Archive for the Musical Category

Gigi

Posted in Comedy, Musical, Romance with tags on August 30, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Gigi photo starrating-4stars.jpgHistorically August has never been the month for which studios save movies with boffo box office potential. Imagine my surprise when Guardians of the Galaxy, which was released on August 1st, turned out to be the biggest hit of the year so far. And it deserved to be because it’s a terrific film to boot. That accounts for the fact that the movie has largely dominated the entire month. Ok so there was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles too but that was awful. Seeking some counter programming was the impetus behind my decision to see a revival of Gigi at The Stanford Theatre. It was the palate cleansing sorbet in a month of mostly bitter tasting selections.

The MGM musical won a then unprecedented 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1958. It held a short-lived record until Ben-Hur won 11 the very next year. In addition to Gigi, lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe were responsible for creating Camelot, Brigadoon and perhaps most famously, My Fair Lady. Gigi pales in comparison to that similar smash hit also thematically built around a Cinderella transformation. Gigi isn’t my favorite musical, but it’s still entertaining.

Gigi is based on the 1944 novella of the same name by Colette. Rich and attractive millionaire Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jordan) is bored with the superficial lifestyle of the upper class in Parisian society. The year is 1900 and he’d prefer to hang out with the former mistress (Hermoine Gingold) of his uncle (Maurice Chevalier). Gaston calls her Mamita. Madame Alvarez is also grandmother to the carefree Gigi, with whom he enjoys hanging out with as well. She is currently a young girl but on the verge of becoming a woman. Madame Alvarez encourages Gigi to spend time with her Aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans) to educate Gigi in the ways of becoming a courtesan, that is a wealthy man’s mistress. Important skills like walking elegantly, how to choose a cigar, and pouring coffee in the proper fashion, are part of the lesson plan. How long before Gaston notices this tomboy of a girl has matured into a beautiful young woman?

Director Vincente Minnelli fills the screen with so much color and pageantry, the eyes can barely contain it all. There’s a magnificence to the presentation that seems to have spared no expense in recreating the French fashions. Cecil Beaton’s production design, costumes and scenery is the ultimate. It is sumptuous. There’s such an old fashioned grandeur that relies so heavily on sets and wardrobe that it is kind of fascinating. Even for 1958, Gigi was a bit of a throwback to an earlier time. It was the last great MGM musical of Hollywood’s golden age, although Minnelli would direct Bells are Ringing in 1960 and that’s pretty wonderful too.

The cast is captivating. My favorites are Maurice Chevalier and Hermione Gingold. They are an absolute delight, particularly in their witty duet, “”I Remember It Well”. Other song highlights are “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” and “Gigi”. Leslie Caron is a spirited vision as the title character. No one conveys indignant exasperation like suave Louie Jourdan. The script is rather funny too. Isabel Jeans as the highly strung Aunt Alicia delivers some of the best lines with perfect timing and intonation during her tutelage. Classic lines abound. “A topaz? Among my jewels? Are you mad?” “Bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity.” “Wait for the first-class jewels, Gigi. Hold on to your ideals.” The social mores and customs are amusingly dated, but that’s really the point now isn’t it? Let’s just say, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

08-24-14

A Hard Day’s Night

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical with tags on July 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

A Hard Day's Night photo starrating-4stars.jpgIt was fifty years ago today…well August 11, 1964 to be exact….that the picture A Hard Day’s Night was unleashed onto the American public. The soundtrack was The Beatles’ third studio album. Beatlemania was already in full swing and the teen public’s hunger for anything having to do with the British phenomenon was insatiable.

After signing them to a 3 picture deal, United Artists could have put anything out with John, Paul, George and Ringo in it and it would’ve been a success.  The surprise was that A Hard Day’s Night was actually quite good on its own merits. The production was helmed by an American movie director based in Britain named Richard Lester. He had created a short called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film starting Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. The Beatles loved it and selected him from handful of choices to direct their first feature.

