Tag Archives: movie musicals

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.

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

I will give it this: it is the funniest comedy of 2020. Is it (so far) the only comedy of 2020? Basically yes. But as this movie teaches us: sometimes you win just by showing up.

Lars (Will Farrell) has been obsessed with Eurovision since he was a little boy.

[For us non-Europeans, a crash course in Eurovision Song Contest, which is a real thing: it’s an annual international song competition, held every year since 1956, with participants from many of the 50 eligible countries (confusingly, some eligible countries are not European, and one, Scotland, is not even a country). Like the Olympics, each country holds internal trials and sends their best delegation to the competition, where an original song is to be performed on live TV and radio. Then people vote on their favourite. Countries cannot vote for themselves; each country awards two sets of points, one set decided by a panel of music industry experts, and the second decided by viewers voting by phone and text. Occasionally the winner achieves success outside of the broadcast area; Abba won for Sweden and Celine Dion won for Switzerland *record scratch* wait, what? That’s right: for some reason you don’t have to be from the country you’re representing. Some people compete multiple times by singing for different countries. Dion, who is ours (Canadian), was a good horse to bet on, but it does smack of cheating. Although, to be fair, so does every other thing about the contest. Russia won’t vote for queer performers and China won’t even show them. Jordan won’t show Israeli entries because they don’t recognize it as a country, and neither does Lebanon. And it seems that neighbouring countries tend to vote for each other; geographical and even political alliances pop up, and reciprocal votes are exchanged. You could even allocate points to an unpopular performance in order to boost your own relative success. 2020 was to be the show’s 65th anniversary, with this film’s release set to coincide with it. Alas, COVID has other plans, and for the first time, the contest was cancelled)]

Back to Lars (Will Ferrell), a little Icelandic boy who fell in love with Eurovision the day he first heard Abba sing Waterloo, much to his father’s disapproval. Many, many years later, Lars is now a middle-aged man but his dream is the same. His father’s (Pierce Brosnan) stance hasn’t changed, if anything, he’s more critical of his son’s “wasted life.” But his Fire Saga bandmate Sigrit (Rachel McAdams) has more than enough enthusiasm and encouragement to go around, and in their own heads, they’re already stars (the local pub tells an entirely different story, interrupting their original music to request Ja Ja Ding Dong, a silly but exceedingly catchy piece of shit – think of it as Iceland’s Chicken Dance). They’ll never get sent to compete on Eurovision on their own merits, but luckily the elves are on their side and something happens to tie up literally every other singer-songwriter in the country.

Off to Scotland they go: cue some fish out of water humour, some anti-American jabs, an oversexed Russian (Dan Stevens), and some pretty bizarre on-stage theatrics (which apparently are also a real thing – it’s a visual medium, and performers do their utmost to stand out). Iceland is basically the laughing stock of Eurovision.

This is the movie Will Ferrell was born to write. Scratch that: it’s the movie his wife was born for him to write (She’s Swedish – her family introduced him to the contest and he’s followed it rather ardently since 1999). That’s a pretty serious investment. He planted those comedy crops last century – does he harvest the rewards in this movie? Well, not exactly. His family won’t starve to death, but it’s a meager little crop, and a little mealy to boot. Sean thought it was pretty fun, and I won’t deny the film does have its merits. Will Ferrell is a larger than life comedian. His bits are always big so they either fail big or they win big, and with a 2 hour run time, the premise doesn’t quite have enough steam to keep paying out. Still, considering it’s on Netflix, your risk is small. If you’d paid to see this in a theatre, you’d probably leave feeling disappointed, but it’s just good enough for a Netflix view.

