Cyrano


The melancholy nature of love.

(2021) Musical (MGM/United Artists) Peter Dinklage, Haley Bennett, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Ben Mendelsohn, Monica Dolan, Bashir Salahuddin, Joshua James, Anjana Vasan, Ruth Sheen, Glen Hansard, Sam Amidon, Scott Folan, Mark Benton, Richard McCabe, Peter Wright, Tim McMullan, Mark Bagnall, Mike Shepherd, Paul Biddiss, Katy Owen, Paul Hunter, Celeste Dodwell. Directed by Joe Wright

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, MGM Studios was known for their classic musicals, from those created especially for the screen to those fresh from the stages of Broadway. Times have changed since then; musicals are less popular with theatrical audiences, MGM is no longer the dominant studio in Hollywood (although they did at one point buy United Artists, a studio best known for being the home to the Bond franchise). Earlier than that, however, French playwright Edmund Rostand wrote the classic romance Cyrano de Bergerac, which always (it seemed to me) to be perfect fodder for a musical. There have been several attempts at setting the classic Rostand play to music, but this one finally gives the story the music it deserves.

Most of you are likely familiar with the story, even if you didn’t read about it in high school Lit; Cyrano de Bergerac (Dinklage) is a well-known man whose soulful poetry and rapier-like wit is the talk of the town. Sharper still is his skill with the sword. He is the type of man even in 18th century France who should have his pick of women, but one thing holds him back; his height (in the original, Cyrano was self-conscious about his prominent nose).

He is deeply in love with his friend, the beautiful Roxanne (Bennett) who is also being pursued by the pompous and devious Count De Guiche (Mendelsohn), who is in charge of His Majesty’s armies in one of the many wars France always seemed to find itself involved in back then. Cyrano is a soldier, but it is with one of his new recruits, handsome Christian (Harrison) to whom Roxanne has given her heart. In turn, Christian is smitten with Roxanne.

But Roxanne wants to be wooed, not just with flowers and longing looks, but with passionate love letters. Christian might have the makings of a fine soldier, but he is completely ill-equipped for this kind of warfare and Cyrano, wanting above all else for the woman he loves to be happy, agrees to write the letters for Christian. But the deception soon proves costly, for everyone involved.

Joe Wright, after helming such lush period fare as Atonement and Pride and Prejudice, had gone on a bit of a cold streak in the last few years, but shows himself back with a vengeance. His sweeping camera movements are perfect for the scope and romantic sentiment of the material, and the production design lends itself for just that kind of direction.

It doesn’t hurt that he gets one of the finest actors of our generation, Peter Dinklage, to play the lead. Dinklage doesn’t have a heroic singing voice, but he has an honest one and it is perfectly suited to the music, written by the brothers Dessner of the National (that band’s frontman, Matt Berninger, wrote the lyrics along with his wife Carin Besser, who also fulfills the same function for the National). The music is decidedly non-Broadway, and like the music of that band has a deeply wistful, romantic quality that is absolutely perfect for the story.

The off-Broadway stage play was adapted for the screen by Erica Schmidt (who also wrote the stage play), who happens to be Dinklage’s wife, and to further add to the nepotism element, Bennett is married to Wright. So it’s no surprise that the cast and crew seem incredibly comfortable working together and that comfort shows on the screen.

I can probably continue spouting off superlatives for this incredible film, which deserves all of them and more, but I don’t want to be boring (which this movie definitely is not). Anyone who has ever loved someone who didn’t love them back will relate to Cyrano’s plight, and for my money, getting Dinklage to play this role was a stroke of genius. Dinklage has always excelled at expressing emotions non-verbally and in the scene where Roxanne informs Cyrano of her love for Christian, it is absolutely heartbreaking to watch Dinklage’s reaction as Cyrano.

Schmidt also modernized Roxanne somewhat; she was a bit shallow in Rostand’s play, and there is a certain amount of that here as well (her attraction is essentially to Christian’s looks initially), but Roxanne wants more than just a pretty face. She is also not the luminous, nearly unattainable goddess that Roxanne is often portrayed as, but more of a pretty girl next door sort. Some might find her a bit too ordinary to inspire the depth of feeling in all three of the men here, but I kind of like that Schmidt made her less of an object here.

This is a movie that goes for your emotional throat and never releases it once the fangs are in, which of course is what Rostand wanted to do all along when he wrote his play more than a century ago. There are some incredible moments here – the soldiers fatalistic song “Where I Fall” is an absolute highlight, and Wright employs pro singers like Glen Hansard of the Swell Season, and Sam Amidon. I know that the initial plan was to release this in time for Oscar consideration, but that plan changed which is a shame because I suspect that the film would have some impact on the nominations. This is very clearly the best movie musical since Les Miserables and certainly one of the best movies of the year, even this early in it.

