Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Top Five

TOP FIVE                   B+           
USA  (102 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Chris Rock        Official site

Chris Rock, named the heir apparent to Richard Pryor early in his career after his HBO stand-up special CHRIS ROCK:  BRING THE PAIN (1996), while at age 34 he was also named “the funniest man in America” in September 1999 by Time magazine, Seriously Funny - TIME, which places a lot of pressure on a guy to have to be funny all the time.  With the recent suicide of brilliant comic Robin Williams, who often joked about his addiction, or before him Freddie Prinze, or Richard Jeni, one looks at the troubled childhoods of so many comedians who learn to make fun of themselves at an early age, developing a unique ability to make others laugh, often to protect themselves from real life traumas that haunt them throughout their lives.  But imagine the weight on one’s shoulders to be labeled the funniest man in America, where the spotlight is always going to be pointed at you even when you least desire it.  Rock has always handled his stardom admirably, maintaining a center of balance, refusing to serve as a role model while he satirizes and excoriates public figures onstage, as expressed in his 1997 memoir Rock This, “Why does the public expect entertainers to behave better than everybody else?  It’s ridiculous...Of course, this is just for black entertainers.  You don’t see anyone telling Jerry Seinfeld he’s a good role model.  Because everyone expects whites to behave themselves...Nowadays, you’ve got to be an entertainer and a leader.  It’s too much.”  In the open and freewheeling observational style of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, comedians are actors and stand-up entertainers that offer scorching social commentary, off color jokes, biting satire, and personal autobiographical revelations while also challenging the limits of free speech.  All the best comedians go through a comedy circuit where they do bits and pieces of their stand-up routines in small clubs, which seems to be the Holy Grail of comedy, as it receives far greater adulation and acclaim for actually being funny than movie roles, where Woody Allen has made over 70 motion pictures, but people still persist in believing that his earliest movies that were the closest to his stand-up routines were his funniest.   

To his credit, Rock loves all comedians, past and present, where he’s probably stolen from the best of them, but he continues to showcase his own unique flair onscreen, where his stream-of-conscious style of outrageous humor is simply hilarious, and this film, which he writes, directs, and stars in front of the camera, bears some autobiographical resemblance to Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980), where Allen’s character Sandy Bates is a highly successful film director known for making hilarious comedies, but confesses, “I don’t want to make funny movies any more, they can’t force me to.  I don’t feel funny.  I look around the world and all I see is human suffering.”  In Rock’s film, his character Andre Allen interestingly reveals he was high or drunk at the height of his professional comedy career, and now that he’s sober, the world doesn’t appear so damn funny anymore.  Trying to make more of a positive difference, he makes a serious film where he plays a Django Unchained style, real-life historical figure Dutty Boukman, the leader of a Haitian slave rebellion called UPRIZE, where he’s hoping to make a serious statement without comedy, but it’s flopping miserably as all anyone wants to talk about is Hammy, a crime-fighting bear, a character that he played in three successive blockbuster films, the last one grossing about $600 million dollars, even though he’s done with the role, insisting upon moving on, but reporters aren’t the least bit interested in his sidestepping their questions, knowing their readers can’t get enough of Hammy.  Shot in New York, where much of the film is openly walking down the streets, fixated cries of “Hammy!” can be heard throughout, much like the “Birdman” calls in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014).  No matter how much these guys try to ignore their past, it follows them everywhere, like an embarrassing nickname or a foul rumor they can’t shed, but the real surprise of the film is the complexity of the role written for Rosario Dawson as New York Times journalist Chelsea Brown, who spends a day following Allen around in order to write an extended profile piece on his life.  While he’s obviously at a crossroads in his life and career, where all the tabloids are writing about his upcoming marriage to be broadcast live on Bravo with Reality TV star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union), seemingly matching the pattern of co-producer Kanye West’s marriage to Kim Kardashian, but what’s most intriguing is that Dawson’s more complicated life is exposed right alongside his own, a beautiful contrast to the vapid imagery seen in tabloid journalism, creating one of her best, most down-to-earth and intelligent roles since Spike Lee’s 25th HOUR (2002).    

