Tag Archives: Musical

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

[4.5 stars]

I hardly know where to begin with Lee Daniels’ (The Butler) latest. The politics? The art? The tragedy? The dark mirror on the present? Perhaps it’s best to just try to do each bit separately…

The voice. There are a handful of singers whose voices are unique signatures, not just because of their sound (there are plenty of them) but because of the emotion they impart with every breath. Billie Holliday is one of those few. Holliday is singular and recognizable and, with every note, grabs you by the throat. Andra Day captures all of that in her beautiful performance and with her expert voice that has you initially wondering if she was lip syncing the original tracks. She isn’t.

The song. You never forget the first time you hear Strange Fruit. It is haunting, horrible, accusatory, righteous, defiant. Writer Suzan-Lori Parks sets it up to perfection in her adaptation, and Daniels knocks it over the fences in the film.

The honesty. Holliday was a flawed person. Damaged and self-destructive, but not paranoid: they were out to get her. She had a string of damaging and intense relationships, including Trevante Rhodes’s (Bird Box) federal agent Jimmy Fletcher and Natasha Lyonne’s (Russian Doll) Tallulah Bankhead. She was also an addict and fiercely independent in ways that damaged others. All of this is on display without judgment and without apology. By keeping the story relatively honest, it’s even more impactful.

The politics. Need a reminder of where we’ve come from and how little has really changed? Here it is…again. While it focuses on one face as the force behind the reign of horror on Holliday in Garrett Hedlund’s (Mudbound) Harry Anslinger, Hoover hovers behind it all as he did over the country for decades. Along with Trial of the Chicago 7, One Night in Miami, Judas and the Black Messiah, Selma, BlacKkKlansman, and so many other recent films, this story adds to the dark map of race relations in this country.

But you have to ultimately come to the most important question: is it a good movie? It is unequivocally an important one. It is somewhat flawed in a general sense. While it is uses clever visuals to take us back in time, it also has some odd POV choices that aren’t always effective. Anslinger is played just a little too oily–which, even if accurate, makes it harder to accept the truth of the tale. And Rhode’s is, amusingly, just a bit too ripped for his role. It may be pleasant to see, but it is out of character and period. And, frankly, Holliday’s sexuality isn’t fully balanced in its presentation and exploration.

But, overall, it is very, very effective and leaves you breathless. And if you needed any indication of Daniels’ own conflicted feelings of the story and the truth, watch through the first half of the credits for a sweet coda.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday Poster

Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years

[3 stars]

The better documentaries tell a story. Not just by showing the life and events of their subject, but also crafting a path through that information in a way that makes a point. Sometimes that point is solely the director’s, but when done well it sums up the subject’s experience. Eight Days a Week is a bit of both, by necessity.

There is so much to cover about the Beatles that director Ron Howard (Solo: A Star Wars Story ) chose to focus solely on the touring years. We see the band’s rise and the insanity of their tours, which were the largest ever conceived at that time, booking the first stadium tours in modern music history (I think, technically, the Greeks got there first long ago). Through photos, film, audio recordings, and lots of wonderful performances, we see what brings the Fab Four to their final touring stop: the roof of their studios in Jan 1969.

That well-known, semi-impromptu performance has been shown many times and in many ways. Through the frame of Howard’s edits, it becomes a happy and heart-breaking farewell without bringing in all the other stressors that history has happily posited and recorded. Howard doesn’t ignore the rest of the Beatles’ story, but there isn’t lots of background or discussion of the internal tensions that have been raked over many times before. But by framing the movie around the tours, their reaction to them, and those specific challenges, Howard does manage a slightly different view of the band than I’ve seen in other docus. It doesn’t present the whole picture, but it does illuminate some new corners of the band’s heyday.

If you have any interest in the band, their music, or the period, this is worth your time. But if you want a full picture of the story, you’ll have to watch additional documentaries and profiles to fill in the gaps and view all the facets.

The Beatles: Eight Days a Week - The Touring Years Poster

Mid Winter(ish) TV

I’ve not written up some of the new and returning shows over the last few months, so dropping them together in a bunch here. More will be coming in the next few weeks, but this was getting long enough already…

Call Me Kat
This odd offering by Mayim Bialik (Big Bang Theory) is a unique and not entirely comfortable show. It may eventually find it’s feet, but it’s best to think of it as a sketch show or comedy half-hour rather than a story so far. And the abuse of the great Swoosie Kurtz is near criminal. By way of context, this show is based on the UK’s Miranda, adopting the quasi-stand-up nature of the original but trying to push it more toward ensemble…. BTW, if you haven’t caught Miranda, it’s a fascinating to compare the two and it boasts Tom Ellis (Lucifer) in the wish-he-were-my-boyfriend role.

