Dilovely had herself TWO MOVIE DATES over the holidays, y’all. Both are still kinda recent (released in Canada on Christmas Day, only two weeks ago!), so I figured I could still say a few words. After all, it’s been ages since I reviewed a movie. (It’s the lack of frequency and/or freshness. That is to say, for example, that by the time I saw Guardians of the Galaxy, it had been in theatres for ages and was on its way out.)
Into the Woods I saw with a friend and two of my siblings (plus the third in spirit!), one week after it came out. I had been really stoked to see it because A) yay musicals! and B) double yay Sondheim! and C) Anna Kendrick Meryl Streep Emily Blunt Johnny Depp Chris Pine and company, you know?
Let’s start with B), the brilliant Stephen Sondheim, cliché-defying composer of 23 musicals, including Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (made into a movie by Tim Burton in 2007). His work has been criticized for being un-hummable. He does use unpredictable timing, melodies, and key signatures a lot of the time – which can be fun and/or confusing – but let’s be clear: he can also nail a memorable, sweeping refrain to bring tears to your eyes.
We had varying degrees of Sondheimism in attendance: my brother Ben was Props guy for a production of Into the Woods at his university years ago; my sister Emily has been a Sondheim junkie for a long time (since the era when she would pirate soundtracks from the library onto cassette tapes) and I’d wager she has memorized the lyrics of at least a dozen of his musicals, including this one. I, on the other hand, am an odd kind of Sondheim fan – I’ve known every word of Assassins for many years; I saw Sweeney Todd on stage; I did a project about Sondheim in university, learning many interesting things about the man and his music; but I was only acquainted with about 1/3 of the songs of Into the Woods.
I was actually in an ideal position to enjoy this particular film. I had the advantage of being familiar with Sondheim’s rapid-fire, overlapping lyrical techniques, as well as the most common melodic themes – but I didn’t really know anything about the story itself, other than that it interweaves lore from a bunch of different fairy tales. Thus, I could simply relish listening to Sondheim’s dazzling rhymes unfolding, without being weirded out by his unconventional style AND without being distracted by comparing every vocal nuance to a pre-memorized soundtrack (as I did with Les Mis). I felt that the editing made it possible to understand what was going on, even during fast, complex sections of lyrics.
Also, I could watch the story happen without knowing what to expect. I felt like a kid, spellbound by a dramatic tale that might go anywhere. The story is unusual and interesting, the locations are beautiful and real, the singing is top-notch, and the effects, banal as it sounds, really bring the plot to life. We all enjoyed it thoroughly, feeling it must be just what Sondheim wanted when freed from the constraints of the stage.
I also appreciated that, as always, Sondheim put his critical thinking skills to work when he created this story, spoofing or overturning stereotypical prince and princess characters. (I have several posts brewing about princesses.)
In case you’re wondering, my favourite songs/scenes were “Agony” (a sentiment shared by iTunes customers, apparently) for the melodramatic comedy, “On the Steps of the Palace” for sheer lyrics-based delight, and “Your Fault” for the singing (and editing) agility. They nailed ’em.
We did all wonder what it would be like to see this movie without prior knowledge. According to one friend, it was “really strange but really good,” which makes sense. Obviously people are agreeing with this – despite music that is not as conventionally catchy as, say, Les Misérables or Chicago, Into the Woods tickets, along with the soundtrack album, are still selling like hotcakes. It makes me happy that current moviegoers are open to this, and to movie musicals in general. That means more musicals to come, for all of us!
For more on my intermittently obsessive relationship with musicals, please click here.
And to hear a memorable, sweeping Sondheim refrain, please click here.
(I heard recently that seeing hyperlinks in the middle of an article, even if you don’t click on it, seriously disrupts one’s reading experience. I’m pretty sure it’s true. Henceforth, I’m putting my links separately.)
And now, on to The Imitation Game. An altogether different sort of film.
I went to see this one with my Hubbibi just a few days after it opened, having only seen the trailer, and knowing little about Enigma, the supposedly unbreakable encoding machine used by the Germans during World War II.
I did not know anything else about the plot or about Turing’s life, other than that he’s the genius known as the father of digital computing, and that he was gay. (Not a spoiler – it’s made known early on.) Oh, and I knew that Enigma was eventually solved and the Allies won the war.