REASONS TO SEE: Dinklage is perfectly cast and does a fabulous job. The music is absolutely amazing. Lush production values. A movie that wears its heart on its sleeve. Rough around the edges where it needs to be. The best movie musical in ten years.
REASONS TO AVOID: Bennett might be a little bit too “girl next door” to be Roxanne.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, some of it brutal; there’s also suggestions of intimacy, brief profanity and mature thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Dinklage and Bennett reprise their roles here from the stage version, which they premiered in Connecticut in 2018 before a brief off-Broadway run in 2019.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/25/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Roxanne
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT:
Butter

Summertime


In L.A., you can always see the stars.

(2020) Musical (Good Deed) Tyris Winter, Marquesha Babers, Maia Major, Austin Antoine, Bryce Banks, Amaya Blankenship, Bene’t Benton, Gordon Ip, Gihee Hong, Anna Osuna, Caedmon Branch, Mila Cuda, Paolina Acuña-Gonazlez, Gabriela de Luna, Sun Park, Walter Finnie Jr., Jason Alvarez, Doug Klinger, Joel Dupont, Sophia Thomas. Directed by Carlos López Estrada

 

I grew up in Los Angeles. I spent my formative years there, from age six until I graduated college at age 21. I still feel deep connective roots to L.A. and so movies that are love letters to the City of Angels often tap a soft spot in my heart. Just sayin’.

Carlos López Estrada’s (Blindspotting) new film is just that. Set on a warm, summer day in La La Land, it careens from the beach communities to the inner city to the suburban neighborhoods of Los Angeles, which was once described when I was living there as a bunch of suburbs in search of a city. That’s a bit of a mean-spirited description, but it isn’t entirely inaccurate.

There’s not much plot here; in that sense, this is more of a collection of shorts than a cohesive whole but essentially, we are taken on a tour of the neighborhoods of L.A. by a group of young poets, each with their own issues. The characters sometimes are on their own, other times they run into each other (sometimes literally) and only at the end do we have any sort of cohesive group moment. The individual poets wrote their own poetry and created their own characters, often using their own names. For example, Tyris Winter plays a young gay black man who has been rejected by his family and is essentially crashing on the couches of his friends. Outraged by the gentrification of a beloved diner that no longer serves hamburgers but instead offers avocado toast for fifteen bucks, he goes on a rant against the high price of things before stalking out in search of a moderately priced burger, which turns out to be more of a difficult quest than he (or we) expect. He is one of the bright spots in the film and tends to be the connecting tissue for the whole movie.

Then there is Marquesha Babers who just about steals the show near the end of the film as a plus-sized girl who has been hurt because of her size. Toting a book by a therapist that urges its readers to “rap away their demons,” she confronts an ex-crush who rejected her because of her weight and lets him have it in an emotional bring-down-the-house rap that anyone who has been rejected by a potential romantic partner because of their size or their looks will certainly relate to.

Adding comedy relief is the rapping duo of Anewbyss (Banks) and Rah (Antoine) who go from street corner rappers struggling to get people to buy their mixtape to jaded hitmaking superstars during the course of a single day, lamenting in a crowded burger joint that they miss the simplicity of their former lives. That comes directly after a rant by a fast food worker (Yip) who, fed up with a counter full of Karens and a minimum wage job that expects him to provide elite level service, decides to give away burgers to all comers.

The other highlight for me is an argument between mother (de Luna) and daughter (Acuña-Gonzalez) about the shade of the daughter’s lipstick, which leads to a discussion about how men perceive women which leads to a wonderful dance of waitresses in bright red dresses accosting a car full of wolf-whistlers with an assertive dance that is beautiful in its empowerment.

Not everything works; the opening song which involves a skateboarding guitar player singing a folky love song to L.A. falls a bit flat, sounding pretentious and at times the artists do sink into self-righteous diatribes. Some of the performances are stiff, or unnecessarily over-the-top, even some of the good ones occasionally lose focus.

All of the poets are from one marginalized group or another, whether it be people of color, LGBTQ, plus-size people, or women. Some will roll their eyes and smirk “Hollywood liberalism” at that, but it’s hard to forget that these are groups that have largely been ignored and get to express their joy and their love for a city that is often misunderstood.

Honestly, I’m not particularly into rap or slam poetry, and there’s a lot of both here but I found myself drawn in to the feeling of community and neighborhood. This is not the idealized L.A. of other movies, but a more realistic one where diversity has led to some cultural overlapping and a bit more acceptance among those who have grown up among other cultures, other points of view. Those who grew up in a single culture may dismiss this as woke Hollywood socialist crap, but they miss the point. This is about all of us being in the same leaky boat and while the boat might be a little beat up and dingy, there is much to love about it. This is a movie that may not be on your radar that you should definitely check out.

REASONS TO SEE: Compelling and innovative, a movie that grows on you as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the sequences are overly mannered and pretentious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Estrada got the idea for the movie while watching a poetry slam event in L.A.; most of the cast were recruited from similar area events.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews; Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: In the Heights
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Green Sea

Mary Poppins Returns


Practically perfect in every way.

