Archive for the Music Category

Matilda the Musical

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Family, Music, Musical with tags on December 30, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand why UK author Roald Dahl is considered a national treasure. I’m an aficionado of the legendary author’s work too. He wrote James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Fantastic Mr. Fox, The BFG, and The Witches. All were made into fine films. I wasn’t as familiar with Matilda, which was published in 1988. You will likely follow this meandering account better if you’re well-versed in the original text. It has a beloved following, particularly in the UK. It’s been adapted into a 1996 film directed by Danny DeVito, a two-part special on BBC Radio 4, and a 2010 West End/Broadway musical by Tim Minchin. This is the cinematic adaptation of that musical, directed by Matthew Warchus (Pride), from a screenplay by Dennis Kelly.

Matilda the Musical is an overstuffed production with a lot of characters. Matilda Wormwood is a precocious five-and-a-half-year-old girl. Yet the child isn’t appreciated by her mom and dad. “My mummy says I’m a lousy little worm,” she laments. Her father wanted a boy and continues to refer to Matilda as one. Actors Stephen Graham and Andrea Riseborough are amusingly festooned in tacky clothes and goofy hair. I cherished their campy presence. Due to her parents’ lack of care and concern, she seeks solace at the local library. She’s a voracious reader. There she tells a parable to Mrs. Phelps (Sindhu Vee), the librarian. Matilda’s tale is about a renowned acrobat (Lauren Alexandra) and escapologist (Carl Spencer) couple who long to have a baby. Frequent cutaways dramatize this external circus saga throughout the film.

The movie finally hints at a coherent story when Matilda is admitted as a student at Crunchem Hall. The sweet but timid teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch), sees her potential. It’s hard to believe this passive instructor is portrayed by the same actress who was the fierce lieutenant in The Woman King and the new 007 in No Time to Die. Talk about range. Meanwhile, Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (Emma Thompson, unrecognizable under prosthetics) does not like kids. She considers them maggots. As a matter of fact, it’s the school’s motto. However, Matilda is a willful girl with a powerful brain that develops a knack for telekinesis. Matilda and Trunchbull are destined to face off. Any wagers on who will win?

Matilda’s personality could use tweaking. Actress Alisha Weir is indeed effective in the title role. When she sings, “Sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty,” an optimistic ode about her sad life, I felt her sorrow. To Matilda’s credit, she is surrounded by negative influences and still finds the strength to champion her fellow students. However, she comes across as a tad self-righteous and conceited. She solves a ridiculously complicated math problem to the bewildered shock of Miss Honey and shrugs it off like it’s no big deal. Then she puts on airs by listing all the novels she read that week (Nicholas Nickleby, Jane Eyre, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Of Mice And Men, The Lord of the Rings, Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, and…The Cat in the Hat.) We get it. You’re a prodigy, but a touch of humility goes a long way. The rebel in me was silently rooting for Agatha Trunchbull.

I miss the subversiveness of Roald Dahl. The author is weird. What makes his books so interesting is the dark sensibility that saturates his irreverent tales. His chronicles often feature a child narrator against villainous adults. Matilda is no exception. Sure the adults are evil on the written page. Agatha Trunchbull competed in the hammer throw at the ’72 Olympics. When she likewise hurls a young student by her pigtails, it is an outrageously bizarre sight., However, the scene is silly, and the savagery is ephemeral.

Dahl’s aesthetic has been considerably undermined by a bright, colorful exhibition infused with spoonfuls of saccharine sentimentality. The vigorous dance numbers are fabricated and edited within an inch of their life. One group sequence highlights jittery step patterns in detailed precision. When the youngsters dance and sing to “Revolting Children,” it is a spectacle to behold. The scene is frenzied and intense but employs slow motion, too, with CGI flying paper planes and streamers. The presentation veers from excellent to exhausting in a scant 3 minutes. I longed for the comparative calm of the earlier ditty, “When I Grow Up.”

I love musicals, but Matilda wasn’t made for fans of the golden age (the 1930s through the early 1950s). It’s for young theater geeks raised on TikTok, where the triumphant, hyper-edited, special effects-enhanced displays of choreographed demonstrations can be uploaded onto social media platforms and then go viral. The picture is best enjoyed for the production numbers. They are impressive, but they overshadow a disjointed and cluttered mess of a story. Matilda the Musical is a collection of catchy songs and high-energy dancing in search of a focused narrative.

12-26-22

Weird: The Al Yankovic Story

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Music with tags on November 9, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

“Weird Al” Yankovic is nothing if not self-aware. “It’s odd to be like a footnote in musical history,” he opined in 2019. “Like you pick up a Kurt Cobain biography, and you’ll look in the index, and there I am.” Yankovic was referencing “Smells Like Nirvana,” which was his spoof of that band’s song “Smells Like Teen Spirit. His parodies of famous songs have sold millions, so some would argue he’s more than a footnote. “Eat It” and “White & Nerdy” were massive hits. His discography includes four gold albums and six platinum. He’s even earned five Grammy Awards. Some of the most celebrated artists of rock and roll can’t boast those statistics.

