Archive for the Musical Category

Rocketman

Posted in Drama, Fantasy, Music, Musical with tags on June 4, 2019 by Mark Hobin

rocketmanSTARS3It once was common for musicals to debut on Broadway first and then get adapted into a movie.  Many have become the most beloved films of all time: West Side Story (1961), My Fair Lady (1964), The Sound of Music (1965), Grease (1978).   The converse was less common.  It took 34 years before The Producers, a 1967 film, was adapted into a Broadway musical.  I suspect the journey from screen to stage will be much shorter for Rocketman.  This feels like a theatrical production being tested on film before it makes its way to the Broadway stage.  It literally begins with affected flair.  Elton John (Taron Egerton) bedecked in an orange sequined devil horned jumpsuit walks through double doors.  He’s on his way to a performance, right?  Psych!  He’s entering rehab where he takes a seat center stage…er uh I mean the room.  The sight of him in that getup surrounded by conservatively dressed attendees is the picture of pure camp.  The singer is at a crossroads.  He’ll bare his soul for the next two hours as we backtrack through a presentation of melodic vignettes that got him to this point.  I’ve watched many episodes of VH1’s Behind the Music so I know the technique.

Musical memoirs often play fast and loose with the timeline for dramatic effect.  I have no problem with that device.  However, Rocketman does so with such careless abandon that it’s confusing to anyone who is familiar with Elton’s rise to fame.  The more oblivious you are to the singer’s history, the more you’ll accept the fabrication.  P.S. As far as I’m concerned, Elton John is to the 70s what Elvis was to the 50s or the Beatles were to the 60s.  So yeah I’m a fan.  “Everyone thinks it’s a biopic.  It isn’t,” star Taron Egerton has corrected in interviews.   Truer words were never spoken.  This is not a biography.  It’s a fantasy that utilizes his songs to create an experience.  The tunes are presented out of order and events condensed into tight timeframes.  The performances of his hits are curated to illustrate and accentuate the various point of his life.  Whether the piece actually existed at that point in time is unimportant.  It’s designed to appeal to the emotions, not the intellect.  In 2007 Julie Taymor directed Across the Universe which was a romantic drama that incorporated the music of the Beatles.  It wasn’t a biography of the band.  Dexter Fletcher has practically fashioned a fiction around Elton John’s life underscored by his own compositions.  It’s not deep but it can be dazzling.  After all, these are some of the greatest pop songs of all time.

Rocketman works best as a skillful presentation of Elton John’s work.  Various hits are interspersed into the singer’s life as a melodic vision of make-believe.  Taron Egerton is a competent vocalist, but this is not an imitation.  Egerton gives an interpretation of Elton John’s work.  The tunes highlight emotional beats.  The songs themselves are positive, but the drama connecting them is sad.  The track listing of this jukebox musical has been placed on shuffle.  Many liberties are taken. “I Want Love” makes an appearance 45 years before it was written.  It conveys Elton’s heartbreaking distance from his father as a young boy in the 1950s.  At an early audition in the 1960s, John belts a couple of bars of “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues,” a tune that didn’t come out until 1983.  Later he makes his U.S. debut in a legendary six-night sold-out run at West Hollywood’s Troubadour on Aug. 25, 1970.  He was a little known performer at the time but here he sings “Crocodile Rock”, a #1 smash he wouldn’t record until 1972 for his sixth album when he was well established.  Elton John’s marriage in 1984 to recording engineer Renate Blauel lasted 4 years but here it’s a sneeze-and-you’ll-miss-it occurrence.

You can’t make a movie with these incredible songs and not have it be good.  However, you can be fully aware of the director’s hand.  This feels like a staged theatrical show.  The most memorable sequence begins at a pool party.  “For my next act, I’m going to kill myself!” the singer declares.  John then flings himself from the diving board into the pool.  He sinks to the bottom where he encounters a 9-year-old version of himself performing “Rocket Man” on a tiny piano.  Synchronized swimmers rescue him and strap him to a stretcher where he is transported to a hospital where the white-uniformed staff lifts and twirls his lifeless body in a ballet that is so conspicuously aware of itself I couldn’t help but chuckle.  From there he’s donning a glittery Dodgers uniform for another performance.  That actually happened in 1975.  No idea what year it is when it occurs here.