The plot for this mock-documentary is simple. It’s a day in the life. The Beatles, playing themselves, are on their way to perform on a London TV show. The ongoing constant is that the Fab Four are eternally having to duck hordes of screaming fans at every stop. They board a train, get settled at their hotel, rehearse at the studio. Then Ringo gets separated from the group. Along the way on their various lightweight adventures, the Beatles display a charisma that is irresistible. The script is filled with little exchanges like the following.

Reporter: Are you a mod or a rocker?
Ringo: Um, no. I’m a mocker.

A Hard Day’s Night is not particularly deep but it is fun – displaying an irreverent charm that is joyous. The Beatles come across as likable and witty. It simplifies their personalities and then amplifies them in short easy to digest sound bites. Yes, they are caricatures of their personas but these are appealing distortions of themselves. The production is highlighted by a manic energy. There are a lot of funny bits contained within. My favorite: Ringo puts his coat down for a girl so that she can walk across a muddy puddle several times before she ultimately falls down a deep hole. Oh and let’s not forget the music! As far as this Beatles fan is concerned, every song is gold, but highlights include: “If I Fell”, “And I Love Her”, “She Loves You” and the title hit of course. Incidentally “I’ll Cry Instead” was excised from the sketch where the Beatles flee their hotel room via the fire escape. It can still be found on the soundtrack. However the more upbeat “Can’t Buy Me Love” was used in its place because Richard Lester felt the tune suited the scene better.

The cultural impact of the film cannot be underestimated. Its importance was immediately understood even garnering two Academy Award nominations at the time (Best Original Screenplay and Best Score). Although uncomplicated and seemingly insignificant, the narrative had an impact on spy thrillers like Dr. No, inspired 60s TV sitcom The Monkees and influenced later day pop music videos. It additionally makes a strong case as to why the Beatles became a worldwide sensation.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of A Hard Day’s Night, a spectacular new restoration was released to theaters on July 4th by Janus Films. If you can’t make it to the cinema, Criterion Collection has assembled a special new edition on DVD and Blu-ray. You’ll marvel at the stunning black-and-white cinematography. Please re-discover this classic.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory

Posted in Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on July 13, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgCome with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination…

So sings Willy Wonka, the mysterious confectioner whose candy factory is shrouded in secrecy. “Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out”. Then one day the enigmatic maker of the world’s most coveted sweets extends a proclamation. Five lucky individuals will be given a tour of his factory as well as a lifetime supply of chocolate. This will be granted to anyone in the world who happens to find a golden ticket hidden within the package of a Wonka Bar. Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, Mike Teavee are four children who each receive a winning entry. Charlie Bucket, our upbeat but downtrodden protagonist, wants nothing more than to be number five. The chocolate factory, we learn, is right in Charlie’s hometown. Poor Charlie lives an underprivileged life. He doesn’t have extra change to buy candy bars. Then one day he happens upon a coin lying in the gutter and uses the money to buy a Wonka bar. From that point forward his life will never be the same.

The cast is flawless. A traditional family-oriented adventure would tell a buoyant tale of children thrilled to tour the world’s most famous candy factory. This workshop is different however, and Willy Wonka is no ordinary manufacturer. Gene Wilder should have gotten an Academy Award nomination for his offbeat performance. The titular chocolatier is a master of ceremonies unseen since the likes of PT Barnum. Although his personality is a mixture of a benevolent confidant and a bitter misanthrope out for vengeance. He presides over the tour with a fiendish delight. His candy factory makes tasty sweets but it’s also a bit malevolent. For example a seemingly innocuous boat trip aboard the Wonkatania becomes a terrorizing trip when it passes though a dark tunnel. His helpers, the Oompa Loompas are bizarre little orange-skinned, green-haired men with a singular purpose: to make Wonka’s astounding confections. The five kids are perfectly cast. American boy Peter Ostrum in his only film role, is Charlie Bucket, our sweet and well mannered lead. The same cannot be said for the remaining four. The script has a pessimistic view of children as ill behaved and the characterizations are bewitchingly wicked. Chief among them is Veruca Salt who is a positively unbearable in her demands for anything and everything she sees fit to want.

