Posts Tagged musical

Beauty and the Beast

Year of release: 2017                Directed by Bill Condon.                Starring Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, and Audra McDonald.

 

That Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s latest live action adaptation of one of their animated classics, works as well as it does, is an impressive testament to the power and beauty of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score, which is the main star of this movie.

After the success of the live action updates of Cinderella, The Jungle Book, and Pete’s Dragon, it was only a matter of time before Beauty and the Beast received the same treatment, especially considering there already was a successful Broadway musical based on the 1991 animated film. However, considering those three aforementioned films all notably broke with their far less than perfect predecessors, the 1991 animated Best Picture nominee is in many people’s opinion (including my own) the finest work of art that Disney has ever produced. As might be expected, director Bill Condon’s excessive reverence for the original results in a copying of the source material, which inevitably pales in comparison.

I do not mean to suggest that this Beauty and the Beast is bad; for the most part, I more or less enjoyed it, as needless as it was. The production design is exquisite; the cast is solid; and of course, Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s score sounds great with any decent performers.

In my mind, the biggest problem is that in addition to the unoriginal copying of the animated film, down to camera movements and costume design, is that the few times this film does break away and introduce something new, those changes are rarely for the better.

For instance, the film opens by acting out the entire prologue in which the Prince (Dan Stevens) is cursed and transformed into the Beast. While we get to see some lovely set design and hear Audra McDonald sing (more on that momentarily), seeing the Beast as a Prince undermines his ability to frighten us by turning him into something of a deserving victim. The notion that he’s a real monster, not just a monstrous person, heightens the Stockholm Syndrome element of the fairytale, and it also makes both his ultimate transformation and Belle’s heroism more dramatically satisfying.

Even the one good change from the original is undermined by later changes that should have been rejected in early drafts of the script, never mind being shot. Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Belle (Emma Watson) have a wonderfully supportive and intelligent relationship which starkly contrasts the bumbling old crackpot whom Belle supports in the original. However, in this film there is no possibility for the townspeople to say, “Crazy old Maurice,” which inspires Gaston’s devious plot to force Belle’s hand in marriage. Nonetheless, the film is beholden to that plot point, and the way in which it is now set up necessitates other changes to the original which are so evil and sinister that they seem jarringly out of place in a fairytale geared toward family audiences. To make things worse, those changes occur two scenes before the title number, which really impacts our ability to enjoy the gorgeously lush song.

Regarding the performance of the title song, Emma Thompson has an excellent voice, and while she unfortunately has to stand in the shadow of Angela Lansbury’s iconic performance, she proved herself capable of that when she played Mrs. Lovett in the NY Philharmonic production of Sweeney Todd three years ago. The more striking change, at least for me, was the decision to change the key of the song from the warm and rich D-flat major of the original to a cooler and higher pitched E-flat major. That’s the biggest difference, and probably the main reason many people will say the song is has less emotion here than it does in the original.

As to the rest of the cast, everyone gives their roles their all, even if all of them are outperformed by their counterparts in the original. Emma Watson is a fine singer, but she notably has the weakest voice of the entire cast, which is a little bit of a problem, considering she’s the lead. Her feminist portrayal of Belle comes across effortlessly. As Gaston, Luke Evans has a surprisingly good tenor, which is a notable change from Richard White’s baritone, and Evans makes the bullying malevolence of the villain even more apparent. Josh Gad’s fairly sympathetic portrayal of Le Fou is another break with the original, as is his overhyped “gay moment,” which consists of three fleeting sight gags about trite stereotypes.

The staff of the castle gives enjoyable vocal performances, even if their character design lacks imagination compared to the castle itself. Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) is a fitting curmudgeon, Ewan McGregor (Lumiere) has so much zeal in his performance that he overcomes his goofy French accent. Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts) is enough of a comforting presence without copying Lansbury. Audra McDonald (the wardrobe) has by far and away the best voice of everyone (as to be expected), and it is a massively missed opportunity that she only has two brief verses to sing.

Finally, as the Prince and the Beast, Dan Stevens’ performance definitely lands more on the prince side of the character, which I think is problematic, because it weakens his transformation. Stevens has a very good baritone, and his performance of the Beast’s new solo, “Evermore” by Menken and Tim Rice, is haunting and beautiful. That performance, coupled with Josh Groban’s rendition over the end credits makes me fairly confident in saying that song will win the Oscar for best original song. It’s also a pretty great song which naturally fits into the original score.

