14 posts categorized "Musical"

December 10, 2016


La La Land“La La Land” is a bore. Still, the movie has two very good things going for it, namely Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. This duo’s legendary onscreen chemistry (see “Crazy, Stupid, Love.”) reaches emotional highs and lows in counterpoint to a musical fantasy that almost brings home the bacon.

Fear not musical-film-haters, the genre isn’t about to explode with “La La Land” copycats. Gosling and Stone might be great together, but this movie leaves much to be desired. Although the film makes pained efforts to pretend it has the slightest thing to do with Jazz, the soundtrack is more akin to the music you'd find playing under a cartoon Cinderella.

You know you’re in trouble from its mad-mad-world opening song and dance centerpiece, which occurs around and on top of cars stuck in a Los Angeles freeway traffic jam. Squeeze the millennial cheese please. It feels like a Dr. Pepper television commercial from the early ‘80s. The craned-camera sequence has colorfully dressed dancers doing backflips from cars in an attempt to cram as much hoop-la as possible onto the screen. The gaudy 10-minute sequence is more Baz Luhrmann than Bob Fosse. Easily pleased audiences will be sated but this is music video dross. 

The overblown set piece values presentation over representation in a musical that tries too hard and still doesn't earn its stripes. The cheesy champaign-pouring montage looks like it was cut together from B-roll. 

Jazz prodigy boy meets young actress who hates jazz. Red flag. Boy should know better than take up with a Jazz-hater; it will never work out. Besides, Gosling's Sebastian is too meephy for his own good. 

Stone’s actress chic Mia sits in her car, running lines for the movie audition she’s on her way to. Gosling’s brooding jazz pianist Sebastian honks at her to get moving. Fear not, they won’t be enemy rivals long.

Cut to Emma Stone’s struggling Mia going on endless tryouts. She does great acting work — as evidenced in audition bits that show off Stone's acting chops,— but she still doesn’t get any gigs. It’s tough out there, even in writer-director Damien Chazelle’s updated '50s styled L.A. fantasyland. George Lucas's "American Graffiti" would make a natural double-feature choice to go along with this film's fascination with primary colors and squeaky clean surfaces.

Sebastian can’t hold down a regular solo piano gig because he chooses to work at venues that don’t allow him to play the improvisational jazz that excites him. Sebastian thrives on rejection.

Chazelle gives an inside nod to his last film “Whiplash” by casting J.K. Simmons as the disapproving owner of the restaurant that (re) hires and (promptly) fires Sebastian for his wandering fingers on the 88s. The gratuitous casting choice does the movie no favors. Sacha Baron Cohen would have been a better choice to bring some resonance to the part.


For all of the colorful costume changes and tightly choreographed dance sequences between Stone and Gosling, “La La Land” meanders when it should glide, and rings with mood-killing alarms that interrupt more than one scene.

“La La Land” is long way from “West Side Story” or “Cabaret” — two great (determinedly tragic) musicals that this film tries to emulate. Chazelle reneges on fulfilling the film’s snappy opening tone of screwball romance. He zigs after establishing he wants to zag. This is this film's fatal flaw. Instead of bookending the joy foreshadowed in its virtuosic opening, the movie ends on a minor chord nostalgia for things to come. Yuck. It just leaves a bad taste in your mouth. 

Most egregious are two distinct episode involving actual alarms (one is a smoke alarm) that break this film apart. For a filmmaker ostensibly in love with music, these jarring aural events fly in the face of responsible moviemaking. Musicians are notorious for having sensitive ears, and any that I know — myself included — say that these abrasive segments of violent soundscape manipulation are beyond the pale. But don't take my word for it; you'll know what I mean when you hear them. Rather than coming out of this musical humming a tune — the Broadway litmus test for what constitutes a good musical — you will only be thinking of these sustained sonic assaults aimed right at the audience.

