Monday, January 19, 2015

Out of the Woods and Onto the Silver Screen: Sondheim’s Into the Woods Hits Theaters

I'm please to introduce guest blogger, Beth Kelly, who will give her take on Into the Woods, Sondheim, and other recent movie musicals.


Theater lovers and cinephiles alike are buzzing about the movie adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods. The play, which has been running in some form for the better part of two decades, is a darkly twisted take on some very near and dear fairy tales, Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and Rapunzel. The plot twists and turns as the audience sees the characters they thought they knew in a whole new way. The movie, produced by Disney, stars well knowns such as Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp and Emily Blunt.

Since "darkly twisted" and "Disney" are terms at odds with one another, some changes had to be made to the plot to make it a bit more family friendly. The original story line follows the baker and his wife, trying to break the curse of a witch so that they can have a child. The witch tells them that they have to locate four ingredients to a potion for the curse to be broken, "the cow as white as milk (from Jack), the cape as red as blood (from Little Red Riding Hood), the hair as yellow as corn (from Rapunzel), and the slipper as pure as gold (from Cinderella)."

The basic plot, while it sounds like a ready-made Disney story, also includes some details that had to be edited to make it more appropriate for family audiences. In the play, Cinderella’s prince sleeps with the Baker’s wife, Rapunzel dies, and Red Riding Hood and the wolf have a very sexually-inclined interaction, none of which are going to appear in the movie adaptation.

Into the Woods isn't the only musical play that has been adapted to the big screen in recent years. Other notable plays that have seen acclaim in the box office include:

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Tim Burton’s adaptation of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s musical stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman. Following Burton’s penchant for dark themes, the storyline follows Sweeney Todd, a barber bent on revenge as he kills the people who stand in his way. After he kills them, his landlady, Mrs. Lovett, bakes them into meat pies.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

This musical comedy drama is based on a rock musical about a band whose lead singer is a transgendered East German. Hedwig, born as Hansel, uses rock music to help her navigate through the difficulties of love, politics and a botched sex change operation.

Grease

Named for the working-class youth subculture of “greasers” in 1950’s America, on Broadway the production became infamous for its raw and raunchy depiction of high school life. The film toned down much of the vulgarity, and it became one of the most popular movies of the 1970’s - not to mention the highest-grossing movie musical to date. Starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John, it received positive reviews from critics and even went on to spawn a sequel, Grease 2. Both are must-sees for anyone who hasn’t already, luckily they’re easily streamable (click here for more info) and even available on YouTube.  

Chicago

This satire film focuses on the idea of the "celebrity criminal" as it explores the corruption in criminal justice. The main characters, Velma and Roxie, murderesses and vaudevillians, compete for attention and fame from both the other inmates of the women’s prison and the world at large.

As Sondheim and others like him know, converting a musical into a film can be a bit like seeing your life’s work chopped into pieces with a chainsaw. Sometimes, what works for a play doesn't translate to the big screen. Audiences also expect different things; theatergoers may be drawn to themes and storylines that are grittier than might appeal to a larger audiences. The move from play to screenplay often sees drastic changes in the dialog, and the musical numbers must be re-evaluated for the screen as well. Despite initial controversy, Sondheim eventually found himself satisfied with the work the filmmakers had done translating his work, even if there had to be some changes. No matter the little tweaks, Into the Woods is a film that will thrill the youngsters while including enough veiled innuendo to amuse the parents, all the while keeping everyone engaged in the familiar fairy-tale story line. 



Beth Kelly is a freelance writer based in Chicago, IL. A lifelong musical theater fan, she holds a degree in Communications and Art History from DePaul University. In her free time she loves watching obscure Lifetime movies and trying new smoothie recipes. Follow her on Twitter @ bkelly_88

The above image is used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

New Year's Resolutions

It was so much easier to write long posts when I had more time off.  But anyway, to hit off January, here are some New Year's resolutions:

1.  To start sending query letters again for my novel, and to steel myself for the pain of many rejections...

2.  To write 300 words per day of my sequel novel.  So far easier said than done... I tend to get more writing done on weekends, and have close to 70 pages written.

3.  To make it through a whole episode of Downton Abbey sober.  Rather difficult when you play drinking games based on certain show tendencies...

4.  To not throw things at the screen when I watch sports on television.

5.  To not throw things at the screen when I watch Mad Men's likely unsatisfying conclusion, which is anything other than Don admitting his identity and surrendering himself to the police.  Though at this point, I would settle for Peggy getting a great promotion or starting her own agency.  She hasn't done anything good since Season Four.

6.  To not throw things at the screen when I watch Game of Thrones episodes that cut characters that did not need to be cut, or put existing characters in plot arcs that make no sense.

7.  To stop watching television.

I also have some good stuff lined up for this month.  I plan to do a retrospective of The Legend of Korra (with a lot of The Last Airbender) thrown in, as well as another installment of Through An Introvert's Lens.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Into the Woods

It's turned into musical movie month, hasn't it?  Beware of spoilers!