Yet given the comedy genre in which he works, “Weird Al” has always preferred jokes over great art, and that’s precisely the spirit in which this so-called memoir is presented. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a satire of the biopic genre. As such, it has more in common with This Is Spinal Tap or Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. Even then, it falls far short of the high bar set by those films. For one thing, it would help if there was more than a kernel of truth. The events depicted here bear little resemblance to anything he actually did.

There is one laugh-out-loud sequence. It occurs about 30 minutes in. Radio broadcaster Dr. Demento (Rainn Wilson) takes “Weird Al” (Daniel Radcliffe) under his wing and offers him an opportunity for success. At his pool party, Demento introduces Al to various celebrities. It’s an incongruous gathering of eclectic individuals that includes Andy Warhol (Conan O’Brien), Tiny Tim (Demetri Martin), Pee Wee Herman (Jorma Taccone), Salvador Dali (Emo Philips), Divine (Nina West), Alice Cooper (Akiva Schaffer) and Gallagher (Paul F. Tompkins). Unconvinced of his talent, Wolfman Jack (Jack Black) dares him to come up with a new parody song right there on the spot. Someone shouts out, “Another One Bites the Dust” as a suggestion. Turns out it’s John Deacon (David Dastmalchian), the bassist for Queen. The fact that no one at the party has ever heard of him is a hoot.

The rest of the movie isn’t as inspired. The narrative follows the same formulaic beats of a music documentary but with all sorts of random feats the man never accomplished. His debut album goes quintuple platinum. He gains fans worldwide, including talk show host Oprah Winfrey (Quinta Brunson) and drug lord Pablo Escobar (Arturo Castro). Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a mishmash of developments so far-fetched that this could have been fabricated around any celebrity. In an extended tangent, Al has a torrid affair with Madonna (Evan Rachel Wood). Their relationship would make this a better biography about, say, Vanilla Ice — a singer that did, in fact, date Madonna. A kidnapping plot involving the “Material Girl” grows tiresome. The point is the whole thing is a complete joke. By the end, the chronicle descends into a Jim Morrison-esque fall from grace. It’s so stridently relentless in attempting to be funny…it isn’t. I give this movie the same response “Weird Al” offers after John Deacon invites Al to perform with Queen on stage at Live Aid: “Hard pass!”

11-05-22

Tár

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music with tags on October 26, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

If an ordinary person — let’s say an American citizen — were asked to name a famous conductor, Leonard Bernstein would likely be the answer. Name a second, and they might struggle. Now ask for a female conductor, and you’d encounter a blank face. Orchestras can and do navigate their way through complex pieces of classical music without someone waving a baton in front of them. Yet the director of a classical performance remains a noble talent. Yes, they beat time by moving their hands up and down to the music, but they also select the score, interpret the piece, and prepare the musicians in rehearsal. Tár is a fictional profile of Lydia Tár, a captivating individual who has achieved excellence and renown in this field.

At its bare essence, Tár is the portrait of a woman, but that depiction is so thoroughly realized the film becomes a dazzling spectacle. She is an authoritarian, to be admired and hated. Watching Cate Blanchett inhabit this role is akin to an actress completely channeling a spirit. Lydia is, in fact, a protegee of Leonard Bernstein. She wields power over the Berlin Philharmonic like a massive colossus, controlling the orchestra literally and figuratively. Her angular visage, that broad forehead, and high cheekbones that converge to a pointed jawline are all the more emphasized. She is an assertive woman who barely acknowledges that she is female. Chilly, androgynous, and gifted — she is a force of nature, a talent that reached this influential position despite — or rather because of — a refusal to temper her opinion or behavior. This proves to be controversial as the story develops.

Tár is an account built upon the art of talking. It opens as she’s being interviewed onstage at Lincoln Center by a star-struck journalist, Adam Gopnik, culture writer for The New Yorker, playing himself. He rattles off her list of accomplishments that boast EGOT status – an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, a Tony. She has just written a memoir, “Tár on Tár,” and the public is hungry for more information. In a dialogue that makes no editing concessions to the rules of cinema, it feels like the full unedited interview from an actual TV show. Tar is relaxed but thoughtful as she pontificates on various topics. She bristles at the idea that women conductors be referred to as Maestra, the feminized form of Maestro. “They don’t call astronauts astronettes,” she offers as she confidently smiles at her own joke. That sets the tone as interactions with other people convey a multifaced personality.

The production highlights a highly eloquent screenplay. Actor/director Todd Field (In the Bedroom) has been attached to a plethora of projects over the past 16 years but hasn’t produced anything since Little Children in 2006. He writes and directs here. Occasionally his screenplay can feel a bit unwieldy and verbose. A meeting with Eliot Kaplan (Mark Strong), an investor and less accomplished conductor, goes on far too long. I lost the subject of their conversation at one point. However, more often than not, the dialogue is thrilling. It’s good to have Todd Field back, writing and directing again.