Actually, the complexity of the secondary roles is equally outstanding, from his loyal bodyguard and chauffeur, JB Smooth as Silk, who’s been his longtime friend since childhood, to the outlandishly freakish role of Cedric the Entertainer as Jazzy Dee, the underground black market mayor of Houston, the guy who can procure anything, anytime, anywhere, where he’s also like a Get Out of Jail Free card, even though hanging around with him is what gets your ass thrown in jail in the first place, where in any other movie his scene-stealing antics would be the highlight, but this film features an overabundance of stars.  Kevin Hart’s scene as Andre’s manager is equally hilarious, where over the phone the two get into an N-word contest, where they delve into the idea of a black man getting into trouble for calling another black man the N-word, which unleashes a barrage of expletives that could only exist in black culture.  Perhaps the highlight of the film is when Andre brings Chelsea into the housing project where he grew up, where we meet Ben Vereen as his alcoholic father and Sherri Shepherd as his mother, where his old friends from the neighborhood are like a who’s who of black stand-up comedy, including Tracy Morgan (before his recent accident), Jay Pharoah, Hassan Johnson, and Leslie Jones, all playing to the journalist, each stepping all over the other to try to offer the real dirt on Andre, where it’s the only scene where the nonstop laughter feels so authentically natural, as this group takes such pleasure in teasing and ribbing one other, where it feels like they’ve been doing it for years, with the group wondering whether Tupac Shakur would be a U.S. Senator today had he lived, or maybe, as Andre suggests, he just might be “playing the bad, dark-skinned boyfriend in a Tyler Perry movie.”  It’s here that they happen upon the theme of the top five rappers of all time, which is like the listing for a nonexistent black hall of fame, yet each distinct choice offers an eye into each personality, as it’s like defining what it is to be black.  Within the context of this enveloping humor, there’s a surprisingly effective “smallness” brought into the film that simply hones in on Andre and Chelsea walking through the streets of New York while opening up about their lives, offering some of the more astute insight into alcoholism, where part of the recovery program is “rigorous honesty.”  Chelsea’s shrewd insight into her own life, remaining honest and forthright throughout, but also flirtatious and funny, is the unexpected star of the film.  While initially the two protect themselves with lies and carefully guarded secrets, but as the film progresses the guard comes down and what we’re treated to is an unexpectedly smart and comically inventive film that veers into an equally clever relationship movie that feels extremely close to the real Chris Rock, which as we all know is nothing short of amazing.     

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Imitation Game

Alan Turing (left) and actor Benedict Cumberbatch

Alan Turing at age 16

THE IMITATION GAME           B                     
Great Britain  USA  (114 mi)  2014  d:  Morton Tyldum            Official site

Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of, who do the things that no one can imagine.

Morton Tyldum is the Norwegian director of Headhunters (Hodejegerne) (2011), a stylish crime thriller running on high octane that treats the audience to a savagely vicious world of unleashed villainy, while here he exposes one of the dark secrets of Great Britain’s past, their ill-advised persecution of the one man that nearly single-handedly invented a machine that decrypted the German messages in World War II and helped the Allies win the war.  While most of us didn’t read about this in our history books, that’s because the information remained classified for the next 50 years.  The subject of the film is the great British mathematician Alan Turing, a brilliantly educated gay man of genius (modestly comparing himself poorly to the academic exploits of Einstein in the film) who devised a number of groundbreaking techniques for breaking German codes.  Winston Churchill said Turing made the single biggest contribution to the Allied victory in the war against Nazi Germany, where historians now believe he may have helped advance the end of the war by two years and in the process save 14 million lives.  Despite his status as a war hero (which was not recognized publicly due to continued government secrecy), Turing was prosecuted for homosexuality in 1952, which remained against the law in Britain until decriminalization in the mid 60’s.  In something out of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), as an alternative to prison, he accepted what amounts to chemical castration by taking female hormone injections, dying two years later at the age of 41 from self-inflicted suicide by cyanide poisoning.  It took until 2009 for Prime Minister Gordon Brown to make an official government apology for “the appalling way he was treated,” while the Queen also granted him a posthumous pardon in 2013.  Based on the Andrew Hodges book, Alan Turing:  The Enigma, which he began writing in 1977, released in 1983, it’s interesting that the book was written by a mathematician, currently a Research Fellow of Wolfson College at Oxford University, where his interest developed from his similar background, but also from his participation in the gay liberation movement of the 1970’s.  

