Into the Woods Review: Show-stopping Streep-tacular

Director: Rob Marshall

Writer: James Lapine (book and screenplay)

Stars: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick

Release date: January 8th, 2014

Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 124 minutes



Best part: The dynamic performances.

Worst part: The final 25 minutes.

Into the Woods, born from acclaimed composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim’s glorious 1987 Tony Award-winning stage production, serves a specific purpose: making fun of everything you love. Despite the patronising satirical glow, his style allows theatre-goers, fantasy-epic aficionados etc. to laugh with his production and at genre art. Several years ago, fans of Sweeney Todd were treated to Tim Burton’s spirited remake starring white-faced Johnny Depp and soot-covered soundstages. So, does this one hit the high notes or fall to wailing lows?

Tinseltown’s latest Broadway-to-Blockbuster smash is up against this Oscar Season’s biggest hitters. Wholly separating itself from its WWII/manipulative biopic/satirical broadway/Hobbit-starring competition, Into the Woods flaunts its creative consultants, director, and starry cast’s better sides. Placed in the Awards-hungry musical/comedy slot, it compares favourably to every other recent musical-to-screen effort (Les Miserables, among others). This musical deconstructs significant Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales including Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk. In a small village, a wack-a-doo witch (Meryl Streep) tasks a cursed-to-never-conceive baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) to obtain four items – a cow as white as milk, a cloak as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold – before the next blue moon. For varying – albeit well-known – reasons, scullery maid turned princess hopeful Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), peasant boy Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) also venture into the dreaded neighbouring woods.

The musical-to-movie switch is a long-standing Hollywood process. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Nine) has dedicated himself to the art form. Even his songless flops, Memoirs of a Geisha and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, reek of flamboyance and grand-scale camp. Marshall efficiently applies his vast skill-set to Into the Woods, delivering a extravagance-fuelled hit rivalling Chicago‘s overt magnetism. The filmmaker, applying a unheard-of rehearsal schedule here, protects the original material’s legacy while lathering his style across each frame. Indeed, Sondheim’s outside-the-box storytelling style and pin-point sense of humour shine throughout this slick adaptation. Appealing to cinema-goers and theatre buffs alike, it snappily pays homage to Sondheim’s enduring legacy. Author/playwright/screenwriter James Lapine valiantly trims his original ground-breaking material down to fit effortlessly. This adaptation aptly carries its own heaving weight throughout its first three quarters. Marshall and co. succinctly interweave all four fairy tales into the central plot-line. Indeed, this Avengers-style gathering of fairy tale favourites draws out that inner-child-esque nostalgic glow. Its balance between anachronistic satire and old-timey fantasy fluff will satisfy families and cinephiles this Oscar season. It’s darker elements – connotations alluding to pedophilia and adultery – are overshadowed by its winning formula.

“I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” (Cinderella’s Prince (Chris Pine), Into the Woods).

Sadly, Into the Woods‘ story topples over with the full force of a giant, a carriage, and Rapunzel’s heavenly locks combined. The original premise, depicting the meaningless of life post “happily ever after” for these fictional celebrities, is preserved haphazardly for the final 30 minutes. The finale, stretching this adaptation into a discomforting fourth act, throws unrefined resolutions and peculiar tonal switches into the otherwise hearty, designed-to-win potion. Eventually, the abundance of character arcs and story-lines sends it down the wrong path. Despite these near-crippling flaws, it’s an ample antidote to our recent slew of dark, dreary fairy-tale adaptations (Snow White & the Huntsman…ZZZZZ). It simply, and smartly, lets heroes be likeable and villains be despicable. However, the cynical twang elevates its forgettable array of musical numbers. The standout, oddly enough, involves a testosterone-fuelled feud between a Hollywood heartthrob and relative newcomer. The charming princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) engage in a hysterically homoerotic number (‘Agony’) comparable to Top Gun‘s volleyball scene. Sadly, despite the cast and crew’s immense talents, the surrounding numbers struggle to escape its shadow. Red and the Wolf(Johnny Depp)’s set-piece – ‘Hello, Little Girl’ – is a mild reprieve. Streep and Blunt, yet again, deliver astounding turns in leading roles. Despite their underutilised supporting characters, Tracy Ullman, Mackenzie Mauzy, and Christine Baranski make a strong case for more big-time female roles.

Into the Woods‘ true, uncompromising magic comes from a desire to please audiences rather than shock or repel them. In the midst of imitation games, unbroken actress turned directors, and Timothy Spall’s grunts, this smash hit transitions gorgeously from the Big Apple to the bright lights. Marshall, recovering from tedious recent efforts, wholeheartedly succeeds with this hilarious and arresting fantasy epic. Its journey-better-than-the-destination vibe, for better or worse, separates it from the ‘village’.

Verdict: A family-friendly and entertaining musical-satire.

