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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F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 29, 2011)

29 07 2011

Was “Midnight in Paris” not enough Woody Allen for you this summer?  Was his latest film so dazzling that you are suddenly curious to delve deeper into his extensive filmography?  If you answered yes to either of these questions, perhaps you ought to check out “Small Time Crooks,” Allen’s 2000 annual that bubbles with humor and excitement in a way that only he can deliver.

It’s a recipe for chaos when the blundering criminal Ray (Allen) asks his short-tempered manicurist wife Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) to be a front for his latest thieving operation.  She runs a cookie shop aboveground while he and his dim-witted partners from prison work underground to tunnel into the vault of the adjacent bank.  The success story, however, gets inverted when Frenchy’s cookies become a runaway sensation and Ray’s robbery totally fizzles.

All of a sudden, fast forward a year and Frenchy and Ray have incorporated their cookie company, coming into more money than they could ever dream of.  How they react, however, is totally different.  Ray wants to remain the same, humble to his low-brow roots, while Frenchy becomes obsessed with joining the elitist art crowd of New York City … which is less than happy to take in white trash with money like her.

Their divergent paths lead to inevitable humor as Ray becomes involved with Frenchy’s spacy cousin May (Elaine May) and Frenchy recruits a high-class aristocrat, David (Hugh Grant), to train her for entry into high society.  It’s not incredibly deep, but it’s a fun examination nonetheless of class in America and how money can affect some parts of our lives but leave other aspects totally unaffected.  And in that uniquely Woody Allen fashion, “Small Time Crooks” can make you laugh in spite of its mopiness and defeatism.