Tag: musical

Teen Spirit

Teen Spirit (2019)
★★ / ★★★★

Anyone familiar with Cinderella’s story will know the precise trajectory of Max Minghella’s “Teen Spirit,” a musical drama that wants to have its cake and eat it, too. In its attempt to embody a quiet independent drama as well as a commercial piece of work, especially since the majority of the songs are pop hits (renditions of songs like Owl City & Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Good Time” and Ellie Goulding’s “Bright Lights” are nothing special), its identity is lost in the process. I realize what it is trying to be, but what it is about is unclear. The reason is due to its lack of perspective: Does it wish to make a general statement about talent competitions? The many colorful personalities of contestants that one might encounter in a high-stakes contest? The cutthroat nature of the music industry? It’s all up in the air, and it’s shouldn’t be.

Elle Fanning transcends an otherwise generic picture. Whether her character, Violet, is dancing, singing, engaging in conversation with someone who doesn’t understand—and doesn’t care to understand—her passion for singing, or communicating a deep loneliness in the dark by herself, Fanning sells every single beat with every fiber of her being. It is so commendable, and it is further proof why the performer is certain to have a career decades from now. And so when the writer-director makes bizarre stylistic choices, it is incredibly frustrating. For instance, when we are in the early stages of getting to know Violet and her voice, her performance is shot like a music video: quick cuts, energetic dancers, energetic lights, overproduced music—empty.

Why not simply allow us to hear, listen to, and process the rawness of Violet’s voice? The best approach is simplicity; an act of trusting the audience of evaluating the subject’s possible star power. Because the filmmaker fails time and again early on to establish convincing reasons why Violet should and will become a superstar eventually, the character’s later performances are not as impactful; it feels as though we are watching a product rather than a real young woman with deep feelings who came from a humble background, a small village off the coast of England. In other words, Minghella neglects to give the audience strong reasons why the subject is special and therefore why her story is worth telling.

There is an intriguing but undercooked relationship right in the middle of the film which is shared by Violet and Vlad (Zlatko Buric), an aging drunk who lives in his car. Vlad used to be an opera singer and he considers Violet to be the potential he himself lost when he was at the top of his game. There is real tension in the relationship—not a combative one but a curiosity in whether the gentleman past his prime would be able to keep Violet on the right track so she is able to meet her goal of getting a record contract and get her family’s (Agnieszka Grochowska) financial situation sorted. There are sweet and effortless moments of the two of them simply talking and finding commonalities even they are so different—in looks, in personality, their definitions of success. A highlight of the film involves Vlad supporting Violet during the early rounds of Teen Spirit, an “American Idol”-esque singing competition that may lead to superstardom.

In the end, “Teen Spirit” is just another auto-tuned piece of work—glossy on the surface but it lacks heft, substance, juice. In reality, it is not enough to simply “follow one’s dreams,” as they say. There is no emphasis placed on hard work, making the right connections, sacrifices, or taking risks. We see Violet dancing, singing, meeting people, and pretending to be sick so she can skip work and go to an audition—but these remain superficial level drama.

It presents the “what” of Violet’s challenges as a green talent who knows next to nothing about showbiz but not the “how.” It doesn’t give itself a real chance to break out of the usual clichés and expectations using sharp and well-observed specificity. I felt a level of self-consciousness here. Perhaps it is because the film is Minghella’s directorial debut.

Anna and the Apocalypse

Anna and the Apocalypse (2017)
★ / ★★★★

A question: If there are zombies right outside and it is your intention to make a quick getaway with an automobile, would you put the car keys into your backpack where it could get lost among other items or right in your pocket for easy access? The answer is obvious, but the Christmas-themed zombie musical comedy “Anna and the Apocalypse,” written by Alan McDonald and Ryan McHenry, has a habit of playing dumb—real dumb—that the experience of sitting through it is a trial to be endured. It assumes that viewers do not possess more than five functioning brain cells and so we find ourselves five to ten steps ahead of it throughout its relatively short running time of ninety minutes. It is a complete waste of time.