Despite his notoriety today, Turing remained a mysterious figure during his lifetime, a man shrouded in secrecy, where MI6 Secret Intelligence Agent Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong) points out he would have been a perfect candidate as a spy, telling him he was exactly the man he hoped he would turn out to be when he recruited him.  The film is told during three periods of his life, his teenage schooldays, wartime service, and his final years in the early 1950’s, continually moving back and forth in time, opening with the scratchy recording of the 1939 radio broadcast of King George VI declaring war on Germany, which is the same speech from Tom Hooper’s Academy Award winning picture THE KING’S SPEECH (2010).  As that film relied upon a superb performance by Colin Firth as the stuttering King, this does the same with Benedict Cumberbatch as the brilliant Turing, where what both films have in common is they are handsome, well-made, informative, dignified, yet also exceedingly bland.  While this is a highly unconventional subject matter, the film itself couldn’t be more safely conventional, where any reference to homosexuality has been so deeply eliminated and hidden from view, mentioned only through coded references, that this could easily pass for a Disney film.  In other words, it helps if you’re familiar with the subject matter ahead of time, as there is little mention of actually “being” gay.  This is a far cry from the dreaded anguished realms of Hell described by impeccably educated, Catholic-bred, fellow Brit Terence Davies in his intensely personal ode to his hometown of Liverpool, Of Time and the City (2008), a much more emotionally devastating work where he bashes the Catholic Church for instilling in him an overwhelming sense of fear and guilt while growing up gay, eventually rejecting the church altogether, where he admittedly now lives an asexual lifestyle.  Turing, unfortunately, never survived to appreciate the benefits of his own tiresome efforts, where he basically invented an initial model for what we now commonly call computers.  Had he survived the socially repressive era of the 50’s, he would be lauded and celebrated on a number of fronts today, and while hardly the definitive Alan Turing film, leaving out huge gaps in his life, hopefully this is not the last word on the subject. 

Certainly the main problem with the film is the detached unlikability of the main character as he works in near isolation at Bletchley Park, a secret British cryptography unit at the Government Code and Cypher School that was formed to crack Germany’s Enigma machine code, where despite the horrors that are foisted upon him early in life, including being brutally bullied by others at school, he remains unsympathetic throughout because of the routine way he’s so dismissive of others,  His callous disregard for other people, particularly during wartime when nerves are already on edge from nightly bombings, is beyond offensive and near psychotic.  While the film attributes it to how much smarter he is than others, his hubris and extreme arrogance are symptomatic of deeper psychological problems that are left unexplored.  Instead, the film counterbalances his sneering coldness with a warmhearted figure in Keira Knightley as his sole friend, Joan Clarke, a woman he hires because of her own brilliance in solving puzzles.  But she provides all the social etiquette that he’s incapable of, which includes graciously smiling and being friendly, while Turing criticizes and belittles the ineffectiveness of his coworkers while continually alienating them.  His indifference is reminiscent of Stephen Hawking’s portrayal in The Theory of Everything (2014), who is seen in a much more positive light through the loving eyes of his wife whose book was adapted for the film.  Except for those private moments when Turing is seen with Clarke, he is almost exclusively alone, though the person having the greatest impact on his life was his only friend at Sherborne School, Christopher Morcom (Jack Banner), his first love, where the two were the smartest students in class, but his untimely death from tuberculosis shattered Turing’s religious faith, sparking a career as a mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist, but also the idea of whether a machine might contain the intelligence of a human being, where he named his code-breaking machine after Christopher, while also inventing the “Turin test,” or “Imitation game,” a series of questions designed to determine whether you were speaking to a person or a “thinking” machine.  Near the end of his life Turing is portrayed as a lone eccentric, having lost all his family and friends, where all that’s left is Christopher looming inside his apartment taking up an entire wall, like a place of worship, or the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), where the accompanying music by Alexandre Desplat might actually be described as exalting.  Turing’s life was portrayed earlier by Derek Jacobi in a made-for-television movie called BREAKING THE CODE (1996), and who can forget Dougray Scott as the tortured codebreaker in a fictionalized version, with Kate Winslet and Jeremy Northram along for window dressing in ENIGMA (2001), but this Hollywood version with Cumberbatch offering the intellectualized, award-worthy performance will have a much greater impact.  It’s been a banner year for science in movies, with portrayals of real life scientists Alan Turing and Stephen Hawking, and let’s not forget the fictionalized NASA pilot turned space traveler Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) in Interstellar (2014).   

