Tag Archives: movie musicals

Vox Lux

There are two acts to Vox Lux, and they’re both not great, but the first is at least sort of watchable.

13 year old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) barely survives a school shooting in 1999. Unable to translate her feelings into words for the memorial, she, accompanied by her sister El (Stacy Martin), instead perform a song, which launches a pop career. Somehow. Guided by The Manager (Jude Law), the girls grow up way too fast, but Celeste manages to translate the song into a video and the video into an album, which comes out more or less around 9/11 and manages to tap into a country’s, and in fact the world’s, collective grief. Celeste is a star, mostly because she was the one shot in the throat that fateful day, and her sister, the more talented of the two, had stayed home sick.

Fast forward to present day. Celeste is now 31 (and played by Natalie Portman), mother to a teenage daughter, Albertine (unfortunately played by Cassidy, again, in a performance not at all distinguished from the above). Celeste is as global a superstar as you can be, complete with a recent meltdown and nearly career-ending swerve. But she’s counting on this new album to get things on the right path again. She’s still drunk, though, and still perved on by the same greasy manager. And as luck would have it, just as she’s about to kick off her world tour, there’s another mass shooting wherein the terrorists wear masks from her first music video. And just like that she’s relevant again. But it’s a tragedy, right? Not a cancel the tour tragedy of course, because it happens overseas.

Anyway, the first bit reminded me a bit of Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique – by which I mean, it’s gritty and eerie and atmospheric. But it’s a copy, and not a great one. And that’s the absolute highlight of the film. It’s steeply downhill with rollerskates and a highly motivated dog from there.

Natalie Portman’s grown-up Celeste has no redeeming features whatsoever. She’s shrill and vacuous and we don’t see any of what happened to her in the interim to possibly explain away this complete and horrid transformation.

Clearly writer-director Brady Corbet means to say something about celebrity culture at the very least. But what is it? It’s tempting to say that the second half loses the MV5BMTkzNzAwOTYyM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDY5MjQ4NjM@._V1_SX1500_CR0,0,1500,999_AL_thread, but the truth is, the first half is boring enough that I don’t care about a lost thread because the whole damn sweater is garbage and a waste of good yarn. You know? Like, Sia worked hard on these songs. And the movie is slick looking, with cinematography just dripping its luridness all over the screen. But damn is it pretentious in a deflated, empty kind of way. And then the last 20 minutes or so are just concert footage, just full on Natalie Portman in a spandex body suit not quite nailing her choreography all over a stage full of unconvincing dancers. Was my jaw completely unhinged watching this or did it just feel that way? I can’t be sure. Sean tried to watch this with me, but it wouldn’t play when we rented it initially and he was gone off to work by the time I went back to it, and bully for him. I’m the one who watched it, aghast. This is Natalie Portman’s follow-up to what probably should have been an Oscar-winning performance in Jackie?

[I mean, to be fair, it’s not. She was also in Annihilation, and quite good in that, and Song to Song, which is not worth mentioning.]

Vox Lux is a derivative piece of junk. So, not unlike a pop song I suppose.

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Burlesque

Some bad movies you watch because some self-sabotaging part of your brain wonders, how bad could it really be? Some bad movies you watch because you’re too damn lazy to seek out a better one. Some bad movies you watch out of curiosity, or you’re in the mood to hate-watch something, or you don’t think the night deserves anything better. And sometimes, not often, but sometimes you’re just smart enough to avoid it. I’ve been actively choosing to not watch Burlesque since 2010, so much so that I never even realized how many of my favourite performers – Kristen Bell, Stanley Tucci, Alan Cumming – are in it. How did I come to finally watch this stinker?