For a musical, the majority of the songs not only sound the same, they are often about the same thing: alienated British teenagers who long for a life outside of high school. One wishes to travel, another looks forward to art school, a couple looks forward to taking their relationship to the next level. Due to the lack of variation, by the fourth or fifth song, I caught myself groaning inside—a way to mentally prepare my brain to try and process yet another one-dimensional two- to three-minute song.

There is one exception: a song called “It’s That Time of Year” performed by Lisa (Marli Siu), half of an enamored couple, during a holiday show at school. Parents watch wide-eyed. “There’s a lack of presents in my stocking / And my chimney needs a good unblocking”—it’s a dirty song and it is perfect for two reasons: it breaks the boredom and it fits the mindset of many teenagers at that age. If only the rest of the songs were as cheeky or well thought out.

The titular character is a complete bore. Although Ella Hunt plays Anna with some energy during dancing sequences, when the music stops and Anna is meant to connect with her friends, there is a desperate lack of chemistry. It were as if the actors had forgotten how it was like to be in high school. But more deserving of critique is the pallid writing. There is nothing cinematic or relatable about it. Compare the dialogue to the most awful Disney movies meant for television and notice the stench of mediocrity becoming all the more apparent. It does not possess an ear for dialogue; I didn’t even get the impression that the writers actually liked their subjects.

It is a poor survival horror film. Edgar Wright’s “Shaun of the Dead” is perhaps its biggest inspiration, particularly the sequence in which Anna wakes up, steps outside, and fails to notice that her suburban neighborhood has gone to hell. But the difference between this picture and Wright’s modern classic is that the latter has an understanding of ramping up tension, the love for its characters can be felt at every one-time joke as well as recurring jokes, and there is dramatic gravity behind the fates of its characters. Here, when a character dies, it is met with a shrug and sentimental music. We are supposed to be moved while feeling cheated.

I would have enjoyed to have gotten to know more about Anna’s relationship with John (Malcolm Cumming). It is implied that the two have been best friends since they were children. But reliable, goofy, nice guy John is beginning to regard her as more than a friend. Anna notices. I felt the screenwriters’ fear and reluctance to tell this story—strange, and disappointing, because it is the heart of the picture. I believe the writers choose not to dig deeply into the friendship because they are not interested in characters, just blood and guts. Look at how there is more thought put into how a blood must squirt onto walls than how a friendship is navigated. The movie is not only without brain, it is also without soul.

The Greatest Showman

The Greatest Showman (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Viewers expecting a thorough and accurate presentation of P.T. Barnum’s (Hugh Jackman) personal life and business career are certain to be dissatisfied by “The Greatest Showman,” based on the screenplay by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon, since it is more concerned about delivering showstopping musical numbers than old-fashioned storytelling. Here is a film for fans of modern musicals: it makes the audience feel good, it moves quickly, and it has just enough willingness to move the audience toward a more emotional territory without necessarily enveloping them in subtlety and nuance. It is a project to be enjoyed on the spot, not to be thought about or pined over afterwards. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

And so the picture must be evaluated through the scope of a modern musical. It surprised me because it has more than three good songs. Better yet: these songs do not always come from the same character singing about the same subject but only using different words. Standouts include “A Million Dreams,” “The Other Side,” “Never Enough,” “This is Me,” and “Rewrite the Stars”—already composing half of the soundtrack. Better still—each song is supported by elegant visuals, whether it be sheets being blown by the wind toward a certain direction which matches that of how a woman’s dress falls just so or how a singer’s body keeps still but her graceful limbs deliver a spectrum of emotions. The film offers no shortage of musical and visual styles.

Had the filmmakers been more brazen with the kind of work they wish to deliver, it would have been wiser to drop the typical trappings involving the subject’s home life as his career soars, for example. On this level, it offers no originality. I quite disliked how Charity, Barnum’s wife, is written because there is barely any dimension to her identity and personality. Michelle Williams portrays the highly supportive spouse and she does what she can with the role. But one looks at her face and immediately recognizes she is not being challenged. Here is a performer who can deliver any emotion, oftentimes several emotions at once, across any genre… but the character is written without any fire or excitement.

