comedy, drama, musical

La La Land

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La La Land, 2016

Call it Damien Chazelle’s ode to yellow, the overrated record-breaking Golden Globe winning film, or that musical with Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. All are accurate descriptions of La La Land, Chazelle’s supposedly impossible project that’s charming the awards circuit. It’s simple to summarize – Mia (Stone) is a wannabe actor, while Sebastian (Gosling) dreams of opening a club and preserving “pure jazz.” But can they have each other and their careers?! You decide if you want to sit more than two hours to find out.

What was most troubling about Land is its marketing as a modern day musical and yet, it has four songs. Four. And three of the four are sung by barely-there vocals. The fourth, what feels like the finale, is belted by Stone, which made me more mad at the previously mediocre vocal performances. It doesn’t help that the the songs hardly push the film along, as a true musical’s would. Perhaps if I had shown up and expected a typical film this random, breathy singing would have been charming but because of the bombardments of ads it was simply disappointing.

On top of that, these characters are tough to root for. We know nothing about Mia other than she’s a barista who was inspired by the classics… like Casablanca. So, so far she’s any barista in America. Meanwhile, Sebastian is a white jazz pianist serving as a savior to jazz. At least he sounds intelligent speaking about his passion, sourcing and collecting from the greats. Beyond the planetarium scene and the very, very end, watching these two fall in love was painful. Was it worth Gosling’s GG acceptance speech though? Maybe. Just maybe.

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comedy, drama, musical

Hairspray Live!

Hairspray Live! - Season 2016

Hairspray Live!, 2016

Another Christmastime, another “Live!” musical. This year NBC chose Hairspray, and unfortunately these overexcited productions seem to get better with time. More than its predecessors, though, Live! was a reminder of how stage doesn’t always translate to screen. From the intro with animatronic rats and men stirring empty coffee cups to a scene “playing” dodgeball, viewers were robbed of the charm of theatre that’s possible thanks to the illusion of distance. Then again, it was neat to see The Corny Collins show on an actual TV. Whether or not you enjoy Hairspray (any version of it) doesn’t matter though, because with this viewing its eerie timeliness and star-filled cast is what made the show.

So much of this musical, primarily about positive body image and establishing desegregation in Baltimore, felt “too soon” as 2016 comes to a close. Lines that may have been funny your last viewing/listening suddenly felt passive aggressive, or like salt in the wound. Worst/Best of all, it made Jennifer Hudson’s “I Know Where I’ve Been” a motivational speech for the US of A. But of course, things have changed since the 60’s. That line about beer being a quarter? Let’s bring that back. And speaking of the past and Hudson (who played Motormouth Mabel), her rendition of “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” made you wonder what Weight Watchers Jennifer would think of all this. The rest of the cast, which included Derek Hough, some Disney stars, Harvey Fierstein, Kristin Chenoweth, Martin Short, and Ariana Grande playing her SNL Tidal intern Chloe, did well. Newbie Maddie Baillio (playing Tracy Turnblad) stepped up to the challenge, and was at one point flanked by past Tracy’s. It took my viewing party several minutes to solve the tres Turnblad mystery, which featured Ricki Lake and Marissa Jaret Winokur. Oh, and Hamilton alum Ephraim Sykes blessed everyone as Seaweed. I hope he laughed as hard as I did when Link (Garrett Clayton) exclaimed “I will not throw away my shot!

Unfortunately the mics were not as reliable as the talent and it was often difficult to hear the words above the music. Costumes, on the other hand, were very loud. Shoutout to the Dynamites’ outfits; too bad my office Christmas party is tomorrow and I can’t snag one in time. Even if Tracy was playing tic tac toe with herself in jail and the best song of the night was arguably featured in the Arby’s Fire Roasted Philly ad, Hairspray was fun to watch, and reflect with. What NBC is predicting for 2017 by choosing Bye Bye Birdy as its next live musical is unclear…

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comedy, drama, musical

The Last Five Years

TheLastFiveYears

The Last Five Years, 2014

Blame it on work or relationships or really burning through awards season. I’ve got eight hopeless reviews in draft mode, and while I’ve been seeing movies in theaters and at home and on planes and trying to fulfill my #52FilmsByWomen challenge… there hasn’t been anything posted in a while, huh? But tonight I finally sat down to watch The Last Five Years. Building on Jason Robert Brown’s musical of the same name, the film focuses on the relationship between Cathy (Anna Kendrick) and Jamie (Jeremy Jordan). What makes it far more interesting than a love story is that it starts with Jamie and Cathy telling it from beginning and end, respectably. That, and it’s a musical. Because of the alternation of devastatingly sad and heart-fluttering cute, it’s an emotional tour de force complete with both actors belting their hearts out.