This is the second collaboration between director David Dobkin and stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams. They had no scenes together in Wedding Crashers, in fact Ferrell had a pretty small part, but it was a wildly and unexpectedly successful movie. Perhaps Will Ferrell in small doses is the key here, and it’s one that’s definitely lacking in this prohibitively-long-titled movie. As troubling is his character is, we’re doomed to follow him around through all his lows and lowers. Rachel McAdams is basically inoffensive. She’s not exactly known for her comedic chops, so she provides an earnest counterpoint to Ferrell’s hammy, over-the-top antics. It’s not a match made in heaven. It’s not even a great match for Iceland, whose couplings tend to be a touch inbred. But like the proud and wonderful Icelandic people, this movie is unabashedly, embracingly weird. And like Iceland’s relationship with Europe, Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga is not the best that Netflix has to offer, but occasionally it surprises you.

Valley Girl (2020)

First: a word about Logan Paul. Logan Paul is a Youtube star. “Star.” I know his name but not his content; he’s the brand of entitled-obnoxious that my life doesn’t need so I’ve never seen a single thing he’s done. I do know he’s been controversial, though. The first I heard of him, he’d gone to the suicide forest in Japan in late 2017 and posted a video of the corpse of a recently deceased (hanged) man. Cue uproar, cue “apology.” Youtube gave him a slap on the wrist (with 25M subscribers, their partnership is extremely lucrative to both) but he was back at it just a few weeks later. He’s sexist, he’s homophobic, he’s racist. Basically, he’s a giant douche. Valley Girl director Rachel Lee Goldenberg had the misfortune of casting him in her movie to play…well, a giant douche as it happens. This was in the spring of 2017, before the big controversies started to add up. The film was scheduled for a 2018 release by they scrapped it due to his involvement. This poor movie has languished on some shelf in Hollywood, serving a sentence for crimes committed by a single cast member. So yes, I acknowledge that Logan Paul is a problematic douche nozzle and we all wish he wasn’t in this movie even though he’s actually perfectly cast. With that said, onto the movie.

Yes, this is a remake of the 1983 film of the same name, starring Nicolas Cage and Deborah Foreman. Foreman played Julie, a perfect, preppie valley girl who falls for a punk (Cage) from the wrong side of the hills. In the 2020 version, Julie is a proper grown up. She (Alicia Silverstone) is a mom now, and she recounts this teenage romance to her daughter.

Cue: the 1980s. Cue the leg warmers, the big hair, the jazzercize, the popped collars. A young Julie (Jessica Rothe) frolics on the beach with her gal pals and then hits up the mall. She’s dating arrogant jock Mickey (Logan Paul) but an edgier guy has grabbed her eye. Randy (Josh Whitehouse) is not a punk, because punk is dead, but if she’s a little bit country, he’s a little bit rock n roll. Her friends think she’s having a nervous breakdown but as far as rebellious streaks go it’s actually pretty tame – just dreaming of leaving the suburbs and maybe prioritizing a career instead of marriage and motherhood.

2020’s Valley Girl is somehow even more 80s than the original: it’s an homage, a love letter, a glossy, hair sprayed tribute, and in doing so, it’s rounded out the edges and presents a sanitized pop version for your nostalgia cravings. This Valley Girl is a jukebox musical which means every song sung will be one you know; the retro soundtrack includes We Got the Beat, Bad Reputation, Hey Mickey, Call Me, Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Kids in America, Just Can’t Get Enough, Material Girl, Safety Dance, Take On Me, Under Pressure, I Melt With You…well, you get the picture. The 80s vibes are strong in this one.

Is this a life-changing movie? No. Is this a great piece of cinema? Still no. But if you’re willing to embrace the cheese, it’s actually quite a bit of fun. And the great thing about the 80s is that you don’t actually have to have lived through them to be nostalgic for them. It feels like the nostalgia was baked right into the decade (and quite possibly Tang flavoured). Play I-Spy during the carefully curated costume party: can you spot Boy George – George Michael – Michael Jackson?

This movie is Grease meets Trolls World Tour meets Romeo and Juliet, but feels like it’s a 90 minute version of those Tiffany videos she used to shoot at the mall. Valley Girl knows what it is and isn’t afraid to lean right in. This is the 80s, turned up to 11.