Posts Tagged musical

Frozen II

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee.  Voices of Idina Menzel, Kristen Bell, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Martha Plimpton, and Evan Rachel Wood.

The relationship with a sister is something to be cherished. That was the driving force behind Frozen, and it continues to be so for this originally unplanned sequel. The relationship between Anna and Elsa (Kristen Bell and Idina Menzel reprising their roles) receives more attention here, as the bond between them is once again tested in a journey into an enchanted forest, as fears of change, isolation, and issues of trust threaten to ruin their relationship once again.

If you’re saying, “didn’t they resolve those issues at the end of the first film,” yes, they did. However, since when has anyone just stopped a destructive habit after doing it for a lifetime? The unconditional love between the two sisters remains, and how they navigate threats with that as their foundation is where the sequel places its focus.

I loved Frozen when it came out. I saw it back to back days in the theater. At the time, I admitted that the secret villain twist was obviously an afterthought that didn’t work at all, but I thought everything else was fantastic, except for a couple clunker songs such as “Fixer Upper” and “Reindeer(s) Are Better Than People.” It was frustrating when Disney put all their promotions toward “Let It Go” as the best song, when it clearly was (and is) “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”—a song about one sister begging the other for a relationship, which is the heart of the film. I can’t even hear the first notes of it without tearing up.

Some of the weaknesses have become more noticeable over time. I still enjoy Frozen immensely, although not quite as much as I originally did.

I love and appreciate this sequel more than I ever cared for the first one. The score is more uniformly excellent with fewer standout numbers, but a higher caliber of songs overall. None of them are as good as “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” But almost all are on par with “For the First Time in Forever” and “Let It Go.” I really appreciated the way the songs set up one another and connect to the main themes of isolation and trust in the midst of life’s changes.

“All is Found” is a lullaby that sets the mood for the film that follows, promising a story of mystery and fantasy that also has a sense of tenderness in the midst of fear. “Some Things Never Change” functions similarly to “For the First Time in Forever,” but it introduces several subplots and grounds the characters in what’s most important to get them through the subsequent journey in which things will obviously change.

Elsa’s big “I want” song this time is “Into the Unknown,” which seems to be where Disney is (correctly) placing its Oscar hopes. For my money, it’s a stronger song than “Let It Go,” not only musically, but also for being the instigation of the plot and for having a satisfying dramatic answer in “Show Yourself,” which occurs in the second act of the film. Idina Menzel once again belts the demanding range with authority, transitioning from the insecurity of the verse to the confidence of the chorus.

“When I Am Older” continues the carefree shuffle from “In Summer” into another Olaf solo about learning to make sense of the world, while searching for Samantha, even if you don’t know anyone named Samantha. Josh Gad is every bit as funny as he was in the first film, and his new song here is at least as good. Olaf’s philosophical crisis is not only great comic relief, but ties into the plot nicely as well.

Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, returning) gets a longer solo than “Reindeers Are Better Than People” with “Lost in the Woods,” which is the power ballad ending the first act of the film instead of “Let It Go.” This is a brilliant idea on several levels. For most of the film the characters are literally lost in the woods and struggling to prevent themselves from becoming lost emotionally from one another. Taking the focus briefly away from the sisters appropriately heightens the conflict at the narrative center of the movie.

Anna has her own solo this time as well. Strongly emphasizing the heart of both this film and its predecessor is the relationship of the two sisters, it follows both of Elsa’s solos, indicating she cannot complete her journey without the aid of her sister. “The Next Right Thing” is also a powerful testament to finding your way out of depression and helplessness even when it doesn’t seem possible. Kristen Bell certainly does not have the voice Menzel does, but the intimacy and tenderness of her performance is a haunting complement to the virtuosity of Elsa’s songs.

