Tag Archives: movie musicals

A Week Away

Greetings from my toilet! I don’t normally write movie reviews from my bathroom but I’ve recently developed a severe intolerance to dairy and it seems imprudent to risk sitting anywhere else.

Yes, this movie is THAT cheesy.

Will (Kevin Quinn) is a teenage orphan and a bad apple. Stealing a cop car is the last straw that gets him kicked out of the group home so as a last resort he gets sent to summer camp. Which is actually church camp. And at church camp, in apparently just the space of a single week, a certain young lady helps him develop a crush on Jesus and saves him from himself. Avery (Bailee Madison) is the pastor’s daughter and has a dead mom herself, so they really bond over seeing their dead loved ones again in heaven one day. Hypothetically, of course, which is what atheists call faith.

Faith is great but prayers are not going to get you through this movie, and that’s because this isn’t just a teenage romance that puts marriage on the table but not kissing, it’s also a musical! An eerily perky, God-centric musical with the absolute cheesiest, boppiest choreography I’ve ever seen in my whole life. Generally I like a good musical, and I don’t mind a sappy teenage romance, but this movie made me hate them both, made me hate movies generally, made me hate even cheese, and cheese is practically my religion.

This movie is unabashedly Christian, though I do think paintball and confetti cannons are rather obvious ways to trick kids into thinking Jesus is cool, and I think tricking anyone into religion is technically a cult. But a cult with an arts and crafts cabin and tater tots on Tuesdays. Care to join? It’s currently recruiting on Netflix.

Music

You may already know about this movie even if you haven’t seen it. Sia, the popular singer-songwriter with the oversized wigs, is its director and co-writer, but more importantly, is the woman who made a movie about a young woman on the autism spectrum without casting or seemingly consulting anyone on the spectrum. And when she was called out about it, she got kind of defensive. Understandable, maybe, but not a great look. She has since half-apologized, the very definition of too little, too late.

While I definitely believe that inclusion is good and right, and representation important, I decided to see if I could set the controversy aside and enjoy the movie anyway. The short answer is NO. The long answer is:

Music is not about a young woman on the spectrum named Music. Music (Maddie Ziegler) lives with grandma Millie (Mary Kay Place), who has carefully constructed a safe space in which Music can exist. Music is barely verbal, but she likes to go for walks and visit the library, and she’s never without her headphones. But then Millie suffers a deadly stroke and Music’s sister Zu (Kate Hudson) has to step up and take custody, which is a real head scratcher since Zu is an addict and a drug dealer recently released from prison and currently on parole. How she gets custody is beyond me. She can barely care for herself, she’s 40 but hardly an adult. Caring for a special needs sister seems wildly beyond her, which is probably why things get so wildly out of control. Anyway, this movie is not about Music, it’s about Zu. Music is merely used as a prop to help Zu achieve her goals. She’s a plot device on Zu’s road to redemption.

While this is hardly Hollywood’s first ‘marginalized person as a plot device’ narrative, it is a particularly offensive portrayal by Maddie Ziegler, who, by her own admission only prepared for the role by watching Youtube videos of kids on the spectrum having meltdowns. Ziegler’s performance is without depth or nuance. It’s one-dimensional, insensitive, and doesn’t begin to describe a person as a whole. But director Sia doesn’t understand this, and the script, co-written by Sia and children’s author Dallas Clayton, isn’t interested in fully-realized characters anyway. Music remains opaque and unknowable, Zu is hardly treated to anything resembling an arc or development, and other characters aren’t just basic but sometimes downright offensively stereotypical. It’s surprising that Sia was able to get the likes of Hector Elizondo, Mary Kay Place, Ben Schwartz, and Leslie Odom Jr. to sign on, but then again, none of them would have seen Ziegler’s patronizing performance until everyone was already on set and the ink on contracts was good and dry. But the whole notion that Zu can achieve some sort of absolution merely by learning to love her “challenging” sister is gross. Music doesn’t exist to make Zu look good. She shouldn’t be used as a way to illustrate someone else’s good vibes and positive intentions. She’s not an instrument or a stop along her big sister’s victory tour; her depiction as such is cruel and irresponsible. Why does a movie named after her fail to see Music as a person?