If Into the Woods isn't the most soul-stirring musical, it is still well made and highly entertaining.  Written by Stephen Sondheim and premiering on Broadway in 1987, it combines several classic fairytales and centers them around a semi-original tale involving a baker and his wife.  The movie version is directed by Rob Marshall (of Chicago fame) and contains a star-studded cast, including Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Emily Blunt, and Anna Kendrick.

Plot Synopsis

The Baker and his wife live a good life, except that they cannot have children.  One day, they learn from their neighbor, a witch, that their house has been cursed because the Baker's father once stole items from the witch's garden, including magical beans.  In addition to taking the Baker's parents' second-born (a girl), the witch proclaimed that his house would remain barren unless the Baker and his wife were able to locate four magical items: a cape red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, a cow as white as milk, and a golden slipper.

This sets the Baker and his wife off on a quest that gets them tangled up in Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel.  Madcap adventures ensue, and every character ends up with what they think they want, but may not actually be the case.  And that's only the first hour.


A Note on Sondheim

Prior to my Sweeney Todd review, I didn't know a great deal about Stephen Sondheim, other than that he was the lyricist for West Side Story.  Since then, I will confess that I am still very ignorant of the ways of The Sondheim, but some patterns have emerged.  One, Sondheim is a brilliant lyricist.  That much is clear.  Sondheim loves word games and word patterns.  From him, a conventional rhyme is both surprising and a disappointment.  Two, Sondheim does not let anything get in the way of his lyrics, including the music.  Whether you hum the songs leaving the theatre matters less than whether you heard the ideas expressed.  See, for example, Sweeney Todd's "The Epiphany."  That said, Sondheim can bust out a glorious soaring melody when he really wants to, like "Johanna" or "Being Alive," or a memorable ensemble number like "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd."

Three, Sondheim meditates a lot on what it means to be happy and fulfilled.  Does it involve being in a relationship?  Does it involve getting revenge?  Does it involve being famous for your art?  Into the Woods contains this pondering, specifically: What comes after Happily Ever After?

Four, Sondheim musicals can be... awkward.  Both Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George have two very distinct acts that hold together uneasily.  With the latter, while the first act is a self-contained story about the formation of Georges Seurat's most famous painting, the second involves the struggles of Seurat's (fictional) grandson or great-grandson to make art.  The second act has thought-provoking ideas and "Putting It Together" alone is worth sticking around, but it seems like a clumsy attempt to make it all "mean something" when maybe the first act wasn't enough (or at least long enough).  With Into the Woods, Act One appears to be Happily Ever, while Act Two is After.  That itself would not be so problematic except that the device used to bring things to a head, to me, detracts from the message.  The movie does not do a whole lot to solve this problem and, in fact, might make it worse.

Overall, Sondheim musicals are brilliant and problematic, yet always an irresistible source of movie adaptations since this one.


The Good   

Whimsical Premise.  It is hard not to like any story derived from fairy tales, and on the whole, we are conditioned to see fairy tale entertainment that takes big liberties with the source material (see Frozen versus The Snow Queen).  Into the Woods is no exception, almost seamlessly weaving together four very different fairy tales and focusing them around an original tale.  The movie manages to mine both humor and pathos from this arrangement, the humor coming primarily from mocking characters like the vain handsome princes in Cinderella and Rapunzel.  Meanwhile, Cinderella's tale, the witch's backstory, and the Baker and his wife's situation contribute much of the pathos -- particularly the last example.  The Baker always dreads becoming like his father, whom he regards as a snake who abandoned his family.  It's also nice to see that a Disney-produced Into the Woods doesn't shy away from some of the darker aspects of the source material, such as when Cinderella's step-sisters butcher their feet to fit the gold slipper.  The stories shouldn't work so well together, but somehow they do.  

Strong Performances.  While on the whole, there is no one performance that grabs me and shakes me by the shoulders (as arguably was the case with Anne Hathaway or Hugh Jackman in Les Miserables), they are all pretty solid.  I found Emily Blunt as the Baker's wife to be surprisingly effective in what might have been a largely thankless role.  Meryl Streep is fun and occasionally moving as the witch, and Anna Kendrick brings some sensitivity to the role of Cinderella, the girl who isn't sure Happily Ever After is what she wants.  Everyone raves about Chris Pine as the prince, and I thought he was fun.  Even Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf was okay, even if his was the weakest (and smallest) of the major roles.  Though there were no Anne Hathaways in this cast, there were also no Russell Crowes.         

The Sondheim.  It's Sondheim, so of course the lyrics are intricate, witty, and effective.  See, for example, the "Prologue," with lines like "Into the woods to bring some bread/To Granny who is sick in bed/Never can tell what lies ahead/For all that I know, she's already dead."  The witch's explanation of the curse is especially delightful:

So there's no more fuss
And there's no more scenes
And my garden thrives --
You should see my nectarines!
But I'm telling you the same
I tell kings and queens:
Don't ever never ever
Mess around with my greens!
Especially the beans.