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Mr. Mayor
If you loved The Office, this is probably a show for you. I didn’t and it isn’t for me. It’s just too broad and full of, well, stupid people who aren’t supposed to be stupid or, worse, couldn’t be that stupid and be where they are in life. Given the talent involved in this show, it’s a real shame.

Mr. Mayor Poster

Call Your Mother
This is a show on the bubble. Kyra Sedgwick (Ten Days in the Valley) manages to walk the line between very broad humor and honest emotion. Whether the writing can keep up with that challenge and create storylines we care about long term…the jury’s still way out on that one, but I’ll give it some more time.

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B Positive
Oh, god, just no. Awful, unbelievable, absurd, insulting, frustrating, and painful.

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The Expanse (series 5)
Twenty years ago, the end of the first season of Farscape was termed “the multipart cliffhanger from hell” by its creator. And it was…and it took a good part of the next season to resolve and cover what happened. The current season of The Expanse reminds me a lot of that structure. After bringing things to a huge climactic pause at the end of the previous season, the various characters are scattered across the solar system pursuing various storylines that will, by necessity, be intertwined and eventually bring them back together. As the show preps for its final season, this is level-setting and putting all the pieces in place for the final confrontations to come. A good season with revelations and some resolutions, especially for Dominique Tipper’s (Mindgamers) Naomi and Wes Chatham’s (Escape Plan 2) Amos, but mostly it serves as set-up for the end.

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Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (series 2)
After its heart-rending and brilliant opening season, I was worried the magic wouldn’t last. It has. And the show, at least so far, continues to build on its characters and conceit. If you’ve yet to try this one out, you absolutely must…and start at the beginning. Yes, it gets heavy, but it builds to one of the most beautiful finales you’ll ever see. And it never loses its sense of humor or love of its characters.

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist Poster

The Prom

[4 stars]

There is nothing subtle about The Prom, but it doesn’t intend to be. It is an all-too-common story, rewrapped with heart on all sides and a healthy dose of humor, song, and dance. Ryan Murphy, patron saint of all oddball and inclusive fare (alongside Russell T. Davies),  collected up some big talent to create this movie version of the hit Broadway show.

Other than its non-stop pacing and its belly-laugh moments, one of the most amazing aspects is how big this production feels even though there are only a handful of characters. Sure, there is a host of background and chorus filling it all in, but that isn’t why it succeeds. It’s the story and the music that make it burst off the screen with joy and the occasional heartache.

And that cast! While James Corden (Smallfoot) and Andrew Rannells (A Simple Favor) are well known on the stage and screen, who knew Meryl Streep (Mary Poppins Returns) had such belting pipes (even taking Postcards From the Edge into account)? Or, for that matter, that Keegan Michael-Key (Predator) could carry a ballad so well? Rounding out the adult cast, Nicole Kidman (Bombshell) gives us a chorus girl on steroids doing her best Ann Reinking, while Kerry Washington (A Thousand Words) plays the tiger mom at the heart of the heartless PTA. A couple of small cameos from Mary Kay Place (I’ll See You in My Dreams) and Tracey Ullman (Into the Woods) show how a little spice can go a long way in such a big feast as well.

But The Prom isn’t focused on these characters. It swirls around Emma, played by relative new-comer Jo Ellen Pellman. There are plenty of other young adults in the cast, but honestly few make an impression, even Pellman’s love interest, Ariana DeBose, fades against the bigger story and Pellman’s quiet intensity. And she sells the show, which is clever enough to also allow her to own it.

When you need a lift with a bit of message (think Hairspray, but with fewer catchy tunes), this fits the bill brilliantly. No one comes out of this unexamined nor without understanding. It’s forced, fantastical, unapologetic, and full of love as a wonderful escape and wish for audiences.

The Prom Poster

American Utopia

[4 stars]

Back in 1984 David Byrne and David Lynch gave us unequivocally the best concert film ever released with Stop Making Sense. It is the bar by which I judge every concert film and, unsurprisingly, even more appropriate in this case. So, here we are 36 years later and Byrne has teamed with Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman) to capture his Broadway concert and bring it to the masses.

First off, the music and musicianship are great. But that’s no surprise. Byrne has a wealth of music to draw on and has always gathered capable artists around him. The shape of the concert, however, isn’t quite what he managed with Stop Making Sense.

There is a shape. But unlike Stop Making Sense, which builds on the music and performance, American Utopia focuses on message. And, oddly, that message comes most into focus most powerfully when he performs Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” rather than his own songs. But while there is a thread of connective tissue thematically to the song choices and presentation, it never quite has the build and completeness of the earlier movie. Lee got lost in angles and points of view the audience didn’t have rather than just making the story on stage work. It isn’t poorly done, but it feels more like a filmed performance than it does a story.

