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Entries in Musical (7)

Thursday
Dec252014

Into the Woods

There’s a certain joy that washes over me when I watch a good musical. Movies and music are wonderful mediums for artistic expression, as each find their own truths and meaning in their own distinct, separate ways, but combining the two is complete bliss. Both complement each other, the music giving the visuals an extra flavor that would be missing had they been accompanied by silence, and vice versa. When those visuals are as striking and the music as wonderful as they are in “Into the Woods,” it’s impossible not to be entertained. This is visually one of the best musicals since 1940’s “Fantasia,” full of all the grandeur and wonder that one might expect from a Disney movie.

Adapted from the 1986 Stephen Sondheim musical, “Into the Woods” tells a story that mixes together numerous childhood fairy tales. In a small town, there is a baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) who are desperate to have a child, but whose family lineage has been cursed by an evil witch (Meryl Streep), making it impossible. She tells them she will break the curse if they can obtain four items for her in the surrounding woods: a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn, a cape as red as blood and a shoe as pure as gold. On their search, they run into Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), who is attending the Prince’s (Chris Pine) ball, Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), who is on her way to see her grandmother, Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy), who is stuck in a tall tower with no stairs or doors, and Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), who is heading to town to sell his cow, but will end up trading it for some magic beans. The baker and his wife, thrust into the middle of all these stories, will do their best to get each of those items however they can.

“Into the Woods” is a magical film, one that combines the natural wonder of the fairy tales it portrays with terrific songs that simultaneously poke fun of those tales and lovingly embrace them. It doesn’t shy away from the darker moments of these Brothers Grimm tales, including the death of major characters—and yes, you’ll get to experience the evil stepsisters getting their toes cut off in an attempt to fit their feet in the golden slipper—but it never gets dark enough to lose its whimsy. Chris Pine, in particular, steals every scene he’s in with a self-deprecating performance that adds a satirical spin on fairy tale machismo as it upends the traditional character gender roles so many of these classic stories exemplify.

But Pine is merely one part of one of the best ensemble casts of the year. Streep, as is expected at this point, gives one of the best performances of the year as the wicked witch. The nuance she brings to the character makes the witch all her own, as she crafts someone who is both terrifying and also immensely likable. Even as she threatens and frightens the baker and his wife, she charms, as does Kendrick, cast perfectly in the role of the disheveled, but nevertheless lovely Cinderella. She has proven her vocal talent in movies like “Pitch Perfect,” but whereas that movie mostly featured an a cappella group singing together, she gets to shine alone here. Her story is the funniest and most emotional, so her songs bring with them added weight and she performs them with aplomb.

For those more interested in visuals, however, the star of the show won’t be Kendrick or Pine or Streep or even Stephen Sondheim, but the fantastic art direction that somehow manages to give colorful life to the dark settings. The costumes, props, sets all create a vivid world, one that would be desirable to live in were it not for the witch curses and giants stomping about. If you don’t mind a pervading sense of dread in your visuals, “Into the Woods” will amaze you, even if the songs and story don’t.

It’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t, though, as almost every moment in this two hour movie is a delight to watch, the sole awkward part being the song sang by the Big Bad Wolf, played by Johnny Depp, which is full of enough (presumably intentional, but still uncomfortable) sexual innuendo towards Red Riding Hood to derail the mood up to that point. Luckily, it’s early on, so it corrects itself quickly, but in every other regard, “Into the Woods” proves itself as an absolute gem of a musical.

Into the Woods receives 4.5/5

Thursday
Jun192014

Jersey Boys

Clint Eastwood may not seem like the best person to direct a musical. When you look back at his filmography, even in recent years with films like “Gran Torino,” you see mostly gruff, no-nonsense characters who, if asked, would likely tell you they wouldn’t be caught dead at a musical. Of course, his onscreen personas don’t necessarily reflect his true self, but it’s a tough sell nonetheless. However, he shows that he still has some aces up his sleeve with “Jersey Boys,” an adaptation of the hit Broadway jukebox musical of the same name. While it has more than its fair share of problems, Eastwood is surprisingly adept at putting music to screen. Granted, this isn’t your typical musical with grand choreography where people randomly start singing and dancing down the street—the music instead comes organically to the story as it follows the rise and fall of the popular 60s pop band, The Four Seasons—so much of what is shown is small in scale, but that in no way diminishes Eastwood’s steady directorial hand. “Jersey Boys,” while not the rousing success it had the potential to be, is worth seeing all the same.

