Musical, Reviews

La La Land

la_la_land_film

Copyright © 2016 by Summit Entertainment

Story
Pursuing a shot in Los Angeles, Mia Dolan (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress works as a barista on the Warner Bros. lot while auditioning for minor roles in television shows. She chances on Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician making ends meet by playing Christmas carols & 1980s remixes and they both fall in love. When they both ascent to fame, their relationship is tested and it thrusts them into a melancholic decision.

Review
After beguiling in the festival circuit, where it set a new record for the biggest haul in the Golden Globes and a record-tying 14 nominations in the Oscars, ‘La La Land’ is a deserving heir to ‘Whiplash’, Damien Chazelle’s knockout which awarded J. K. Simmons his first Academy win. The flub in last week’s oldest awards ceremony does not ebb its allure one bit and the film’s magic stems from its atmospheric adoration to classic Hollywood.

As a valentine to movie musicals of yesteryear, the opening dance number set in a traffic jam and a joke reworked from ‘The Girl Can’t Help It’, ‘La La Land’ is a colourful throwback to nostalgia that is impossible to resist. It is a pastiche of references from flighty career opportunities (‘A Star Is Born’) to the faux Paris dance finale (‘An American In Paris’) and bittersweet reunion (‘Casablanca’).

Even if the musical seems more eager to amalgamate a vanished Tinseltown era than finding its own original voice, Chazelle’s intentions shines clearly; applying happiness and fantasy to his themes, he has created gorgeous and dreamy vignettes dressed in an air of romanticism, set against the backdrop of a contemporary life in Los Angeles.

The cinematography by Linus Sandgren is nothing short of heavenly, encompassing a reservoir of riches in L.A. that ensnares the glimmering skies of Griffith Observatory, the aesthetic divinity of Watts Towers and the iconic Colorado Street Bridge. Pepping in every scene is the red-hot connection between Gosling and Stone whose vigor will indubitably whisk you away from the humdrums of reality for two hours in believing these two crazy idealists.

Rating
Entirety: A
Acting: A
Plot: A-

Rated PG-13 for some language

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Musical, Reviews

Florence Foster Jenkins

florence foster jenkins

Copyright © 2016 by Paramount Pictures

Story
Founder of the Verdi Club, Florence Foster Jenkins (Meryl Streep) and her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) perform plays to their esteemed members. Despite her shortcomings, Jenkins recommences her singing lessons with vocal instructor, Carlo Edwards (David Haig) and accompanied by her newly hired pianist, Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg). She arranges an exclusive recital with attendees coming mainly from her club. Unaware of the audiences’ actual reaction to her singing, the New York heiress confidently organises a subsequent appearance at Carnegie Hall.

Review
Lesson number one, if you have dreams, dream big. Specifically, Carnegie Hall big. Would it matter if you are reported in the tabloids as a national joke? Probably not. Should the overriding jeers submerging the cheers be any reason to quit and prove cynics they are right all along? If it did, will we ever be able to relish in Ms Streep’s hilarious impression of the world’s worst singer?

Honouring a celebrated icon, Streep is pitch perfect as the tone deaf soprano. Academy members must already be crusading for her 20th Oscar nomination. She imbues Jenkins with pathos and it transforms the slightness into a sympathetic yet determined disposition. That being said, it is being equipoised by many LOL and ROTFL moments (the latter literally has a spectator on fours, forgoing all formality).

The best actress of her generation has shimmered in ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘Into the Woods’ which only accentuates her commitment to sounding deliberately bad exquisitely. Fervent, I waited with bated breath until her first vocal session is in motion and it left me in tears for laughing so hard. Playing along to the charade is Bayfield, Edwards and later, McMoon.