If you have any love of The Talking Heads or Byrne’s music, this is a must-see concert. But if you’re hoping for a career topper after such a long gap, you may be a bit disappointed. Go for the concert and leave  your expectations set appropriately. You won’t be sorry you spent the time. Byrne can still control a stage and his message is a timely one for our world.

David Byrne's American Utopia Poster

An odd assortment for many tastes

Here’s a potpourri of material for all kinds of tastes. Though, admittedly, not all are easy to get your hands on.

Mysteries:

Ultraviolet
Not the movie (which isn’t so good), nor the vampire series (which isn’t so bad), but a Polish mystery series. It’s not quite a cozy series, but it isn’t a deeply effective procedural. The mysteries drive it along, but it’s just as much about the band of misfits solving crimes as it is the criminals. They also take a nice sharp left at the end of first season and into the second that shows they were working hard to keep it going. And while the second series isn’t a complete cliff-hanger, we’re still waiting to hear if it is renewed to continue the tale. Even so, there is enough closure that it is entertaining and gets better as it goes along.

Van Der Walk
A 2020 reboot of the 1970’s series, with Marc Warren (Revengers Tragedy, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell) in the title role. The mysteries are interesting, but not brilliant. It’s the characters and the interplay that keep it intriguing.

McDonald & Dodds
Another amusing detective odd couple story, with a few overwrought characters thrown in. Dodds, played by the wonderful character actor Jason Watkins, is the absolute center of these stories…all by being quiet and steady in the midst of chaos. Paired with relative newcomer Tala Gouveia, the two navigate a strained relationship into something quite a bit more interesting. Were it not for their Super, James Murray (6 Underground), being written like an outright fool, the show could really fly. As it is, the two episode inaugural series is fun, and I look forward to its return, but I hope they get the writing more under control.

YA Science Fiction: 

The Cul de Sac
This is a far from perfect Kiwi YA fantasy/sci-fi adventure, but with a nicely evolving mystery and characters. It’s still written for tweens, so don’t expect brilliant plotting and complex emotions, but do expect some amusing dialogue. The first two series built on each other nicely. I’m hoping the third series will wrap it all up nicely, though I suspect it won’t entirely. It will likely be a year before it is available to stream or buy as they seem to be being trickled out after their wrap in NZ a couple of years back. As a short distraction, at 6 ep. seasons/22 min. each, it’s entertaining.

Documentary:

We Are Freestyle Love Supreme
Do you know who Freestyle Love Supreme are? Well, this will tell you something of them, but not really showcase their talents. It’s a docu best seen by fans of the improvisational rap group or, individually, like Lin Mañuel Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns). It is really more a tale of how  show comes into being, with some insights into what it’s like to be a performing theatre creative in NYC.

The Go-Go’s
On the other hand, this music documentary is really very good and engaging. I wouldn’t have thought that the rise, and fall, and rise of the Go-Go’s would be able to keep my attention. But Alison Ellwood’s documentary is cleverly edited, and and the band are very open about their journey. In addition, Ellwood puts it all in great, historical context, following these young women and their influences and influence. This is a story about young women as well as about the music industry. It also is surprisingly reflective of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains–or, perhaps, not so surprising, though that movie was completed before The Go-Go’s even hit their peak.

Step Up

[3 stars]

I know this is the movie that launched both a franchise of many movies, a series, and, probably most notably, Channing Tatum (Smallfoot), but as a movie is it only just OK.  And, yes, I know this is Fame-like fantasy. The formula is intentionally predictable and obvious. The relationships, banter, and tragedies foregone conclusions. They only left out sexual confusion and discovery from the standard mix. So perhaps my expectations should be set on acceptance rather than a desire to be impressed. But for all its silliness, the original Fame had a lot more heart and impact because the characters were that much more real.

But, clearly, the focus on street dance and music hit a chord with audiences that continues to last. I can’t say I was bored, and I certainly laughed many times at intended points; I just wasn’t transported. Part of the problem was that the movie was unbalanced, the focus being pulled by Tatum’s character rather than as part of the equilibrium.

Even the  director, Anne Fletcher (The Guilt Trip), knew that the real star, or at least find, of this movie was Tatum and not his co-star and eventual spouse Jenna Dewan. Not that she isn’t a solid dancer and a good actor, it’s just clear that the movie is Tatum’s. Need definitive proof? During the final, climactic scene of the performance that Dewan’s character has been striving toward, and around which the entire movie pivots, not only is she not center stage, the follow-spot is always on Tatum and never her…unless she’s in Tatum’s arms. Forgetting the fact that Fletcher didn’t know how to film dance, it was the most distracting element of the movie for me because it was so blatantly wrong for the story and the moment. She didn’t even really use Rachel Griffiths (Hacksaw Ridge) to her full extent, though perhaps that was fair, if disappointing. And even with little screen time, she does make an impression here.