Tár is Cate Blanchett’s movie, but her dealings with other people elucidate her character. Lydia’s romantic partner is Sharon, but actress Nina Hoss is more than “the wife.” Sharon is First Violin, so she fully understands Lydia at work and home. They have a six-year-old adopted daughter named Petra (Mila Bogojevic), who accentuates Lydia’s protective mother instincts. Olga Metkina is the attractive young cellist (British-German musician Sophie Kauer) that captures Lydia’s attention in more ways than one. Then there’s her hard-working and long-suffering assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant), waiting in the wings so she can one day be a conductor herself. Francesca keeps secrets and supports her boss at every turn…until she doesn’t. Things start to turn after Lydia, a guest lecturer at Juilliard, disagrees with a student (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) who dismisses the Western canon of people like Beethoven and Bach. Lydia rejects his evaluation of art based on identity politics, exhibiting bold confidence to express her opinion in an environment where people, wary of social media, often mince words. This confrontation, in a manipulated form, will return to haunt her.

To call Cate Blanchett, the best actress of her generation doesn’t seem like hyperbole at this point. An impressive filmography includes Elizabeth, The Talented Mr. Ripley, The Lord of the Rings, The Aviator, Notes On A Scandal, I’m Not There, Blue Jasmine, Carol, and Thor: Ragnarok. Blanchett’s career may span genres and styles, but one thing holds. She elevates every production in which she appears. It seems crazy to say this of an actress with so many great performances, but Tár might be her most accomplished. She dominates every scene. Every so often, a performance is so mesmerizing, I can watch someone simply speak for 2 hours and 38 minutes, and I am enthralled. Cate Blanchett is that actress, and Tár is that movie.

10-13-22

Moonage Daydream

Posted in Documentary, Music with tags on September 29, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

“Moonage Daydream” is the third track on David Bowie’s seminal 1972 album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Yet, if you asked any casual fan to name 10 of his songs (even 20), it probably wouldn’t get a mention. Still, it’s a perfect title for this cruise through Bowie’s career, which is less a documentary and more of a feature-length music video.

Written, directed, produced, and edited by Brett Morgen, this is a sonic collage by the documentarian that weaves Bowie’s music, concert footage, and performance with various unrelated films. You’ll see snippets from Metropolis, Ivan the Terrible, Triumph of the Will, Nosferatu, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Plan 9 From Outer Space. The images will pop up again and again but without context. Are these his favorite movies? Did they inspire him? Are they merely pretty visuals? Who knows?

We also get cinematic examples of the man himself. Snippets from The Man Who Fell to Earth, Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, The Hunger, and Labyrinth show up. Behind-the-scenes footage from Gerry Troyna’s Ricochet — which chronicled Bowie during the tail end of the “Serious Moonlight Tour” in 1983 — makes an appearance too. The artist wanders around Bangkok, staring blankly as he rides up and down escalators at night. The scenes are utilized so frequently that they gradually lose their impact.

The cinematic journey is a stream-of-consciousness head trip without regard for time, order, coherence, or details. It inundates the viewer for 2 hours and 15 minutes. The chronicle covers roughly 1969, when “Space Oddity” was released, on through the massive “Glass Spider Tour” in 1987. There is no narrative, although subtle points are made. He was an artist that constantly evolved, and a nomadic lifestyle reflected this — moving from the UK to LA because he hated the city (!) to Berlin. The gender-bending persona of Ziggy Stardust at the beginning of the film juxtaposed with a man that sold Pepsi in 1987 while dancing with Tina Turner. It’s a shocking dichotomy. “I’m sorry, but I’ve never found that poverty means purity,” he defends.

The inclusions are just as telling as the omissions. Any direct mention of his cocaine addiction from the 1970s to the early 1980s is absent. However, he’s clearly under the influence in a limo while drinking from a carton of milk (in a scene from the 1975 documentary Cracked Actor). Bowie’s marriage to Iman is presented as the realization of a life in search of love — a feeling he once called a disease. “Word on a Wing” underscores these images in the final quarter. It’s a touching moment. However, his equally famous marriage to Angela Bowie, a significant influence on him throughout his career in the 1970s, is wholly stricken from the record.

This production is simply an invitation to bask in the music of a legend. Under the full cooperation of the Bowie estate, Brett Morgen was given unprecedented access to his archives which included his journals, photography, and art. You’ll hear rare or previously unreleased live tracks, as well as newly created remixes. The soundscape of musical mashups and live performances curated by longtime producer and friend Tony Visconti looks and sounds as pristine as if it were recorded yesterday. There is an immediacy to the effort that excels. These are interspersed with monologues from Bowie himself. His observations are often delivered to interviewers like Dick Cavett. Bowie speaks timidly, in stark contrast to his avant-garde identity on stage. His thoughts are coherent and polite, although not particularly groundbreaking.

