REVIEW: Into the Woods

17 12 2014

The last time a Stephen Sondheim musical received a screen adaptation, Tim Burton and company decided to completely obliterate what made the stage show of “Sweeney Todd” special in order to make the story cinematic.  So when Disney announced they would be making a filmic version of Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” all signs pointed to them turning the revisionist fairy-tale musical into something akin to their hit TV show “Once Upon a Time.”  In other words, it could be a Marvel-style converging universe for Grimm’s Brothers tales.

Somehow, against the odds, “Into the Woods” maintains its integrity.  Disney does not force a pop-friendly ditty into the fabric of Sondheim’s notoriously tricky melodies and tough rhythms.  The soundtrack, likely to the pleasure of parents everywhere, boasts no “Frozen“-style tunes that demand playing on repeat.  These songs are better, or at least more purposeful – they tell a powerful story.

Sondheim’s music explores not just the wishes, dreams, and desires that come with the fairy tales.  The lyrics also deliberate the often neglected flip side of these: decisions, responsibility, and consequences.  “Into the Woods” head-fakes its first happily ever after in order deliver an extended post-script, daring to ask whether characters like Cinderella actually made the best decision for themselves.

Rob Marshall, thankfully channeling more of his masterful work on “Chicago” than his dreadful job on “Nine,” orchestrates this massive ensemble reevaluating their respective outcomes with a remarkable economy.  Everyone gets their moment, both in song and dialogue, to express their introspection.  Even with a few numbers truncated or cut altogether, “Into the Woods” still gets its message across with a great balance of obvious telling for the children and subtle hinting for the adults.

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REVIEW: Nine

30 12 2009

About midway through “Nine,” Stephanie, the Vogue reporter played by the ravishing Kate Hudson, informs us that “style is the new content” for her readers.  Applying that quotation to Rob Marshall’s latest film adaptation of a Tony Award-winning musical, the movie is a flashy work of pure artistry that dazzles the eye.  While style is a crucial part of “Nine,” the movie will be remembered for its phenomenal cast who turn in mostly solid performances but are thwarted by inept direction.

The movie’s story is indirectly based on the life of Italian film director Frederico Fellini, yet it seems to now have some striking parallels to the recent downfall of Tiger Woods.  Guido Contini (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a beloved director, yet his last two films have been somewhat underwhelming.  He hopes to steer himself back on the path to success with a new film, “Italia.”  However, he is in such mental anguish because he cannot commit himself to anything or anyone.  Guido has a gorgeous wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard) at home whom he constantly neglects in favor of the temptress Carla (Penelope Cruz).

And the problems with women don’t end there.  He has to deal with his indignantly querulous muse (Nicole Kidman), an American reporter who is quite the flirt (Hudson), a sassy costume designer and old friend who can sense the torment (Judi Dench), and his mother (Sophia Loren) whose legacy still haunts him.  As Guido tries to find inspiration through these women, bouncing between past and present, he only finds himself more conflicted and lost.  One major success of “Nine” is using cinematic devices like choppy editing and constant changes between black and white and color to show this torture.  Daniel Day-Lewis is plenty capable of showing it as well, although his voice lacks some of the vocal power that the Broadway actors had in this part.

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What To Look Forward To In … December 2009

14 11 2009

What is in my mind the finest month for the movies is almost here!  Let Marshall guide you through the best and steer you away from the worst, but most of all enjoy!  The studios have been holding back their best movies all year to dump them all here, where they can get serious awards consideration.

December 4

A major Oscars wild-card is “Brothers.”  No one really knows what to make of it.  If the movie hits big, it could completely change the game.  But it could just fly under the radar like most expect it to now.  However, the trailer makes it look as if it the movie could be absolutely mind-blowing.  Directed by Jim Sheridan, who has received six Academy Award nominations, “Brothers” follows Grace Cahill (Natalie Portman) as she and her daughters deal with the loss of her husband, Sam (Tobey Maguire), in war.  Sam’s brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes to live with Grace to lend a helping hand.  But romantic sparks fly between the two at precisely the wrong time: the discovery that Sam is alive and coming home.  With the two brothers both tugging Grace’s heart for their share, a different type of sparks fly.

