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Films
by David J. Skal

CHANGELINGS


THERE IS A pervasive fairy tale about movie adaptations of Broadway musicals, and it goes something like this: Wide-eyed but talented innocents from the Great White Way venture with their beloved baby into the strange thickets of Hollywood, where they are told there is a golden statuette that might confer enormous power. In their excitement, they get lost. The baby is stolen by strange creatures and replaced with a changeling travesty they no longer recognize as their own. Fairy-folk around the world are inconsolable. There is no happy ending.

Contrary to general wisdom, in the real world this Oscar season, we have an unexpected, very happy ending in Disney's immensely enjoyable film version of the 1987 Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine musical Into the Woods. Directed by Rob Marshall and headlined by Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, and Chris Pine, the movie includes many other talented folk, such as Tracey Ullman and Christine Baranski. Sondheim, the last living legend of the golden age of Broadway songwriters, and best known for brittle, world-weary sophistication, here gives us a warmer offering, though one not without shadows. Into the Woods is a genial postmodernist mashup of the Brothers Grimm, with at least one haunting melody ("No One Is Alone") that ranks with Sondheim standards like "Send in the Clowns." The dazzling wordplay of the lyrics is a joy in itself, often rising to the level of the best Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs.

Of course, as in every big-screen adaptation of a novel, play, or Broadway musical, liberties were taken. Disney demanded a two-hour film, and fortunately co-creator Lapine (who also directed the original Broadway production and wrote the screenplay), oversaw the cuts, with Sondheim's approval. Gone is the Narrator, a nice conceit of the musical—especially when the characters begin to resent his power, start talking back and even contemplate using him as an appeasing meal for a rampaging giant. No less than eight songs were cut or reduced to snippets of underscoring. The one big "ouch" moment is the deletion of the especially moving ballad, "No More," as a character copes with personal tragedy and loss near the end of the film.

The story turns on the Witch (Streep) and her embattled efforts to undo two curses, one on her, and one she earlier placed on the Baker (Corden) and his Wife (Blunt), whom she enlists to retrieve charmed objects from well-known fairy tales—magical beans and a cow from "Jack and the Beanstalk," a golden slipper (a variant version of "Cinderella"), a red cape (from "Little Red Riding Hood"), and yellow hair (from "Rapunzel"). The witch role was created on stage by Bernadette Peters, deservedly legendary as Broadway singer and just as gifted as an actress. But her trademark baby-doll brand of beauty hampered her as the Witch, and she played the role behind a rubbery, snaggle-toothed mask. Streep's patrician features are far better suited for witchery, and she claims to have received offers for three witch roles on a single day, but accepted none before Into the Woods. Streep received knocks for her singing in Mamma Mia! (also based on a stage musical), but here she holds her own with the best of them—and know that all these performers have great voices. Streep is particularly good in her rendition of the Witch's bitter, show-stopping Götterdämmer-song, "The Last Midnight," just before she vanishes, down below, where the goblins go.

Johnny Depp is given a higher billing than the size of his part as the Wolf really deserves; the character comes on early and is killed off quite quickly, but Depp nails (or claws) the deliciously smarmy part, immeasurably aided by a complete rethinking of the costume. On Broadway, Robert Westenberg had the unenviable task of acting in full-body fur with realistic genitals sewn on, and sang behind an unconvincing snout mask that completely hid his features. Depp sports a jazzy zoot suit, with pointed ears piercing the fedora, and has whiskers that are hipster-fashionable.

There have been many well-received stage revivals of Into the Woods of late, most of them creatively innovative. The one thing that can't be altered is the music, and therefore the show has the basic safety net of being somewhat actor-proof; the pacing and delivery is more or less preordained by the propulsive score. The actors in the film couldn't be more different from the original Broadway cast, and yet they're all just as appealing while delivering the identical songs.

But some aspects of the film illustrate the difficulties of rendering an essentially theatrical concept into a CGI realm of quasi-realistic high-definition fantasy. On stage, there were perfect moments that couldn't work anywhere but in a theater. The hilarious depiction of Red Riding Hood and Granny's escape from the belly of the wolf, as if they were climbing out of a clown car, isn't even attempted on screen. As a consolation prize, of sorts, we get a queasy rendering of Red's initial oral incorporation—a surreal admixture of Alice's rabbit-hole, Fantastic Voyage, and an endoscopy.

Then there is the matter of Rapunzel's hair, which is shorn twice, by two different characters. Hmm…did it just grow back? If so, why cut it off to begin with? One of the cuttings was supposed to be a punishment. At least one other audience member at my Christmas Day screening confessed his bewilderment as well. This was so irritating and confusing I actually went back to see the film a second time. And, indeed, because of some needlessly fast editing, coupled with at least one sloppy continuity lapse, the impression is given that much more than hair went missing in the film. Things are, however, made crystalline on the video of the Broadway production, taped for public television in the early 1990s. On stage, Rapunzel had two long braids, a point made with effortless economy. In the film she has only one, and the ensuing, visually complicated manner in which the Baker's Wife manages to steal only half of it is delivered almost subliminally. That blond mono-braid probably cost as much as all the costumes for the original show. Sometimes a $50 million budget just gets in the way when a couple of planks and a passion will work just fine.

