Tag Archives: Musical

Mock and Roll

[2 stars]

Dying is easy. Comedy is hard. Parody is brutal.

If you haven’t sussed it from the title, this movie is in the third category. Sadly, the result here isn’t great, but it isn’t entirely without merit. As an early or first film for almost all involved, it is interesting to see who may grow from it. And the story certainly takes the idea head-on by making the center of the story a parody band of The Black Owls to add some layers to the movie. Fortunately, they’re also a reasonably talented group of musicians.

While the movie style is stilted, it is also full of clever and intelligent ideas and comments. That can’t carry the film, but it does help make it engaging. By having a parody band at the center of it all helps to set it apart from other movies in the genre, like Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind. It accepts it is a parody from the beginning rather than having the band in earnest. One of the more unexpected thoughts in the script is why Liberty Mean, the parody band that drives everything, is a parody band: they consider it a tribute to The Black Owls.

But that brings up part of the challenge with this movie: you have to know The Black Owls and Foghat music to really appreciate the efforts here. If you don’t know their canon cold, it’s like trying to listen to Weird Al without context. It is also worth noting that both Foghat and The Black Owls have a real presence in the film, which is a huge bonus to its profile.

But, other than the editing, director and co-writer (with Mark Stewart) Ben Bacharach-White doesn’t do his actors many favors in this romp. Through interesting cuts and visual games, he keeps the pace surprisingly brisk given some of the issues that remain in the movie.

At the top of those issues: no one comes across as real or comfortable. There are some glimmers of potential beyond their musical efforts. Aditi Molly Bhanja stands out as the high point of the cast, providing just enough real moments to keep it all percolating along. Andrew Yackel isn’t far behind, though his timing needs some work on what are, admittedly, some truly challenging verbal riffs. But it isn’t like any of it feels real enough to carry the plot: Liberty Mean trying to raise money to get to SXSW to bring their brand of tribute to the masses.

Basically, this is a low-budget romp through and through, but with some real effort at making it whole, and with some good music to carry it. If you know the bands in play, you’ll get a lot more out of it. And, honestly, the better read you are generally, the more you’ll pick up in the dialogue. But this strikes me as a flick that works best with, shall we say, mood enhancers and, possibly, if you were/are in a garage band or on the younger side.

Mary Poppins Returns

[3.5 stars]

Like its title character, the original Mary Poppins (1964) is practically perfect in every way. It is full of childlike wonder, entertaining humor, amazing pacing, fabulous music, and a sweet and affirming resolution. It is also one of my favorites of its type. So it was with both anticipation and not a little trepidation I walked into this sequel.

Ben Whishaw (queers.) and Emily Mortimer (Spectral) do justice to the Banks family. Getting to see Whishaw in a young father role was great and a nice evolution for him on screen.  And Mortimer mirrored Mrs. Banks’s character from the original admirably. Adding to the threads from the past, bringing forward Ellen the maid in Julie Waters (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) was also a nice gift. The new generation of children were also well cast. Pixie Davies (Humans), Nathanael Saleh (Game of Thrones),  and Joel Dawson are a great trio with talent and the ability to work well together.

I’ll get to Poppins, for she is the key to it all, but if I don’t give a nod to Lin-Manuel Miranda (Speech & Debate) as the lamplighter that steps in for Dick Van Dyke’s man of all trades to help out Poppins and the family, I’d be remiss. Miranda is incredibly talented, and the movie uses his particular talents well. He isn’t entirely credible as a Cockney, but he has the sense of the character well. And Colin Firth (The Happy Prince) brings his talents to bear well too. Even Meryl Streep (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) gets to have a bit of fun in a throw-away role.

Now on to Poppins herself. Emily Blunt (Sherlock Gnomes) is worthy of the role. She certainly brings some game, has good pipes, and brings a ton of on-screen charisma. But she isn’t quite comfortable in the role. It hangs on her like an oversized dress and feels just a little forced as she tries to make the part her own. Most of this isn’t her fault, but rather the fault of the script and direction. But to get to that, you have to acknowledge the difference in feel of the two movies.

