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Hamilton (2020)


Multi-hyphenate sensation Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton sounds like a bizarre misfire, a hip-hop-infused musical about one of the lesser known Founding Fathers, and yet not only does it succeed so magnificently, so transcendentally, it’s one of those rare artistic pinnacles that lives up to its own momentous hype. This is one of the crowning artistic achievements of the twenty-first century. I’m exceedingly grateful for a filmed version of the vaulted stage experience, with the original cast, that allows me that front-row view my bank account never would afford. This is going to be a film review of what is, essentially, a live theatrical performance, but really this written review is going to be a celebration of Hamilton and what I consider to be so phenomenal.

In 1776, Alexander Hamilton (Miranda) is an immigrant looking to make his name in the American colonies and the looming war with Britain for independence from King George III (Jonathan Groff). He meets and befriends Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.), an ambitious upstart who seems fatefully linked with Hamilton through the decades. Hamilton falls in love and marries Eliza Schuyler (Phillipa Soo) but also has a close relationship with her older sister, Angelica (Renee Elise Goldsberry), who keeps her real feelings at bay to protect her sister. Eager to get into the action, Hamilton accepts a position as George Washington’s (Chris Jackson) right-hand man as the battle comes to New York and the colonists do the unthinkable and defeat England as we conclude the musical’s first act. “You’ll be back,” King George retorts.

Next comes the tricky part of building a functioning country in the aftermath. Hamilton is appointed to be Secretary of the Treasury by newly elected President Washington, but his federalist principles are fought against by some pretty big names in the cabinet, like James Madison (Okieriete Onaodowan) and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson (Daveed Diggs). Both are wary of a centralized government and prefer more power to be held by the states. The Founding Fathers jostle for ideological supremacy and Hamilton gifts his opponents with the burgeoning nation’s first political sex scandal with Maria Reynolds (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Aaron Burr rises in local and national politics but sees Hamilton as a constant thorn in his side. With the presidential election so close in 1800, Hamilton’s endorsement of Jefferson over Burr is the final straw, and Burr demands satisfaction in a duel against Hamilton that will prove tragic.

For fans of musical theater, Hamilton is a two-hour-and-forty-minute joyously exuberant celebration of a bold artistic vision, the electricity of live theater, and broadening American history in a manner that makes it far more accessible, relevant, and humane for a modern audience. The very nature of having minority actors portraying the Founding Fathers and their famous wives is part of Miranda’s appeal that he wanted to tell the story of America with the America of today. Ordinarily, African-Americans would never get an opportunity to play Washington or Jefferson, or a Chinese-American woman playing the role of Eliza Hamilton, and there is definite power in representation, in seeing these different faces playing these historical figures. The deliberate color-blind casting makes America’s history feel more inclusive. It’s such a simple act, opening the ethnicity of historical roles, but it produces a beautiful result and provides even more cross-textual commentary, like slave-owning presidents played by black thespians.

Another miraculous effort by Miranda is his ability to generously humanize many of the characters, including the man who eventually murders Hamilton himself. Very often when we talk about the Founding Fathers and other Great Figures of History from oh so long ago, they take on a mythic quality and seem less human, less flawed, and less relatable. They seem practically superhuman, absent our doubts and desires. Miranda’s portrayal of the men and women of America’s founding does the opposite and makes these people feel relatable, flawed, and human yet again.

This includes Hamilton as well. He’s obsessed with his sense of legacy, has a pretty healthy ego that gets him into trouble, and might have been having an emotional affair with his sister-in-law, never mind an actual affair with Maria Reynolds. He’s so concerned about his “good name” and rumor of impropriety (he was accused of embezzling government money to pay for Ms. Reynolds’ husband’s extortion) that he literally confessed to his marital misdeeds and published it. Hamilton is consumed with writing his ideas (“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”) and an impending early death, something he amazingly escaped during a hurricane in the Caribbean that destroyed his village as well as his mother’s fatal illness. He was so eager to get into the heat of war that Washington had to sit him down to persuade him that dying as a martyr isn’t as glamorous as living and seeing through your ideals. Hamilton’s death at the hands of Burr is likely the most widely known fact about both duelists, but the musical brings each to glorious and troubled life with unerring compassion without excusing their real failings.

Burr serves as the narrator of our near three hours, setting the stage for Hamilton’s story with his own regrets and jealousies framing his recounting. He’s a complex character worthy of his own biopic, an orphan who finished college in two years, had an affair with the wife or a British officer, lost her at sea, and championed retail politics centuries before it was the norm. His personal philosophy was one of caution, diametrically opposed to Hamilton jumping after whatever he wanted no matter the consequences. Burr longs for being near the real center of power, and his showstopping number “The Room Where It Happens” is an ode to his desire. He begins as a friend and ally of Hamilton, then political rival, and finally as a mortal enemy. He’s too calculated with his personal beliefs, never wanting to be too challenging and at risk, which is an embodiment of his social-climbing ambition as well as his callow decision-making. To Burr, avoiding risk and not accruing enemies is simply smart business. The musical does an excellent job of humanizing Burr (“Now I’m the villain in your history book”) and offering a perspective in opposition to Hamilton but not without its own measurable merits.

The domestic side of Hamilton could be its own movie to itself. The relationship between Alexander, Eliza, and Angelica is complicated to say the least. Angelica was the elder sister and in her stellar song “Satisfied” she details the social pressures of being in that position, being expected to marry into a desirable match that will see the family name and fortune to prosper. Feeling initially unsure about Hamilton’s intentions, she introduces him to her sister Eliza instead, and it’s a choice that she feels conflicted about ever since. Angelica dearly loves her sister (“I love my sister more than anything in this life/ I will choose her happiness over mine every time”) but cannot help but still feel a yearning for her brother-in-law. However, when the Reynolds scandal comes to light, she will defend her sister to her dying breath. That sisterly deference makes Angelica such a fascinating figure, and it certainly makes the Hamilton marriage more intriguing and roiling with pent-up desires. Eliza sings about removing herself from the narrative in “Burn” and how her husband has “forfeited the rights to my heart.” She’s been trying to impress upon her husband to be happy in the moment (“Look around, look around/ How lucky we are to be alive right now”) and enjoy his accomplishments rather than looking ahead. Her eventual forgiveness of Hamilton is one of the most emotional moments of the show that causes me to tear up. And she serves as a final testament to Hamilton’s legacy during the final number, after his death, and fills in the gaps of history by asserting her own agency back into the observed “narrative.”