 

*   *   *

 

Another cross-media adaptation, Predestination, based on Robert A. Heinlein's 1959 short story "'—All You Zombies—'" almost makes one wish Heinlein had expanded his sketch-like concept to a novel, for which Predestination may be an alternate universe stand-in. Then again, "'—All You Zombies—'" is a tricky little tour-de-force that can be difficult to appreciate, or even completely comprehend, on a quick reading, and the longer, twice as twisty (though meticulously crafted) Predestination will likely find its largest audience among DVD and VOD viewers who can skip, rewind, and re-view to their hearts' content—and then argue endlessly online about what they've seen, or think they've seen.

The narrative is difficult to encapsulate without spoiling the intended, slap-your-forehead epiphany that ties all the story threads together in the end, but without putting at least a few things on the table, it can't really be talked about at all. So if you don't want to know anything, stop reading here. The story involves time travel, a sex change operation, and all the things that can go wrong (or be made right?) by tinkering with a historically disastrous past. Ethan Hawke plays the Barkeep, a noirishly opaque character, apparently of the 1970s, who is actually a Temporal Agent, or time traveler, charged with providing major crimes and acts of terrorism in the past. He takes an unexplained interest in a scruffy, vaguely androgynous young man (Sarah Snook) who wanders into the bar, a writer who calls himself the Unmarried Mother after the byline he uses as a hack writer for confession magazines. His alternate name is John, which is an alternate for Jane, the name he used when he was a girl, who was impregnated by a young man, who vanished into thin air and who ruined her life and her body. If that wasn't enough, the baby vanished, too.

The Barkeep tells her he already knows about her situation, and who the father is. Would John/Jane like to kill him? And maybe be willing to time-travel to carry things out?

To expand a very short story to feature length, filmmakers Michael and Peter Spierig (who last helmed the vampire apocalypse Daybreakers, also starring Hawke) add material only alluded to in the story by Heinlein, but filled out in admirable imitation of Heinlein's style. Also in respect of Heinlein, they even leave in place the story's odd concept of transsexualism, uninformed even by 1958 standards; Heinlein obviously heard of Christine Jorgensen, but couldn't possibly have read much about her actual case. He posits a hitherto unknown condition of latent hermaphroditism, uncovered during an emergency Caesarean section that damages beyond repair the Unmarried Mother's reproductive system. Fortunately, tucked away inside the bio-wreckage is a ready-to-grow set of male genitals, apparently just needing a little air and sunlight for encouragement. Heinlein's conceit is transplanted verbatim to the film, and then the Spierigs add several more Heinlein-inspired layers, including the revealed-to-be-pertinent terrorist known as the "Fizzle Bomber" and some full facial-transplant plastic surgery.

Time travel is arguably the most preposterous of familiar science fiction tropes, and the reasons it can never work are legion. Nonetheless, it remains a stubbornly surefire literary and cinematic pipe dream. The paradoxes of revisiting times and places where one may already exist can easily become narrative, if not existential, quicksand; Predestination evokes the worm Ouroboros, eating its own tail and contemplating its nonexistent navel forever. By keeping its explorations in the distant future, H. G. Wells's The Time Machine avoided such traps. Since Wells, the most common use of the time hopping has been visiting the past in order to change events, with all the difficulties and conundrums such changes inflict on the future. Predestination is a welcome addition to the latter camp, and greatly assisted by intelligent writing, direction, and acting. The ever-busy Ethan Hawke once again finds time for a challenging script (the twelve-years-in-the-making Boyhood in which he starred might in itself classify as a sui generis time-travel film). Hawke's intensity anchors and balances an ultimately absurd situation with just the right amount of gravity to help suspend one's ever-nagging disbelief. Snook is a just-emerging Australian actress (the film was shot in Melbourne), but on the basis of her nuanced and riveting work in Predestination, she's already destined to become a major screen presence, perhaps a southern hemisphere version of Emma Stone. The comparison is meant to be flattering to both performers.

The time travel in Predestination is depicted with rare simplicity for a modern science fiction film. Instead of the usual bag of CGI effects, simple jump-edits, combined with close attention to set and costume details over several time periods, is all that's needed to keep the viewer grounded in time and place. The time machine itself is a stripped-down gizmo in what looks like a violin case. The 1960s are done exceptionally well, as Jane enlists in an elite corps of space courtesans, dedicated to the tension relief of astronauts on long missions. Heinlein called the program WENCHES (for Women's Emergency National Corps, Hospitality and Entertainment Section); the Spierigs, with perhaps too much restraint, just call it the Space Corps. This, we'll forgive. After previous big-screen fizzlers like The Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers, in Presdestination Heinlein finally gets the big wet kiss cinema has owed him for a very long time.

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