Meryl Streep

Death Becomes Her (1992)

death-becomes-her

“En garde, bitch.” And with that, two undead rivals, forgotten star Madeline Ashton and spurned lover Helen Sharp, go at it with garden shovels, knocking each other around until one nearly loses her head. Death Becomes Her is a batty, ageless film in more ways than one. It’s a campy early ‘90s nod to the B-movie that boasts serious stars in truly captivating performances; it also features still impressive special effects, though one can only imagine what a filmmaker might attempt with a remake today; and it touches on a theme, eternal youth, that will probably never go away.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis, this movie delights in its own silliness. Stars Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn ham it up as vindictive rivals for the affections of a lumpy and timid plastic surgeon, played with a very un-John McClane-like Bruce Willis. When Madeline (Streep) and Ernest (Willis) elope, Helen (Hawn) goes off the deep end, eating herself into obesity and landing in a psych ward due to her obsessive behavior. The years haven’t been kind to Madeline either though, and she eventually loses her career, good looks, and the love of her husband.

The three are reunited some years later when Helen launches her book at a glitzy party. Madeline is jealous to discover that Helen is thin, radiant, and most importantly, young. The change doesn’t escape Ernest’s notice. He’s eager to rid himself of his nagging wife and to recharge his career – he’s been reduced to a makeup artist for the dead. He and his former lover plot to rid themselves of Madeline, and, as usually happens, that’s when things start to get out of control.

Death Becomes Her takes our obsession with youth and youthful appearances to the extreme. It’s also a commentary on sexism and aging in Hollywood, issues that are as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago. In this movie, the cure-all is a youth potion, conjured up by Lisle (Isabella Rossellini), a mysterious woman who prowls topless through her empty mansion and is protected by equally unclothed bodyguards. When Madeline gets a preview of the potion’s effect, she snaps it up without a moment’s thought. When Ernest gets the same opportunity, he hesitates, fearful of what immortality truly entails. Though he’s spent a lifetime helping people alter their appearances in life and death, he spurns the notion that greatness is achieved through youth or beauty.

Of course he might come to that conclusion as a man who looks like a bank teller and marries someone like Meryl Streep. But as Madeline and Hollywood’s actresses know, youth and beauty are a woman’s primary currency in an industry they don’t control. There’s great irony in that despite stopping time to spend eternity as they are, Madeline and Helen are still betrayed by their bodies. They need constant remolding and patching up just so they don’t walk around like melting mannequins. But the more work they get, the more unrecognizable they become, and doesn’t that sound familiar? Just Renee Zelleweger or Kim Novak.

Released: 1992
Prod: Robert Zemeckis, Steve Starkey
Dir: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Martin Donovan, David Koepp
Cast: Meryl Streep, Goldie Hawn, Bruce Willis, Isabella Rossellini, Ian Ogilvy, Sydney Pollack, Fabio
Time: 104 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016

Mamma Mia!

mamma mia

Mamma Mia! is the cinematic equivalent of an exploding party supply store. It’s a chaotic, freewheeling mess of sequins, feather boas, and novelty beach props crashing into a dazzling slate of singing and dancing superstars. The spectacle is good, boozy fun if you’re not invested in plot and don’t need an excuse to break out in song.

Based on the stage production which is based on someone’s strained imagination, the movie takes place on a picturesque Greek island where Donna (Meryl Streep) owns a holiday villa. Her daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), is engaged to Sky (Dominic Cooper), and their wedding promises to be a grand affair. Guests begin to descend on the island, including her raucous friends and former bandmates, Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). But unbeknownst to her, Sophie has also sent invitations to Donna’s former lovers, Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Harry (Colin Firth), and Bill (Stellan Skarsgård), one of whom could be her biological father. With the nuptials less than 24 hours away, Sophie’s secret becomes too big to keep and threatens to ruin her big day.

Not to worry though – this is an ABBA extravaganza. A film whose musical lineup includes “Dancing Queen,” “Super Trooper,” and “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!” can’t possibly end on a sour note. Just look at those exclamation marks. It’s the sheer exuberance of the song and dance numbers and the abandon with which the actors perform them that lessen the guilt of indulging in such shameless entertainment. The gaudy theatricality of the whole project works in its favor, demanding that viewers let loose a little. If James Bond doesn’t mind embarrassing himself in a polyester one piece, then surely the audience can forgive the below average singing voices and utter lack of character development.

It’s a mystery, for example, why Sophie is so desperate to have her father give her away when she’s had no contact with him her whole life or why all three men, who presumably had no more than a weekend fling with Donna, are so eager to scramble back to the tiny Greek village after twenty years. The sheer will with which Catherine Johnson, who penned the book and screenplay, corsets her story to give shape to the songs is impressive, even if the results are less so.

One reason is casting, which clearly didn’t take musical abilities into account. Seyfried holds herself well along with veteran Baranski and relative newcomer Cooper, but even the infallible Dame Meryl shows some strain. Still, she is better than any of her leading men, whose reedy warbles surely belong in some musical hall of infamy. At least they have their careers to fall back on.