As I said, “Into the Unknown” is the catalyst that sets the plot in motion. After Elsa hears a voice reminding her of her mother, she accidentally wakes up the four spirits of enchanted forest (earth, wind, fire, and water), endangering the lives of the people of Arendelle. She, Anna, Kristoff, Sven, and Olaf set off to the forest to find out what has upset the spirits and appease them before it’s too late. The main plot points are fairly obvious well in advance, but that plot is primarily a backdrop for the relationship between Anna and Elsa, which takes forefront here more powerfully than the first film.

Similar to Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the sins of the proper, civilized court are exposed and atoned for in the wild fantasy of the woods. Anyone who has seen any recent family films will probably be able to guess who committed the unatoned for sin, but once again, that’s not the main focus of this movie. The bond between sisters and friends forms the film’s center, and when people we trust betray us, monsters chase us, or any unknown confronts us, it’s those bonds that hopefully remain constant, and they form the roots from which we grow.

In the midst of his philosophical musings, Olaf asks if the enchanted forest will transform them. He then wonders what a transformation is. There’s a small one just after that when Elsa confronts the fire spirit with calmness and acceptance, making what was first seen as a monster into a cute harmless lizard. It’s a small act of kindness, which in turn foreshadows greater acts of compassion and love that allow the fears of the unknown to be a source of transformation and not destruction.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

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Cats

Year of Release: 2019      Directed by Tom Hooper.  Starring Jennifer Hudson, Judi Dench, Francesca Hayward, Idris Elba, Taylor Swift, Ian McKellen, Jason Derulo, James Corden, and Rebel Wilson.

To answer the most important question regarding Tom Hooper’s adaptation of Cats: does Jennifer Hudson have the vocal chops to pull off “Memory,” yes, she most emphatically does. Is it enough to save a train wreck of a movie that, with few exceptions, is a series of mind-bogglingly bad decisions? For that matter is “Memory” enough to save the show itself which is likewise a series of (less) bad decisions?

Before I brand myself as a hater of Cats the stage show, which is a more or less enjoyable two-plus-hour dance recital if you can accept it for that, let me sincerely say that it has several decent songs and the choreography is fun to watch. The songs I particularly enjoy from the show are “Memory,” “Jellicle Songs for Jellicle Cats,” “Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat,” and “Macavity the Mystery Cat.” The song (yes, singular) that I enjoyed in this presentation was “Memory,” in spite of Hooper’s attempts to sabotage it.

Hudson lands the one big showstopper that’s far more difficult to sing well than most people give it credit for. Hooper then follows it with a reaction shot of two humans imitating cats that elicited deserved howls of laughter in my theater. If following the one earned moment of pathos in the movie with that wasn’t bad enough, Victoria (Francesca Hayward) then sings the desperate Oscar attempt for best original song, cowritten by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Taylor Swift: “Beautiful Ghosts.” It’s the equivalent of a figure skater nailing the triple axel and then twice falling flat on her face while trying to turn around at the end of the rink.

I understand that the truncated act I version of “Memory” is followed with the full version of “Beautiful Ghosts,” so following the full version of “Memory” with a shorter reprise of “Beautiful Ghosts” could make structural sense. This ignores several important points. First, “Beautiful Ghosts” is lyrically a watered-down version of “Memory.” No musical needs to a new song to repeat the emotions of the song immediately preceding it. Second, “Beautiful Ghosts” stands out structurally and musically like a sore thumb from the rest of the score. Finally, it’s an okay song at best, so placing it next to the most famous song in the show is a particularly bad idea.

Speaking of bad ideas, possibly the worst one plaguing this movie is the decision that the paper-thin plot tacked onto the original needed more explanation. As a result, ridiculous and redundant expository dialogue has been introduced to the originally completely sung musical, explaining at the end of the Jellicle Ball, one cat, chosen by Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench), gets to go to the Heavyside Layer to be reborn. A seven-year old could have told you that from watching the stage show without it being explained to them, but apparently Hooper and screenwriter Lee Hall think the average movie goer in 2019 is less intelligent than the average seven-year-old. It doesn’t make the plot more sensical—that’s not possible—it just makes the stupidity of it more apparent.

