Tag Archives: Musical

Maria by Callas

[3 stars]

For some, Maria Callas was the literal embodiment of opera on Earth. Her truest fans are more religious than artistic. Others find her technique lacking or her personality off-putting such that they are dismissive of her achievements. Whatever you think of her talent, this documentary shows her life was as much an opera as her singing was.

The mostly untried Tom Volf is generous with footage and recordings of Callas’s singing. Full arias are presented, sampling her voice through the years. Each punctuates events covered in the supporting interviews and her own letters. The letters are provided voice by Joyce DiDonato, who often manages to sound so much like the author it is like listening to her speak. The most intriguing of the interviews, with David Frost from 1970, serves as backbone to much of film. The use of the interviews, however, presents a challenge for viewers. The movie is primarily told chronologically, but the inter-cut later information makes some of the events and their impacts in her life confusing.

However, by the end of this documentary you will be able to infer much about the woman behind the music. This is very much Maria telling you who Callas was and Callas providing a window as to who Maria was. How you parse that information and react to the personality, and her talent, is going to be up to  you.

Climax

[1 star]

This is one of those odd situations where you can appreciate the artist but hate the art. At least I did. Gaspar Noé (Love) puts a lot of technical joy into Climax, with interesting camera work, edits, and choreography. He even managed to attack the structure of film in service to his goals. I can’t say I could tell you what those goals were, but the opening of the movie and the first 20 minutes are designed to make you pay attention and to put your expectations off-balance.

But none of the characters he provides us are particularly likable. Even Sofia Boutella (Hotel Artemis) is more repulsive than magnetic. Without a connection to the characters what happens to them is empty, however real they are being portrayed.

Ultimately, I fast-forwarded a large part of the second half of the movie in hopes of finding a purpose or at least a moment of interest. I never did. And the final reveal just didn’t matter to me. There is some commentary on the nature of people in the story, but nothing you haven’t seen before done better. Noé doesn’t even manage to portray the bending of reality for the characters in any kind of new or unique way (like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote managed). So, my recommendation? Skip this and never wonder what you missed. You’ll have missed nothing. But check out Noé’s other work at some point. He is talented and willing to buck convention and expectation to achieve his purpose. When you play in that arena, you’re allowed a failure or two in pursuit of your art…even if that means you more often fail than succeed.

Yesterday

[5 stars]

Yesterday delivers one of the best films of the summer so far. It embraces the kind of sweet magic that Mamma Mia delivered (if not its sequel), but with a more adult and wry edge. It is funny, romantic, honest, and not a little subversive in its way, offered up with care and love by two of the best story tellers out there behind the camera: director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting 2) and writer Richard Curtis (About Time).

Boyle (Trainspotting 2) is one of the most diverse directors out there, often slipping between genre without missing a step (Sunshine aside). And with Curtis (About Time) laying the trail, the two take us on a journey that is both nostalgic, current, and toe-tappingly hypnotic.

Himesh Patel, basically an unknown in the US though a constant on Eastenders for 11 years, carries this story solidly. Opposite him, Lily James (Mama Mia! Here We Go Again) is the sweet embodiment of missed chances. There are a slew of other players, too many to mention, but Joel Fry (Requiem) and Kate McKinnon (Leap!) are among them. And watch for several credited and uncredited appearances throughout the film, most notably one by Robert Carlyle (Trainspotting 2).

As a side note, I have to say that McKinnon surprised me. While talented, she usually goes way to far with her comedy, destroying reality for the laugh. Boyle kept her very restrained, making it one of her best and most believable performances…edgy and out there, but within the bounds of the story till near the end.

This is must see film for the summer for anyone who enjoys music, comedy, and romance… and it’s the cure for CGI and action-laden madness that crowds the screen through the hot months. That kind of film can certainly be fun, but Yesterday proves it isn’t the only reason to catch a film on the big screen. And, for all its silly fantasy and sweet romance, there is a point to Yesterday. It starts to crystallize near the end, with a hint in the credits if you miss it. Honestly, it turns the whole idea on its head and gives you one last smile as you leave the theater. But even if that slips by, the journey and the resolution are worth your time. Don’t miss this one.

Farinelli

[3 stars]

Stardom has been with humanity since its earliest days. What excites the masses shifts, but there is always something that captures imagination. In the 18th century, for a time, it was castrati; singers sans balls who’s life altering choices were made for them as young boys. Farinelli was one of the biggest. Singers, that is.

Though made in 1994, the movie resonates with current tastes and reflections. From the camp to the glitz, you can’t watch this without thinking of Freddie Mercury’s story as told in Bohemian Rhapsody, the docu Studio 54, or even reflect on the careers of Bowie and Elton John. This is Glam Rock in its infancy.

The story, however, is more of an opera: overblown and extreme. But the film struggles a little on bringing us into it all. In large part that is because it is more than halfway through before you start to understand the character’s motivations. In fact, it wasn’t until after the final moments and thinking about it more that it came into full clarity. That either makes director and co-writer Gérard Corbiau’s result very clever art or a poorly constructed film. It isn’t an easy call to make on that point.