This patronizing and poorly judged filmed is frequently interrupted by an entire album’s worth of Sia songs – performed by Ziegler, Hudson, and Odom Jr. – and their accompanying music videos, which masquerade as insight into Music’s interior life but are really just an excuse to trade on the director’s only real talent. If only she had merely put out 10 videos instead. The musical interludes are of course pastel pieces of choreography heaven, but they not only have little if anything to do with the film itself, they also get really old really fast. Sia lacks the skill to connect these interjections to the larger story and the videos feel shoe-horned into a film that doesn’t want them. And though Maddie Ziegler’s other Sia collaborations (on her videos for Chandelier, Elastic Heart, and Big Girls Cry) are borderline genius, these are of course tainted by Ziegler’s self-evidently problematic aping of disability.

The film’s ignorant and infantilizing portrayal of autism is disastrous, so it might be a good time to yet again point out that actually involving people on the spectrum in this film’s conception, casting, development, and shooting would have resulted in something more authentic and representative. I know it’s tempting, in today’s cancel-prone culture, to dismiss or boycott this film, but I think that we can still learn valuable lessons from bad art. And Music is very, very bad. It’s so bad that it should serve as a new benchmark for productions going forward. It’ll be harder for mistakes like this to be made in the future. That’s not so much a silver lining as a tin foil lining, paltry perhaps, meager consolation, but it’s important to remember that a movie like this doesn’t just do a disservice to a marginalized community, it sets us all back, our understanding and our empathy and our ability to build a more inclusive society. Music isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom, and the only way we can be part of the cure is to talk about the way forward.

The Prom

The Prom is a new movie on Netflix based on a Broadway musical of the same name about a handful of Broadway stars looking to clean up their image by taking on a random cause. The cause in question is a prom in Indiana that the PTA would rather cancel than allow a gay student to attend with her girlfriend. It’s a pretty gay musical that Ryan Murphy manages to make bigger, better, and gayer than ever, with boatloads of sequins and buckets of wigs, and the shiniest, sparkliest cast he could assemble.

Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) is a veteran stage actress, a Broadway phenom with a Tony in her purse and an outsized sense of entitlement. When we meet her, she’s starring in the opening night of Eleanor, a musical about Eleanor Roosevelt. Co-starring as FDR is Barry (James Corden), a Broadway mainstay who’s still chasing that first Tony, and hoping this might be it. Unfortunately, a bad review pretty much shuts them down on that first night, and someone has the temerity to point out that it’s not so much that the show is bad as that the two of them are so disliked. They’re narcissists, they’re told, though they’re not convinced that’s such a bad thing. But in the best interest of their careers, they decide to rehab their reputations by support a cause (a cause celebre, they specify) along with Broadway actor “between gigs” Trent (Andrew Rannells) and inveterate chorus girl Angie (Nicole Kidman), who ride the next bus out of town toward homophobic Indiana.

Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman) is the sweet teenage girl who just wants to take her girlfriend to prom. Alyssa (Ariana DeBose) is her closeted girlfriend and the daughter of Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington), the “homosexual prom’s” #1 opponent. Principal Tom (Keegan-Michael Key) does what he can to mitigate the damage but he’s pretty powerless with so much opposition. Plus, now he’s start struck on top of everything else – he’s Dee Dee’s biggest fan.

As our Broadway do-gooders get to know Emma and her situation, what started out as a charitable act of self-interest turns into something a little more genuine, although the unironic, attention-hogging performance of It’s Not About Me had its charms. Both the songs and the film are uneven, but they’re also so much fun, who cares? I didn’t particularly buy Nicole Kidman as a mere chorus girl either, but do you hear me complaining? No. Because singing and dancing have put so much joy in my heart I should feel ashamed to ask for anything more.

The Prom is not a great movie, but it is boisterous, glittery good fun, full of beautiful costumes, beautiful voices, and a totally stacked cast. Ryan Murphy doesn’t do subtle, but he does have an eye for a fantastic musical number and this movie has north of a dozen. Though the feeling may be flitting, you can’t help but feel good while watching it, and what a perfect way to spend an evening near the holidays. The Prom is pure indulgence – tacky, campy, cheesy, and unforgivably feel-good. So feel it.

Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square

A holiday musical you say? I’m still riding high on Jingle Jangle, so sign me right up. Dolly Parton is my spirit animal, she’s magical unicorns shaking her pretty mane and making the world a brighter place.

Christmas on the Square is about a bitter woman named Regina (Christine Baranski) determined to sell an entire town that she’s apparently inherited from her estranged father. She serves eviction notices to every single person who lives and works there, including her former beau, and when they dare to protest, she moves up the date to Christmas Eve. What a Grinch! No, wait, Baranski was in that, wasn’t she? What a Scrooge! Is that safe? Man this woman is prolific.