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Once Upon a Time Verônica (Era uma vez eu, Verônica)

ONCE UPON A TIME VERÔNICA (Era uma vez eu, Verônica)        C                    
Brazil  France  (91 mi)  2012  d:  Marcelo Gomes   

The problems inherent with this film are reflective of the current lackluster state of malaise in the Brazilian film industry overall which seemingly lags behind the quality of other major Latin American cinema cultures at the moment, where Mexico (Carlos Reygadas, Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, Francisco Vargas, Fernando Eimbcke, and Amat Escalante) and Argentina (Lisandro Alonso, Lucretia Martel, Fabián Bielinsky, Adrián Caetano, Carlos Sorín, Albertina Carri, Martín Rejtman, and Pablo Trapero) in particular lead the way, but even the smaller film industries of Chile, and perhaps even Cuba, Uruguay, and Peru are producing more innovative films than Brazil, where the variance in quality is rather sizeable, subject to horrendously bad movies featuring “Telenova” actors, others copying the latest aesthetic of indie style films, while billionaire producer Walter Salles wields considerable power and influence after the critical success of CITY OF GOD (2002) over a decade ago, but the films he has written, directed or produced in the past ten years have often just been bad films, where he tends to choose topical issues but the focus is on artificiality and surface qualities, often relying upon nude scenes, rarely getting under the surface into complex character development.  CINEMA, ASPIRINS AND VULTURES (2005), an earlier film by Marcelo Gomes premiered at the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes, but this film, despite a brave effort by lead actress Hermila Guedes as the title character Verônica, a psychologist working at a public hospital, is ridiculously simplistic and an insult to the mental health profession in its lackadaisical presentation.  Even the sitcom television comedy The Bob Newhart Show (1972 – 78) offered greater respect and in depth insight for patients showing signs of depression and various other psychological ailments than this film, even though a good part of it is realistically shot during treatment sessions. 

Opening and closing on a swirling montage of nude bathers at the beach, Verônica is seen as one of the party revelers, where the continual movement of bodies and camera are woven into an orgiastic frenzy of sexual freedom, becoming a dreamy image of personal liberation that may only be a fantasy, especially as the camera then moves indoors to a couple having sex, where the bodies exist in an impressionistic mosaic of nudity, but other than cliché’d verbal responses, it’s hard to find any real passion in the room.  Afterwards, as if sizing herself up in the mirror, Verônica speaks into a handheld tape recorder and offers detached, diary-like thoughts about her impassive state of mind, identifying herself in the third person, “Patient:  Verônica.  Had some great sex last night.  Or at least she thinks she did.”  This recurring motif describes the adolescent self-absorption of her thoughts, continually calling attention to herself, but also the lack of any real insight into her own character.  In a Grey’s Anatomy (2005 – present) moment, Verônica is seen celebrating with other members of her graduating class from medical school in Recife, where what’s immediately apparent is the difference between book knowledge and patient knowledge, as she’s thrust into the sprawling overcrowded population of patients waiting to be seen in a public hospital, where it’s hard to believe she’s actually “helping” anyone.  Nonetheless she walks past this ever expanding line of patients to get to her office each day, where a variety of ailments present themselves to her, but realistically she always feels like a fish out of water, as there’s little actual interaction with patients when all she does is sit there writing prescriptions all day.  Away from work, she spends the majority of her time with her elderly father (W.J. Solha), a retired banker with a love for listening to old Brazilian records, but whose declining health worries her, seen tenderly taking care of him even though his continual advice for his daughter is to head for the beach or go out with friends and live her own life instead of being stuck with him. 

The one constant throughout is Verônica resorting to sex as the only outlet for all her internal struggles, spending most of the time with her boyfriend Gustavo (João Miguel), but she continues to express self-doubts, offering vacuous comments like “I, patient Verônica, uncertain about life, like everybody else.”  She even seems to believe she has a heart of stone, as she freely has sex with others as well and has difficulty making emotional commitments.  You get the feeling that every aspect of her life is self-analyzed, that perhaps the only reason she became a psychiatrist was to analyze herself, as she remains indifferent to everyone else except her father, the one man she can depend on.  The dreary and downbeat tone at work and in her life feels monotonous and suffocating, growing even worse when she discovers her father is dying, but this is contrasted by street scenes of the two of them walking slowly through Recife recalling past memories while a blossoming vitality of life exists all around them.  When they’re forced to move to a new location, due to needed building repairs, it’s a rather overt metaphor for having to rebuild their own lives.  Real life is overly grim, where there’s simply nothing to lure the audience into this perpetual aloofness except the sensuousness of the music heard throughout, where in Verônica’s early onset midlife crisis she has thoughts of becoming a professional singer.  While this seems little more than a dream, it does give the director an excuse to film whatever passes through her head, resorting to multiple sex scenes as well as a nightclub singer singing one of those songs you can’t seem to get out of your head, that Verônica actually sings to one of her disgruntled patients, “It’s all standardized in our hearts/ Our way of loving doesn’t seem to be ours at all/ Forever moving love to a new address.”  This shifting focus of attention and inability to concentrate on anything except the sensuousness of the beach, sex, music, and dreams does reflect the Brazilian state of mind, as if stuck in a reverie, but in this film she’s imprisoned by it.    

