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Baby Driver (2017)

Car chases are one of the greatest things in movie history. The visceral sensation, the speed, the urgency, the thrills, the syncopation of edits to carry out the escalating collateral damage and stakes, it all works to seamlessly create one of the pinnacles of the moving pictures. If you’re going to create a musical where car chases are the chief instrument, then you could do no better than having director Edgar Wright as the maestro. Baby Driver is being hailed by critics as a blast of fresh air, an eclectic wild ride of an action movie with style to spare. That’s true. Unfortunately, this is the first movie of Wright’s career where it feels like the gimmick is all there is to be had.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the getaway driver for Doc (Kevin Spacey) and his crews. Baby was in a car accident that killed his parents when he was a child and he was left with tinnitus (a “hum in the drum” as Doc dubs it). To drown out the ringing, he listens to music at all times, including during those high-speed getaway chases. In his downtime, Baby romances Debora (Lily James) a diner waitress eager to hit the road without a map. Pulled into one more job, Baby is paired with a hotheaded group of dangerous criminals (Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza Gonzalez) that could threaten his future plans with Debora.

Baby Driver is a gimmick movie, but this isn’t exactly unheard of from Wright. Each of his movies has a strong genre angle that can tip over into gimmicky, so a gimmick by itself is not an indictment. This is, by far, the least substantial film of Wright’s career. Let’s study his previous film, 2013’s The World’s End. Like the other entries in the Cornetto Trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), that film has a clear adoration for a certain genre and its styling, in this case alien invasion/pod person sci-fi. It didn’t just emulate the style and expected plot trappings of its genre. It spun them in a new direction while telling an engaging story on the strains of friendship over addiction and stalled maturity. It’s the heaviest and most emotionally grounded film in the trilogy. Every single moment in that movie adds up, every line, every joke, every plot beat, it all connects to form an inter-locked puzzle that would make Christopher Nolan whistle in appreciation. It wasn’t just clever plot machinations of genre parody. It was a layered and heartfelt story. It all mattered. With Baby Driver, what you see is pretty much what you get.

It’s a car chase musical, a novelty that certainly entertains with Wright’s visual inventiveness and ear for music. The film has that alluring quality of wondering what will happen next, especially with its extensive collection of songs on the soundtrack. A trip to get coffee can become a long take perfectly timed so that graffiti and prop placement along street windows lines up with lyric progressions in the song. Some sonic standouts include “Bellbottoms” and Queen’s “Brighton Rock” during the climax. There’s a fun sense of discovery with the movie and each new song presents a new opportunity to see what Wright and his stunt performers do. The car chases are impressively staged and the stuntwork has dynamism to go along with Wright’s high-level energy output. The emphasis on physical production goes a long way to add genuine excitement. This isn’t the ricocheting CGI car chase cartoons of the Fast and Furious franchise. As far as gimmicks go, it’s at least an amusing one. Perhaps I’m just a musical philistine, or more likely my brain just isn’t as accustomed to sound design idiosyncrasies, but I actually wish Wright had done more with his central gimmick. I’m fairly certain I missed half of the connections with the music. If this is the film’s calling card then it needs not be subtle; rub my face in all the clever edits and how the gunshots equal the percussion, etc.

The ceiling imposed upon Baby Driver is because of its characters. Wright and his collaborators have done effective work shading depth to genre characters in the past, even Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which examined unhealthy usury relationships and entitlement. The characters in Baby Driver are defined by their archetype designations and often behave in unbelievable ways just because the plot necessitates them. The worst offender is Baby’s love interest, Debora. Her initial scenes with Baby are sweet and work on their own, but when she’s ready to abandon her life for a guy she met days ago, Debora comes across like one of those people who write engagement proposals to incarcerated felons. Her decision-making leaps don’t feel plausible. I don’t think she’s acknowledged her lingering co-dependency issues. The problems are magnified when so much of the second half involves Debora being put in harm’s way or needing to be rescued. Then there’s Baby, a kid with a conscience who uses music as an escape figuratively and literally. He’s too bland and uncomplicated for the lead. Baby takes care of a deaf foster father. He surreptitiously records conversations to remix them into Auto-Tune cassettes. Yes that really is as dumb as it sounds especially when those conversations involve criminals. All we know about Baby is he’s nice, he wants out, and he’s good at driving. Elgort (The Fault in Our Stars) doesn’t have the space to do anything but look cool and springy. The supporting characters are assorted hardasses and nincompoops. Foxx (Django Unchained) seems like he’s there always to push contrived conflict.

As a genre movie with above-average execution, Baby Driver is going to be a suitably enjoyable time at the movies for most. Wright couldn’t make a boring movie if he tried. However, it doesn’t feel like he tried hard enough with Baby Driver, at least to make a full-fledged movie. It’s an admirable assemblage of music and visuals but after a while it feels like a collection of music videos, albeit with highly impressive stuntwork. The movie suffers from overblown hype because it doesn’t have the characters or story to balance the action. There isn’t much of an attachment to what’s going on beyond the surface-level thrills of Wright’s central gimmick. As a result, you may get restless waiting for the next song selection to kick into high gear to provide another pert distraction. It feels like the gimmick has swallowed the movie whole and Wright was too busy timing his precise edits to notice the absence of appealing, multi-dimensional characters. Baby Driver is a fun movie with plenty of sweet treats for your senses but it’s too devoid of substance to be anything other than a rapidly dissipating sugar rush.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Disney has been on a tear lately with its slate of live-action remakes but Beauty and the Beast is the first title to come from the relatively recent Renaissance period of the early 1990s. The 1991 classic, based upon the French fairy tale, was the first animated film ever nominated for Best Picture, and back when the Academy was only proffering five nominees for the category (Toy Story 3 and Up earned Best Picture nominations after the category expanded up to ten). This is a beloved movie still fresh in people’s minds. I was curious what Disney and director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) would do with the material, what potential new spins, and how faithful they might be. Regrettably, the 2017 Beauty and the Beast is a charmless, inferior remake of a Disney classic. In short, there is no reason for this movie to exist.

Belle (Emma Watson) is a small French town’s least favorite daughter, namely because she always has her nose in a book and wants “more than this provincial life.” Gaston (Luke Evans) is the most popular man in town and a dreamboat that ladies savor, and maybe also Gaston’s silly sidekick, LeFou (Josh Gad). The hunk is determined to marry Belle at all costs but she wants nothing to do with the brute. Belle’s father (Kevin Kline) falls prisoner to a ghastly Beast (Dan Stevens), a monster who used to be a prince who was cursed for his vanity. The Beast’s servants were also cursed, turned into living objects, like cowardly clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), lively lamp Lumiere (Ewan McGregor), and a tea kettle (Emma Thompson), feather duster (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), harpsichord (Stanley Tucci), dresser (Audra McDonald), and probably a chamber pot somewhere. Belle trades places with her father, becoming the Beast’s captive. The servants encourage the Beast to put on a charm offensive and change his ways to woo Belle, because if he cannot earn reciprocal love before the last pedal falls from an enchanted rose, then they will all be doomed to live their current fates.

I figured, at worst, I would be indifferent to the live-action version of a great animated musical, especially since they were following the plot fairly closely. I was not indifferent; I was bored silly, and as the boredom consumed me I felt the strong urge to simply get up and leave. Now I didn’t do that, dear reader, because I owed all of you my complete thoughts on the complete film. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I debated escape, which is a rarity for me (I’ve never walked out of a movie, but Beauty and the Beast now joins a small number of films where I considered the inclination). The source of my urges spring directly from the realization that I knew exactly what was going to be coming at every step, even down to shots, and I knew it was going to be worse than the source material. It felt like watching the soul slowly get sucked out of the 1991 film. It was imitation that squeezed out all the delightful feelings from the original, stamping out joy and replacing it with an awkward, stilted facsimile. There’s also the problem of live-action being a medium that distorts some of the charming elements from the animated movie. The anthropomorphic servants are especially unsettling to watch.