There are some factual details mixed in amongst the fantasy.  In the mid-1960s he performed in a backing band for American soul singers touring the U.K.  A performer advises him “You got to kill the person you were born to be in order to become the person you want to be.”  That provides some insight into his stage persona.   He was a vulnerable introvert that became a confident extrovert on stage.  Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s longtime collaborator.   Their partnership is depicted as happenstance.  The record company knew a lyricist.  Elton John could write music. Boom!  You’re a team.  How the two wrote these enduring pop songs is never really delved into.  What is detailed is how these different personalities formed the basis of a long lasting friendship.  In contrast, his parents Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley (Steven Mackintosh) were a vexing source of unhappiness.  Their approval was a lifelong desire.  It fueled the anxiety over his own sexuality.  His manager John Reid (Richard Madden) would become his first important love. Their personal relationship would only last a few years but Reid would continue to manage his client professionally until 1998.

This is a song and dance extravaganza linked together by rote and superficial story-beats.  “I’m Still Standing” is the predictable climactic ditty.  Rocketman uses CGI to put Egerton — dressed in the white suit and straw hat Elton wore — directly into the old video.  I didn’t expect to see the actor inserted into the exact same footage, but I did see that predictable song choice coming from a mile away.  What elevates Rocketman is director Fletcher’s vision.  Let’s be clear.  Fletcher is a masterful director.  I don’t want my admiration to get lost in my measured take of the film itself.  He captures a heady mix of 70s excess.  It’s pure imagination and the musical numbers are so captivating.  There are moments where I was euphoric.  Fletcher clearly understands how to shoot a movie musical in the way that Vincente Minnelli and Stanley Donen understood the medium.  The choreography that accompanies “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is a transcendent sequence.  A tracking shot that winds back and forth through a carnival has star Taron Edgerton surrounded by various dancers that sing backup to his lead.  The setpiece had me practically standing on my seat clapping.   If only the rest of the movie produced such a giddy high.

06-01-19

Mary Poppins Returns

Posted in Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical with tags on December 27, 2018 by Mark Hobin

mary_poppins_returns_ver2STARS3.5Mary Poppins Returns answers the question: Is it still possible for a movie of today to promote sweetness and joy with unadulterated sincerity?  The response is a resounding yes.  This is an enterprise without guile or sarcasm.  It simply exists as a bit of wholesome entertainment, exactly as the 1964 version did.  54 years may separate these two films, but you’d never know it from this production.  The time is 1935 Depression-era London.  Jane (Emily Mortimer ) and Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw), the children from the original, are now adults.  Michael is a widower with three young children of his own: John (Nathanael Saleh) Annabel (Pixie Davies) and adorable star-in-the-making Georgie (Joel Dawson).  Since his wife’s death, Michael has fallen behind on the mortgage payments.  He has been informed by the president of Fidelity Fiduciary Bank (Colin Firth) that he has until Friday to pay off the entire loan, or he will lose the house. Jane and Michael remember their father had given them shares in the bank which would provide enough money to repay the debt.  The certificate would be the proof.  It has disappeared.  If only they knew where it was.

Mary Poppins Returns utilizes the blueprint of the first feature to fashion its tale.  The barely-there story is eerily similar, although plot is not really the point.  The drama basically concerns a missing piece of paper.  Its whereabouts are a nonentity for most of the picture.   The adventure highlights musical interludes.  This is a musical enchantment of wit and charm.  As the title has promised, Mary Poppins is back.  She’s exactly the same person and she hasn’t aged a day.  In Emily Blunt’s capable hands she is a walking, talking facsimile of Julie Andrews’ creation.  Not a unique achievement mind you, but a grand impression that trades on glorious nostalgia.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is Mary’s friend Jack.  He doesn’t work as a chimney sweep as portrayed by Dick Van Dyke in the earlier incarnation but as a lamplighter.  Miranda is delightful and his cockney accent is thankfully more subtle.

Mary Poppins Returns isn’t a sequel so much as a remake.  A magnificent remix of the 1964 version that mimics its every song, character, story beat, and style.  Instead of helping the kids tidy their nursery (“A Spoonful of Sugar”) Mary encourages them to take a bath (“Can You Imagine That?”).  Rather than jumping into a painting (“Jolly Holiday”), Mary, Jack, and the kids enter a ceramic bowl (“The Royal Doulton Music Hall”).  Meeting cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) and her “Turning Turtle” song is like bumping into Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn) when he bellows “I Love To Laugh”.  Jack croons “Trip A Little Light Fantastic” with the other lamplighters and it harkens back to the chimney sweeps’ “Step In Time” number.  My side by side comparisons may sound like a carp but the production numbers are so beautifully realized that I embraced the happiness.   They succeed by exploiting the euphoria of wonder and color.  The very idea that a movie in 2018 would reproduce the very same aesthetic as a picture from the 1960s is a fairly risky venture.  I was transported to an earlier era when movies were different.  If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then Mary Poppins Returns has just paid the original film the most awesome compliment imaginable.