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Into the Woods (2014)

INTO THE WOODS               B+              
USA  (124 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Rob Marshall                       Official site

Into the woods,
It’s time to go,
I hate to leave,
I have to, though.
Into the woods-
It’s time, and so
I must begin my journey.

Into the woods
And through the trees
To where I am
Expected ma’am,
Into the woods
To Grandmother’s house-

—Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford)

When you’re dead, you’re dead.         —The Witch (Meryl Streep)

One of the most beloved musicals in the Sondheim repertoire, one that inverts the childlike innocence of fairy tales, ingeniously combining several classic fairy tales into a single story, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Jack and the Beanstalk, allowing tragedy, heartache, and death to intrude, creating a post apocalyptic feel that mirrors today’s post 9/11 world where unspeakable horrors continue to plague and traumatize a harrowed worldwide population, especially each new generation of children.  Originally opening on Broadway on November 5, 1987, the production won three Tony Awards, Best Score (Sondheim), Best Book (or Story, James Lapine), and Best Actress in a Musical (Joanna Gleason as the Baker’s wife) in a year dominated by The Phantom of the Opera, winner of seven Tony awards, becoming the longest running Broadway show in history.  While the original film version, Into the Woods (1991), directed by Lapine was simply filming a live performance of the original Broadway cast in front of an audience, the original singers are far superior, especially Bernadette Peters, who simply exudes greater complexity, bringing more humor and anguished personality into the Witch, while the comic timing throughout is more free flowing as well, but this is a much more entertaining version as the camera isn't so suffocatingly confined to fixed positions, though the direction does feel distracting at times.  More importantly, in both productions the Sondheim complexity really does shine through, where the theatrical experience is not only among the best Sondheim productions of his entire career, rivaling West Side Story (1957) and Company (1970), but among the most transforming theatrical experiences ever.  Nonetheless, the film underwent many changes to be brought to the screen by Disney, which will invariably be questioned, especially by Sondheim purists who wouldn’t change a thing, but it does streamline a three-hour production, with an Intermission, into a two-hour film.  First off, it eliminates about ten songs, including two new songs written by Sondheim specifically for the film that were also dropped.  Additionally, there is no narrator standing off to the side of the stage, which is seen as more of a theatrical device, instead the narration is provided by the Baker (James Corden) from the opening scene, which adds a bit of symmetry as he is again telling a story at the end of the movie.     

While Into the Woods (1991) *is* the definitive stage version, after the passing of 25 years, perhaps it’s due for a reassessment.  It’s worth noting that the legendary Bob Fosse took the stage version of Cabaret and completely changed it for the film, which won 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, beating out Francis Ford Coppola in the process for THE GODFATHER (1972), Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actor.  Fosse cut two major characters, remade the lead into an American, and cut most of the material except for the songs in the nightclub, and for that the man is considered a genius.  Comparatively speaking, these are only minor alterations, none of which change the tone of the original, except perhaps it’s darker, as none of the characters who are killed off return to the stage for a rousing final number before the curtain falls.  As something of a quest movie, the opening ten minutes or so are a rush of exhilaration built around a single musical theme of “Into the Woods,” which introduces the central characters, the childless Baker (Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt, probably the best thing in the entire show), who have been cursed by the Witch (Meryl Streep in a less comic, much meaner version), who has herself been cursed into ugliness, demanding that they retrieve certain items to reverse the spell in order to conceive a child, where they continue to interact with other storybook characters throughout their journey.  Nearby the poor and not so bright farm boy Jack (Daniel Huddlestone) is scolded by his mother (Tracey Ullman) when he hesitates to take his best friend, a cow named Milky White, to the market for needed money, while Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is continually humiliated and mistreated at home as she dreams of attending the luxurious Prince’s ball, but visiting her sick grandmother is Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) who gathers as many cookies from the Baker as she can, stuffing them into a basket before she skips along into the woods, meeting a devious wolf (Johnny Depp) who has other ideas along the way.  Often you can’t really tell where one musical number ends and another begins, continually moving in and out of dialogue, where film allows much of the story to be told in flashback, something you can’t do on stage.  