The plot involves the showman hiring people who happen to have physical oddities. The theme is supposed to be a celebration of differences, specifically those living along the fringes of society, either living an invisible lifestyle or visibly shamed for being born a certain way. I found it curious then that halfway through, the so-called freaks are nearly forgotten. Certainly they appear during shows and at times we see them backstage saying a line or two, but we rarely get a sense of who they really are outside of their eccentricities.

For instance, Lettie, the Bearded Lady, played by Keala Settle, commands such an intriguing (and amusing) presence but the screenplay fails to delve into some of her past. What makes her interesting as a person other than her facial hair? What makes her such a jovial person despite her struggles? Instead, we are provided a more accessible subject: a romance between Phillip (Zac Efron) and Anne (Zendaya), how interracial relationships are shamed in the past. But one gets the impression that the various social disapprovals Anne and Phillip endure do not hold a candle against the level of hated and violence that interracial couples during that era had undergone.

It goes to show that smart execution and great energy can propel otherwise relatively average premises into solid crowdpleasers. “The Greatest Showman,” directed by Michael Gracey, belongs in this category and pulling off such a feat, despite the handful of aforementioned elements working against it, should be worn as a badge of honor.

La La Land

La La Land (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

“How are you going to be a revolutionary if you’re such a traditionalist?” asks a former classmate (John Legend) who has since found commercial success in the music business to Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of owning his own bar one day. Although “La La Land,” written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is neither a revolutionary nor a traditional musical, it offers a highly watchable escapist romp and delivers a few welcome surprises especially in terms of what it wishes to say about reaching one’s career goals.

The film emits exuberance and the love for song and dance right from its opening sequence. A smile was drawn on my face because it dares to show a real Los Angeles—not simply when it comes to the level of traffic, the noise, and the heat that settles on motor vehicles but also in terms of the level of diversity we see on screen.

Mainstream pictures tend to show a version of Los Angeles that it still too bland and whitewashed in this day and age so it is most refreshing that a reality of various skin colors, body types, and hair textures are captured from the get-go despite the genre being a musical with fantastic elements. This first scene, clearly influenced by a memorable scene in the classic musical “Fame,” makes quite a powerful statement and it is something that I expect from an independent feature film, not a mainstream work with well-known stars—a most welcome surprise.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling share effortless chemistry, the former playing a barista on the lot of a movie studio. Mia, like thousands of men and women in LA, dreams of becoming a movie or television performer. Stone and Gosling have a certain rapport that is endearing—even the moments between dialogue command a certain tactile bond that works beautifully in both comedic and dramatic scenes. The two may not have the strongest voices to carry a musical but this should not be counted against them because they should be actors first and singers second.

Despite the actors’ excellent chemistry, the middle section is most problematic. Notice that when life-changing events are not front and center, the pacing slows dramatically to the point of plateau. The material is divided into five sections: winter, spring, summer, fall, and winter once again. Spring and summer is the blossoming of Mia and Sebastian’s romantic relationship which should be just as powerful—if not more—than the major life events that attempt to derail them from the paths they have set for themselves especially because these potential changes challenge them as a pair.

For instance, a most uninspiring scene, egregious in content and execution, involves Mia talking about her past, her hopes, and her dreams to a man she is beginning to like on a romantic level. What should have been a defining moment is shot instead like a throwaway scene—camera from a distance, two people walking in a shot together, not one closeup is employed. Not to mention Mia’s story is so ordinary, she might as well not have said anything because smart audiences have already made assumptions—correct ones at that—about her past and where she hopes to go. I grew bored of the character’s lack of interest in her own life and the lack of energy in making someone else be interested in her life. My sentiment lasted till the next season. Chazelle ought to have rewritten the scene.

“La La Land” is at its most compelling when it hones in on the sacrifices one must make in order to reach one’s dream—or at times settling for a version of one’s dream. It asks us to consider the following: if we choose to sacrifice bits of who we are in order to get a little closer to our goals, by the time we reach these goals, can it still be considered as a success when our core values have been inevitably changed by such sacrifices? Not a philosophical film by any means, the ideas are there if one chooses to ponder. And for those who would rather not think too deeply, there is colorful and toe-tapping entertainment to be enjoyed.