The new installment is big and magical and entertaining, but it is more like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang than the original Poppins; much darker and with some bite. I enjoyed the choice to make it a continuation of the Banks family, but that also came with some timing issues. To make it Jane and Micheal’s lives in their prime, it had to happen between the wars…and yet, despite taking place between the wars, there is no hint of that hanging over the tale, which was odd. That darkness in the character and plot reflected more of today than the 1930s and ignored well-established and understood history.

It is the darkness that really changes the Poppins world in this movie. In fact, writer Dave Magee (Life of Pi) and director Rob Marshall (Into the Woods) feel like they didn’t quite get Poppins at all in some ways. Emily Blunt is allowed to be far too arch rather than matter-of-fact in her actions and attitude. The original Poppins doesn’t have to work for anything, it all happens as she plans; no muss, no fuss. This Poppins seems to take glee in mucking about with people. It is less about wonder and magic and helping people and more about power and control.

And, on a script level, they never deal with her looking different, which felt wrong. They go out of their way to claim she looks “just the same” which is absurd and was unnecessary. Why can’t Poppins be more like Who or the Banks children recognize her but feel they remembered wrong or see her differently? Why pretend when we all know she’s been recast?

But it goes beyond these things. She is much less in control of the children in this story because she’s too intent on being the center of attention rather than controlling from the sidelines. Part of the joy of the first movie is watching Poppins get everyone to do what she wants and they need without them realizing they’ve been utterly manipulated.

In this sequel, she certainly makes demands and has some control, but the manipulations don’t feel much like they’re in her control at all. Also, one of the great things of the original was how utterly feminist it was. All the important decisions were by women. This sequel isn’t as feminist a movie…it is all about the actions of men and men’s decisions. Rather surprising given the current culture and 54 years in between flicks.

There is also another oddity in making the sequel. In the first movie, the story is really about saving Mr. Banks. The same focus is in this sequel, but because the father was the child in the first film, it somehow feels like she’s there for the children (even if the children are adults now). This isn’t an error in choices so much as just an unavoidable result, and brings in some odd echos.

OK, let’s face it, creating a sequel to such a classic is a near impossible task. Forcefully mirroring the original in structure, in many ways, hurt the overall result. This story isn’t nearly as tight. The music isn’t as nearly on point for the plot, even if it is entertaining. The story isn’t quite as satisfying. Certainly it is a level of musical in movies that isn’t seen often, making a nod back to the 40s in its scope. Kids will enjoy. Parents will reminisce. Awards will surely be offered if not gained. And it is going to be a huge success. But do yourself a favor and rewatch the original before you see this sequel (or watch it after if you don’t want to compare while watching). There is a magic to the to the 1964 classic that just isn’t replicated here, despite everyone’s efforts. I’m not even sure that it could be done in this time as we’ve become so much more jaded and aware.

I don’t mean to dissuade you from going to Mary Poppins Returns. You should. But it is impossible to see it and not think of the original. Or, for that matter, this delightful 2004 short with Andrews herself still nailing the sense and personality of her original. And, in fact, to bring this all home, I have to bend my rules a bit and go into some of the comparisons below. So don’t read on if you don’t want to have aspects of the movie spoiled.

 

WARNING: Some Spoilerage Lies Below

My frustration began with the opening credits. By preceding the movie proper with a lot of pre-production art, much of the plot was given away, which was a damned shame. Not sure why they didn’t follow the example of the original and just set up the tale and let Miranda be our guide. Instead, the film jumps straight into a musical number rather than framing it all, and easing us into the magical world. This is a fair choice, but it made it jarring rather than feeling like a bedtime story.

As a whole, the music and sequences aren’t nearly as tight as the first film. Everything in the first film comes back to have an effect on the resolution. That just isn’t the case for Returns. For instance, Meryl Streep’s scene, which mirror Ed Wynn’s Uncle from the original, had no impact on the story at all. Wynn’s scene supplies the necessary and plot-turning joke. Streep is just an amusing distraction with an emotional point that could have been done differently.