12-19-18

Beauty and the Beast

Posted in Drama, Family, Fantasy, Musical with tags on March 18, 2017 by Mark Hobin

beauty_and_the_beast_ver3STARS3.5Disney’s current trend of turning its animated classics into live-action movies has been a pretty lucrative business. Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book have all done big business. The recipe is simple. Take an existing fictional work that is beloved by millions and reproduce with real people. This satisfies a thirst for nostalgia which ensures there will already be a built-in audience ready to watch. The formula works so well it seems almost too easy. It’s not difficult to dismiss the practice as a quick cash grab. Yet, anyone who has ever looked upon any of these films can distinguish that these aren’t slapdash efforts. These meticulously created works, while lacking an original story, still present something magical at the cinema.

The 2017 version of Beauty and the Beast is a noble addition to the Disney treasury. We all know the “tale as old as time”. It’s the chronicle of Belle played by a no-nonsense Emma Watson. Belle is a smart, independent young woman at odds with the bourgeois habits of her provincial townsfolk. Luke Evans is Gaston, an arrogant suitor. LeFou (Josh Gad) is his bumbling sidekick. However, Belle has no use for Gaston or anyone else in the town for that matter. Personally, I’ve always found her opening song decrying the unsophisticated townsfolk as insufferably elitist, but hey that’s just me. Nevertheless, she gains our sympathy when she is taken prisoner by a beast in his fortress. Dan Stevens portrays the part in a motion capture performance, rather than relying on prosthetics. Her initial fears dissipate as she is befriended by the enchanted denizens of the castle staff. Slowly she grows to see beyond the Beast’s hideous exterior and see the true heart of the man within.

This isn’t director Bill Condon’s foray into the movie musical. His production of Dreamgirls in 2006 was a lavish adaptation of the 1981 Broadway hit. His reworking here evokes the traditional theater pieces of a bygone era. It’s lavish, grand and cheerfully old fashioned. That the achievement seems rooted in the musical tradition of a bygone era is a colossal feat of misdirection given all the modern CGI employed here. It’s seamlessly utilized to bring the inanimate objects of the castle to life: the candelabra (Ewan McGregor), the mantel clock (Ian McKellen), the harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), , the wardrobe (Audra McDonald), the feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and last but certainly not least, the teapot (Emma Thompson) and teacup (Nathan Mack). It’s not easy to embody characters we already know and love, but the actors, mostly only heard, lend their voices with sincerity and warmth.

Emma Watson makes a self-assured Belle. The actress is recognizable to audiences as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series and that familiarity, along with her personality, fulfills this role. Dan Stevens is a suitably charismatic beast. Together they have chemistry. Their discussion in the library over the merits of Shakespeare is the proof we need that these characters have souls. She falls in love with his goodness, but he is also her intellectual equal. It’s not merely his appearance that makes him different. It’s his mind as well. Also amongst the humans is Gaston, a fittingly cast Luke Evans as Belle’s narcissistic wannabe suitor and his fawning pal LeFou, in a bit of comic relief by Josh Gad.

Screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) gently tweak the story to give added depth to the fable with which we are already acquainted. Don’t worry. This isn’t meant to replace your fond memories of the animated 1991 classic. It’s simply there to offer something more. And more is what you’ll get. More songs! Three new numbers are added by Alan Menken and lyricist Tim Rice. More script! It’s 45 minutes longer than the cartoon. More costumes! More flair! More! More! More!   The songs are supported by the spectacle.  The famous number “Be Our Guest” is a veritable Busby Berkeley extravaganza inside the magnificent home. My mouth stood agape as the dazzling routine unfolded before my eyes in a specular vision of color and music.

Beauty and the Beast is a production designer’s dream. The sets, locations, graphics, props, lighting, and costumes are beyond compare. In particular, there’s a physicality to these locales that make you believe that these places do indeed exist. The town is a quaint fairy tale community and the majestic castle has an impressive gothic air. The overall look is so fully realized, you’ll forgive that the plot holds no surprises. Yes for all its charm, this merely remains a beautifully realized imitation of its predecessor. The accomplishment is undeniably gorgeous but not visionary. If the very idea of a live-action reimagining of Beauty and the Beast offends you, then this picture will not change your perceptions. On the other hand, if you’re intrigued by the idea, then the movie will be a delight. I’m pleased to say I was thoroughly entertained.

03-16-17

Sing

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Drama, Family, Music, Musical with tags on December 26, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sing_zpskxzncfte.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBuster Moon (Matthew McConaughey) is a plucky koala who owns a music theater. Lately, his productions have bombed and now he is in financial trouble. He loves the concert hall for it has a rich history. In an effort to save his failing business he decides to hold a singing contest, not unlike American Idol. He starts by holding auditions and we’re introduced to an interesting assortment of animal critters. Sing is the latest offering from Illumination Entertainment, the animation company owned by Universal Studios. They scored big this Summer with The Secret Life of Pets and it looks as though they’ve got another major hit on their hands.