I’ve gone over 1300 words, dear reader, and I haven’t even talked in depth about the music, so allow me to say that Hamilton as a musical is just about music perfection. Hip-hop is such a densely wordy platform that allows so much information to be imparted at lightning speed, which means that lyrically these songs are jam-packed with clever asides, allusions, and rhyming recitations of history. The songs are instantly quotable and filled with deep consideration from witticisms to also important dramatic themes and perspectives. I was amazed at Miranda’s composition skills in particular how he’s able to weave and build off character leitmotifs. It’s brilliant how something like Hamilton’s declarative early song “Not throwing away my shot” about his ambitions can come back during his duel with Burr where he raises his pistol in the air, away from Burr, and literally throws away his shot. Or how the beat of a song can imitate a failing heartbeat in a fractious moment of tragedy. Or how King George’s self-involved songs are fashioned to be like 1960s British invasion pop ditties. Or how cabinet arguments become riotous battle raps between Jefferson and Hamilton. Or how the same actors who played Hamilton’s wartime buddies in Act 1 are playing his political rivals in Act 2 (“Have you forgotten Lafayette?” he asks of Jefferson, the same man who portrayed Lafayette). There are layers and layers to the compositions here and the music is remarkably assured; almost every song is a certified earworm, and it’s an entirely sung musical. Every person will have their favorites, and for me they include “Satisfied,” “The Room Where It Happens,” “History Has Its Eyes on You,” “Dear Theodosia,” “One Last Time,” and the moving finisher, “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Even if you don’t like rap music, Miranda’s offerings are so catchy, so accomplished, and so bursting with excitement, that it’s near impossible to resist.

This movie was filmed in 2016 from the original Broadway cast, many of whom earned Tony awards for their sensational work (Diggs, Goldsberry, and Odom Jr.). Everyone is truly excellent but my favorite performer, by far, is Diggs (Blindspotting). He gets to spit lightning-fast rhymes in a French accent as Lafayette, and his portrayal of Jefferson as a dandy in the style of Andre 3000 from Outkast is enormously entertaining. His “What Did I Miss?” introductory number is a perfect impression for Jefferson’s arrival onto the stage. Diggs’ is so charming even when he’s being a scoundrel trying to plot the doom of Hamilton. His battle raps with Miranda are a highlight and Diggs also seems to get the most tricky lyrical arrangements because of his peerless skills at maintaining flow and diction (“I’m in the cabinet, I am complicit in/ Watching him grabbin’ at power and kiss it/ If Washington isn’t gon’ listen/ To disciplined dissidents, this is the difference./ This kid is out!”). There’s a reason Diggs has become the other breakout star of the show.

Soo (The Code) breaks my heart with her Act 2 solo numbers and then mends it back as she reasserts herself on “Who Live, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” Goldsberry (Altered Carbon) has such a fire to her. Groff (Mindhunter) is hilarious as King George, though his singing involves a lot of literal spitting. Miranda (Mary Poppins Returns) is exceptional as the titular character who comes from nothing and through the power of his ideas creates America’s financial institutions that are still standing to this day. But it’s his personal relationships that better define him in the play. The fatherly relationship he has with Washington is affectionate (“One Last Time” has an extra poignancy knowing Washington died shortly after leaving office) and his hopes for his newborn son (“You’ll Blow Us All Away”) speak to a larger truth about parenting that also links up with the foundation of a nation in infancy. There’s also his complicated love divided between Eliza and her sister. Miranda has such a natural charm and swagger and earnestness that seeps into his performance and every performer.

So is there anything about this movie-wise to separate it from a bootleg of the show? Director Thomas Kail (also the director of the musical) does make smart use of when to go tighter on his actors, to zero in on the emotions and expressiveness, and when to go wider for best impact. The stage is designed like a bullseye with a rotating circle, which can play up the dramatic confrontations between foes, especially the duels. I was impressed at points where the movement of the stage would be perfectly timed with camera focus and edits, allowing other characters to loom over the shoulder, or pop into focus, giving the production a greater sense of filmed visuals. However, this is really a filmed version of the stage show, so as a movie, it’s only going to do so much with those trappings. The unreality of theater has to be accepted but the movie version does a great job of maintaining the intimacy of the shared theatrical experience. It’s even nice to hear the applause after the musical numbers or some of the laugh lines hit home.

By this time, you’ve likely heard about the Broadway-smashing Hamilton success story of Miranda and his crew but do yourself a real favor and watch the movie with the OG cast. Yes, there are historical shortcuts taken for dramatic license and not everything you see on stage will be one hundred percent accurate with the long record of history, but it all clicks for the greater storytelling aims. Some might be uncomfortable with the re-visioning of the Founding Fathers, either by the open-ethnicity casting or glossing over their slave-owning faults, but Miranda’s larger goal of making history reflective of the people who currently live today is admirable. In short, unless you have the kind of money to blow on a front-row ticket, enjoy the Hamilton movie experience until Miranda eventually wrangles his artistic milestone into a more movie-movie version.

Movie Grade: A

Show Grade: A+

Cats (2019)

Cats, beyond all reason, is a musical sensation. Andrew Lloyd Webber based the show on the poems of T.S. Eliot. The original production played on Broadway for eighteen years from 1982 to 2000 and I don’t know a single person that likes it. It was only a matter of time before these jellicle cats were headed for the big screen in a big-budget folly. The first look the public got of a Cats movie musical trailer was met with revulsion and horror. I was anticipating the worst and yet I still wasn’t fully prepared for the jellicle disaster strutting around with undue confidence.

Director Tom Hooper (Les Miserables, The Danish Girl) made the colossal misfire to film his action in motion capture bodysuits and provide CGI hair and cat features to them later. This choice dooms whatever meager chance a big screen Cats might have had. There’s a reason the Internet erupted in collective horror when the first trailer was released, and Hooper and his producers tried assuring the public that those were early renditions of the technology and it would be improved upon its holiday release. Dear reader, I am here to tell you that the horror of that first trailer is alive and well in every unnatural moment of this nightmare. The uncanny valley has been a busy transit stop this year with the unsettling live-action (?) Lion King and now Cats serves as a dire warning about the perils of modern technology. Just because you can try and give human beings CGI fur and ears and tails doesn’t mean you should. The look is never fully transporting and often it appears like human features have been slapped onto a furry background composite, like a snowman’s facial features while it might be melting. Then there’s the additional levels of scary anthropomorphism, with mice and marching cockroaches. Why not just use prosthetics and makeup like every stage production? I think the Cats producers wanted to do something to distinguish it and in doing so they unleashed one of apocalyptic seals.

Whatever film version of Cats was destined to be disappointing because the source material is so lackluster. The Broadway musical was so popular for so long, I assume, primarily from its creative use of costumes, makeup, and staging to bring to life a fanciful world of felines. The CGI decision takes away whatever admirable craftsmanship and charm the stage show might have conveyed and replaced with nightmare fuel for the eyes. Absent the initial appeal, we’re left with a truly underwhelming story populated with underwritten characters that only really exist when they’re singing and otherwise just operate in background space. It’s a show that feels powerfully redundant with a plot structure that amounts to cats being tapped to deliver an explanatory song about themselves and then to move onto the next. It’s very much, “I’m a cat. Here’s my cat song,” followed by, “I’m a different cat. Here’s my different cat song.” Without further plot advancement, it feels like the silliest job interview with the worst candidates seeking the position of Cat Who Gets the Honor of Being Reborn in the Sky. By the end of the movie, I was convinced that I was watching an even scarier version of Midsommar and that this cat gang was really a religious cult that was selecting a ritual sacrifice to their blood-thirsty Egyptian Gods.