Whether you’re a die-hard fan or a casual observer is irrelevant to what you’ll glean from this. You won’t learn much. If anything, this document renders Bowie’s life even more confusing — a life lived as a fever dream. But hey, what a fantasy! Director Brett Morgen has cited Disneyland as an influence in his filmmaking. “I like to think of my movies as theme park rides where you’re getting all the sights and sounds and scents.” This is appropriate. I learned as much about NASA while riding “Space Mountain” as I did about David Bowie while watching this. But oh boy, what a ride!

09-27-22

Elvis

Posted in Biography, Drama, Music on June 27, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 4 out of 5.

On a superficial level, the latest account of the King of Rock and Roll could be considered a biopic. It covers 42 years through his death in 1977. However, it does much more than simply detail the dramatic beats of a life. It captures the feeling of a performer. Think of it as an ode to a cultural icon. This is Baz Luhrmann’s joyous celebration of the best-selling solo music artist of all time.

If you’re familiar with the work of Baz Luhrmann, you know the director can be a little frantic and over the top. The Great Gatsby, Australia, and Moulin Rouge weren’t known for their subtlety. Here his manic style has been carefully manipulated and applied perfectly. You can feel the director’s enthusiasm for this entertainer. I will admit the narrative is a bit chaotic. The chronicle is edited like a trailer as events transpire rapid-fire. A whirlwind of developments are thrown at the viewer. The presentation has all the giddy excitement of a fan who can’t wait to extol the virtues of their favorite star. You can barely catch your breath before another happening occurs.

The events aren’t in chronological order either. We begin in 1997 with the death of Elvis Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. He is our narrator. “I didn’t kill him. I made him,” he declares. We jump to Las Vegas in the 1970s, at the International Hotel where Elvis is headlining. Things aren’t going so well for the rock star as he can barely stand. Then we leap yet again to the mid-1950s at a carnival where Jimmie Rodgers (Kodi-Smit McPhee) is holding a record and singing the praises of a new artist. The frenetic account bounces around details served up in a flashy presentation befitting the legend himself. I admit I had to find my footing, but I grooved into the rhythm of the story. It’s like randomly dropping the needle on various cuts of a greatest hits album in cinematic form with one spectacular scene after another.

Major credit goes to Austin Butler in the title role. The musical numbers in front of a crowd are where he comes alive. The young actor channels the vocalist so perfectly that I did not view his triumph as a mere actor playing a part but as the genuine article. At one point, Elvis performs while gyrating his hips in front of an audience for a TV program. He whips half the throng into a frenzy, and the other half blankly stare, mouths agape in shock. You completely understand at this moment why Elvis was so charismatic and yet so dangerous to the social norms of the day. It’s a mesmerizing depiction. There have been memorable efforts in the past. Kurt Russell in the 1979 film Elvis and the 2005 CBS miniseries starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers come to mind, but Butler’s portrayal surpasses them all.

It is an odd irony when the same production can boast both the best and worst performances of the year. As revelatory as Austin Butler is in the title role, Tom Hanks is woefully miscast as Colonel Tom Parker. Underneath pounds of makeup and grotesque prosthetics that include a fat suit, the actor slinks and sneers his way through the picture in a manner so misguided it threatens to derail every scene in which he appears. A Bond film affords the villain more nuance. Early on when Parker realizes that Elvis is not a black man, the camera zooms into a close-up so he can incredulously proclaim, “He’s…… white?!” Hanks is so bad it blights this assessment from being a 5-star review. It is an absolute testament to the glory of Austin Butler’s achievement that he seizes focus.

Elvis is a kaleidoscopic extravaganza that taps into the energy that was Elvis. It won’t be easy to assemble an order to his discography as it’s bestowed here. It’s a celebratory feeling to what the man meant more than the sequential facts of what he did. The collage of melodies includes Austin Butler singing Elvis’ early tunes, lip-syncing to the real deal in his later output, and a pastiche of songs sung by other artists swirling in the background. The screenplay frequently touches upon the musician’s reverence for inspirations like B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison), Little Richard (Alton Mason), and “Big Mama” Thornton (Shonka Dukureh). The exhibition is dazzling for both its sweep and depth. There is so much to take in this emotionally exhilarating spectacle. It is breathtaking. Movies that often stretch past 2 hours rarely need to be. This film is 2 hours and 39 minutes. When it was all over, I wanted more.

06-23-22

Cyrano

Posted in Drama, Music, Musical, Romance with tags on January 20, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

I’ve always had a hard time understanding people who make the blanket proclamation, “I hate musicals.” How can someone write off an entire artistic discipline? It’s akin to dismissing all Westerns or horror movies. Their reasons inevitably vary, but it’s often based on the artificiality of it all and no enthusiasm for the songs. To them I say, you haven’t seen the right one. But as I sat watching Cyrano, I sympathized with those people.