The film begins in Belleville, New Jersey in 1951. As Tommy (Vincent Piazza) puts it, it’s a town with only three ways out: joining the Army and getting killed, joining the mob and getting killed or getting famous. He’s a part of a small band in town with his buddy, Nick (Michael Lomenda), and plans on getting out via the latter means. After hearing Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) sing, he recruits him into the band. Before long, Frankie’s voice attracts some attention, including from Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a songwriter who just knows he has to write for it. It isn’t long before they find themselves thrust into the spotlight, but fame has its price; personalities clash, heated exchanges take precedent over calm conversation and they eventually find themselves in an undesirable situation.

The first thing more discerning viewers might notice when sitting down to watch “Jersey Boys” is its color palette. The film, at least at first, is washed of bright colors. Varying shades of black and grey are most prominent, a nice touch that nails the setting of the pre-70s tie dye hippy era. While certain colors still poke their heads in now and then, they look so strange next to the more pronounced blacks and greys that it almost looks like an early black and white to color Technicolor conversion. The film gets brighter as the film goes on, paralleling the success of the band members, which adds an interesting thematic and visual layer that many films these days don’t possess.

Aside from some unconvincing green screen shots, “Jersey Boys” looks the part; it’s in its story that it falters. The film mixes drama and humor, but the two parts aren’t created equal. Despite primarily being a drama, the jokes land more effectively, while its more somber moments collapse under a story that doesn’t properly set them up. Take a late movie moment where one of Frankie’s children goes missing for a couple days, for instance. When he finally catches up to her, the heartfelt talk they share and the would-be sadder moments after resonate with a resounding thud, as the film fails to make that daughter a real character, featuring her in perhaps only one minor earlier scene. Similar issues arise with Frankie’s wife, Mary (Renee Marino), who is largely overlooked after the beginning of the film, to the point that when she popped up later, I had forgotten she was even in it.

“Jersey Boys” fares better when it focuses on the up and down relationship between the boys in the band. Pretty much all of them are unlikable—they’re abrasive, rude and more than a little bit sexist—which may turn some people away, but those unlikable personalities are the point of the movie, as it’s their behavior and arrogance that ultimately lead to their destruction. Nevertheless, some of their recklessness is so reminiscent of imbecilic television personalities that, by the end of the film’s 2 hour 15 minute runtime, they can get a bit grating, which is enhanced by a story that gets progressively heavy-handed as it goes on. At one point, one of the guys says of a song, “If you goose it up too much, it gets cheesy.” It’s an unintentional meta line that describes the narrative path of “Jersey Boys” to a tee.

If you’re in it for the songs, however, you’ll likely enjoy the movie quite a bit, though much of your appreciation for Frankie’s singing will hinge on your tolerance of those high pitched swooners that characterized that musical era. By today’s standards, it sounds a bit silly, but there’s no denying the heart and soul that went into its creation, even if that heart and soul eventually turned to bitterness and contempt. If you’re a fan of the band or grew up in their heyday, “Jersey Boys” will probably work wonders, but even if you’re not and didn’t, there’s still enough here to enjoy, though you’re not likely to remember it for long after.

Jersey Boys receives 3/5

Wednesday
Dec192012

Les Misérables

The worst type of movie is the one that fails to live up to expectations. Usually when this happens, the movie itself is far below what it could and should have been. Usually, the standalone trailer is astonishing, managing to hit a range of emotions in a short two minutes, while the movie itself, when fleshed out to feature length, completely misses the mark. Rarely, however, does a movie fail to live up to expectations and is still as good as Les Misérables. It would be somewhat of a stretch to call it one of the greatest musicals ever made—it’s not even one of the best movies of this year—but its narrative grandiosity, lush visuals, assured direction and phenomenal performances from a terrific ensemble cast make it more than your ordinary film musical. Les Misérables deftly crafts unparalleled moments of beauty and awe, conveying true emotion around themes of love, loss and hardship that will cause all but the most hardened viewers to sympathize with, and maybe even cry for, those fighting onscreen.

Based on the Victor Hugo novel from 1862 (and adapted into a stage musical in 1980), Les Misérables follows Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a Frenchman who has spent many years as a prisoner and slave for stealing bread, overseen by policeman Javert (Russell Crowe). When the film begins, he is finally released from his imprisonment, but is put on parole for the rest of his life. If he breaks it, he will be hunted down and captured. Rather than heed that warning, he breaks parole anyway and starts a new life as a wealthy factory owner and mayor of the town he has chosen to settle in. One day, he runs into Fantine (Anne Hathaway), an ex-employee of his who was fired from his factory and is now selling herself to make ends meet and support her young daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen). After tragedy strikes Fantine, Jean decides to adopt Cosette and raise her as his own, all while he hides from Javert’s relentless pursuit. Many years pass and Cosette (now played by Amanda Seyfried), is all grown up and they’re about to find themselves in the middle of a revolution.