You have heard me say plenty about “Up in the Air.”  If you haven’t read my Oscar Moment on the movie or heard my bliss at the release of the trailer, let me give you one more chance to hope on the bandwagon.

But the movies don’t stop there.  “Armored,” an action-drama that is tooting its own moral horn, starring Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne.  “Everybody’s Fine” appears to be a holiday movie, so that might be worth checking out if you’re in the spirit.  The movie, a remake of a 1990 Italian film by the same name, stars Robert DeNiro as a widower who reconnects with his estrange children.  And “Transylmania” looks to cash in on the vampire craze sweeping the nation by satirizing it, but I doubt it will be financially viable because it is being released by a no-name studio and without any big names.

December 11

The highlight of the weekend for many will be “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s return to the traditional animation by hand musical.  The movie looks to capitalize on what we know and love Disney musicals for, adding some catchy tunes to a fairy tale we have known since childhood.  Anika Noni Rose, best known for her role as Lorrell in the film adaptation of “Dreamgirls,” lends her talented voice to the princess Tiana.  As a huge fan of “Dreamgirls” during the winter of 2006, I couldn’t think of someone better equipped to handle the sweet, soft Disney music (which isn’t designed for belters like Beyoncé or Jennifer Hudson).  That being said, the music won’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard from a Disney fairy tale.  It is being scored by Randy Newman, not Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” etc.), and will have a jazzy feel much like its setting, New Orleans.

This week also boasts the opening of three major Oscar players. Two have been featured in Oscar Moments, “Invictus” and “A Single Man.” The former opens nationwide this Friday, the latter only in limited release. I’ll repost the trailers below because they are worth watching. But read the Oscar Moment if you want to know more about the movies.

According to the people that matter, “The Lovely Bones” has all the pieces to make a great movie. But for summer reading two years ago, I read the source material, Alice Sebold’s acclaimed novel. I found it dreadfully melodramatic and very depressing without any sort of emotional payoff to reward the reader for making it through. But maybe Hollywood will mess up the novel in a good way. If any movie could, it would be this one. With a director like Peter Jackson and a cast including Saiorse Ronan (“Atonement”), Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, and Susan Sarandon, it could very well happen.  It opens in limited release on this date and slowly expands until its nationwide release on Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2010.

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Oscar Moment: “Nine”

25 10 2009

This edition of “Oscar Moment” concerns one of the favorites since last year’s Oscars finished.  People have huge expectations for “Nine,” and if it fails to live up to them, the repercussions could be disastrous.  It has every reason to succeed, though, based on a pedigree so impressive that it could be never be matched again.  It has been a favorite in the Oscar race ever since it was announced; however, at the time of this posting, it remains a wild card in the race because no one has seen the full film yet.

Christmas Day always brings some of the year’s most spectacular movies.  Possibly the best of this year’s offerings is the musical “Nine.”  If it is anything less than spectacular, it will be a disappointment.  It is directed by Rob Marshall, the Oscar-nominated director of Best Picture winner “Chicago.”  The star of the movie is two-time Academy Award-winner Daniel Day-Lewis as Guido, a film director tormented by the women in his life.  And these are not just ordinary women.  They are played by Oscar winners Marion Cotillard, Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Judi Dench, Sophia Loren, nominee Kate Hudson, and the illustrious Fergie.  The musical which provides the basis of the film won 5 Tony Awards including Best Musical.  The musical is based on the life of beloved and renowned director Frederico Fellini.  Are you impressed yet?  “Nine” had me at Rob Marshall. (NOTE: Recognize this?  It was in my November preview post, but Harvey Weinstein decided to push the movie’s release back to December.  It’s not plagiarism if you quote yourself, right?)

Let’s talk the ladies of “Nine.”  Because barring an absolute flop of the movie, Daniel Day-Lewis is assured a nomination just by virtue of being Daniel Day-Lewis.  The Academy loves him, and because he makes so few movies, they make it a point to reward him when he does.  Five of the women seem to have a legitimate shot at Oscar gold (Fergie and Kate Hudson have only minor parts), but as I discussed with “Up in the Air” earlier, this is great for moviegoers and bad for actresses.  The three scenarios I outlined there (one gets nominated, both get nominated, neither gets nominated) work when dealing with two actresses; “Nine” could have up to five campaigning for supporting actress.  Thus, we must deal with “Nine” in a completely different way.