It’s a storytelling experience that never connects because this is designed entirely for children. Much of the show feels like a children’s television series that was hijacked by a sexual deviant. The film is replete with simplistic moral messages that you would find in children’s television, things like “Believe in yourself,” and, “Invite others into your play,” and, “Wait your turn,” and, “Treat others with respect,” and other easily digestible platitudes. This isn’t a complicated show and children would not be tasked with remembering the many characters and their stupid names because most of them are meaningless to the larger story. There is nothing complex about this story, which was compensated by the production values of the original stage show. The large stages the actors frolic around are fun to watch because they’re built to scale, meaning the tables are gigantic to present the world from a cat’s perspective. However, the proportions vary wildly and at whim. The cats will seem much larger than their world and much smaller; dining cutlery will appear far larger than a cat’s whole body, or they’ll strut on a railway and look like they’re three inches tall. Couple that with inconsistent world building and ill-defined magic powers (teleportation works except when it doesn’t) and it becomes very hard to hold onto anything as a baseline. The attempts at whimsy through the exaggerated scale become another point of confusion and unease as this world continually feels like a simulation that doesn’t quite add up.

I really want to examine just how ridiculous so many of these character names are. Apparently, a cat chooses their name (sorry, pet owners, but you’ve been giving them slave names?) and they’re selecting some pretty insane identities. Without further ado, we have Bombalurina, Bustopher Jones, Grizabela, Macavity, Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tugger, Rumpleteazer, Mungojerrie, Mr. Mistoffelees, Munustrap, Griddlebone, Tantomile, Jellylorum, Growltiger, and without a doubt, my favorite, Skimbleshanks. You could play a game guessing whether the names were cat names, pirate names, or something an elderly human said during a stroke.

The songs are also another source of disappointment. There’s the lone exception of “Memory” and Jennifer Hudson kills it with the kind of emotion the rest of the movie was missing, but everything else feels like it’s droning on and absent a strong sense of melody. The synth score also feels very dated and hard on the ears. The only saving grace for a movie that puts this concerted emphasis on the performances would be the song and dance numbers, and the dance choreography is bland and undercut by the editing, and the songs are forgettable. The Skimbleshanks number is a slight variation because of the force of personality from the character, being introduced like a fancy feline member of the Village People, suspenders and literal handlebar mustache and all. He also has an impressive tap number that leads into the exciting world of… sleeping cars on a train. It’s hard for me to impart any emotional impact from the songs because they’re so plainly expository, explaining a different cat’s life from being mischievous to being fat and lazy. These are not interesting characters in the slightest (sorry, Skimbleshanks) and their songs are like boring third grade essays about their home lives.

Nobody walks away completely clean from this movie but the actors with singing experience come closest. James Corden (Into the Woods) is a real highlight from his comic asides that feel like he’s puncturing the bizarre self-serious nature of this silly movie. Jason Derulo has a slick amount of charm to be a commitment-challenged alley cat. Hudson (All Rise) is a strong singer and made me think of her character from Dreamgirls being a cat and singing her big number. The lead heroine, Francesca Hayward, has a genuine grace to her presence and a nice face to stand out amid a world of scary human-looking cat deformities. I wish she had more moments to showcase her balletic talents. The older actors fare the worst, unfortunately. Judi Dench (Murder on the Orient Express) looks pained and sounds it too. Her fourth-wall breaking song that concludes the film, instructing the audience on how to address and treat their kitties, is inherently awkward. Elba (Hobbes & Shaw) provides a palpable sense of menace to his devil figure, until he appears without clothes and I audible gasped and groaned. In one instant, any sense of menace vanished as I watched a naked black cat version of Idris Elba dance a jolly jig. I know these actors signed up for this but that didn’t stop me from feeling a resigned sense of embarrassment for them.

And now is the time to talk about the unspoken audience for a live-action Cats, and that’s the contingent of furries or soon-to-be discovered furries. I was wondering before if the filmmakers would be cognizant of the unorthodox appeal of their film production to a certain select group of audience members, and I am here to say they are completely aware and play into this. There’s a musical number where Taylor Swift sprays catnip (a.k.a. magic horny dust) that drives the cats crazy and they writhe and purr with wild abandon, striking evocative poses with legs raised. There may not be any visible genitals but that doesn’t stop Rebel Wilson’s character from a joke about neutering. In news reports, Derula has been upset by his phantom phallus in the movie, which is slightly hilarious considering he signed up for this, but it’s also indicative of the weirdly sexual vibes the movie is playing around with but at an infantile level of wonder. There is going to be a generation of moviegoers who watch Cats and discover that they are turned on by sexy human versions of animals slinking around, lifting their legs, and rubbing their fuzzy little butts.

I was waiting for Cats to end long before it did because so much felt so pointless. The false whimsy was covering ineffective and repetitive storytelling, malnourished and unimportant characters, confusing world building and powers, middling songs (with one sterling exception), and direction that seems to make the whole enterprise feel like a children’s cartoon. It’s too simple to be intellectually stimulating, too weird and confounding to be whimsical, too sporadic and repetitive to be emotionally involving, and vacillating between complete seriousness and wanton silliness. I’m not even a hater of Hooper when it comes to his idiosyncratic direction of big Broadway musicals. I enjoyed his rendition of Les Miserables and thought several of the artistic choices made the movie better, especially the live singing. With Cats, I don’t think there was a possibility of this ever being a good movie as long as it was a faithful adaptation of a not great stage show. However, there were decisions that made this movie much much worse, namely the scary marriage of technology and flesh. If somehow you were a fan of Cats, or somehow consider yourself one as an adult, or a furry, you might find some degree of enchantment. For everyone else, Cats is a cat-astrophe. Sorry.

Nate’s Grade: D

Here are some pun-laden blurbs offered by a colleague, Steven Gammeter, in preparation for writing this review:

1) “You’ll need to change the litter box after this movie.”

2) “Follow Bob Barker’s lead and spay and neuter these Cats.”

3) “It feels like you’re living all nine of your lives while sitting through this movie.”

4) “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”

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

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014)

Birdman-PosterExpecting a comedy from Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu would have preposterous. The man was known for his cinema verite of suffering, notably Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful, and his best film, Amores Perros, roughly translated to Love’s a Bitch. Perhaps there isn’t much of a shift going from tragedy to comedy. Inarritu’s newest film, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), has been wowing critics and audiences alike, building deafening awards buzz for its cast, Iarritu, and the superb cinematography, but will it fly with mainstream audiences? This may be one of the weirdest Oscar front-runners in some time.