As you might guess, Dolly Parton is herself hidden amongst the townspeople, masquerading as the town’s only homeless person but actually an angel in disguise. An angel come to stage an intervention!

Now, on paper this musical has everything I need in order to activate my merriment and good cheer, but on Netflix, it just wasn’t working for me. It’s a very traditional kind of musical, old-fashioned and janky, with campy over-acting and random singing, and set pieces that don’t trouble themselves to feel like anything other than the studio backlot affair they are. I understand it’s been adapted from an actual stage play, but I do expect at least a half-hearted attempt to make it feel more cinematic, and less claustrophobic. But everything feels corny, like a Hallmark movie crossed with your kid’s school Christmas pageant, and deeply phony. I couldn’t get into it, and that’s despite the very welcome invitation from Parton’s glowing songs, and even some pretty nifty choreography.

It wasn’t bad enough to turn it off – or perhaps I just didn’t want the trouble of finding something else – but I sort of wish I’d never turned it on. There’s LOTS of Dolly on Netflix these days, and literally anything else is a heck of a lot better.

I Am Woman

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back and pretend
Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

I grew up just knowing the lyrics to Helen Reddy’s I Am Woman, the way I just knew my own name. I grew up in a house of 4 sisters and 1 mother and there was nothing we liked better than putting on some Whitney Houston and singing/dancing along. But there were only two songs my mother ever sang unprompted, unconsciously, without a backing track: Amazing Grace, and I Am Woman (one of the many things she has in common with Barack Obama). At the time I didn’t think much of it. I knew the lyrics but it sure as heck wasn’t playing on MTV. And anyway, weren’t we already a female-led household of strong sisters doing it for ourselves? I didn’t think about why both my mother’s brothers went to university while she, even more intelligent and competent, was a high school drop out who got engaged to a trucker at 16, married at 18, and had me at 20, by which time she’d given up her “career” (hairdressing) to raise children at home – she had 4 of us by 26 and did it all alone, even when she was diagnosed with cancer. During divorce proceedings she gave up spousal support to keep our childhood home; as a single mother with no work experience or credit history of her own, she would have struggled to keep the 5 of us in a 2 bedroom apartment, and she failed to qualify for a loan to replace our rusted out van. Now I have to wonder: was my mother, a stay at home mother and perpetual caregiver, a secret feminist? All evidence points to yes, and not so secretly either. She taught us to “carry our own canoe” (that sounds like a particularly Canadian brand of feminism), to work hard enough to be able to support ourselves, to live with someone before committing to marriage. MY MOM WAS A FEMINIST? I grew up in the 90s, when feminist was a dirty word, but that didn’t mean the struggle for equality was dead, and clearly Helen Reddy’s 1971 song was still an anthem to women raising their own daughters now.

Helen Reddy wrote a feminist anthem in response to the sexism she encountered repeatedly in her life and career. It will not surprise you to know that the (male) record executives didn’t get the song and didn’t want to include it on her album. Or that her (male) husband stole all her money and put it up his nose.

Tilda Cobham-Hervey is absolute perfection as Helen Reddy; she’s the reason to watch. Director Unjoo Moon sticks pretty close to the usual biopic formula, but a magical spark from Cobham-Hervey is all this film needs to ignite not only a strong performance but a stunning musical performance as well.

Helen Reddy was the Katy Perry of her time. She was the first to make us roar. But while Perry’s pregnancy was announced to fanfare and unveiled rather dramatically in a music video, Reddy’s motherhood was considered a liability and proof she could never truly commit to her career. Fighting sexism has turned out to be a very long struggle and sometimes we need to look back in order to appreciate just how far we’ve come.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Jeronicus Jangle is a magical, fantastical inventor of “jangles and things” (translation: toys). A new breakthrough that brings a toy to life seems poised to make him an incredible success but while celebrating jubilantly in the streets with his wife, daughter, and nearly the entire town of Cobbleton, the newly animated toy (a matador named Don Juan voiced by Ricky Martin) convinces Jeronicus’ apprentice Gustafson that they should steal the blueprints to all the inventions and strike out on their own.

