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

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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

As I Open My Eyes (À peine j’ouvre les yeux)


Rocking out, Tunisian style.

Rocking out, Tunisian style.

(2015) Drama (Kino-Lorber) Baya Medhaffar, Ghalia Benali, Montassar Ayari, Lassad Jamoussi, Aymen Omrani, Deena Abdelwahed, Youssef Soltana, Marwen Soltana, Najoua Malhouthi, Younes Ferhi, Fathi Akkeri, Saloua Mohamed, Kais Klaia, Touafik Hammami, Wajdi Cherif, Jamil Najjar, Walid Ben Khlifa, Mourad Garsali, Mhadheb Rmili, Nacib Barhoumi, Habib Ghzel. Directed by Leyla Bouzid

 

In the fire of youth we sometimes find the seeds of change. In 2010, Tunisia was ruled by the despotic President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who controlled the citizenry through fear; secret police regularly seized citizens and police informants meant you never knew who to trust. Any sort of criticism of the regime was unthinkable.

Farah (Medhaffar) is an 18-year-old girl with a bright future. She had been accepted into medical school, which made her mother Hayet (Benali) extraordinarily proud as well as her father (Jamoussi) who works in the mines in Gafsa where those seeds of revolution are beginning to bloom.

But Farah has a voice and she’s a member of a band along with her boyfriend Borhéne (Ayari), a sensitive hipster sort who writes most of the lyrics and plays the lute – a Tunisian guitar. He encourages her to do her own thing, which in a repressive conservative culture like that of Tunisia is unheard of for women.

As Farah grows more independent, she and her mother become more at odds. Hayet is concerned that her daughter is throwing away her future for transitory pleasures, plus she hears from an ex-lover who now is a sleazy government functionary that her daughter is drinking in men-only bars and has been seen making out with her boyfriend. Hayet reacts as most mothers would, forbidding her daughter from continuing her music career. Like most daughters, Farah ignores her mother.

Borhéne has written some pretty subversive lyrics for Farah to sing and she sings them passionately; the music attracts the attention of the police who begin following the members of the band and engaging in subtle intimidation. The pressures begin to take their toll on Farah whose relationship with Borhéne begins to fray. As Tunisia inches closer to revolution, Farah treads on dangerous grounds but like a dancer on thin ice continues to pirouette even as the ice cracks beneath her.

Taking place a few months before the Jasmine Revolution would oust Ben Ali from power Bouzid has crafted an energetic, life-filled movie that carries with it the passions of the young and perhaps the naiveté of the young as well. Farah is willful, sometimes to a fault and her idealism clashes with the conservatism of her mother. As the film goes on, we begin to realize that Farah and Hayet are much more alike than not and it is their relationship that is surprisingly at the center of the film, not that of Borhéne and Farah.

There is some misogyny present here and Bouzid approaches it directly and without rancor; it is part of the culture that women don’t have the same rights and the same dreams as men. There is one point where at a party that Farah is dancing joyously with the male members of the band that Borhéne takes exception to; “You’re embarrassing me,” he growls before stalking off to flirt with another woman, perhaps to infuriate his girlfriend – which it does. These are the games of the young, are they not?

And yet Bouzid is not unsympathetic; the men here are mainly victims of their own upbringing but still, she doesn’t sugarcoat the hypocrisy of the attitudes towards women. She remembers well the fear-ridden society that was Tunisia in those days and recreates the furtive looks, the fearful glances, the body language of a population rigid with worry. It is something most of us can’t really understand because there is no understanding it if you haven’t lived it for yourself; consequently some of the actions of the characters here may seem confusing or difficult to understand to American viewers.

The music is important and I have to admit I dug it. It combines Arab Mezwed with rock, propelling the seductive sounds with a rock beat and a kind of club attitude. There are also the lyrics which while flowery in the style of Arab poetry but describe the frustration of those living under the boot of a tyrant. The one complaint I have is that there are too many musical interludes; the film might have benefitted from cutting one or two of them (the songs are largely played through to completion which might be a bit of a shock to impatient American audiences who are generally given just snippets of performances in movies).

