Whereas Wicked provides a creative “back story” to the events in The Wizard of Oz, Into the Woods is akin to a cinematic “mash-up’ of a few well-known Grimm fairy tales, putting a spin on them through the addition of a newly created tale of a childless baker, his wife—and a witch who will provide them with a child-- provided they can obtain certain items. As a result, the tales of “Rapunzel,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Cinderella,” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are skillfully interwoven in the exuberant first half, then turned on their heads in the more somber second half, as many of the characters discover that a “happy ending’ doesn’t necessarily mean “happily ever after.”
Purists will no doubt note there are some dropped songs, as well as some changes that ‘soften” the original show, yet Into the Woods is faithful to the tone and theme of the show (though I will say that Rapunzel’s onscreen fate is decidedly less interesting than in the original, and a younger Red Riding Hood only takes the film in a more strident, and differently disturbing direction). What is onscreen is an atmospheric, haunting parable of hope, love and disillusionment, all of it bolstered by the respectful and occasionally inspired handling of one of the best scores to have graced stage and screen.
James Corden and Emily Blunt anchor the film, both dramatically and musically, with their portrayals of the Baker and his wife; their ingenious, comical attempts to secure such items as a “cape red as blood,’ as well as their mutual determination not to surrender to adversity and despair are of inestimable value to the movie’s success. Meryl Streep is in fine form as the witch, in all her incarnations, while Tracey Ullman handles the comic and musical notes as Jack’s loving, pragmatic mom, who only wants her son to bring home the bacon (and definitely not the beans) for their milky white cow. Anna Kendrick continues to impress as a Cinderella who discovers that “Charming” doesn’t necessarily mean “sincere,” while Chris Pine masters both the comic and musical aspects of Cinderella’s Prince. His duet with Rapunzel’s erstwhile swain, entitled “Agony,” proves to be a highlight, as is his later encounter with the Baker’s Wife. The movie is filled with pleasures both incidental and major, and even if it is finally not as moving it sets out to be, Into the Woods is for the most part, an enchanting cinematic experience.
Much ado about nothing? Is this the film that launched a thousand hacks? With all the hullaballoo, one might have expected the Seth Rogen/James Franco love-fest The Interview to be a little more subversive and hilarious than it eventually is. It is certainly too cartoonish to qualify as satire, and so indulgent towards its leads (particularly James Franco’s ham-handed quirkiness) that the audience might feel like kibitzers at a private party. Yet it does make a couple of points about how politicians and media are all too willing to mislead each other, and it does have two of the best comic turns I’ve seen in a movie this year. One is from Randall Park as North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, who is depicted as (depending on the situation) fun-loving, charming, petulant, overly sensitive and dangerously insecure (especially when you have nukes at your disposal); the other is Diana Bang as Sook, Kim’s outwardly rigid and uptight media aide with some powerful, heretofore untapped feelings. When Park’s Kim and Bang’s Sook are onscreen, The Interview comes close to being the inspired lunacy that its makers intended; without them, the movie is just marking time.