Even more mind-numbingly, all of this is being explained to Victoria, the youngest and newest cat attending her first Jellicle ball. In the stage show, the performing cats break the fourth wall, addressing the non-feline audience to explain the “Naming of Cats” and who the various cats are. It makes no sense at all that this needs to be explained to a cat, an animal with one of the best instincts. Inconsistently, the movie also doesn’t entirely abandon the fourth-wall breaking. For the final number, “The Addressing of Cats,” Old Deuteronomy looks right at the camera, presumably forgetting about the audience-surrogate Victoria standing right next to her. Or maybe it’s because Victoria has now become a Jellice cat, which is the one unexplained aspect of the stage show that the movie insists on keeping a mystery.

I’ve been negative long enough. Francesca Hayward is a very good dancer and singer, and from the little bit she has to act, presumably a good actress too, knowing how to emote with her body and eyes. Ian McKellen’s 110% commitment to mimicking a cat is more enjoyable than almost anything else in the movie, and of course there’s Hudson. Taylor Swift is also in the movie, and she performs “Macavity the Mystery Cat” with surprising skill, even if her breathy singing style doesn’t quite have the aggressive edge the song needs.

As a groupie of Macavity (Idris Elba, playing a smaller version of Shere Khan), it’s weird that Swift’s Bombalurina is the only female feline to have a noticeably not-flat chest, which the camera creepily draws attention to. If I wanted to think about this movie more than I do, I might say it’s an example of slut-shaming by making the most sinister female cat the only sexual one, as contrasted with Jason Derulo’s flirtatious Rum Tum Tugger. But I really don’t want to think about it that much. I especially don’t want to think about Rebel Wilson in a CGI fat cat suit spreading her legs and scratching the inside of her upper thighs, but bad ideas plague this movie in truly incredible ways. However, writing those sentences back to back just made me realize that when this movie focuses on cat bodies, or human ones thanks to CGI cat fur, the focus is almost always female and always unflattering.

I haven’t even talked about Hooper’s bad camera choices here. He apparently learned the lesson from his dumb single-take song idea for Les Misérables, but he’s overcorrected, cutting so frequently that, for the most part, we barely get to see the dances. Steven McRae’s tap dancing as Skimbleshanks is one of the few nice exceptions, even though Andrew Lloyd Webber decided the song need to be updated, cutting the bridge and re-orchestrating it, as he does to the detriment of several songs, such as “The Old Gumby Cat” and “The Addressing of Cats,” although the latter may have been because Judi Dench doesn’t have the voice to sing its enormous range.

I also need to mention the human faces on the mice and cockroaches that Jennyanydots (Rebel Wilson) keeps in line and occasionally swallows whole. Since the entire set was designed for human-sized cats, shouldn’t mice and cockroaches be proportionately larger than they are in real life, and not the same size? It’s a strange disconnect, much like the shots of human cats crawling on all fours and then randomly deciding to walk on two legs that plague most of “Jellicle Songs for Jellice Cats,” but clearly not something that mattered to anyone making Cats or anyone who will enjoy it, which can probably be said about most of this movie.

 

Personal recommendation: D+

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Rocketman

 Year of release: 2019             Directed by Dexter Fletcher.  Starring Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Gemma Jones.

An unreliable narrator covers a lot of storytelling sins. If a plot point seems unbelievable or outlandish, but it’s coming from the lips of a narrator who’s extremely dishonest, an addict, or highly depressed, that plot point can and should be taken with a grain of salt. In the case of Rocketman, highlights from Elton John’s life are shaped into a musical fantasy, framed by narration from Elton recounting his life’s story in group therapy.

That life story follows the standard beats of a biopic: talented child becomes famous, hits rock bottom, and then turns his life around. There’s nothing particularly new about this sort of musician biopic, especially compared with last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which largely follows the same narrative pattern.

However, when compared with Bohemian Rhapsody, all the ways Rocketman excels become apparent. As Roger Ebert famously said, “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” Rocketman embraces its musical form and doesn’t shoehorn songs into a clichéd narrative. Instead, it works a narrative around those songs much like Moulin Rouge!, Across the Universe, or Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.