Sing gets a lot right, starting with juggling a colorful cast with ease. The screenplay wisely takes the time to thoughtfully delve into the backstories of various individuals. We become emotionally invested in these critters. Five leads emerge: Rosita (Reese Witherspoon) is a pig who is a devoted wife and loving mother. She longs to return to the entertainment spotlight of her teenage years. Mike the mouse croons like Frank Sinatra and has got the confidence to match. Ash is a porcupine who comprises one-half of a punk rock duo with her arrogant boyfriend Lance. She can belt it out, but hasn’t been given the chance. Meena is a shy teen elephant with an incredible voice. Unfortunately her crippling stage fright holds her back. Lastly, there’s Johnny (Taron Egerton), a British mountain gorilla. He longs to perform, but his father wants him to take part in the family’s criminal escapades. These characters occasionally touch on ambitions that can be a bit clichéd. They may follow conventional tropes but they manage to engage. These are reasonably well-developed personalities with some unexpected depth. The narrative could have easily worked as a live action movie with human actors.

“Sing, sing a song / Sing out loud / Sing out strong…” sang Karen Carpenter in a 1973 hit song penned by Joe Raposo. Oddly enough, that similarly titled ditty is NOT included in Sing. This jukebox musical contains over 85 tunes ranging from 1940s standards by Frank Sinatra to current pop singles. These are heard throughout both in the background of scenes or sung in competition by the contestants. The compositions work and many actually feel as though they were written for the drama. Katy Perry’s “Firework” as sung by Rosita (Witherspoon), and Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” sung by Johnny (Egerton) as his climatic number at the end, are galvanizing pop hits that pluck your heartstrings. Johnny’s incarcerated father discovers his son’s vocal talent from the TV in his jail cell. I can’t explain why I got choked up, but I did gosh-darn it! There’s a lot here that feels familiar. I mean did we really need yet another version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”? Please retire that ballad immediately. Nevertheless, I freely admit that it’s beautifully sung here by Tori Kelly. 2016 has been a stellar year for animated films. The bar has been raised incredibly high. Sing doesn’t reach the heights of the year’s very best (Zootopia), but I still left the cinema with a smile.

12-22-16

La La Land

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical, Romance with tags on December 13, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo la_la_land_ver3_zpssdnqlcs6.jpg photo starrating-5stars.jpgI want to live in Los Angeles. Not the real LA mind you, but the glittering jewel of a city in Damien Chazelle’s La La Land. The city often gets a bad rap. There are the oft-mentioned reasons: smog, extreme traffic, insufficient public transportation, crime, gangs, the pseudo-spiritualism, the unchecked vanity, the obsession with celebrities. It kind of seems like everyone is trying to make it into show business there. Easier said than done.  It wasn’t nicknamed the city of broken dreams for nothing. And yet millions choose to call LA home. La La Land makes me understand why.

The city isn’t famous for its culture. Yet Chazelle sees the beauty within. La La Land is a practically a tourism ad making use of many real Los Angeles landmarks. It’s only a matter of time before the Hollywood location tour pops up. There‘s Griffith Park, the Observatory there, Angels Flight Funicular, Colorado Street Bridge, the Rialto theater, Hermosa Beach Pier. The “You Are the Star” Mural at Hollywood & Wilcox provides a backdrop. Each location becomes an enchanting setting. Anyone who has ever found themselves in LA’s nightmarish bumper to bumper gridlock would beg to differ. However, even a traffic jam seems like a wondrous delight. In the film’s opening scene, Chazelle makes congestion on the 110-105 interchange exactly that. Again I emphasize that this is not a set and the experience is all the more galvanizing because of it. As the characters slowly emerge from the protective confines of their metals cells, they begin to sing “Another Day of Sun”. Gradually getting on top of their cars in a rapturous display of dancing by choreographer Mandy Moore (not the pop singer turned actress). It’s a fantastic way to start off the picture. It’s so captivating, I was overcome with emotion. The way it harnesses joy out of the everyday is magical.

First and foremost, La la Land is a love story. Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) pursue each other. They’ve got palpable chemistry. This is actually the third time the two have been on screen together Crazy, Stupid, Love and Gangster Squad were the others. Emma Stone is such a pleasure. As the jittery aspiring actress waiting for her big break, she is an anxious bundle of charm. Ryan Gosling plays a confident but frustrated jazz pianist. He dreams of opening his own club but earns a living by playing Xmas songs in a cocktail bar. Deep down he prefers the traditions of the past while being forced to adopt the affectations of the modern era. John Legend is his friend Keith that looks to the future. “Jazz is constantly evolving,” Keith argues. Neither side is wrong according to the film. It’s not being true to yourself that’s the problem. Mia supports this idea. Sebastian accepts a well-paying job playing backup electronic keyboards for Keith’s commercially successful band. “Did you like it?” Sebastian asks of Mia after a very well-attended concert of jazz-pop fusion. “Yes, but did you?” she responds.