Stage shows are notoriously difficult to bring to the screen, where Sondheim’s earlier A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC (1977) fell short of audience’s expectations, while Tim Burton’s dark-themed SWEENEY TODD (2007) had flashes of brilliance but catered to a distinct few, quickly leaving the theaters after a short run.  But unlike earlier failed attempts, like CAMELOT (1967) or MAN OF LA MANCHA (1972), the inspiring magic of the Sondheim source material remains intact and can be enthralling, especially for those experiencing it for the first time.  The film is an alluring mix of absurdism and childhood fantasy with real life themes, where the stark seriousness can catch unsuspecting viewers off guard, yet the beauty of the music can literally be enchanting.  There’s a broad attempt to turn this into a Shakespearean Midsummer Night’s Dream, an exotic place where a little magic dust gets everything mixed up, including the two Prince Charmings, Star Trek’s Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, both hamming it up to excessively vulgar and distasteful delight while singing “Agony” like a cologne advertising shoot along some artificial waterfalls, each complaining bitterly about the difficulties encountered in their attempts at romance, eventually marrying their destined fairybook sweethearts before time creates a rift between them, where both cheat on their wives with little to no remorse.  This incident in particular plagues the Baker’s wife, succumbing to the Prince’s charms in a momentary lapse of reason, who feels as if a kind of madness has taken over, as the world around her is quickly coming apart at the seams before she finally comes to her senses, but it’s too late, a victim of the unpredictable violence of the times.  The film retains the brilliance of the original story, which has not only a fascinating interplay between what’s real and what’s imagined, but has another interesting dynamic where children are seen through the eyes of Little Red Riding Hood and Jack, while the emphasis on the Bakers shifts the importance to the views of expectant parents, where the disasters occurring throughout reflect a kind of imaginary world that they both need to navigate their way through together.  When the Witch sings “Stay with Me” to her daughter Rapunzel as she’s about to leave with her Prince, it’s one of the best songs about parental loss ever written.  Perhaps more emphasized in the film are the anxieties associated with parenthood, where the Baker encounters the spirit of his father more as a reflection of his own fear of fatherhood, which is paralleled later near the end when the Baker encounters the spirit of his dead wife, offering him tender but encouraging words of advice about his ability to handle such a complex situation on his own. 

Perhaps no contemporary American composer has broken more rules than Sondheim, who views humankind as potentially problem solving.  To that end, the opening is stuffed full of complicated situations, with each character drawn into this internal whirlwind of the story.  But as the film progresses, the concept of time expands with age, becoming more contemplative, where the marvel of the story is how the characters interact with one another, where their shared conflicts help them grow as they ask questions about what to do.  According to Mark Eden Horowitz’s Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions, “wishing” is the key character in Into the Woods, wishing for love, for a child, for understanding, which connects the characters not only to one another but to the audience.  The initial fantasies are elaborated upon through a sophisticated musical score that initially charms and delights before growing more somberly reflective.  Sondheim was himself abandoned by his father at age ten and had a psychologically abusive mother, eventually becoming an institutionalized child having little contact with his original family.  When his mother died in 1992, Sondheim did not attend the funeral.  This dark world of feeling abandoned and disconnected from the world around you is the setting of the film, where the songs literally bring the viewer inside these fragile moments of tragedy and personal loss that become nothing less than heartbreaking in the song “No One Is Alone,” No One Is Alone by Bernadette Peters - YouTube (5:15), where Cinderella, separated from her Prince, comforts Little Red Riding Hood while the Baker, who has lost his wife, consoles Jack after he’s lost his mother.  The film is preoccupied by the tragedy of the times we live in, which has become a much more unstable and threatening world.  Visited by the spirits of the ones they (and we) have lost, it’s the Witch who uncannily sees through this myriad of missed connections, unraveling lives and broken dreams, and as if in a haze delivers one of the most hauntingly beautiful songs, “Children Will Listen,” Children Will Listen by Bernadette Peters - YouTube (3:05), that somehow magically and triumphantly reconnects us all to each other, from one generation to the next, literally transforming this fairy tale about inexplicable loss into a transcendent passion play on love, forgiveness, and human redemption.