In Order of Disappearance Review: What’s Cooler than Being Cool…?

Director: Hans Petter Moland

Writer: Kim Fupz Aakeson

Stars: Stellan Skarsgard, Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen, Kristofer Hivju, Bruno Ganz

Release date: December 23rd, 2014

Distributor: Madman Entertainment

Countries: Norway, Sweden, Denmark

Running time: 115 minutes



Best part: The scatological humour.

Worst part: The female characters.

Ever tried finding a needle in a haystack? Difficult, isn’t it? Well, imagine looking for a cocaine brick in a snowstorm. Now that’s a frustrating endeavour! This strange dilemma/contemplative thought sums up Norwegian crime-comedy In Order of Disappearance. In a year of unfunny comedies, expansive blockbusters, and cumbersome Oscar hopefuls, This crime-comedy wants to be known simply as: “that little Scandinavian flick that could”. Hey, there is nothing wrong with that!

Stellan Skarsgard as Nils.

In order of Disappearance strives to call out and dissect Hollywood’s sanitized, sanction-heavy practices. In fact, it skewers everything from influential gangster/action flicks to Europe’s crumbling economic status. Sure, this isn’t the first crime-comedy with a mean streak. Boiling-pot satires In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths did this years ago. Enough with this movie’s searing viewpoints, what is it actually about? Well, to put it simply, it’s about everything and nothing simultaneously. This vague statement will become relevant whilst watching it. It follows a near-retirement slow plough driver, Nils (Stellan Skarsgard), dragging himself from one day to the next. Despite being awarded Citizen of the Year by his quaint hometown, he feels unfulfilled and underappreciated by his family. His life takes a shocking turn after his son dies of a suspected drug overdose. As we see in the first few minutes, his son crossed the wrong drug traffickers. From that point forward, Nils’ life spirals out of control. His wife succumbs to shock and rage, his work life becomes a meaningless chore, and his well-being is destroyed. Certain revelations, preventing Nils from ending it all, propel Nils to keep going.

Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen as Greven.

Determined to destroy those responsible, Nils carries out a layered private investigation of a local mob outfit and their Serbian rivals. In Order of Disappearance, from the opening hunter-becomes-hunted set-piece onwards, develops several questionable plot-lines and character traits. Nils, a reliable and submissive worker-bee, can suddenly stalk, trick, and murder vicious criminals without prior experience. The movie leaves several twists and turns without reasonable explanation. Despite said logic gaps, the narrative itself is just so fascinating! Like Nils, you are constantly on the look out for surprises. This crime-comedy delivers constant thrills whilst never talking down to its unsuspecting audience. Keeping us constantly engaged, It places certain affectations and ideas into the backgrounds of certain sequences. The Norwegian drug-runners, led by eccentric douche Greven (Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen), are comprised of blonde-haired, fashion-friendly, bloodthirsty badasses. These characters are given enough development and kooky traits to push the story along. In particular, it examines Greven’s inflated ego, vegan diet options, and modern art collections intensely. But hey, drug-traffickers and gangsters are people too.

“You Chinese are the Jews of Asia.” (Greven (Pal Sverre Valheim Hagen), In Order of Disappearance).

Bruno Ganz as Papa.

In Order of Disappearance shoots down modern genre conventions and pop-cultural stigmas in a fiery bloodbath of comedic jabs. Like Nils stalking his victims, this crime-comedy pits modern Hollywood crime/action flicks against those from other countries. Paying homage to Quentin Tarantino, the Coen Brothers, and Martin Scorsese, multiple scenes – in which henchmen delve into profound philosophical discussions – illustrate the movie’s intentions immaculately. It even rubs against the veteran-action-star trope. Nils’ sociopathic behavior repels us from the typical Liam Neeson/Denzel Washington/Keanu Reeves archetypes plaguing cinema screens today. Oddly enough, its comedic moments resonate more than the story or characters. The spirited direction and visual flourishes heighten the tension and profound emotional impact, giving its wacky moments greater impact. The slapstick sequences, hyper-violence, and witty dialogue add to the movie’s ever-lasting, self-referential glow. The movie lets its characters off the leash – henchmen frolic in the snow before their mission commences; Greven and his ex-wife’s quarrels become increasingly silly and idiotic; two homosexual gangsters seek to dispel common misconceptions. Somehow, it’s all in good taste.

Above all else, Skarsgard’s magnetic performance, as the deadly third-wheel, elevates this spirited crime-comedy. The top-tier character-actor, known for supporting roles in everything from Thor to Melancholia, excels as the silent yet soulful avenging angel. Thanks to its charismatic performances, insightful references, and attention to detail, this crime-comedy is a genre-bender willing to place Hollywood and Scandanavian crime-thriller on the chopping block.

Verdict: A fun and ferocious crime-comedy.