals more skulduggery, in a kind of infinite regression.  So even in Pynchon’s mystery novel, the mystery isn’t quite solved, all that can happen is that the characters have to reach some kind of accommodation with the ghastly fundamentals of their world.  And this lack of a resolution is what drives the good citizens on IMDB craaaaaaazy, because the detective doesn’t assemble all the suspects in the drawing room to reveal the villain, the way it sposed to be.

Instead “Doc” Sportello, played by Joaquin Phoenix, smokes a colossal amount of weed.  (Pynchon’s apparent political stance, dividing the human race into Stoners and Fascists, plays better in the cinema than in literature.)  The story is set in 1970, long after the sun has set on the Summer of Love, and the hippie scene has awakened with a big hangover named Charlie Manson.

In Inherent Vice, the hangover is Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen, played by Josh Brolin in a flattop so geometrically perfect that it makes his head look like a cube.  He and Doc have a co-dependent relationship, in which he is barely restrained from ripping out Doc’s intestines by the information that Doc occasionally provides to let him close cases.

The script is full of Pynchon’s writing, which is beautiful and playful and funny, and that explains why all these top-notch actors wanted to be in the movie— actors just want to say gorgeous lines, and apparently are willing to give up much of their usual fee for the opportunity.   And Pynchon’s talent for pastiche is very much in evidence, in which characters can say things like “Beware the GOLDEN FANG!”, and it turns out there’s more than one Golden Fang in the plot.  (Is it a boat?  A triad?  A professional association of dentists who discover that investing in the drug trade is more profitable than Wall Street?  Or just a pair of choppers that is used to RIP THE THROATS OUT OF SCREAMING VICTIMS?)

I wish the film had played up Pynchon’s playfulness a bit more.  Pynchon writes stories with rollicking, goofballs characters who sometimes suddenly burst into song, and he provides the lyrics, too— if you want an adult musical, this could have been one.  And I also wish the film had a bit more fun with the way Pynchon names his characters— how could the filmmakers not have taken advantage of the fact that three characters are named Dr. Buddy Tubeside, Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd, and Dr. Threeply, not to mention FBI agents named Flatweed and Borderline?

And I also wish that Joaquin Phoenix was more of a natural comedian— he’s a very fine actor, but he doesn’t top anyone’s list of funny.  But Brolin’s steely deadpan provides all the looney comedy the movie actually needs, for all that he’s the one character who never laughs.

Go see it straight, go see it stoned.  Go see it in hippie threads, go see it in cop drag.  Just bring a few of the little gray cells, and you’ll be fine.

Anonymous January 26, 2015 at 2:52 am

What is it with people and “Into the Woods”? EVERY time I see it reviewed (obviously the theatrical version most of the time) the reviewer has either gone in expecting Disney, OR they have left after the first act and missed *everything* in the second. It’s a genius piece of work for anybody who has even a passing familiarity with classic fairytales and mythology.

JaniceG January 26, 2015 at 10:36 am

Unfortunately, the ignorance surrounding Into the Woods means that many showings like mine have parents bringing little kids to a movie that is totally inappropriate and likely to scare the heck out of them besides.

Not whacking Rapunzel was a Disney request but also the realism of the movie also meant they wanted to avoid too much of a bloodbath. As for dropping the HEA song at the beginning of the second act, Lapine and Sondheim dropped it because there was no intermission after which the scene needed to be set. They also made “On the Steps of the Palace” present tense.

Michael Mock January 26, 2015 at 3:09 pm

I do wonder how many people have actually seen the second act of Into The Woods (or even know that there is one). Apparently the first half gets put on as a high school theater production — I don’t know how frequently — and I suppose some people could come away from that not realizing that the second half even exists.

Oz January 26, 2015 at 8:08 pm

Not be aware of Sondheim? Is that possible? We wanted to see it just to hear the music, frankly. Never got a chance to see the play.

I was quite surprised that Disney had made this film. Not a Meryl Streep fan (sacrilege, I know), but I was trying not to hold that against the movie. She was in Mama Mia, btw, so yes, she can sing a little. (I was underimpressed by that film adaptation…)

wjw January 27, 2015 at 4:14 am

I think we can say that Disney’s publicity department needs to learn how to publicize something that isn’t a standard Disney picture. Especially since Disney has followed everyone else into making big-budget blockbusters like “John Carter” and “Lone Ranger.”

Jim Janney January 27, 2015 at 8:17 pm

Disney used to release their more adult work under the Touchstone Pictures name. Not sure why they stopped doing that. My recollection is that the original musical runs something over three hours, so a little trimming isn’t too surprising.

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