The freakish atmosphere is punctuated by songs by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley. They, along with Walter Scharf, received an Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. When British actress Julie Dawn Cole sings “I Want It Now!” she embodies a girl with unadulterated greed but in a most alluring way. You cannot ignore Veruca Salt. Her father indulges her every whim and her personality is the worse for it. The “Oompa Loompa” chants sung by Willy Wonka’s minions are catchy little ditties that lament the behavior of each of the nasty children. “The Candy Man” would become a #1 hit a year later for Sammy Davis, Jr. when he covered the song. And of course there’s my personal favorite “Pure Imagination” sung in complete sincerity by Gene Wilder.

Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is based on the book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. As is the case with the author’s children’s books, there is a sinister element that is most subversive. It is a recurring theme in his works and this adaptation is no different. The movie was filmed in Munich and this gives the town a puzzling hard-to-place feel before anyone even sets foot in the factory. Five lucky kids get the opportunity to tour Willy Wonka’s wondrous plant but the experience isn’t quite what they were anticipating. The bright colorful production design stirs the imagination with possibilities. There’s a chocolate river, giant edible mushrooms, lickable wallpaper, a Wonkamobile that shoots soap. It’s all rather enchanting. Only the Fizzy Lifting Drinks sequence is a snooze. When the picture was released in 1971 it was a box office disappointment. Despite garnering positive reviews it only earned a mere $4 million in 1971. Over the years, however, the film achieved the status as a cult film and is now widely accepted as an outright classic. It’s easy to see why. I love this movie.

Jersey Boys

Posted in Biography, Drama, Musical with tags on June 22, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Jersey Boys photo starrating-2stars.jpgGod help the filmmaker that attempts to adapt a jukebox musical from the stage into a filmed movie. At its most basic, that type of production relies on previously released popular songs for its score. A success will enthrall a music lover who wants to hear a lot of beloved songs strung together in service of a loosely defined plot. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) is sort of an example of that, but it originated as a film first. The jukebox musical on Broadway is a newer phenomenon. Examples date back to the 70s but it wasn’t until the 90s that the phenomenon really exploded. The triumph of Mamma Mia!, both as a performed play and as a movie really caused the trend to break out. Despite the film‘s huge box office, I still find it absolute torture to sit through. And I enjoy ABBA‘s music. Ditto the movie version of Rock of Ages, another bit of theater based on 70s hair metal bands. What works in a live Broadway show setting doesn’t usually translate so well into the film medium.

The Broadway smash Jersey Boys is the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. From working class roots to hit making sensation on the charts, their story made for a lively, if somewhat predictable musical detailing an Italian-American success story. How a nice sweet boy named Francesco Castelluccio became Frankie Valli. John Lloyd Young reprises his Tony award winning role. Joining Frankie are local bad boys Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). The group finally reaches its hit making potential with the addition of keyboardist-songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). They’re guided under the direction of producer Bob Crewe (played by Mike Doyle).

Clint Eastwood’s adaptation is so devoid of life it would be better suited to a mausoleum than a cinema. There is no joy in the narrative, just a mundane checklist as it applies one cliché after another on the group’s rise to the top: angry wife at home, check, infighting within the group, check, conclusion at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame complete with (horrible) old age makeup, check. Everything is presented at arm’s length as if the audience is observing an accident from afar. The Four Seasons rise to popularity is presented in the most blasé fashion as if the group expected to become a household name. Where is the joy in becoming stars? Even their parents, who play an important part in the early scenes, are never involved once they become famous. Later the Four Seasons appear on American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. Each event is presented like just another gig. It doesn’t help than the acting is rather bland, only really coming alive during those musical numbers. The best performances here are interesting for their camp value. Mike Doyle as flamboyant record producer Bob Crewe, gives a particularly swishy performance and Renée Marino as Frankie Valli’s wife is unintentionally funny when arguing with her husband. They’re both animated at least which is a lot more than I can say for the rest of the film.