Serious and sincere, Grant is invigorating as the devoted and protective Bayfield but securing Helberg is a steal to this British production as he offers slyness encased in awestruck bewilderment. McMoon’s increasing fondness for his employers parallels the film’s strongest aspect, thanks to Nicholas Martin’s thorough grasp of Jenkins’ illustrious life turning her more than mere high society.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: A
Plot: B+

Rated PG-13 for brief suggestive material

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Musical, Reviews

Into the Woods

Into The Woods

Copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Story
A baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) yearn for a baby but are informed by a witch (Meryl Streep) they are barren because of a curse she put on the baker’s family when his father stole an assortment of greens from her garden due to his mother’s pregnancy cravings. Not realising his father has taken her magic beans, the witch is hexed from a startling beauty into a hideous hag. To lift both spells, she has entrusted the couple to acquire a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as pure as gold for her in three days’ time. If they fail, they will forever remain childless.

Review
The cinematic version of Stephen Sondheim’s Tony Award winner has arrived through a faithful reworking from director Rob Marshall whose debut ‘Chicago’ revived an almost extinct genre with extraordinary acting, cherished tunes and deadpan humour are all present in his third foray in the movie musical (‘Annie’ does not really count) after losing steam in the tedious ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, unfocused ‘Nine’ and derivative ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides’.

The frontrunner now in remaking existing children’s fables with a twist (‘Alice in Wonderland’, ‘Maleficent’ and the forthcoming ‘Cinderella’), it does appear like a natural progression that Disney be the one charged in updating this mishmash of classic fairy tales to a generation unfamiliar by Sondheim’s work (‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ did try mainstreaming his composition with an A-list actor and director but the results were moderately fruitful).

Following in the footsteps of ‘Les Misérable’, ‘Into the Woods’ is on course to be another profitable venture and second consecutive win for Streep after her stint in ‘Mamma Mia!’ yielded her the biggest hit of the 65-year-old’s 44-year career. Unlike the Abba-inspired numbers, the original songs are wordy and the recurring melody could sound repetitious after a while. There is no hesitation though that you will find yourself humming to tracks like the titular opening sequence, ‘Agony’, ‘On the Steps of the Palace’ and ‘Your Fault’.

Earning her a 19th nomination in the Academy Awards, extending her record-setting total as the most nominated actor in history, Streep is an enjoyment as the witch with a grudge. She is immensely different and does it with aplomb that it is easy to overlook how Bernadette Peters and Donna Murphy were once legends in their own right. While the stage queens opt for flamboyance, Streep alleviates it with a touch of class but her crooning in ‘Last Midnight’ is merely adequate and not gratifying enough.

Looking repellent and radiant, thanks to splendid artistry from Peter Swords King and J. Roy Helland, Streep’s finesse is only rivaled by Blunt’s compassionate mother-to-be, Corden’s calculating yet affable hero and Chris Pine’s ostentatious Prince Charming. He does get a run for his money in Anna Kendrick nearly knocking him off his pedestal as the enticing runaway girlfriend. Proverbial costume designer, Colleen Atwood’s medieval wear is a feast for the eyes specifically bewitching are the witch’s blue dress and Cinderella’s sparkly garb.

As magnificent as the revered golden shoe, the decision to sanitise the risqué parts does come at a price. Appealing to a younger crowd of Sondheim’s splendour and wit is not only commercially savvy, it also functions as an outlet in reinstating the musical’s declining quality of late. The revised darkness eludes numerous themes (tweaks in plot and lyrics may perturb adult devotees) but statements of growing up, parental responsibilities and infidelity are still intact. I only wish that it is more fulfilling than being just right.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: A
Plot: A-

Rated PG for thematic elements, fantasy action and peril, and some suggestive material

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Musical, Reviews

Annie

Annie

Copyright © 2014 by Columbia Pictures

Story
As a baby, Annie Bennett (Quvenzhané Wallis) is left under the foster care of Colleen Hannigan (Cameron Diaz). She frequents a restaurant hoping to be reunited with her real parents one day. When a Social Services officer pays Hannigan a visit, he accidentally drops a document containing details of all the children. Bennett seizes the chance of obtaining information about her parents’ whereabouts. The search is futile but she is rescued by William Stacks (Jamie Foxx) from getting hurt on the road. A high-powered entrepreneur of ‘Stacks Mobile’ and a challenger in the next mayoral election, with the advice from his political aide, Guy (Bobby Cannavale), decides on being Bennett’s temporary guardian in an attempt of outpacing his competitor. As they spend more time together, his fondness for the child grows and is considering for her to be in his life permanently.