After an elaborately and outlandishly costumed Elton Hercules John (Taron Egerton) marches into a recovery group at the film’s beginning, the film flashes back and forth between that meeting and memories of his life, which ultimately led Elton to seek help with his addictions. The first memory receives a song of its own as Elton sings, “I was justified, when I was five…” and then the film transitions into a full-scale production number of “The Bitch Is Back” to set up Reginald Dwight’s (Matthew Illesley and later Kit Connor) childhood and serve as a welcome to the show number.

Much like 2007’s Beatles inspired Across the Universe, the songs are re-orchestrated to fit the context in which they are being sung. For example, “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” is used for a bar fight and passage of time as Elton plays there for several years. The overall effect throughout the film is both a moving tribute to Elton John and his music and an effective use of the music to underscore the drama.

The drama draws from mostly well-known episodes in Elton John’s life. His classical piano background, which is apparent in all of his songwriting, and his prodigious ability are the focus of the first section. The latter is obviously exaggerated, but that is in perfect keeping with the tone of the rest of the film. His meeting Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) by chance and their years long collaboration as well as Elton’s abusive relationship with John Reid (Richard Madden) form most of the film’s narrative. The backstory is a little too thorough, trying to cover too many details, and it slightly bogs down the film’s pacing. This is the type of story where a nonlinear recollection of memories from Elton at rock bottom would probably have made a stronger effect.

However, despite the predictable trajectory of the narrative, the film soars in its presentation of the music. The best musical choice among many great ones is the song that frames the film. Coupled with Elton walking into therapy is an instrumental of “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which returns as an 11 o’clock number at a crucial moment between Bernie and Elton. Since that song is about dreams not turning out as planned and walking away from the razzle dazzle of showbiz, it is a perfect and highly poignant choice, especially when the chords of that song are the first thing we hear in the film.

One song I was truly surprised not to hear was “Someone Saved My Life Tonight.” For a film that takes this unflinching a look at the dangers of addiction, there were countless places where it would have been a perfect fit, either as a testament to Bernie’s support through Elton’s substance abuse or in regards to Elton acknowledging his homosexuality and escaping his unhealthy relationships.

As Elton, Taron Egerton does a commendable job singing some rather difficult songs and convincingly portrays the high highs and low lows of Elton’s life through the ‘70’s and ‘80’s. Dexter Fletcher, after completing the last couple scenes of Bohemian Rhapsody, shows he does have a good eye for staging musical numbers.

Lee Hall, who collaborated with Elton John on Billy Elliot the Musical, has penned a script that honors his friend and his music while refusing to lionize him or his mistakes. Most beautifully, it shows the power of any great art, in this case Elton John’s music, to transform, inspire, and be a means for both creator and partaker to share in something greater beyond themselves. And for that, I’m exceedingly grateful to have seen this movie too.

 

Personal Recommendation: B+

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher (uncredited).             Starring Rami Malek, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Lucy Boynton, and Mike Myers.

bohemian-rhapsody-3

Considering Bohemian Rhapsody unexpectedly and undeservedly won the Golden Globe award for best picture—drama last Sunday, I thought now would be a good to share my thoughts on it.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a movie that does exactly what you expect it will do. It shoehorns Freddie Mercury’s life into a formulaic biopic, and it also showcases enjoyable covers of Queen’s greatest hits in what is basically an extended music video.

In other words, if one enjoys this movie at all, that enjoyment will be directly proportionate to how much they enjoy the music of Queen. And for the record, I’m a pretty big fan of Queen.

At just over two hours in length, Bohemian Rhapsody almost evenly splits its runtime between depicting a fictitious, streamlined creation process behind Queen’s most famous songs and performances of those songs as well as depicting a simplified and highly fabricated summary of Freddie Mercury’s life, focusing on his rise to stardom, his relationship with Mary Austin, his homosexual affairs (but not his heterosexual ones), and his role as a member of Queen.