They’re a pair out of some long lost Hollywood musical of the 1950s. In a previous generation, Ryan would be played by Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly. Gosling is certainly not a proficient singer/dancer like Kelly. Emma Stone can’t vocalize like Judy Garland either. Stone has what you might call a delicate whisper of a voice. Damien Chazelle is aware they aren’t up to that standard, but that’s OK. In some ways, their inadequacies are part of their appeal. There is a lack of pretense and polish to their numbers that actually makes this more accessible and less artificial. When they burst into song, the expression appears almost naturally – an outpouring of their passion already existing on the screen. What they miss in singing ability, they more than overcompensate for with feeling. Those overly produced pitch-perfect confections on the TV show Glee may be flawless from a sonic standpoint, but they often forget the human element that gives the composition feeling and soul. When these individuals croon they reach for your heart first. Your brain might tell you they aren’t accomplished vocalists, but your heart tells you they’re in love. That is what ultimately matters in a story about human emotion.

We already knew director Damien Chazelle was talented. His last feature Whiplash garnered 5 Oscar nominations and 3 wins, including one for its star J. K. Simmons. He briefly appears in a cameo here. However following up success can often be an intimidating task for a newcomer. Damien Chazelle tackled a daunting project. Musicals aren’t common these days. Oh sure there’s Disney’s animated flicks and the occasional Broadway adaptation, but most younger moviegoers are unfamiliar with the idea. When actors break into song it can feel corny. An indifferent viewer rejects the idea with disbelief. How do you stage a production grounded in the past but present it to today’s jaded audiences? What Damien Chazelle pulls off in La La Land is nothing less than miraculous.

In La La Land the “City of Angels” is reimagined through the glorious sheen of the late 40s/early 50s Hollywood musical. For examples, watch An American in Paris, Singin’ in the Rain, or The Band Wagon to see what I mean. What makes Chazelle’s 3rd feature so incredible is how brilliantly he understand how to reference history. He skillfully recontextualizes the vernacular of the American musical for the modern age. The exquisite score by Justin Hurwitz, elaborate production design by David Wasco, those costumes by Mary Zophres, the Technicolor, the romance – La La Land‘s aesthetic borrows from history but the time period and the characters are rooted firmly in contemporary society. 2016 is all here: cell phones, Hybrid vehicles, the part-time job as a barista. Chazelle makes our present era seem so much more magical. There is an exuberant quality I haven’t seen recently.  Mia and Sebastian radiate sweetness too. This uncorrupted pair shares a purity. You want them to be together. Their emotion is real. You fall in love. This why we go to the cinema. If I may paraphrase a famous expression once said by Humphrey Bogart, La La Land is the stuff that [movies] are made of. It is sublime.

12-08-16

Sing Street

Posted in Drama, Music, Musical with tags on May 8, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo sing_street_zpsduq0wmav.jpg photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgA new film from director John Carney is reason to celebrate. The filmmaker specializes in low-budget indie pictures where music plays an integral part. He knows a thing or two about constructing a compelling romance too. Sweetness, optimism and soul – he includes all the things that turn a movie into something you want to keep close to your heart. Once won the Academy Award for Best Original Song for 2007. In 2013 Begin Again was nominated for the very same award. Now comes Sing Street and if there’s any justice, one of these tunes will get nominated too. Honestly I’d be happy if the entire Oscar category was made up of choices from this film. May I suggest “The Riddle Of The Model”, “Up”, “To Find You”, “Drive It Like You Stole It”, and “Girls”.  The songs are exuberant. What a delight that the substance of the emotional story, matches the music for sincerity and charm.

Sing Street is the sweet tale of a teen boy (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) in 1980s Dublin who likes a girl (Lucy Boynton) and forms a band just to impress her. The drama and their group, is named after Synge Street, an all-boys Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers that lead vocalist Conor attends. Largely autobiographical, it’s also the same school that director John Carney attended back in the corresponding decade. One day our young hero spies beautiful Raphina standing on the street. He starts a conversation. She seems disinterested. He invites her to be in their music video. She accepts. Just one problem. He doesn’t have a band.