Damien Chazelle wants to bring Jazz back into America’s cultural conversation – and for that I commend him — but he unintentionally cheapens the idea with saccharine sentimentality that he mutes with a downbeat ending. Any Jazz musician or fan knows that be-bop’s intrinsic element of syncopation is all about the upbeats. "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." La La Land doesn't swing. "Hustle and Flow" is a much better musical. 


Rated PG-13. 128 mins. (C+) ( Two Stars — out of five / no halves)

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December 07, 2012

Les Misérables

Les MiserablesAudiences new to Boubil & Schoenberg’s stage musical — based on Victor Hugo’s novel of historical fiction — may be surprised to discover that the wooly narrative isn't as compelling as they imagined it might be.

The era is 19th-century post-revolutionary France. A villainous police inspector [Javert – Russell Crowe] keeps up an inexplicably motivated lifelong vendetta against Jean Valjean (flawlessly played and sung by Hugh Jackman). Valjean spent 19 years slaving away under Javert’s brutality in Toulon prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s child. Upon his release, Valjean breaks his parole. When the desperate ex-convict attempts to steal silver from a church, the priest there forgives the arrested Valjean. The man of God goes further. He gives Valjean two expensive silver candlestick holders. Informed of his freshly imposed duty to God, Valjean turns over his life. Eight years later he is mayor to a small French village.

The plot skips through eight-year time lapses. Javert stays hot on Valjean’s trail. The benevolent Valjean adopts Cosette (well played by Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried), the daughter of Fantine (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who perishes as a direct result of Jean’s involuntary response regarding an incident at the factory where she worked. More eight-year leaps and the womanly Cosette falls in love with Marius (Eddie Redmayne) a student revolutionary.


That’s the gist. However, that little synopsis doesn’t reveal how mundane the songs sound — regardless of their bombastic arrangements. Then there’s director Tom Hooper’s filmic tendency to reduce big-spectacle settings into a claustrophobic experience. Extended close-ups of the actors’ faces hitting their notes accumulate toward an audience-distancing effect. The visual impression loses context over time because the audience is left to be fixated on every wrinkle on Anne Hathaway’s lips.

Nonetheless, Hooper’s style works whenever Hugh Jackman is on-screen — which thankfully is much of the time. I can’t think of a more capable or ideal actor who could have given such an exquisite singing and acting performance. Every time the epic story threatens to lull you to sleep, Hugh Jackman snaps you back with his commanding presence in a soul-bearing role.


Tom Hooper’s film version of Les Misérables‬ is an entertaining experience, but you might start to nod off from time to time. The film’s opening shot of hundreds of prisoners pulling a giant ship into dock is worth the price of admission alone. Sacha Baron Cohen adds considerably to the film’s much-needed area of comic relief as Thenardier, a pickpocket innkeeper with an equally skilled wife (played by the ever persuasive Helena Bonham Carter).

All of the ensemble performances are solid, even if Russell Crowe’s effort is forced and stiff. You won’t leave the cinema humming any “memorable tune” from the show. You will, however, have newfound respect for Hugh Jackman. It looks like Daniel Day Lewis does have some competition after all.

Rated PG-13. 157 mins. (B-) (Three stars - out of five/no halves)  

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June 16, 2012


‘80s Hair Band Fiesta
Broadway Musical Adaptation Leaves a Wet Spot
By Cole Smithey

Rock-of-ages-movie-poster-2Based on Chris D’Arienzo’s campy Broadway musical, “Rock of Ages” is a gaudy, spirited exhumation of music that many would prefer to forget ever existed. Famously described by Elvis Costello as the “decade that music forgot,” this version of the '80s are distilled into a collection of hard rock anthems by the likes of Bon Jovi, Foreigner, Journey, Twisted Sister, and Poison. Even within the realm of hair metal, tastes differ. D’Arienzo could have at least included a song or two from Hanoi Rocks or The Lords of the New Church for their accredited punk glam appeal.

A Sunset Strip-based musical—circa 1987—constructed around songs like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and “Any Way You Want It” isn’t a recipe for a great story. The movie version is left to inject a clumsy narrative with some much-needed kitsch via a litany of stunt casting choices. Contributing screenwriters Justin Theroux and Allan Loeb seem to have polished up the source material with a dose of witty throwaway lines in an attempt to juice up the humor.