Riggan (Michael Keaton) is an actor best known for playing the superhero Birdman in the early 1990s and walking away from the franchise. He’s still haunted by that role (sometimes literally) and struggling to prove himself as an artist. He’s brokered all his money into directing, adapting, and starring in a theatrical version of Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The show is in previews and about to open its run on Broadway but it’s already got a rash of problems. The leading man needs to be replaced immediately. The supposed savior is famous actor Mike (Edward Norton), an undeniably talented but temperamental actor who pushes buttons to find some fleeting semblance of “truth.” Mike’s girlfriend, Lesley (Naomi Watts), is growing tired of his antics and desperate for her own long-delayed big break. Laura (Andrea Riseborough) is Riggan’s “girlfriend” and co-star and may be pregnant. Sam (Emma Stone), Riggan’s personal assistant and also his detached daughter, is fresh from rehab, and spiteful against her neglectful dad. Toss in Riggan’s best friend/manager/play producer (Zach Galifianakis), Riggan’s ex-wife (Amy Ryan), and a feared theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) who is determined to kill Riggan’s show to send a message to the rest of Hollywood polluting the integrity of the theat-tah. Oh, and throughout all this, Riggan hears an ominous voice that alternating encourages him and humiliates him.

hr_Birdman_16It’s an industry satire, a bizarre comedy, a father/daughter drama, an examination on identity and the complicated pulls of affection and admiration, and a stunning virtuoso technical achievement. As a movie, Birdman is hard to pin down or categorize. It’s a movie that you definitely need to experience on your own rather than have described (don’t stop reading, come back…), and that is a reason enough to see the film, a rare aspect among modern movies. It’s an artistically offbeat movie and yet it ultimately is about one has been actor looking back on his career and coming to terms with his own impact with pop-culture, art, and his family. It’s about a man struggling to find his place in his own life, beset at all odds by doubters and traitors and obstructionists. The refreshing aspect about Riggan is that he’s a has-been but not a sad sack; he’s fighting from the beginning, sometimes pathetically and sometimes in vain, but the man is always fighting to regain his dignity, to reclaim his life’s narrative, and to fight for his legacy. Riggan, after all, set the stage for the modern superhero industry that currently dominates Hollywood bean counters. He was too just soon, and the parallels with Keaton (Batman) are superficially interesting but there’s more of an original character here than a reflection of the actor playing him. He’s neurotic, egotistical, hungry, and fighting for respect, like many actors, and the film flirts with the façades people inhabit. Many of the characters are emotionally needy, desperate for validation wherever they can find it.

Another strength of the film is that it finds a moment for each of its talented ensemble players to shine, chief among them Keaton. The actor hasn’t had a showcase like this in some time and he is a terrific guiding force to hold the entire story together. Whether it’s marching in his tighty whities or working through his complicated degrees of neuroses, Keaton is alive in a way that is electrifying. We see several highs and lows over the course of two hours, some moments making us cheer on Riggan and others making us wince, but he comes across more like a person than just the butt of a joke. It’s also just fun to watch him adopt different acting styles when he steps on stage, including one early on where he’s purposely too stilted. It’s so comforting to watch Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel) get to be great again, not just good but great. Early on, you see the appeal of Mike, his allure, and Norton keeps pushing the audience, as well as the characters, back and forth with his wealth of talent. Stone (Amazing Spider-Man 2) spends most of the film as the sulky daughter but she gets to uncork one awesomely angry monologue against her loser dad. The thawing father/daughter relationship ends up supplying the film with its only degree of heart. Watts (The Impossible) is comically frazzled for the majority of her time but gets a memorable character beat where she breaks down in tears, realizing her dream of “making it” might never materialize. Riseborough (Oblivion) also has moments where he sadness and vulnerability cut deep. The supporting characters aren’t terribly deep but they all have a moment to standout.

It’s a decidedly offbeat film that dips into the surreal though never dives completely inside. The movie is rather ambiguous about whether or not the fantastical flourishes are a result of Riggan being mentally ill, or at the least overtaxed with stress. Is there really a Birdman or is it a voice in his head, a manifestation of his ego or a ghost to remind him of the past when he was a star? Does Riggan really have the powers he seems to believe he does, including the ability to make objects move with his mind? Innaritu playfully keeps the audience guessing, treating the bizarre in an offhand manner reminiscent of magic realism. The bizarre embellishments blend smoothly with the film’s darkly comic tone. It’s a funny movie but one that you laugh at between clenched teeth.

birdman-movie-poster-4Is it all the unblinking camerawork a gimmick? I don’t think so. While the story can engage with its weirdness and surreal unpredictability, the long tracking shots bring a heightened reality to the unreal, they bring a larger sense of awe to the proceedings, watching to see the magic trick pulled off to the end. If anything, it’s an extra thrill to the script and greatly compounds the artistic audaciousness of the film, but I think it also channels the live-wire energy of theater, of watching actors have to walk that tightrope of performance and blocking, weaving together to pull off the ensemble. It makes the film medium feel more like live theater. Thematically I think the style also connects to the anxious mentality of Riggan. In the end, I don’t truly care that much whether it’s a gimmick or not (though I vote it is not) because the camerawork is rapturous. Made to resemble an entire two-hour tracking shot, it is a joyous thrill to watch these technical wizards do their thing, to watch the best in the business perform a visual magic trick over the duration of two hours. Even if you don’t care for the overall movie you can at least be entertained by the imaginative and thoroughly accomplished cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, fresh from his Oscar for Gravity and who should be clearing shelf space for the next bushel of awards he’s destined to win with this film. It’s an intoxicating experience to behold, though the film is structured into 10-minute or so chunks for feasibility. If you want to watch a real cinematic magic trick, check out the film Russian Ark, which is an entire movie, performed in one uncut single tracking shot.

I’m still wrestling with the debate over whether Birdman is an artistically ambitious romp or a truly great movie. Much like the characters in the film, I’m wrestling with whether I have confused my admiration with adoration. It’s a movie that I feel compelled to see a second time, and maybe a third, just to get a handle on my overall thoughts and feelings. That may be a sign that Birdman is a film for the ages, or maybe it’s just a sign that it’s not as approachable and denied a higher level of greatness by its obtuseness. Inarritu’s surreal showbiz satire is plenty entertaining, darkly comic, and a technical marvel thanks to the brilliant camerawork. The percussion-heavy musical score is another clever choice, naturally adding more urgency and anxiety to the proceedings. Birdman is a strange and beguiling movie, one that deserves to be seen, needs to be experienced, and stays with you rolling around in your brain. That sounds like a winner to me.

