Tag Archives: Musical

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

Coco

[5 stars]

This is every bit as good as you’ve heard. And, yes, the 3D is even worth it, though not necessary. The story is more than enough to stand on its own without it if you don’t want to spend the dollars for the format. 3D simply adds some richness to it all. Still, you must see this on a big screen, so don’t wait for disc.

I honestly was worried at the top of the film. Primarily this was due to the Frozen short, Olaf’s Frozen Adventure, that fronted the film, but more on that in a minute. The story, Coco, starts off so obvious and simple that I honestly didn’t give it the credit it deserved. I was sure I knew what I was in for and how it was all going to get there, so might as well lay back and and enjoy the art. What was provided, instead, was both provocative emotionally (as you’d expect) but also evocative in many ways, which you really only ever hope for and rarely get to see. Co-writers and co-directors, Lee Unkrich (Toy Story 3) and first-timer Adrian Molina, kept attacking the ideas with the rest of the writers until it was something more complex and interesting than, say, Book of Life managed even though they both tackle the same cultural tales.

The voice cast is solid, but it is dominated by three actors: Anthony Gonzalez (The Bridge), Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), and Benjamin Bratt (Doctor Strange). Though special mention for Natalia Cordova-Buckley (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Frida Kahlo really need be made. It isn’t that the other voice work isn’t good, but they are all side-notes to these stand-outs. As a whole, the world comes together gloriously in vision and sound. But it isn’t just at the macro level. There are also a lot of subtle clues and tiny details that will make this worth seeing more than a few times.

I do wish it had a bit more Spanish throughout to really make it feel more natural, but there is at least some. And it would have been better with a few strong female characters to help drive the story; there are women, but this is a male dominated tale without question. And I could have done without the (generally) reused face of the boy from The Good Dinosaur. But these ended up minor concerns compared to the overall success of the movie.

OK, back to Olaf’s intrusion into my viewing pleasure. Now I want to be clear that I loved Frozen. I will admit that Olaf wasn’t my favorite character, but my frustration with the short had less to do with that and more to do with the story. It was a flat-out Christmas tale, already jarring against the Día de Muertos story that was to follow, but also because it was only a Christmas tale. By the time it began explaining what all cultures do during “that time of year” as part of their Christmas tradition, my teeth were so on edge I wanted to scream.

To be clear, the religious observance of Hanukkah, as an example, existed millennia before the holiday traditions of Christmas. Literally. The Hanukkah lights are not lit because it is Christmas, which the story suggests in its plot and lyrics. And Hanukkah is only one of the observances subsumed into the tale. The short cartoon manages to avoid the worst of what it could have devolved into, but is still a misstep for Disney in terms of inclusiveness and cultural sensitivity. Actually pretty surprising given their foray into new cultural areas that Coco tries to map. It was also just a very bad match artistically for the main feature that followed, in my opinion.

That I still rated Coco so highly, despite the Frozen short, tells you how much power it had to get me over that hill of annoyance. Go see Coco and enjoy the magic, family, message, joy, and loss that is its world. There is something for all ages in its story and the production is a wonder to behold on the screen.

Coco

The Magic Flute (2006)

[2.5 stars]

There is a reason Magic Flute has survived 100s of years; the music is glorious. But when Kenneth Branagh (Cinderella) and Stephen Fry (The Hippopotamus) collaborated to reimagine the opera as a tale from the battlefields of WWI, the shift is not really successful and no amount of great music can heal the issues. Generally, Flute is seen as a comic opera with a bit of adventure, but this version drops us into trench warfare and mustard gas as backdrop to the kinds of silliness and romance that drives the story. Frankly, it makes war and sacrifice feel cheap. And the new lyrics and plot don’t really come together into a complete story. Even done traditionally, Flute sort of skips ahead from song to song with the thinnest veneer of story to contain it.

Story aside, the design and production values are very good all around. The singers are excellent, even if the looping is imperfect. There is also an odd effect where some things are done with high realistic value, but others, like Papageno’s playing of his flute, look as fake as they do on stage. It was as if Branagh couldn’t decide if he was making a movie or filming a stage presentation. A commitment to one direction or the other would have made it all a little sharper.

Honestly, if you’re looking for an interesting take on this story that works better, seek out Julie Taymor’s (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) 2004 production (which was also remounted in 2006). It captures more of the fantasy aspect but doesn’t lose the menace and has an equally clever English libretto. There is a DVD, though I don’t know the quality, and you can read more about it and see images on the net. But as to this production…as a curio it is interesting. As part of the Branagh’s opus, it was good to seek out. As a piece of film: not something I’d recommend.

The Magic Flute

Every Little Step

[4.5 stars]

A Chorus Line was not only a love letter to Broadway and performers everywhere, it became, quite literally, an anthem to everyone who had dreams and was reaching for success. A few notes from anywhere in its score, one of the most evocative ever penned, transports you into its world instantly. Because it was practically a seamless tale, once you are drawn in, it is almost impossible to pull yourself back out. Its raw emotion remains powerful to this day.

If you don’t know the show, that may appear to be hyperbole, but A Chorus Line remade not only what a Broadway show was, but how they were created and brought to stage. It marshaled the talents of some of the brightest minds and shattered records for years. This documentary captures a lot of that as well as remounting the show 16 years after its original 6137 performance run.

While some of the lyric references have become dated, there is nothing dated about the emotional core of the story itself. It is just as relevant now as it ever was, which is part of what this documentary exposes. Through its dual tracking between show auditions and the real life participants the timeless experience of casting for a show and of performers (or anyone) reaching for their dreams and making them tangible.

Every Little Step

Speech & Debate

If you ever spent time in a fringe club in High School or, in particular, worked for the school paper, in drama, or on the forensics team, this movie will ring many bells for you. Even if you haven’t, it captures the frustration and sense of awakening that everyone goes through at around that age, and, for some, the need to act. It is on that point where the reality of this tale gets delightfully stretched…but only a little.

The three young leads that carry the film are an unlikely crew thrown together by need. Their surety and fearlessness tested at every turn, they simply move forward until they can’t.

Sarah Steele (Adult Beginners), reprises her role from the original stage production while Liam James (The Way Way Back) and Austin P. McKenzie (When We Rise) join her to complete the group. They are all endearing and frustrating in their ways, and each has their own challenges outside the main plot to overcome. Together they find a sense of strength and belonging, as you’d hope.

This film began life as a well-received Stephen Karam play before he adapted it for this film version. As a credit to his writing, you’d never know it started in a different medium.

The adults in this story are definitely secondary characters with small, implied storylines of their own. Kal Penn (Designated Survivor), Janeane Garofalo (Wet Hot American Summer: First Days of Camp), Skylar Astin (Pitch Perfect 2), suggest rich, unseen interactions in particular.

This is a funny and painful romp through old memories and the new ways of the world (and how they haven’t really changed). Or, if you’re contemporary to the characters, a reminder that everyone is struggling through the same junk and can do so in quiet or with style. Regardless, watch through the end of the credits for an amusing coda.

Speech & Debate