It’s clear that Clint Eastwood doesn’t understand the first thing about making a musical. He grossly mishandles the source material. What made the original such a joy was the wonderful plethora of hit songs from the Four Seasons, not the generic Behind the Music-style story. Eastwood highlights the weakest aspects of the play while de-emphasizing the music. The elephantine length clocks in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, but it feels twice that long. It is a laborious chore to sit through. It’s a full hour before we even hear a recognizable Four Seasons song. Granted the singing is the best part. That’s because the music is inherently good. But the musical numbers are realized with all the excitement of a trip to the dentist. They should be lively and innovative. Instead the actors come out, hit their mark, sway while they sing and leave. This is a movie for goodness sakes. You could do things here with color, lights, effects, to punch up the production that you can’t on the stage. Music videos take advantage of this fact, why can’t this movie? There’s one example of that spirit in the whole picture. It happens at the end as they are rolling the credits. Oh what Bill Condon or Baz Luhrmann could have done with this material.

06-22-14

The Sapphires

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Musical with tags on March 29, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Sapphires photo starrating-4stars.jpgIs it possible for a drama that documents the rise of a music group to follow all of the standard tropes, falling victim to clichés of the genre, and still manage to charm the viewer? The answer, in the case of The Sapphires, is an unequivocal YES. Engaging début feature is directed by Australian Wayne Blair. Keith Thompson wrote the screenplay that he adapted from Tony Briggs’ play. The playwright was inspired by his own relatives, the true story of 4 Aboriginal sisters who form a girl group in 1968 Australia. A personable geek of a talent scout played by the always delightful Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids) discovers them performing country-western songs in a competition. He re-fashions them into R&B singers and promotes them as “The Sapphires” to entertain American troops in Vietnam. They’re kind of like The Supremes except they sing cover songs and there’s 4 of them.

Occasionally The Sapphires succumbs to the routineness of the proceedings. The period film infuses music and comedy in an overly familiar way. We’ve seen this blueprint countless times recounting the rising popularity of a vocal group. The four women fall into set archetypes. Julie is the talented lead singer, who was actually a runner-up on Australian Idol in real life. Cynthia, a pretty vocalist with spunk is the comic relief. Kay, their estranged sister, is conflicted – torn between her English and indigenous heritage and Gail is the overprotective mama bear of the siblings. All four are solid portrayals with Deborah Mailman as tough talking Gail being the most fully formed character.

Despite the common trappings, there are definitely elements that make The Sapphires a unique take on a ordinary subject. It touches on the children of Aboriginal descent who were removed from their families by the Australian government from approximately 1909 to 1969. This underscores the girls’ childhood when they were living in a remote mission together. Kay’s extraction from their family and the subsequent trio’s evaluation in a singing competition before a bigoted judge further references this theme. Equal rights informs the underlying politics of their early lives but it’s not really the focus. The script does a nice job of juggling the various forces that threaten the success of the group. It intersperses two love stories with a lot of rousing 60s Motown hits that are beautifully sung. I thoroughly enjoyed their versions of soul classics that included “Land of a Thousand Dances” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” If these characters appear a bit timeworn, the milieu is so uplifting and joyous, I didn’t mind a bit. I cheered these girls on as if this was the first time I had ever seen someone take a chance in pursuit of a dream in showbiz. The Sapphires is a toe tapping, heart singing good time.

Les Misérables

Posted in Drama, Musical, Romance with tags on December 28, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketLes Misérables is an achievement, the cinematic realization that fans have waited almost 3 decades. The stage musical is a global sensation. It opened in London on October 1985 and has run continuously since. The Broadway rendition debuted 2 years after the West End debut and became the fourth longest-running show in U.S. history. The road from stage to screen has been a long journey with a storied development beginning in the late 1980s. It’s safe to say expectations were very high. Under the direction of Tom Hooper, the production is realized as a thrilling success, with minor caveats.