Twenty-eight Toy Maker of the Year awards later, Gustafson (Keengan-Michael Key) is eccentric and wealthy and about to run out of stolen ideas for toys. Jeronicus (Forest Whitaker), meanwhile, is completely ruined. Gustafson didn’t just steal his blueprints, he robbed him of his self-confidence and of the magic that seemed to inspire his inventions. His wife gone, his daughter estranged, and his toy store now a rapidly failing pawnshop, Jeronicus is dejected, and not even the threat of bankruptcy can jump-start his innovations. However, the arrival of his grand-daughter Journey (Madalen Mills) changes everything. Not only does she share his mind for magic, science, and creating, she’s got something even more important: belief.

Jingle Jangle is a bit of a marvel, to be honest. It’s The Greatest Showman meets Mr. Magorium’s Magic Emporium meets Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory. Although I loved the film from the minute Phylicia Rashad started reading a fairytale to her grandkids, I was completely sold not two minutes later when a toy store full of whirring robotics and steampunk costumed people break out into song and dance that totally swept me away.

Writer-director David E. Talbert creates a rich fantasy land that is a pure joy to visit. Although it’s not a perfect film, there’s a lot of talent on display. In addition to a truly unique twist on a family-friendly holiday film, Forest Whitaker is a total champ and Keegan-Michael Key is having a blast. Who knew either could sing and dance – or would? Mills is the true star of course; her voice is strong and confident, but so is her soul, and she shines her novice light even opposite legendary luminaries.

From the inspired music to the brilliant production design, Jingle Jangle was a whole lot of fun and I’m both pleased to have a new classic in the holiday genre, but equally pleased that it is holiday-lite, a perfect November (or anytime) watch.

BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky

BLACKPINK doesn’t like to be thought of as “just K-pop” and while you can quibble about the “just” part, the “K-pop” is hard to argue.

South Korea’s government rather brilliantly decided to really invest in its arts some years ago, knowing that they could be the nation’s most important exports. With considerable funding and a business approach, today its video games, television series, and movies have global appeal and success; last year Parasite took home the top Oscar, the first time ever for a foreign-language film. However, one could argue that music, namely K-pop, is South Korea’s greatest triumph, and I’m not just talking Gagnam Style. BTS fever has replicated the same fervour as Beatlemania once did. BLACKPINK became the first K-pop group to play Coachella. South Korea has a well-oiled machine churning out pop acts, and Blackpink may be more than K-pop, but they’re certainly also representative of it.

Children as young as 11 may enter this special training academy of song and dance and while most will eventually be asked to leave for failing to make the grade, others may last as long as a decade in the system, honing the skills and the look for eventual distribution into a group. Nothing left to chance, nothing unorchestrated, individuals are evaluated on a weekly basis, and asked to perform as a group in a rotating roster until something gels and a foursome such as Blackpink is plucked from obscurity for pop superstardom.

This documentary weaves in home videos of each of the girls, audition reels, practice footage, and video from their massive world tour to recreate the massive few years they’ve just had. And of course, hearing from Jennie, Lisa, Jisoo, and Rosé, we get to know a little bit about the personalities behind the carefully curated personas. It’s nothing that YG Entertainment (the parent company that recruited, trained, and launched the group, among others) doesn’t want you to know, but if it’s not quite as “all-access” as billed, it’s still plenty informative and loaded with charm.

BLACKPINK: Light Up The Sky will give K-pop novices a look behind the scenes at the grueling selection process of putting together a group, and will please fans with previously unseen footage and personal interviews with each member. You can watch it now on Netflix.

Hungry for more? Check out BLACKPINK review and music on Youtube.

Z-O-M-B-I-E-S

Seabrook is a perfectly planned community, where everyone is uniformly beautiful and bright. Fifty years ago, there was an accident involving lime soda at the local power plant, unleashing a green haze that turned people into zombies. Seabrook survivors erected a barrier to keep themselves save, and it has lived securely beside Zombietown ever since.

The ensuing 50 years have harkened 50 years of zombie improvements; they now wear a device on their wrists that emits a soothing electromagnetic pulse that keeps them from eating brains (it probably counts their steps as well). Zombies are are now like anyone else, though they are easily identified thanks to green hair and a pale pallor. Unfortunately, zombie phobia is rampant in the Stepford-like community of Seabrook, and the division is still pretty strict. Zombies wear uniforms, work the worst jobs, aren’t allowed to keep pets, etc, etc. Today, however, Zed (Milo Manheim), a teenage zombie, is super pumped because it’s the first day of school and for the first time, zombies are allowed to attend human school. He shouldn’t be surprised that the school is still very much segregated, with the zombies all relegated to the dank basement and not allowed to mix with human kids or join extra-curriculars. Luckily Zed’s got a zombie edge when it comes to football, and the Seabrook Shrimps are utterly awful without him. Can one zombie jock heal the hearts and prejudices of a xenophobic town? With a little help from his zombie friends and one brave, blonde cheerleader named Addison (Meg Donnelly), yes. Yes they can.