This is going to sound like a stretch, but it basically comes down to our traveling to Mexico over Christmas. If you’ve ever been to an all-inclusive resort, then you know there’s a prescribed set of nightly entertainment. Five years ago, every resort had some crappy version of Broadway’s The Lion King, but I think Disney put the kibosh on that. We had a Jersey Boys night, a Pirates show, and the obligatory Michael Jackson tribute. And the resort also offered a burlesque show. We’ve seen some of the best burlesque in Las Vegas (and some of the worst). We’ve seen burlesque at Crazy Horse and the Moulin Rouge in Paris. We’ve seen some good shit, but having seen what passes for “Jersey” and “Boys” in Mexico, our expectations were appropriately tempered. We thought. What we weren’t expecting was a poor imitation of a reviled movie, but with Santa hats, and even Santa Claus. Merry Christmas eve to us!

In the movie, Ali (Christina Aguilera) is a small-town waitress who moves to L.A. to become a performer. Not a big dreamer, she seems content when she settles at Tess’s (Cher’s) burlesque bar, first as a waitress who has to prove her mettle, then as a performer that everyone else (Kristen Bell in particular) is jealous of.

The script is beyond bad. Like, there’s bad, and then if you keep going beyond bad, past terrible, past horrible even, orbiting somewhere around dreadful, you’ll find the script to Burlesque. Also, in my experience, burlesque involves some form of artsy striptease. In Burlesque, it means lip-syncing in your underwear. Possibly Xtina just can’t do two things at once. And good lord, we wouldn’t want her to.

So we’ve confirmed what we always suspected but never cared enough to validate. Burlesque is bad. Not even campy bad, not even so bad it’s good. It’s surprisingly boring for a movie that features so many beautiful women in lingerie. But you could watch a Victoria’s Secret commercial with the sound off and feel more satisfied than you will at the end of this movie. So thanks, Mexico, for piquing our interest and giving us a reason to seek out a stinker. Couldn’t have (wouldn’t have) done it without you!

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Well it’s 5 years later and these jerks are ready to go again. I mean, it’s been 10 years since the last movie was released, but it’s been 5 movie years, and the gang’s all here, except not.

Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has refurbished her mother’s Greek hotel, finally. Too bad her husband Sky (no I cannot believe that’s his actual name) (Dominic Cooper) isn’t around to see it. Is there trouble in paradise?

No matter. She’s planning a huge party to unveil the new space. Everyone’s invited: the MV5BNzU2N2NkMDEtN2IxZS00NjQ3LWI5MGUtOTVmOGIzMjEwN2Y5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzk5MTY4MTU@._V1_three dads (Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Stellan Skarsgard), Mom’s best friends (Christine Baranski, Julie Walters) – even Grandma (Cher)! But because one party full of old people is pretty lame (could someone tell Sophie that?), the movie is 80% flashback. Meryl Streep’s character is now played by the lush and nubile Lily James, and we get to watch her have all the unprotected, close together sex with three different men (at least!) alluded to in the first movie, which resulted in all the daddy confusion.

If you liked the first movie, you’ll probably find it in your heart to like this one. If you like ABBA but not their overplayed radio hits, which all sound the same, you’re going to love this sequel, which contains all the songs that were too shitty to make the first cut, plus a couple of weak recreations of the title song, which they just can’t get enough of. Plus, who doesn’t love the spangly, bell-bottomed costumes that go along with it? This second movie is even more contrived than the first, amounting to a less satisfying story.  Basically, you’ve got a handful of unknown ABBA songs from deep in the back catalogue, and you’ve got to contort the script to make them fit (see ‘Waterloo’ for an excellent example of this).

Everyone else in the world has been swept away by the sheer joy of a second ABBA musical while I’m still not over the first. Call me grumpy cat – I don’t get the appeal.

Seder-Masochism

When director Nina Paley’s father was on his deathbed, she and he had conversation about Passover that turned into a discussion about her long-ago decision to drop out of college to pursue her art, and how he wished she would have found a way to increase her savings.  It strikes me as a typical conversation between a father and daughter, particularly a Jewish father and daughter.  But it becomes much less typical when animated into a conversation between seder masochisma bearded dollar bill and a goat.  Those pieces form the heart of Seder-Masochism, a unique look at the story of Exodus from the perspective of a couple lapsed Jews.

