Tag Archives: Musical

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

La La Land (redux)

I was worried this movie wouldn’t hold up to a second watch. It is, after all, a fluff movie with some sharp edges. I needn’t have worried. It still delighted and tugged at emotions and dreams in all the right ways.

It is also one of the most beautifully composed films I’ve seen. The framing, edits, and production design are just, simply, delightful. The camera floats along with the action. The colors are striking, and the intra-scene edits are almost non-existent (and when they are, they are seamless).

It is still flawed, as a story. Uneven and, shall we say, light on characters, not to mention just a tad long for its purpose. The lightness is was what it was meant to be, so I don’t judge it for that so much as still get frustrated when other films of the year (like Arrival) were pushed aside. But I ranted on that enough already. I will say that I still marvel at the choice and delivery of the final moments. It was brave and a much better resolution than the obvious.

La La will remain in my circle of rewatch for many years, I’m sure. Just as An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain, neither of which are perfect movies either.  And I will certainly be watching whatever Chezelle comes out with next.

We are X

Sometimes a trailer catches you by declaring similarity to something you do know. In this case, We are X claimed affinity with Searching for Sugar Man, which was a delightful and unexpected treat of a documentary. It was not an apt comparison by any stretch, but the movie has its own merits.

So, let’s start with the obvious: Who is X Japan? Probably the biggest band that you’ve never heard of. I certainly hadn’t, as their rise to popularity beyond Japan was outside of my music exploration days. Learning about their path was interesting, but not overly different from any other big rock group. They met young, they had trials, they had losses, and they had triumphs.

However, what sets this docu and the group apart is Yoshiki, the drummer (amongst other instruments) and primary brains behind the band (and primary filter for this movie). Not because of his songs or playing, though both are notable, but because of his drive. Yoshiki is definitely not the typical drummer personality. He is the primary lryics and tunes man, the business manager, and the primary front personality of the band. I couldn’t think of a single, prominent band that had a drummer in the same role, though I’m sure someone out there will prove me wrong now that I’ve stated it. Rush comes close, but they really are more ensemble.

The docu is much less about music than it is about artistic integrity and life. Sure, it is a little self-conscious and controlled, but it is also fascinating, empowering, and inspiring in many ways. What is missing is the insight into creation of their music. This is more an homage to X Japan and/or their fans (it sort of works in both directions). That is a great gift if you were a fan, but of less value if you didn’t know them going in.

Gimme Danger was a better look inside a band, in large part because a third eye was brought to the tale. History wasn’t only lensed through the eyes of the band itself, there was some critical thought to it all, however filtered.

Beyond the emotional journey, what We are X does have to offer is some nice behind the scenes views of their Madison Square Garden concert. No matter how many times you see that kind of event being put together, it is awe-inspiring what it takes to create it and how simple they make it look during performance.

This is an oddly compelling story. Seeing what an artist like Yoshiki will sacrifice (quite literally everything) in order to create is pretty fascinating. How much of this is promotion and how much bald fact, frankly there is no way to tell. And he did get me interested in digging out their tunes and learning more, so perhaps it served its purpose.

We Are X

Gimme Danger

Music is a visceral thing. It gets into your head, your blood, and your bones as you grow up. It is all about time and life, love and loss. It is why a few notes can bring back memories, both good and bad, for just about anyone on the planet. The Stooges were a powerful force in the evolution of modern rock, by personality if not by talent. They fought manufactured music, created the stage dive, and were a large part of the force that ushered in what would become Punk rock.

Director Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive) corners the members and gets from them some of the most jaw-droppingly honest interviews about an icon I’ve seen captured. Jim Osterberg/Iggy Pop, in particular just lays it all out there, not that he was ever particularly shy. But none of the interviews, current or past, try to hedge who they were and how utterly messed up things got for them. The film never devolves into wound-licking, however. It remains poised and comfortable with itself, perhaps a bit too much so as it glosses over some of the darker aspects of their lives. I don’t know if it is a weakness in this film that we never really see into that dark mirror clearly or a strength that it can be acknowledged and skipped over. You can infer a lot, but it does feel like you hear the story and, on reflection, realize you’re missing big chunks of information. If you want some nice intersections with their tale, watch CBGB and Velvet Goldmine within proximity to this docu; Iggy and The Stooges show up in both.

Jarmusch starts the story at the end of the band’s original career and then rebuilds your respect for and understanding of them. It is an intriguing way to attack such a seminal group; understanding how they dropped off the cliff is as much a part of how they climbed the mountain. Their collaborations, particularly in the UK, are mentioned, but a lot of that is also left to your own memory and/or researching.

There is a ton of archival footage and, of course, music. I would have liked a bit more of the latter, but it is just as interesting to hear how the band viewed their music and their approach to creating it; the structure under the chaos. This is a compelling film if you have any interest in rock music, particularly of the late 60s into the 70s and beyond.

Gimme Danger