This little ditty is available on Disney+ and will make for some fun, family friendly viewing this Halloween.

Meanwhile, I’m a little embarrassed to say that I really liked this film myself. It’s corny and earnest as heck, but it’s also extremely well put together. I never saw High School Musical, but I imagine this is not unlike it, only half the kids are zombies.

Someone production-designed the heck out of this thing. That person is Mark Hofeling, and he deserves an awful lot of credit. The Seabrook side looks like a Taylor Swift music video and the Zombietown half looks like a Katy Perry video, and for the first time in my life, I mean that as a compliment. Costumes by Rita McGhee follow the aesthetic brilliantly (Sean even commented on the pastel football uniforms), so when they all break out into dance, the effect is rather pleasing. Oh did I mention it was also a musical? And the songs aren’t bad – not worse than a lot of what plays on the radio, anyway. The choreography’s decent too, more current and involved than I would have predicted from a Disney movie. The young cast (Manheim, Donnelly, Trevor Tordjman, Kylee Russell) are talented and charming and quite polished. And the script isn’t terrible either. Or, it’s terrible in a self-aware way, leaning extra hard on archetypes but making use of them and landing a few clever quips along the way.

Do I have a school girl crush on this movie or what? It’s really not meant for adults and I would never inflict this on anyone other than Sean. It’s a living, breathing cupcake of a movie and I guess I was in the mood for dessert.

TIFF20: David Byrne’s American Utopia

Talking Heads frontman David Byrne is undoubtedly brilliant. Eccentric. Thoughtful. Electrifying. It would be incredible to crack that skull open and have a poke around inside. And amazingly, without quite comprehending what we’ve done to deserve it, we’ve somehow been allowed to just that, thanks to his 2019 Broadway show, American Utopia. And for those of us who didn’t catch it live, in what I can only assume is divine intervention, Byrne has collaborated with Mr. Spike Lee.

Yeah. This is a Spike Lee Joint.

Based on a recent tour and album of the same name, David Byrne mounts what I can only describe as a fantastic beast, a hybrid part performance, part performance art. It’s a concert, a reflection, a celebration. It starts off thoughtful, contemplative, an intellectual exercise that just happens to be sung. But then he’s joined on stage by a small group of dizzying dancers and intoxicating musicians that inject the stage with a punch of vibrancy and energy that I will take the time to name them all since Byrne did much the same: Jacquelene Acevedo, Gustavo Di Dalva, Daniel Freedman, Chris Giarmo, Tim Keiper, Tendayi Kuumba, Karl Mansfield, Mauro Refosco, Stéphane San Juan, Angie Swan, Bobby Wooten III. All dressed in the same uniform, an unremarkable grey suit, their bare feet pounding the stage, a visceral representation of their grounded exuberance.

Stripped down to just humans and instruments, Spike Lee gives us all the angles – the up highs and the down lows, his camera becoming part of the mesmerizing choreography, part of the show.

It often feels like Spike Lee films are prescient in some way; they always hit the exact right note for today despite having been made yesterday. Byrne manages to strike the same vein with American Utopia, urging us to reevaluate our connections before anyone had seen a global pandemic heading our way. And the way he nudges us toward reckoning with the company we keep, the views we fail to challenge, and the work we still need to do is brought to a head when he borrows from Janelle Monáe for a dynamic, blistering rendition of Hell You Talmbout which asks the audience to say their names – the names of people dead at the hands of racial injustice – which becomes a chant, a memorial, and a plea for change.

Byrne’s show, at times angry, or impassioned, is not a passive experience. Audience members are on their feet, responding to his energy, creating a living, breathing reflection of the moment that Spike Lee seamlessly absorbs and becomes. Fans of David Byrne will no doubt be pleased by the show, but the real testament to its power is that it remains accessible to even complete novices. American Utopia is no mere concert documentary; Spike Lee has managed to take something beautiful and alive and mount it, pinned with loving precision, practically still breathing, for all to admire.