Nate’s Grade: A

August: Osage County (2013)

august_osage_county_ver2This holiday season, the movie with the most acting, by far, is likely to be August: Osage County, the adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony award-winning play. It’s a large dysfunctional family getting back together and opening old wounds, so, you know, the most relatable Christmas movie for some. It’s easy to see what attracted such A-list talent to this project because these characters are actor catnip; each is overflowing with drama, secrets, revelations, anger, and it’s all channeled through Letts’ barbed sense of humor and wickedly skillful dialogue. With Meryl Streep as the pill-popping matriarch, Julia Roberts as her resentful daughter, and a host of other inter-generational conflicts and secrets, you may feel exhausted by the end of its 130-minute running time (the stage play was 3.5 hours, respectively). The emotional confrontations feel like grueling pugilist matches, the melodrama kept at a fever pitch, but the film is never boring. Streep is her usual astonishing self and the deep ensemble gives each actor something to chew over. This is the best Roberts has been in years, and she’s not afraid to get nasty (“Eat your fish!”). Just when you think the story might soften, Letts unleashes another body blow, allowing no uncertainty that this is a family doomed. The story also provides insights into tracking the path of cruelty through the family tree, limb by limb. August: Osage County is stridently funny but also punishing in its no-holds-barred approach to family drama. If you’re looking for a movie that makes your family seem normal and even-tempered, this may be it.

Nate’s Grade: B

Les Miserables (2012)/ Rock of Ages (2012)

1905I have no qualms with my heterosexual nature to make the following statement: I love a good musical. Why shouldn’t I? None other than Martin Scorsese said any true film lover is a fan of horror movies and musicals, two genres uniquely suited to the visual flourishes of cinema. My tastes tend to run toward the more offbeat, like Avenue Q and Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Sweeney Todd and Dancer in the Dark. My favorite movie musical of all time is 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, but that’s probably because I’m a movie lover first and foremost. A well-done movie musical can sweep you off your feet. The polarizing Moulin Rouge! is still my favorite film of 2001; I love every messy, ambitious, transporting second of it. And that’s what the best musicals and, in general, best films achieve: they transport us to another realm. Since the success of 2002’s Chicago, there’s been a run of hit-or-miss movie musicals proliferating the big screen. It’s hard to think of any longstanding Broadway hits that have yet to make the leap (you’ll get your turn, Book of Mormon). Of course it also works the other way, with plenty of movies being adapted into Broadway musicals, like Shrek, Elf, Ghost, Catch Me if You Can, Newsies, A Christmas Story, Sister Act, Legally Blonde, Bring it On, and Tony-winner for Best Musical, Once. Then you get movies turned into musicals and back into movie musicals, like The Producers and Hairspray. It seems like Broadway and Hollywood are stuck in a loop, feeding off one another’s spoils.

In 2012, two high-profile musicals got the big screen treatment: Rock of Ages and Les Miserables. The former is from 2009 whereas the latter is one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time, beginning in 1980 and spanning continents. Rock of Ages was savaged by critics and bombed at the box-office, whereas Les Miz is soaring this holiday season and is seen as a major Oscar contender. Of course one of these films is about the outrage of the lower classes being exploited by an unfair system that benefits the rich, and the other has Tom Cruise and a monkey named “Hey Man.” Having seen both films recently, and Les Miserables more than once, I think they present an interesting discussion on the pitfalls of adapting a popular theatrical show to film. You won’t have to wait long to figure out which movie succeeds and which falters badly.

90438_galLes Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s novel, is set in early 19th century France. Prisoner Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is nearing the end of his twenty-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) is convinced Valjean will never reform and go back to a life of crime. After help from a kindly bishop, Valjean flees his parole and sets up a new life as a businessman. Fantine (Anne Hathaway), one of Valjean’s workers, gets thrown out and tumbles down a chain of regrettable circumstances. She becomes a prostitute to support her young daughter, Cosette. Valjean recognizes poor Fantine on the street and, horrified at his own neglect leading her to this path, takes it upon himself to care for her and her daughter. Years later, the teenaged Cosette (Amanda Seyfried) has fallen for the young revolutionary Marius (Eddie Redmayne). Marius enlists his good friend Eponine (Samantha Barks) to help find out who Cosette is, all the while ignorant that Eponine is clearly in love with him. The young people of France are riled up about class abuses and exploitation, and the spirit of revolution is in the air. Javert is also becoming suspicious of Valjean’s true identity, so Valjean feels the need to flee once again. However, Cosette’s love and the bravery of the young revolutionaries makes Valjean decide to stop running from his past.

Oscar-winning director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech) made the ballsy but ultimately brilliant decision to have his performers sing live. Every line, every note, every performance is captured in the moment; there is nary a second of lip-synching. I cannot overstate how blessed this decision was. It places the emphasis on the performances, and that’s exactly what something as big and deeply felt as Les Miserables required for the big screen. Look, Hollywood actors are never going to be able to outdo trained and professional theatrical singers. What I expect from movie stars is movie-star level performances, and Hooper understands this. These actors aren’t playing to the cheap seats, belting the tunes with power and over exaggerated dramatics (note: there is absolutely nothing wrong with this style given the theatrical setting). In many ways, this is a more intimate Les Miserables, and it still maintains its charms and magic. There is no choreography, short of perhaps the more jovial “Master of the House” number, and Hooper puts us right in the muck of life in a 19th century impoverished slum. This is one dirty movie with lots of grimy period details, creating a reality that can only be implied on stage. The more visceral version of Les Miserables demands performances that are more naturalistic and less bombastic, to a degree. I am a cinephile first but I genuinely prefer my musicals with trained actors to trained singers. A great actor can add so much inflection and personality through the prism of song, whereas a great singer is concentrating on the notes first and foremost. I value performance over nailing the mechanics, and more movie musicals should follow Hooper’s path. This, ladies and gentlemen, is how to do the movie musical experience right.

90435_galI don’t know if Hooper was exactly the right man for the job but he certainly does the beloved stage show justice. Hooper’s visual tics are still present. The man loves to film in close-ups and at all sorts of tilted Dutch angles; he also loves filming a conversation between two people where neither one will be in the same shot. It’s a peculiarity that I never really warmed up to. However, Hooper generally has the best interests of his movie at stake, capitalizing on the large outpouring of feeling. This is a Big Musical with big emotions, and it’s easy to be swept up in its exuberant earnestness and humanism. It even has a famous concluding line, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” It’s the kind of stuff you roll your eyes at under lesser circumstances. Now, thinking back, you’ll realize that many of these people were simply painfully naïve and that there was a slew of death for no good reason. Purists may chafe at some altered lyrics and truncated songs, but really this is pretty much the closest version of the famous stage show you’ll ever see adapted. Not one of the songs has been cut (in fact a new one was written for the film by the original composers), and at a lengthy 157 minutes, it’s practically as long as the stage show, and just about sung through every moment. There are probably ten total lines that are merely spoken. I predict hardcore Les Miz fans will lap up every second.