(2018) Family (DisneyEmily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Pixie Davies, Nathaniel Saleh, Joel Dawson Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Dick van Dyke, Angela Lansbury, Colin Firth, Jeremy Swift, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, David Warner, Jim Norton, Norma Dumezweni, Tarik Frimpong, Sudha Bhuchar, Steve Nicolson, Christian Dixon, Karen Dotrice. Directed by Rob Marshall

 

When Disney announced a sequel to their classic Mary Poppins, purists were aghast as were many of those who grew up with the practically perfect nanny. Even though Marshall, the man who essentially resurrected the movie musical, was at the helm, most people predicted that the film would never catch on. Fortunately for the accountants at Disney, it did.

Set roughly 20 years after the original, Michael Banks (Whishaw) still lives in the Cherry Tree Lane home he grew up in. Recently widowed with three young children depending on him, he has been forced to take a job as a teller at his father’s own bank, to whom he’s deeply in debt. Now, the bank and their nasty president (Firth) are foreclosing and Michael has until Friday midnight to pay up. His only chance is to find certificates that his father willed to him, proving that the Banks family own part of the bank.

This is where Mary Poppins (Blunt) comes in. Despite the presence of housekeeper Ellen (Walters) and Michael’s union-organizing sister Jane (Mortimer) the kids are badly in need of a full-time nanny and the stern-faced Poppins intends to whip them into shape. With her friend, lamplighter Jack (Miranda) she takes the kids on adventures in the bathtub, in a chipped china bowl, in the back alleys of London and in her cousin Topsy’s (Streep) repair shop among other places.

That’s where the big yawning chasm between the original and the sequel is locate. The songs here are mainly bland and forgettable, following the standards of 21st century Broadway and pop music in general where it seems that music is being written by focus group rather than actual artists. Several of the scenes here are meant to be homages to the original but they often feel more like rip-offs.

Blunt has the thankless job of taking over for Julie Andrews who was perfect for the role and she comes very close to Andrews’ performance. You can’t fault her for that; nobody could fill Andrews’ shoes in this case. In a very gracious touch, Disney veterans Dick van Dyke and Angela Lansbury make cameo appearances and show that they both can still perform; van Dyke in particular takes on an energetic dance that shows that at 93 he can still out-dance most performers 70 years younger than he.

I give Marshall credit; this is a visually striking film and it is close in tone to the original film. It feels like, in many cases, they chose to adhere to the memories of the original rather than to give the film a personality of its own. In that sense, the filmmakers were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t; had they done what I suggest, it is likely that purists would have screamed bloody murder. It is in a real sense a no-win situation for the filmmakers, despite the hefty box office receipts. I don’t know if Disney is planning to make further sequels to the film; the box office suggests that they could. I hope, however, that they choose to venture a little further on a path of their own if they do.

REASONS TO SEE: Plenty of CGI Magic. Always a joy to see Angela Lansbury and Dick van Dyke.
REASONS TO AVOID: Plays it way too safe.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some mild thematic elements as well as fantasy action.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When the role of Mary Poppins was first offered to Julie Andrews, she turned it down because she was pregnant; Walt Disney felt so strongly she was perfect for the role that production was delayed to accommodate her pregnancy. History was repeated when production was delayed on the sequel to accommodate the pregnancy of lead Emily Blunt.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Disney+, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Netflix, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/16/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Cotton Wool

Anna and the Apocalypse


The apocalypse will have musical numbers.

(2017) Musical (OrionElla Hunt, Malcolm Cumming, Sarah Swire, Christopher Leveaux, Marli Siu, Ben Wiggins, Mark Benton, Paul Kaye, Sean Connor, John Winchester, Euan Bennet, Ella Jarvis, Myfawny Morgan, John McGeachie, Janet Lawson, Ruth McGhie, Kristy Strain, Tyler Collins, Daniel Cahill, Therese Bradley, Jackie Bird, Calum Cormack, Michael Annis, Louise Macphail. Directed by John McPhail

 

Genre mash-ups are a dime a dozen these days, but who would have ever expected a Christmas zombie musical set in Scotland? Think of it as High School Musical being performed in an episode of The Walking Dead.

The tiny Scottish town of Little Haven is home to Anna (Hunt), a high school senior with big dreams and a bright future. That future isn’t what it used to be, however, when a zombie pandemic hits her town, leaving her and her mates John (Cumming), her best friend who wants to be more than that, neurotic American rich girl Steph (Swire, who also choreographed the film) and Chris (Leveaux), an expert on movies and zombie pandemics, to fight their way to school where their loved ones may be holed up.

I don’t know if the world was waiting for George Romero’s Broadway musical, but this would fit the bill in both the positive and negative connotations of the concept. Most of the plot was cribbed from other sources, with the film’s funniest moment directly ripped off from Shaun of the Dead. Worse still, the music is bland and forgettable, lame pop that rarely rises above to be interesting (with Headmaster Savage’s delightfully evil glam number late in the film an exception). If you think Broadway musicals have achieved of repetitiveness born of a lack of creativity, this might well not be the movie for you.

The fresh-faced cast, at least, does their level best to be earnest and they do make fine pop stars as well as Scream Queens (and Kings). The movie’s concept, inspired by a Vine by the late Ryan McHenry (and how much more 2017 can you be than that?) gets an “A” for originality but falls somewhere between ordinary and extraordinary in execution.