It is the story of Jean Valjean, a peasant who serves 19 years in jail for having stolen a loaf of bread for his starving family. He’s prisoner 24601! With the blessing of a sympathetic Bishop, Valjean breaks parole to start a new life as an honest man. He makes good on his promise and becomes a benevolent factory owner and mayor full of kindness and understanding. Unfortunately he is still relentlessly pursued by police inspector Javert who is beholden to the law. We’re also introduced to a large company of various individuals all set against the backdrop of the French Revolution .

In any drama with a large ensemble, there is a danger that the production can become cumbersome or scattered as more individuals begin to pop up. What impresses is that director Tom Hooper deftly handles the large ensemble of actors giving us an intimacy with each one that benefits their character and our sentimental attachment to each story. He makes the questionable decision to film the singing live ostensibly to make the story’s emotional component more of the moment. There’s definitely an immediacy to the proceedings, but at times the vocals suffer. The time-honored movie musicals have always relied on the perfect take. As this is a movie musical and not being performed on stage, why not take advantage of that fact. Wouldn’t it have been smarter to studio record and enhance the clarity of the vocals? Nothing against Anne Hathaway’s stunning portrayal of Fantine, but when she’s sobbing uncontrollably all throughout the famous number, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ it really is a bit of a buzzkill. I usually tear up every time I hear that majestic song with it’s high notes and sweeping strings. Yet when she sang it, I didn’t. As a performance she’s incredible, however.

And speaking of performances, Hugh Jackman is quite simply extraordinary. Rarely have I seen an actor combine the vocal chops with acting ability to create a moving achievement that is among the most accomplished in film musical history. What’s so extraordinary is that he finds a vibrancy that immediately draws you into his story as if you’ve known him all your life. Russell Crowe isn’t anywhere close to his match as Javert, his nemesis, but he does provide a counterpoint to Jean Valjean. I’ve seen the play twice performed on the stage, in 1990 and again this year 2012. I understood Crowe’s character arc better in this production than I ever have before. What he lacks in vocal strength, he more than makes up for in raw emotion.

They’re skillfully energized by a strong supporting cast. There’s much too many parts to detail individually, but I should mention Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen who provide wonderful comic relief as corrupt innkeepers The Thenardiers. Aaron Tveit as Enjolras, the student revolutionary, whose vocals are just as powerful as they need to me. And I most assuredly must highlight Eddie Redmayne as Marius and Samantha Barks as Éponine. Éponine’s unrequited love for Marius is surprisingly one of the narrative’s most affecting moments. Her song ‘On My Own’ was a floodgate of emotion for me. The ‘In My Life/A Heart Full Of Love’ is another high point, both of them singing along with Amanda Seyfried as Cosette, the harmony of their voices overlapping like some heavenly trio. Their hymn, one of love discovered, the other of love lost, is heartbreaking.

Les Misérables isn’t perfect, but it’s an absolute joy to anyone who’s a fan of Hollywood cinema on a lofty scale. And why shouldn’t it be grand? The chronicle is based on the 1862 novel by Victor Hugo. Perhaps because it feels as if the musical has always been with us, it’s difficult to imagine a time when adapting the somber tome of French literature into a musical was actually a radical concept. This is rather depressing stuff but in the hands of director Tom Hooper, it is an emotionally involving, monumental saga in the timeless tradition of classic movie musicals. The story is sweeping, the vocals are (mostly) impressive and the lavish production is a marvel – the kind Hollywood was known for in the 40s and 50s. I love that this version made me see things I never noticed before. Les Misérables is paean to the beauty and romance of Victor Hugo’s well known French tale and indeed of grand filmmaking at its most epic.