In between, the story of Moses is told as a musical, with the Jews dancing their way through oppression in Egypt and then chaos in the desert to a collection of toe-tapping classics, one of which, naturally, is “Go Down Moses”.  Underlying the whole thing is the reality that in escaping from under the Pharaoh’s thumb, the Jewish patriarchy remained a source of oppression for women.  Paley admits that she had no idea how to seder masochism 2resolve the conflict between the Jewish God and the goddesses, but she does an excellent job of highlighting that conflict in the sunniest way possible.

The animation, all done by Paley, is unbelievably cheerful and bright, contrasting in every way with the subject matter.   That cheery art style, combined with the upbeat soundtrack, ends up making the film feel even darker as we see these awful events depicted as if in a Saturday morning cartoon, enhanced with the largely upbeat (and unlicensed) music.  Paley was up front about not having paid for the music in order to keep costs down while using the songs that best fit her vision.  The strongest scenes from the film, though, are those featuring the conversation between Paley and her father, as they are funny and starkly honest at the same time.

Whether or not you know anything about Judaism or Exodus, Seder Masochism is a well-made, charming, and surprisingly personal film.  And once Paley has completed the festival circuit this fall, she plans on making this movie available for free, so you’ll soon be able to see Seder Masochism yourself even if you aren’t able to catch it on the festival circuit.

Mamma Mia

I love Meryl Streep, and I love her in this. Sean sort of threatened me with re-watching the entire Mission: Impossible franchise in order to “prep” for its 67th installment, so I said: not until you watch Mamma Mia first. Because of course he hasn’t seen it.

Immediately he notices that this is the free-est we’ve ever seen The Streep, and it’s not just the dancing and prancing about. “Unhinged” is what he calls her, but I see it too. She’s fluid and feminine and it makes me realize how comparatively locked down she is in her other roles – even in Ricki and the Flash, which was so terrible you’d at least hope she had fun making it.

MV5BMmRhMmIzYjctYTExYi00YmNkLWEyMzUtMjNhZjliZTZjZWUwXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjAwODA4Mw@@._V1_The second thing he notices is Preacher. This has just ruined Preacher for Sean. Dominic Cooper is 100% lame in this movie, there’s no getting around it. He plays Amanda Seyfried’s love interest, and Meryl’s soon to be son-in-law, but mostly just a floppy-haired wanker who can’t wipe that shit-eating grin off his face. And Preacher NEVER grins. His character’s name is Sky so it’s official: twat.

Now, Sean is very comfortable in his manhood and he doesn’t hate on musicals as a genre, but ABBA isn’t exactly his bag – although come to find out, it’s a little more his bag than mine (Columbia House sent him a CD once, so he knows that some of the songs are different from some of the other songs, whereas I think they’re basically indistinguishable). Still, he’s a little concerned when they seem to have exhausted the entire ABBA repertoire and the movie’s not half done. Don’t worry, I tell him, they repeat. Not that that’s much comfort. And it doesn’t leave a lot for the sequel, although eagle-eyed Sean did spot a character in the sequel named Fernando (Andy Garcia) (though that song’s about war, and seems hard to place…not that that stopped them using a song about divorce in a wedding scene).

This movie’s 10 years old, and watching it all this time later, I can tell I wanted to like this movie because besides Meryl, I also adore Pierce and Brosnan, but man this is junk. The plot is structured around ABBA songs, so the best they could come up with is that Meryl’s daughter is getting married at their hotel\home in beautiful Greece, and she’s invited three former flames of her mother’s, all possibly her father. Awkward! The director, Phyllida Lloyd, is probably a talented lady, but she’s mostly a theatre director, and you can tell how married she was to the Broadway musical version of this. The acting all feels hammy, the gestures over-the-top, exaggerated for those in the cheap seats. The scenery is beautiful and it’s obvious they shot on location, but that realism makes the theatricality feel cheesy and out of place. 

It took this rewatch to realize I really don’t care for this movie, and I’m certainly not anticipating its unnecessary sequel. And it makes Sean a bit nervous to note how little Meryl is featured in its trailer…and the fact that the movie seems to largely focus on a younger version of her character (played by Lily James) does not bode well. If even Meryl didn’t care to revisit Mamma Mia, why the hell should we?