REASONS TO SEE: A wildly original concept.
REASONS TO AVOID: The music isn’t anything to write home about.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and gore, some profanity and brief sexual material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The school in which principle filming took place, St. Stephen’s High School in Inverclyde, Scotland, was demolished shortly after filming took place.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Epix, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/12/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews, Metacritic: 63/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warm Bodies
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Instant Family

A Star is Born (2018)


A song is born.

(2018) Musical (Warner BrothersBradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Alec Baldwin, Marlon Williams, Brandi Carlile, Ron Rifkin, Barry Shabaka Henley, Michael D. Roberts, Michael J. Harney, Rebecca Field, Derek Kevin Jones, William Belli, Dennis Tong, Joshua Wells, Greg Grunberg, Drena De Niro. Directed by Bradley Cooper

 

Talk about a tale as old as time: big rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) wanders into a bar to get a drink (that it is a drag queen bar is a concession to these woke times) and hears a lovely ingenue named Ally (Gaga) belt out a jaw-dropping version of the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose.” Turns out that Ally also writes songs. Turns out the songs are really good.

Jackson likes one so much that he decides to perform one at his next concert. Just as icing on the cake, he drags a petrified Ally onstage to duet with him. And guess what? The song goes viral. Suddenly the songwriter-performer, who had just about given up on any shot at a career in the music business, has a career in the music business.

But what goes up must come down. As Ally’s star rises, alcoholism brings Jackson’s career to a standstill. A new manager turns Ally from a rock-oriented singer-songwriter into a pop diva complete with orange hair and a dance troupe. It is no accident – and in many ways, an acid comment on the state of music today – that as Ally grows more successful her music becomes less memorable, and in fact, becomes downright shitty.

This is the fourth version of this tale; it is also Cooper’s first foray into directing. He also co-wrote the screenplay and is one of a gaggle of producers. Word has it he also mopped the floors of the sound stages after shooting was done for the day.

The music here is pretty good, other than the robotic pop that Ally performs in the second half of the film. Cooper and Elliott (as Jackson’s manager and big brother) give outstanding performances, but it is Lady Gaga who will always be remembered for this movie. Already a huge pop diva, she shows that she is capable of being a movie star if she wants to be.

The movie runs a bit too long as we watch Jackson’s decline and Ally’s ascent; those scenes should have been a bit more streamlined. To be honest, I don’t think any version of the film is ever going to hold a candle to the Judy Garland-James Mason version back in 1954 – that’s a true classic. Still, there is a lot to be said for this movie, which was a major Oscar contender at last year’s Oscars (it did win one for Best Music Score). It remains a popular film – most people who saw it liked it or even loved it. I didn’t love it but I certainly did like it.

REASONS TO SEE: Lady Gaga is a true cinematic presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long, drags in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexuality and brief nudity, and some harrowing alcoholism depictions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper studied Elliott’s voice to come up with Jackson Maine’s voice – before Elliott had been cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Every other A Star is Born
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Venom

Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again


They’re with the band.

(2018) Musical (UniversalLily James, Amanda Seyfried, Dominic Cooper, Andy Garcia, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgǻrd, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Cher, Alexa Davies, Jessica Keenan Wynn, Meryl Streep, Josh Dylan, Jeremy Irvine, Hugh Skinner, Omid Djalili, Anastasia Hille, Anna Antoniades, Maria Vacratsis, Naoko Mori. Directed by Ol Parker

 

I have to confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for the music of ABBA, the Swedish pop group that lit up the charts in the 70s and 80s. Mamma Mia, the musical that utilized the band’s extensive catalogue of hits to celebrate a young girl’s wedding as she tries to figure out which of three possibilities is her biological father. It was a major hit – in 2008. Ten years almost to the day, the sequel arrives.

In it, Sophie (Seyfried), the bride from the first film, is trying to renovate her mother’s Greek Island hotel. Her mamma Donna (Streep) has passed away and poor Sophie is trying to balance mourning for her mom, getting the hotel ready for opening night and dealing with a rocky relationship (she’s separated from husband Sky (Cooper) although she is pregnant). With nearly everyone from the first film returning, along with Cher as Donna’s estranged mom and Andy Garcia as the hotel’s manager, there is a familiarity about the terrain. There are also flashbacks showing Donna’s shenanigans leading to her coming to the Greek islands and getting involved with three different men. The luminescent Lily James plays the younger Donna and she does a terrific job, but she’s no Meryl Streep and the film feels her absence keenly. Streep does return for the most haunting scene in the film as a benevolent ghost observing her granddaughter’s christening.

The plot is essentially an excuse for the musical numbers which I suppose could be said for some classic musicals as well, but here it seems especially glaring. Part of the reason is that the bulk of ABBA’s better-known hits were used in the first film and much of the soundtrack here is made up of album tracks and B-sides so the movie loses much of the familiarity factor that made the first film charming.