Review
The old versus the new, which one fared better? That is the age-old question, is it not? As I have never seen the Albert Finney and Carol Burnett version, I am happy to report that Wallis and Foxx’s interpretation of ‘Annie’ redux is thoroughly entertaining through and through. Forget what others might say (source material could be a little slight and lacks pizzazz for another remake; a 1999 made-for-television production directed by Rob Marshall whose own competing ‘Into the Woods’ is a stronger contender for musical of the year had heaps of praises from the Primetime Emmys), the songs still hold up, modernised by Sia and Greg Kurstin.

From what I gather, there are not many changes in Will Gluck’s input on the orphan/foster child who meets her billionaire tycoon other than updating its setting for a generation dependently fixated on the latest gadgetry (a digital detox is handy every once in a while). It really does come down to the music and for this alone, the price of admission is worth every dollar. 2014 is quite a year for musically inclined movies, from smaller hits such as ‘Begin Again’ and ‘Jersey Boys’ to the current pair of Golden Globe nominated offerings. Though a diverse bunch, the music is unforgettable.

Fresh from her global sensation, ‘Chandelier’, Grammy nominee Sia collaborated with Kurstin for three original numbers that integrate naturally with classics like ‘Tomorrow’, ‘It’s the Hard Knock Life’, ‘Maybe’ and ‘Easy Street’. ‘Opportunity’ (a nominee for ‘Best Original Song’ in the Globes) is the show’s standout piece performed commendably by Wallis and ‘Who Am I’, a soul-searching ballad reflecting the quandaries of losing one’s identity. Although not prominent and as a means for the film within a film segment, ‘Moonquake Lake’ is a bouncy and cheeky send-up to the ‘Twilight’ franchise.

Putting her game face on, Wallis proves to the world that her Oscar nomination for ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ (youngest nominee for the ‘Best Actress’ category) is no fluke and totally owns the role as our single-minded and streetwise heroine. Clearly, she is having loads of fun; her rapport with her other foster sisters, Foxx and Rose Byrne irons out numerous but negligible kinks addressed in the movie which insufficiently justifies the need in the first place (come on, you would have us believe our gal with the ‘fro cannot read?). For crying out loud, she does go to school as pointed out early on.

Looked like an afterthought but if you thought Diaz could inherit the chops from Burnett or Kathy Bates, think again. She is a fine actress, mind you having taken on challenging choices with aplomb from nominated works including ‘Being John Malkovich’, ‘Vanilla Sky’ and ‘Gangs of New York’. Hamming it up and trying to be mean simply does not cut it. As cliché as it may sound, she is better off cheerfully funny than maniacally laughable. Her ‘Little Girls’ rendition is far from perfect but passable when majority of your colleagues (with the exception of Foxx) share similar limitations. A pleasant trip down memory lane (or the busy streets of New York) and if Stacks manor is your home, I think you are going to like it here as well.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: B+
Plot: B

Rated PG for some mild language and rude humor

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Musical, Reviews

Begin Again

Begin Again

Copyright © 2014 by The Weinstein Company

Story
A record label executive, Dan Mulligan (Mark Ruffalo) is released from his company for not signing any new talent. Gretta (Keira Knightley) has just left her unfaithful boyfriend, Dave Kohl (Adam Levine) and is living temporarily with her best friend, Steve (James Corden). Steve drags her out to a bar where he performs for her to forget her sorrow. Coerced into performing a number for the audience, Gretta sings one of her penned songs which is coldly received by all except Dan who has been drinking after a confrontation with his wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener) about their daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld). Seeing the potential, he convinces Gretta to sign a record deal with him but she declines, fearing fame will compromise her beliefs as a real musician. However, she changes her mind and allows Dan to help her produce a live album centred in the open areas of New York City during the months of summer.