The new additions are few and completely unnecessary, adding a half hour to a classic’s efficient running time. It’s kind of like remaking Casablanca and adding forty minutes of stuff that doesn’t belong, which might as well be known today as Peter Jackson Syndrome. With Beauty and the Beast, there are four or five new songs added, and they are awful and needless. Two of them are back-stories for Belle and the Beast/Prince, both of which were already covered earlier either explicitly or implicitly. They are the clear clunkers and further evidence that the 2017 additions are artistic anchors hampering an otherwise great musical. The Prince is given more screentime pre-Beast transformation but it covers the same ground that a simple voice over achieves in the original. I don’t think much is added seeing Stevens get gussied up and partying with the pretty people of his village except as an excuse for costuming excess. Some of the elements added also feel remarkably tacked on and feebly integrated, like the Beast’s magic teleportation book. He has a book that will take the user anywhere in the world, which Belle uses once to visit her parents’ old home and learn redundant information. At no point is this powerful magical device ever used. Why introduce a teleporting book and never bring it up again, especially if only to reveal something superfluous? Why does the Beast need a magic mirror to spy on people if he can teleport there? These are the unintended questions that befall poorly planned story elements that nobody asked for.

The 2017 Beast also wants to celebrate itself for being more inclusive, feminist, and forward thinking than its predecessor, but this claim is overblown. Much has been made out of Condon’s claims of an “exclusively gay moment” in the movie devoted to LeFou, which wouldn’t be that surprising considering his Gaston-adoring behavior walks a homoerotic line in the original. This “exclusive” moment is LeFou dancing with another man and seeming to enjoy himself, or at least not hating the idea. It lasts for a grand total of two seconds on screen as part of a closing epilogue scanning across our happy characters reunited on the dance floor. It seems like much ado about nothing, especially since the 1991 film had the exact same comic beat of a man discovering an unknown joy of dressing in women’s clothing. Watson has been an outspoken actress, a UN human rights ambassador, and has said in multiple media interviews that it was important to make Belle a more actionable feminist figure. There was certainly room for improvement considering it’s a romance that many have cited as a clear case of Stockholm syndrome. If a modern remake of Beauty and the Beast were going to make socially conscious strides, it would be here, naturally. It’s pretty much the same movie except now she creates a washing machine by completely occupying the town fountain. That’s it. Considering that the movie added thirty minutes to the running time, you would think a majority of that would be judiciously devoted to building a plausible bridge from the Beast being Belle’s captor to being her lover. Nope. It’s a more forward thinking movie in fairly superficial ways that feel overly designed to warrant applause, like the inclusion of two interracial couples in the small staff of a seventeenth century French castle.

I went in and thought, if all else, I would at least have the instantly humable and highly pleasurable songs to fall back on. Then I realized this imagined respite was a fallacy. Like every other element in the film, the singing was going to be worse than the originals, and it was. The biggest aural offender belongs to our heroine, Miss Watson (The Bling Ring), whose singing vocals are Auto tuned within an inch of their lives. I have no idea what Watson’s singing voice sounds like in real life but I can almost assuredly bet it does not sound like what comes out of her mouth in this movie. The Auto tune effect was immediate, and overwhelming, and it felt like daggers in my ears for the entirety of the film. Auto tune flattens out a singer’s vocals and makes them sound tinny, unreal, almost like the comedown from sucking helium. I listened attentively to the other performers and it seemed like Watson was the only one given this exaggerated treatment. I’ve said before I’m not a fan of Watson as an actress, feeling she plateaued at a young age from the Harry Potter series, and her performance here will not change my mind. Similarly, the Beast’s vocals are so enhanced with bass that it would be hard to judge Stevens authentic singing voice. McGregor (T2 Trainspotting) has proven his singing chops before but a French accent was clearly something that got away from him. Evans (The Girl on the Train) is acceptable as a singer but lacks something of the brio that makes Gaston a larger-than-life pompous ass. Gad (Frozen) is right at home with musical theater. If I had to pick a musical highlight I would cite “Be Our Guest” simply for the visual barrage of colors and playful imagery that is absent most of a rather dreary looking movie. The other performers are adequate and sing their parts with equal parts gusto and reverence, but they’re all clearly weaker singers than the less known cast of the 1991 edition. It leaves one with the impression of a shabby celebrity karaoke version of a better movie.

Beauty and the Beast isn’t just a disappointment, it’s an artistic misfire on multiple fronts that is looking for applause but doing too little to even earn such consideration. It wants to be forward thinking for a contemporary audience but they’re empty gestures, as it just copies the 1991 movie down to similar shot selections. The 1991 movie is great, no question, but I don’t need a Gus van Sant Psycho-style remake that only serves to make me appreciate the original more. This movie has no reason to exist outside of the oodles of cash that Disney will probably collect from repackaging its much beloved classic to a new generation of fans and an older generation seeking out millennial nostalgia. The singing is off, especially from a painfully Auto tuned Watson, the new songs and scenes are pointless, and even some of the production design resembles a play that ran out of budget halfway through. If you’re a fan of the original, you may find entertainment just reliving the familiar beats and notes from the 1991 film, just to a patently lesser degree of success. It’s not like Disney’s other live-action remakes of their extensive back catalogue of titles. The Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon were sizeable improvements, and the agreeable Cinderella found some welcomed maturity to go with its fairy dust. Those movies found new angles, and in some cases had little relationship to their original material as in the case of the wonderful and heartfelt Pete’s Dragon. These are examples of filmmakers who were inspired by their sources but told their own stories. Beauty and the Beast, in contrast, is just the hollowed out husk of the original, now made putrid.

Nate’s Grade: C

La La Land (2016)

1I understand that the year 2016 has been, charitably put, unkind to many people and why we all could use a little escapism around this time of year. Writer/director Damien Chazelle made a big Oscar splash with 2014’s Whiplash to make his passion project, a sincere musical that recreates the style of classic Hollywood. La La Land is a stylistic throwback that has enchanted critics and seems destined to compete for some of the biggest awards this season. Just imagine how much better it would be if it was great.

Chazelle and company certainly knows how to make an impression. The opening number transforms an L.A. traffic jam into a full-blown song-and-dance explosion, with commuters exiting their cars and coalescing into a teaming mass of jubilation on the freeway. It’s a moment that is sincere and full of energy and promise. The brightly colored commuters come together in long unbroken shots with a widescreen camera that dives and dips and leaves plenty of space for the audience to appreciate the dancing. This is a movie that wants you to see all of the rainbow-colored performers while they strut their stuff. It’s here that we’re introduced to Mia (Emma Stone), a part-time barista and struggling wannabe actress, and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz musician who dreams of opening his own club at a historic site. These two dreamers resist each other but of course destiny has another plan. A highlight is a flirty sequence set atop a Hollywood Hillside overlooking the purplish dawn. Mia and Sebastian sing how beautiful this scenic view would be if only they were with someone they loved, playfully antagonizing the other into a dancer’s rivalry. The dancing is mischievous and fun and performed in wide angles to soak in the movements. It’s easy to get caught up in Chazelle’s early swell, a transporting experience that extols the virtues of classical musicals by the likes of Vincent Minnelli, Gene Kelly, and especially Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Chazelle fills out his frame like a painter. There’s an infectious love for Old Hollywood that tries to alchemize its influences into something new and old, and for a good while Chazelle is able to maintain this fizzy, effervescent experience and remind you of the soothing joys of a good movie musical told with finesse and brio.