Sing Street

Sing Street (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

“Sing Street,” written and directed by John Carney, falls into the familiar plotting which involves a teenager living in the dreary inner-city Dublin who manages to find an outlet for his thoughts, emotions, wants and needs by forming a band with his peers. However, undeniably fresh about the picture is its confidence of execution. The final product could have turned out to be yet another musical for teens where scenes merely parade the screen in order to build up to the next performance, but notice there are a handful of interesting characters to be found here.

Particularly touching through an occasionally comic lens is the relationship between brothers. Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is the youngest of three and he seeks romantic and musical advice from his eldest sibling, Brendan (Jack Reynor), the university dropout. Their exchanges, while amusing at times, command a realism to them that viewers with brothers will immediately recognize and inevitably relate with. Brendan is seen by the family, particularly the parents, as a bum but Conor regards him as someone trustworthy and of high value. Recognize there is not one scene that show parents relating to their children in a meaningful way. That missing relationship strengthens the brothers’ bond.

Set in 1985, the film is filled to the brim with music by Duran Duran, The Cure, Hall & Oates, among others. But the original songs shine, too. They are energetic, clever, well-written, and meaningful. Perhaps the most interesting sections of the material involve the recruitment of band members and trying to figure out what kind of music they wish to make. I enjoyed that we are able to see a clear improvement and progression not only in terms of songs but also in how the characters appear to have increased their confidence with each passing performance. Throughout the picture, we get the impression that the band is continuing to grow and evolve.

I wished, however, that a few of the later songs did not sound so polished. Take note of the pop ballads and how effective they are because what is showcased is the voice and only one or two instruments to build the tempo. The polished feel gives the feeling that the teens have made it big eventually but the story is never about becoming pop stars or celebrities. It is about outcasts coming together and creating art out of their trials and tribulations—whether it be with parents, authority figures at school, or trouble with getting girls.

Another limitation is spending too much time with Conor and his romantic interest (Lucy Boynton). We have seen characters like Raphina before: almost unapproachably beautiful with aspirations of appearing on magazine covers who turns out to have a sad backstory. Instead, more time should have been given to the band members. I would like to know more about Eamon (Mark McKenna), the multi-instrumentalist who loves rabbits. (Early in the picture, he suggests their band be called The Rabbits before the group reaches a decision that they be known as Sing Street.)

Romantics will fall hook, line, and sinker for “Sing Street” because it is equipped with a healthy dosage of humor and drama with enough infectious pop songs tying them together. It is a movie for people who have felt like outcasts as teenagers. At the same time, it offers a great message for teenagers who currently feel marginalized: Find something you enjoy, strive to get better at it, use that passion to make your life richer in some way, be open to evolve, and look for ways to break boundaries. As David Bowie coined, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming.”

God Help the Girl

God Help the Girl (2014)
★ / ★★★★

Eve (Emily Browning) is staying in a hospital as she gets treatment for an eating disorder. One afternoon, however, she decides to leave for the city and stumbles upon a club where bands showcase their work with the hopes of being discovered and making it big. There she meets James (Olly Alexander), a singer-songwriter who is aspiring to create a pop song that will be remembered for years to come. Soon, James and Eve, along with a girl named Cassie (Hannah Murray), decide to form a band.

“God Help the Girl,” written and directed by Stuart Murdoch of the band Belle and Sebastian, offers three or four memorable songs over the course of its nearly two-hour running time (my favorite is probably “Come Monday Night,” followed by “I’ll Have to Dance with Cassie”), but the story is such a drag that whatever momentum it manages to gather between two or three succeeding scenes is quickly dissipated by yet another expository dialogue that explains what is going on inside the minds of its characters instead of simply showing us. The former creates a passive experience while the latter engages. This is a critical misstep that costs this musical drama most of its charm.

The picture comes alive when quirky dance sequences are involved set against a backdrop of colorful backgrounds and extras. There is a real sense of celebration—sometimes ironic because at times the songs have a darker edge to them. For instance, a character might be singing about how unhappy she is when it comes to the direction that her life is heading toward and yet the images remain upbeat. Sometimes these contrasting elements are interesting, providing a much-needed whiff of dimension in an otherwise stale tale of three souls at a crossroad.