Sondheim even manages to break out a fairly moving tune with "No One Is Alone," which has some typical irony woven in: everyone is alone, so no one is alone.

Themes.  The paper-thin facade of Happily Ever After is poised for tearing apart, and Sondheim does so with aplomb.  Even before everyone gets their "wish," Into the Woods makes it clear that not all wishes are worth granting, particularly where Cinderella's prince is concerned.   


The Bad

Hokey in the Second Act.  I'm aware that there are significant differences between the stage musical and the movie in Act Two, and that the stage musical's version is better regarded.  That said, both versions of Act Two rely upon a plot device to spur the events of the dark second act that, while it makes some sense, is just so... hokey.  Basically in Act One, Jack killed the Giant by cutting down the beanstalk.  In Act Two, the Giant's wife comes down to earth looking for Jack to take revenge, stomping everything in her path and killing several main characters in the process.  I understand the need for action, that there needed to be a reason to bring these disparate characters together again, but... what the hell?  Maybe it's to provide some much-needed levity in what would otherwise be a very serious Act Two, who knows?  Though given that the second hour of Into the Woods looks like it takes place after a forest fire, the direct result of this hokey plot device, I can't say that it worked.

Lacks Heart.  I feel as though I should be so moved by some of these characters' dilemmas, yet they left me empty.  The ones that stick out most are the witch's fear of being left by Rapunzel and the Baker's fear of fatherhood.  Perhaps in the stage musical, the latter (which turns out to be quite significant) is delineated clearly and builds to a moving conclusion, but in the movie, it was mostly backgrounded, so when the Baker met his father's ghost, it left me scratching my head instead of reaching for a tissue.    

Not as Sondheim as Some Sondheim.  Sondheim musicals are convoluted and don't always work, but when they work, they really work.  Sweeney Todd flows well throughout, dispensing dark humor and pathos, floating solos and multi-layered ensemble numbers, and building to an inevitable grim climax.  Yet even more flawed musicals, like Sunday in the Park With George, can have moving themes that get inside you.  Into the Woods, at least in movie form, never challenges me or breaches my emotional barrier, for the reasons noted above.  But maybe even more problematic: the songs just aren't that exciting.  I really like "The Prologue," but it's not exactly a self-contained song you can hum, and nothing afterward rises to that same level.  The music is just... okay.  From Sondheim, I've come to expect better.


Conclusion

Into the Woods is pleasant and entertaining, and is arguably better made than Les Miserables.  That said, it feels like a movie that has polished most of its rough edges, that never takes risks emotionally or musically.  I like the characters, but their dilemmas never get inside me.  That is why I will continue to prefer movies like Les Miserables (even as its flaws grate on me more and more) to Into the Woods.  Yet it is still one of the best offerings of the holiday season, and probably one of the better Sondheim translations to screen, which makes it well worth seeing.


Other Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes MiserablesChicagoMamma Mia!Sweeney ToddMoulin RougeThe Sound of MusicPitch PerfectCabaret

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairsprayJersey BoysAnnie (1982), Annie (2014)

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Annie (2014)

After reading the reviews, I was prepared for the movie to be painfully awful to sit through.  Instead, I found it to be not-so-bad.  At times, it captured the spirit of Annie and even exceeded some aspects of the 1982 musical.  But in the end, its strengths couldn't overcome its weaknesses, putting the updated Annie on the Wrong list.

I've already given an overview of Annie's history and the basic plot line.  It doesn't really change in this version, except that now Annie is one of several foster kids being "raised" by Colleen Hannigan, a drunk and bitter never-was backup singer.  Daddy Warbucks is now Will Stacks, a self-made cell phone millionaire who is running for mayor of New York City.  After Stacks rescues Annie from being hit by a truck, his campaign manager realizes that it boosted his popularity, and before long she is living in his penthouse apartment.

Will Smith got the idea of making an updated version of Annie as a vehicle for his daughter, Willow. After Willow aged out of the part, Quvenzhane Wallis, nominated for an Oscar for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, was cast in the title role.  Smith and Jay-Z remained on as producers, and eventually Will Gluck became the director.  Jamie Foxx was cast as Will Stacks, Rose Byrne as Grace Farrell, and Cameron Diaz as Colleen Hannigan.


The Good

The Concept.  I'll never understand why Shakespeare or Jane Austen can be endlessly remade, rewritten, and updated to keep them "relevant" to modern audiences, but Annie is somehow sacrosanct.  To read some comments (including some really disturbing comments on YouTube videos) it's practically a crime against nature for a young black girl to play an iconic character who has always been a white redhead.  And even worse, to update the story so it takes place in... blurg, arg... modern day!  At least Annie's basic premise transfers cleanly to 2014, compared to, say, Hamlet.  There are still poor orphans in New York, but not so many Danish princes with daddy issues.  Annie is a musical that could really resonate with some updating, moving beyond the kitschy feel-good quality of the original.  Emphasis on "could."