Streep’s scene and Cher’s two musical numbers are both the showstoppers here; most of the other numbers are forgettable and kind of repetitive. Also, the beautiful Greek island location of the first film has been swapped out for Croatia in the second; not quite the same. I just didn’t get the same warm fuzzies I got from the first film, more’s the pity. There’s definitely a market for this and I know my wife and son thoroughly enjoyed this way more than I did; however, I found it to be only minimally entertaining at best.

REASONS TO SEE: Streep and Cher are big highlights
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is terribly flimsy. Streep’s absence is keenly felt throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mildly sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Streep is distantly related to both Cher (15th cousin) who plays her mother, and James (9th cousin) who plays her younger self.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Movies Anywhere Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews: Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jersey Boys
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
Little Monsters

Stuck (2017)


You never know when someone is going to break out into a song on the New York City subway.

(2017) Musical (VisionGiancarlo Esposito, Amy Madigan, Ashanti, Arden Cho, Omar Chaparro, Gerard Canonico, Timothy Young, Reyna de Courcy, Heather Hodder, Sienna Luna, Belle Smith, Shannon Lewis, Jennifer Knox, Dennis Launcella, Mel Johnson Jr. Phil Oddo, Anna Kuchma, Anita Welch, Natia Dune, Alisha Nagasheth, Rachael Ma, Sam Carrell. Directed by Michael Berry

 

It is no secret that for the most part, we have lost our ability to connect. We are so trapped in our cell phones and our social media, squatting in our little corner of the world that we’ve made for ourselves that we have forgotten that we’re actually living in that world with other people. Therefore, we go out into the world, our noses buried in our iPhones and scared to bejeebus to make eye contact with anybody less we be actually forced to have a conversation. As Paul McCartney observed more than 40 years ago, by playing it cool we’re making the world a little colder.

In this movie based on an off-Broadway musical, six New Yorkers find themselves on a subway car that abruptly comes to a stop. The harried conductor (Johnson) explains that there’s a police action on the platform ahead and they are waiting for the all-clear signal to continue on their way. He locks the doors to the car and continues on his way, never to be seen again in the film.

That leaves six strangers, nervously eyeing one another (without actually making eye contact) except for one guy – Lloyd (Esposito), an outgoing sort who carries with him all his worldlies in a trash can on wheels. He stands up and offers up a coffee cup for spare change as he delivers a brief Shakespearean soliloquy – or part of one anyway.

The others are a human resources department diversity poster of riders, all with their own problems; Caleb (Canonico) is an aspiring comic book artist who has been sketching dancer Alicia (Cho) who is none too pleased about having a dweeby stalker, and for good reason as we find out later. Ramon (Chaparro) is a hard-working immigrant working three jobs to give his beloved daughter (Luna) an opportunity at a better life – and he’s dang stressed because he’s sure that being late to the job that he’s on his way to will get him fired and as it is his family is right on the edge of not making it.

Then there’s Eve (Ashanti) who is wrestling with a very personal choice that has an odd connection to her own past, while Sue (Madigan) is a music professor who has recently been struck by an unthinkable tragedy that has left her struggling to find any good in the universe. As the subway riders actually begin to talk, they find themselves opening up about the things that are bothering them, while also discussing hot button topics like immigration, abortion, health care and sexual assault. This being a musical, the characters are apt to break into song at any given moment.

There is a certain amount of urban grit to the film, or at least what passes for it; we film reviewers in Orlando have little experience with true New York urban grit. It seems fairly genuine to me, but some critics who are actual New Yorkers say no. The music is decent enough; I enjoyed it while I was listening to it but now two days later I can’t for the life of me remember a single song. That could be because my mind was on Hurricane Dorian as it passes through the area today. We Floridians have our own kind of grit.

While none of the main performers are especially known for singing with the exception of Ashanti who is a bona fide pop star, the entire cast actually acquits themselves well in that department. Esposito in particular stands out; he really is a national treasure in the sense that he makes every film he’s a part of better and some of his performances are legendary. Madigan, a veteran actress who has been nominated for an Oscar and an Emmy, and won a Golden Globe for her work in the TV movie Roe vs. Wade. Few of her fans remember that back in the 70s she was in a band called Jelly (and modeled for Playboy wearing nothing but jelly to promote her band). Her song is one of the most haunting moments of the movie, largely due to Madigan’s performance.

There are some moments of comedy, some of them awkward but by and large things are fairly serious. Now, truth be told, I’m not a big fan of modern musicals; they all sound alike to me and feel like they were written by committee to please focus groups more than to make some sort of comment on the human condition. Like modern pop music, stage musicals feel over-produced and under-insightful but I actually enjoyed this, so take that for what it’s worth. I suspect those who love stage musicals will be more likely to seek this out but for those who are ambivalent I can tell you that I found myself enjoying it as flawed as it is. Keep in mind that both Esposito and Madigan are reliable performers in any milieu, even a musical.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures a gritty urban feel.
REASONS TO AVOID: The material tends to be a bit heavy-handed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, some fairly adult themes and a depiction of a sexual assault.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Because New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) was reluctant to let the crew film in an actual subway car, a near-exact replica of a modern subway car was built in the Pfizer Building in Brooklyn and all the subway train sequences were shot there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Always Be My Maybe

Teen Spirit (2018)


Who said pop stardom isn’t easy?