As much as I would want to resent this film for being an uninspired attempt to replicate the original when there were so many possibilities to take this fairytale in a new direction, there’s enough good material that I have to give credit where credit is due and admit that the film was a mostly enjoyable rendition of the tale as old as time, even if it can’t hold a candle to Disney’s animated masterpiece.

 

Personal recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: A couple risqué sight gags, intense scenes of peril and menace.           MPAA rating: PG

Suggested Audience: Teens and up

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La La Land

Year of Release: 2016          Directed by Damien Chazelle.            Starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.

mv5bnjqyoti5mdk0ml5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdk1mtc5ote-_v1_sy1000_sx1500_al_I like musicals. Actually, that’s not true. I love musicals. My top ten favorite films list includes Singin’ in the Rain, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Sweeney Todd, all of which I have seen more times than I can count. When Criterion released a box set of the complete Jacques Demy films, I purchased it as soon as I could. I enjoy and have defended the artistry of Rob Marshall’s adaptations of Chicago and Into the Woods (his adaptation of Nine, however, is indefensible). I own the complete vocal scores for seven musicals and the vocal selections for countless others. I think Love Me Tonight and All That Jazz are both astonishing works of cinema as well as great musicals, and I routinely encourage everyone to watch the former (the latter being too graphic for a general endorsement). John Carney’s Once and Begin Again both made my top ten for their respective years, and Sing Street stands a decent chance of making my top ten this year. In middle school and high school I wrote two musicals, each over two hours in length (I wrote score, lyrics, and libretto – the musicals were not good, but it’s a testament to how much I love the art form). All that is to say: few things fill me with as much joy as a well made musical, and few things pain me as much as a musical gone wrong.

Naturally, when I heard about La La Land, I was ecstatic. An original musical produced on a lavish scale with extravagant set pieces and vibrant colors is something I am hard wired to love. I instantly caught the Jacques Demy influence in the trailer; Chazelle had proven his directorial chops with Whiplash, a film I respect even though I don’t particularly enjoy it, so I thought his skill would lead to a triumph here. The early raves were all encouraging, and even though the few naysayers convinced me to restrain my expectations, I was still convinced I was going to love La La Land.

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I didn’t.

I really, really didn’t.

From the first scene, the film failed to transport me the way that a good musical should. The opening set piece during rush hour on the LA freeway is extravagantly staged, fun to watch, and “Another Day of Sun” is an infectious tune that should bring a smile out of anyone, but the film’s focus during what should be a stunning production number is on Chazelle and his bag of directorial tricks. The entire sequence is filmed in one long take, and consequently, the focus is rarely on the dancers but on the camera and the odd positions it must adopt to move from performer to performer. During that number, I was frequently saying to myself, “Cut to a long distance shot so we can see the whole ensemble, or at least zoom out,” followed by, “Don’t violently whir the camera from person to person, cut to them, and time the cuts to match the musical phrases.” There were a few moments in the number when the music and the dance overcame the technical distractions, and the film briefly soared as it was meant to, but sadly, not for the entire scene.

In a nutshell, that is La La Land’s biggest problem. For every wonderful breathtaking moment of inspiring beauty (and there are a lot), there are one or two moments of clunky technical distractions grounding the film to earth.

After the opening set piece, a title card tells us the first segment is titled, “Winter.” We meet Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress and writer who works as a barista to pay the bills, and then Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist with a strong rebellious streak. The segment is bookended by their two rough first meetings. Unfortunately, we don’t learn much about them beyond their occupations and basic personalities. Neither one gets a song to describe their motivations for their dreams, and we are not given any reason that they should be together beyond this is a musical, and that’s traditionally what happens in a musical.

The next segment, “Spring,” is probably the best in the film, and the main reason for that is “A Lovely Night,” the meet cute song and dance for Mia and Sebastian. Gosling and Stone’s dancing is impressive and the framing against the LA sunset works beautifully. It’s the only moment in the film where everything comes together perfectly, due to the stars’ execution and to Chazelle allowing the camera to pull back and observe without intruding. Stone and Gosling’s chemistry is also at its best as their attitudes toward one another change from disdainful to reticent admiration.