The half that is essentially a lengthy music video of Queen’s greatest hits is a lot of fun, and it’s almost enough to carry the movie. The half which attempts to provide some portrait of Mercury’s life is a total train wreck.

Rami Malek gives a commanding performance, impersonating Mercury’s dance moves almost perfectly. However, he never rises above imitation. The movie makes a big deal about his very noticeable prosthetic teeth, far more noticeable than Mercury’s, and that becomes a tiring distraction when he’s not performing. As the other members of the band, I thought Ben Hardy, Gwilym Lee, and Joe Mazzello played off Malek passably well, and as trite as the lines about a band being a family are, the dynamics among the four actors are enjoyable enough that it didn’t matter too much that they were all taking a backseat to Malek’s Mercury.

The first big problem is that there is no driving force beyond enjoyment of Queen. The second big problem is that for the extreme liberties the film takes with Mercury’s life, those liberties form a dull, clichéd story about a lower class nobody rising to fame, the fame going to his head, fighting with his friends, then reconciling in the nick of time for a big concert. Most of that never happened. While Mercury (and other members of Queen) recorded some solo albums, the band never broke up, and the Live Aid Concert was not a last-minute plan after a hurried reunion, and I seriously doubt Mercury ever became this insufferable.

The other big problem with the movie is how massively unlikeable Mercury becomes while under the influence of his abusive, manipulative boyfriend Paul (Allen Leech), which takes up a significant portion of the film. I spent much of the film shocked that anyone would portray gay men as pejoratively as this in 2018, especially one who, in the world of the film, is a victim of abuse.

That brings us to the unavoidable issue that Bryan Singer, himself accused of multiple counts of sexual assault, directed the majority of Bohemian Rhapsody, and it seems the film’s unhealthy understanding of sexuality mirrors his own, as can be seen when the film shrugs off Mercury attempting to grope a man as an innocent drunken mistake. Admittedly Singer was fired from the film, but it seems that was because of a scheduling conflict, and he was hired with those counts of sexual assault against him well known.

The very fleeting relationship Freddie has with Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) at the film’s end hardly makes an impression after the time spent on the toxic relationship between Freddie and Paul. The other major issue with the film’s depiction of Mercury’s sexuality is that it refuses to let him define it. In an early scene Freddie tells his distraught fiancé Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) that he’s bisexual, and she corrects him that he’s gay. Considering that the film never challenges her, and that it neither acknowledges that Mercury continued to identify as bisexual nor shows any of his affairs with women, calling the film an act of bi-erasure, as some critics have done, is not underserved.

At the same time, the music of Queen is incredibly powerful, having moved and inspired millions, and the film respects and acknowledges that, even as it fails to spin an engaging story around that power. Nonetheless, roughly half of the film is a decent music video with a soundtrack featuring “Killer Queen,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” “Who Wants to Live Forever,” “Love of My Life,” and the title song. And when the film ends with a rousing rendition of “We Are the Champions,” it makes it easy to focus on the real star of the movie: the music of Queen.

 

Personal recommendation: C+

 

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Mary Poppins Returns

Year of release: 2018              Directed by Rob Marshall.      Starring Emily Blunt, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, and Angela Lansbury.

Mary Poppins Returns

When Jurassic World and Star Wars: Rogue One were released a few years ago, both with scores by Michael Giacchino, I noted at the time that as talented a composer as Giacchino is, when his John Williams imitations were placed next to the original John Williams cues, the only thing he accomplished was reminding audiences that he is not John Williams.

Of all the wonderful songs that the Sherman brothers wrote for the original Mary Poppins, one of the least impressionable is probably Jane and Michael’s nanny advertisement: “If you want this choice position, have a cheery disposition…” When Mary Poppins returns to the Banks’ home at 17 Cherry Tree Lane, as the title of this sequel fifty-four years later promises she will, that tune plays as underscoring. Save for one scene saturated in nostalgia toward the film’s end, that brief bit of underscoring packs more of an emotional impact than anything else in this film. And as talented as Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman are, when clips of the Sherman brothers’ songs are placed next to their new songs here, the only thing that achieves is reminding audiences that they are not the Sherman brothers.