The initial preparations sound like a set-up for failure, but we’re living in the 1980s where a little bit of know-how and a whole lot of confidence is all you need to succeed. Conor, who decides to call himself Cosmo, gradually assembles a rock group selected from his classmates. Truth be told, these kids have a lot of talent. I only wish we got to know their personalities a little better. I have never seen actor Ferdia Walsh-Peelo before, but he is positively winning. Lucy Boynton is Raphina his love interest who stars as the model in their video. Her influence is felt. She introduces the guys to hair gel and eyeliner, styling them in the New Romantic movement of inspirations like Haircut One Hundred and A Flock Of Seagulls. Their look gleefully straddles the line between amateurish and cool.

“The Riddle Of The Model” is the first single of their newly formed band. The accompanying video they shoot is pure joy. Fun and infectious, it’s edited like those primitive MTV videos of the early 1980s. It’s a testament to the quality of the arrangements that the original songs stand up alongside actual 80s hits by Hall & Oates, Duran Duran and The Cure. Their melodic style sort of imitates the new wave/pop hits of the era. They flourish but not without first encountering the requisite challenges that you know they’ll overcome by the time the drama is over. Conor deals with a tough classmate and an even tougher principal. No the narrative isn’t the most innovative thing in the world, but it sure is entertaining. Released in April and steadily expanding into May, this is the kind of little production that can easily get lost in a summer of superheroes, alien attacks and talking fish. Hopefully it will ultimately find a place in the hearts of the masses over the passage of time. It’s among the best movies I’ve seen this year.

04-28-16

The Blues Brothers

Posted in Action, Comedy, Music, Musical on May 28, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Blues Brothers photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgThe Blues Brothers began as a novelty act on Saturday Night Live on January 17, 1976. Dressed in bee outfits, the duo sang “I’m a King Bee”. They made 3 appearances total on the show but their fame grew far beyond these performances. The invented personas and life histories for the Blues Brothers followed later. John Belushi was lead vocalist “Joliet Jake” Blues and Dan Aykroyd was the harmonica player/backing singer Elwood Blues. Dressed in iconic matching suits, skinny ties, dark glasses and fedoras. The actual band, was composed of well-known and respected musicians. Despite the comedic leanings of the sketch TV show, their love for the blues was anything but a joke. The Holland Tunnel Blues bar was a place that Aykroyd rented (or bought?) for the cast to hang out following shows. It was here that Aykroyd inspired Belushi’s interest in the blues. The popularity of the pair led to the release of their debut album on November 28, 1978. A runaway success, Briefcase Full of Blues reached #1 on the Billboard 200 and went double platinum.

Given the chart success of their album, I suppose a feature film was only a matter of time. The plot is elementary. After Elwood Blues’ brother, Jake is released from prison, the two visit the orphanage where they were raised. It is there that they learn from Sister Mary Stigmata (a.k.a. The Penguin) that they must raise $5000 in order to save their beloved childhood home. The brothers decide to put their blues band back together and stage a big gig as a fundraising event. But can they earn enough money? It helps that they are on a “mission from God” as Elwood reminds us.

The Blues Brothers is a spectacular blockbuster filled with car chases and big, bright musical numbers. It seems so upbeat on the surface, but it was a nightmare behind the scenes. The 6 months in development script, primarily written by Aykroyd, was an unwieldy tome that needed to be hacked down to size by John Landis who also got screenwriting credit. A ballooning budget and Belushi’s cocaine addiction, compounded a production that was wildly behind schedule. The action featured perhaps the most destructive race of cars in pursuit ever filmed, part of which takes place inside a shopping mall. The picture cost $38 million dollars, an unprecedented amount for a comedy at the time. The critics were unconvinced. Nevertheless the megahit grossed $57.2 million in the summer of 1980 making it the 10th biggest movie of the year with the same frat-boy contingent that made Animal House a classic. Both directed by John Landis and both starring John Belushi.

Over time The Blues Brothers has grown in stature to become a cult classic. Separated from the storied Hollywood backstory it’s easy to see why. The chronicle is host to a plethora of cameos including R&B legends Cab Calloway, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and James Brown. The love the filmmakers have for this music is obvious. The production numbers are buoyant and sensational featuring a cast of hundreds dancing with a joie de vivre rarely captured on screen. Aretha Franklin performs “Think” as a warning to her husband in a diner and the moment is miraculous. Granted the plot of this overlong 135 minute extravaganza is simplistic in the extreme. The story is essentially an an ever escalating car chase that includes the Chicago police force, Illinois state troopers, a parade of Nazis, an outraged country & western band and Jake’s jilted girlfriend (Carrie Fisher). But heck if the whole thing isn’t enjoyable fun. Laying waste to the greater Chicago area never felt so joyous….or soulful.