What does not work at all is when the characters are allowed to speak. Although Browning, Alexander, and Murray are able to deliver the charm without resulting to being too quirky, the script does not really give them much to work with. Oftentimes the dialogue is quite sad and suppressed—the characters unable to voice out what they really want and how they plan to go about attaining it. One can argue that this is exactly the point, but I counter that, still, it could been done in a more thoughtful or insightful way. Just because the characters have a sadness to them, it does not mean that the material can rest on tedium or ordinariness to deliver that point.

Another missed opportunity is the film’s treatment of the lead character’s anorexia. I thought it was too simplified. Basically, Eve is given drugs and a bit of pep talk from her psychiatrist during the first half of the movie. Supposedly, those two elements are good enough to allow Eve to function and to try to overcome the disorder. It does not work like that in real life. There is concern that young people will see this representation and assume that it is accurate. It would have been great if the picture had embraced more gravity, accuracy, and a sense of urgency when it comes to dealing with Eve’s eating disorder. It certainly would have stood out from other musicals out there.

“God Help the Girl” is not unbearable but ten to fifteen minutes of very good pop songs does not save a musical that is almost two hours long. If one looks at the elements of a great musical, it must have a story that is tightly constructed, relatable, and its messages must be universal. This one wanders with molasses-like pacing, only appeals to a specific group, and its messages are confused, even sentimental.

Les Misérables

Misérables, Les (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★

Having done imprisonment and hard labor for years, Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) decides to break his parole and disposes of his old identity. With a new life comes a personal vow to lead an honest life and helping others along the way. Eight years later, 1823, Valjean, under a pseudonym, has become the mayor of Paris and a factory owner. A worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), has been fired by the manager after she is discovered to have been sending money to an illegitimate daughter. Eventually, the desperate woman is driven to prostitution. While on her deathbed due to possible extreme exhaustion combined with famine, guilt-ridden Valjean promises to take care of her child.

Based on Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s stage musical, “Les Misérables” might have been a more immersing picture if it had been divided into two films. It has the scope of three or four movies and cramming the material into a two-and-a-half hour film means sacrificing depth of events and characterization. These two are very necessary if we are to plunge completely into a world of the past that is both full of blazing passion and dark realities. Without splendid work from three of the four central performances, the whole project might have collapsed under its own ambitions.

The picture proves expert in executing individual scenes. When it is only the camera and an actor in a frame, it captures the feeling of privacy beautifully. Most memorable is Hathaway singing “I Dreamed a Dream,” so absent of vanity that although I did not fully buy into her character’s desperation due to glaring lack of details about Fantine, I was nonetheless very moved. Close-ups are utilized well, highlighting the most minuscule ticks on the performer’s face. I liked the way Hathaway is willing to be ugly–not superficially like having grime all over her or sporting a Mia Farrow haircut à la “Rosemary’s Baby”–by contorting her face in awkward angles in order to summon the right emotions and hitting the right notes. It is too bad that she is not in front of the camera the entire time.

Jackman is very capable as the conflicted protagonist. Like Hathaway, his talent is best showcased during the more personal scenes. He gets the most screen time, but at times I wondered about the other characters like Cosette (Amanda Seyfried), Fantine’s grown-up daughter, and Enjolras (Aaron Tveit), one of the young people who is adamant about creating a revolution. Cosette is introduced and disappears for a big chunk of time so the romance between she and Marius (Eddie Redmayne), Enjolras’ partner in the cause, is not entirely believable even though the actors look attractive together. Because of the lack of depth, Cosette comes off soft and beautiful but vapid, a critical misstep considering that she is a symbol of Valjean’s redemption. As Marius, Redmayne is very good in balancing the subtleties between two kinds of passion: the girl he loves and his duty to do what he thinks is right for his country. Since Marius is given more time to develop, he escapes being superficial. At least we understand half of the couple.