Nonetheless, the overlong movie frequently stalls in mid-song as during Mary J. Blige’s set piece, which suffers the misfortune of arriving just when the movie should be wrapping up.

Most of the action is contained in a raucous Sunset Strip bar called The Bourbon Room (clearly modeled on LA’s Whiskey a Go Go). A less-paunchy-than-usual Alec Baldwin plays aging hippie club owner Dennis Dupree with a goofy twinkle in his eye. Baldwin earns some well-deserved chuckles during comical character-revealing scenes played opposite bar manager Lonny (exquisitely played by the suitably cast Russell Brand). Dennis and Lonny share a special secret. Paul Giamatti does a deft turn as Paul Gill, the slimy music biz manager to Tom Cruise’s slothful heavy metal rock-god Stacee Jaxx. Cruise is easily ten years too old for the part. You can see his once youthful looks cracking around the edges of his face as he goes defiantly over the hill right before your eyes.

Catherine Zeta-Jones turns up the heat in her fired-up role as Patricia Whitmore, a Bible-thumping wife to LA’s newly elected mayor (played by an underused Bryan Cranston). Patricia has personal reasons for wanting to take Stacee Jaxx down a few rungs from his towering ladder of fame and sex appeal. As the site of Stacee’s last band appearance on his way to going solo, the Bourbon Room is Patricia’s prime target for immediate closure.

Vapid romance ensues between Detroit transplant/Bourbon Room barback Drew Boley (charmingly played by teen heartthrob Diego Boneta) and Kansas-escapee Sherie Christian (Julianne Hough). Both are aspiring singers, and Drew is the songwriter of the couple. An acoustic version of the first bars of “Don’t Stop Believin,’” that Drew sings to Sherie under LA’s iconic HOLLYWOOD sign, segues into a joke as he explains that the song goes “on and on and on and on.” Boneta and Hough don’t share enough screen chemistry to raise audience expectations. The fickle condition could be chalked up to the structure of a musical theatrical piece unfriendly to filmic adaptation.

Choreographer-turned-director Adam Shankman (“Hairspray)” is unable to prevent the film’s domino-cascade of two dozen musical set pieces from turning into a visual and aural drone. Still, “Rock of Ages” has enough panache and chutzpah from its well-oiled cast to make for an entertaining good time. Sure, the structure is off and the music is bland, but a centerpiece pool-table sex scene between Stacee Jaxx and Malin Akerman’s sultry Rolling Stone reporter Constance Sack leaves a wet spot.

Rated PG-13. 123 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)

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July 14, 2008

Mamma Mia! The Movie

Mamamia_3 From Greece With Abba and Streep
Meryl Conquers the Mediterranean With Song
By Cole Smithey

Once it gets past its high-pitched squeals of estrogen-fueled excitement in the opening sequences, director Phyllida Lloyd’s screen adaptation of the popular Broadway play based on Abba songs, settles into a harmonically pleasing musical comedy set amid the extraordinary beauty of the Greek isle of Skopelos. Former 80s’ girl-trio singer Donna (exquisitely played by the ever-surprising Meryl Streep) has single-handedly raised her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) on the island where the two operate a rundown hotel villa. On the eve of her marriage to local hunk Sky (Dominic Cooper), Sophie has used information she culled from her mom’s old diary to invite Donna’s three former boyfriends to the wedding in the hope of discovering the identity of her unknown father. Stellan Skarsgard, Pierce Brosnan, and Colin Firth do the honors as the trio of possible dads, and their arrival times well with that of Donna’s cherished band pals Rosie (Julie Walters) and Tanya (Christine Baranski). "Mamma Mia! The Movie" is tilted toward the play’s target audience of middle aged to elderly members, but that’s not to say there isn’t plenty of entertainment to be had for everyone else in this pop-tinged travelogue of Grecian opulence.