la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-1Then after about forty-five minutes the fizz gets a little staler and that’s when I felt the gnawing emptiness underneath all the Old Hollywood homage. It reminded me of 2011’s Best Picture winner, The Artist, as a movie that is more affectionate imitation than genuine substance. As I wrote in my review for The Artist: “The entire affair has such a slight feel to it; the movie is a confection, a sweet treat that melts away instantly after viewing. If you strip away all the old Hollywood nostalgia, there is very little substance here.” It’s all mimicry of the highest order but Chazelle hasn’t put enough authentic feeling into his imitation. There’s a fealty to the sources of his inspiration that Chazelle is replicating, and his screen pops with coded visual reminders (look, it’s Gosling leaning off a street lamp), but it fetishizes the inspirations rather than building from them. Quentin Tarantino is transparent about his outré influences but he doesn’t forget to tell an engaging story too. It’s in the movie’s dispiriting second half that it becomes all too clear just how little substance there is to our lovers as well as the industry satire. This is miles away from Singin’ in the Rain, folks (my favorite film musical, for the record) and more the same old broadsides about the industry: they’re shallow, they’re inconsiderate, they swallow up the dreamers, they “worship everything and value nothing,” as Sebastian put it. It’s not like the movie is telling you anything you haven’t heard before, and that’s fine but it limits any impact. It also seems to exist in a universe where minorities are mere background players to prop up the dazzling lives of the beautiful white leads. Imagine the enjoyment if some of that snappy industry satire was reserved for its less progressive casting practices. Can you imagine this kind of movie starring Tessa Thompson (Creed)?

Affection can only go so far because eventually the gravity of your characters, their relationship, their goals and dreams and relatability will need to kick in, and it doesn’t. I think this is because the first forty-five minutes are the typical rom-com story of the boy getting the girl. It’s the portion where the movie weaves its old Hollywood spell and courts us too, and it’s fun. And like bad relationships, once it has you La La Land feels like it has to do less work. Chazelle has to manufacture a series of pity problems (more below) to push his lovers apart and question whether these two star-crossed kids might make it after all. If the beginning half is the swirling romance that reverently celebrates old Hollywood, the second half is the attempt to “ground” the film in a sense of realism. It feels too late tonally to switch gears and it undercuts the first half. It might sound contradictory but if La La Land was just going to be a trifle then I wish it went all-in rather than half-heartedly trying an “edge” of harsh reality to mix the sour with the sweet. Just because the movie sets up the dreams of its characters, puts them together, and says not so fast doesn’t mean that Chazelle has properly set up this nascent melancholy.

lalaland_01Mia and Sebastian are not particularly strong characters. The unified star power of the lead actors is enough to disguise this fact for a majority of the movie and maybe for some the entirety. They don’t have anything of import to say beyond their dreams and their jobs that are presently in the way of achieving said dreams. I couldn’t tell you anything else about these characters. For Mia and Sebastian, the world is divided into those who are pure and those who are impure, the real artists and the phonies, and the dichotomy will rankle anyone who has interacted with more than their share of hipster. Sebastian is a music snob who wants to impress upon the world the importance of jazz even as it shrugs indifferently. Nobody gets it, man. He’ll fight the good fight no matter what because Sebastian’s fight is Chazelle’s: taking outdated material and exporting value to a new generation. The characters serve the plot and exist to entwine and then be dutifully pulled apart. It’s hard to invest in the characters when they won’t show who they are and why they should be together. Maybe that’s the point ultimately, a rich meta commentary on how attenuated the central courtships in movies themselves are, or the fleeting relationship between film and audience, or maybe I’m just hoofing as hard as the leads to insert more meaning here.

The second half paddles into what my friend Ben Bailey affectionately termed White People Problems: The Musical. I won’t fully concur but the conflicts are too forced and the characters become whiney. Sebastian rejoins a pop band where he doesn’t feel 100 percent creatively fulfilled because he isn’t performing “true jazz.” The band is also popular and this causes friction because he has “sold out” on his dream, as if toiling during for any period of time is giving up. I guess you must be single-minded or it doesn’t count. Their combined egos won’t allow for different variations of success. La La Land pretends to endorse the dreamers but does it really? The only dreamers who seem to count are Mia and Sebastian. What happened to Mia’s lively group of roommates and friends from the beginning party? What about the nebbish screenwriter the movie mocks for an easy laugh? There are no significant supporting characters in this movie; the universe belongs to Mia and Sebastian. They’re not as insufferable as the characters from Rent but it’s definitely a detriment. Look at the characters in Fame, a group of hungry teenagers who came from all walks of life and circumstances to try and achieve their titular dream of stardom.

The limitations of its doe-eyed leads present some issues. Stone (Birdman) is smashing in the movie but part of that is because, aside from some song-and-dance choreography, the movie asks very little of her other than to be cute, a trait Stone has in natural abundance. There are two standout scenes for the actress. The first is an audition where she pretends to be a mistress getting the “sorry, I can’t do this” phone call from the man she thought had loved her. The sheer variety of emotions that Stone is so able to quickly convey on her face, in her tremulous eyes, and posture are remarkable. Of course the problem is that she’s too objectively good to keep getting blithely rejected by cold-hearted casting agents. The second is a musical showcase where Stone belts out a story about how her aunt inspired her to be a thespian. Stone is effortlessly captivating but she deserves better than to be foil to a grumbly Gosling. I feel that Gosling is one of those actors who can be amazingly talented when plugged into the right role and with the right director (see: Half Nelson, The Believer, The Big Short). He has an easygoing charm that all-too easily morphs into smarm without the right guidance or motivation on his part. Sebastian feels like a scowling grump who wants to bludgeon the world with his point of view. It feels more like he’s in it for submission. Gosling’s performance left me wanting someone else to play his part. They were so strong on screen in Crazy, Stupid, Love but that sizzling chemistry of old is gone here. They feel inert together, amplified by Gosling’s antiseptic performance. They’re both rather limited singers, very thin of voice, and that does hurt a musical. The songs by composer Justin Hurwitz and lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul are exceptionally milquetoast. They’re all slight renditions on the same blandly pleasant tune. They evaporated from my memory by the time the end credits started rolling. Moana has nothing to fear come Oscar time from these at-best competent compositions.

If imitation is the highest form of flattery, then Chazelle’s anodyne musical is brimming with appreciation and adoration for the world of classic Hollywood, and that alone will be effectively transporting for many film critics and select audiences bred on a diet of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. La La Land is an airy confection but one that dissipates all too easily after viewing thanks to the limited characters, the limited singing, the limited dancing, the limited songs, and the lack of overall substance independent from imitation. It has its lovely moments and Stone is an ingénue worth loving, though not as much her slim character, a dreamer who dreams the dreams of a dreamer. The breezy and bubbly first half doesn’t really mesh with the second half. I think it’s telling that Mia and Sebastian’s “love theme” is a sad plaintive piano trinkle. As the characters get more sullen and sour, the fizzy fun fades away and it starts to feel like a New Year’s Eve hangover that left you addled and warm but only in a vaguely ephemeral sense. If it leaves you toe tapping and giddy, I’m glad. I’m already mentally prepared for it to practically sweep the Oscars, as they do love celebrating their own importance. La La Land is a movie musical that is stuck looking backward that it loses its own footing.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Moana (2016)

moana_ver4The Polynesian-based animated musical Moana is a throwback to the Disney formula of the 1990s that became so familiar and entrenched. The time away has made it a welcomed return, especially when executed to this magnificent magnitude. A formula by itself is not a problem, in theory. Many of our favorite movies follow storytelling paths that others have trod well before, but it’s all about the level of execution, building characters that an audience cares about, a conflict that feels involving and escalating, and payoffs that are naturally setup throughout the plotting. With a formula, it’s not the song it’s the singer, and Moana is a splendid and delightful animated movie that should enchant all ages with colorful characters, catchy songs, and the familiar formula of old given surprising and rewarding depths. It’s a lovingly made movie I fell in love with.