Les Misérables isn’t like your typical musical. It’s not full of flamboyant choreography or energetic numbers that are cut to resemble a music video. Instead, it’s very reserved. The camera more often than not settles on close-ups and rolls without cutting, the performers singing their numbers in one take. This lends terrific weight to a film that relies almost entirely on the emotional fragility of its viewers. When the actors sing these songs, pouring their hearts and souls into them, and you are so close that you see every twitch in their skin and tear forming in their eyes, it’s impossible not to feel something. In particular, Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” is heartbreaking and, perhaps due to this single moment in a nearly three hour long film, likely to win her an Oscar.

Much of the emotional impact comes from the fact that, unlike most movie musicals that pre-record their songs before shooting, the actors are singing the songs in real time, much like Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady. There’s no lip-synching present here and the turmoil of the characters comes through tenfold because they’re singing in character, not in some studio behind a microphone. It’s a tactic that is brilliantly used by director Tom Hooper, who, if 2010’s remarkable The King’s Speech is any indication, knows how to maximize the effect his movies have on an audience.

Despite the tragic story that unfolds and the many deaths that accompany it, Les Misérables has some lighthearted moments that come mostly from Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier. Their presence is ever welcome in the sea of sadness, but there’s too little of them and they end up overshadowing some of the other, bleaker moments, if for no other reason than because they’re more upbeat. This discrepancy between these two different styles is indicative of the film as a whole, in that certain sections aren’t as interesting as others. Very few movies of this length have the ability to maintain viewer attention and with a gap of songs that range from breathtaking to flat out boring, Les Misérables doesn’t pull it off.

It’s still a wonder to behold, though, and its final scene, despite some lags in the narrative, packs a punch that wasn’t paralleled in any other movie this year. There has been a lot of hyperbole when expressing opinions of it in recent months, however. Some are saying it’s one of the best musicals (or even crazier, one of the best movies) ever while others are saying it’s overwrought, overlong and manipulative. Neither of those extremes are accurate. Les Misérables is neither great nor terrible, but it’s effective and rousing and, provided you can sit still for almost three hours, absolutely worth a watch.

Les Misérables receives 4/5

Friday
Sep282012

Pitch Perfect

If there is ever going to be a movie that is going to make a cappella cool, it’s Pitch Perfect. In fact, it exists in a world where a cappella is the cool thing to do. The popularity pyramid is distorted from reality, to the point where those who are able to sing harmoniously alongside others are at the top. One hilarious scene shows the leader of the Treble Makers, a college a cappella group, shun a nerd trying to join the group just before matching pitch with his comrades. Such desire for acceptance into an a cappella group may seem silly now, but it won’t after watching the movie. Pitch Perfect is lively, funny, moving and just plain fun. If it doesn’t make you want to sing afterwards, you’re probably a metalhead.

The film begins at the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella in New York. The all-female Borden Bellas are competing in the event against their all male rivals, the Treble Makers. Despite a solid show, one of them ends up getting sick on stage, effectively ruining their chances at winning. Flash forward a bit and a new school year has arrived. The two girls remaining on the team, Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), are dying to get another shot at that championship and decide to hold tryouts. Eventually, they band together a ragtag group of girls, including the free spirited Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson), who calls herself that so people won’t have to call her it behind her back and aspiring DJ, Beca (Anna Kendrick), who is only joining because her father has agreed to personally help move her to LA to achieve her dreams if she sticks with school for one year and participates in college events. There’s only one rule these girls must follow: do not sleep with a member of the Treble Makers. If they do, they’re off the team. It seems a simple enough rule to follow, but the charms of Jesse (Skylar Astin) may make it harder than anticipated.

What follows is fairly predictable fodder. The narrative and thematic correlation between this and something like Step Up is hard to miss—the film even has the equivalent of a dance-off, where competing singers meet to show each other up vocally—but what Pitch Perfect proves is just how vital a good cast is. Just as a terrible cast can effectively ruin a good script, a great cast can elevate a clichéd one, which is precisely what happens here. Kendrick is her usual adorable self and she gives a performance that is simultaneously hardened and vulnerable. Her character isn’t someone who is likely to earn friends on her own due to her stubborn attitude, but as she performs with the Borden Bellas, she comes to appreciate those around her, with all of their flaws and differences. This all comes forth despite her initial disinterest in a cappella. It’s easy to understand why she comes around and opens up to the group; they’re all so interesting and likable (well, almost all of them) that it would seem silly not to. In particular, Rebel Wilson is fantastic. She is absolutely hilarious here and manages to steal each scene she’s in, despite a supporting role.

But I suppose the big question is: how is the singing? To put is simply, it’s fantastic. The chosen songs are all toe tappers and they work perfectly within the context of what the performers intend to do, showcasing their highs and (occasionally) their lows. There’s something mesmerizing about how every sound you remember from the original song, from the drums to the guitars to everything in between, is recreated without instruments and through the mouths of those singing. One of the best scenes, that highlights the fascination of a cappella, comes during an early audition. Each performer sings a certain part of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone,” from full out lyrics to simple beats, and their auditions are spliced together to form one musical whole. The structure of this sequence is flat out brilliant and even if you don’t like the actual song, you’ll be impressed by its implementation.