05-20-15

Pitch Perfect 2

Posted in Comedy, Music, Musical on May 20, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Pitch Perfect 2 photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpg“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” That’s the apparent mantra of Pitch Perfect 2. In 2012, Pitch Perfect was an obvious riff on Bring It On, but instead of competitive cheerleading, it was a cappella singing. Despite the familiarity, it was a delightful bit of fluff . The presentation was charming and it had a nice soundtrack to boot. Now in 2015 we have the sequel. Perhaps less innovative given we’ve seen this all before, but nevertheless it’s enchanting as well.

The saga picks up 3 years after the original. The Barden Bellas — collegiate champions — are now headed by Beca (Anna Kendrick) and Chloe (Brittany Snow). They’re rounded out by the same team of lovable music geeks, including goofy Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), soft-spoken Korean Lilly (Hana Mae Lee), lesbian African-American Cynthia-Rose (Ester Dean) and new Guatemalan exchange student Flo (Chrissie Fit). Talented and likable characters all. Fat Amy comes across the best because she seems like a fully formed individual. The rest have apparently been assigned one funny gag each to which they apparently must promote into the ground. Flo grew up very poor for example and she reminds us of this fact over and over and over. They’re not the focus so these formulaic conventions don’t detract, but a little more nuance to their personalities would’ve been appreciated.

There are some random subplots too. Beca interns at a high profile recording studio headed by a cruel music producer (Keegan-Michael Key). Fat Amy’s burgeoning romance with Bumper (Adam DeVine) continues to grow. And how will new recruit freshman Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) fare in the group? She is a legacy whose mother was also a Barden Bella. Her songwriting talents blend with Beca’s producing skills. Emily’s original composition “Flashlight” seeks to duplicate the success of “Cups” from the last film. Emily even develops a little on-screen romance with adorkable Treblemaker Benji (Ben Platt). Unfortunately his fellow Treblemaker Jesse (Skylar Astin) barely registers any screen time in this outing. Oh but Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins are back as politically incorrect color commentators. They’re good for some giggles. In fact, Pitch Perfect 2 is funnier. The script by Kay Cannon and Mickey Rapkin keeps the rapid-fire humor coming at a steady pace. An offhand reference to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor? Impressive.

Plotwise this is virtually the same thing. The story even begins with yet another public disgrace at a competition. They’re performing live for President Obama and one of the girls has a, shall we say, wardrobe malfunction. The incident is dubbed “Muffgate”. The team must now regroup and prove themselves once again. The disgraced Bellas are banned from contests at the collegiate level. Although they are not prevented from competing internationally. Thank goodness for loopholes. This time it’s at the world championships in Copenhagen where they must face rivals from schools on a global level. Thing is, no U.S. a cappella group has ever won this event before. Can they do it? If you really think they don’t have a chance then can I interest you in purchasing some prime Florida swampland?

To be quite honest, the predictability of the narrative is kind of the selling point. You come for songs, jokes and camaraderie and you’re given exactly that. However now the laughs are bigger, the music is better, and the cameos are more badass. I can’t spoil who pops up, but there are some very amusing appearances. Several are highlighted in an exclusive invite only a cappella riff-off. (YES another one). Here the Bellas battle against one special guest team of note I won’t reveal. Also competing at the party are all-boy harmony group The Treblemakers, Barden University alumni The Tonehangers, and a spectacular German group co-led by Kommissar (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) and Pieter (Flula Borg). Das Sound Machine is a formidable opponent of Teutonic vocal precision and intense choreography. They are the primary antagonists of the film. Kommissar “actually speaks 8 languages, but loser is not one of them.” They perform “Uprising” by Muse at a car show and it’s breathtaking. I can say without hesitation that it was THEIR finale at the world championships that impressed me the most.

Pitch Perfect 2 goes down easily by championing wholesome values like friendship, teamwork and the importance of practice in between gently outrageous PG-13 rated behavior. The first category in the mid-story riff-off is “Songs About Butts” which allows for an admittedly inspired medley of “Thong Song”, “Shake Your Booty”, “Low”, “Bootylicious” and “Baby Got Back.” The musical ditty is just one of many exhilarating numbers throughout the film. I didn’t expect to hear Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” or Fall Out Boy’s “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark”. It’s the music that propels this retread into a must see experience.

05-17-15

The Last Five Years

Posted in Comedy, Drama, Music, Musical on February 25, 2015 by Mark Hobin

The Last 5 Years photo starrating-3stars.jpgThe Last Five Years begins on an elegiac note. Anna Kendrick’s beautifully sung “Still Hurting” is a mournful ballad about the breakup of her marriage. Yup, the couple breaks up….in 5 years according to the title.  You would call this production a romantic musical.  Although the tone for this genre is usually buoyant, you realize right from the start that this going to be anything but a happy tale.