In ancient times among the Polynesian islands, the demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) stole the literal heart of the goddess Te Fiti, a shining green emerald responsible for creating life. Many years later, Moana (voiced by Auli’i Cravalho) is a teenage girl next n line to be the chief of her people. Much is expected of her for the betterment of the island but Moana would rather be out there on the water, a passion that her father forbids. Her island is in dire trouble when the food supplies are rotting or disappearing. Moana’s eccentric grandmother (voiced by Rachel House) tells her what must happen: she must venture out to sea, find Maui, retrieve his magic fishhook, and force Maui to return Te Fiti’s heart to the source. Moana sneaks away and embarks on a great adventure that will test her skills and her sense of who she is and what her calling should be.

MOANAWith a few clever nods, Moana intimates to its audience that it knows what they expect and will be delivering the best of the old formula without being slavishly lockstep in its execution. The Disney formula of the hero or heroine yearning for something grander from their supposedly drab existence became a crutch after the apex of the Disney Renaissance in the mid 90s. The overprotective father who doesn’t want their daughter or son to break far from tradition will also be plenty familiar. With Moana, the masters who kickstarted that Renaissance, directors Ron Clements and John Musker, return to the formula but also know what to subvert, what to tweak, and what to dive right into. While it’s not as subversive as mildly revolutionary for a Disney movie as Frozen, this is still a movie that anticipates the connections an audience will make and knowingly tweaks them. On her island, Moana has a cute little pig sidekick who you expect to make the journey with her… except it doesn’t. Instead the brain-dead chicken, a reliable source of comic relief, is her traveling animal companion. Moana prickles at being called a princess; she’s the daughter of the chief and actually already functions in a ruling capacity. “If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess,” he nonchalantly retorts. There’s also a lesson in what constitutes good and evil as all the villains and reprobates of legend are far more ambiguous. There’s also a refreshing lack of a central romance. We have a strong heroine whose goal is completely unrelated to romantic love. This girl has bigger things on her mind than boys.

This movie is primarily a two-hander as we witness Moana and Maui interact, grow, and change, much to our amusement. I can’t recall another Disney film that had such a small focus on a limited number of characters and this decision pays dividends. While only 103 minutes, we really get to understand these two people and what drives them and what fears keep them from accomplishing their goals. Moana is a terrific character. She’s pulled in different directions from her sense of duty and her own ambition to explore the world outside. She’s feisty but still clumsy, empowered but still filled with doubts, independent but considerate of others. After all, her plight is to save her people. Pairing this character with Maui provides plenty of narrative sparks, especially as Maui is forced against his will by the power of the ocean to assist in doing right with Moana. Newcomer Cravhalo makes quite a debut. Her singing voice is flawless but I was highly impressed with the emotion she was able to convey through her vocal performance. She makes you care deeply for her character because she brings such life to the lively Moana. Johnson’s boundless charisma is amazingly channeled into the character thanks to the animators. Johnson isn’t lazily sleepwalking in his performance like so many celebrity vocal actors. Moana and Maui both intrinsically have their identities tied up in their sense of obligation to others, and this provides a common area for them to bond and also to stretch as characters. Theirs is a dual journey of self-discovery and defining themselves on their own terms. The actions of others and their demands do not have to define you. The charged interplay between Moana and Maui, two characters at cross-purpose in their goals, is a scenario that places them in our focus and endears them to us as they deepen.

tamatoa-in-moanaThe fantasy setting also allows for plenty of fun and imaginative diversions and turns. The mingling of man and god with the whimsical and weird magical creatures made me think of the great Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) as a direct creative influence. There is a delightfully wonky sequence with a wild band of pirates that are best described as living coconuts from a Mad Max film. Their floating ships are patched together with ramshackle planks and pieces and a thunderous drumbeat for pacing. All that’s missing is a coconut with a flaming guitar. It’s such a visually delightful and daffy segment and it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Maui’s living tattoos (traditional hand-drawn animation) provide further personality and serve as his conscience. The underwater land of monsters is also begging for further exploration. Maui’s shape-shifting powers are brought to the forefront during key battles with the giant lava monster Te Ka. Even when the movie isn’t dazzling you with a song or its character development it can pull off inventive and visually gorgeous world building that sucks you in.

While not hitting the earworm heights of Frozen’s best, the songs in Moana are uniformly good and, even better, advance the story and give additional light to characters. Lin Manuel-Miranda is still a musical genius and imbues the sounds of Moana with Polynesian culture and history, lots of powerful percussion and harmonies. Moana’s personal theme of “How Far I’ll Go” has some wonderful melodic turns especially as it builds, and it’s a fine musical throughline for her journey with each repetition building in emotion. I enjoyed the Hamilton-style rhyming flourishes as well as the extended rap interlude on The Rock’s jaunty signature song, “You’re Welcome.” That tune is quite playful with a strong hook and it boasts all Maui’s accomplishments and his hefty ego, but it also has a narrative purpose. Maui uses the song to distract Moana and steal her boat. My current favorite might actually be the outlier on the soundtrack; “Shiny” is an absurdly enjoyable Bowie-esque glam rock number from a giant crustacean admiring his fascination for all things shiny. Jermaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords, What We Do in the Shadows) superbly sinks his teeth into such a theatrical and comical villain. It’s a short scene but Clemente’s impression is irresistible. His song is also a strategy, allowing Maui to steal back his fishhook while the opportunity for gloating distracts the giant crab. The songs are a reflection of the characters singing them and serve narrative purpose, which is a rarity in big-screen musicals. The musical score by Mark Mancini beautifully matches Manuel-Miranda’s songwriting themes and provides a lush sonic backdrop.

the-ocean-is-calling-7-things-you-might-not-know-about-disney-s-moana-moana-disney-1017363This has been an absolute dream of a year for animated movies. From Zootopia to Kubo and the Two Strings to the heartwarming indie Life Animated, the movies have enchanted and entertained and also dared to challenge, uplift, and engage an audience. These are more than mere babysitting tools for exhausted parents to put on; these movies are some of the best of the year, animated or live-action. For my tastes, Moana is just a touch below Zootopia due to the latter’s complexly inventive world and articulate social commentary. However, Moana is a lavishly produced adventure with great characters, more than a few pleasant surprises, and an emotional core that becomes more evident as the two characters we’ve grown attached to come full circle. The visuals are lively and colorful, the plotting is carefully paced and comes to a meaty conclusion, and the emphasis is on the relationship of the two main characters and their function. There was nary a moment during Moana where I wasn’t smiling from ear to ear. Do yourself a favor and savor this second Disney Renaissance because since 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph the Mouse House has been on a near unprecedented creative tear. This is starting to get to peak Pixar levels, folks. What can I say except… you’re welcome?

Nate’s Grade: A-

Jem and the Holograms (2015)

Jem-and-the-Holograms-poster-1Jem and the Holograms was one of the biggest bombs of 2015. It was pulled from theaters after only two weeks in wide release. That practically never happens. What made it so terrible? Well to start with, it seems to have jettisoned everything that fans of the original 80s Saturday morning cartoon might recognize in an attempt to appeal to a new generation. It missed the campy tone of the series, instead inserting lots of unearned serious drama that veers wildly, while trying to set up Jem as an inspirational leader. But really, it just sucks. It sucks a lot. If you’d like to learn more in vivid detail then please continue reading, but for those who desire the truly outrageous, you’ll only find the outrageously bad.

Jerrica (Aubrey Peebles) is a shy performer until her younger sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) uploads a song of hers to YouTube. Within hours, everyone wants to know who “Jem” is, which is just Jerrica donning a pink wig. A shady music exec (Juliette Lewis) snatches the girls up and forms a band with Jerrica’s foster sisters, Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). The girls immediately make a splash but they find themselves fighting against the influences of the industry that wants to tear them apart.