However, it must also be said that Medhaffar lights up in the stage sequences. Her smile is energetic and contagious. Her curly hair flies up from her head like a grenade going off and her body writhes sensually onstage. She is pretty enough an actress; in these sequences she’s beautiful. Benali is better known in Tunisia as a singer but she delivers an emotionally charged performance that in many ways is more resonant than that of Medhaffar. There’s a sequence when Benali is distraught and looking for her daughter in a bus station; it captures the love and the despair of parenthood that is universal to anyone who has a kid.

The movie takes place in places that aren’t found in the guidebooks of Tunis. It is seedy at times but in an unapologetic way, much like American movies that take place in bars and taverns. It is not a part of our culture that we’re proud of but it is part of our culture nonetheless. Bouzid is most certainly an appealing voice and while her debut feature film isn’t perfect, it is striking and leads me to look forward to her upcoming films. This is a director to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO GO: The film is full of life and energy. Medhaffar really sparkles on stage. It is gratifying to see a movie set in the day to day of Tunisia.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is on the slow side. Some of the subtleties of Tunisian culture are lost on American audiences which may lead to some confusion. Too many musical numbers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and brief partial nudity, a bit of profanity, some drug use and a ton of smoking and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The story was inspired by actual events in the life of Bouzid, who founded a cinema club during the Ben Ali era and discovered that one of her closest friends in it was a police informer.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Juno
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Imperium

A Very Murray Christmas


More fun to make than it is to watch?

More fun to make than it is to watch?

(2015) Musical (Netflix) Bill Murray, Paul Shaffer, George Clooney, Miley Cyrus, Chris Rock, Michael Cera, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Jenny Lewis, Amy Poehler, David Johansen, Dmitri Dimitrov, Julie White, Phoenix. Directed by Sofia Coppola

Back in the day, celebs like Dean Martin and Judy Garland used to put on Christmas specials and variety shows that would have the thinnest of plot lines but were mainly an excuse for them to sing a few Christmas tunes, have a few friends show up and generally just be themselves.

Director Sofia Coppola is trying to resurrect that vibe and has picked the perfect guy to do it; Murray plays a version of himself, contracted to do a live Christmas special at the Hotel Carlyle in New York City with its retro-cool Bemelmans’s Bar and Cafe Carlyle. An impressive guest list and audience however has evaporated as the city is paralyzed by a blizzard. Sensing catastrophe, Murray sinks into a booze-fueled depression as Hollywood handler-types (Poehler, White) and wanna-be agents (Cera) beset his Christmas mellow.

Guests happen by (Rock) or turn up as hotel employees (Lewis as a waitress, who has one of the better songs when she covers the Pogues’ “Fairytale of New York”, the band Phoenix whose frontman is married to Coppola, as a group of singing chefs) and musical numbers ensue. Murray captures the barfly/hipster mode nicely and sings adequately, but this is the type of Christmas show you’ll want to watch with a shaker full of martinis, a bowlful of peanuts and a pack of cigarettes.

Murray is a genial host but not in the tradition of a Dean Martin, a Mel Tormé or a Steve and Edie. Yes, he’s got that same rumpled charm that Dino had, but there is a weather-beaten feel to him, like someone who’s been too far and seen too much. The show opens with a bluesy downbeat Christmas song that sets the tone; world-weary Murray feeling the depression that often accompanies the Holidays. Essentially confined to the hotel by the weather and prowling the hallways like a claustrophobic cat, he hangs out in the bar and drinks away his sorrow, interacting with a bride (Jones) and groom (Schwartzman) whose wedding fell apart and whose relationship may be as well and listening to a lounge singer (Rudolph) belt out a few Christmas tunes.

Much of the action takes place in the hotel, other than a fantasy sequence featuring Clooney and Cyrus that takes place after Murray passes out. This is the kind of Christmas special for the crowd that identifies strongly with Mickey Rourke in Barfly or Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas. And yet, there is a hipness to it, like Murray has us in on the coolest night in that crazy New York town ever, a place where Chris Rock might just stumble in from out of the cold and warble a duet of “Do You Hear What I Hear?” with Murray.