Likewise, the lead up to the finale with the lamplighter dance sequence has no real place, unlike chimney sweeps in the original. The sweeps seemingly overlong sequence is necessary to trigger the confrontation with Mr. Banks and so that the sweeps can shake Banks’ hand (more necessary for the children to see than the story) and it pushes Banks to his epiphany. The lamplighter sequence has no impact whatsoever. Yes there is a similar confrontation with the children, but it felt, much like Streep’s scene, to be there as a mirror to the original rather than with a purpose.

Taking it a bit further, the lamplighters do nothing for the resolution in this sequel. It is Poppins who turns back time, not the lighters. So why the whole insane sequence scaling Big Ben if she could just fly up there and move the hands?

And speaking of the finale, let’s face it, the location of the stock obvious from the moment we see the paper. I spent the whole movie waiting for them to notice it. I did like how it tied in the original kite. However, I just wish it wasn’t so bloody obvious… or that it was so we could anticipate the discovery as part of the story rather than it having to be a “surprise” near the end.

I did think the tuppence connection was nice from a story point of view. But having capitalism win over emotions and “what’s right” felt wrong for this world. Though, I will admit, it did provide a great thread for Dick Van Dyke’s return, however briefly, for the denouement.

I also do have to say I am so glad Andrews turned down the role that Angela Lansbury took on. Andrews was absolutely right, it would have been a huge distraction and dismissed Blunt’s efforts entirely.

And, finally, there were the choices for the finale, and perhaps this is where it flew off the rails the most. The ending in the original was redemptive all around, for all characters. Let’s Go Fly a Kite is an anthem of joy and possibility. In Mary Poppins Returns, Up in the Air  (or whatever the song title is) just isn’t, which felt wrong for the sensibility of that world. And though I’m sure the romantic in Magee and Marshall drove the choice, having to find Jane a partner was also just the wrong message for the younger viewers.

Again, I enjoyed myself, honestly I did. But it is impossible to see this new movie and not compare and think about the differences. You should still go, just unplug a bit or accept the differences a little more than I could<g>

Bohemian Rhapsody

[4 stars]

I want to be clear before I go any further: I had a great time with this movie. I grew up with Queen. I saw them in concert. I still must stop everything and sing along with a good part of their music. The audience I saw it with even broke into spontaneous applause at the end. Bohemian Rhapsody is a beautiful fantasy, a love-letter to Queen and, more specifically, Freddie Mercury.

And speaking of, Rami Malek’s (Mr Robot) Freddie Mercury is  a wonder to behold. He so captures the movements and look as to make you think you’re seeing the real thing. In fact, the casting generally was astounding in terms of matching people. Gwilym Lee (Isle of Dogs), Ben Hardy (X-Men: Apocalypse), and Joseph Mazzello (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) also did wonderful jobs matching the iconic group.

The casting continued into the supporting cast. Surrounding the band, Lucy Boynton (Sing Street), Aidan Gillen (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword), Allen Leech (Bellevue), Aaron McCusker (Fortitude), and Tom Hollander (Tulip Fever) were all wonderful. Only Mike Myers felt out of place, simply because he was there as a nose-thumbing joke even if he did the part well.

But here’s the thing. Sure it was entertaining. Yes, the music is amazing, but it always was. The music was used brilliantly to support the story too. If you loved Queen going in, you are sure to love the movie. But it isn’t a good film, no matter how well it works.

Director Bryan Singer (X-Men: Apocalypse) crammed it with cheap moments and huge assumptions about what you knew.  The narrative is confused and meandering. Writers Anthony McCarten (The Darkest Hour) and Peter Morgan (The Crown) made it difficult to follow the timeline and presented Queen’s rise and their artistic creation look absurdly simple. Like I said initially, a wonderful fantasy but hardly a honest biopic or look at the effort involved.

[If you think I’m being harsh, check out this much blunter and, frankly, not far off the mark commentary.]

There is a journey for Mercury in the final cut. It is sort of him finding and accepting himself (again, this ends up oversimplified and weirdly easy despite the ending). The final result is oddly triumphant amid the tragedy that was the end of Freddie’s life. Who would have thought you’d get a foot-tapping crowd-pleaser of a man dying of AIDS?

So, should you see this? If you love Queen’s music, absolutely. See it on the big screen. Get lost in the fantasy that you are given. Cheer the ending. Just don’t think you got the real or full story. That doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.