Stefano Dionisi’s Farinelli is everything you’d expect. His brother, taken on by Enrico Lo Verso is more cryptic. The two play off each other well…but it is a curious and fraught relationship that is as much confusing and it is sibling battles. Arrayed against them is the better known actor (stateside), Jeroen Krabbé, who tackles a much-conflicted Handel. Some of the film smacks of Amadeus because of this conflict, but the stories, while philosophically often sharing ideas, are very different.

This would be a really fascinating movie to remake today. Given the sexual politics that have dominated so much of the news, not to mention the tensions mounting around the world, there is fertile ground for both spectacle and commentary. For now, however, we’ll have to settle for this incarnation of it, which hits on many historical accuracies, even if that isn’t its real intent or focus.

Rocketman

[4.5 stars]

Are you more interested in the truth or the lie? What sets this biopic apart from other musical tales is that Lee Hall (Victoria & Abdul) wrote a fantasy that tells the truth rather than a fantasy that replaces it. In the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, fun as it was, it was a fantasy that obscured the truth and was empty of message. Rocketman is a soaringly beautiful but honest account, in idea if not specifics, about John’s life growing up and, finally, accepting himself and getting sober. And, of course, there is the music.

Taron Egerton (Robin Hood)delivers an Elton John that is charismatic, warts and all, showing yet again his ability and range. And, unlike Malik’s Freddy Mercury, Egerton actually sings the role (though admittedly John’s voice is much easier to replicate than Mercury’s).

Director Dexter Fletcher (Eddie the Eagle) reteamed with Egerton for this musical. He took Hall’s script and made it sing, literally and figuratively. It is a non-stop reimagining of John’s catalog of songs, giving many of them new life. Just to see John’s debut at the Troubadour as conceived by Fletcher, Hall, and Egerton is worth the price of admission. It is a perfect example of fantasy making reality more real. If I have any gripe about how the story was told, it is that chronology is challenging…to be fair, it isn’t clear if John knew what year it was at that point either, so perhaps it was more a disorienting choice rather than a gap.

While Egerton is certainly at the center of all that is Rocketman, he is surrounded by talent that completes the story. Bryce Dallas Howard (Pete’s Dragon) as his mother, Steven Mackintosh (Robot Overlords) as his father, Jamie Bell (Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) as lyracist Bernie Taupin, Richard Madden (The Bodyguard) as John’s manager and lover, and Gemma Jones (God’s Own Country) as his grandmother all add important aspects and deliver great performances. Howard, in particular, walks a terribly difficult line to bring John’s mother to the screen in a consistent and believable way.

The story is exhilarating and will have you rethinking the pop phenomena and music that is Elton John. His songs may be pap, most of the time, but it is pap that wrote a good part of the score for world over the last several decades. And his story, as cautionary or exemplar is worth seeing. This is the honesty I wanted from Bohemian Rhapsody which had no sense of truth to it, even if it was entertaining. I’m glad Fletcher got a second bite at the apple, after finishing Bohemian for screen, to do this kind of story right. Rocketman is triumphant in the right ways, even if its underbelly is quite a bit more scuffed by life.

Fosse/Verdon

[3 stars]

I usually wait for a series to complete before writing it up. But watching the initial episode of Fosse/Verdon I was struck by a couple of aspects immediately that brought me to post.

First, if you really want to see the genius that was Fosse, see All That Jazz. The infamous movie covers many of the same questions and issues (not to mention scenes), but presents it much better. And, as meta to the whole thing, Fosse directed which gives you a real example of what a great editor Fosse was in pulling that film together.

Second, was that Michelle Williams (Venom) makes a very credible Gwen Verdon, much more so than Sam Rockwell (Vice) does Fosse. Rockwell has none of the charisma nor physicality that was Fosse, he just comes across as sweaty and slimy. Williams, on the other hand, had Verdon’s look, sound, and movement down beautifully. The story also gives Verdon her due for her own genius and contributions to what we think of as Fosse alone in the general public history.

But the bigger question is why do we need this series when there are hours and hours of archival footage, as well as some of the principals still being alive? I imagine you could argue that this was intended as a dramatization to help us see more, but the drama isn’t that gripping and the ‘impersonators’ aren’t that good…but, then again, we are still seeing some of these people walking around, so why try to imitate them. Why not wait another 10 or 20 years when a retrospective look as a drama may be less haunted by the present?

Admittedly, it is early in the series, and perhaps I know more than the average or intended viewer about this power couple that helped set the template for modern musicals. But, generally, the audience for this story is going to be older by virtue of the subject…and Fosse and Verdon aren’t history to them, they’re a part of their lives. Creators and writers Thomas Kail and  Steven Levenson certainly have a love for the subject, but they aren’t up to the task of emulating Fosse or Verdon in pulling together this story. Frankly, it is best seen as an appetizer to digging into the opus of both those artists rather than as an end unto itself. And, perhaps, that makes it valuable to a new generation of viewers who weren’t aware of these two Broadway and film greats.