Though some may consider Russell Crowe’s voice to be the weakest link in the musical, I say it is the occasional mismanagement of the camera. This is a problem when there are five or six people in a frame. Tom Hooper, the director, is generous when it comes to going for the close-ups–which does not always work. When the technique is used in a group shot, I felt the camera inching toward a face. Sometimes Hooper flings the camera at them. It took me out of the experience. In such cases, it might have been better if the camera had allowed us to absorb the celebration or whatever is going on from afar.

I was won over by the ambition of “Les Misérables” even though about half of the songs are not my cup of tea. What saddens me is that movies like the last chapter of “The Twilight Saga” gets split in two when it is absolutely not necessary because the story is so thin. In here, you can really feel that there is so much more to discover about the characters and their experiences, but a lot of the details are sacrificed. This creates a feeling of an incomplete film due to the noticeable gaps in the screenplay.

Rock of Ages

Rock of Ages (2012)
★ / ★★★★

Sherrie (Julianne Hough) leaves Oklahoma for Hollywood to pursue her dream of becoming a singer. Her romantic view of the city, however, is tarnished as soon as she arrived when her suitcase full of favorite rock records is stolen. Drew (Diego Boneta), who works for The Bourbon Room located on Sunset Strip, witnesses the whole thing and informs the country girl that there might be a waitressing job for her given that someone had just quit her post. Meanwhile, Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), recently voted mayor, and his wife, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), plan to implement the “Clean Up the Strip” movement, eliminating the purported negative influence of so-called satanic rock n’ roll, starting with The Bourbon.

Based on the screenplay by Justin Thereoux, Chris D’Arienzo, and Allan Loeb, “Rock of Ages” is a toothless musical with great classic rock songs under its belt but held back by underwhelming renditions, a boring central couple so devoid of inspiration and chemistry that they might as well have been taken right out of a television show doomed for cancellation in five episodes or less, and subplots that tease but never actually deliver.

It seems as though the writing is built around the cover songs which is almost never a good idea. Instead of engaging us in a flow as the story follows a clear path while learning surprising discoveries about people who consider rock music as their religion, the pacing is distractingly episodic and often desultory. The script gives neither time nor room for the characters to grow in a natural and believable way which makes every important change that they must eventually undergo feel like a sham.

While Hough and Boneta is a physically attractive couple on screen, I had no idea why the writers thought it was a good idea to have teenagers sing these songs other than the fact that they wished to appeal to the 12-21 demographic. The pair looks foolish singing the songs because their characters are supposed to radiate cotton candy youthful verve but the songs they sing often have a certain mature angst coursing through them. Because of the polarity between characterization and song choices, it isn’t convincing that they really know what they are singing about. Instead, they come off too cutesy and trying too hard.

The same assessment can be applied to the characters who treat rock n’ roll as a disease that must be expunged. If they consider rock music evil, then why are they expressing their anger and frustration through the genre they claim to abhor? It doesn’t make sense. This could have been circumvented if the writers have been less lazy, eliminating the “good versus bad” mentality altogether, and construct a story worth telling and thinking about. The classic songs that the picture attempts to tackle have lasted through the years for a reason. While most of them are supremely catchy, they are memorable because there’s something about the songs that people across generations find relatable.

The film is at its best when it isn’t afraid to get down and dirty. I loved (and feared) Stacee Jaxx because he is a specific character played to devilish perfection by Tom Cruise. It is difficult to read the man underneath the rock god persona because he is either drowning in alcohol or blinded by the possibility of having sex with women. And yet, once or twice he is given a chance to express that maybe he’s smarter and more caring than he lets on. In this instance, the contradiction works because not only is the actor given the material and time to develop his character, he is willing to take risks in order to challenge our expectations. Hence, when he sings soulful and angry songs, he doesn’t look like a fool: he is able to transport us to the film’s 1987 milieu.

Directed by Adam Shankman, “Rock of Ages” suffers greatly from a lack of ambition by the casting agents and writers. What’s supposed to be celebratory material feels like a dirge that lasts for over two hours.