A Star is Born (2018)

[4 stars]

The bones may be old on this fifth remake of the 1937 classic, but Bradley Cooper (JoyGuardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2) put fresh flesh on them in the roles of director, co-writer, and even co-star.

Cooper brought his own life to bear on the tale, enriching it with a sense of reality not to mention driving passion and real romance. While he did this for his own reasons, he also recognized he had an opportunity. Once in every generation or so a performer comes around who has the presence, charm, and ability to take on this role.

In 2018, it is Lady Gaga (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, American Horror Story), a woman of incredible talent. I’m not a huge fan of her music, but I respect her abilities both musically and in business (much as I did Madonna’s in the 80s). She has both the chops and the confidence to be part of something rather than having to dominate it. Because while A Star is Born is clearly her story, it is also very much Cooper’s. If she simply took it all over, there wouldn’t have been a film worth seeing. And the story is a heartrendingly beautiful one, danced by these two performers. Along with Sam Elliott (Grandma), and a surprise performance by Andrew Dice Clay, their lives unfold and their pasts exert their inevitable influence.

Cooper gets great performances out of everyone, including himself. Choosing to record all the music live adds a sense of reality and credibility to the entire endeavor as well. And though the story has been updated and made his own, he manages to hold onto a sense of nostalgia thanks to his choices in color timing the film to give it a slightly washed-out feel. The third act of the story drags a bit, but the overall impact is only slightly diminished for that drop in urgency. This isn’t a car chase movie, it is a paced tale of love, art, and family. For a first time director, it is also a major triumph. This is sure Oscar-bait, and it even has a chance at securing a statuette or two come next year’s ceremony.

Grab some popcorn and, maybe, even a few tissues and take someone you really care about to this for a date night. The movie is worth your time and it reminds you of what is important in your life in many expected and unexpected ways.

A Star Is Born

Hearts Beat Loud

[3.5 stars]

There have been many films about wannabe or aspiring musicians over recent years. They cover quite a bit of ground as well. From Juliet Naked to Begin Again to Sing Street to Song to Song or even the more tangential like Rudderless, they tend, mostly to focus on adults looking for their lost moments or kids getting together to make their way.

Don’t get me wrong, Nick Offerman (Nostalgia) certainly fills that adult bill in Hearts Beat Loud; but as much as he drives the movie, it isn’t about him. The point of the story really revolves about his daughter, Kiersey Clemons (Flatliners) and their relationship. Music is essential and plays a role, but this is primarily a film about family not fame.

Around the pair are some great supporting characters. Relative newcomer, Sasha Lane (American Honey) and Clemons make a great pairing. Their interactions are quietly intense, and, admittedly, a bit too chaste for 18 year olds, but still very effective.

For Offerman, Toni Collette (Hereditary) and Ted Danson build out his story and world with humor and complications. On the other hand, Bythe Danner (I’ll See You in My Dreams) is, sadly, all but lost in this story. She is a bit of background that you can see has meaning, but there is little done with it and it is one of the few real misfires in the flick for me.

Director and co-writer Brett Haley (The Hero) reteamed with Marc Basch to pen this story that lives in a comfortable groove in our expectations but manages to stay unexpected in its execution, like a good song. Even Keegan DeWitt’s (The Hero) music is not your typical choice of “new band creates massively brilliant music.” They are clearly songs filled with promise and with an indie approach to pop music, but none feel entirely finished. They feel, in fact, like a beginning songwriter with talent learning their craft.

The pacing of this movie is deliberate. Not slow, per se, but certainly not a runaway train. Haley lets the story layer and build so the ending has impact. When you want a sweet evening and have the need for a good story that takes you through a range of emotions, Hearts Beat Loud is a great choice.

Hearts Beat Loud

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

[3.5 stars]

Take a story by Neil Gaiman and give John Cameron Mitchell (Rabbit HoleHedvig and the Angry Inch) the opportunity to turn it into a movie and you get a sort of punk rock coming-of-age fantasy that starts odd, gets odder, and manages to steal your heart.

Alex Sharp in his first movie (though a Tony winner for The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night Time) nails it. He and his friends, Ethan Lawrence and Abraham Lewis, give us a group of young punks in 1977 Croydon looking for…something in all the wrong places. As most adolescents do. The story is best experienced without any preamble, so I’ll stop there.