It’s a tale as old as the 19th century. That’s when poet Edmond Rostand wrote a play that ultimately outgrew the fame of the actual man who inspired it. It barely needs recounting but I’ll oblige. Cyrano de Bergerac (Peter Dinklage) is a cadet in the French army. He’s both a talented fighter and an expressive wordsmith. He carries the torch for his longtime friend, Roxanne (Haley Bennett). Although his short stature (it’s his nose in the novel) gives him a lack of confidence. A foppish duke (Ben Mendelsohn unrecognizable under pounds of makeup and a big white wig) also has designs of marriage on Roxanne. She has eyes for neither. Her attention is captivated by a soldier named Christian (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) who returns the same affection. However Christian is inarticulate and Roxanne demands to be wooed with eloquent words and letters. A mere “I love you” isn’t going to cut it. When Roxanne admits having feelings for Christian to her lifelong friend, Cyrano secretly decides to assist by ghostwriting the letters that Christian will send to Roxanne. They come from the heart.

Let’s start with the good. Actor Peter Dinklage is captivating and the #1 reason to see yet another adaptation of this work. This version is penned by Erica Schmidt who is married to the star. Dinklage and co-star Haley Bennett were part of the original stage production. When Cyrano hears Roxanne has something to confess, he assumes it is her love for him. His dejected expression perfectly captures heartbreak when she doesn’t return his feelings. His crooning is less mellifluous. Peter Dinklage’s bass-baritone is reminiscent of Brad Roberts of the Crash Test Dummies. In fact, all of the singing is — quite frankly — mediocre with Haley Bennet being a notable exception. She is the only vocalist with a dulcet tone. I appreciated her ability. Nevertheless, this is a perfect segue into what didn’t work.

Music is the foundation for any great musical. “Well, duh!” The show features songs by twin brothers Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the indie rock band The National and lyrics by Matt Berninger (also of The National) and his wife, Carin Besser. Sadly, Cyrano lacks memorable tunes. One forgettable ballad follows another. I’m usually humming the melodies after a production. I cannot recall a single one. They’re pleasant I suppose, but dull — like dialogue recited with a singsong delivery. I’d say more but I can’t discuss them with specificity. Oh, I do remember one where Christian sings the reprise, “I’d give anything for someone to say…” but that’s only because of the choreography by Jeff and Rick Kuperman. The soldiers flamboyantly prance about with overly affected gestures as they fence. It is a sight.

I have an issue with the original text. Cyrano de Bergerac is a bummer of a story. The titular character pines for a woman oblivious to his love. Here the poor guy is pouring out his soul and she’s completely distracted. Her heart has been duped by — let’s face it — a handsome face. She wouldn’t be the first, but is she worthy of his admiration? I think not. I wish Cyrano would just move on. So sad. Meanwhile, her growing frustration with Christian’s clumsy vocabulary adds self-righteousness to her obnoxious qualities. Roxanne’s ongoing fascination with Christian becomes even more superficial. I’ve never found Roxanne to be deserving of praise. Viewers are rewarded for enduring her behavior with a complete downer of a resolution. It casts a pall on the entire saga.

Even when mounted well, the developments of the narrative are difficult to embrace. The 1897 play by Edmond Rostand has been adapted numerous times, most famously as a 1950 film starring José Ferrer who won an Oscar, and as a 1990 French picture with Gérard Depardieu (he was Oscar-nominated). Roxanne — the 1987 modernization with Steve Martin — sidestepped the letdown by substituting a happy ending. Erica Schmidt’s Cyrano was originally a stage musical. I’ll give her credit for trying something new. Unfortunately, the songs don’t enhance the production. Peter Dinklage’s performance kept me somewhat engaged. This leads me to assert it would have been better as a straight-ahead drama. And yet there are so many of those. Did we really need another?

12-14-21

Belle

Posted in Adventure, Animation, Drama, Music, Science Fiction with tags on January 12, 2022 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

When they call you the spiritual successor to legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, you must be doing something right. Director Mamoru Hosoda originally garnered fame at Toei Animation in the early 2000s with two films in the Digimon Adventure series. In 2011, he co-founded Studio Chizu. Wolf Children and The Boy and the Beast were their first two films. Mirai followed and was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated feature in 2019. Belle is the studio’s fourth release.

OK, let me see if I can make sense of this story. Suzu is a withdrawn freckle-faced girl living in rural Japan. Following the death of her mother, the high school student retreats into an online virtual world called “U” with 5 billion players. She creates an avatar linked to her biometric info and becomes a pink-haired pop princess named Belle (also with freckles). It is within this alternate reality that Suzu achieves her true potential. As a lithe and beautiful Barbie-like singer, she attains global superstardom. She later meets a mysterious fellow player within the fantasy world called “The Dragon.” After this beast interrupts her concert — ultimately ruining it — he is pursued by a phalanx of vigilantes led by the arrogant Jason. They have superpowers naturally. Suzu’s desire to uncover The Dragon’s true identity develops into an obsession.

Belle is nothing if not bewildering for the number of plot threads it throws into the mix. The title acknowledges a debt to Beauty and the Beast. It even has an extended sequence that “pays homage” to the iconic ballroom dance from that Disney film. That’s merely one minor component. An ordinary teen who secretly performs as a pretty singing star is reminiscent of the 1980s American cartoon TV series Jem but in a simulated existence. Think Jem visits The Matrix.