Pitch Perfect

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical with tags on October 9, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketTake Glee, Bring it On and Bridesmaids, mix together, sprinkle liberally with cheese, and serve up to a receptive audience. Pitch Perfect is a recipe for fun. The story concerns the competitive world of collegiate a cappella groups. Pretty young Beca is a guarded cynic who would rather produce a tune than sing one. Having just entered college, she is newly recruited by an all girl a cappella group desperate for new members who can harmonize.

Pitch Perfect is greatly assisted by a talented cast. A few are worth a special mention. Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are two ESPN style announcers that give play by play announcements interspersed throughout the a cappella singing competitions. Their witticisms from the broadcasting booth are side splittingly hilarious. In many cases, some of the biggest laughs. The only person who surpasses them is comedian Rebel Wilson, a zaftig Aussie who actually refers to herself as Fat Amy. As one of the girl vocalists she has an off kilter personality that makes her kind of a uniquely unexpected individual.

Of course the bread and butter of this diversion are the bright song selections that are enthusiastically arranged and passionately sung. The best performance is a “riff-off” between the boys and the girls, a rumble in the streets that uses superior vocals to beat down their opponents instead of guns and knives. It has a spontaneity that the official competitions lack. Unfortunately it only goes back and forth a couple times and then it’s over. What a shame that the segment is so short because it’s easily the most exhilarating sequence in the script. The drama hints at a plucky repartee that could have been sustained for the entire film.

Pitch Perfect is a crowd pleaser in the best sense of the word. Even if you have only a slight interest in hearing a cappella singing, this should make you very happy.  Anyone on the edge of their seat wondering how this is all going to play out would have to be under the age of 10. The storyline is pretty basic. Yet it’s helped immeasurably by an attractive cast with likable personas. Sure there’s the standard archetypes: the bitchy blonde, the slutty brunette, the sensitive heartthrob, etc. But they’re undeniably appealing. These characters have just enough modification to make them interesting. On the whole, the production is a spirited joy.

The Wizard of Oz

Posted in Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on June 25, 2012 by Mark Hobin

The complementary Blu-ray that Warner Brothers sent to me of this beloved classic is a treasured gift. The print is so clear, the color so vibrant, I feel as though I have re-discovered a new version. I’ve mentioned it before on this blog. Blu-ray discs are often promoted for science fiction spectaculars with lots of special effects. That’s a valid genre, but to me, the most convincing benefits concerning the Blu-ray format is re-visiting the past and watching these masterpieces in a way not appreciated since the original release. I cannot overstate how beautiful this film looks.

PhotobucketIf ever there was a movie that was better than the book, The Wizard of Oz is it. I have nothing against the 1900 children’s novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. It’s a classic in it’s own right, but this dramatic adaptation is simply one of the greatest movies ever made. It’s difficult for me to independently assess its merits because, like the rest of us, I first watched it when I was very very young and continued to watch it throughout the years. As much a part of my childhood as Bugs Bunny cartoons, the Cub Scouts and school. But right there is a validation of the picture’s virtue. No other production save for perhaps It’s a Wonderful Life, The Ten Commandments or The Sound of Music, represents such a defining example of movies shown regularly on TV. It’s pretty much a shared reality as humans on planet Earth. Virtually everyone has seen this film.

As with any fantasy, the visual displays are important, but would be nothing without a cast that can engage the emotions. Judy Garland is perfection and it’s hard to imagine anyone else as the character. Sorry Shirley Temple. Garland had an incredibly successful career in Hollywood as she was recognized for many roles. For the rest of the actors, these are the parts for which they are primarily known to modern audiences: Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, and Billie Burke are memorable. If I have a quibble with anything, I’d have to say that Bert Lahr plays the cowardly Lion almost like he’s the 4th stooge. He’s likable. I don’t begrudge him that, but his song “If I Were King of the Forest” is my least favorite in a musical score full of winners. Preceding their introduction to the Wizard, it’s a bit of a drag on the narrative at a point where we are on the edge of our seat. The Munchkins are a captivating delight, the flying monkeys give me the creeps, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the villain. Along the way Dorothy encounters a particularly nasty individual known as The Wicked Witch of the West. Margaret Hamilton’s portrayal is so iconic I believe we underestimate the brilliance of her performance. I still have trouble believing that the sum of her appearances only amount to 12 minutes of screen time. She is the very definition of what it means to be a witch.