(2018) Musical (Bleecker Street/LD Entertainment) Elle Fanning, Zlatko Buric, Rebecca Hall, Agnieszka Grochowska, Archie Madekwe, Millie Brady, Vivian Oparah, Marius de Vries, Elizabeth Berrington, Olive Gray, Andrew Ellis, Ruairi O’Connor, Jordan Stephens, Tamara Luz Ronchese, Clara Rugaard, Daisy Lowe, Ursula Holliday. Directed by Max Minghella

 

I think it’s fair to say (and I think that most teens and millennials would agree) that the world is constructed to kill dreams. Those that want to be creative, expressive or otherwise different are discouraged; laboring at some soul-killing task over and over again is what’s expected. Nobody in their right mind wants to do that for the rest of their lives; some really don’t have much of a choice. Those that have talent though, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time discouraging it.

Violet (Fanning) lives on the bucolic Isle of Wight off the coast of England, a place forever immortalized by the Beatles in ”When I’m Sixty-Four” thusly: “Every summer we could rent a cottage on the Isle of Wight (if it’s not too dear)” as well as a famous pop festival that took place there. Musically, that’s pretty much it for the Isle of Wight. It does possess a large Polish population of which Violet and her mother (Grochowska) are members of. Violet goes to school (she’s 17 years old), takes care of the horse that she rides whenever she can, works as a waitress in a pub after school and occasionally sings in a different pub; it is the last of these that mum disapproves of as being impractical so Violet has to do it on the sly. However, she does meet an alcoholic ex-opera singer who offers to be her manager so there’s that.

The family is in pretty dire financial straits; the horse gets repossessed because they can’t afford to pay for it any longer. Violet’s life is going exactly nowhere and she is frustrated as anyone would be. Then, a bit of excitement; the American Idol-like pop music competition show Teen Spirit is holding auditions in her town for the very first time and nearly everyone in school is trying out. Shy Violet decides to try out and to nobody’s surprise, she is selected for the local competition. To nobody else’s surprise, she ends up going to the finals in London which are televised. However, she needs a parent or guardian to sign off on her participation which her mother will never do so Violet remembers Vlad (Buric), the alcoholic ex-opera singer and puts him to work as her manager/instant guardian.

The rest of the movie you can pretty much figure out for yourself. There are a couple of swerves that aren’t particularly hard to see coming as well as some predictable moments of fame going to Violet’s head and a few heart-warming moments in between all the gaudily shot music videos of her performances, all bathed in pink and blue neon and looking like a New York art installation from the early 90s. That’s not bad in and of itself but it does kind of scream “LOOK AT ME! LOOK AT ME!”  in an unnecessarily loud cinematic voice.

Fanning is a talented performer as an actress and not a half-bad singer to boot but her character, who is supposed to be terribly shy and innocent (except when she’s not) is so passive and bland that it’s hard to figure out why she would want to stand up in front of a television audience and pour her heart out onstage. We never get a sense as to why Violet is motivated to become a singer other than she likes doing it.

The songs that Violet and her competition perform are mainly covers of iconic pop songs over the last 20 years, many of which have to do with female empowerment which is part of the ostensible thrust of the film, although one has to consider the fact that Violet and her mother struggle mightily on their own but once a man comes in to the picture for guidance success is theirs. It seems quite at odds with the musical message the film seems hell-bent on sending.

But even though Violet is more vanilla, the relationship between her and Vlad is at least genuine and comprises the heart and soul of the film. Even though Vlad is a polar opposite to Violet, his gruff exterior masks a teddy bear interior that genuinely cares for Violet and wants her to succeed not for his own aggrandizement but for hers.

The performance footage is mainly over-produced; it’s telling that the most genuine and affecting performance is when Violet dances and sings No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” in the privacy of her own bedroom; it’s raw and feels more authentic. That seems to be one of the few moments when we get a glimpse of who Violet truly is. We could have used more of them.

At the end of the day, this movie comes down to whether or not you like American Idol. If fresh-faced young people performing covers of familiar songs for the right to become a pop star in their own right is something that thrills you, chances are you’re going to love this film. If you find American Idol to be a cynical means of keeping potential pop stars as disposable product rather than genuine artists, you probably won’t care much for this film. Me, I tend to lean towards the latter but that doesn’t mean you won’t find something in the film to like.

REASONS TO SEE: The relationship between Violet and Vlad is believable and at the center of the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story needs more fleshing out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content as well as depictions of teen drinking and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are parallels to the film Flashdance and the theme from that film is even used in this one.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews: Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: American Dreamz
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Marching Forward

The Greatest Showman


Hugh Jackman knows this movie is a snow job.