Les Miserables also boasts some fortuitous casting (Taylor Swift at one point was rumored to be up for a role… shudder), none more than Anne Hathaway (The Dark Knight Rises). She is nothing less than perfect as Fantine. There isn’t a false note during any of her acting. Her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” is so powerful, so breathtaking, so intensely felt, that it ranks up there with some of the best moments in all of 2012 movies. And oh can this woman sing her ass off too. You feel every flicker of anger and devastation, the grain in her voice, on the verge of tears and fury. This woman deserves every accolade they can come up with this year. This woman is a total lock for Best Supporting Actress. She’s wonderful during every moment of her screen time and the lengths and emotional ferocity of her performance, and subsequent pitfalls the character endures, left me reaching for the tissues at several points.

The other standout amidst a pretty stellar cast is Barks. This is her first film work though she has plenty of experience with her character, portraying Eponine in the 25th anniversary run of Les Miserables. Her singing is terrific, as you’d imagine, but her acting is just as strong. Her rendition of “On My Own” is a showstopper of a number. Barks naturally transitions to the demands of film. I was completely on Team Eponine and found her to be an infinitely better catch than Cosette. After people get a glimpse of this woman, she is going to get plenty more acting offers, and a few concerned inquiries into the size of her waist, which at times looks like it might be the size of The Rock’s neck. Hooper also has the good sense to film both “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” in unbroken takes; focus tightly pinned on our outstanding actresses, letting the skill of their performances sell the big emotions.

90441_galOf course the crux of the tale rests on two men, Valjean and Javert, and the rest of the cast does kind of get saddled in underdeveloped roles made more apparent as a movie. It seems blasphemous to say I was a little disappointed with both lead actors. Crowe (Robin Hood) is easily the weakest singer of the cast but that doesn’t mean he’s bad. He has a lower register and sings his parts like a rock musician rather than a Broadway player. Fans of the stage show will have to adjust their expectations for a more subdued Javert. Still, having an actor of Crowe’s talents is definitely a plus even if his singing is adequate. Jackman (Real Steel) is a Tony-winning thespian, so I held him to a higher standard. He’s got a lot of heavy lifting to do as Jean Valjean, and Jackman does an admittedly fine job with the bigger emotional parts. I just expected more from his vocal abilities but it’s not a major detraction. As my mother noted, it’s not too difficult to spot the classically trained singers in the cast. Also, for eagle-eyed Les Miz fans, look for the original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, as the Bishop in this movie.

There is the tricky nature of translating a Broadway production into some variance of period reality. There’s plenty of relevance with the class struggle illustrated in the second half of the movie (Bane would approve). It’s an obvious statement but film is a different medium than the theater and affords different opportunities. The depressing reality of lower class life and the vultures that preyed on others is striking, yes, but sort of conflicts with the comic relief characters represented by the scheming Thenadiers (Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter). When the seriousness of the period is inflated, they feel like they sort of belong in a different movie. Then there’s just the conflict between stage reality and film reality. On the stage we’ll accept Marius falling madly in love with Cosette at first sight. When it’s on film, the guy comes across as a callous chump, oblivious to Eponine’s pining. He ignores the friend he’s had for years for some blonde in a bonnet. And the final number, reuniting all the dead cast members, works better as a curtain call than a finale to a film. These are just the quirks of theater one must just accept. I wouldn’t say the songs and music is in the same category as Sondheim or Webber, but there are definitely some hummable tunes here made all the more swooning. You’ll have a fine pick of songs to get stuck in your head for days (mine: “Look Down”).

1791Earlier this year, Rock of Ages came and quickly left the box-office, failing to make a splash with the American public despite a healthy enough run on Broadway and touring the country. The stage show is a jukebox musical set to the head-banging tunes of 1980s hair metal. Adam Shankman, the director behind the bouncy and thoroughly entertaining 2007 Hairspray movie musical, was tasked with bringing Rock of Ages to the screen with the same finesse. Cherie (Julianne Hough) a hopeful singer just off the bus from Oklahoma, meets up with Drew (Diego Boneta), a nice kid who gets her a job at The Bourbon Room, a rock club running afoul with the mayor (Bryan Cranston) and his moral crusading wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The club owners (Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand) are relying on fickle, burned-out, taciturn, and overall mysterious rock legend Stacy Jaxx (Tom Cruise) to save their club from financial ruin. Along the way, Cherie and Drew look for their big breaks, fall in love, get pulled apart, and reunite in time for one final sendoff to leave the audience tapping their toes.

90417_galAllow me to elucidate on my main problem with the rise in jukebox musicals: I find them to be, with rare exception, exceedingly lazy. The musical number is meant to advance the narrative and give insights into character and situation, just like any other aspect of plot. You’ll find great original tunes that do this. When you’re dealing with pop songs that the public is well familiar with, then your job becomes even harder, and I find many are just not up to the task. Too often jukebox musicals are designed to merely string together a pre-packaged and time-tested number of hit songs, utilizing the faintest of narrative threads to get from one song to the next. The appeal of jukebox musicals lies not with the story or characters but waiting for the next recognizable song and wondering how it will, poorly, fit into this new context. You’ll notice that these jukebox musicals seem to have twice as many song numbers. They know their selling point, and more singing means less time spent developing characters and story. And so my impression of the jukebox musical is one of a cynical cash grab following the bare minimum of narratives to achieve the status of musical so it can be resold with low risk. I’m simplifying things in my ire, yes, but there’s a definite reason that jukebox musicals have sprouted like mad in the past few years. They don’t require as much work and the audience seems to hold them to a lesser standard. Much like the worst of Friedberg and Seltzer (Disaster Movie, Meet the Spartans), it seems just recognizing the familiar has become the core draw of entertainment.

And this is one of the main problems with Rock of Ages. I’ve never seen the stage show, but my God for something that purports to live the rock and roll lifestyle, it’s certainly so tame and scrubbed clean of anything dangerous. This feels like your grandparents’ idea of what “modern” rock music is. After a cursory search online, I’ve found that the movie makes some significant changes to convert a story about rock and roll hedonism into sanitized family friendly fare (spoilers to follow, theatergoers): apparently in the stage version, Cherie and Jaxx had sex, Jaxx remains a creep and flees the country on statutory rape charges, though before that he and Cherie share a lap dance/duet to “Rock Me Like a Hurricane,” the family values crusader characters were new inventions, the Rolling Stone reporter (Malin Akerman, the best singer in the film) is considerably beefed up to provide Jaxx his happy ending, and they don’t even use the song “Oh Cherie.” I’m not a stickler for adaptation changes, but clearly it feels like Rock of Ages had every edge carefully sanded down to reach out to the widest array of mainstream filmgoers (Shankman says he cut Cherie’s lap dance number because it tested poorly with mothers). The funny part is that the movie lambastes a slimy manager (Paul Giamatti) for playing to demo numbers, shooting for pandering mass appeal rather than the art, man. Feel the hypocrisy.