Review
Much has been lauded about John Carney’s previous directorial effort, ‘Once’, a musical about the music industry made on a shoestring budget and gained deservedly recognition from a win in the Academy Awards for ‘Best Original Song’, upstaging veterans Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz’s three-time nomination for the equally acclaimed ‘Enchanted’. Since then, ‘Falling Slowly’ has seen many renditions including Il Divo, Josh Groban and Shayne Ward tailoring to their own styles but it is ‘American Idol’ winner Kris Allen’s intimate live cover that is regarded a moving favourite by many.

Where does he go from here? Why of course to ride on the original’s victorious coattails and follow it up with ‘Once Again’, I mean ‘Begin Again’, a souped-up retelling of opportune moments in the most unexpected circumstances. While ‘Once’ depended only on its affable charm and infectious music to hoist the movie from its simplistic nature, Carney’s latest boasts plenty of star power. An intelligent move for a bigger turnout on opening day but it does surprisingly little on a creative level.

Other than the naturally shared chemistry among the main cast, the lead roles could have easily been undertaken by anyone with less acting experience (which is why I thought recruiting two coaches from reality-based singing competition, ‘The Voice’ and accomplished musicians on their own right who are expanding their gamut did not bother me one bit). In fact, Levine of ‘Maroon 5’ and CeeLo Green turn out to be much better actors than I could have possibly hoped.

True, Levine can be a lot more comfortable on screen but his personality comes through enough to even consider forgiving his infidelity towards his partner of several years. Certainly a good start as compared to Mariah Carey’s disastrous and Britney Spears’ by the numbers debuts. It is the foursome of Knightley, Ruffalo, Steinfeld and Keener who do not break new ground on what would typically be Oscar bait; all have the distinction of being nominees before.

It could be inadequate writing to character development as the strongest in the bunch, Knightley is still a far cry from her best. Carney’s focus on the wheeling and dealing of the entertainment industry and the trials of preserving an unaltered identity provide a fairly thorough insight to a struggling artiste who has to choose if selling out is the only way of obtaining artistic integrity. Praises also go to the songwriting team for delivering one helluva of a soundtrack – it will keep you grooving (and tearing) to Gretta and Dan’s journey for a second chance. And sometimes, that may just be enough to get by on a lazy afternoon.

Rating
Entirety: B+
Acting: B+
Plot: B

Rated R for language

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Musical, Reviews

Step Up Revolution

Step Up Revolution

Copyright © 2012 by Summit Entertainment

Story
The action takes place in Miami and centres on a dance crew known as The Mob who performs flash mobs to be publicly recognised for their efforts in winning a challenge with a hefty reward. The leader, Sean Asa (Ryan Guzman) and his best friend, Eddy (Misha Gabriel) work in the Dimont Hotel and are introduced to Emily (Kathryn McCormick) who happens to be the daughter of business magnate Bill Anderson (Peter Gallagher). Bill has set his sights for a massive development project located within Sean’s community and approval to start restructuring has been obtained. With Emily’s help, the trio devises a plan to stop the event from taking place through a series of cleverly concocted flash mobs.

Review
Since these movies are still enthralling audiences all around the world (not so much in the States though), why not another one? To begin with, the series knows exactly who its demographic is for and does not stretch its credibility beyond the realm of philosophically imposing questions laced in stylish dance sequences. A more economical version of the bloated ‘Transformers’ franchise and less mechanised in nature. Or is it trying way too hard to emulate the epitome of self-importance and plunges into caricature instead?

Whatever the case may be, it stands as the most politically driven. A rather poignant question is asked early on in the film about wanting to be part of something different and the reply to that I would say is almost a resolute 100%. Almost but not quite. Still, it gets an ‘A’ for effort though. The ‘problems’ which plagued its third outing are ‘cautiously’ repeated and nearly derails the objective at hand (the drama is underwhelming and the leads’ characterisations are lazily written).