“Summer” and “Fall” trace the standard trajectory of a musical romance, and Mia and Sebastian encourage one another to pursue their dreams. The film goes through the expected ups and downs, and it always stays watchable, but it never becomes transcendent.mv5bmmzmm2mzztutmmvmms00otnklwi2ytitnjfkytuymguwnji1l2ltywdll2ltywdlxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndqzmdg4nzk-_v1_sy1000_cr0016351000_al_

As good as Stone and Gosling are (and they’re really good), there’s only so much they can do with two characters who are a compilation of every musical cliché. I am aware many great musicals have thinly sketched characters, but all of those musicals have something other than spectacular set pieces to drive the story forward. For instance, Seymour and Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors have little personality beyond their massive lack of self esteem, but that plays directly into the villain’s manipulation which drives the story. The supporting characters in Company have little stage time, but they all have crucial song lyrics that make their characters more unique than Mia or Sebastian are here. The guy and girl in Once don’t even receive names, yet their songs develop their characters much more than the song lyrics or dance sequences in La La Land. (To be fair, “The Fools Who Dream” is a great song which adds a lot of depth to Mia’s character, but that’s undermined by the following scene.)

The most damning flaw throughout the majority of the film is Chazelle’s obnoxious desire to film all songs in one take. The result of such a choice is that he often has to move or position the camera awkwardly, dragging it along walls and missing moments of choreography. Personally, I’m blaming Tom Hooper for doing that in Les Miserables and Alejandro Iñarritu for convincing everyone that long takes are good in of themselves with Birdman.

However, the ending undoes any goodwill I was inclined to give the film. Admittedly, Justin Hurwitz’  score is excellent, Mandy Moore’s choreography is stunning, and the production design is gorgeous. None of that makes up for the sloppy, ham-fisted copying of vastly superior musical. To avoid spoilers I won’t say what musical (although I mentioned it in this review), but after La La Land reaches the conclusion of its story, Chazelle adds a gratuitous coda which has an identical outcome to the ending of said musical. The most offensive aspect is the way in which Chazelle tacks on the coda without setting it up and without the nuance or poignancy it has in the original film. If I hadn’t see that musical, I might not have minded La La Land concluding the same way it does, and I might have found La La Land’s conclusion bittersweet and touching. However, I’ve seen that vastly superior musical countless times, and I’m thinking about watching it right now, so La La Land’s coda struck me as borderline plagiarism.

Also, speaking of distracting copying of other musicals, one of the jazz set pieces used a theme copied directly from another great musical from the same director who made the musical referenced above. Finally, if the poorly copied coda weren’t enough, in the middle of it Chazelle inserts a dream sequence with references to every major musical which influenced La La Land. It’s redundant and only serves to drag out the ending as it screams out how self-aware it is.

Just like The Artist was a silent film for people who had never seen a silent film, La La Land is basically a musical for people who don’t particularly care for musicals. If you want to see La La Land, I’m not going to discourage you, but do yourself a favor and watch several Jacques Demy musicals first, most importantly The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, both of which soar head and heels over this film, and neither of which this film would exist without.

 

Personal Recommendation: C+

Content Advisory: An instance of profanity, implied premarital cohabitation, and a couple strong vulgarities.                MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Teens and up

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Oklahoma!

A big thanks to Ken Morefield for inviting me to contribute to his series on Fred Zinnemann with this retrospective on Oklahoma!

 

 

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Into the Woods

Thanks to Ken Morefield for publishing my review at 1More Film Blog, I deeply love this musical, and Marshall’s film did not disappoint me.

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Begin Again

Year of Release: 2014     Directed by John Carney.  Starring Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, Hailee Steinfeld, James Corden, Adam Levine, and Catherine Keener.

My biggest complaint with Begin Again doesn’t even concern the film itself. The only major criticism I have is the title. The filmmakers should have stuck with the original: Can a Song Save Your Life. While that title does have a certain degree of awkward cheesiness to it, it fits the film perfectly. For one, the film itself has some awkwardly cheesy moments, and secondly, the film is not about starting over but instead about one moment, one person, or one song that can completely change the direction of one’s life.

However, I have no intention to hold a bland generic title against any film, and Begin Again is an absolute joy from start to finish, even during the parts that don’t work quite as well as others. I think a few more of the songs should have been diegetic rather than underscoring, and as much as I love Casablanca, having Keira Knightley call “As Time Goes By” her favorite movie song was weird, especially when there were so many choices that would have better reflected the conflict of the film. I was personally hoping she would say “The Rainbow Connection.” However, it is also pointless to hold that against the film. While director John Carney does not quite recapture the intimate magic of Once, he comes close.

The film opens with Greta (Keira Knightley, who sings surprisingly well) in a New York bar, where her guitarist friend Steve (James Corden) ushers her onstage to perform one of her songs, which she says is “for anyone who’s ever been alone in the city.” The song is “A Step You Can’t Take Back,” which has been the main song used to underscore the trailers. The arrangement that opens the film is just Knightley singing accompanied by simple guitar chords, not the fully orchestrated version used in all the ads. At the end of the performance, the crowd in the bar is paying no attention to her, except Dan (Mark Ruffalo) who looks thunderstruck.