Suzu is constantly being pulled between reality and fantasy. In the real world, Suzu is trying to come to terms with her mom’s passing. A group of uniformed high school peers comprises a soap opera that could be the foundation for a completely different movie. Suzu has a crush on childhood pal Shinobu. Popular “It” girl Ruka has eyes for jock Kamishin and appeals to Suzu for help. Meanwhile, her intellectual but snarky best friend Hiro offers Suzu advice on how to navigate the internet world of U. Hiro assists in trying to unveil The Dragon. It’s here that the saga goes off on another tangent as various odd characters are introduced: a troubled baseball player, a tattooed artist, and some random woman pretending to be the ideal housewife. If all that weren’t enough, there’s also an investigation into child abuse. Why have one plotline when you can have six or more?

Belle is an ambitious tale inundated by exquisite imagery. There are undeniably dazzling moments. Mamoru Hosoda populates his virtual environment with a glittering confection of digital avatars, pixies, critters, superheroes, confetti, glowing orbs, and whales in the cosmos. When Belle sings “A Million Miles Away” at the climax, it’s an epic finish that achieves a poetic finality. Unfortunately, the chronicle continues for another 20 minutes in order to tie up some unfinished details. The bizarre unpredictability of the production may have more appeal for fans familiar with the capricious nature of anime.

It’s sci-fi! It’s a fairytale! It’s a soap opera! Belle’s demanding two hour+ runtime entertains a dizzying number of subplots. Sadly they don’t coalesce into a compelling singular narrative. The spotlight is on Suzu (and her alter ego Belle), but this poor girl is beset by a myriad of distractions. The death of her mom, the cute boy at school, acquiring confidence, a J-Pop singing career, computer technology, and helping out an abused youth, all vie for her attention. Those craving a focus will be mystified. The lack of consideration for one central objective makes an emotional connection to this material impossible.

01-07-22

West Side Story

Posted in Crime, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on December 13, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 5 out of 5.

You’ve got to hand it to Steven Spielberg. In his 50 years of making movies, he has never directed a musical before and when he decides to start, he chooses to remake one of the most illustrious of all time. That takes guts. The 1957 Broadway show was conceived by Jerome Robbins featuring music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It became a landmark 1961 film that made $43.7 million ($400 million adjusted for inflation) and won a whopping 10 Oscars including Best Picture. The soundtrack spent 54 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s album charts, giving it the longest run at No. 1 of any album in history. It was an imposing task. I’m happy to say the gamble pays off.

The beloved tale is a well-known formula of timeworn components. Rival street gangs face off in NYC. It concerns the Sharks who hail from Puerto Rico vs. the nativist white gang the Jets. Side note: actor Mike Faist is a revelation as Riff, the leader of the Jets, and the story isn’t even about him. Tony (Ansel Elgort) is a former Jet who went to jail and is now a reformed character. He meets Maria (Rachel Zegler), a beautiful 18-year-old at a community dance. Tony and Maria instantly fall in love and want to spend the rest of their lives together. Ah, movies! Complicating matters is that she’s the younger sister of Sharks leader Bernardo (David Alvarez). Anita (Ariana DeBose) is his assertive girlfriend. More on her later. Trying to keep the peace is Valentina (Rita Moreno), a widow who now runs Doc’s general store. It’s a reworking of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, a doomed romance between star-crossed sweethearts. In this case, from different sides in 1950s Manhattan.

This bright, uplifting musical got my emotions going. Each production number is a big rousing larger-than-life event. “Something’s Coming,” “Maria,” Tonight,” “Gee, Officer Krupke,” “Somewhere” – I’ve loved these tunes for years. Every fan will cite a favorite. For me, the highlight has always been the spirited “America” sung by the Puerto Ricans that pits the women who list all the things they champion about their adoptive country against their male counterparts who play up all the negative aspects. I appreciate the mixed meter of a chant that espouses pro-American views but is rooted in vibrant Latin rhythms and Spanish guitar. It’s both funny and athletic. When the women start twirling their dresses as the men leap and jump while the camera zooms in and out, I thought, THIS is cinema. I was enthralled. The singing is stellar across the board. In a cast of many highlights, the MVP goes to Ariana Dubose as Anita. She has some pretty big shoes to fill. Rita Moreno famously received a well-earned Oscar for that role. Ariana is more than up to the task.

In a word, West Side Story is spectacular. This grand production is a perfect marriage of old and new. There is such respect for its iconic predecessor. Composer David Newman arranges Bernstein’s timeless score with passion and verve. Meanwhile, Justin Peck updates Jerome Robbins’ influential dance routines. Peck is the resident choreographer at the New York City Ballet. They honor the source material but gently modernize the piece for a 2021 audience. The balletic moves are more realistically violent when depicting the fights. Additionally, screenwriter Tony Kushner spends extra time fleshing out the Puerto Rican personalities. Many have called this the “greatest musical ever made.” * I walked in arms folded with the attitude, “Why are we remaking this classic?” and I left the theater thinking, “Did that just top the original?” The leads as written in the play have never been the most captivating characters. The supporting parts have so much more charisma. That’s true once again, although I’d argue Tony and Maria are slightly more compelling here than their 1961 equivalents. Apologies to Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood. Whether this tops that version overall is debatable. I can’t give a decisive answer because I’m still not sure. However, just the fact that I’m even entertaining the idea, speaks to the immense talent that is Steven Spielberg.