JEM-MOVIEJem is a very confused movie and it’s a very stupid movie, and its most stupid mistake is completely abandoning any appeal this otherwise out-of-time 80s pop-culture relic might have had with its nostalgic core audience. If you grew up with the cartoon on Saturday mornings, like millions of American kids (including my sister), then you’ll be surprised to discover that the movie version bears little resemblance to its source material. I’m not saying that every property has to be slavish to its origins, and there are certain elements that just will not work as a movie that are unquestioned in the realm of cartoons; however, why even make a Jem movie if it hardly resembles Jem the TV show? That would be like producing a Brady Bunch movie and have them be a ragtag crew aboard a salvage ship in space that comes across a mysterious alien entity (honestly, I’d watch the hell out of that, but I’m not what you’d describe as a “normal” audience). Unless your name is Charlie Kaufman, that’s probably not a route you want to experiment with and purposely turn away your core fanbase. I think the time is right for a silly throwback to the 80s that celebrates and lovingly tweaks the culture of that era. The Jem dynamic was a fantasy alter ego where girls could cut loose. What did the producers of the Jem feature film give us? It’s a pretty bland rags-to-riches story in the era of instant YouTube celebrity and every single moment feels phony, sappy, and calculated. Hell, the “Holograms” of the title aren’t even mentioned until the very end and it’s literally just an incidental stage decoration for the band.

The story is pap to leap from one musical montage to another, and when Jem does try and remind you that these singing sisters are supposed to be, you know, characters with, like, feelings, it uses the full misplaced force of a sledgehammer. The characters are components of a thinly veiled checklist to lure in a wide audience of pre-teen girls. There’s Jerrica who is musically talented but shy. Her sister Kimber is obsessed with sharing everything on the Internet. Then there are the foster sisters of Aja and Shana, giving the unit a diverse ethnicity and little other dimension. These girls are annoyingly one-note, each defined by a key interest. Oh, Kimber records everything and can be pushy. Does she herself have any other hopes, dreams, fears, and conflicts? I can’t even remember between Aja and Shana which was the gearhead and which was the budding fashion designer. Does it even matter? These aren’t characters on screen deserving your attention and empathy; they are the deposits of focus-grouped research and they are ciphers for pre-teen wish-fulfillment fantasy. I’m not going to pretend that the characters on the Jem cartoon could rival the likes of Tolstoy, but at least they felt integrated in an appropriately goofy universe. These ladies feel like placeholders that are waiting to be filled in later. They’re glorified backup performers who occasionally get to quip or cry. They are human beings in a generous sense but they are not characters.

jem5-1The message of the movie seems to be about finding your voice, and believe it or not Jem becomes a symbol to inspire millions of others, though inspire them to what ends is never specified (modern John Hinckley?). “Jem is anybody who has something they want to express and they need the courage to be heard,” Jerrica proclaims to a sold-out crowd, and it was at this climactic moment that I wanted to vomit. The movie wants to project the success of one poorly written teenager as a movement, giving agency to others, but what exactly did Jem do? She got a recording contract, made some flashy music videos, and then bested the evil record exec and still gets to play with her sister bandmates. Excusing the this-could-be-you aspect of her tale being plucked from obscurity, what exactly is there to inspire anyone? During Jem’s first show, which is crammed with people that are far too old to be rollicking fans of a band of 16-year-old girls, the power goes out while they perform “Youngblood.” What will the girls do? Jerrica gets the crowd to whip out their cell phones to illuminate the small music club, then they direct the crowd into a series of foot stomps for percussion (did the power kill the drums?), and as Jerrica opens her mouth to sing, she sounds EXACTLY like she did from the microphone. Her voice curiously sounds identical to the same voice being run through a sound system and a mixing board. Does nobody in this club take this as strange? There is nothing truly, truly outrageous about these bland performers.

The structure of this movie also drove me mad, compounded by being 118 goddamn minutes long. Why is this movie two measly minutes short of a full two hours? Why is this movie only 39 less minutes than The Revenant? If ever there was a 90-minute movie, it’s Jem and the Holograms. It’s not like the screenplay is filled with so many important plot moments. Before the thirty-minute mark there are two dress-up montages, and the second act break involves the girls upset with Jem because she was forced into a solo career to save their childhood home from being foreclosed. It’s hilariously overwrought and then, I kid you not, less then five minutes later the girls all reconcile and forgive one another. There was still 40 minutes to go at this point! How? There’s even a post-credit scene setting up a sequel with a rival band. Another pointless throughline is Jem’s search for hidden clues left behind by her deceased father. He apparently was building a robot that communicates through music (mostly beat boxing… sigh) and programmed messages for his daughter to grow up and find. Why does the father have to be this obtuse about telling his daughter he loves her? His final fatherly words of wisdom include the eyeroll-inducing cliché, “You were my greatest creation.” Can the guy not write a letter instead of organizing a scavenger hunt guided by a robot that resembles the alien from Earth to Echo? Is this what good parenting looks like?

There’s another aspect of the editing that I want to single out for ridicule. Throughout the film, we’re constantly cutting homemade YouTube footage into scenes to amplify them. This makes sense when it’s a montage of fans talking about their love for Jem, this makes far less sense when the movie uses a guy drumming on his knees to score a silly heist sequence. Yes, the movie outsources moments of its musical score to a musical mélange of online artists, repeatedly inserting them into the action in distracting manners. It’s further proof of the failure of the movie to tie in Internet culture and the democracy of music in any meaningful way. It’s literally background music.

photo-original-1Let’s also talk about the music of Jem and the Holograms, which, dear listener, for the purpose of this review I’m re-listening to. It’s not like the music is awful. In fact it sounds fairly indistinguishable from much of the pop music currently airing on modern radio stations. They even name-check “Quentin Tarantino” in one song, so there’s that. The songs are competent and won’t make your ears bleed but they don’t exactly stand out, which further complicates the illusion of the movie. The fawning praise from online commentators is overdone and unearned. Here’s the deal: if people go crazy over some artist, the reality better meet the hype. If you have a poet who everyone adores, then they better have some breath-taking poetry. If this reality is not met, meaning if the art is qualitatively mediocre or unmemorable, then it takes me immediately out of the movie. I’ll even deconstruct Jem’s rise to fame. Jerrica records a simply acoustic song and sings her tune of sadness, “Alone Out Here.” Immediately after Kimber uploads it, the YouTube likes go through the roof and the next morning she’s a star. The song is pretty and Peebles has a nice voice that conveys emotion well. It’s a nice song, but in no way is it star-making more than any other the thousands of other girls-with-guitars on YouTube. My proof: the total number of views for “Alone Out Here” is… 33,000 (the tune with the most views is what I would call the best, “The Way I Was,” at 132,000). That’s not exactly scintillating numbers speaking to making connections with a larger fanbase. The best song in the movie isn’t even theirs; it’s Marian Hill’s “Got It.”

Jem and he Holograms is the kind of inspirational movie that will inspire nobody, a musical coming-of-age film with terribly and terribly underwritten characters that are a note-note collection of adjectives and different fashions (this one has colored hair, oooo). The music is passable but nothing that justifies the rocket success and intense devotion we witness on screen. The story is so emotionally sappy yet phony, the structure maddeningly padded out and given the idiotic daddy scavenger hunt, and the editing insertion of cutaway clips of YouTube artists drove me mad. After an hour I realized what I was watching: the Josie and the Pussycats movie absent any of the social satire. This movie makes Josie and the Pussycats look like Doctor Strangelove.

Nate’s Grade: D

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterIn 1987 in Compton, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was selling drugs, Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) was spinning records in a club, and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is writing lyrics in the back of a school bus (the movie significantly downplays DJ Yella and MC Ren). The guys have grown up in an environment of suspicions and harassment by the Los Angeles police. Their response was to compose angry and defiant songs illuminating their world. After a few early performances, the group is approached by record producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who wants to get them signed and touring. Their music and their perspective catches on and soon NWA is awash in big shows and groupies. Heller puts more of his efforts onto Eazy-E, and Dre and Cube feel marginalized and doubtful that Heller has their best interest at heart.