Here’s what I can tell you without revealing any other plot points:
- The movie manages to be suspenseful and heart-pounding at times, even though we know the outcome of the codebreaking efforts and the war. It also has a surprising number of chuckle-out-loud moments, and several that make you want to cry, for different reasons. (I didn’t cry, but I could have. The tears hovered in my chest for the whole film.)
- After reading a novel called “Enigma” many years ago, then watching this movie in 2014, then watching the documentary “Codebreaker” (which I recommend, if you’re interested), I still didn’t understand what made Enigma so hard (how is it different from simple letter substitution?) until I found this sentence at plus.maths.org: “What made the Enigma machine so special was the fact that every time a letter was pressed, the movable parts of the machine would change position so that the next time the same letter was pressed, it would most likely be enciphered as something different.” OH. Now the movie makes sense.
- Keira Knightley’s role as Joan Clarke, the only female cryptanalyst to work on Enigma with the men, is memorable and incredibly satisfying to watch. I’d like to see a movie all about her.
- Benedict Cumberbatch impressed me. Perhaps the most because he is playing a character with great similarities to his Sherlock from the BBC series (genius, arrogant, socially odd), and yet his portrayal is not the same at all. His accolades are well-deserved. And I can’t think of a weak link in the supporting cast.
- The only aspect I found a bit feeble was the structuring of the story, flashback-style, around Turing’s interview with Detective Nock. It was compelling at the beginning, but it kind of fizzled. And then they had to drop it before the final scenes anyway. But I guess these days a linear story doesn’t cut it. (Except in movie musicals with many overlapping plot lines; see above.)
If you’ve already seen the movie or know lots about Alan Turing – or don’t care about spoilers – I can also tell you the discussion topics that Sean and I chewed over after the movie:
- It’s mind-blowing that Bletchley Park (central site of the Government Code and Cypher School, where all this codebreaking took place) wasn’t declassified until the 1970s – and some people who worked there maintain secrecy about it to this day. During the war, even high-up military officials didn’t know that the intelligence was coming to them via Enigma (an imaginary MI6 spy codenamed “Boniface” got the credit). Codebreakers never told their own spouses, even long after the war was over.
- This also means that Alan Turing, whose own work literally made it possible to win the war, was never formally recognized for his monumental contribution. He could never tell that nasty-face Commander Denniston: “HA! See?? I TOLD YOU IT WOULD WORK.” Which must have rankled.
- Even more mind-blowing (though sadly inevitable at the time) is the fact that the British government not only failed to honour Turing for his work, it criminalized him for his homosexuality. He opted for chemical castration (in the form of synthetic estrogen) over prison, in the hopes of continuing his work – not knowing it would wreak havoc on his mind as well as his libido.
- Therefore, even though his death from cyanide poisoning at age 41 was chalked up to suicide, in my mind, he was killed by his own government, whose members didn’t know they basically owed him their existence. It could hardly be more tragically unfair.
- Interestingly, it seems that on December 24th, 2013, the Queen issued a posthumous “Royal Pardon” for Alan Turing. How nice. No offense to the Queen, since I don’t think there exists a posthumous “Royal Acknowledgement of Heinous Injustice and Subsequent Begging for Forgiveness,” but a royal pardon does seem a bit thin. Not to mention grossly overdue.
- Alan Turing did amazing things with his unique gifts while he was alive, and could have done many more of them if he had lived longer. Doesn’t it make you wonder how many great, world-changing minds and ideas have been quashed by people’s fears and prejudices? How much further we might have come by now, as a species, if we hadn’t been spending so much time and energy squelching humans because they were gay/black/women/etc. – and how many victims of prejudice had brilliant brains being wasted in obscurity?
- It is also interesting to consider which individual humans in the world have truly changed the course of history. If Alan Turing hadn’t lived, the Allies might have lost, and the world might be extremely different right now. Which other historical figures – or present-day people – have had (or will have!) such impact? Discuss.
We also talked quite a bit about War then vs. War now, but that’s for another blog post.
So, to sum up: see Into the Woods for fun and singing; see The Imitation Game for heartstring-pulling and brain stimulation. I highly recommend each, but I wouldn’t try both in one day.
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