Annie Actually Cares.  Unlike the 1982 Annie, who doesn't even talk to her orphan "sisters" again until they've saved her life, this Annie remembers her foster sisters.  She gives them all of the candy in Will Stacks's limo SUV, takes them to a new movie premiere, and gives them free cell phones.  She is genuinely big sisterly in the few scenes the foster girls have alone.  Annie's improved attitude comes not just from the script, but from Wallis's performance.  Wallis projects a sweet charm that is utterly the opposite of Aileen Quinn's constant mugging.  Whereas Quinn's Annie has her "Look at me, aren't I spunky and winsome LOVE ME" schtick, Wallis never tries to sell you on her winsome qualities.  They simply exist, and she just lets them exist.  She even tries to put you off a little by adopting a mildly cynical attitude toward everything.  Sorry hon, we ain't biting.  That said, Wallis's overall emotional range isn't any broader than Quinn's -- when she learns that Will Stacks found her parents, her reaction is the same as if someone said they'd bought her a pet turtle.  She does manage to look genuinely devastated, though, when told that her parents' reunion was a cynical ploy to help Stacks get elected mayor of New York.

Money Doesn't Always Make the World Go 'Round.  One of the biggest criticisms of this version of Annie is how materialistic it is, and how the movie claims to be about exposing the class divide, but turns into a love letter to the one percent.  Have none of these critics seen the 1982 version?  This flaw, if anything, is intrinsic to the musical itself, not just the latest version.  It reveals the clash between the anti-New Deal source material and the musical's pro-New Deal sentiment.  Every version of Annie, including the 1982 version, contains sequences where we are just supposed to marvel at Daddy Warbucks's wealth and power.  If anything, the 1982 version is even more shameless about it.  When Annie and Will Stacks go to the movies, it's at a packed cinema filled with regular people.  When Annie and Daddy Warbucks go to the movies, Daddy Warbucks buys out an entire performance at a luxury cinema so he won't have to mix with the hoi polloi.  Will Stacks is forced to confront his elitism several times, but does anyone really pressure Daddy Warbucks to identify with the common people, apart from his vague acceptance of the New Deal?

What I really appreciate about the new Annie is, like the 1999 version and unlike the 1982 version, Annie and the "Daddy Warbucks" figure bond over activities that don't require wealth.  For the 1999 Annie, it's throwing snowballs, eating ice cream sundaes, and looking at shop displays.  For the 2014 Annie, it's cooking awful meals and playing soccer with a beat-up ball.  Yes there is the grand helicopter ride over the city, but it would be a mistake to conclude that that alone won Annie over to Will Stacks.           

Better Character Arcs.  While this movie isn't exactly deep, it does have better character arcs for Annie and the "Daddy Warbucks" figure than the 1982 version.  Whereas Albert Finney's Daddy Warbucks learned to love an orphan and to tolerate a New Deal that would have been implemented even without his support, Will Stacks has to learn how to get over his genuine terror of people and become more of a humanitarian.  He doesn't just become smitten by Annie after putting her to bed one night, either.  He makes her sleep on the couch and otherwise does not want to interact with her until she slowly wins him over.  Meanwhile, this Annie's problems are not just that she's missing her parents, but that she can't read, a fact that the movie manages to conceal until more than midway through.  (Kind of makes you wonder how the 1982 Annie could read, as her education must have been worse.)  


The Bad

Butchering the Songs.  The most disappointing aspect of the remake was the songs.  I realize that many of the songs wouldn't transfer well to a 2014 setting.  A 30s radio show ditty isn't going to sound less dated with a hip-hop beat.  Songs like "A New Deal for Christmas" would be nonsensical and better left on the cutting room floor.  But most of the time, it seemed like the movie producers weren't interested in preserving even songs that could have worked with very minor changes.  "Little Girls" could have worked in its near entirety, as could "Easy Street."  "I Think I'm Gonna Like It Here" didn't have to be quite as gutted as it was.  There was one point where the lines "Used to room in a tomb, where I'd sit and freeze.  Get me now.  Holy cow!  Could someone pinch me please?" would have been appropriate, but instead I had to listen to nonsense like "add it to your wish list" (and in the context of this movie, I'm sure they meant Amazon Wish List).  Instead, most of the Annie songs contain a familiar refrain and completely new, often very generic, lyrics.  At least they didn't mess much with my favorite, "It's a Hard-Knock Life," but that is cold comfort.

And oh God, the autotune.  I had not experienced such poor audio quality since Evita.  Many movies have become adept at making it seem like the singing is live, even when it is pre-recorded, but here, the pre-recording is so, so obvious.  And the lip syncing is bad, really bad.  I'll give the kids a pass, but even so, for a musical movie, it makes the musical aspects the worst part of the experience.      