It’s hard to reconcile the brash and challenging men responsible for NWA and this sanitized and rather rote rags-to-riches biopic that asks curiously little of its subjects when it comes to depth or reflection. Not every biopic needs to be as faithful as the most excoriating documentary on its subject, but we have become accustomed over the last decade to the warts-and-all approach, where the central biographical figures are celebrated for their achievements but care is taken to tell their lives with measured accuracy, not to hide anything that challenges our concept of who these people were. Imagine if Walk the Line had sanitized its portrayal of Johnny Cash, or worse, devoted most of its running time to his stint as a revivalist Christian musician? What if Ray had eliminated his womanzing? What if The Aviator said that Howard Hughes was the model of human sanity? A biopic doesn’t need to tell us every facet of its subject’s life because that is an impossible demand that only the densest of books can truly achieve, however, a biopic must instill the spirit of its subject in an honest representation, because that’s at best what you’re going to get when you apply a human life to the realm of narrative. Straight Outta Compton comes across as far too gentle with its core subjects, portraying them as underdog anti-heroes who were pushed around by those trying to exploit them and their message. Of course this would be the approach when Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, and the widow of Eazy-E produce the film. At this point it’s about protecting the legacy, protecting the brand, and so the members of NWA become far less interesting.

Straight-Outta-ComptonNobody probably gets the biggest revision than Dr. Dre, especially his violent history with women. As depicted in the film, Dre is a talented and frustrated music producer who is trying to do his best to live up to his dreams but falling short and feeling the pressure of not being the support system for his brother, his girlfriend, his daughter. When the money starts rolling in, Dre embarks on a successful solo career and reconciles with Eazy-E. That’s about all there is to his character arc, a series of creative struggles and trusting the wrong people. There is one very brief moment that hints at Dre’s history with women, when his girlfriend expresses caution about getting too involved with Dre because she doesn’t want anything negative to happen to her young son. This woman doesn’t appear to be Michel’le Toussaint, a best-selling Ruthless Records artist who was with Dre for seven years and gave birth to their son in 1991. Toussaint has spoken about consistent physical abuse, including an incident where Dre shot at her through a bathroom door. Then there’s the glaring omission of Dee Barnes, a journalist who Dre brutally beat inside a nightclub in 1990 (Dre has finally come forward and apologized for this incident but only after the Apple overlords or Universal execs probably applied some pressure to make the bad PR from the press tamp down). Director F. Gary Gray (Friday, Law Abiding Citizen) has gone on record saying they had to focus on the “story that was pertinent to our main characters.” About that…

Straight Outta Compton has a renewed relevancy due to the increased attention in the news concerning police brutality, profiling, and harassment. It was from this combination of oppression and negativity that NWA honed their provocative message. The lyrics of gangster rap reflected the reality of their living conditions, and so they were bleak, angry, violent, and they spurred a sense of relatability across the country from others. It was a reaction against a system that had cataloged them as suspects from birth. The story structure of Straight Outta Compton shows the birth of gangster rap through a select sample of personal experiences. From there we see the rise, the backlash, and I suppose a “we told you so” moment with the aggravation over the Rodney King case turning into the volcanic anger and destruction of the L.A. riots. The aside highlighting the L.A. riots only really serves to underline the idea that NWA’s message of the beaten-down growing increasingly weary of their denigrated treatment. After that, the greater message of what NWA meant to the world of music and culture is lost midst the squabbles of the former friends. This is a missed opportunity at creating a stronger message and adding needed complexity to the main characters. What if Straight Outta Compton had explored the violent life of its stars after they had achieved their dreams? It creates a more damning theme about the consequences of a life under oppression; Dre grew up being harassed and antagonized, which is reflected in their music, but even when they escape that environment the consequences can still follow and entrap them. As it plays, the guys strike it rich, get waylaid by outsiders, and eventually find their footing again. It’s a narrative structure that places all the problems as external threats, be it Heller or Knight or HIV itself, and strips the main characters of their own agency. The movie doesn’t let them account for their own action and finds excuses when able. An incident where they brandish high-powered guns to chase off an angry boyfriend is treated as an unearned and questionable moment of levity. Gray said they could only focus on the “pertinent” stories, but I don’t see anything more pertinent than exploring the psychological trauma of brutality and oppression and how, even as an adult with seemingly the world at your fingertips, it still manifests in your life and personal relationships.

As a standard rags-to-riches biopic, Straight Outta Compton is consistently entertaining and well acted, though it can’t help but feel like we’re rushing through the events. A significant disappointment is the underdeveloped nature of the friendship of Dre, Eazy-E and Cube. There’s an early scene where they’re teasing one another and working out the beginnings of “Boys in the Hood” and this is the lone moment where we feel the dynamic of the trio. The early glimpse at the creative process is a high-point. After that, sadly, the only examination the movie affords on the relationships of the three is the jealousies and divisions. Strangely, the most interesting character relationship is between Eazy-E and Heller, which despite the predictable dissolution is the most heartfelt relationship on screen. Think about that: the most involving relationship depicted in the movie is between a former drug dealer-turned-musician and a Jewish music producer. It’s their opposites-attract dynamic that helps to make them so much more intriguing to watch.

Straight Outta ComptonStraight Outta Compton treats Heller as a greedy predator who was cheating NWA out of their rightful earnings, though I’m still a bit skeptical as to these accusations. The movie even gives me a reason to support my skepticism. Once Cube goes solo, a record producer (Tate Ellington) promises to support him on his next record if the first is successful. Obviously Cube is a hit and he comes back to this producer, who explains that he can’t simply just write a check then and there and that it’s more complicated. Cube responds by trashing the guy’s office and the moment is treated as a strangely triumphant moment that the exec even awkwardly jokes about later when Cube returns. This moment made me think maybe, just maybe, the people in the industry weren’t explicitly cheating out NWA but the margins of the recording industry are a bit harder to explain.

While the characters themselves can be a tad boring, the actors do everything in their power to make them feel fully felt. The three lead actors impressed me. Mitchell especially wows in his greater emotional moments, like the discovery of being HIV-positive and only having a few reaming months to live. Jackson Jr. gives an eerily accurate portrayal of his father, and Hawkins (Non-Stop) hits his stride when Dre is most ambitious. The three of them have an easy-going camaraderie that adds to the authenticity. The actors are so good that the deficiencies in characterization are all the more frustrating. The talent was there but the characterization was not. I also want to single out R. Marcos Taylor for his strikingly imposing portrayal of Suge Knight. As soon as Taylor starts eating up more screen time, I couldn’t help but wish the movie’s focus jumped ship to the ruthless Death Row Records impresario.

