by Philip Price
At the very least, Seth Rogen and writing/directing partner Evan Goldberg have kept their premises interesting and a cut above by not settling for anything conventional. With their directorial debut last year in “This is the End” they created a satire from their own and their friends’ personas while combing their genre of choice with something completely out of their comfort zone. This made for one of the better comedies of the year and some nice box office returns in the process (opening against “Man of Steel” no less) and so Rogen and Goldberg were given free reign to administer their next project, which of course became the now unavoidable “The Interview.” Despite the fact the film has now become more a point of controversy than an actual conversation piece there seems no reason to sit back and not take the film for what it actually is. Given the circumstances of how it has eventually been distributed and the feelings of indifference toward it now that the storm has finally seemed to calm I think we can all agree it wasn't worth it. All of this is to say that the movie isn't terribly funny in any kind of innovative way, but if you like the stylings of Rogen and James Franco you certainly won't be let down. There isn't even close to as much satire existing here as in the directing duo's first effort (which is kind of shocking) while it's clear Rogen and Goldberg, the writers, would like to make a few points not only about North Korea and the state of American journalism, but the state of America in general. There is a heavy commentary about the way we conduct ourselves just waiting to break free from the confines of the dick and fart jokes that run rampant the majority of the time, but in the execution of their script the guys behind “Superbad” can't help but fall back on what they know they do well. It is understandable, but if you're going to go through with such a ballsy premise relying on what you know only seems to make the final product feel that much safer and while no one necessarily wanted this movie (I can't believe it was greenlit in the first place) what they expected once it was actually made is likely a far cry from the mockery that ensues once the title hits the screen.
Franco is Dave Skylark, a hybrid of Ryan Seacrest and Maury Povich, who is little more than an uneducated dunce that somehow wound up at the forefront of entertainment news. Rogen is his producer, Aaron Rapaport, who is looking to legitimize himself as a journalist and so, when he learns that Kim Jong-un is a fan of their show, he inquires and is able to land an interview with the supreme leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Once Skylark announces that he and Rapaport will be traveling to North Korea to conduct the first globally broadcast interview with President Kim though, the CIA (in the form of Lizzy Caplan) intercepts and recruits them with the intent of "taking out" the dictator. Franco's Skylark is ready and willing based on the appearance of Caplan's agent Lacey alone, but Rogen's Rapaport is more reserved about the entire interview in general as the terms of which they're required to adhere basically constitute that Kim will be interviewing himself in his own territory. Convinced by the idea this is only their ticket to bigger and more credible news stories and interviews though Aaron decides to go along with the gig. The boys are trained in a strict plan on how to kill the dictator, but naturally things go awry and hijinks ensue that are only elevated by the environment of the most unpredictable place on earth. With that kind of set-up one naturally settles in to see where things will go and with both characters, their motivations and their dissonant, but overall objectives in line with one another I was hooked into wondering how they might either pull this off or have it blow up in their faces. I trusted that Rogen and Goldberg, no matter which path they chose, knew what they were doing well enough to execute the narrative in a funny fashion while making pointed criticisms and exposing the ridiculous elements of Kim's politics. While the irony and (somewhat) exaggerated aspects of Kim's reign are only part of the mix the majority of the film is telegraphed so early on nothing comes to serve as truly shocking, genre-bending, innovative or even risky.
The trailers for the film gave us an idea of a broader and much bigger film that Rogen and Goldberg were creating with “The Interview” and they seemed to handle it all rather well. A good portion of that promise remains intact. What is most impressive about the final product is that the film still feels like something of a small-time comedy where Rogen and Franco are somewhat attempting to play a Laurel and Hardy-type duo where they guide each other through pratfalls and exchange dialogue that constantly sees Rogen's character trying to help Franco's Skylark understand the circumstances of the real world around him and not the one where this is going to be a fun road trip of sorts. It is when the guys reach North Korea and the role Rogen is playing switches to Randall Park's interpretation of Kim that the dynamics change and things become a little more obvious. It's hard to tell if they weren't trying to piss people off too much or if they thought it would just be really funny, but once the avid Skylark fan and Skylark finally meet they hit it off like old friends who haven't seen one another in twenty years. Franco, as you may have forgotten, is a solid actor that has something of a range and can play to the hilt the type of personality necessary to further a story. He can be really funny here, but he doesn't seem to know when to pull back. His schtick begins to wear thin after a while and the actor is unable to gauge when to go for it and when to keep it on reserve and instead just goes for it non-stop. Skylark is someone who, if he were real, would (hopefully) never be taken seriously, but in the context of the movie we can't tell how much of a joke he is in respect to the industry he works within whereas it is clear his show is not considered threatening or of any artistic or journalistic merit. Rogen, on the other hand, is a regular joe of sorts just looking to be taken more seriously in his line of work and probably better his reputation if not his self-confidence. Rogen has always played a version of Rogen and that changes little here, but he is the straight man to Franco's outlandish personality and does it well enough on his strong sense of humor alone.