Maybe Money (and Twitter) Do Make the World Go 'Round.  I get it.  In 2014, we are all married to our Twitter and Facebook accounts, taking endless selfies with our cell phones and posting them online.  Thanks, movie, for sharing this knowledge.  While the movie's references to our reliance on today's technology are not without support, it exaggerates it ten-fold, making it seem like no child playing in the park can survive without taking a cell phone picture of a girl waving at her from a car.  It's grating, and will date the movie in just a few years' time.

And while this movie' materialism is no worse than in the 1982 version, it's still pretty bad.  Entire songs are devoted to marveling at Daddy Stacks's stuff, or at the city via Stacks's private helicopter.

Seriously?
Miss Hannigan.  Carol Burnett's Miss Hannigan was not what one would call subtle.  And yet next to Cameron Diaz's Colleen Hannigan, subtle is the only way to describe her performance.  I get that Diaz relishes the chance to play characters who are polar opposites of her sweet girl next door roles from years past, but sheesh.  Every line she speaks is exaggerated meanness, to the point where it seems like she's trying to chew off the girls' faces.  We get it: she's bitter and she hates her life.  Message would have been loud and clear even if Diaz had dialed back her performance by half.

I will give the movie credit for attempting to humanize her a lot sooner than the 1982 version did.  This Miss Hannigan actually has an admirer, and her eleventh-hour change of heart isn't quite as eleventh hour as in 1982.  But overall, she's a character who seems more like she's mimicking another character than like a real person in her own right.      

Not That Special.  Though this movie tries to be different, there's nothing really that exciting or special about this version of Annie.  It never becomes the true examination of class differences that it hints at being in the beginning.  Even if it got rid of all the clunky, cumbersome music numbers, it would just be a pleasant movie, nothing worth rushing out to go see.  At almost two hours, it is also about 20 minutes too long.  Part of its weaknesses lie with the source material, and part of it lies with the half-hearted attempts to update it.  It probably would have been better if the movie's producers had just cut all direct ties and said the movie was inspired by Annie, but then it would have had much less commercial appeal.

Conclusion

First, to answer a question: why haven't I reviewed the 1999 version of Annie, arguably the best?  Mainly because it's a television production and I wasn't planning to do a whole Annie series.  I will say that it is a really good production, that Alicia Morton is appropriately sweet and charming, Victor Garber is a very approachable Daddy Warbucks with a great singing voice, Audra McDonald is excellent as Grace, the original musical numbers (ex: "NYC" and "Something Was Missing") work well, and the winter setting is much better than summer.  In some cases, the production suffers from being less lavish than the 1982 version (that version of "It's a Hard-Knock Life" will never be beaten), but overall, it really works.

Unfortunately, the 2014 Annie does not fare as well.  It is arguably no worse than the 1982 version, but that isn't much of a victory.  It's pleasant enough entertainment for those lacking family friendly options, but not much more.




Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes MiserablesChicagoMamma

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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Annie (1982)

I decided to watch this version of Annie as a refresher in case I felt like seeing the new one due out this month.  (I'm wavering: on the one hand, Quevenzhane Wallis was adorable in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but on the other hand, clips of Cameron Diaz as Miss Hannigan were disturbing.)

When I was little, I adored Annie.  Adored it.  Some of my earliest drawings were of blank-eyed, curly-haired Annie from the comics and her pointy-eared canine friend, Sandy.  I was Annie for Halloween.  I listened to and sang all of the songs all the time for what seemed like two years.

Then when I watched it again a few years ago?  Eh.  Looking back, I think what really drew me to Annie was aspiration.  Who wouldn't want to be a plucky orphan living in luxury with her adoring "Daddy" Warbucks?  Then there were the songs, the colors, those dance numbers.  In many ways, Annie was an antecedent to Punky Brewster, which premiered a few years later and also featured a plucky orphan in colorful surroundings.  As a kid, I looked up to both as role models.  As an adult, I see their flaws.

Annie has a lengthy history in American pop culture.  It began as a comic strip in 1924 entitled "Little Orphan Annie," where Annie lived in an orphanage run by Miss Asthma before being taken in by "Daddy" and Mrs. Warbucks.  A typical adventure involved Daddy Warbucks being drawn away on business, and Annie getting kidnapped or otherwise going on a big adventure.  At some point, Mrs. Warbucks was dropped, and Daddy Warbucks killed off, only to be resurrected after 1945.  Then in 1978 came Annie the musical, starring Andrea McArdle in the title role.  The musical established characters like Grace Farrell and Miss Hannigan, and in many ways seemed like a finger in the eye of the comic strip.  While the comic book creator, Harold Gray, was vehemently libertarian and anti-New Deal, the musical practically rubs the viewer's face in pro-New Deal sentiment, with Annie meeting President Roosevelt and the final number being "A New Deal for Christmas."  The movie would maintain most of the musical's changes, though it left out a number of songs, including "A New Deal for Christmas" and "NYC," while adding songs like "Let's Go to the Movies" and "Dumb Dog."  It also added characters from the comic strip, such as Daddy Warbucks's body guards, Punjab and the Asp.