Brown was a big deal among kids I grew up with (no, seriously, worship level), so I knew the songs but had never seen them performed, and was admittedly wary of it. At the start though, the typography was nice and the film started with credits against a black screen, New York City’s own sounds in the background. In this immediate nod, the city became the third character. Part of what makes Years so intimate and sad is that you know nothing of anyone but Cathy and Jamie. Even regarding those two characters, we know very little about them other than their relation to each other and their jobs. Jamie is a wunderkind author while Cathy is a struggling actor, and the portrayal perfect. From phone calls and Skype dates to living together and attending work functions, there is clearly effort being put into showcasing the growth (and decay) of a relationship.

The camera angles are sweeping, often feeling handheld (maybe some were handheld?) to the point of disorienting a viewer. The color correction makes some scenes nearly neon, with trees far greener than need be. Kendrick’s blonde hair and Daisy Mae sweater are incredibly distracting. If you don’t like musicals, skip Years. It’s cheesy and  nearly all sung and occasionally features choreography from plot bystanders, but if you like musicals you can look over all of this and become sucked in. From the first note of “Still Hurting” (if you went to theatre camp, you know it) you’re done. And at an hour and 34 minutes, you can afford to be.

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biography, documentary, musical

Amy

Amy, 2015

Amy, 2015

Watching Amy (finally) on DVD was a mistake since the menu instantly began playing “Tears Dry on Their Own” and it was a warning of waterworks before the movie itself even started. I’m by no means a diehard Amy Winehouse fan, but I did love her music and was devastated to hear of her passing in 2011. Sometimes I’ll hear a song of hers in a store or someone will butcher “Valerie” at karaoke, and I can’t help but become bummed by the idea that no new music from Winehouse will ever be produced. And that’s what Amy does, reminds viewers of the immense talent and potential of a young musician.

With scenes from 1998 to 2011, we get to glimpse into Winehouse’s life thanks to previously unseen footage and unheard recordings, and considering so much of Winehouse’s demise came from the pressure of her audience, watching an entire film about her can seem brutally ironic, though its a message worth hearing. I happened to watch Amy the week Adele’s long-awaited 25 was released. In her first interview in years, Adele mentioned watching Amy and being moved by seeing a peer “perform” again. Though different, the similarities between the two artists are undoubtedly there. As Adele currently skyrockets to an astonishing fame at 27 years old, we grieve an artist who rose and fell so quickly, and publicly, in her own 27th year.

The film is raw and gritty and somehow manages to protect Winehouse while simultaneously showing a grisly downfall. No punches are held, including those thrown at her family and friends, particularly her father. The home videos make you feel as if you knew Winehouse but the soaring shots of London reminded me that she was one of millions, and who knows which talented person we could lose next? Amy should serve as a lesson so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

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musical

The Wiz Live!

The Wiz Live!, 2015

The Wiz Live!, 2015

In an awkward introduction, Queen Latifah announced The Wiz Live! was really, truly starting, and that “anything can happen.” Being the pessimistic, NBC live musical hate-watcher I’ve become, I took this as a promise of disaster. It started that way. The set, at first, was underwhelming and Dorothy (Shanice Williams, who admittedly made me tear up during her Today interview) was wearing a horrible plaid combination that made me question what decade we were in, but don’t worry – the script reminded us we were trying very hard in 2015.  Addapearle (Amber Riley) invited Dorothy out for sushi, Evillene (Mary J. Blige) mentioned “casting shade,” and in a low point, Dorothy shouted “Y’all was supposed to be my squad!” More than this, Live! suffered since it didn’t make you fall in love with Dorothy. The only character development was she 1. has dead parents, 2. fights with her Aunt Em, and 3. has run away several times. It makes the whole “click your heels three times” plot far less interesting.

But the performances were refreshingly pleasant, and the set and dancers were far better than those from Sound of Music Live! and Peter Pan Live!. Tin-Man (Ne-Yo, who I haven’t seen since he was so sick of love songs) provided the feels I missed from the original. And that’s the best thing about this production– it’s seemed to show lots of people a less-popular musical. It had lava lamp munchkins and tornado dancers dressed like 2009 VMA Lady Gaga and a yellow brick road my roommate deemed “burnt bacon.” Scarecrow (Elijah Kelley) had chevron fabric around his ankles, Toto went MIA, and the hashtags scrolling across the bottom of the screen included “#IHateWater.” But then there was that fabulous poppies dance sequence, Queen Latifah as The Wiz as a Covergirl ad, and Uzo Aduba bringing this clearly conflicting show to a dynamic, though abrupt, end.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Wiz Live!, even if much of it came in the form of mockery or awkward awe (talking about you, Grinch coat). Whether or not we’ll see another live NBC musical “depends on how The Wiz does,” and I hope this self-proclaimed tradition continues. Either way though, we’ve got Fox’s Grease: Live to look forward to…

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biography, drama, musical

Love & Mercy

Love & Mercy, 2014

Love & Mercy, 2014

I can’t put into words the feeling I had turning off my TV after watching Love & Mercy. Empowered, enlightened, educated… I learned so much. And I went into the movie simply excited to see Paul Dano and learn a bit more about the Beach Boys. Did I underestimate Mercy? One hundred percent. From the start we are thrust into sensory overload and I loved it. It’s a hectic introduction with documentary-style footage, songs clashing, voices lost in the noise. We come to understand that the star of the movie is Brian Wilson, played fascinatingly by two actors– Dano as 1960’s Wilson and John Cusack as Wilson in the ’80s. At first I was irked the actors didn’t attempt to match their vocal performance, but the differences between the two added to the dramatic before and after of Wilson’s rise to fame. Switching from past to present with minimal transitions (sound bridges, tight white pants) or none at all, Mercy is beautifully disorienting in a way that makes one feel closer to Wilson’s story.

Misdiagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, we get to know Wilson as Melinda Ledbetter (Elizabeth Banks) did– a fragile, over-medicated man dependent on Dr. Eugene Landy (played by an utterly terrifying Paul Giamatti). Wilson is living in a all-white, sterile home with Landy as his legal guardian. It’s hard to disassociate Banks from her quippy persona (Pitch Perfect movies, Realator.com ads) at first, but her performance is what keeps the past and present together, helping us get to know ’80s Wilson while seeing ’60s Wilson in flashbacks. There’s even an interesting use of voiceover throughout Mercy, which only employs Ledbetter’s perspective, but I couldn’t hate it. Meanwhile, Cusack is powerfully vulnerable and retains the curiosity of Wilson post-crisis, but the real star is Dano. Hired without having even sung as part of an audition, Dano masters the vocals, the internal chaos of young Wilson, and the passion for music most evident in the creation of Pet Sounds. In one scene, the camera pans across the studio as multiple instrumentalists rehearse and Dano stares so intensely into the lens, breaking the fourth wall, that rather than feeling jolted from the scene you feel further pulled into a sense of reality. In another breathtaking moment, Wilson finds that when he puts headphones on he begins to hear voices and repeatedly places them on and off his head, panicking. It’s genuinely performed instances like these that give Mercy an almost documentary-style aesthetic. The few moments in which Cusack and Dano overlap are what jolt us from this style, and it’s incredibly worth it (read: bed).

As mentioned previously, Mercy was, more than anything, an educational experience, particularly in the use of sound in film. The sound editing, and sound mixing, is a marvel and allows a viewer to feel relatable to Wilson in a way that couldn’t be achieved by visuals or performance alone. The sounds bring us into Wilson’s world, and mind, in a variety of ways, discordant and loud and troubling but so perfectly arranged. Never have I seen a movie so powerful thanks to its noise. I’ve also never seen a movie with so many turtlenecks.

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musical

Peter Pan Live!

Peter Pan Live!, 2014

Peter Pan Live!, 2014

The time has come. That title ends in an explanation point because, like NBC’s Sound of Music Live! last Christmastime, Peter Pan Live! is eager to please. The costumes are neon, the expressions big enough to reach the back row (though there isn’t one, because remember, this is network television), and the wires’ visibility add a twisted suspense that Music lacked. The live TV musical is a guilty pleasure that we now (presumably) can expect once a year.

Let’s first mention Allison Williams– she’s a great fit. Her slim build, smooth voice, comedic timing, and perfect teeth help make a believable Peter, though yes, I did already love her as Marnie in Girls and would probably have defended Williams had the performance been bad. But it wasn’t. Granted, often when she broke into song I thought of Marnie channeling Kanye, but that wasn’t nearly as distracting as Christopher Walken’s eyebrows. Watching Walken as Captain Hook in general is painful. His sing-talking brings the energy down, and his dance moves gave me confidence, which says a lot because anyone who’s seen me dance knows it’s embarrassing. In a brief tap sequence, Walken’s shoes feature bows the size of a southern baby girl’s, though later the bows are gone. I think they were used in the one tap bit solely as distraction. So shiny. So large. In short, it’s hard to believe Hook is a bad, murderous man.

There were plenty of other things to frown about. The Lost Boys appeared old, and their costumes were an overwhelming hybrid of Pinocchio and Willy Wonka. Wendy (Taylor Louderman) was driving the struggle bus. The camera movements were at times so quick I thought I might get nauseous, though that’s the fun of being live. Sometimes the vocals were too low and sometimes people used feminine pronouns to describe Peter. I never understood a thing Michael (John Allyn) was saying (though when you could see him asking John [Jake Lucas] to scoot over on the bunkbed it was priceless). And with any re-made beloved musicals, there were decisions made that offended me, like the look of the croc and the use of a weird animated Tinkerbell rather than a simple light. But we watched it all as it happened.

In positive news, the dancers featured were good (particularly compared to the, albeit minimal, dancers in Music) and Cookie the Pirate was The Real MVP. Wendy somehow learned to speak fairy, and the maid who was asleep in the closet woke up. This TV movie was humorous, and much better than Music. Maybe because Carrie Underwood didn’t yodel in this one. If you didn’t catch it live, I’m sure you’ll be able to find it online, and hopefully that means you’ll miss the countless Walmart commercials the rest of us endured. Either way, it’s three hours well spent, whether you laugh at or with Pan.

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