Shaiman is unquestionably a good composer, but his best work in musicals has been the raunchy, irreverent satires. While none of his songs here are bad, the style of music he writes well is so different from the simple, light-hearted sincerity of the Sherman brothers’ original songs, and his attempts to imitate that here pale in comparison. It does not help that the plot points of Mary Poppins Returns follow the original almost exactly, and the song placement occurs at the same dramatic points. “Can You Imagine That?” is emphatically not “A Spoonful of Sugar,” nor is “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” the equal of “Step In Time,” and “The Lovely London Sky” is no “Chim-Chim-Cheree.” “The Place Where the Lost Things Go” is a good song and one of the two best of the score, but once again it doesn’t hold a candle to its dramatic counterpart, “Feed the Birds.”

The one song that is debatably a better piece of music than its original equivalent is “A Cover Is Not the Book,” which Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) and Jack (Lin-Manuel Miranda) perform within the animated world to the delight of the children. It breaks strongly enough stylistically with “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” not to be a reminder of that song, and we get to watch a top-notch vaudeville routine with Blunt and Miranda, complete with the latter rapping and decent dancing from both of them. At the same time, it really stands out musically and dramatically, feeling like it would be more at home in a darkly satiric musical such as How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

That song segues into one of the few places where Mary Poppins Returns does break with the original with the introduction of a villain, both in the real world and in Mary Poppins’ magical outings. I understand the dramatic purpose of teaching the Banks’ children how to recognize whom and whom not to trust, but it noticeably darkens the tone from the rest of the film, and more problematically it leans too heavily on the over-used cliché of the surprise villain. To be fair, the audience learns of that character’s evil intentions early on, but I literally said to myself the scene before that reveal, “I really hope that character is sincere and not a villain,” knowing that would most likely not be the case.

If it is not clear by now, I absolutely love the 1964 Disney original. It was one of the few VHSs my sisters and I watched repeatedly as children, complete with our own dance routines involving some of the non-fragile living room furniture. With its painstaking care to mirror the original, Mary Poppins Returns is certainly not a bad movie, but it is one that constantly invites comparison to the original, and that is not a comparison it benefits from.

The plot here concerns adults Jane (Emily Mortimer) and Michael (Ben Whishaw), the former who is continuing her mother’s political activism, and the latter who is trying to raise his three kids despite a recently deceased wife (hurrah for another Disney cliché) and the bank threatening repossession of their home, against which he took out a loan. Michael is a disorganized wreck, and he and Jane have both forgotten the wonder and magic of their childhood time with Mary Poppins, becoming preoccupied with the hardships of daily life. (Just for once, I’d love to see a family film where a child grows up and doesn’t forget his/her magical adventures.)

As the magical nanny, Emily Blunt knows better than to imitate Julie Andrews. Her take on the character is slightly less prim and proper, but it is still plausible to call her “practically perfect in every way.” For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed Blunt’s characterization, and she once again proves her formidable singing and acting chops. Lin-Manuel Miranda is her screen equal as Jack, a next-generation Bert who accompanies her and the children on their magical adventures.

The trailers spoiled that Dick Van Dyke has a cameo in Mary Poppins Returns. While it is easy to guess who he’s playing, I won’t say here. I will say that scene is the only one I truly loved, not just for his appearance, but also for the choice of underscoring and for the lines he references from the original film. It was the one bit of nostalgia which landed perfectly.

As delightful as it was to see Angela Lansbury as the balloon lady in the final scene, the song which accompanies it, “Nowhere to Go but Up,” is such a pale retread of “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” that the magic was promptly lost for me.

In a time of deconstructions and reboots that subvert their originals, one thing I am grateful for is that Mary Poppins Returns has nothing but affection for the original film, and that affection only serves to increase one’s admiration for the original, even as it reminds you that you would be better off watching the original for the hundredth something time.

 

Personal Recommendation: C+

Content advisory: Mild menace.                                             MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Kids and up

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