So this isn’t for everybody, needless to say. Some will find it too irreverent and even take insult – those who think there’s a war on Christmas might see this as yet another salvo (it’s not). I think it’s far more subversive, taking a pot shot at our attitudes towards the holiday and snickering at it, reminding us at once that there are those who are lonely and depressed at this time of year, but also reminding us that the holidays can take a bunch of strangers and make them family, even if just for one night. In that sense, A Very Murray Christmas is suffused with holiday magic. I don’t know that this would bear repeated viewings but I suspect that those who revel in this sort of thing will make it an annual tradition. As for me, I’ll take A Charlie Brown Christmas every time.

REASONS TO GO: Hippest Christmas special ever. Murray is always a hoot.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be overly irreverent for some. A bit heavy on the quirk.
FAMILY VALUES: Some profanity, adult themes, drinking and general attitude.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bill Murray doesn’t have Netflix and refuses to get it, which means he won’t be able to watch his own movie – not that he does that anyway.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scrooged
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Children of Men

Into the Woods


Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

Emily Blunt and James Corden are uncertain how critics are going to take their new movie.

(2014) Musical (Disney) Meryl Streep, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Daniel Huttlestone, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Lilla Crawford, Tracy Ullman, Johnny Depp, Mackenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Annette Crosby, Frances de la Tour, Simon Russell Beale, Joanna Riding, Richard Glover, Pamela Betsy Cooper. Directed by Rob Marshall

We all of us grow up with fairy tales. The works of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson are known to us if for no other reason than the Disney animations based on them.

In 1986 legendary Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim took the characters from a number of different fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm and turned it into a Broadway musical. The thing got rave reviews, a legion of fans and a boatload of Tony Awards. It is revived regularly to this day. Now Disney is taking it to the big screen and has enlisted Rob Marshall who was successful doing the same for Chicago.

\In a small village on the edge of a dark and deep forest lies a village in which lies a Baker (Corden) and his wife (Blunt). They are basically good and decent people who yearn to have a child of their own but they can’t seem to make it work. Little Red Riding Hood (Crawford) stops by their shop and begs for bread to give to her ailing grandmother (Crosby). The good-hearted couple and Red takes a lot more than they bargained for.

They are then accosted by the Witch (Streep) who lives next door who informs them that their line is cursed because the Baker’s father (Beale) stole some magic beans from the Witch’s garden. Dear old dad fled and left the Baker on his own to run the business. However there’s a way out – if the Baker can gather a cow as white as snow, cloth as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold, she can create a spell that will lift the curse and allow them to have children. There is a deadline however for the spell to work.

Elsewhere Cinderella (Kendrick) lives with her Stepmother (Baranski) and that lady’s two daughters – Florinda (Blanchard) and Lucinda (Punch) from a previous marriage – and is being generally ridiculed and abused by the three women. She longs to go to the King’s Ball but that isn’t going to happen; the girl is basically dressed in rags but a gown is required. She is met in the forest by Prince Charming (Pine) who notices the girl’s plucky courage at walking in the woods by herself.

Young Jack (Huttlestone) is somewhat dense and something of a dreamer. His mom (Ullman) is exasperated with the boy; they are very poor and the harvest was bad, their milk cow Milky White wasn’t giving milk and there simply won’t be enough food to last them through the winter. She tells him that he must sell the cow at the market in the village and sadly, he leads his only friend away to market.

Jack and the Baker meet up in the woods and the latter convinces the former to exchange the cow for some beans he had in his pocket which the Baker convinces Jack are magic beans. Jack takes the beans, the Baker takes the cow and when Jack’s mother finds out she furiously chucks the beans away. Turns out that those beans that were the magic beans the Baker’s father stole and had left in his hunting jacket that he’d left behind and which the Baker now wore into the woods. A giant beanstalk grows and you know what happens after that.

Actually, you know most of what happens up until about the middle of the story. Then things start going sideways. Happily ever afters are relatively rare in this or any other world and there are consequences for the things that we do and they aren’t always pleasant ones.