Don’t Go in the Woods

Don’t Go in the Woods (2010)
★ / ★★★★

Nick (Matt Sbeglia) decided to go to the woods with his bandmates (Jorge Jorgensen, Soomin Lee, Casey Smith, Nick Thorp) so they could write some songs in peace and quiet. Being isolated from girls and weed, he figured they wouldn’t have as much of an urge to mess around and accomplish nothing. Five songs was what they needed for an EP, but a deranged madman with a sledgehammer roamed the woods and threatened to take them out one by one. “Don’t Go in the Woods,” based on the screenplay by Sam Bisbee and Joe Vinciguerra, was a depressingly spineless horror-musical, another excuse to create a pile of dead teenagers. If one could point at a similarity between horror movies and musicals, it would be their energy. Traditionally, they have a sense of fun–the suspense sandwiched between images meant to incite terror and the joie de vivre expressed by characters through shaking their bodies and exercising their vocal cords in musicals. In here, the characters mostly huddled among the campfire, gave each other flirtatious looks when the girls inevitably arrived–after all, what kind of a horror movie would it be if screaming women, sadly only seen as here targets to be sliced and diced into submission–and sung songs that felt so interminable, I actually wanted the serial killer to jump out from the bushes to give the unsuspecting twenty-somethings one good scare. I caught one or two of them looking bored which I laughed at because I felt exactly the same way. Even though I came to enjoy one or two songs, especially the first song performed around the campfire, there were long stretches when I craved to laugh at something else because I grew tired at noting the script’s frustrating lack of logic. For example, I didn’t understand why the band knowingly gave Carson (Bo Boddie), the person who was supposed to get them a record deal, the wrong direction to the rendezvous point. Was a little thing called professionalism worth anything to these greasy-haired indie rockers? Furthermore, naturally, the cell phone situation had to be dealt with. At one point, one of the girls suggested that they called for help because some of their friends started to go missing. Some agreed that this was the right thing to do; I caught myself nodding in approval. But day turned to night and no one bothered to make one call to the police or to the people back home. Why? Because the material conveniently relied on clichés ingrained in the genre and mistaken them for camp. I sensed a growing cynicism as the film went on. Why couldn’t the writers have bothered to make interesting characters? More importantly, why weren’t they shown to wield weapons when their lives were threatened? If I were stuck in the woods and being hunted by a psychopath, you can bet that I’d have some of weapon with me at all times, whether I was hiding in an unsuspecting thicket or up in a tree either until helped arrived or the killer assumed everyone was dead. A little bit pragmatism could’ve gone a long way and the filmmakers didn’t even try. Directed by Vincent D’Onofrio, “Don’t Go in the Woods” was heavy on the songs but the songs didn’t stand out. The supposed scares didn’t stand out either. In the least, its overall lack of creativity was exasperating.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★

Guy (Jason Palmer) and Madeline (Desiree Garcia) broke up on a park bench. A week earlier, we learned that the reason for their break-up was because Guy had relations with Elena (Sandha Khin), a free-spirited girl who enjoyed every small thing life offered, like a street performance or sharing knowing glances with strangers on the subway. But Elena lacked one quality that Guy saw in Madeline. Elena wasn’t as interested in music which was important to Guy because he was a professional trumpet player. Written and directed by Damien Chazelle, “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” contained some catchy musical numbers that brought a smile on my face. When Madeline and her co-workers began to sing and tap-dance in the restaurant, I almost wanted to join them because it looked like they were having so much fun. It didn’t matter that the choreography wasn’t perfectly executed or that the voices weren’t especially great. It was really more about being in a moment and absorbing and appreciating each other’s joy. But there was sadness in it, too. The picture followed Madeline attempting to date other men in order to get over Guy. There was a scene in which she made a boy wait for her outside while she got a haircut only to tell him after (and after he bought her a cookie) that she had made a commitment, a complete fib, and had forgotten about it. So they had to cancel their date. She was lucky the boy didn’t take it personally because most would have. I didn’t agree with her actions but I was glad that Chazelle wasn’t afraid to put his characters under a negative light. The film also managed to capture tension in the awkward moments. Take the scene in which Guy and Elena showered together. In a span of about two or three minutes, the mood changed from friendly chatter to unbearable silence. It was awkward enough to have the camera next to them as they showered but the awkwardness was amplified when nobody said a word. One did not have to have had a boyfriend or girlfriend to recognize that one poorly chosen word or sentence could destroy an otherwise good vibe. However, I wish some scenes made more sense. When Elena met an older man in the streets and he took her to his home, I didn’t understand why that was relevant. I felt like there was a missing scene or two that would help to explain why it made it through the editing room. “Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench” was surprisingly modern, with moments of effortless introspection from its emotionally troubled characters, despite the black and white cinematography that hearken back to its French New Wave influences. Its confidence could be felt as the characters broke out into song and dance. It implied that falling in and out of love was a celebration.

