Manuel Betancourt

Oscar Challenge 2015: Into the Woods & Whiplash

January 27, 2015 · in Film

Into the Woods & Whiplash

Into the Woods
Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Best Production Design
Best Costume Design
Whiplash
Best Picture
Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Best Film Editing
Best Sound Mixing

“A demanding older figure makes unconscionable demands in this wall-to-wall musically scored parable about parenting.”

If you were to make this as a straight man, you might end up with Whiplash, an obscenely well-cut two character study about a young jazz drummer and his hardened homophobic-slur hurling music teacher.

If, on the other hand, you wanted to make a queer version of this story, you might end up with Rob Marshall’s uneven if at times breathlessly inspired adaptation of James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim’s musical Into the Woods.

Much has been written about the way the Best Picture lineup reads like a completely uncalled for panoply of the white male experience but I’ll be damned if Whiplash isn’t by far the most inexcusable. This is not only because it is arguably a great short film repeated on loop and dubbed a “feature film” with the heartening moral of “being a douchebag gets things done” but because it so unironically presents the idea of the tortured artist as a willing sadomasochistic (“sure I almost died and have ruined many a relationship but by god if the spotlight doesn’t feel good!”). Practice makes perfect laced with narcissism which is probably why it resonated so well with AMPAS. Music is here presented as an excruciating enterprise and after endless close ups of drums, the oppressively masculinist environment (anyone count how many “faggots” J.K. Simmons gets to throw during the film?) ultimately wore me down. Couldn’t Chazelle have given his characters more shades to play than tortured/torturer?

Whiplash
Into the Woods

If Whiplash pummels you with the idea that good stewardship involves a fascistic approach to artistic growth, Into the Woods opens itself up to more nuanced ideas about parenting. Focused as it is on a magical quest to become parents, the film (as the Broadway show) populates its eponymous woods with many mothers navigating their parenting. From Jack’s mother’s slaps and The Witch’s helicoptering, to Little Red’s Granny’s advice and Cinderella’s step mother’s disdain, Lapine’s book seems genuinely curious about what makes a good mother (or better yet, a good family as the ending suggests it might actually take a village). It’s no surprise a musical story about fathers and male mentors would turn me off while a musical about the aspirational drawbacks of motherhood would woo me even as it is less formally exacting than the former.

Where Whiplash sees Andrew’s sacrifice as both a grandstanding revenge fantasy and the culmination of many a bloody night, Into the Woods (even in Marshall’s rather rushed adaptation which short-circuits many of Lapine/Sondheim’s nuances) feels more empathy towards its characters and rewards their sacrifices with crucial epiphanies (“now I know better”). A lot of this comes down to casting; Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick and Meryl Streep make for a charming melodic triptych while Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons excel at smug sneering and little else.

Thus, while Simmons is an able performer who I’ve enjoyed elsewhere, there’s little in his Nazi Terence Fletcher that I grew to enjoy. It’s basically one note played over and over again and all I wanted to yell at him was “THAT’S NOT MY TEMPO!!” So while Whiplash feels like a rat-tatatting percussive exercise (again! again!) Sondheim’s musical is gloriously, melodically expansive to the point where it does actually burst at the seams. But when it sings? Oh, there’s little else that matters, from Meryl’s touching “Stay with Me” to Kendrick’s droll yet quivering “On the Steps of the Palace”.

Whiplash. C+

Into the Woods. B+