The Greatest Showman

Phineas Taylor Barnum was a showman first and foremost. His legacy includes a best-selling memoir, museums, philanthropy, and a circus who just closed its doors earlier this year, after something in the neighbourhood of 175 years of success. The Greatest Showman is the story of his life, only not: it’s the fictionalized, glamourized, told-in-an-entertaining-and-succinct-105-minutes version that somewhat resembles his life, or at least a rags-to-riches edition of it. It’s not historically or personally accurate but it IS beautiful and breath taking and fun. In fact, it’s the most excited I’ve felt at the movies all year.

Hugh Jackman has already established himself as a versatile actor: he makes Logan, a veritable man of steel, seem both tough and vulnerable. Here he straddles Barnum’s pursuit of fame, money, and success with his more modest but fulfilling tumblr_os9fxwinjy1qd4rf5o2_500.gifgoals of happiness and family. Ultimately we see Barnum find both fame and family in the circus. He collects ‘freaks’ and ‘sideshows’ and gives them purpose and a platform. People pay the price of admission to look on in sensational horror.

The film is glossy, a glory to look at, and a wonder to hear. It’s a musical, with lyrics by Tony-winning (Dear Evan Hansen) and Oscar-winning (La La Land) duo, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. A mashup of modern-sounding, toe-tapping, pop and hip hop, the music reflects an aesthetic that isn’t so much true to the time period, but more a tribute to Barnum’s constantly being ahead of his time. With dazzling, daring cinematography by Seamus McGarvey (Life, Nocturnal Animals, Atonement) and buoyant, irrepressible, vibrant production design by Nathan Crowley (Dunkirk, Interstellar, The Dark Knight trilogy), The Greatest Showman is a work of art by veteran professionals – except for its director. Michael Gracey had in fact never directed any movie at all before – why, then, did 20th Century Fox trust him with 80 million dollars and a promising script, co-written by Bill Condon, Oscar nominee for best adapted screenplay for Chicago, and winner for Gods and Monsters?

Hugh Jackman met Michael Gracey 8 years ago when Gracey directed him in a TV commercial in Rio de Janiero. The two hit it off creatively, and within months Jackman was suggesting him as the director a passion project of his, and with Jackman on board as star and producer, it only took about a hundred pitches or so before someone finally said yes. Yes! And true to the Barnum name, the movie wouldn’t just be a musical, it would be over the top, larger than life, bursting at the seems with spectacle.

In addition to Jackman, the cast boasts the likes of Michelle Williams as his long-tumblr_os9no4BmGt1qk2b83o5_r1_540.gifsuffering wife, Charity, Zac Efron as his business partner, Zendaya as a talented trapeze artist, and Rebecca Ferguson as the songstress who legitimizes his success (though credit for her amazing voice goes to Loren Allred, who dubs her in the film).

The Greatest Showman is like the best parts of Big Fish and Moulin Rouge smooshed together. It lit my heart aglow. If you’re looking for a true account of PT Barnum’s life, read a book. What The Greatest Showman offers is a damn good time at the movies, so see it in theatres, on the big screen, the way it was meant to be seen. Hugh Jackman will thank you for it.

La La Land: Discussion

If you’re looking for a spoiler-free review of the film, please check it out over here. I wrote it all the way back in September, fresh from seeing it at TIFF, and I’ve been waiting all this bloody time just to talk about what for me is the best film of the year. I was absolutely giddy for this movie, how it made me feel, how it made me think, how it whisked me away into something both surreal and familiar. We exited the theatre from La La Land and rushed on to the next (I think it must have been Lion) but between the two, I wept. I wept for heartbreak, and for beauty, because La La Land abounds in both.

If you’ve kept reading, then you know by now that La La Land, for all of its romance, does not have a traditionally happy ending. But are the characters unhappy? Mia and Seb separate in part because their ambitions overshadow their love. Was this the right move? Do they have regrets? Certainly they’ve both gone on to achieve the success they so coveted. Mia is married, la-la-land-1with children. When she sits in Seb’s club at the end, we are treated to an alternate version of events in which they manage to stay together. Do they wish that this was so? Do they still love each other? Have they moved on?