The real show-stopper here though is Park, who is asked to play a man that has been described as a tyrannical dictator, but who the movie portrays as a spoiled rich kid that has turned out to be lonely in his reign over a country with a population of nearly 25 million people. It is an interesting, if not well-worn approach to those with an incredible amount of power and responsibility-something we've seen battled in a number of films this year that deal with legacy and reputation, but Park plays up the character arc he is given to perfection until the themes and ideas behind the film collapse in on themselves. There are moments of near greatness in The Interview. Namely, when the supreme leader and Skylark share a moment in a tank over a Katy Perry song that is only the beginning of a great running gag or even the slapstick moments dealing with a Siberian tiger that reinforce the Laurel and Hardy elements of Rogen and Franco's camaraderie. Still, as the film builds closer to its climax and certain allegiances are formed and plans laid out there is a sense the commentary might build to a point where what Rogen and Goldberg really wanted to say might actually come out. These guys set it up to where their initial plan of assassinating Kim might not be necessary if they can use the powers of their profession to elicit an image of the leader that might be cause for his own people to rebel. They decide to go the alternate route of violence and instead hope to inspire logic and reasoning in the people of the world only to quickly revert to (Spoiler! if you haven't seen it plastered all over the internet) killing Kim in a grotesque fashion that makes little to no effective statement. The way in which Rogen and Goldberg convey the killing of Kim is in a rather madcap fashion which, again, stays in line with the more slapstick nature of the film, but regardless it is the loss of the more biting ridicule of not just North Korea, but humanity in general that is lost when a comedy actually had the opportunity to say something profound. Despite the outside factors I was eager to see what artistic strides Rogen and Goldberg might have made and if this would be another hit for the new prime of their careers or if it might be a misstep just as things were getting good again. All of that doesn't seem to matter as much now given the publicity the stars have garnered, but simply in terms of the content this can't help but feel like something of a missed opportunity.
by Philip Price
Director Rob Marshall returns to the musical with a film adaptation of “Into the Woods,” Stephen Sondheim's 1986 concoction that intertwines the plots of several Brothers Grimm fairy tales. Given this was produced by Disney though, many will surely think of it as another way for the mouse house to repackage their most classic of animated tales and turn them into a new holiday hit. Those same people will likely be somewhat surprised when some of the more violent twists of the Grimm tales come to light in the film. All of that said, Marshall's version of “Into the Woods” feels like a missed opportunity more than anything. I haven't seen the Sondheim play that serves as the source material, but I imagine there is much more to it than what has been put to the screen here. This film version never delves too deep into the familiar tales the main characters are taken from (which is fine) but it also doesn't have enough material in its original aspects to fill out the running time of a feature and so the last almost hour ends up feeling completely tacked on. This is a shame, really, because as far as musicals are concerned I was really digging what they were doing story-wise and Marshall has a keen eye for how to shoot people singing dialogue while making it exhilarating. What I don't understand is why they weren't able to somehow extend the story into one cohesive narrative rather than seeming to wrap up all the storylines nicely only to unravel them over the next 50 minutes so we end up with a less than satisfying conclusion that, more than anything, undermines all they'd worked so hard to set-up in the first place. And while this certainly takes a fair amount of enjoyment out of an experience you expect to be filled with familiar character tropes and choreographed numbers there is still plenty to feast your eyes and ears upon. “Into the Woods” may not be everyone's cup of tea and it may not even prove to be appealing to those who compare it to the stage show, but what it offers and what detracts just about even each other out to the point we care about what's happening while we're watching it, but won't remember a thing the next day.
“Into the Woods” twists the Brothers Grimm fairy tales into a musical format incorporating the likes of classic tales such as Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his Beanstalk as well as Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy). Each of these familiar stories are tied together by the original element that involves a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who wish to begin a family, but have been cursed with a spell by The Witch (Meryl Streep) that lives next door. This curse prevents the baker from reproducing, but if he is willing to go out and obtain four specific items it would allow The Witch to conjure up a potion to reverse her spell. What The Witch gets out of the bargain and why she comes to the door of the baker and his wife in the first place is something of a mystery, but people are singing while conveying full-fledged conversations so we forgive a certain amount of logic. The Witch instructs the baker that she needs a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold in three nights time and so the stage is set. These items of course pertain to the familiar characters while adding a new perspective on their original narratives. Red Riding Hood still runs into the wolf (Johnny Depp) and leads him to her grandmother’s house, Jack still trades the cow (you know, the one that's white as milk) for beans that in turn grant him access to a land of giants and Cinderella still goes to a ball despite the warning of her wicked stepmother (Christine Baranski) and step-sisters (Lucy Punch and Tammy Blanchard) to meet a charming prince (Chris Pine), though Rapunzel does seem to get the short end of the stick here. And yet, while the goal of the plot would seem to be for the baker and his wife to obtain their items and reverse the spell this conflict is resolved in a surprisingly efficient manner and so when everything comes to pass that makes all that was wrong seem right the 45 minutes left to go left me feeling as if I'd watched two different movies.
