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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 25, 2014

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Real Christmas, Into the Woods

A friend of ours -- let me call her "Christi" (because that's her name) -- told us about her experience early in December as she hurriedly searched for a small nativity scene she could use as a decoration for an event.

She only had an hour or so to search, so she went first to a store that promotes its huge selection of Christmas decorations. They didn't have a single nativity scene. So she went to a couple of home furnishing stores that had plenty of Christmas decorations -- but nothing with Christ in it.

In one store, she was stunned that the salesperson didn't even know what a "nativity scene" was. "A creche," Christi explained. "The baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, maybe an angel."

The salesperson, still baffled at the concept, called over a manager, who said, "I think we have something like that over here." Christi tagged along, only to find that all they had were angels -- nothing with the holy family or shepherds or wise men.

Now, it's easy to say that she simply tried the wrong stores -- Ten Thousand Villages, for instance, has nativities of many different kinds, and from different countries, to celebrate the Christmas season.

But I think her point was simpler: Our culture has been so radically de-Christianized that it's possible for local citizens to grow to adulthood without ever having learned what a "nativity scene" is. And local stores can buy the Christmas decorations they plan to sell without having a single creche among them.

This isn't a reason to condemn the stores -- why should we insist that stores use any criteria in buying the goods they plan to sell, except what they think will make them a profit? Nor is it the salesperson's fault that she had no idea of the meaning of "nativity scene."

No, the real fault lies with the fact that Christians are not doing a good enough job of proclaiming our beliefs and culture openly and unashamedly. It's as if the Supreme Court's bans on government-sponsored nativity scenes somehow applied to such displays on private property.

And multi-culturalism promotes every culture except traditional American Christianity, which is not just banned but actively hated.

It's fine for the public schools to leave Christ out of Christmas, in order not to offend non-Christians who are required by law to send their children to school. But that ban should not extend to our homes, to our conversations, to our public greetings. The schools, the government, the Supreme Court -- they have no authority over us in our personal Christmas celebration.

The last thing we ever want to do is condemn or punish people or businesses for not understanding Christmas, or not celebrating it in the way we think they ought. That's not their job, it's ours.

So I ask you: What are we doing this Christmas to help bring the idea of Christ into the hearts of our family and friends?

May I suggest that there are some videos that you can gather your family around your computer or tablet or smartphone to watch together -- or you can send links to those who are far away. They will all help rekindle or increase the sense of faith and love and family connection of the Christmas season.

A favorite of mine, for sheer entertainment, is an elaborate stunt set up inside a grocery store in Germany, where the beeps caused by clerks scanning the bar codes on customer purchases play a seasonal carol.

Each scanner beeps a different pitch, and the melody requires that a few scanners must play more frequently than the others. You can't help but wonder how many times the same customer was charged for the same merchandise. But I'm sure they made it happen without any customers feeling cheated. http://sn.im/germancashiers

Did they do it all in real time, flawlessly? Or did the film editor piece together the melody out of clips of each tone? It doesn't matter to me. However they did it, the melody is played and a sense of delight is created.

Then we have a short movie about a family whose parents are worried about getting the mortgage payment together; there's no hope of buying any Christmas gifts. Meanwhile, the older children are making wish lists about how they really need certain expensive presents.

As they converse, the youngest child is gathering things together and gradually the rest of the family takes note of what she's doing. They even help, without understanding her purpose. It's just a child's self-chosen project -- but it also puts their worries and their wishes into perspective. "Getting Into the Christmas Spirit" originated on the Mormon Channel, but the message is for all Christians, regardless of denomination. http://sn.im/GetIntoSpirit

Perhaps more humorous, but still lovely, is "The Reason Behind Christmas." In this video, an old man is helping to light up a rehearsal for a children's Christmas pageant. The kids begin by acting out crazy people competing to purchase gifts.

Then they bring in the gifts, but with different (and often adult) meanings, and as the gifts are assembled, they create a surprising second effect. http://sn.im/LightingPageant

Another real-meaning-of-Christmas video is David Archuleta singing "Silent Night" while we watch authentic-looking scenes from the Christmas story. Titles on the screen tell the story along with the actors, whose voices we don't hear. It's quite simple and moving -- a Christmas pageant with really great costumes and a first-rate singer. http://sn.im/archuletabirthofchrist

David Archuleta joins with "The Piano Guys" and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir to present "Angels We Have Heard on High" in a stirring music video that includes scriptures and scenes from Christmas pageants put on by children. It's lovely, nostalgic, and sweet -- and the music is extraordinarily good.