It’s worth noting that, in addition to Tatum, several others got a boost from this flick. Writer Melissa Rosenberg went on to create, among other things, Jessica Jones. Co-writer Duane Adler went on to do several more in this series and other dance films, having found his niche. Damaine Radcliff leveraged this to go on to several industries and interests. Of course Heavy D and Mario already had careers, but it gave them some nice moments. Mario, in particular.

When you’re looking for some thin romance, and some romanticized stories of the “street” and having it tough but being able to succeed, this may do. It isn’t realistic, it isn’t brilliant, but it is entertaining enough to carry its weight. At this point, I’m probably far too jaded to just give in to the fantasy of it all. For its intended audience of tweens and teens, it’s going to be much more effective.

Step Up Poster

 

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

[3 stars]

I really, really wanted to like this more than I did, but I’m not sorry I spent the time with it. Billed as the “Historic farewell performance of the King of Glitterock” it was anything but. However, it was the retirement of Bowie’s Ziggy character from the touring stage. The concert isn’t filmed particularly well, though the sound isn’t bad. And it isn’t even the complete show. However, it is as curious for what songs are included as which aren’t, given this was in 1973 a few months after the release of Aladdin Sane. For example, we do get Watch That Man, but not The Jean Genie. Go figure.

What is interesting is seeing Bowie prepare and perform when he was still somewhat raw. His control of the audience was still developing. And his cult of personality had just begun to grow, though he certainly had some chops for this tour.

Generally, this isn’t going to be of interest to anyone who isn’t a huge fan and who many not have been old enough to see him live way back when. This isn’t on the scale of Glass Spider or even with the simplistic polish of his Sound and Vision tour, but there is a raw rock’n’roller joy and energy and it’s filmed very much in the style of the era (and with suitably grainy stock thanks to the low light).

There are plenty of docus about Bowie that include archival footage and put it in context, if you want to see more performances and his evolutions. Five Years is one of the best, if you’re looking particularly to learn about his genesis. So this one is up to you. Concert films are rarely brilliant (Stop Making Sense aside) but they are rare moments in time to be enjoyed if you enjoy the artist.

Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars Poster

Trolls World Tour

[3 stars]

Some silly escapist fun, with enough music and movie references to keep the adults mildly entertained. After an opening that rivals Moulin Rouge’s frenetic introduction, this settles back into a treacly distraction with a timely, if overly hammered, message. To its credit, it mostly manages to do so while also making fun of itself.

The story itself is a little more complex than the first installment. It also has a wider range of music, thanks to some serious retconning. And, of course, it picks up the fuzzy tension between Anna Kendrick (A Simple Favor) and Justin Timberlake’s (Wonder Wheel) characters. They’re joined by a host of recognizable singers and actors that fill out the story, most of which are best left to surprise you. Rachel Bloom (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), however, leads that crowd and drives the new story. She’s amusing, but lacks the nuance to completely sell the transformation necessary.

I can’t say that either the story or the music were entirely engaging. The songs were all too short or medleys with small snippets of tunes that end up more of a tease than satisfying. But the animation was inventive and expanded the original design from the first movie.

All that aside, yeah, kids will love it and adults won’t feel twitchy every time their small charges turn it on. At least not quite as quickly as other children’s movies with longer musical sequences. For households without kids, it’s a very weak recommend.

Trolls World Tour Poster

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains

[3 stars]

I don’t know whether to be impressed or disturbed that this movie still works after almost 40 years. Its points still hold and its humor is still on point. Not bad for Lou Adler’s (Up in Smoke) only second directing gig. And it has some fairly good music performances in it as well.

But, message and amusement aside, it is the cast that wows you. Not because they deliver such great performances…they’re reasonable. But the main cast are young stars that were all near the beginning of their careers. Diane Lane (Serenity) is the front person for the Stains; a young woman with an axe to grind and a desire to succeed. She’s joined by Laura Dern (Marriage Story) and one of Marin Kanter’s few performances. And then there are early appearances of Christine Lahti (Operator) and Ray Winstone (Point Break) as well.

This isn’t a great movie, but it is surprisingly effective for all its lo-fi, indie feel. It captures a small sense of the era, and takes some wicked swipes at the music industry. When you have time and want to spelunk the early 80s and the Punk/New Wave movement in a light way, it is a fun and entertaining view.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains Poster