Marshall knows how to bring big production values to his stage adaptations and he utilizes them here. While the movie was mostly filmed on sets, the woods actually look like woods (the set was so realistic that Pine and Blunt got lost in the woods and had to be rescued by a production assistant). The singing which was mostly pre-recorded is also quite adequate, particularly by Streep who has an excellent set of pipes as we learned from Mamma Mia. In fact her performance as the witch is one of the standouts here; she gives a character who is ostensibly wicked depth and feeling, making her a more sympathetic creature than perhaps she has any right to be. Blunt, as the Baker’s wife, is flawed and makes mistakes but she has a wonderful heart and really tugs at the heartstrings late in the film. She also has some pretty fine chemistry with Corden.

Pine and Magnussen both provide comedy relief in the form of a song called “Agony” which involves much posing by a waterfall. We are reminded once again that fairy tales – and Disney for that matter – are all about the princess for a reason. In fact, most of the musical numbers are staged well, although the general complaint that I have with Sondheim is that he tends to overwork his musical themes to death and that is certainly the case here.

The juvenile actors are a little bit less satisfactory. While Crawford is adequate, Huttlestone overacts and sings like he’s in a junior high school play. I normally don’t like taking shots at young actors but it really was distracting from the overall film and lessened my enjoyment of it.

If you come into the theater expecting Once Upon a Time or Galavant from ABC (a subsidiary of Disney) you’re going to be shocked. The tone here is dark, very dark – particularly in the second act. There is some violence, people do get killed (sometimes onscreen as we watch) and people deal with grief, cheating spouses and imminent peril from a very pissed-off giant.

Nonetheless this is still more entertaining than I expected it to be, given that Marshall’s track record since Chicago has been pretty uneven. It also doesn’t have the magic I hoped it would have, given the love that the musical has enjoyed for decades. It’s good enough to recommend, but not good enough to rave over.

REASONS TO GO: Decent performances and some unexpected twists and turns. Fairly strong representation of the Broadway show.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.
FAMILY VALUES: A few disturbing images, a suggestive scene involving adultery and some adult thematic material as well as fantasy action and peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ironically, Emily Blunt who plays a woman unable to have a baby was pregnant during the shoot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enchanted
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: The Two Faces of January

Jersey Boys


Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends.

(2014) Musical (Warner Brothers) Vincent Piazza, John Lloyd Young, Steve Schirripa, Christopher Walken, Johnny Cannizzaro, Michael Lomenda, Lacey Hannan, Joseph Russo, Erich Bergen, Mike Doyle, Donnie Kehr, Freya Tingley, Erica Piccininni, Kathrine Narducci, Lou Volpe, Michael Patrick McGill, Annika Noelle, Renee Marino, Allison Wilhelm. Directed by Clint Eastwood

There are those that say that legends are born, not made. There are those who insist that it’s the other way around. The truth is when it comes to music, it’s a bit of both.

In Belleville, a mostly Italian enclave in Jersey in the early 50s, young Tommy DeVito (Piazza) works as a driver and general go-fer for mobster Gyp De Carlo (Walken) by day and a budding musician with a doo-wop band by night.  He’s also friends with Frankie Castelluccio (Young), who would later come to be known as Frankie Valli. Castelluccio is a young man with an angelic voice who De Carlo sees stardom written all over. DeVito insists that Frankie do his vocal exercises and take singing lessons. He also has Frankie act as a lookout man on a botched robbery for which DeVito takes the fall.

After getting back from jail, DeVito – now with Frankie a full-fledged member of the band – along with Nick Massi (Lomenda) – seems content to play pizza parlors and bowling alleys in Jersey, although he knows as well as De Carlo that Frankie could very well be his ticket to the big time. They just need the right songs. Cue Joe Pesci (Russo) – yes, that Joe Pesci – who is friends with DeVito and happens to know a great songwriter named Bob Gaudio (Bergen) who wrote the novelty hit “Short Shorts” for the Royal Teens back when he was 15. Now out of that group, he’s looking for the right fit for his musical future. Introductions are made and the band, then called the Four Lovers, take the name the Four Seasons after a bowling alley where they unsuccessfully auditioned to play.