Just to gild the lily, the chorus, dressed as angels, surround the nativity scene as an overhead camera shows them forming a two-dimensional nativity in lights: http://sn.im/gloriapianoguys

Finally, there's the video "He Is the Gift." Beginning with scenes of Christmas shopping, we're then taken to images of things that really matter, with a reminder of the many gifts from God that we enjoy, placing Christ at the center of them all. It is beautiful and moving, and -- as with all these videos -- it is nondenominational, intended to help all Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, and to explain to anyone else why Christmas matters so much. http://sn.im/thegiftischrist

Let's keep in mind that no matter how "commercialized" Christmas becomes, it's a good thing that so many retail businesses in America thrive only because of the extraordinary burst of gift-giving that our entire nation indulges in -- all in the name of Christ, however forgetful people might be about who he is and what he does for us.

*

I am not a regular official movie reviewer, which is fine with me. It means I don't have to go see movies that don't look interesting to me, solely in order to write about them.

The drawback is that I also don't get invited to advance screenings -- except at this time of year, when my membership in the Writers Guild and Screen Actors Guild bring me advance screeners on DVD of all the films being touted for awards.

This means that in December, I sometimes get screeners of movies that haven't been released yet. Now, these DVDs are digitally encoded so that if I shared them around, or ripped them and put them on the internet, they'd know it was my copy that was used.

Fine with me -- I don't do those things anyway. I live by copyright -- do you think I'm going to violate someone else's?

But it's kind of wonderful to be able to sit down and watch movies that won't come out till Christmas day.

I don't go to movies on Christmas. Not because I'm sanctimonious about it -- I keep the Sabbath, but who cares about a Thursday? Our religious observances as a family are held on Christmas Eve. Christmas Day is about the presents and a very few visits and ... naps.

Yes, naps. You think Santa doesn't sleep all day Christmas, after pulling a grueling all-nighter? I've had Christmases where I fell asleep while handing out the presents one by one. When I go to bed at five a.m. and the kids are up early hoping to go open presents that are still warm from my handprints, I'm gonna be sleepy and my best present is going to be a nice quiet nap.

So I don't go to movies on Christmas, because I would sleep through them, and that's a waste of money.

But the other night I most definitely did not sleep through my advance screening of Into the Woods, the film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim Broadway musical.

I've seen productions of the musical play -- good productions, well-acted. But to me, Into the Woods suffers from a problem common to many Sondheim musicals: No second act.

The first time I noticed this was with Sunday in the Park with George, the musical about the painter Seurat. First act: brilliant. And the second act began well, with the figures in the painting getting grumpy about having to stand there forever in the hot afternoon sun.

But then it collapses into a really bad story about Seurat's probable descendant, an artist who thinks he's cool for having invented a laser light show. Unfortunately, it's hard to take him seriously as an artist when it isn't as good as the laser show at Stone Mountain in Georgia.

If I may speculate, I think maybe the book writers associated with Sondheim can't write a second act to his musicals because they are so desperate to be cool that a satisfying second act would feel like "selling out" to them.

Or maybe they just don't know what they're doing. In any event, I thought the stage musical Into the Woods tried too hard to be clever and iconoclastic, and didn't capture the magic of fairy tales.

When you're doing a parody, you need to make sure your parody is also an excellent example of the thing you're making fun of. Think of The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. It makes fun of heroic Graustark novels -- and yet it's also the best one ever written.

Into the Woods makes fun of fairy tales -- but what's the sport in that, since no adult actually believes in them anyway?

Here's why the movie Into the Woods is so much better than the play. It keeps all the iconoclasm of the play -- lots of surprises and gags and cool new spins on the old motifs -- and yet this movie is a powerful, original, yet also deeply traditional fairy tale.

Not only that, but director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) and his team of designers have created a world that is completely believable -- and yet also extravagantly picturesque.

No pastels, no fake brightness as if "magic" meant "childish." No, it's filled with grotesquerie (so much so that little children might get nightmares), and the woods are dark and mysterious and yet they're also real.

There are gorgeous touches, like Grandma's House being built into the root of a giant tree, and the most perilous giant being a rather sympathetic woman, and the strange bleak lush garden the magic beans come from, and all the architecture. Cinderella's dead mother speaking to her out of a tree is unforgettably moving and beautiful.

They choose to show some things and completely skip over others. We watch Cinderella go up and down the steps of the palace, but never see her actually dance with the Prince. And you know what? That was a perfect choice, because nothing about the dance itself would be all that interesting. All that matters is what the dance means to Cinderella and her stepsisters.

Here's the irony: The filmscript solves the second-act problem, yet the screenwriter is the same man who wrote the stageplay with such a weak finish. Maybe James Lapine is simply better at movies. Or maybe writing for Rob Marshall helped bring out the best in him.

Into the Woods is also not Sondheim's best score. There's nothing like the ebullience of his all-waltz score for A Little Night Music or the biting humor of Company. Few songs stand out -- and please don't bother arguing the point, because when you see the movie you'll realize that even the very best song, "Children Will Listen," is rather buried at the end.