The boys are supported by a great cast. Elle Fanning (Leap!), ever her ethereal self, headlines it all and seems to expand on her Neon Demon character. And in support, Nicole Kidman (The Killing of a Sacred Deer), Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, Luther), and Matt Lucas (Sherlock Gnomes) each bring their own special brand of uniqueness to the characters.

But it isn’t just about the story and people directly. It is also about the music and movement that was just gaining steam in ’77. Real-life musician Martin Tomlinson leads the fictional Dyschords in a brilliant and believable set of performances to set the mood. As Gaiman put it when he saw it, they feel like a real band from that era you just somehow missed at the time. I’d add, if you ever cared about that era, you’d be sorry you did. And the rest of Nico Muhly and Jamie Stewart’s music is equally effective and engaging.

Entertainment and cleverness aside, Mitchell and co-writer Philippa Goslett took the smallest of seeds from Gaiman’s story of the same name (published as part of his Fragile Things collection) and grew it into a wondrous and unexpected adventure. It is as if Sing Street tripped into Wonderland, or Across the Universe collided with Velvet Goldmine. And yet none of that is really accurate other than to imply the unexpectedness of it all. Despite all the expansions, it still retains the sense and point of the original piece. Truly a great example of adaptation. However, if you haven’t read the story first I’d read it after. The story will suffer for that, but the movie will probably be improved by protecting some of its uniqueness.

Check this out without finding out more and just let the story take you. Mitchell is wonderful at laying out secret and twisty paths and imbuing his creations with heart, even amid heartbreak. And in this case, with Gaiman’s sensibility to help inform it all, it comes together in delightful ways. This is a universal story, even if the trappings don’t appear so.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

Mama Mia! Here We Go Again

[3.5 stars]

Here we go again, indeed. And why the hell not? Sure, it is treacly pointlessness with a beat, but it is certainly a welcome break from reality. This installment does suffer a bit from sequel-itis in that it is a bit less focused and not quite “new,” but the cast and production throw themselves into the story to bring it all nicely full-circle.

The original cast return, picking up where they left off, but the real focus is very much in the past. Lily James (The Darkest Hour) as the young Meryl Streep (The Post) is magnetic and wonderful. And Jessica Keenan Wynn, in particular, nails Christine Baranski (Into the Woods) beautifully.

What is most interesting, at least for me, was watching how director/writer Ol Parker (Now is Good) structured the movie to get the effect he wanted. The initial songs and performances are purposefully lack-luster to leave room for the bigger and better-known numbers and stars later on. The first 15-20 minutes of the movie is all about breaking down the happy ending of the previous film so the characters have something to fight for. The inter-cuts from past to present are expertly and interestingly woven together. And the drive to the finale is inevitable. The rhythm builds like Grand Budapest Hotel, compressing as we get closer to the ending.

But therein lies the rub. For me, the film never quite peaked. We’re promised a huge finale, and there is a nice emotional one on some levels, but we never quite have the musical finale we deserve. Think The Greatest ShowmanMoulin Rouge, or Across the Universe or just about any Broadway show. And I say this especially because Cher (Burlesque) was in the mix. The fault really lies with the music arrangements. In every case they seem to hang back or back off the blow-out ending. Whether that was to accommodate the actor’s abilities or to keep Cher from stealing away the film, I don’t know, but it was very palpable for me. The trailers had more showmanship for me than the movie itself.

All that said, the two hour diversion was welcome and entertaining. If you liked the first, you’ll like returning for the second. There is a sweet story, both romantic and personal, being told and ABBA’s music remains unavoidably foot-tapping. Just stay through to the end of the credits for a final, short scene.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Saturday Church

[3 stars]

Like many, when I first saw Paris is Burning back in 1990 I was floored by the stories and the window into a world I only knew from the fringes. It is easy to think the world has moved on since then, but Saturday Church makes it clear the progress has been minimal in many ways, even though it is fiction rather than documentary.