(2017) Musical (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eric Anderson, Ellis Rubin, Skylar Dunn, Daniel Everidge, Radu Spinghel, Yusaku Komori, Daniel Son, Paul Sparks, Will Swenson, Linda Marie Larsen, Byron Jennings, Betsy Aidem. Directed by Michael Gracey

 

Phineas Taylor Barnum once famously said “There’s a sucker born every minute” and that “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American consumer.” The fact that this movie has done the kind of box office it has is proof of that.

Barnum (Jackman) is a penniless dreamer who has married a beautiful rich girl named Charity (Williams) whose family his father once worked for. Her father most assuredly does NOT approve of the match. Barnum has big plans to buy a specific mansion near where they grew up but no means to get there but after losing yet another low-paying job disappears on him, he decides to go into business for himself, using a little financial chicanery to secure a bank loan to open up his Museum of Oddities.

At first business is slow but his wife believes in him. It’s just when he begins to add human acts – bearded ladies, Siamese twins, General Tom Thumb a performing little person, trapeze artists and acrobats does his business begin to thrive. Upper class playwright Philip Carlyle (Efron) is taken by the show and by a trapeze artist name Anne (Zendaya) in particular but it still takes Barnum some fancy talking to get him to invest in the Museum as a partner.

While on an overseas trip he hears the Swedish Nightingale Jenny Lind (Ferguson),, then the most famous singer on Earth, perform at Buckingham Palace and is completely taken by her voice and her beauty. He offers to bankroll her tour of the United States as her manager for which she would get an unheard-of (at the time) guaranteed sum. The tour threatens to bankrupt P.T. but it also threatens his marriage as Lind tries to seduce him and leave his wife for her.

.A suspicious fire burns down the Museum and all of a sudden Barnum is left with nothing again; furthermore his family of unusual acts is no longer feeling the love, having seen him turn their backs on them and treat them like unwelcome guests. Can this dysfunctional family reunite and rebuild?

I had high hopes for this, particular given that Jackman is in the title role. It’s perfect casting and Jackman who cut his show biz teeth on musical theater in Australia is more than up to the task, being the big reason to see the movie. His natural charm and likability shine through and even when he’s acting like a jerk you still like the guy and like me were pretty sure he would come around to his senses.

Unfortunately after that it’s a very short list of reasons to see this. While I like the theme of inclusiveness (although they tend to bang the audience over the head with it), after that there are some key components to the film that simply aren’t up to snuff. First and most glaringly is the songs. They are absolutely dreadful; all of them sound pretty much the same and none of them really are the kind you’ll be humming after you leave the theater; as I write this I can’t remember the tune to a single one of them. That’s very bad news for a musical.

The writers for whatever reason seem to stick a song in even where one isn’t needed and in fact the musical number ends up disrupting the flow of the film. Personally I loved the idea of a musical about Barnum but it needed a capable songwriter to write the music and lyrics. This sounds like it was written by Broadway hacks which it certainly wasn’t; the folks involved wrote the music and lyrics to La La Land and did a much better job with that property. There is not one song here that is anywhere near as memorable as “City of Stars.”

The writers also play fast and loose with history (for example, there is no evidence whatsoever that the relationship between Barnum and Lind was anything but a business one) which isn’t an original Hollywood sin but there are so many characters here that were invented out of whole cloth – certainly Barnum had plenty of interesting people in his life that could have made appearances here. Poor Michelle Williams has so little to do that her smile begins to look awfully strained by the end of the movie. Even CGI couldn’t save it – except that the CGI that the movie does utilize is uniformly terrible.

I could go on and on. Barnum’s children here are essentially perfect movie kids whose presence is superfluous and disruptive. There are too many anachronisms in the dialogue to shake a stick at – but why kick a horse when it’s already down, except not only is this horse down it’s also been lit on fire, stabbed through the heart, shot, beaten with a crowbar and drowned in a vat of acid before being miraculously resurrected and buried alive. Actually, the horse has it better than those who must watch this movie. See it for Jackman if you must but see it at home so you can turn it off when you start to feel yourself beginning to need to do whatever it takes to stop the torture.

REASONS TO GO: Hugh Jackman is charismatic and charming. The “different is okay” theme still resonates.
REASONS TO STAY: The songs are generic and awful. There are too many historical liberties taken and the children are an unnecessary distraction. It feels like the writers were flailing around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and some sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the costumes used in the film are the property of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus and have been actually worn by performers.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/518: Rotten Tomatoes: 55% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Chicago
FINAL RATING: 4/10 (all Jackman)
NEXT:
Off the Menu

La La Land


Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

Not the expression Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone want you to have when watching THEIR movie.

(2016) Musical (Summit) Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Finn Wittrock, Josh Pence, Tom Everett Scott, Meagen Fay, Valerie Rae Miller, Zoë Hall, Damon Gupton, Marius de Vries, Terry Walters, Callie Hernandez, Jessica Rothe, Sonoya Mizuno, Claudine Claudio, Aimée Conn, Thom Shelton, Olivia Hamilton. Directed by Damien Chazelle

 

Once upon a time the Hollywood landscape was ruled by two genres: Westerns and Musicals. Sure, there were thrillers, horror movies, comedies, dramas and even a little bit of sci-fi but those two aforementioned genres dominated both the box office and the release schedule. Both gradually fell out of favor and have been relegated to occasional appearances but have little relevance to executives eager to greenlight the latest potential tentpole franchise.