The catalyst that sets this second part of the film into motion is an unexpected "earthquake" that leads all of our main characters back "into the woods." Naturally, this is a repercussion of the actions the baker and his wife took to reverse their spell from The Witch, but these repercussions are never incorporated into the story as well as the fairy tale elements are in the first half. There are plenty of unexplained facets of the script that I might have missed, but don't feel like there is sufficient enough time devoted to them. It is a strange predicament for a film as most at least feel cohesive throughout and while the tone and musical stylings are consistent, the events and turns that begin to take place once everything is thrown out of whack also seem to come out of left field to the audience. The first of which are the reasoning behind many of the transformations within the witch, followed by relationship reversals dealing with the Prince and Cinderella. Kendrick's lowly maid turned princess always showed a sense of hesitation to commit to Prince Charming, but not until this fracture occurs do we see any real evidence of that suggestion take place. There are of course other seeming inconsistencies, but without spoiling too much it seems it is the overall objective of the musical to take our expectations and twist them into something deeper, something more interesting by relaying real world themes through a fantastical world, but the problem is (in the film version at least) it doesn't know how to accomplish incorporating and conveying these undercurrents.
Much could be discussed concerning the arc of Emily Blunt’s role as she encapsulates much of what other characters are singularly present for. Though she plays what is essentially a minor role in the grand scheme of things it is her that ends up connecting the most with the struggle of what is being presented. She is a wife, craving to be a mother, she is selfless while willing to do whatever it takes to fulfill her wishes and she is brave while fearing where her status as a peasant places her in the world. Blunt is such a diverse actress, able to take on any state of mind and believably bring that to a character with little effort and while “Into the Woods” looks to discuss how life isn't a fairy tale through the meanings and consequences of large topics such as responsibility, children, legacy and all that comes along with our pre-destined roles it is the path of her simpleton that best displays the films thoughts on life and our experiences in it.
As for the rest of the ensemble cast, each do more than I might have ever expected from a group of non-Broadway actors signing up to sing. Streep, per usual, is fantastic as The Witch. When she breezes into the bakers shop in her first scene and spits out rhyme after rhyme, upping the intensity all while discussing her garden and her greens it is clear she is not only having a fair amount of fun, but is spewing her sing-song dialogue with such delight that she is camping it up to a certain extent so as to be on par with the comedy of the piece. The comedy of it all plays greatly into the ridiculousness of the fact this is a musical while the actors play amp up the trope aspects of their roles because the point of using familiar characters is the fact they are indeed tropes. Excelling at this especially is Chris Pine who, along with Billy Magnussen, exploit their cheesy Prince Charming facades in a hilarious number about agony while never failing to reveal themselves as the spoiled, shallow brats they truly are. Kendrick, furthering something of a musical niche for herself, is perfectly cast as a kind of alternative Cinderella where she is asked to approach the male on a pedestal with a more leveraged look and in doing so translates the little significance of looks and wealth in a loving relationship. Along with Blunt, Corden is especially sincere (and naturally funny) in his emitting of dealing with his past to make better his future. Mauzy is the one we hardly get to know as her underdeveloped Rapunzel suffers from the story not integrating her into the narrative given her character matters little other than to develop The Witch further.
As with many a musical it is the production value combined with the talent that really allow them to either leave an impression or not. In both of these regards, “Into the Woods” excels. From the opening shot and note the film possesses an energy that is contagious. The interaction among the characters is smooth, the directives of each individual set-up and the songs intelligently thought out and worded to the point we are caught up in paying attention to what is being sung so that we don't miss a thing. Marshall and his production designer, Dennis Gassner, have crafted a gorgeous film with richly detailed sets and lighting that melds the grimness of reality in a dark wood and the stage production that takes us out of that reality just enough to know this is all still within the realm of make-believe. It feels more difficult to assign this film a rating than usual given I enjoyed so many aspects of it and really wanted to love it after we were allowed to really dig into the quest, but in trying to do something with more substance, in trying to really say something it falters in its execution. This is certainly a trait to be admired and appreciated even though what we end up with is something of a muddled message.