Jumbled film lacks cohesion and depth
FALSE or selective memories are hardly virgin territory for literature or cinema. Maybe the greatest film ever made on this subject was Akira Kurosawa’s 1951 movie Rashomon, which weaves its story around four very different accounts of a rape and murder.
We are some way short of that kind of quality in this jumbled movie, an adaptation of author Stephen Elliott’s best-selling book of the same name.
This is essentially a story about a son’s recollection of his childhood in which he casts his father as an abusive parent in a best-selling memoir.
No wonder, then, that the son (James Franco) is a seriously disturbed writer, addicted to drugs and kinky sex. To add to his problems, he’s suffering from a severe case of writer’s block which is threatening his blossoming career.
One day, he is reading an excerpt from his work at a public meeting about his supposedly devilish father whom he claims is dead.
Suddenly, the old man himself, Neil (Ed Harris), stands up and labels his son a liar. Not only am I still alive, he says, but I deny your version of what happened.
To add to the confusion, Elliott has savaged this film, directed by Pamela Romanowsky, saying that an interpretation of his work is one thing, but getting facts plain wrong is quite another.
This, ironically, is just where his movie character can be questioned. If he lied about his father’s death, can we believe anything he says?
Those who haven’t read the book will have to take an agnostic view of these matters; all we can do is enjoy the film – or not.
The director has combined the movie’s father/son theme and the nature of truth with a current murder trial which attracts Elliott’s interest.
This has been done perhaps as a way of helping him interpret his own past, but also as a way of breaking his writer’s block with a non-fiction literary adventure along the lines of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
The case is a complex one about a husband (Christian Slater on good form) who may or may not have murdered his missing wife.
While in court, Elliott becomes attracted to a journalist (Amber Heard) covering the case. She is also haunted by a troubled past and the two become an item, descending into a maelstrom of drugs and sado-masochistic sex.
This is a film stuffed with ideas, emotions and different points of view, but the overall perspective lacks cohesion, depth and force.
Franco skates over his problems, unable to clearly assess his past, and his attitude to it. In many ways, he is in headlong retreat from his troubled, unattractive self.
By contrast, Harris ably plays the movie’s most convincing character, a tormented man who has long agonised about his failed marriage, the death of his wife and the dissolution of his family.
Elliott’s relationship with the journalist is particularly unconvincing. It seems, at times, that the film-maker has used it as a dose of left-field sex to spice up the action.
Heard can consider herself ill-used in a film that never realises its considerable ambitions.
ANYONE who may still have any doubts that Durban’s KickstArt theatre company deserves the many awards it rakes in year after year simply has to be pointed towards its latest stage work to see why it is in a class of its own.
The truly dazzling production of Stephen Sondheim’s wise, warm, wacky and witty Into the Woods is a triumph – a complex musical for grown-ups that is packed with great music, delicious wordplay, food for thought and many superlative performances.
Not recommended for children under the age of 8, this is a very clever, twisting tale, by turns frothy and light, dark and menacing.
It is also rather long, take note – running just short of three hours with a 20-minute interval.
It involves crisscrossing fairytale characters who, through various wishes and quests, face increasing danger. They get to learn many life lessons about self, family and community in a tale which, laden with mirth, motto and metaphor, can also be moving to the point of tears.
As far as anyone I know can recall, it has never before been staged professionally in Durban since composer and lyricist Sondheim and co-creator James Lapine first took it to Broadway in November 1987.
Durban director Steven Stead, who rates Into the Woods as his favourite musical, constantly challenges his team to push the bar higher, and this latest success emerges as a show so very good that out-of-towners would do well to fly or drive to Durban to experience its enchantment.
It is dominated by yet another superb set by Greg King, depicting a gloomy woods, on a revolving multi-level central structure, that sprouts from children’s books gripped by roots and dripping with moss.
It is hugely effective, especially when embellished with magical lighting by Durban’s Tina le Roux.
The ensemble cast features clear standouts, not least a lively Katy Moore as a feisty Red Ridinghood; Lyle Buxton as both an egotistical prince (more charming than sincere) and a creepy wolf; and young Nathan Kruger as another vain royal.
Also of note are Peter Court as both a narrator and a mysterious man who weaves in and out of the plot to skip the story along, and big charmer Graeme Wicks (Pinocchio in KickstArt’s Shrek The Musical) as dimwit Jack, of beanstalk fame.
A special mention must go to a wonderfully animated and amusing Marion Loudon, better known as a singer, who is a constant scene-stealer as Jack’s slightly loopy, exasperated mother. Lisa Bobbert is cast in the showy role of the witch, played by Meryl Streep in last year’s Oscar-nominated film version of the musical which cut some of the stage production’s songs, characters and darker elements.
The witch’s curse orchestrates a lot of the chaos in the woods, and she appears under cloak, wild wig and mask for much of the show.
Bobbert has some fine moments here, not least an affecting delivery of the touching Stay With Me, which has her trying to warn the imprisoned but rebellious Rapunzel (a fun Haylea Hounsom) of the dangers of the world.
Princes wait there in the world, it’s true, she sings. Princes, yes, but wolves and humans, too. Stay at home. I am home ...
Bobbert certainly has a strong presence, but I wasn’t the only one who battled at times to grasp some of her lines on opening night, when she also seemed to struggle with high notes in the finale’s Children Will Listen showstopper.
I can’t help but wonder how perfectly this role would have fitted Durban’s Charon WilliamsRos, who has just ended a Cape Town season as pie-maker Mrs Lovett in KickstArt’s touring Sweeney Todd.
Into the Woods’s biggest bouquets must go to Frances Currie, who has the show’s standout voice as an attractive Cinderella, and the exuberant Jessica Sole, who has come a long way since being a member of Durban a cappella swing trio Dr Fly and The Nurses.
Soon to reprise her awardwinning role as Princess Fiona for a Johannesburg run of KickstArt’s Shrek The Musical, Sole is a great, big bundle of joy.
She is in very good voice playing the wife of a childless baker, portrayed with aplomb and great sensitivity by the ever-dependable Bryan Hiles.
Fashioned with much love, flair and great attention to detail that includes puppets with fully visible puppeteers, Into the Woods sits alongside KickstArt’s Naledi Award-nominated and Mercury Durban Theatre Award-winning Sweeney Todd, and Little Shop of Horrors and Cabaret, as the brightest of diamonds in a crown of dazzling gems.
Choreographed by Leigh Meyer, featuring costume design by Neil Stuart Harris, sound design by Ross van Wyk and truly exemplary musical direction by Drew Rienstra, this is a treat that has Stead and team at their finest.
By Stead’s own admission, it seems most unlikely Into the Woods will be staged again in this part of the woods for a long time to come, which makes this production even more of a must-see.
Tickets cost R120, R150 and R200, and booking is at Computicket. Go!
A scene from the Durban production of the Stephen Sondheim classic superbly directed by Steven Stead and designed by Greg King. This excellent musical, a clever cautionary tale for grown-ups and not for children under 8, is at the Elizabeth Sneddon...
James Franco and Amber Heard in