I’ll be giving it an other episode or so to see if they can pull me in, but my first impressions aren’t overly enthusiastic, even if they aren’t completely negative.

 

Studio 54

[3 stars]

Documentarian Matt Tyrnauer (Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood) tackles the late 70s hedonistic phenomena that spent a little over 30 months as the navel of party that shook the world. After Watergate and Viet Nam and before GRID/AIDS there was Studio 54. A place to see and be seen, and a legendary space to be outrageous without consequences. You were no one in the zeitgeist if you didn’t make it past the velvet rope at least once.

If you were too young to even know about Studio 54, other than as one of its resurrected flops or as a concert and play venue, you are missing a bit of history that set the stage for all the clubs that followed it. Nothing has matched its success or its atmosphere since. It arrived at a unique time in society and provided the closest thing to the Jazz Age since the 1920s (or Bread and Circuses since the Romans)… but it did it as a unique and sole purveyor of that experience.

There was a lot to love and hate about Studio 54, and Tyrnauer doesn’t shrink from that, just as he hasn’t from subjects in the past. He allows the story to tell itself, though the story he is trying to tell here isn’t very crisp due to its scope. But it is primarily about the rise and fall of the club as well as the impact on its creators Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell. The story is told through archival footage and many reminiscences of employees, patrons, and Schrager himself.

The timing of this story is particularly good now as the wealth gap continues to grow around the world. And there is something oddly resonate about the downfall of Rubell and Schrager with today’s politics. The sense of abuse of power is rife, though no one denies they were guilty of plenty. But it is also the way the public themselves raised them up and then tore them down that feels very present in the hyper-social-media environment of today.

The story of Studio 54 is hypnotic, much like the venue itself. It feels very far away now and yet it is still in the bones of today’s world. The story rides a crest of historical waves that no one saw coming but was a necessary catharsis for the country and world. It raises interesting, if unspoken, questions about notoriety and power. And it has a sound track that will jangle your nostalgia or, if you’re younger, seem quaint.  And it has a cast of characters, like Roy Cohn, who are back in the news again these days on a regular basis (even though he’s been dead for over 30 years), thanks to their connections to current power.

Basically, this an historical feast and tale, which may not be fully balanced or complete, but is an interesting window to gaze through.

Vox Lux

[2.5 stars]

While known for his acting, writer/director Brady Corbet comes at this movie with only one other feature under his belt. He attempts to employ some interesting story-telling techinques, with Willem DaFoe (At Eternity’s Gate) as the narrator to a faux documentary, but the story never really gels. Corbet, frankly, tackles too much, trying to create something like an updated Breaking Glass crossed with Rudderless. We do get a lot of realistic behind-the-scenes look at music, which helps set this sort of fantasy and commentary apart.

Ultimately, the only thing that saves this movie is the performances and a bit of the production value. Natalie Portman (Annihilation) as a hard-living, nasty-talking star is a magnetic trainwreck thanks to the underlying emotions with which she infuses her character. Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) in two roles (which was an odd and un-utilized choice) holds her own nicely alongside Stacy Martin’s (Nymphomaniac) older sister/aunt.  And Jude Law (Captain Marvel) as the sort of genuine, slightly corrupt producer is interesting, but without much depth.

Ultimately, there just isn’t a story here. It is more of an imagining about what is behind big production pop tours, both in the current time and what led to it. But the layering of the narration attempts to push it into something else, something grander, and on that level it simply fails, leaving you hanging at the end with no understanding of why you invested your time to watch it. At least in my opinion.

Smallfoot

[3 stars]

There are some real gems jammed into the goop of Smallfoot. For instance, the opening is a wonderfully rich satire that is a story in and of itself. Much like the opening of Up it was its own tale before the tale. And Smallfoot’s main message is equally as adult and important, and it is delivered cleverly with the Yeti and Humans unable to easily communicate (in a surprisingly accurate way).

But, ultimately, co-writer/co-director Karey Kirkpatrick (Spiderwick Chronicles, Chicken Run) gave us a kid’s film trying hard to be Frozen and slipping into silliness too often to make it a classic…or even all that good. The musical numbers are bolted on and poorly mixed, even if delivered with talent. The dialogue is just OK and the plot, generally, is way too obvious (though it has at least one nice twist).  One of the issues may have been the number of other co-writers and co-directors that worked on the film (3 other writers and one other director). Just too many chefs.

Channing Tatum (Logan Lucky) takes the lead in the cast as a guileless Yeti coming to terms with new knowledge. Along with James Corden (Ocean’s 8), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming), Common (John Wick: Chapter 2), Danny DeVito (The Lorax), Gina Rodriguez (Annihilation), and even
LeBron James (possibly in prep for his upcoming Space Jam 2), the cast has quite the scope and solid delivery of what they had to work with. But you can’t overcome a weak script no matter how talented you are, you can only sell it well.

So, yes, you can probably watch this once, alongside a youngster, without being too bored. However, if those same mini-people demand it on repeat, set it up and walk out of earshot. Once is more than enough for this, despite any of the good bits that it may contain.

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.