One of Chazelle’s unspoken themes must be “Is it worth it?” – is it?

During their courtship, the movie takes cliches about love and makes them true: love lifts them, they dance on air, they sing from rooftops. Did this feel organic to you in the movie? I often felt that when things felt intense to them, they broke out into song as a metaphor for feelings that are too fervent to verbalize. When words fail, they’d sing, or dance, which is often the way we feel in our excited little hearts when we’re first falling in love (reminds me of a certain scene in 500 Day of Summer).

Sean noticed that when the relationship got rocky, the movie got a little more boring, and frankly, a little repetitive. The songs are reused. But in time he felt like that was sort of the point: that the newness and wonder of the relationship had worn off, that they were beyond the first crush and settling into patterns and habits and less passion. The film itself reflects it. Did you find new meaning in songs as they were revisited? During the second half of the film, during the relationship’s demise, there is noticeably less music, which means less joy, less intensity. Their world goes a little drab when the shine has worn off. Did you miss the music when it was gone? Certainly when it returns in that final scene, it’s a heart breaker.

Originally Chazelle imagined that Miles Teller and Emma Watson would fullfill the lead roles. I can’t picture Teller ever being right for the part. Watson left the project so she could do another musical, Beauty and the Beast. Ryan Gosling ended up turning down the opportunity to play the Beast so he could do this instead, with frequent collaborator, Emma Stone. Chazelle has stated they were hired together intentionally, because they’re a modern-day version of an old-Hollywood couple, frequently working together and already having an established chemistry. Do you think anyone else could have pulled off these roles? Do you think either of them has a legit chance at an Oscar?

Seb states that jazz has to be experienced. He’s disgusted by people who use it as ‘background music.’ It’s a special language that he teaches her and she comes to appreciate. He takes full advantage in the final scene, telling her he still loves her using only his music, and he plays so passionately that she can see how he wishes things had been different. However, there’s an interesting part in the movie, the “sellout” phase where Seb is playing jazz in the background during a scene. Is this where it all went downhill? What would you say was their final straw?

Chazelle has deliberately taken this musical off the backlots and grounded in modern-day Los Angeles. The opening number, though originally not my favourite, helps set the tone. This is the world in which they live, but both are outsiders among that set. At the end of the number, Gosling gives Stone the finger before driving off. The offramp used in this number is the same one they used in Speed, where they had to jump the gap. Lots of real locations were used in the film – even Seb’s apartment is an actual apartment, not a set. Let’s not forget that the movie isn’t called Mia or Seb, it’s called La La Land: the city is also a character. City of stars, city of dreams. Did the locations help give the movie a sense of reality to you?

The one criticism I’ve heard from this movie is that it never addresses the true roots of jazz: does La La Land “whitesplain” jazz? Is it racist in its portrayal? Did Damien Chazelle fail us by casting white actors in a movie about jazz? Then I wondered – wouldn’t Whiplash have faced the same controversy? It’s another movie about jazz starring two white dudes, but I don’t recall hearing any hooplah over it [turns out the criticism was there all along]. Of course it’s not for me to say, but I can understand how it might sting a little to have an art form that was “invented” by African-Americans, music by black people for black people, to be told by white people. Not to say that jazz belongs to any one people, but if these are the only stories being told about jazz, then maybe the stories belong to the people who truly wrote them. And it does feel regressive in 2016 to see a white man play jazz, and a white woman dance to it, while people of colour make up the blurry background characters surrounding them, out of focus, besides the point. What do you think – is there cultural misappropriation going on here? Is Ryan Gosling a “white man saviour” in his quest to save jazz?

Mia and her friends are resplendent in primary colours because they’re young, and they dream in technicolour. She’s dressed in emerald, saphire, yellow. At the end of the movie though, she’s wearing white. She’s supposedly made her dreams come true, but she’s leached of colour. What’s that about?