“Dancing Queen” by Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski, Julie Walters:

“Lay All Your Love On Me” by Amanda Seyfried and Dominic Cooper:

“Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight) by Amanda Seyfried:

“Voulez-Vous” by Mamma Mia! cast:

Released: 2008
Prod: Judy Craymer, Gary Goetzman, Tom Hanks
Dir: Phyllida Lloyd
Writer: Catherine Johnson
Cast: Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan, Amanda Seyfried, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård; Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Dominic Cooper
Time: 109 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015

Into the Woods

into the woods

Revisionist tellings are the thing these days, and upending popular notions of heroism, chivalry, and romance says something about our willingness to part with the way things are supposed to be and instead see things the way they are. Maybe that’s some of the appeal of reality TV, which pretends to be a reflection of some life, though never one that I lead. There is also the much lauded boom of anti-heroes, mostly men, mostly white, fronting massive hit television shows. We like them because they’re badass, or complex as critics say, but also because they share our penchant for really screwing things up.

So it’s appropriate that Into the Woods, the beloved stage musical, is finally getting the flashy cinematic treatment after years in development hell. A staple for the Broadway set, it sucked the glitter out of fairy tales long before Wicked and Frozen’s far tamer efforts at subversion. Was it worth the wait? I can guess what purists would say but for my money, Rob Marshall’s star-studded film delivers a magical and poignant adaptation that may not equal the stage production but is a worthy substitute.

Into the Woods was always a scattershot story, combining pieces of half a dozen fairy tales to create a new anti-fairy tale. In translating the musical to the screen, James Lapine, who penned the original book, excises a few deaths and romantic liaisons and trims some roles. The result is still sprawling, just less so.

The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) center the story with their desire to have a child. Their neighbor, a hideous witch (Meryl Streep) who cursed the family line, promises to grant their wish if they can collect certain items within three days time. They must find the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.

The couple set off into the woods and gradually encounter some familiar characters. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of beanstalk fame, is forced by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell his beloved cow so that they don’t starve. Little Red (Lilla Crawford) is on her way to visit her old grandmother. Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) is locked in her tower, and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is running to and from the King’s festival.

Each has something that the Baker and his Wife need, and in their desperation, the couple resort to trickery and outright theft to get it. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from a sanitized fairy tale, and those fantasies are precisely what Into the Woods aims to deconstruct. There’s a happily ever after, but it occurs midway through the movie, leaving the second act fertile ground for the dashing of dreams.

Director Marshall has the monstrous task of bringing the beast to life and is more successful with this than with his previous efforts in the genre. Whereas Chicago and Nine are characterized by frenetic direction and editing, here Marshall leads with a more patient hand. It helps that the movie is firmly planted in a world given to the magic of musical storytelling. He lets the lyrics and characters dictate the camera’s eye, and it roams leisurely over the impressive set. (It also helps that he didn’t attempt to film in 3D.)

The movie avoids another pitfall that plagues film adaptations of musicals by casting actors who can sing. They might not all have the power of Broadway vocalists, but their voices suit the medium. Blunt, in particular, brings a gentle nuance to her role as the Baker’s Wife and is especially moving in “Finale/Children Will Listen.” Kendrick already has a Tony nomination (for High Society) to back her up, and Huttlestone and Crawford are likewise experienced singers who add perk but much knowing to their young characters. After a middling performance in Mamma Mia!, I didn’t hold out great hopes for Streep, but she lives up to her billing, instilling fear and ache in equal measure. The real discovery though is Chris Pine, who puts his leading man reputation to good use. Not only does he belt out the film’s funniest number (“Agony” with Billy Magnussen), he proves that he’s damn good at comedy. His buffoonish, over-the-top Prince Charming is something to savor.

Of course the real magic is in Lapine’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics. The words and melodies are some of the most haunting and emotional on stage. As disjointed as the story may seem at times, the moments of clarity each character experiences are arresting and ring with truth, ripping the fairy tales from colorful pages and throwing them into reality. There is charm, beauty, and enchantment, but there is also selfishness, greed, and lust. And while the stories we tell try to keep kids’ naïveté intact, Lapine and Sondheim remind you that children see the world around them. They grow up, and they can’t always be protected. Says Little Red after she’s been tempted and devoured by the Wolf (Johnny Depp) and then freed by the Baker, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot, and a little bit not.”

“Careful the spell you cast, not just on children. Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see and turn against you.”

“Agony” by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen:

“I Know Things Now” by Lilla Crawford:

“There are Giants in the Sky” by Daniel Huttlestone:

“No One is Alone” by Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Lilla Crawford, and Daniel Huttlestone:

Released: 2014
Prod: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Marc Platt, Callum McDougal
Dir: Rob Marshall
Writer: James Lapine
Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Joanna Riding, Frances de la Tour, Richard Glover, Simon Russell Beale
Time: 124 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015