Never understood why cartoon Sandy looked so
different from live Sandy when I was a kid...
I watched Annie again recently to see if I felt warmer toward it than before.  I determined that while the movie has many strengths, it also has a giant curly-haired stone around its neck that drags it down to the bottom of the pond, which is why I put it on the Wrong list.


Plot Synopsis

Annie is a 10 or 11 year old orphan living in an all-girls orphanage in 1930s New York City, run by the drunk, abusive Miss Hannigan.  Annie believes that her parents are still alive and will come for her someday, based on a note and a broken locket around her neck.  She repeatedly escapes the orphanage to go look for them, only to be dragged back by a corrupt cop.  One day, Grace Ferrell, secretary to the billionaire, Oliver Warbucks, appears at the orphanage seeking an orphan to spend a week with her boss for the sake of positive publicity.  Annie convinces Grace to take her and Sandy, and quickly manages to work her way into Oliver Warbucks's intimidating heart.  But when Warbucks tries to adopt her, Annie confesses that she's still holding out hope that her real parents will come for her.  Oliver Warbucks launches a nationwide search for them, drawing the attention of Miss Hannigan's loser brother, "Rooster", and his girlfriend, Lily.  All three concoct a scheme where Rooster and Lily will pretend to be Annie's long-lost parents in exchange for $50,000.
                    

The Good

Lavish Production Values.  Annie has a lot of classy sets, from 1930s New York to the lavish Warbucks estate to even the White House.  The atmosphere of Depression Era New York is convincingly invoked, even if it does seem as though there are dog catchers and policemen hovering around every corner.

And there's dancing.  Lots of dancing.  Annie production numbers are filled with orphans doing backflips, servants swinging large brooms, and secretaries kicking up their legs.  In one memorable moment, the gardener for the Warbucks estate takes a flower and does a complex series of spin moves before climbing a wall to hand it to Annie.  There's something corny and ridiculous about it all, but at the same time, it's fun to watch and gives the movie a much-needed energy boost.

I also like the nods to the original comic strip, with Punjab and the Asp, as well as the moment where the "Bolshevik" throws a bomb into Oliver Warbucks's office and his bodyguards calmly dispose of it before it explodes.  (Though in the 1930s, wouldn't they be called "Communists"?)

Annie's "Sisters".  Whatever you might think of Annie's orphanage, it couldn't have been too horrible with orphans to hang out with like Molly, Duffy, and even Pepper.  These girls have your back.  They help Annie hide in a laundry basket to escape, smuggle Sandy inside the orphanage, and risk their necks repeatedly in order to warn Annie of Rooster and Lily's scheme.  They even make servitude look fun in "It's the Hard-Knock Life," easily the best song in the musical (sorry, "Tomorrow").  Who wouldn't want to mop the floors while doing aerial cartwheels?

While the girls as a whole are pretty cool, the standout to me is little Molly.  Toni Ann Gisondi, the actress who plays her, is capable of being vulnerable one minute and feisty the next, all the while a thousand times more natural than Aileen Quinn, who plays Annie.  I'm a little surprised and sad that she didn't go on to many other roles.  If Annie were played by Gisondi, I might actually care what happened to her.    



Most of the Adults.  As a kid, I just thought Miss Hannigan seemed threatening and didn't come to fully appreciate Carol Burnett's performance until recently.  She bobs and weaves through the orphanage, loathing kids and loathing herself, almost more indifferent than purposely cruel.  (Compare her to Kathy Bates's Miss Hannigan in the 1999 TV version, who seems more sober and ruthless.)  She's a kid's worst nightmare and an adult's greatest amusement.  That said, I thought her eleventh-hour burst of conscience was contrived, and she got off too easily for the damage she caused.

Most of the other adults fare well.  Albert Finney's Oliver Warbucks provides the growth and change and range of emotions that Annie never gives.  Quite a feat for someone who spends half of the movie screaming.  Tim Curry and Bernadette Peters are sadly underused as Rooster and Lily, but any movie is better off with them in it.  Ann Reinking provides much needed warmth and some nifty dance moves as Grace Farrell.


The Bad

Pointless Dull Sequences.  The movie has pacing problems that seem to have been self inflicted.  Most baffling was the choice to cut "NYC" from the musical in exchange for "Let's Go to the Movies."  Yes, let's go to the movies and sit in a disconcertingly large, empty theatre until it's time to watch segments of a boring black-and-white movie.  (I'm sure I'd enjoy Camille now, but as a kid?)  It certainly doesn't compare to the warmth and energy of "NYC."

Other drawn out moments include the orphans debating a name for a dog that already has one (complete with one orphan singing "Rover!  Why not think it over?" like she's a finalist in American Idol).  "Dumb Dog" was already kind of a lame addition, and then they basically extended it.