Pitch Perfect is just flat out fun, though that’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems. It gets a bit grating at times with a cappella plays-on-words, like a ca-excuse me and a ca-awesome, and it goes completely off the rails about two-thirds of the way through with an extremely out of place puke scene that rivals a similar scene in Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s Team America: World Police. As if the prolonged upchucking wasn’t enough, one of the characters then falls into it and, instead of getting up in disgust, makes an angel. You also have to sit through a few painfully overdramatic plot turns, but sticking with Pitch Perfect proves to be a fulfilling and inspiring experience. It may follow a narrative trajectory explored by countless dance movies before it, but this time it’s handled with care by the filmmakers and performed by actors who can actually do what their profession implies.

Pitch Perfect receives 4/5

Friday
Jun152012

Rock of Ages

Movie musicals are magical. They’re the amalgamation of the two best art forms, the two that speak in one way or another to the most people. In recent years, however, musicals have been on a decline. The sexy, but underwhelming Nine comes to mind as well as 2010’s Christina Aguilera flop, Burlesque. You have to go back five years to reach the last great musicals in the form of Once and Hairspray. The latter was so lively and warm that all but the most cynical of filmgoers found joy in it. The director of that wonderful film is back this week with his adaptation of the hit Broadway play, Rock of Ages, and while it is disappointing upon recollection, it, like Hairspray, has a ton of energy and a great soundtrack. If it doesn’t get your toes tapping, then you might be dead.

The film takes place in 1987. Sherrie (Julianne Hough) is a fledgling singer who just arrived in Hollywood with the hopes of becoming a star. After meeting Drew (Diego Boneta), who runs to her aide when a purse snatcher attacks her, she lands a job with him at The Bourbon Room, the famous nightclub owned by Dennis (Alec Baldwin) that gave the world’s biggest rock star, Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) his start. She quickly learns that fame isn’t an easy thing to achieve and that her idyllic dreams may not become reality.

Rock of Ages has a pretty simple set-up, one that doesn’t give much leeway for characterization. If the story is bare, then the characters are thin and their relationships blossom far too quickly to be convincing. If you’re expecting to care about the characters, similar to Hairspray or Once, you’re bound to be disappointed, but as far as pure spirit and vigor go, Rock of Ages has it in spades. The animated renditions of classic 80’s hair metal songs like Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” and Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” are wonderfully performed, both visually and aurally, though the former is definitely better than the latter. While you may be surprised by just how well Tom Cruise sings, he’s still far from excellent and given that he’s lip-synching anyway, one can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers couldn’t hire someone with more vocal talent.

The most exuberant moments in the film come from the meshing of popular songs, like Foreigner’s “Juke Box Hero” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll.” They’re blended so well that what they create stands alone as a unique song, despite their familiar parts. Every musical number in the film, including these dazzling mash-ups, are performed with pizzazz from a committed cast and it’s impossible not to enjoy watching certain actors step out of their comfort zones to do something different, even if it is a bit painful watching Alec Baldwin through up the devil horns and sing into a beer bottle. Regardless of any criticisms that can be lobbed at Cruise’s questionable vocal talent, he puts everything into his role, playing a drugged up, constantly drunk womanizing rock star. The stuff he says is so off-the-wall that if his real world behavior hadn’t recently calmed down, I’d say he’s basically just playing himself.

Despite a general indifference most will feel towards the characters and what happens to them, the songs are nevertheless cleverly integrated into what’s going on at that particular moment in time. Unlike Across the Universe, which tried to create a narrative through songs from one band that weren’t necessarily connected in such a way, Rock of Ages borrows from many bands who sang about a number of different topics, allowing the writers more freedom to take the story in the direction they wanted to while still having the musical content to back it up. Unfortunately, the movie so often succumbs to melodrama and typical screenplay misunderstandings that too much of its runtime is given to slow ballads, which effectively sucks away much of its appeal.

But when Rock of Ages is fun, it’s really fun. The movie may be a bit mopey, but it knows it’s silly and occasionally mocks itself as it absurdly transitions into certain songs, like when Russell Brand and Alec Baldwin break into a rendition of REO Speedwagon’s love song, “Can’t Fight This Feeling.” You’ll be laughing at how clumsily the transition happens, but that’s precisely the point. You’re supposed to laugh at it. You’re supposed to have fun, whether that means laughing or singing along. Rock of Ages knows this and though it’s far from amazing, that is its greatest strength.

Rock of Ages receives 3/5