It doesn't matter. Because not since Oliver! -- which I think is the best movie musical of all time because the singing and dancing were so beautifully melded into the natural movements of the people of the time and place -- have I seen a film version of a musical that was so much better than the stageplay.

No, I'll go further. I think Into the Woods has only now, with this cast, with this director, with this design, with this script, fulfilled the best aspects of the original vision.

Vision shmizion. Who cares about how this production fits into the history of the musical?

What matters is that Into the Woods is entertaining and moving and thought-provoking and gorgeous from beginning to end.

Much of that comes from some great decisions in casting -- and from truly splendid direction that keeps some chronic over-acters from losing their way.

Johnny Depp is, for him, relatively contained in his portrayal of the Wolf from Little Red Riding Hood, so that his performance is wonderful rather than embarrassing or annoying.

Meryl Streep gets to overact a little as the all-purpose witch (she had a very good reason for putting Rapunzel in the tower, you short-sighted, judgmental civilians!), but she, too, keeps her character within bounds so that it's possible to continue believing the story while she's in it.

The challenge in casting is that you have to find actors who can sing. I think filmmakers have learned their lesson from voice-neutral casting disasters like Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia and Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot.

The problem is that singers with great voices usually can't act, and actors who bring off extravagant roles believably usually can't sing. But Depp and Streep are both surprisingly good singers -- strong and rich voices, full of nuance.

Anna Kendrick gives her finest performance yet -- and that means her best singing. She was good in Pitch Perfect but that kind of singing doesn't fly when you have to perform a Sondheim score.

The intricacy and virtuosity and clarity required by Sondheim are amazing. Not only do you have to sing impossible intervals and deal with absurd (yet exactly-right) key changes, you have to perform lyrics so perfectly and beautifully rhymed that it would be a crime to miss a single word.

There has never been a better lyricist in the history of musical theatre than Stephen Sondheim. No, not Lorenz Hart. Not Oscar Hammerstein. Not nobody, not nohow. Sondheim takes the English language apart and puts it back together so that it's endlessly surprising and yet perfectly clear.

If the singers can get all the words in -- and in this movie they do.

Even Lilla Crawford, playing Red Riding Hood -- written to be a brat and therefore as annoying as all the children in Annie -- gives a splendid performance. Of course, I was hoping the Wolf really would eat her so I didn't have to listen to her Annie-like singing for a moment longer.

Then she came out of the belly of the beast as a far more interesting character and I forgave her for still being alive after all. And no, that wasn't a spoiler. I mean, haven't you read these fairy tales?

Maybe not. I grew up on the standard Lang, Anderson, Grimm, and Perrault tales. But nowadays, does anybody read (or hear) those great written stories? Or do they only get the Disney version?

The nice thing is that Into the Woods does not require that you know those old stories, in any version. This film is so well written and so clearly directed and acted that you could be completely unfamiliar with all fairy tales and still enjoy it for the stories it contains.

When I was in graduate school, I studied Middle English Romance. (Which has nothing to do with love stories -- "Romance" in that period really meant what we would now call "Fantasy.") Along the way, I read some translations of French Romances of the same period.

The French Romances were extravagant and boring -- because all the time and attention were spent on the spectacle and grandeur, while we never had any idea why the people did the things they did.

The English versions of the same stories cut out almost all the grandeur -- but they dwelt heavily on the characters' motives. Why do people act this way? That's what the English writers cared about -- and it makes all the difference in storytelling.

Into the Woods is, in this sense, compellingly English. It's about why the people do the things they do, and nowhere is this clearer than in the wonderful scene near the end where they all start blaming each other for the things that have gone so terribly wrong.

Everything happened in a causal chain that led back to ... everybody. Nobody was blameless; and yet nobody was at fault. It's a great lesson about the real world, but it's far more intelligible when told in a great fairy tale.

Into the Woods is magical. It's gloriously musical, even if no individual songs stand out as "singles." It's beautifully performed -- and let me point out Chris Pine (Star Trek) as Cinderella's Prince, Christine Baranski (The Good Wife, Cybill) as the Stepmother, James Corden as the Baker, the way-too-beautiful Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel's Prince, and Daniel Huttlestone (Gavroche in Les Miserables) as Jack.

Tracey Ullman gives her most believable performance ever as Jack's impatient Mother. And who knew that Emily Blunt (the Baker's Wife) could sing?

I can't promise that everybody will love Into the Woods, because people go to the movies hoping for different things. If you think The Sound of Music was better than Oliver!, you probably won't think Into the Woods is as brilliant as I do ... but I bet you'll still like it.

If you hate fantasy you might still like this because it's so gritty and it makes fun of fantasy. If you love fantasy, you have no excuse for missing this one.

If you hate movie musicals, well ... maybe you'll change your mind.

Is it worth going to the movies on Christmas day to see Into the Woods?

Not to me -- I'm napping, remember? But in my opinion, it's worth going the day after Christmas!


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