The biggest part of any director’s job is casting. It’s a dirty little secret that all the directing experience in the world can’t succeed without the right counterbalance of actors, conscious of the style and subtext of the material. To that end, renowned opera director Phyllida Lloyd makes her foray into feature film with the blessing of a perfectly balanced cast pitted with, and against, type so that each serves to ballast a far-fetched narrative in need of every bit of grounding it can get. Loosely constructed from the plot template for the 1968 romantic comedy "Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell," starring Gina Lollobrigida, Telly Savalas, Peter Lawford, and Phil Silvers, "Mamma Mia!" artificially shoehorns more than 15 Abba songs into hit-or-miss plot point set pieces that give background on the spotlighted characters. It’s a carousel approach that refreshes the movie every five minutes with infectious joy, and exposition.

Dressed in high-water overalls and flimsy deck shoes, Meryl Streep is the ultimate ex-patriot matriarch living an idyllic existence with her sun-kissed daughter. Streep’s opening number "Money, Money, Money" announces Donna’s need for a man of means and establishes her no make-up approach to the woman at the eye of an emotional whirlwind that we already know will end well. It’s Meryl Streep making musical theater look not only easy, but also natural to a fault. With Streep’s famed glamour kept peacefully at bay, the film makes way for the unconventional casting of character actors Christine Baranski ("Bonneville") and Julie Walters ("Becoming Jane") to shine. The three women tear into an inevitable rendition of "Dancing Queen" that works all the better for the credible chemistry between them as they sing about past glories with Donna as their center of attention.

The lavish beauty of glistening Mediterranean blue water beneath majestic hilltops is barely a distraction during Donna’s climatic singing of "The Winner Takes It All" to the long-suffering Sam (Pierce Brosnan) as he does the math on their missed opportunities for romance and happiness. Brosnan’s palpable discomfort with singing and dancing, supports his character’s sense of displacement, and mirror’s Streep’s doughty embrace of Donna as a strong-willed woman without an ounce of artifice, save her constant need to break into song.

From its imaginative choreography and faux retro music production mode, "Mamma Mia! The Movie" is an explosion of pop sensibilities in a movie that makes lip-syncing look a far-sight better than anything on "American Idol." If there’s anything Meryl Streep can’t do on film, we haven’t seen it yet.

Rated PG-13. 108 mins. (B+) (Four Stars)

December 14, 2007

Sweeney Todd: The Demon of Fleet Street

Horror Show
Tim Burton Paints Sondheim Red
By Cole Smithey


Director Tim Burton’s screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s 1979 Grand Guignol musical is at once mesmerizing and disappointing. Outstanding singing performances from its capable ensemble cast contrast unfavorably with Burton’s trademark affinity for a monochromatic color scheme of white, blue, brown and gray. Gallons of orange/red blood pour out beneath thankfully abbreviated songs performed in all-too-predictable orchestrations meant to cater to Broadway audiences familiar with the original Sondheim production. For such an idyllic gothic setting, Burton misses his cue to update the songs with orchestration, reharmonization, tempo, and key changes that could have corrected the music’s tendency to slip into a drone of same-sounding pitches.

Even with such musically backward attention paid to staying true to it’s pit orchestra limitations, Broadway traditionalists will likely chafe at screenwriter John Logan’s shortening of Sondheim’s script that cuts an hour from the play. Yet without Logan’s respectable effort, it is difficult to imagine that film audiences could withstand the material’s already redundant plotting.


