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Musical

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The opening scene of this love letter to Hollywood – a song and dance number on a jam packed LA freeway – is so audacious and expertly rendered that you almost regret its placement, fearing the rest of the film will never be able to match such perfection. When it is followed by another number that takes us from our heroine’s (Emma Stone) apartment to an industry pool party, your fears are alleviated. Thereafter,  the film becomes more personal, relying heavily on the chemistry between Stone and Ryan Gosling (chemistry that was established in a prior film, Crazy Stupid Love) while telling a standard tale of reaching for fame, compromising dreams for money and security, and the wages of those endeavors on true love.

I thought director Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash was the best film of 2014, and others clearly trust his judgment, because his second effort is as risky a gamble as you can make – a modern musical. It works on almost every level. As stated, the romantic leads are compelling and it is clear they connect. Stone is notable, near heartbreaking, as the aspiring actress.  The musical numbers are intricate and dazzling. The quieter moments, including several standard taps and waltzes, are beautifully done, and serve not only as support for their love, but as homage to the musicals that came before. And Los Angeles, as a fantastical costar, is charmingly rendered.

Chazelle showed a competency with music and movement in Whiplash but nothing in that film necessarily suggested the ability to stage the intricate, edit-free song and dance numbers that serve as the heart of this film.  Filming a stationary jazz drummer is elemental stuff compared to the sequences in this picture.

It really is a joy. If I have a criticism, it is simply one of imbalance. The first two numbers are so bravura, you end up waiting for one or two more of the same. When they do not appear, it is not a knock on what replaced them. But the tone is quieter, and the story pretty unoriginal. So I found myself waiting for the knockout punch that never comes. That is on me, not Chazelle, as he opted for a more muted, bittersweet conclusion which is affecting in its own right.

Gosling and Stone do all of their own singing; what is on the screen is all the more impressive given the film’s relatively meager $30 million budget; and the movie is shot in Cinemascope, which broadens its impact (unlike Quentin Tarantino’s 70mm The Hateful Eight, Cinemascope is actually suited to this film’s movement and locale). One of the best films of the year.

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It can be clever, and the intersection of several fairy tales is occasionaly ingenious.  But there are no standout numbers (indeed, the movie appears to have cut the best song), and a musical rises or falls on its music.  The “Into the Woods” riff that snakes through the movie becomes tiresome, there are too few interesting exchanges between the characters, there is an entirely unnecessary and intrusive narration and the entire thing feels small.  It’s also not very funny, and from what I can see from the stage play, it’s supposed to be.

Though he’s been off his game of late, this project would have been better in the hands of Tim Burton.

Having re-watched Walk the Line, I then took my son to go see Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, the film version of the “smash!” Broadway hit chronicling the rise and fall of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. He liked the picture. I did not. Let me count the ways.

1)      You couldn’t pick a worse director for this project than Eastwood. Music needs to be shot with energy and verve. Clint’s camera work is fixed and unimaginative. Basically, he shot Frankie Valli much like he shot J. Edgar Hoover. Close up. Then farther away. Then a shot to an admiring audience.

2)      The performances mostly run from pedestrian to dreadful. In the latter category, John Lloyd Young as Valli sports a Broadway pedigree and little else. His “go to” move seems to be consternation, be it at the loss of a gig, $1 million or a daughter. Vincent Piazza (Boardwalk Empire) is so goombah you half expect him to hawk Ragu sauce.

3)      The film can’t decide on being a whimsical tribute to the Broadway show or a dark, cautionary tale on the perils of stardom. Tonally, it’s schizophrenic.

4)      One theme in particular – the omerta of tough Jersey guys – is severely undercut by the fact that these tough Jersey guys are about as scary as The Sharks and The Jets.   In West Side Story, no one was asking you to be scared of ballet dancing toughs; it was a fantasy, delivered in dance, where even the violence was poetic. Here, their bond and hardscrabble roots are important, yet the whole existence seems comedic and pleasant.

5)      134 minutes!!!

6)      The makeup here was worse, if that’s possible, than in J. Edgar, and I didn’t think that could be possible.

My son countered that I didn’t like the music and that queered the film for me. But I didn’t like the music in Dreamgirls, and that was a perfectly fine film.

If you want to see the antithesis of this picture, rent Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do, which captures the excitement, fun and then, the letdown, of a one-hit wonder band.

So, why one star?  Filial loyalty and the very funny turn by Mike Doyle as producer Bob Crewe.

Backstory: after The Monster and Will Will Kill, the film world has been anticipating Will Larroca’s third feature, House of Blood.  I can report that principal photography began today.

But that’s not the news.  Apparently, Larroca had been secretly working in Europe over the summer . . . on a psychedelic musical: The Hugginns Movie.  He was not happy at all with the results, shelved the entire project and has been litigating to have his name taken off of it.  Still, a copy has now been made public and is setting up roots on the Internet.

Two words: mind blown.  I don’t understand Larroca’s objections, and I know auteurs can be idiosyncratic, but if he deems this a failure, I can’t wait for the film he deems worthy.

Tim Burton hasn’t declined so much as remained spotty.  Last year’s Frankenweenie was in his animated wheelhouse, but his two previous films were the excessive and dull Alice in Wonderland and the truly awful and unfunny Dark Shadows.  Before those films, however, was Burton’s first live musical, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, a rich, dark rendition of the Stephen Sondheim stage musical.  Burton maintains the macabre edge of the play, infuses it with his trademark visual trickery, but wisely doesn’t screw with its heart, an entire story mostly sung, rarely spoken.  

Johnny Depp and Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter, are not great singers, but they are great actor/singers (Depp took singing lessons and was nominated for Best Actor), a feat Russell Crowe could not accomplish in Les Miserables, as is evident in “My Friends.”

Speaking of Les Miserables, Depp and Bonham Carter are quite good, but they need merely convey anger, sarcasm, and bloodlust. If I’m going to knock Crowe, I have to laud Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman whose first numbers, sung live on set (using live piano accompaniments played through earpieces), are perhaps the most moving in musical film history.

Depp and Bonham Carter are ably supported by a moving Edward Sanders as Tobias Ragg and a hilarious Sasha Baron Cohen as the competing barber, Pirelli.

One nit is the unnecessary bloodiness of the throat cutting, which was accomplished with a mere splash of red in the stage play. It’s discordant. Another is inherent in the play, which is so dark as to be dispiriting.


I saw the original Broadway play, which was fun, silly and wholly dedicated to some of the worst hair metal and pop of the 1980s. The play sensed your patience and came in at 90 minutes. The movie is an interminable 2 hours and actually adds more awful tunes, playing many of them straight.

The film takes the tongue-in-cheek silliness of the play and reduces it to reverential lip synching and air guitar. I was immediately reminded of Julie Taymor’s underrated Across the Universe, which cut a swath through the 60s with Beatles hits and brilliant, kinetic choreography, and still just came up a little short. Here, we get crappy tunes played with sincerity and nary a dance sequence beyond finger snaps and flash mobs. Alec Baldwin, Paul Giamatti, Russell Brand and Catherine Zeta Jones (a zealot Tipper Gore bent on shutting down the latter’s rock and roll world and club in LA) camp their way lazily through this thin flick, with a few winks (isn’t Michael Jackson getting pale?) and not much more. Glee blows this away, and Glee sucks (director Adam Shankman actually graduated from directing this awful film to directing . . . Glee). Tack on the star crossed leads, two nobodies so boring I didn’t bother to look them up for this review, and the disaster is complete. The one star is for Tom Cruise’s turn as Stacee Jaxx, the dissolute rock god, who busts his ass in a lost cause. He always gets an A for effort.