The story is as familiar as your own name. A young girl from Kansas, bored with her life, yearns for a more exciting one “over the rainbow.” A horrific tornado, which continues to amaze, hits her cherished farm and whisks her, house and all, to the wonderful world of Oz where she meets a scarecrow, a tin man and a lion. They join forces to help her get back to Kansas by visiting the Wizard who they’ve heard can reunite her with her family. The spectacle was expensive for its time and it shows. Even though it was a success, it did not show a large profit until the 1949 re-release. Regardless it was obviously money well spent. The production design is beyond compare. That early shot where she steps out of her black and white sepia toned existence into a land of color is practically a religious experience the way it’s presented here. You’ve seen it before but think back to when you first witnessed the transformation and it’s one of the most exhilarating moments in movies. Seven decades later, everything continues to dazzle: the performances, the sets, the costumes, the music. It is such a force of goodness. There may very well be people who dislike this film, but I have no desire to meet them.

Rock of Ages

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Musical with tags on June 15, 2012 by Mark Hobin

An open letter to the director:

Dear Mr. Adam Shankman,

I’ve just finished watching your movie, Rock of Ages. I’ve seen the original jukebox musical performed live and I enjoyed it. It was a fun, feel good romp with music from glam metal bands of the 80s. The long list of songs featured are practically beloved classics at this point. While there are moments of inspiration in your adaptation, this was overall a disappointment of heartbreaking proportions. I have some suggestions that could’ve made this so much better.

1.) The lead actors should be captivating. Diego Boneta and Julianne Hough are not. Casting Hough, an accomplished dancer, and not having her dance once is not only misguided, it’s cruel.  To add insult to injury she’s saddled with a pip-squeak of a voice that sounds like Betty Boop on helium. Whenever she sings it literally sucks the life out of the film. She’s surrounded by actors with full voices. She has several duets with R&B superstar Mary J. Blige and the juxtaposition of their voices is laughable. Even Paul Giamatti outclasses her in this area so her deficiencies are really glaring. Her co-star Boneta can vocalize at least, but he‘s got the generic good looks and charisma of any random soap opera star. He’s not memorable. When he professes his love to her, it’s pretty unconvincing. The two of them have zero chemistry together.

2.) The story should have some assemblage of sense. For example, the leads fall in love within minutes of meeting without explanation. Catherine Zeta-Jones’ holy roller character spends all her time trying to shut down rock club “The Bourbon Room” for indecency, then by the end she’s dressed in a getup that makes her look like the leatherman from the Village People. Along the way the narrative zips ahead trying to cram one song in after another without any regard for whether it makes sense to the plot. Here’s a another song because, well we just like it. This is pretty superficial stuff even for a musical comedy.

3.) Just because you’re directing one of the biggest stars in the world, doesn’t mean you have to listen to his ideas. Tom Cruise is one of the high points of the picture. He’s funny as Stacee Jaxx, the aging rock god, with his scene stealing antics. And yes he can sing, really well I might add. But his idea to hire a baboon as his sidekick is stupid. There wasn’t a monkey in the original play and there shouldn’t be one here. There’s a reason he’s an actor and you’re a director. Direct!

4.) The tone keeps changing. One minute lead protagonists Drew and Sherrie are prancing around making the kind of goo-goo eyes that would embarrass the cast of Glee, the next minute Tom Cruise is singing “I Want to Know What Love Is” with his face buried in Malin Ackerman’s crotch. Pick a tone and go with it. The amalgamation of Disneyfied teen love and hardcore rocker lifestyle is a confusing mix.