DeVito also introduces Frankie to Mary (Marino), a loud, brash woman who has no trouble figuring out that the talented Frankie is her way out of Belleville. The two eventually get married. In the meanwhile, Frankie and Gaudio head to the Brill Building trying to find a producer. They run into Bob Crewe (Doyle) who also hails from Jersey and knows Gaudio somewhat, but has met with some success as a producer. He’s flamboyantly gay (in an era when Liberace was considered “dramatic”) but he gives the four kids a break. Before long they’re singing back-up on an array of forgotten songs.

This doesn’t sit well with the group who were promised a demo of their own. Crewe is willing to produce it but he needs $1500 in order to do it and a radio-friendly song to promote. DeVito provides the cash – borrowing from loan shock Norm Waxman (Kehr) – and Gaudio provides the song – a little ditty called “Sherry.”

The song explodes and is the first of three number one hits in a row for the group. They become one of the most popular groups in the country with appearances on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. However, everything isn’t cake and roses; the constant touring has estranged Frankie from his children and his wife, who has become an alcoholic. Tommy has been gambling heavily and is in debt to Waxman for a lot more than $1500 – nearly ten times that amount, as well as having been embezzling funds from the band. Tommy is also incensed at the growing closeness between Frankie and Gaudio, who have formed a separate partnership outside of the band. Things will have to come to a head sooner or later.

This is based on the Tony award-winning smash hit Broadway musical and features Lloyd who originated the role of Valli on Broadway and won a Tony for it. Several other actors in the cast were in either the Broadway or touring company of the show. Eastwood, who would seem on the surface to be an odd choice to do a musical (although his biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker, Bird, remains one of those unheralded classics) wanted stage actors familiar with the material more than he did Hollywood name actors (although he did cast Walken as the genial mobster De Carlo).

There’s a stagey quality here which isn’t entirely due to the acting. While the actors frequently break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience – part of the original show’s conceit is that it was divided into four parts with each band member “narrating” from his own point of view – that doesn’t harm the movie much. In fact, I found it to be one of the elements that worked best.

Part of the problem is there’s a surprising lack of energy for a musical; that’s because most of the music is not performed in staged numbers. For the most part, they are depicted in the recording studio or on TV programs. It leads to a bit of frustration on the part of the audience who is expecting more music from a musical. Only the last number, essentially a medley of hits that starts off from the original band’s final performance together at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 1990 (Massi passed away from cancer in 2000) has that energy and performance that one expects from a musical.

So we have here a cross between a 50’s set goombah period piece and a screen version of a Broadway musical with elements of both filling the screen. I’m not sure which one works best but I think that both could have used a kick in the pants. I left the theater feeling curiously unfulfilled although Da Queen was enthusiastic for her love for the movie.

The music itself is good and Lloyd does an amazing job of creating Valli’s iconic falsetto, one of the most recognizable voices in the history of pop music. It must also be said that I have a sense that those who have seen the musical either on Broadway or in one of the touring productions will more than likely be disappointed by this effort as I was, even though I haven’t seen the musical as of yet.

This isn’t a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination; I just had higher hopes for it that weren’t met. The production values are spot on and although there are a few anachronisms (Valli is depicted singing his hit “My Eyes Adored You” to his daughter as a lullaby fully ten years before the song was actually written) they capture the period and place nicely. There is a bit of Italian-American stereotyping but not as much as you might think. For the most part, it’s entertaining; it just isn’t the kind of film you’ll want to see over and over again – at least not for me.

REASONS TO GO: Some great music. Young captures Valli’s voice nicely.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks energy. Looks stagey. Occasionally anachronistic.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fair amount of salty language, or what they call in Jersey “tawkeen.”

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At the conclusion of the film, Tommy DeVito says that he’s working for Joe Pesci these days. Pesci played a character named Tommy DeVito in GoodFellas based on a mob associate of Henry Hill, but not named after the ex-Four Season. The Pesci character during this film says “Funny how?” at one point, a reference to the same line Pesci utters in GoodFellas.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 54/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: That Thing You Do

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: Life Itself