The film begins aboard a London bound ship where fresh-faced youth Anthony (Jamie Campbell Bower) sings the praises of the town upon the Thames as the greatest city in the world in "No Place Like London." Next appears Johnny Depp’s pale profile as Sweeney Todd, a renamed escapee from an Australian prison where the corrupt Judge Turpin (brilliantly played by Alan Rickman) erroneously sent him in order to steal away Todd’s lovely former wife and young daughter. A shock of white hair (ala Dave Vanian of the punk band The Damned circa the "Phantasmagoria" album) cuts across Depp’s black hair and announces Sweeney’s vampire characteristics that blossom when he aligns himself with his former landlady, the widow Mrs. Lovett (Helena Bonham Carter). Giant cockroaches scurry around Mrs. Lovett’s filthy and unoccupied pie restaurant where she woos Sweeney with a song about her disgusting sweet meat pies. Lovett returns Sweeney’s box of well-kept razors from happier days and informs him of his late wife’s suicide. However clearly stated Sweeney’s mission is of slitting the throat of Judge Turpin, the crazed barber is prone to distraction and sets about killing untold numbers of men unlucky enough to wonder into his sparsely furnished barber shop above Mrs. Lovett’s bistro.

True to form, each member of the cast gets at least one musical set piece built neatly into the plot. Sacha Baron Cohen gives an especially enjoyable scene-stealing turn as a travelling elixir salesman and barber Adolfo Pirelli who takes distinct delight in publicly abusing his wigged child assistant Toby (Edward Saunders). Sweeney publicly challenges Adolfo to an impromptu shaving duel that becomes more of a musical duet. The audacious display stirs Adolfo’s memory of Todd from before he was sent to prison, and dispatches Adolfo to unwittingly become Sweeney’s first victim when he attempts to extort the returning barber on Fleet Street.

Loosely based on a 19th century stage play, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street" is a particularly bloody melodrama set to a decisively ‘70s Broadway sound. Tim Burton takes advantage of the gory material to press at the boundaries of its head-cracking, blood-spurting visuals and achieve a sublime brand of gothic horror that owes as much to the Hammer Dracula films of the ‘60s as it does to Stephen Sondheim. There’s a pitch black humor here about revenge as an excuse for bloodlust. In the context of America’s Iraq/Guantanamo quagmire you could read Sweeney Todd as a merciful and equal opportunity executioner who recycles. Torture is beneath him. Our hero is only interested in passionate murder on a grand scale, and yet he is a lazy serial killer. His victims must come to him, just as audiences must gravitate to a Christmas season of bloodletting to relieve the pressure of blood spilling all around us. In the words of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, "The spider spinning his web for the unwary fly. The blood is the life Mr. Renfield."

Rated R. 117 mins. (B) (Three Stars)

June 20, 2006

A Prairie Home Companion

The Rifle Range
Altman Shoots Himself In The Foot With Garrison Keilor’s Help
By Cole Smithey


Consummate blowhard radio personality Garrison Keillor sees his self-penned script fantasy about the final installment of his wispy radio show "A Prairie Home Companion" realized by Robert Altman. Just as the word "prairie" connotes Anglo pretension, Altman’s movie bounces between phony characters going through inflated backstage preparations before stepping onto Keillor’s stage at the Fitzgerald Theater to perform songs before a live audience marveling at Keillor’s billowy enunciation of arcane references like "rhubarb pie." Tommy Lee Jones plays "The Axeman," a Texas real estate mogul anxious to raze the Midwest theater.

Audiences outside of Garrison Keillor’s cult fan base will likely miss the point of Altman’s film, which values the anachronistic and arcane for its own sake. Keillor developed the vignette-based story with television writer Ken LaZebnik ("Touched By An Angel"). Kevin Kline’s ill-defined character Guy Noir announces the tonal inconsistencies that plague the film from his first scene where the character seems like a Broadway actor that stepped into the wrong studio. Guy Noir is a dilettante private investigator distracted from his part-time backstage doorkeeper narration duties by a "mysterious" blonde femme fatale (played by Virginia Madsen) that wafts around inside the theater during the performance. Madsen’s character, called only "Dangerous Woman," recurs throughout the story as a visual distraction seemingly present for the limited purpose of adding feminine color to the visual scope of the movie.

Counterfeit cowboy troubadours Dusty and Lefty (Woody Harrelson and John C. Reilly) exchange a constant stream of amiable barbs that prepare the audience for the bawdy nature of the goofy songs they eventually perform onstage. During the course of the story the duo provides the film with its deepest level of entertainment via their shameless affinity for all things course and crude.