5.) Animated films and musicals are two genres best appreciated in concise doses. That means run times over 90 minutes should be justified by the content. A silly happy-go-lucky frolic about 80s hair metal is not a validation. A musical clocking in at over 2 hours and 7 minutes causes headaches not joy.

None of this would’ve made a difference if the musical numbers were up to par. Which brings me to my last (and most important) point.

6.) The editing is chaotic. We watch musicals so we can, you know, see people sing and dance. When performers burst into song, let’s focus on their faces, when characters are dancing let’s observe the steps. Don’t cut away every 3 seconds and show random shots that distract you from the scene at hand. The production number in the strip club appears to show actual dancing but it’s impossible to tell because the camera keeps moving frantically while choreography is being performed. There are hoofers out there that can genuinely dance. I assume you probably hired real dancers, but it does them a disservice when the action has been edited to hide the fact. Please watch the classic Singing in the Rain and study how the song “Good Morning” was shot if this is unclear.

I know you’re talented, Mr. Adam Shankman.  You’re a respected choreographer with an impressive resume of movie credits. You frequently judge the TV show So You Think You Can Dance. Most importantly you directed Hairspray and that was a musical I really liked…a lot. I write this letter not to condemn but to help. Your film has touches of greatness. There’s one great line that Julianne Hough delivers equating boy bands and stripping that had the whole theater erupting in laugher. It’s those moments that convince me this could’ve been so much better. I have faith that your next project will be.

Signed your supporter,

Mark Hobin

Interstella 5555

Posted in Animation, Fantasy, Musical, Science Fiction with tags on April 5, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketStraddling the line between a music video and a feature film, Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem was conceived as a visual representation of the 2001 album Discovery by French house duo Daft Punk. The 67 minutes comprise a sequence of animated segments spliced together to create this movie which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 18, 2003. Each related episode is underscored by one of the songs off of that album to tell a complete story. The musical concerns an intergalactic rock band who are abducted from their home planet by the evil Earl de Darkwood. He seeks to manipulate the aliens with mind control so that he can duplicate their success as a band on Earth. By this method he plans to become rich off their talent on a global scale. Japanese animation was designed with the collaboration of Toei Animation under the supervision of Leiji Matsumoto and director Kazuhisa Takenouchi. Matsumoto is a Manga legend probably best known for his work on the science fiction cartoon series Space Battleship Yamato which was dubbed in English for North American and Australian audiences and called Star Blazers in 1979.

Interstella 5555 is a brilliant amalgamation of animated technique and house music. The picture’s allure will likely depend on your enjoyment of at least one of those things but not necessarily both. The film utilizes Daft Punk’s music in a thoroughly entertaining way that will make fans of people who don’t normally enjoy their type of electronic music. But it also gives the illustrative style a vibrancy for people who often find the art form emotionally cold. The latter has described my experiences. Love the band, but don’t particularly care for anime. However I loved this. The plot was filled with an energizing spirit and artistic flair. Observe the part where against the back drop of the song “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” the blue skinned aliens are transformed into human musicians that can now pass for a rock band on the planet Earth. The music invigorates the visuals and gives them an excitement I rarely feel while watching anime.

Interstella 5555 is a rewarding fantasy that is delightfully imaginative. The story is a dialogue-free production. Relying simply on observable cues and music with minimal sound effects can somewhat limit its appeal to the casual viewer. Although it lacks the adult themes typical of anime (it is unrated), I suspect the fuzzy narrative will be a bit esoteric for young viewers. It’s hard for an adult to understand what is happening at times. Another quibble is that the 4:3 aspect ratio is better suited to an antiquated TV screen than the widescreen standard of today. Yet as a completely wordless experience, the hypnotic visual complement to Daft Punk’s music is a rather original concept. I really enjoyed the 70s disco aesthetic. It’s dated in a joyfully modern approach.

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