90405_galThe first hour of Rock of Ages is mildly passable mostly because of the goofy supporting cast, but then the movie just keeps going, getting more and more tedious with every protracted minute. The second half involves Cherie and Drew apart and finding new lows; for him it’s selling his soul to join in a boy band, and for her it’s selling herself, working as a stripper. Let’s look back at that sentence. One of those life choices is not nearly as upsetting as the other. Nothing against the hard-working strippers in this country, but Cherie taking to the pole is definitely more of a moral compromise for the character than whatever the hell Drew endures. It’s this leaden second hour that made me lose faith that Rock of Ages would even provide a morsel of cheesy entertainment. It has the misfortune of two of the blandest leads I’ve ever seen in a musical. Hogue (Footloose) and Boneta (Mean Girls 2) are both physically blessed specimens of human genetics, but oh are these kids boring boring boring. Their love story is completely malnourished and you couldn’t scrape together one interesting thing about them combined. The fact that Rock of Ages further strips away any interesting personality from Cherie (see above) makes them even more disastrously boring. To be stuck with these two for another hour of vapid griping, only to magically get back together, is interminable. Thank God they pumped up the side characters because that is the only time when Rock of Ages even challenges for your attention. Cruise isn’t the best singer but he’s pretty good belting out 80s rock hits, and the man has his natural charisma and stage presence to spare.

So I guess where Rock of Ages goes wrong, and where Les Miserables succeeds, is thinking of how best to translate the experience of the stage to the medium of film. Shankman does a pitiful job staging his musical numbers, with lackluster choreography that rarely takes advantage of the sets and characters. Worse, Shankman feels like he strays from the tone and angle of the stage show, sanitizing the rock and roll lifestyle and looking for ways to squeeze in bland happy endings. In other words, he doesn’t capture enough of the essence of the original stage show to please neophytes and fans of the Broadway show. With Les Miserables, I think most fans of the stage show, and they are legion, will walk away feeling satisfied with the results, content that real artists treated the long-running musical with justice. Hooper opens up the world of the stage show, utilizing the parameters of film, and the emphasis on performance over singing mechanics maximizes the unique power of film. Les Miserables is a grand movie musical smartly adapted to the opportunities of film. Rock of Ages is a sloppy, neutered, criminally boring mess poorly developed and poorly translated to the silver screen. Let this be an educational resource for future generations. Take note, producers, and learn from the mistakes of Rock of Ages and the accomplishments of Les Miserables. Oh, and guys, if you see Les Miserables, it will get you super laid with your girlfriend (I have anecdotal evidence).

Nate’s Grades:
 Les Miserables: B+
 Rock of Ages: C-

Killer Joe (2012)

This is one nasty, alarming, but very involving movie that wallows in darkness and plays it up for laughs. Killer Joe is a dysfunctional family drama, a crime thriller, and a mesmerizing character study when it comes to the lessons of amorality. Based on the play by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), Joe (Matthew McConaughey) is a crooked cop who works as an assassin on the side. A weasely loser (Emile Hirsch) and his family hire Joe to kill their mother for the insurance money. Things get out of hand in frequent measure, with splashes of brutal violence, healthy amounts of sex and full-frontal nudity, and a disturbing sexual act with chicken that more than earn this film its adults-only NC-17 rating. What makes the movie rise above base exploitation is its depraved, deep-fried sense of humor. There is plenty of uncomfortable laughter and guffaws. The end of the film, during a fever-pitch of violence, is so sudden, so kooky, so debauched, that my friend and I burst out laughing. Without its wicked sense of humor, and its sharp ear for working-class dialogue, the movie could be accused of wallowing in the muck. There’s also the terrific acting, chiefly from McConaughey. He gives a hypnotic performance, chilling, unpredictable, and deeply committed to retribution. When he zeroes his cold eyes on you, boy does the flesh crawl. It’s an intense performance and arguably the best of the man’s career. Directed by William Friedkin (who also directed the 2006 adaptation of Letts’ play, Bug) with brutish élan, Killer Joe is one nasty piece of work, but given the right audience, it could prove to be a perverse entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: B

Black Swan (2010)

The prissy world of prima ballerinas and tutus doesn’t seem like a natural fit for sex, murder, lunacy, and mayhem. Director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler) is used to exploring the punishments of the human body and the strain of the mind, so you know that Black Swan isn’t going to be your traditional dance movie.

Nina (Natalie Portman) has been a company ballerina in New York City for years. She spends her hours at home practicing the grueling routines in hopes to break out for a lead role. Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a former ballerina herself who gave up her shot at the big time when she had Nina. Then the head of the dance company, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has decided that Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake will be the first show of the season. It’s a bit tired, he admits, but he has a plan to juice it up: the same dancer will portray both the swan queen (tragic protagonist) and the black swan (villainous temptress). All of the dancers are committed to doing what they can to earn that coveted lead role. Nina’s primary worry is Lily (Mila Kunis), a dancer who is imperfect in technique but honest and free in her movements, garnering the attention of Thomas. In the process, Nina is losing her grip on reality. She’s hearing weird things, seeing weird things, and something dark wants to take center stage.

Black Swan is a grade-A mind freak of the first order, a tonal fusion of sight and sound that echoes earlier masterworks of the eerie psychological horror like Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining. This is a movie that gets under your skin; I literally had a nightmare the night after watching it, though I don’t want to give people the wrong impression. Black Swan is not a horror film by the traditional standard we’re accustomed to today. The entire film has a downright Kubrickian vibe, from its devoted tracking shots, to the overdose on classical music underscoring the dramatic tension, and the unraveling of the human mind toward eventual psychosis. Aronofsky keeps the audience tethered to Nina, at times literally. The camerawork will rarely stray away from Portman, like we’re caught within her orbit and forced to see the world through her fractured perspective. She is our eyes to the world but, as becomes increasingly apparent, we cannot trust what we see. The unreliable POV leads to some fantastic freak-out moments that will consistently leave you scrambling. The diligent pacing marvelously matches the dissolution of Nina’s psyche. As her paranoia and delusion take control, Nina comes undone one thread at a time, with Aronofsky on the other end providing the tugs. The spiraling mental determination culminates with a glorious 20-minute finale that manages to be tense, beautiful, haunting, and powerfully moving. There are moments in this film that gave me goose bumps (a blood red-eyed Portman growling, “It’s my turn” is a chilling highpoint). I became determined to see Black Swan again even before the closing credits arrived.