Straight Outta Compton is already the highest-grossing musical biopic of all time, so surely the wider moviegoing public greeted its safe approach to its subjects with some level of approval. Enough time has passed to add a layer of nostalgia to the early days of gangster rap, as well as political relevancy with the increased media spotlight on overzealous police provocations and the growing Black Lives Matter movement. The time was ripe for this movie and it’s an undeniable hit. I was entertained throughout and found the performances to be involving, but I can’t shake off the feeling about what is being left out. It’s by no means a biopic’s requirement to include everything about its subject, but with the living members of NWA aboard and approving their movie versions, the sanitization of a complicated and contradictory reality is the best we’re going to get. The film doesn’t hold the band up for their behavior, whether it’s promiscuous sex that leads Eazy-E to getting infected (a plot point with no setup beyond some movie-friendly knowing coughs) or Dre’s violent history with women. The move doesn’t have to portray the members of NWA as villains but by treating them as misunderstood underdogs who were exploited by outside forces feels like a (forgive the term) cop-out. These guys didn’t ask to become spokemen for a generation of antagonized and discredited black men, but surely there’s something more interesting and deeper to explore than band in-fighting. Straight Outta Compton is a slick and entertaining film but ultimately just another product.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Last Five Years (2015)

last5bigIt’s a musical about the beginning and end of a five-year relationship, and each partner is starting at a different point and meeting in the middle. If that sounds confusing, The Last Five Years will do little to better orient you, the audience, on its criss-crossing narrative-leaping timeline. Anna Kendrick is Cathy, who is traveling from the breakup of her marriage to the moment she met her eventual husband. Jeremy Jordan is Jamie, who is traveling the more linear path of infatuation to marriage to his divorce from Cathy. Neither character is particularly that involving though their eventual conflicts that lead to their parting of ways are more relatable than I was expecting since Jamie becomes a publishing phenom. I was looking for parallels with the song pairings, since we switch from a Cathy song to Jamie song, but the more I listened the more the narrative structure felt like an unjustified gimmick. Director Richard LaGravenese (Beautiful Creatures) feels like he was rushed to complete this film because much of the camerawork feels lacking, losing track of the characters in their long takes. Could he afford to do more than one take? There isn’t so much a sense of style or expanding into the medium of film. It feels like LaGravense was grabbing what he could. But that’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that for an entirely sung musical (there may be like two lines of spoken dialogue) none of the songs are particularly memorable. Even minutes after finishing the film, I could not for the life of me hum one tune. To be fair the music isn’t offensive to the ears, but it falls within this vanilla middle ground that plays like it should be background noise rather than featured music. Kendrick and Jordan do a serviceable job singing these bland songs, but when your movie is wall-to-wall with music that doesn’t engage or register, it’s the equivalent of a comedy being unfunny. The Last Five Years is a movie musical that is decidedly pleasant and deadly bland.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Into the Woods (2014)

ITW_1-Sht_v18_Lg-560x829Theater fans, take this review with a Broadway-sized grain of salt because I’m going to admit I’ve never seen Into the Woods prior to its film release. I consider myself a Stephen Sondheim fan, especially with Sweeney Todd. Now with all that established, I found Into the Woods to be a thoroughly uninvolving and middling musical without any memorable tunes and a series of annoying characters that just kept running in comic redundancies. Perhaps it’s my own ignorance to the original 1987 theater production, considering subversive and edgy and not the most natural fit for the Disney brand. Perhaps I’m just not hip enough to Sondheim’s academic use of melody. Or perhaps others out there will share my opinion that Into the Woods is a tuneless bore.

In a fantasy kingdom, a Baker (James Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) are trying to conceive a child but having difficulty. A witch (Meryl Streep) reveals that the only way to undo the infertility curse is to gather a series of magical items. The baker ventures into the aforementioned woods, desperate to find these items, often running into the likes of other fairy tale icons like Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Prince Charming (Chris Pine), the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Depp), Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) and his beanstalk, and the entrapped Rapunzel (Mackenzie Mauzy).

INTO THE WOODSIt must have been more relevant back in 1987, but today we are awash in the darker side of fairy tales. Analyzing the implications of “happily ever after” in a more adult and pessimistic way is nothing new. We’re saturated with TV shows and movies that have explored these issues before, revealing the darker truths to some of our favorite fairy tale characters, so it’s hard for a Woods novice to approach the show without a sense of ”been there, done that.” It’s unfair for Sondheim but that’s the reality that greets an adaptation of a musical that’s almost thirty years old. Because of this context, the insights and subversions with the fairy tale characters never feel somewhat pat. The fact that Little Red Riding Hood might be featuring a sexual awakening related to the dangerous Big Bad Wolf is the only striking one that adds dimension to her character. Other “twists” given to the characters are either predictable or just underwhelming. Oh, Prince Charming isn’t so nice and marrying into royalty isn’t the fantasy it’s made out to be? Then there are character betrayals that come out of nowhere, without any proper setup, that feel like the musical is just flailing around in transparent shock value. Just because someone suddenly does something out of character does not mean it was a good plot choice. The guilty party even sings, “I’m in the wrong story,” admitting the identity crises. I wouldn’t have a problem with these wrinkles if they felt better setup or there was more commentary attached. Instead, as delivered in the film, it feels rushed and unearned.

Music is inherently subjective (then again so is film, I mean…), so I’m sure others will vociferously disagree with my stance that Into the Woods is mediocre. True to Sondheim’s works, he establishes character-based melodies that fold and cascade atop one another, weaving in and out. The problem is when none of those melodies captures your attention. These are not humable tunes. To my ears, the songs just collided into one another forming one long string of tonal mélange. The singing is more than adequate by the performers (though Pine’s crooning is a bit subpar) but the songs just flatline. I just took a break from writing and listened through Amazon.com’s soundtrack for the show, sampling every song one again, and they all just blend together. There isn’t one song that burrows its way inside your brain, taking residence beyond the immediate. Then again, if you’re one of the fans of the show who loves these songs then having a fresh coat of Hollywood production will make them sound even better for you, especially with Corden and Blunt and Streep as the top performers.

Another hindrance for me was that I found many of these characters to be insufferably annoying. I found Red Riding Hood and Jack to be irksome and thieves, and so I didn’t feel much sympathy when Jack’s breaking and entering and giant manslaughter lead to dire consequences in the last act. Does not the lady giant deserve her vengeance? Her home was broken into, pilfered for its valuables, a small portion of which would have been sufficient but Jack cannot help his felonious ways, and then the boy killed her husband in a hasty escape attempt. If anything, I would have preferred the lady giant picking her teeth with the plucky lad. I also wanted Little Red to remain in the belly of the wolf (spoiler alert?). Cinderella lost my interest with her wishy-washy behavior. I believe it’s meant to be funny that she keeps returning and running off for three days in a row of princely balls. Another way of looking at that behavior is frustration. The only characters I actively cared about were the Baker and his wife, and the calamitous plotting of the musical’s second half tested even those allegiances.

into-the-woods-07The story gets to be rather redundant as well once the main characters are established and their plight is set in motion. I suppose I can now understand why Into the Woods is one of the most popular stage productions to perform at high schools and colleges: the scarcity of scene changes. Much like other aspects of the film, the setting just blends together and becomes tiresome. My pal Eric Muller remarked, “It’s called Into the Woods and not Into Multiple Sets.” I got sick of the woods. The plotting requires the various characters to keep running into one another again and again. It’s amusing at first but once it keeps going, and going, and going, the repetition loses its charm. You start to feel like the show is as lost as the characters and just going in circles to bide its time.

Acting-wise, I cannot fault the big-screen version. Blunt (Edge of Tomorrow) has a great singing voice and has shown great range as an actress in 2014. Streep improves upon her shaky start to musical theater from Mamma Mia. She’s still the great Meryl and seems to be one of the few people having fun. She enlivens every scene she’s in. Pine (Star Trek Into Darkness) is enjoyably self-involved as his caddish prince. Depp (Transcendence) is suitably lascivious though he only has about five minutes on screen. Corden (soon to be the new host of CBS’ Late Late Show in 2015) is the real standout. The man has a self-effacing likeability to him that serves as an anchor for the show. He’s funny and tender but he’s the heart of the story, and the film is at its best with Corden as its center.

If you’re a fan of the original Into the Woods, chances are you’ll likely find enough in this adaptation to enjoy. Director Rob Marshall (Chicago) and his crew re definitely fans and you can feel their appreciation for the source material. However, if this is your first exposure to the Broadway show, then you may too find the characters annoying, the commentary underdeveloped and dated, the songs tuneless and unmemorable, and the plotting to be redundant and tedious. The actors do what they can but it was ultimately a losing cause to my ears. I found the film more exhausting than transporting. I’m at a loss how people can work up such passions for a show that feels so thoroughly blah. I await the Sondheim crowd to tar and feather me as an ignorant heathen, but there you have it. Into the Woods is an underwhelming musical that made me want to turn on the radio.