An oversight the sequel tries to coast through the charms of its leading man (Guzman) and sole veteran (Gallagher). Both ground the sometimes unbelievable situations and dialogue from descending into unwanted improbability. Utilising minimalism to convey the tribulations felt by either man (not too many of those, by the way), it gives viewers a chance to breathe, absorb and process the details amid a frantic nonetheless jaw-dropping joyride.

If you thought ‘Step Up 3’ was a visual feast, wait till the sights and sounds of Miami turn up the heat for a spanking good time. I dare you not to be grinning as wide as the Cheshire Cat once the optimistic tale is over. It could be a blur after a day or two but while it remains fresh, there is no denying that the choreographers have outdone themselves with awesome gravity-defying moves, made more alive by the use of 3D shots with no-holds-barred to the conceptualisation of each dance.

In earlier entries, the routines were usually confined to designated areas for dance. The bar is raised here from colourful performances beginning in the streets of Miami, resuming in a museum of fine arts and restaurant, followed by a protest against the demolition of Asa’s neighbourhood and finishing it off with a rousing number in a shipyard – anything that incorporates parkour is always a plus. If freedom to express is indeed a right to be heard, then ‘Revolution’ could have revolutionised a whole lot more than just some fancy footwork.

Rating
Entirety: B-
Acting: B-
Plot: B-

Rated PG-13 for some suggestive dancing and language

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Musical, Reviews

Step Up 3D

Step Up 3D

Copyright © 2010 by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Story
From Maryland to New York, Moose (Adam G. Sevani) is now a major in electrical engineering and about to begin his first year but a chance meeting with Luke Katcher (Rick Malambri) and his crew from the House of Pirates thrusts him back into the dance scene. He finds it increasingly difficult to balance his studies and practice for the ‘World Jam’ with the group but does not want to let his new friends down as the cash prize will ensure the Pirates’ warehouse-turned-club/home is not auctioned off due to unpaid rents. His friendship with Camille Gage (Alyson Stoner) is strained along the way but is repaired when she realises that he is great at what he does and encourages him to continue pursuing it.

Review
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, why is this slick but clichéd amalgam of better underdog tales not stepping up to the plate in its third showcase? Not that it is not a charm, just not the threequel that it could have been. After missing the mark twice, it does come out marginally improved in several areas but the basic ingredient that distinguishes it from being hokey and merely okay is sadly still missing in this installment.

The idea of a selfless leader whose aspirations in filming and dedication to dance is bursting with potential, enough material to not only fill the entire running time, it would make for a compelling watch also should there be a spin-off to his character. It does not stop right there as the other story arcs involving Natalie (Sharni Vinson) and Julien’s (Joe Slaughter) opposing views on loyalty and Moose’s struggle to do what he loves are all identifiable issues faced in real life.

If only they did not play second fiddle to another round of stunning choreography that takes centre stage once again. An unwise decision to box its reach to only its core faction of moviegoers. Smashes of the year like ‘Inception’, ‘Easy A’ and ‘The King’s Speech’ are just a few which gained from good word-of-mouth. This latest edition probably would have benefitted similarly if the powers that be did not take the safest route in fortifying its chances for the best financial returns.

The story’s predictability and superficiality erases the film’s promising start and progressive view on the impact dance has on the youth. Although it fails as a social commentary, the ‘candid’ moments Katcher captures from his fellow dancers and their sincere responses provide the loudest voice; enough to even drown out the eclectic mix from a masterfully chosen set of songs. The used of each song is carefully represented to advance the varying moods and frequently expanding dance genres.

There is no need for me to go into the details on the dance routines but if I have to sum it up in one word, it would be electrifying. Bringing back most of the creative team from ‘Step Up 2’ and promoting Sevani to co-lead are strokes of genius. He already was quite a charmer in number two but here, his passion for the arts and contradicting feelings to fulfill his parents’ dreams are ventured deeper in compensating for the movie’s hollowed yet still sultry looking shell.

Rating
Entirety: B-
Acting: B-
Plot: C+

Rated PG-13 for brief strong language

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