12/09/21

*Not a definitive list, but offhand I know I enjoyed The Wizard of Oz, On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain, The King and I, and The Sound of Music more.

Everybody’s Talking About Jamie

Posted in Biography, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on October 8, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It’s not uncommon for a musical to have origins in the theater, but how many of those works sprung from a documentary first? Everybody’s Talking About Jamie can trace its beginnings to the BBC Three documentary Jamie: Drag Queen at 16 — a 2011 portrait of Jamie Campbell, a 16-year-old boy who wanted to wear a dress to the prom. His true story inspired a West End stage play by Dan Gillespie Sells and Tom MacRae. Jonathan Butterell directs this film adaptation of that smash hit musical.

Jamie New (Max Harwood) — as he’s re-named here — is gay. However, that’s not even the issue. His classmates already know this. Jamie is out at the beginning of the picture. While his peers are thinking about what they want to be after graduation, Jamie wants to be a drag queen. He craves the spotlight and needs to be a star. The upcoming prom is the pivotal location where he hopes to unveil his new persona. His best friend Pritti (Lauren Patel) and his loving single mother, Margaret (Sarah Lancashire) may register slight surprise initially, but quickly shower him with unwavering support. There’s also local drag legend Hugo Battersby / Loco Chanelle (Richard E. Grant). He acts as a mentor. Even Jamie’s schoolmates seem mostly OK with his decision save for the obligatory class bully (Samuel Bottomley). The underwritten character casts a dismissive remark here and there, but never physical violence. Providing more genuine conflict is his absent father (Ralph Ineson), who wants nothing to do with him and one teacher, Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan).

Miss Hedge (Sharon Horgan) is a fascinating character. She imbues the saga with some unexpected nuance and complexity. She isn’t so much intolerant as irritated by this diva who demands to be the center of attention in her class. “I’m a superstar and you don’t even know it,” Jamie sings in a lively production number where the boy daydreams a full-on performance with his classmates as backup dancers. Miss Hedge has no problems with his desire to wear a dress and be a drag queen. However, the prom she contends is not the setting. The yearly dance is a place for all the kids to shine. Jamie’s desire threatens to seize focus. The gala for many becomes a celebration of one. In a musical where you’re playing to the back of the house, her negativity has the undermining temperament of a villain, but here it’s registering a little subtlety. Her pushing back on his narcissism starts to make sense.

The central conceit could have been handled in any number of ways. Here the drama is presented as a cheery and upbeat crowd-pleaser. The lesson promotes the timeworn mantra “Be true to yourself.” Disregard what other people think. The thing is, Jamie does care. His biggest fear: being ignored. He is supremely self-absorbed. He aspires to be famous and demands that everybody love him. His personality is all ME! ME! ME! His ego grows a little less inspiring after a while.

Propelling the lighthearted spirit is an energetic collection of show tunes. Full disclosure — initially, I thought the songs were merely pleasant. I couldn’t recall a single one immediately after I watched the film. Then I started listening to the movie soundtrack. Its buoyant energy started to work its way into my consciousness. I’ve been humming it ever since, “Everybody’s talking ’bout J-J-Jamie. Everybody’s talking ’bout the boy in the dress who was born to impress” the students sing at school. The title track occurs after they attend Jamie’s drag show the night before. Other highlights include Jamie’s mother’s poignant ode “He’s My Boy” and “This Was Me,” a vulnerable reminiscence from Hugo about the past. The aforementioned “And You Don’t Even Know It” is perhaps the stage musical’s best-known ditty. These hook-laden melodies paired with the imaginatively staged routines elevate the production. The subject of self-acceptance comes across as superficial at times but the colorful, catchy compositions have a joy that propels the message of encouragement with vitality and verve.

09-19-21

Dear Evan Hansen

Posted in Drama, Music, Musical with tags on September 27, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

These days it’s far more likely for a popular movie to be turned into a Broadway musical, but I long for the time when the hit Broadway musical came first and then became a great film. West Side Story, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music are perfect examples of this. It rarely happens anymore. Sorry, but Mamma Mia!, Jersey Boys, Rent and Rock of Ages were turned into terrible movies. Les Miserables and Dreamgirls are more recent examples I did enjoy and interestingly it occurred again this very year. In the Heights was a solid production. Back in 2017, Dear Evan Hansen was nominated for 9 Tonys and won 6 including Best Musical. All the critics loved it in New York at the time, but it’s a complete bummer of a movie now.