Aronofsky makes use of every tool at his disposal to heighten the intense atmosphere. The attentive editing and camerawork create a shifty mood, communicating Nina’s desperate groping for direction. But beyond that, Aronofsky employs subtle sound effects to rattle you, keep you off guard. Routinely there will be the fluttery sound of wings flapping or hushed whispers. It’s enough to make you shudder time and again. It’s a small touch that elevates the mood and instantly snaps you to attention whenever you hear the eerie echoes. The disquieting sound effects are coupled with equally subtle visual effects. As Nina absorbs herself in her ballet role we occasionally will witness the pores of her skin raise, as if invisible hair, or fathers, are protruding. Sometimes these raised bumps will wash over her body in waves. As Nina becomes more consumed with her darker impulses, the special effects take a surreal role in conveying her madness.

The film is also rather sensual without becoming trashy, late-night Cinemax fodder. Portman’s descent is linked with loosening up her own sexuality. She can portray the innocent and delicate white swan, but she’s having significant problems portraying the ominous and seductive black swan. She’s told to let go, lose herself to her physical impulses, and explore the confines of her nubile body. Black Swan is probably the artiest high profile film to feature prominent female masturbation since 2001’s trippy Mulholland Drive (the two movies have plenty of similarities in ambition). Nina’s suspicions about her rival transform into confusing erotic fantasies that will delight the teenage males in the crowd. Black Swan treads the erotic terrain with a European sense of maturity and candidness. The sex and masturbation and bisexual smooches don’t feel like gross, gratuitous shots at cheap titillation.

Portman ably takes the frazzled lead and gives an enthralling performance that will be hard to beat come Oscar time. The role is a lot more than screaming and crying. Although to be fair, Portman cries a whole lot. You may lose count the amount of times Portman is seen crying on screen. Her character is fragile but not fighting for sympathy. She can be distant and a little cold, obsessed with reaching the unattainable state of perfection. This pushes her to the extreme, goaded by her somewhat loopy mother. Portman has always been an attractive presence on screen, but she is also fairly transparent when she’s bored with her material (watch those Star Wars prequels and argue differently, I dare you). With Black Swan, she throws herself into a role like I’ve never seen before from Portman. I did not think the kewpie-dolled actress was capable of such heights. The immersion is entrancing. She physically trained for over a year before production to be able to do most of those pirouettes and fouettés. I’m not being overly generous with the dancing accolades; Portman comes across as smooth as a professional. The fact that Portman is capable of expressing so much devastating emotion through dance is astounding. My eyes were glued to her every movement. This is the performance that officially lifts Portman to the acting big leagues. She dances circles around the acting competition for 2010.

While it’s certainly Portman’s show, the supporting cast all shine in their small roles. Kunis (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Book of Eli) is made to exemplify the edgy opposing force in Nina’s life. Kunis’s natural charm and alluring presence might make her the most likeable character in the film, even though her wild ways will keep you guessing about her true motives. Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters) seems like a doting and supportive mother at first glance, but the actress reveals shades of desperation and mania. Winona Ryder (Star Trek, Girl, Interrupted) makes a welcomed near-cameo as the ballerina pushed out of the spotlight. And then Cassel (Ocean’s Twelve, Eastern Promises) plays lecherous creep like few others.

The film manages to make ballet feel like a contact sport. These people punish their bodies, their artistic vessels. The rigorous routines require dancers to be in sleek form, which often leads to abuse via bulimia. The excruciating balance and coordination required places unusually high demands on the human body, particularly on the feet that must support the body in extreme positions. Broken toes and split nails are the least of the worries. Black Swan succeeds in showcasing the fierce brutality of dance; however, the movie also showcases the intrinsic beauty. I am a self-described novice when it comes to dance, especially ballet at that, but even I was spellbound by watching the dancing, notably the exhilarating Swan Lake opening night performance. The camera is positioned to be like another dancer, so we’re swooping and spinning around the stage with the featured performers. This gives the audience an intimate glimpse into the fluid movements and, just as importantly, the nuanced and sensual expressions of the performers. I would have scoffed at the idea of a ballet performance being anything more than frou-frou-ness, but Black Swan made me a believer. Witnessing the beauty and gracefulness of the dancing is proof that all that hard, punishing preparation is worth it.

Probing the stress of the body and fraying endurance of the mind, Black Swan richly explores the sacrifices we make for art and ambition. The world of ballet is highlighted as a hotbed for scandal and intrigue and female sensual desire. Not bad for all that hoofing around in frilly tights. Black Swan is anchored by Portman’s captivating descent into madness, a performance that will surely be awarded in the ensuing months to come. Aronofsky has fashioned a riveting psychological thriller with enough artfully crafted chills and spooks to make for one visceral experience at the art house. Beyond bringing the tingles of spine and bumps of goose, Black Swan digs into the psychological underpinnings of competition, devotion to art, and personal glory. There’s much more going on here than ballet. It’s a grade-A mind-freak but under Aronofsky’s skilled direction and Portman’s transfixing acting, Black Swan is also a grade-A piece of art and one of the most stunning works of cinema this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

Nine (2009)

Filled with beautiful stars, beautiful Italian scenery, and beautiful cinematography, Nine has some significant sure-fire flash, but it’s missing the dazzle (or is it razzle?). The movie based on the 1980s Broadway musical based upon the Fellini movie, 8 1/2, is a pretty hollow enterprise. It’s all about writer’s block, and unless you’re the Coen brothers this is not a very interesting conflict to watch on screen. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Guido, a famous Italian director feeling overwhelmed by the impending start of his ninth movie, a movie he hasn’t written a script for yet. He tries to find inspiration from his wife (Marion Cotillard), his mistress (Penelope Cruz), his muse/lead actress (Nicole Kidman), his dead mother (Sophia Loren), a magazine journalist (Kate Hudson), and just about anybody else. The film is structured much like director Rob Marshall’s Oscar-winning musical Chicago, where the song-and-dance numbers are little mental asides inside the characters’ minds. So most actresses get one big number and then it’s arevaderche. Day-Lewis is good but his character is hard to emphasize with, especially as he bounces from woman to woman, whining about the duress of creativity while anybody minus a Y chromosome (and who isn’t Judi Dench) throw themselves at the guy. Despite the lackluster story and characters, Nine still could have succeeded from its musical numbers. Too bad then that the songs are instantly forgettable. Seriously, if you put a gun to my head mere minutes after I heard these tunes I wouldn’t be able to hum a bar. The dancing is lively, and Cruz and Cotillard prove to be infinitely and tantalizingly flexible, but the songs are truly unimpressive. I never would have guessed that in a movie filled with so many Oscar-winners that Fergie would be the highpoint. She plays a lustful figure of Day-Lewis’ youth, and her number exudes a vivacious sensuality. The playful choreography incorporates sand on the stage, which makes for several great images and dance moves. The song is also by far the catchiest, “Be Italian,” and the only thing worth remembering. The trouble for Nine is that there’s another hour left after this peak. I’m astounded that people thought, at one time, that Nine was going to be a serious awards contender. This has the “parts” of an awards movie but no vision or verve to assemble them.

Nate’s Grade: C

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