Annie Is a Creepy, Manipulative Little Shit.  Though this movie has other weaknesses, what puts it on the Wrong list is Annie herself.  As played by Aileen Quinn, Annie is, as Roger Ebert once put it, "the sort of child who makes adults run for the hills."  I know it must be tough to cast an actress for a role as iconic as Little Orphan Annie, akin to finding someone to play the onscreen version of Shirley Temple.  I know that Little Orphan Annie represents pluckiness and independence, that she was played onstage by the big-voiced Andrea McArdle.  But a movie requires different things, characters and moments to be smaller and more intimate.  Annie could be a construct in the comics or even onstage, but she should be a recognizable person in the movie.

And Aileen Quinn's Annie just isn't.  You can't fully blame Quinn, who was a kid giving it her all.  More fault lies with the director, John Huston, and the casting director for failing to find someone who, in addition to projecting spunkiness, could also naturally project sweetness and vulnerability.  With Quinn's Annie, all you get is spunkiness.  When she comforts Molly, when she talks about her parents, when she interacts with Oliver Warbucks or Grace Farrell, I don't believe for one moment that she gives a shit.  She recites her lines in the same style every time, like Marcia Brady in a school play.  To quote Ebert: "She seems more like the kind of kid who will get this acting out of her system and go on to be student body president."

If Annie doesn't naturally come across as a good kid, her actions take on a different flavor.  When she convinces Grace Farrell to take her to live with Oliver Warbucks, you can't blame her, but did she ever give thought to any of her orphan "sisters" like Molly?  When she convinces Oliver Warbucks that Grace Farrell likes him, is she looking out for Grace, or just stoking mischief?  For that matter, does she ever really think about anyone else?  How often do we see her truly missing the other orphans?  There is one moment where she decides belatedly to give them her "rich" clothes as she goes to leave with her supposed real parents.  But after the other orphans walked miles to warn Oliver Warbucks about Rooster and Lily and pretty much saved her life, she blows them off at her 4th of July rescue bash.

Compare Aileen Quinn's Annie with Alicia Morton's in the 1999 version.  Morton's Annie is more toned down and wouldn't look as natural on a cereal box, but who can't help feeling for her as she sings "Tomorrow"?  Aileen Quinn's Annie has a pleasant delivery with moments of toughness when the scene calls for it, but she's empty enough that you wonder whether this spunky orphan could be a closet sociopath.      

If the viewer doesn't care about Annie, then it becomes baffling why people go to such lengths for her.  Covering up for her when she escapes.  Buying out Radio City Music Hall so she can attend a movie.  Launching a national search for her parents.  Risking their safety to warn her.  Launching a full-on search for her.  At one point, I was on the side of Rooster and Lily.  What does that tell you?

That Annie is supposed to be spunky and tough is a given.  But she should also have a soul, and this Annie doesn't.  As a result, scenes that should be affirming, like when Grace sings "We've Got Annie," just seem leaden and pointless.  

Random Thought.  Annie has curly red hair and so does Miss Hannigan.  Maybe Miss Hannigan's reasons for being possessive and resentful aren't because she thinks Annie is a little shit who should be shown her place, but because Annie is really her daughter!  Maybe to avoid being fired, she pretended Annie was just another orphan in her care.  Yeah, I like that.  I'll go with that...


Conclusion

I'm not sure any version of Annie would have been a favorite.  However, I'd at least prefer a version where I actually want Annie to succeed, instead of having feelings ranging from indifference to hostility.   
  


Other Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the OperaEvitaRENTAcross the UniverseRock of AgesHairspray, Jersey Boys

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: DreamgirlsLes MiserablesChicagoMamma

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Small Update for Paperpusher Message Board Users

I generally keep this blog separate from my role as owner/administrator of www.thepaperpusher.net, the Paperpusher Message Board, or PPMB.  However, since the board has been down due to frustrating tech issues that we are working to resolve, it struck me that some people might come to this address for information.  While I won't be updating here, I urge people to check out my @PaperpusherMB Twitter account, which provides up-to-date information about the attempts to bring the website back up.  Hopefully it won't be long, but thanks for your patience.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Through An Introvert's Lens: Addams Family Values

It would have been an enormous task to focus on The Addams Family as a whole, as it includes a panel of cartoons first published in 1938, a successful television series (1964-1966), at least one animated series (1973-1975) and two movies, the second of which, Addams Family Values, came out in 1993.  I chose the second movie not only because it's a favorite and because it's easier than focusing on the entire canon, but also because it is one of the rare examples of introversion being celebrated.

The "creepy and kooky" Addams family consists of father Gomez, mother Morticia, Grandmama, Uncle Fester, Cousin Itt, Lurch the butler, Thing, and Pugsley and Wednesday.  The Addams family embraces every force that society has taught us to fear: darkness, werewolves, witches, blood, and death.  Moreover, they do so in an undeniably cheerful way, especially Gomez.  They would make wonderful friends if not for the constant fear that they could be plotting your demise.