Word on the street (and by street, I mean blogs) is that Marion Cotillard, who plays Guido’s wife, has enough screen time that she can be put in the leading actress category.  The filmmakers showed enough confidence in Cotillard that they turned a new number written for three women into a solo for her.  My guess is that this is where the ad money will push her.  Harvey Weinstein knows how to work the system, and he wants the most nominations he can get.  Voters might be hesitant to put three “Nine” ladies in one category, but he knows they would probably be willing to vote one for lead and two for supporting.

So if Cotillard goes lead, who will be the nominee(s) for Best Supporting Actress?  Despite all the talent, history tells us that “Nine” will probably be limited to two nominees in the category.  Only “Tom Jones” in 1963 managed to sneak in three women; that movie won 4 Oscars including Best Picture.  More notable though is that it did not collect the statue for Best Supporting Actress.  The loss is due to a familiar phenomenon: vote splitting.  It is how “Dreamgirls” and “Enchanted” managed to lose Best Original Song.  Voters want to reward the movie, but they can’t rally behind a single nominee and someone else wins.  But luckily for “Nine,” Harvey Weinstein has played this game many times.  My guess is that he will start campaigning all the actresses evenly, but as more reviews come in and people see the movie, he will push the clear favorite.

At this time, the favorite is unknown.  But based on the Broadway productions of the musical, an educated guess can be formed.  In the original Broadway production, the Tony Award winner for Best Featured Actress was Liliane Montevecchi for her portrayal of Lilliane, Guido’s producer.  In the movie, Liliane will be played by Judi Dench, who won this category back in 1998 for playing Queen Elizabeth for all of six minutes in “Shakespeare in Love.”  Dench also has 5 other nominations, only one of which came from the supporting category.  However, the research I have done seems to suggest that Lilliane is not a very flashy role.  She does not have a solo song, and even if she is an integral part of other numbers, that seems to suggests that she is more of a subtle presence than a central part of the plot.  (This is my interpretation from three years of musical theater experience.)

On the other hand, Penelope Cruz has the fiery role of Carla, Guido’s mistress.  This role won Jane Krakowski (“30 Rock”) a Tony Award for the revival of “Nine” in 2003.  Contrastingly to Lilliane, Carla has an absolute show-stopping number: “A Call to the Vatican.”  All the pictures of Cruz doing acrobatics in skimpy clothing are from this number.  I have been listening to it for months, and I am really excited to see what she can do with it.  Carla is more directly involved with the main storyline, really closer to a lead than a true supporting actress like Lilliane.  I think Cruz is the most likely nominee from the bunch for this reason, although voters might be hesitant to give her the prize because she won it last year.

The remaining prospects left to touch on are Sophia Loren, who plays Guido’s mother, and Nicole Kidman, who plays Claudia, the star of Guido’s new movie.  Guido’s mother barely appears in the plot summary anywhere, so I can only see a nomination plausible for Loren if the Academy falls head over heels for “Nine” and nominates Loren for nostalgic purposes.  Although I will say, Guido’s mother sings the titular track “Nine,” and it is the sweet thing that melts voters.  Claudia, on the other hand, has several beautiful numbers with Guido.  Nicole Kidman has shown her capability with handling musicals – in fact, it’s how she got her first Academy Award nomination.  But as for being an audience or critical favorite, Claudia has seem to have fallen short on Broadway.  The role was only nominated for one major award, the slightly less prestigious Drama Desk, during its two runs on the Great White Way.  I am most excited to see how this story plays out; that is, if audiences treasure Kidman especially or if she plays second fiddle to the other actresses like on stage.

As I now look back and see how much I have written, it just gets me more and more excited for Oscar season to really kick off!  Can we get the countdown started until Christmas please?

BEST BETS FOR NOMINATIONS: Best Picture, Best Director (Rob Marshall), Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress (Penelope Cruz/Judi Dench), Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Original Song

OTHER POTENTIAL NOMINATIONS: Best Supporting Actress (Nicole Kidman/Sophia Loren), Best Adapted Screenplay

P.S. – Check out this amazing new trailer, showing the transformation of “Nine” from rehearsal to production.