Meryl Streep and Lilly Tomlin furnish the film’s strongest character threads as country singing sisters Yolanda and Rhonda Johnson. But, as actresses, they suffer the most humiliation in creating characters that fall flat as pancakes due to the banal nature of the material.


The aging Robert Altman utilized the assistance of director P.T. Anderson ("Magnolia") in creating what he envisioned to be a theatrical milieu film similar in execution to his captivating last film "The Company," about the intimate province of a New York dance company. Nonetheless, the substance here never meshes with Altman’s signature impromptu form, and the audience is left to ponder the fiction of the material more than the interconnectivity of its characters. Absent too, is the frisky narrative rhythm of Altman’s Hollywood centric "The Player" or musically inclined "Kansas City."

"A Prairie Home Companion" is a cringe-worthy Robert Altman movie because it lacks all traces of the director’s former glory. You could blame Garrison Keillor but that would be giving him too much credit.

Rated PG-13. 105 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)

April 29, 2006

Take The Lead

Mad Hot Banderas

Ballroom Dancing Goes To Public School Again
By Cole Smithey


Since the success of last year’s dance documentary "Mad Hot Ballroom," Hollywood has thrown together a formulaic narrative riff on the idea of New York public school students learning ballroom dance as a way of socializing poor kids out of their lower class traps. Antonio Banderas saunters through his performance in a glorified rendition of real-life ballroom dance teacher Pierre Dulaine, who brings classical dance training to bear on a group of tin-eared, hip hop-crazed high school misfits. Forget that the real life Dulaine taught much younger elementary school kids because this is by no means a biopic. Director of Photography Alex Nepomniaschy ("Narc") fumbles with where to put the camera to capture JoAnn Jansen’s ill-conceived choreography. Every sub-plot wilts on the vine in a redundant movie lacking narrative focus.

Beware the words, "feature film debut of veteran music video and commercial director." You can barely speak the well-worn phrase without spitting. In this case, Liz Friedlander proudly wears the crown of thorns that signals an inability to create any narrative arc that stretches for more than three minutes.

The movie starts out with a cliché montage of culturally divergent characters dressing up for a night out on the town. Pierre Dulaine shines his black leather shoes while ghetto kid Rock (Rob Brown) primps in front of his bathroom mirror before needlessly taking off his buttondown shirt so that his alcoholic father can vomit on it. Pierre rides his bicycle to a dance function while Rock is refused admittance to his high school’s hip-hop party. A couple of hoodlums taunt Rock into vandalizing the school principal’s car with a golf club before he’s seen committing the violent act by Pierre. This petty set-up allows Pierre to find Principal Augustine’s (Alfre Woodard) parking permit that he dutifully returns to the school the next day to give her.


The wobbly tone of the movie lies somewhere between teen comedy and drama with the emphasis on an inevitable clash of musical and dance styles. The well-dressed Pierre is challenged by Augustine’s cynicism toward his mannered nature in the context of her largely doomed student body. Pierre volunteers his dance teaching services for the delinquent kids relegated to after school detention. He finds his bicycle stripped for his altruistic efforts.

Before Pierre can teach his random batch of problem kids the names of the classical dances in the repertoire, they are busy mixing in freeform hip-hop dance steps. The students soon butcher standards like Gershwin’s "They Can’t Take That Away From Me" with hip-hop beats that create a musical fusion. All suspension of disbelief is jettisoned as the screenwriters, director, and choreographer press the untrained dancers toward a citywide dance competition that serves as the expected denouement of the movie.


The filmmakers proclaim that "Take The Lead" is "inspired by the life of Pierre Dulaine," but the subject's name seems utilized more to endorse a product that never earned his approval. As a dance movie "Take The Lead" is downright incompetent. As a feel-good teen drama/comedy it has no pathos or humor. It’s a throwaway movie.

Rated PG. 108 mins. (C-) (Two Stars)


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