Damien Chazelle, who wowed critics with his Oscar-nominated indie hit Whiplash, now tackles the musical genre with a film that is both a modernist take on the musical and a reverent homage to the genre. Sebastian (Gosling) is a talented jazz pianist who yearns to open up a nightclub of his own, one where he can do things his way. He even has the perfect location for it – the site of a former legendary jazz club, now a tapas and salsa club (it’s heresy, I tell you). Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who like many of her peers works as a barista – in this case, on the Warner Brothers lot. She attends audition after audition always hopeful only to have those hopes dashed by an indifferent casting agent or a surfeit of competition.

The two meet under trying circumstances and at first take a bit of a dislike to each other, but they keep bumping into one another and soon they fall in love – it’s a Hollywood musical, after all. Eventually, Sebastian gets a break as a musician – he joins Keith’s (Legend) band which combines jazz with pop and finds success. However, on a constant grind of touring and recording makes him put his own dream on the back burner. Mia notes that this is exactly the kind of music that he hates and Sebastian argues that there comes time that one has to grow up and turn your back on your dreams for the sake of building a life. Sebastian has urged Mia to write a part for herself – it turns out she’s a talented writer – but when the one-woman show turns out disastrously and with Sebastian unable to attend because of a photo shoot, Mia turns her back on her dream and on Sebastian as well. That’s of course when things are about to change.

You are served notice that this is going to be a musical that would do Busby Berkeley proud with the very first scene, a lavish musical number set in bumper-to-bumper traffic on a freeway overpass. It’s preposterous and lavish but done with much love. It is both retro in feel and modern in execution and that theme continues throughout.

Stone and Gosling are two of the most attractive people in the world and they make a fascinating couple. Both of them are consummate actors and won Golden Globes for their performances here; whether or not that will translate to Oscars is anyone’s guess but they are almost certain to garner nominations at least. In fact, La La Land is considered the frontrunner for Best Picture and after winning the Globe for Best Musical or Comedy, it certainly has a good chance to duplicate that at the Academy Awards.

Chazelle gives us some really beautiful, transcendent moments – a dance sequence in the Griffith Park Observatory in which gravity loses its meaning, for example – and shows that he has a sense of style that marks him as a gifted director with enormous potential to become one of the greatest of his generation if he continues to make movies like this one.

I have mixed feelings about the various nods to classic musicals. On the one hand, I respect Chazelle’s knowledge of movie history and his clear love of the classics but it is this very thing that turns out to be a double edged sword. Certainly I love old musicals as most movie buffs do. The issue is that this is a very different era. Stars back in the golden age of movie musicals were also trained singers and dancers. They moved with a grace that is largely absent today. Dancers are trained not so much for classical dancing but for jazz and hip-hop. The moves and feel for those forms are very different. Even on Broadway, much of the choreography favors those forms. Dancing today is largely more athletic than it was back then. Those who made musicals great – Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Debby Reynolds, Cyd Charisse and Ginger Rogers to name a few – were of a different appeal, one that bespoke elegance and grace. Not that Ms. Stone or Mr. Gosling aren’t elegant or graceful, but again, it was a different era.

Another disappointment for me was the songs. Other than two – “City of Stars,” which was the representative of the movie at the Globes, and “Audition (Here’s to the Fools)” – not a single song will remain with you after the movie’s over. Those two will and for a long while too, particularly the latter with its aching, yearning and bittersweet tone. Stone’s delivery of that song reminded me a good deal of Anne Hathaway’s show-stopping performance in Les Miserables – which not uncoincidentally won Hathaway an Oscar. Other than the aforementioned the songs feel like generic showtunes without any sort of hook; soft, mushy songs that kill time before one of the two really good songs are presented.

I have to say that I admired the movie more than I liked it. Many of my friends and fellow movie buffs have put this movie at the top of their best movies of the year lists, or at least very near it. I can’t say that I don’t understand their love for this film. It is one of the best musicals to come along the pike this century and may eventually be considered one of the all-time classics and I might even by that time feel that kind of acclaim justified – just not now. When you hold this up to the light next to actual all-time classics, it’s just plain to see that there’s no comparison. This is a very good musical and a very good film, but a great one? I’m really not sold on that.

REASONS TO GO: Chazelle has a good visual sense. The movie is innovative and different. The performances by Gosling, Stone and Legend are fine. The movie has a throwback feel.
REASONS TO STAY: It doesn’t really hold up next to classic musicals. The songs with a couple of exceptions have a Broadway sound to them.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gosling spent two hours a day, seven days a week learning the piano parts that he played live without CGI or hand doubles. His first scene in which he plays piano was completed in a single take. John Legend, a classically trained pianist (who himself learned to play guitar for the movie) proclaimed himself jealous.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moulin Rouge
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Catch 22: based on the unwritten story by seanie sugrue