This coming-of-age tale had everything going for it. (1) The film is an adaptation of Steven Levenson’s multiple-award-winning stage play, (2) it’s directed by Stephen The Perks of Being a Wallflower Chbosky, and (3) features the songwriting duo of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul who composed the music for La La Land and The Greatest Showman. I was primed to love this.

Evan Hansen is a teenager who suffers from severe social anxiety. We’re talking apprehension so intense he has trouble ordering a pizza. His therapist recommends that Evan write letters to himself detailing what will be good about each day. In his latest “Dear Evan Hansen” message, he regrets that it wasn’t such a great day after all. For one, he aspires to know school crush Zoe (Kaitlyn Dever) better. “Maybe if I could just talk to her” he laments. He also wishes that anything he said mattered, to anyone. Would anyone notice if he just disappeared?

The sequence of happenstance and coincidences that follow could only transpire with help from a writer. Evan goes to the library to finish and print the correspondence to himself. While attempting to retrieve the letter from the printer, he runs into Zoe’s brother, Connor (Colton Ryan). He’s another marginalized classmate going through some pretty weighty issues of his own. In an effort of goodwill, Connor makes small talk with Evan. He even signs the cast on Evan’s arm. In doing so, he inadvertently finds and reads Evan’s message sitting on the printer which mentions his sister Zoe within the text. Sensing something insidious and feeling tormented, Connor grabs the letter and storms out of the library.

Three days later, Evan is called to the principal’s office where he discovers Connor committed suicide. There he meets Connor’s mother Cynthia (Amy Adams) and his stepfather Larry (Danny Pino). Cynthia gives Evan the personal letter that was found on Connor — construing that her son wrote this as a suicide note for Evan. Although Evan attempts to correct and explain, Cynthia and Larry are deeply touched by the correspondence. They believe Evan to be Connor’s only friend and they derive deep comfort from this idea. Understandably, Evan can’t bring himself to reveal the truth to Connor’s parents. His heart is in the right place. Instead, he propagates the lie with the help of his classmate Jared (Nik Dodani) out of a desire to further console his grieving parents.

Evan Hansen’s lie begins to have a positive effect on everyone. It becomes a blessing in his own life as well as within the Murphy family. They rediscover the son they never knew. Heidi and Larry’s marriage is strengthened. Meanwhile, their love for Evan provides the welcome support of a traditional nuclear family that Evan so desperately craves. This concerns his single mother Heidi (Julianne Moore), although she is still presented as a loving and supportive parent. Unfortunately, Heidi is frequently absent, constantly working simply to make ends meet. That’s admirable. Nothing wrong with that. Actress Julianne Moore is compelling in the role famously portrayed by actress Rachel Bay Jones on Broadway. Jones won a Tony for her achievement.

Live theater and movies are such different things. So let’s address the elephant in the (social media) room — Ben Platt’s much-maligned inability to pass for a high schooler. He’s 27 and for the record, I don’t have a problem with that. The principal actors playing high schoolers in Grease — one of the most beloved musicals of all time — were all at least in their mid-20s. Heck Stockard Channing was 34 when she played Betty Rizzo, and she was fabulous. What I do have a problem with is Platt’s cloying performance. It’s manic, overwhelmed by facial tics and twitches. He’s trying too hard. His hunched shoulders and cutesy expressions convey neediness. I guess that worked in the play where he was playing to the back of the house. Cinema is more reliant on subtlety. Platt is way overcompensating for his age and it’s distracting.

So what about the music? I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the most memorable songs. “Waving Through a Window”, “For Forever”, and “You will Be Found” are pleasant enough and Ben Platt is a competent singer. I’ll give him that. The real standout selection — in the movie anyway — is “Sincerely Me”. This is the moment where Evan enlists his friend, Jared, in creating fake backdated emails between him and Connor to corroborate his story. It’s the only production number featuring a sadly underused Colton Ryan. Their imagined camaraderie and friendship is one of the few moments where the film elicits pure joy.

Dear Evan Hansen is two-thirds of a good movie. It’s times like this, I wish I was a script doctor. I would’ve loved to get my hands on Steven Levenson’s screenplay. Before the final act, I was ready to give this film four stars. I found it a clever conceit how a little misunderstanding benefited everyone. Then the plot takes a fatal turn. A classmate named Alana Beck (Amanda Stenberg) senses some inconsistencies within Evan’s story. She confronts him about the veracity of his friendship with Connor. Everything from that moment on was a quick plunge into an epic fail. A sweet, uplifting tale descended into a funeral dirge on a dime. Like I got whiplash at how fast my joy turned to sorrow. By the end of the picture, I felt betrayed.

09-23-21

** POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD ***

It’s difficult to explain the extent of my disappointment without divulging specific details of the plot, but I can explain the nature of my frustration with an analogy. If your best friend has a baby and that newborn is shall we say, less than attractive, I see no harm in “misleading” them by saying their infant is beautiful. I would continue to promote that so-called “lie” because it harms no one. It merely creates happiness and preserves the friendship. Writer Steven Levenson is not of that mindset.