Nate’s Grade: C

Whiplash (2014)

Whiplash_posterWriter/director Damien Chazelle (Grand Piano) made quite a deal of noise at this year’s Sundance Film Festival with Whiplash, winning the top honors. Usually, the movies examine the angelic teachers, the ones we all remember fondly that broke through to us and cared enough to make a difference. This is not that movie.

Andrew (Miles Teller) is a second-year student at a prestigious New York City music conservatory. He drums and dreams of being plucked from his class to the jazz band of Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), a renowned jazz musician with a volatile temper. He verbally berates his students, antagonizes them, belittles them, throws chairs at them, brings them to tears, and harasses them, but all in the guise of pushing their talents, pushing them out of being so easily coddled by their parents and an “everyone’s a winner” society. Andrew is elated to be asked to be Fletcher’s newest drummer but the pressure to perform, and maintain that level of perfection, eats away at him. Andrew eats, sleeps, and obsesses over being the greatest drummer possible, a pupil in Fletcher’s image.

120681_galI know very little about music beyond a simple “I like this/I don’t like that” delineation, but I was enthralled from beginning to end with the sheer intensity of Whiplash. Even though the film is something of a cinematic crucible, a hellish musical boot camp, a Full Metal Jacket for Julliard, it’s not caught up in the half notes and technical elements; this is a movie about two powerful forces coming into direct conflict. It’s a battle of wills, a struggle for dominance, and a character study about the potential drive it takes to be considered one of the living legends. The emphasis is on the characters completely, and the movie never drags (or rushes) with its cleanly arranged plot points as it reaches its thrilling conclusion, a final act that completely takes the experience to another level. It keeps switching gears and defying our expectations in the best way. Chazelle always seems to be one step ahead of his audience. We know that Andrew is going to alienate his girlfriend (Glee’s Melissa Benoist), thus causing acrimony and resentment on both sides, leading to a breakup hinging upon some question of priorities. We suspect it’s coming and lie patiently in wait, dreading that this predictable subplot will take away the focus of the film. And then Chazelle has Andrew sit down and break up with his girlfriend right then and there, citing the exact same chain of foreseeable cause and effect. Andrew sees where this story will head and wants to prevent further heartbreak. He nips this relationship in the bud, and his girlfriend is simply stunned at his blunt assessment (“You think I would prevent you from being great?”). It was at this point I knew Chazelle was going to deliver something not just special but downright masterful.

At the start it looks like the film is going to be a student-mentor study, and it does become this, though in a fascinating yet psychologically disturbing manner. The fiery and all-consuming passion of Fletcher infects Andrew, as he wants to be great above all else, including meaningful human relationships. He’s always been something of a loner who has difficulty keeping friends, made all the more evident by his uncomfortable and snippy Thanksgiving dinner with his family. His ambition is to be the best and he’s willing to sacrifice everything else. This paves the way for a character study of obsession, as we watch Andrew become a slave to his ambition, to the drive to always be better. He drums until his hands are calloused and soaked in blood. He gets a mattress in a rehearsal space, spending all of his free time on his obsession. He’s also battling for validation from Fletcher, whose approval will make Andrew feel like all those blood, sweat, and tears were worth it. The film raises some very intriguing and open-ended questions over the self-destructive nature of ambition. In one perspective it’s a story of perseverance and utilizing every setback, every humbling humiliation to push oneself further then what was possibly known. On the other hand, it’s about a young man who struggles for the unforgiving tough love of an abusive father figure who molds him in his image. Chazelle’s explosive finale also sticks with the ambiguity. It is no doubt an ascendant moment for Andrew but the implications are left for you to interpret on your own.

whiplashPrimarily the story of two forces of nature, both Teller and Simmons, especially, give captivating performances that will blow you away. Simmons (TV’s The Closer) has been one of our best character actors for years on TV and film, but man does he just sink his teeth completely into his ferocious character. He’s truly terrifying to watch but you can’t take your eyes off him. Like the other characters, as soon as he enters a room you’re put on edge, wondering what he might say next, what might lead to the next tantrum of frustration and rage. Simmons is remarkable but especially in the way that he imbues his character with traces of sympathy (also thanked by Chazelle’s screenplay, naturally). Fletcher subscribes to the (arguably insane) philosophy that he has to constantly push his students or else they will persist on mediocrity. There is a method to his madness; he’s desperately looking for the next Charlie Parker, a legend in his midst that he can help mold thanks to his aggressive teaching techniques. He truly believes the ends justify the means and he is doing the world a favor. Likewise, Teller (The Spectacular Now, Divergent) is awestruck by his professor’s rep but then desperate to regain that hallowed approval. Their relationship becomes poisonous and antagonistic and Andrew seems to be exhausting himself simply to prove Fletcher wrong. Teller is one of the most exciting young actors in Hollywood and his commitment to the character and his physical endurance is impeccable. It cannot be understated how thrilling it is to watch Teller pound away on those drums, especially during the finale where the energy level might just exhaust the audience as well (you do feel spent afterwards, in a good way). Part of Teller’s performance has to be with his style and precision of drumming throughout, and it’s amazing that he is able to convey different emotional states through a musical instrument. Teller is an effortlessly intuitive actor and his instincts are rarely wrong.

Shot in only 19 days, Whiplash is a rare film that feels blisteringly vibrant, coursing with an insatiable energy, powered by performances of intense dedication and with a script packed with bubbling conflict. It’s a small movie that manages to knock you off your feet, from the caliber of the performances to the caliber of the musicianship. I didn’t know if this movie could live up to the hype post-Sundance, and I was a little apprehensive at first, but I fell completely under the sway of Chazelle and his storytelling. The smooth edits, the clean connect-the-dots plot points, the room for ambiguity and nuance, the stellar final act, it’s everything a movie lover could ask for while still never forgetting to entertain. This is a powerful movie that packs many a wallop but also raises interesting ethical questions about the drive for accomplishment, whether personal attachments are hindrances, and chiefly whether the ends justify the means, especially if those ends could be considered cruel and abusive. Whatever the ends may be, see this incredible film, which just happens to be one of the finest of the year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Muppets Most Wanted (2014)

Muppets-Most-Wanted-PosterThe Muppets are back, though their new film seems to vaguely be recreating the amusing if somewhat slight Great Muppet Caper. The same blend of Muppet-staple sweet goofiness and anarchy is still a pleasure to watch, causing me to laugh throughout; it’s just that there are more leaden stretches between the laughs. The side stories have more interest and humor than the main storyline where Kermit has been replaced by a nefarious Russian doppelganger. Ricky Gervais is wasted as a criminal sidekick and he doesn’t bring much energy to the film. Fortunately Tina Fey, as a gulag prison guard, and Ty Burrell, as a Pink Panther-like Interpol agent, rise to the occasion. Burrel, teamed up with Sam the Eagle, made the movie for me. Their comic interplay and rivalry is the best and gives way to the best use of sight gags. It’s an amusing and agreeable film but there’s a noticeable spirit missing, possibly from the departure of living Muppet Jason Segel as an actor and a co-writer. I was shocked that Bret McKenzie, who won an Oscar for the 2011 movie, was the same man behind these new tunes. With the exception of maybe two songs, the remaining majority of the songs are downright dreadful. Within minutes of leaving my theater I could not for the life of me remember one of the tunes. The celebrity cameos are also less fun, many poorly integrated into the film, just the actors appearing and then vanishing. James McAvoy just walks onscreen to deliver a package. Is that the best use of everyone’s time? Still, while a noticeable step down from 2011’s The Muppets, the movie still has enough of the Muppet charm and silliness to entertain. It’s just missing some of the magic that made their return so special.

Nate’s Grade: B

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