In the lead is Luka Kain who, despite being intensely quiet, manages to hold the story and film together. He is surrounded by capable actors and singers, though most are unknown. Of that collective, it is Kate Bornstein who stands out as the matron of the titular refuge. She is understanding but strong, and incredibly charismatic.

This is a positive leaning, if open-eyed, look at the challenges and all-too-common tales of what it is to grow up gay or trans in a repressive household. As a movie it is passable, but its heart is solid and the original music surprisingly good. It is also a good bet for you if you find documentaries like Paris is Burning or Pageant intriguing.

Should the story move you at all, you can learn more about its real life inspiration (St. Luke’s in the Fields) and support it.

Saturday Church

Pitch Perfect 3

[3 stars]

Threequels are a conundrum. Unless the trilogy is planned in advance, the subsequent stories feel like random, episodic silliness. For all its entertainment value, Pitch Perfect 3 is pretty much in that category. It manages to give all the characters a nice round-up and send off, but they really had to stretch to find a new storyline. At least having the continued involvement of Kay Cannon as one of the writers kept the characters consistent.

But you don’t come to a movie like this for great film making, you come for the music and the comedy and there is a lot of both. Overall, it lands somewhere between the first and second movies in quality. The humor remains pretty slap-stick, but it seems to come to more of a point than in the other two films. Oddly, the singing has less of a point or plot focus, though it is just as good and toe-tapping as ever.

If you enjoyed the first two films, you’ll like this third. There are some fun surprises and performers to keep it fresh and alive, and there is even some action to liven it all up.

Pitch Perfect 3

The Greatest Showman

[3.5 stars]

As piece of pure escapism with a nod to family, you’d do well with Greatest Showman. Much like Barnum’s approach to everything, it really is holiday humbug (in the old sense) to set your feet tapping and to pull a bit at your heartstrings. First time director Michael Gracey really deserves some kudos for keeping the unrelenting energy and flow going through to till the end. However, it was a little rushed to really have the impact he wanted.

As a story, it is a bit less successful. I’d like to think that some of what the writers Jenny Bicks (The Big C) and Bill Condon (Kinsey, Gods and Monsters) did got left on the cutting room floor. The film is about 15-20 minutes too short for the story they want to tell. The bones of the tale are great, but the overall effect is lacking. Without a moment to breathe, jumping from song to production number to song, we lose the immediate humanity necessary to allow us to really connect with Barnum and his family. The songs don’t feel like they come out of a moment so much as attempt to substitute for one. Sure, spectacle is great, but emotion is what makes it truly, you should excuse the expression, sing.

It starts off well enough (in fact wonderfully … with a very Fosse-like opening I have to think came from Condon, given his history with adapting Chicago). We get to see PT grow up and get what he wants and then watch him scrabble for what he thinks he wants.

Hugh Jackman (Logan) sells Barnum perfectly as a man of huge dreams, big heart, wide talent, and minimal scruples. He and Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) work well together and almost make a legendary pair (but for the weakness in the  script). Zac Efron (Baywatch) delivers credibly as well, though his purpose is muddy in the story. And Rebecca Ferguson (Life) is a surprisingly layered character, making the most of minimal screen time.

Barnum was always going to be a challenge. The story touches on the bigotry, lawlessness, and classism, but only in the lightest way, afraid to really tackle the issues. Or maybe I just wanted it to be a bit more relevant for today rather than just an entertainment. Also, with the recent ending of what remained of his namesake…you can’t view the circus today without thinking about the current and exposed realities.

While the music by Paul (La La Land) and score by Trapenese (Straight Outta Compton)  are pretty catchy and fun, the lyrics by Debney and Pasek’s (La La Land) lyrics had moments, but often just repeated themselves. Again, I expected more from those talents than simple pop tunes. While the reuse of the lyrics as dialogue worked for the character development, they missed the opportunity to flesh out the characters and tale even more in the songs.

Basically, I wanted this to be more than it is, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t enjoyable. In fact, I plan on seeing it again and perhaps will change my (ahem) tune. Sometimes expectations can get in the way…I want to see this film on its own terms and give it another shot, not unlike Paul Sparks (House of Cards) critic in the film, James Gordon Bennett. This movie is a crowd pleaser, to be sure. I just expected a little more substance in my meal.

The Greatest Showman