Double Feature: Into the Woods – Dracula Untold (2014)

Welcome to the first Adam Mohrbacher Double Feature! This is a new type of post where yours truly will attempt to quell the inherent verbosity of my writing. This is, essentially, an exercise for my benefit only, where I will challenge myself to review two similarly-themed films in under 1000 words.

Now, for those well-versed in all that is Adam Mohrbacher, you know that this will be no easy task. It is however an essential one, where I will attempt to struggle against my innate proclivity for fluff and flabbyness, while still offering my award-winning and patented form of searing critique.

Into the Woods

Back in 2009 I erroneously believed that director Rob Marshall had bottomed out. The Oscar-winning filmmaker had just released Nine, an excruciating, still-born adaptation of the Tony-winning  play. Long, tedious and profoundly miscast, Nine was one of the worst films of its respective year.

But like a turd that refuses to be flushed, Marshall has continued to float back to the genre that initially made him. Into the Woods is another musical film dominated by a star-studded cast. Like his earlier efforts, this cache of stars is incapable of elevating the material.

Into the Woods is yet another adaptation of a famed theatrical production, which was written by legendary playwright Stephen Sondheim. Focusing on a childless, impotent couple, portrayed by ill-matched James Corden (The Baker) and Emily Blunt (his Wife), Into the Woods offers a dark twist on several classic fairy tales. These include Jack and the Beanstalk, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella.

Tying all of these together is the character of The Witch, portrayed by the iconic Meryl Streep. Although having nothing to prove at this point, Streep’s performance is an unequivocal embarrassment in Into the Woods, easily ranking as one of her worse.

Big, psychotic and utterly abrasive, her performance renders The Witch as not only an unlikable character but also a largely unrelatable. Her convoluted back story (something about The Baker’s father stealing from her vegetable garden and inadvertently cursing her with ugliness) doesn’t exactly endear her to the audience. Even worse, the relentless, multi-generational retribution she inflicts upon The Baker’s familial line feels inexplicable, as does the quest on which she sends him and his wife. This involves a frenzied search for a white cow, a red cape, a golden slipper and yellow hair.

Lured with the promise of their fertility being restored upon the quest’s completion, the couple dutifully takes this journey into the woods, only to run across the various titular characters from fairytale literature. In keeping with the source material, Marshall and playwright James Lapine attempt to mount a semi-serious deconstruction of fairy tale sensibilities yet become mired under the weight of too many characters and plot lines. This is evident in the arc of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), which feels like it’s missing a critical foundation.  Ultimately, this then ruins her story’s concluding moments with Prince Charming (played by an excellent Chris Pine).

Other stories also have an abridged or muddy feel, which negates their respective emotional pay offs. This is evident in the story of Jack from Jack and the Beanstalk, whose adventures are only talked about, never shown. Additionally, prolonged sequences between the Wolf (Johnny Depp) and Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) add nothing to the film’s overall thematic preoccupations. Depp, cloaked in a weird costume and makeup for the millionth time, does manage to exude an appropriately lecherous vibe. He seems utterly lost however under the immense weight of the music, showcasing none of the skill seen in something like his own vehicle Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

This is a problem that defines nearly all of Into the Woods. Similar to Nine, nothing about the film’s score comes through. Marshall stages each tune with an unrelenting bombast, often having a parade of people sing simultaneously so that they are all drowned out. Into the Woods’ surprisingly bland and repetitive set design also drain away the story’s magic. These failings form another ignominious mark on Mr. Marshall’s filmography, indicating that perhaps the only relationship he should have with future movie musicals is as an audience member.

Dracula Untold

After dozens of adaptations, it may seem inconceivable that there would be anything more to say about the legendary figure of Dracula on-screen. How wrong we all were. In Dracula Untold, scripters Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless reimagine The Count as the historical Prince Vlad Tepes, who today functions as a Romanian folk hero for his military defiance of the Ottoman Turks.

As the ostensible launching pad for a Universal Monsters Shared Universe, it is perhaps unsurprising that Dracula Untold is an origin story, cut from the same proverbial cloth as a superhero film. When we meet Vlad, played by a beefy and steely Luke Evans (underused and bland), he is as down on his luck as your average Marvel loser. The Turks basically treat his country as their puppet state, squeezing him for treasure and child soldiers with more sadistic relish than a degenerate playground bully.

His people are also desperate and afraid, and when the Turks demand 1000 of Romania’s sons to bulk up their army, the princely hunk is forced to make a deal with a monstrous creature (Charles Dance) that is residing in the mountains of his country. Endowed with vampiric powers through this encounter, Vlad then proceeds to wreak havoc on his enemies.

As you might expect, especially once you consider its PG-13 rating, this involves a barrage of CGI’d images, not to mention a distressing lack of blood and stakes. The film’s cast, composed mainly of a series of no-names, provide none of gravitas needed to ground such lunacy. This may be due to the film’s hilarious lack of historical worth. For a film set in 15th Century Romania, Vlad’s court is staffed by a surprising number of Brits and Canadians, none more so than The Count’s ravishing bride Mirena (played by the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Sarah Gadon).

The actors also all speak English and often in a heavy British accent. This gives the film a light, disposable air, evoking memories of such forgettable fluff as Troy and Alexander (both 2004). This is disappointing, especially as the film dances around a fascinating region and time period.

This is not to say that there aren’t allusions to a thematically richer film. Evans, to his credit, does occasionally suggest that his Vlad is a man deeply burdened by the brutality he is required to dole out. However, for the most part Dracula Untold remains a film so mediocre it’s insulting. It’s a film that takes zero chances. It is coherent and visually attractive enough, but it’s missing the dark, transporting power synonymous with tales about Stoker’s villain. It’s of course admirable that the filmmakers behind Dracula Untold wanted to take The Count into different territory, and that they wanted say something new about the tired old legend. It’s just sad that this new film does little for The Prince of Darkness except make him somewhat boring.

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