Introversion and dark, morbid interests have often been intertwined, with the assumption that if you have one, you must have the other.  Yet that is not necessarily the case.  Many introverts aren't the slightest bit into dark subject matter, while many people who are may not be introverted.  For example, the television and movie versions of Gomez portray him as chatty and outgoing.  In The Munsters, a similarly Halloween-themed show, Herman and Lily's family don't contain any traits linked to introversion.

But Wednesday Addams of the Addams Family movies?  Oh, she's introverted.  And gladly so.

I can't think of a character who celebrates introversion better than she, and her best vehicle is Addams Family Values.  In this movie sequel, Gomez and Morticia have a third child named Pubert who looks like a miniature Gomez.  Wednesday and Pugsley are instantly jealous and make numerous (humorous) attempts to kill Pubert, prompting their parents to hire a Debbie, a nanny who is a gold-digging murderer in disguise.  She sets about wooing and eventually marrying Uncle Fester.  Wednesday and Pugsley are suspicious, so Debbie tricks their parents into sending them off to an aggressively WASPy summer camp.  It is the subplot about the camp, especially the magnificent final scene, that is best remembered.

Is She An Introvert?  Duh.

Wednesday likes to be alone.  She doesn't usually speak unless spoken to, and when she does speak, her pithy statements make Daria seem verbose by comparison.  In her mind, there are much more important things than small talk... like world domination.

In most movies, the Wednesday character would be relegated to a sidekick role at best.  Most likely, she would be the quirky Weird Girl brought out now and then to say quirky Weird Girl things for color.  Here, while she's not the sole main character, she does have an active role.

Once Wednesday and Pugsley reach the summer camp, they (especially Wednesday) are under constant pressure to conform to its bright, cheerful, blonde social values.  These values are especially pushed by Amanda, a smug camper, and the unctuous counselors, Gary and Becky.  In a series of scenes, Wednesday pushes right back, such as in this case:


In her "quest," Wednesday is aided by another camp outcast, Joel Glicker.  While we don't see enough of Joel to get a deep view of his character, his traits suggest that he is an introvert or at least leans that way.  Like Wednesday, his desire to opt out of camp activities is discouraged and eventually punished.

After Wednesday declines to be Pocahontas in Gary's Thanksgiving musical production, Gary and Becky's tactics turn from passive-aggressive "encouragement" to torture.  They lock Wednesday, Pugsley, and Joel in a cabin with what could only be the worst hell on earth for them: hours of nonstop cheerful, mainstream fare, from Disney to Annie.  They try to withstand the torture and hold true to their beliefs, but in the end, it at least appears that Wednesday has been broken.


So Wednesday, Pugsley, and Joel are forced to conform to the wishes of more vapid, extroverted characters.  As we will see, Wednesday has an effective plan for thwarting these wishes, but I'll save that for a moment.  First, I should point out that Addams Family Values seems less intent on defending introversion than on defending difference in general.  These differences include weight, race, and ethnicity.  The movie's less-than-subtle message is that there is nothing wrong with these differences, while there is everything wrong with a mainstream culture that attempts to stamp them out or pretend that they don't exist.

This message isn't merely pushed in the camp plot line, but also in the Debbie-Fester plot line.  After their marriage, Debbie pushes Fester to buy a mansion, and he is miserably marched about in turtleneck sweaters and toupes.  Meanwhile, Gomez and Morticia are barred from visiting him.  Even though Debbie's motivation for isolating Fester (to kill him) is bad enough, we are meant to see that forcing Fester to be something he isn't and can never be, is also wrong.

Fortunately Fester and the Addams family eventually escape Debbie's clutches.  And fortunately, this is what Wednesday and company have to say to Gary's Thanksgiving musical:


Until this point, I've highlighted mainly media that tended to treat introverts like they didn't exist, or attempted to marginalize them.  Movies like Addams Family Values do the opposite, putting them front and center and making them come out on top.  And what was the response?  Did the world cave in?  Did the movie go unwatched?  Hardly.  The movie did make $48 million, significantly less than the $113 million raked in by its predecessor, but that might have had less to do with the story line (which critics compared favorably to the first movie) and more to do with dissatisfaction with the thinly plotted first movie.  In any event, while it wasn't a smash, it was still watched.

The reason I point it out is because too many television or movie producers have acted reluctant to place introverts front and center because "it wouldn't sell" or... reasons.  Yet even though Addams Family Values wasn't a box office hit like the first movie, it still had a lasting legacy in promoting Wednesday Addams as a bad-ass introvert, part of a 90s trend that would include Darlene Conner and Daria.  People still admire her even today, such as in the must-watch YouTube series, Adult Wednesday Addams.  Be loud and proud, Introvert Girl... in your own way, or course.

Conclusion

Number of Introverts: Hard to say, since more of the Addams family seems introverted than not.  At least three.

Is the Introvert Prominent?: Yes.

Is the Introvert Active?: Yes.

How Do Other Characters Treat the Introvert?:  With scorn, contempt, and torture.  For which they are soundly punished... as they should be.

The above images were used under the Fair Use Doctrine.