The film flashes back to earlier that day, revealing Dan is an ex-record producer, having been fired that morning for failing to sign any new talent in awhile. Prior to being fired, an hilarious sequence showcased his desperate searching for a new client among nothing but crappy demo tapes. After picking up his daughter Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) from school, with whom he has to bolt out of a bar because Dan has no money on him, he drops Violet off with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener), and then heads to another bar to get drunk that evening. When Dan hears Greta sing, he is given a glimmer of hope, since her song and her talent have given him a chance to turn his career around.

At this point the film repeats the opening scene of Knightley performing “A Step You Can’t Take Back.” However, the performance is shot from Dan’s perspective, as the audience hears what he hears: a fully orchestrated pop song with guitar, drums, piano, violin, cello, and bass. It’s a brilliant choice to bookend the opening segment of Dan hitting rock bottom, showing how something simple and unpolished can be transformed into an elegant, professional work of art while maintaining the simplicity and roughness that originally made it endearing, a theme which will be important in a later confrontation.

As a force of habit, after hearing her sing, Dan immediately goes over to Greta, introduces himself, offers his card, and asks to producer her. She is shocked and skeptical, and turns him down. If this were a standard Hollywood film, the storyline would then take this trajectory: Dan deceives her regarding his unemployment, yet persuades her to record anyway. When she eventually learns that he does not have a label, a huge fight threatens the success of the music they have recorded; however, they overcome that setback and make a great album anyway.

Other than making a good album, Begin Again follows none of those clichés. It is refreshing how original and lifelike this film is. There are no elaborate deceptions, no awkward unbelievable romance subplots, no standard setbacks threatening the success of everything that was undertaken. All the characters are totally believable, and the storyline follows a natural path for human beings who are committed to their work and behave with decency while struggling with some flaws.

Obviously, Dan does persuade Greta to record an album; however, he perks her interest by telling her the truth of his situation, admitting he only gave her the producer spiel out of habit. Badly broken herself, Greta takes a day to think over his offer, and when she accepts, Dan cannot convince his former label to produce her. So he comes up with an ingenious solution: record outdoors in different areas of New York City. Greta’s friend Steve has a full studio’s worth of recording equipment. Dan recruits musicians who are willing to work for a cut of the final profit: a pianist working as a ballet accompanist and a cellist and violinist from Manhattan School of Music who are thrilled to play anything that’s “not f**king Vivaldi.” *

Before Greta agreed to record the album, the film has a flashback to show why she is depressed and alone in New York. Like the flashback showing how Dan hit bottom, her flashback is framed by two performances of the same song, “Lost Stars,” which she had composed for her ex-boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine). Greta and Dave had come to New York for an album deal for Dave, after his success composing a film soundtrack. While there, she discovered he was cheating on her. That knowledge transforms “Lost Stars” from a pretty tune to a poignant reflection of Greta’s sorrow.

Since Greta was depressed after Dave’s infidelity, her old boyfriend Steve allowed her to crash at his apartment until she booked a flight back to England. Fortunately, Steve forced her to perform at the bar, Dan heard her, and she agreed to work with them on an album.

Like Once, Begin Again is about a once in a lifetime opportunity for decent, empathetic human beings to pursue their art and make something unique and magical with it. While on the journey, the characters’ enthusiasm and diligence for their art carries over into other aspects of their lives. There is no tense drama or overblown indecision, but rather quiet moments of grace and generosity that are touching and inspiring in their direct simplicity. The healing of wounds between father and daughter is a beautiful scene, especially when Greta forces the two mediocre musicians to record a small part on one of the album tracks. An old friend of Dan’s pays for two musicians for the album, simply because he wants to help out.

Are such acts unbelievable? Or is the perfect timing of events too coincidental and stretching credibility? I don’t think so. One of the best experiences I had during my undergraduate occurred because I happened to be walking out to the parking lot simultaneously with three conductors who were desperately looking for a replacement celeste player for a concert next week, and with very little though I said, “I can do it.” Begin Again captures the joy and excitement of moments like that.

 

*While I am one of the few classically trained musicians who kind of enjoys Vivaldi, especially because playing continuo on Vivaldi can be simple yet fun, I can totally attest to the accuracy of that statement.

 

Content Advisory: Frequent vulgar language, occasionally quite strong; some profanity; mild sexual references; and depiction of alcohol abuse.                             MPAA rating: R

Suggested Audience: Teens and up with discernment

Personal Recommendation: A

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