Kendrick is Cathy Hiatt. Her story begins at the end and is told in reverse as we progress to her happy beginning. Actor Jeremy Jordan is Jamie Wellerstein. His account is told chronologically and reaches the same conclusion but in the opposite direction from her. Technically there are other people on screen, but the drama only involves these two characters. Back and forth their sagas are interwoven. When she’s singing, we’re going backwards. When he’s crooning, we’re going forward. In the middle they sing a duet. It chronicles the few ups but mostly downs in a five-year relationship between the rising novelist (him) and the struggling actor (her).

The Last Five Years is based on a 2002 Off Broadway production written by Jason Robert Brown, a 3-time Tony Award winner (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County). Forget the story because this one is absolutely rote. That doesn’t have to be a problem. Some of the greatest musicals of all time (Singin’ in the Rain for example) are nothing more than a fabrication designed to highlight a bunch of great songs. The tunes in this case are good, but not great. The best belong to Anna. Beside the aforementioned “Still Hurting”, there’s “I Can Do Better Than That” about her friend who ended up in Smalltown, USA.  There’s also a delightfully ubeat ditty “A Summer in Ohio”. It’s imaginatively staged as she’s talking from afar with her hubby via video internet chat. The creative number is performed with backup dancers practicing their routines at the theater .

The strength of any musical rests on its music. These melodies are odd. They’re not fabricated using a typical song structure made up of an intro/verses/chorus components. Instead they’re sung dialogue that propel a weak story. Sort of like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg but obviously not a film as sacred to aesthetes. What The Last Five Years has going for it is a nice showcase for Anna Kendrick to sing. She could sing the dictionary and it would sound delightful. She’s got a fantastic voice and she interprets the hell out of these songs. She employs just enough vocal interpretation to be interesting, but not so much that seems like she’s showing off. The play embraces its own artificial theatricality. The issue is that their “love” is never uplifting. There’s precious little chemistry between the two leads. This is partly due to the fact that they’re portraying a fighting couple through most of the picture. Their disenchantment with each other kind of rubs off on the viewer. However the sheer singing talent of Ana Kendrick compels me to give this a pass.

02-24-15

Into the Woods

Posted in Comedy, Family, Fantasy, Musical on December 27, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Into the Woods photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgA humble baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) have longed to have a child. Apparently their neighbor, an ugly old witch (Meryl Streep), placed a curse on his house when the baker’s father was caught stealing from the old hag. The witch is willing to reverse the spell. But only because she wants to be beautiful again. She cannot touch the objects she needs to accomplish this task and so she delegates securing the artifacts to the couple. The witch requires (1) a cow as white as milk, (2) a cape as red as blood, (3) hair as yellow as corn and (4) a slipper as pure as gold. Anyone familiar with fairy tales will recognize these items. Writer James Lapine has interpolated the stories of Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) & the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) in an altogether new take on traditional fables.

Playwright turned screenwriter James Lapine adapts his Tony Award–winning 1987 Broadway musical highlighting music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. For roughly 75 minutes – 60% of the film – the formula works. The script celebrates classic fairy tales from the likes of The Brothers Grimm with a captivating presentation. The production design is lavish featuring costumes and sets that compare favorably with classic movie musicals. The songs are catchy too. Certainly chief among these is the duet between Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen as whiny princes. In “Agony” they lament they cannot be with the women they desire. Pine is typecast as Cinderella’s caddish suitor and he’s enjoyable. “I was raised to be charming, not sincere.” Who knew Pine could sing? His scene with Rapunzel’s Prince (Billy Magnussen) as they splash amongst the tiny waterfalls of a brook is the musical high point in an opus that has a few. I’ll also include Anna Kendrick’s “On the Steps of the Palace” and Meryl Streep’s “Stay With Me” as well.

Into the Woods is half of a good film. The need to subvert conventional fairy tales exists during the first portion but it does so from a place that uplifts the source material. The take is ironic at times and yet the script still keeps an air of sentimentality that is enticing. Unfortunately the mindset to trash “happily ever after” actually tanks the production in the second half. There is the first artificial ending. It’s optimistic and glorious in a winking way. But then the movie continues on for another 50 minutes and the results are disastrous. As the story carries forward, the wife of the fallen giant is now angry. She terrorizes the countryside looking for the boy (Jack) responsible for the death of her husband. Everything upbeat is subsequently destroyed with little regard for the likable personalities they had originally created. A sample “modern sensibility” is when Prince Charming makes a pass at the Baker’s wife. Ew. It ultimately lumps along to a complete bummer of a conclusion that essentially undoes everything wonderful in the first section. Rarely has a movie gone so quickly from a whimsical delight to a dispirited drag. My advice? Stop watching after the mock ending.  Up until then it’s a really entertaining film.

12-25-14