A Hard Day’s Night

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)
★★★★ / ★★★★

The Beatles (Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, George Harrison) was the biggest band in the world and this film was a testament why they deserved the title. “A Hard Day’s Night,” written by Alun Owen and directed by Richard Lester, was a relatively simple film about how it was supposedly like to be The Beatles when they ruled the world. From the opening scene of screaming (and screeching) women causing a stampede at the train station in hopes of touching the legendary figures to the last scene when they flew into the sky, every frame was a delectable homage to Beatlemania and the Fab Four. Each member of the band had their own problems to deal with. McCartney took his grandfather (Wilfred Brambell) along their hectic travels and tried to prevent him from getting into trouble. Starr landed in jail after being inspired to live his life to the fullest. Lennon and a TV director (Victor Spinelli) were caught in a war of passive-aggressiveness because the former wanted to have a bit of fun while the latter wanted to strictly focus on the business at hand. And Harrison was hired by a producer (Kenneth Haigh) for his opinion about what was cool and in fashion. The film could be mistaken for a music video if one happened to pass by in the middle of it. The Beatles performed every ten minutes which was a joy to watch because they were very energetic and each brought a unique charm to the table. The songs were absolutely incredible. I couldn’t help but tap my feet and mouth the words. I am familiar with most of their popular songs, but I noticed a big difference between just hearing their songs and hearing their songs while watching them perform. When they did sing lesser-known numbers, I couldn’t help but fall in love with them all over again. The best scenes consisted of the quadruplet dealing with their fans and the media. Aside from the swooning women who would go through anything to get as close to their idols as possible, I was very amused when the band members answered reporters’ questions about their hair, what they liked to do on their spare time, and what they thought about their stardom. Starr, Harrison, Lennon, and McCartney answered according to their personalities and it was aided by Lester’s unique vision and sometimes manic camera techniques. Furthermore, they weren’t afraid to make fun of themselves. I was surprised that Starr acknowledged his unusually large nose and short stature. These days, most pop stars with far less talent tend to ignore the obvious because they fear career suicide. “A Hard Day’s Night” had the perfect amount of vanity, effortless coolness, unconventional adventures, and timeless rock ‘n’ roll. It was another excellent reason why I wish I grew up in the 1960s.


Cabaret (1972)
★★★★ / ★★★★

It’s very uncommon for me to be interested in musicals so it took a little bit of effort for me to finally decide to watch “Cabaret.” I wish I could have seen it sooner because it was fantastic. I loved Liza Minnelli as an entertainer in a cabaret who had a dream of becoming a famous actress before the Nazis took hold of Germany. She was spunky, edgy, funny, self-deprecating, and a little bit vain; but despite her bold personality, she was a damaged character who yearned to be genuinely loved–not merely for her stage persona–but her real self, something that she was still striving to get from her father. I also found Michael York as a British writer who taught English on the side to be fascinating. At first glance I thought he was the typical leading man who was supposed to come in and sweep the leading lady off her feet, but he, too, had his own problems such as his anxiety of getting into a relationship with women. Was he a heterosexual, bisexual, homosexual, or simply a man who had taken a vow of celibacy? I desperately wanted to know. Minnelli and York’s character quickly got along and the film started off pretty light. However, as the film went on and a rich man (Helmut Griem) entered their lives, the dynamics between the two changed and the film became a little darker with each passing scene. I thought the film’s ability to balance between character development and commentaries about the relationship between the decadence inside the club and the reality outside was special because most musicals that I’ve seen do not even come close to reaching such a dramatic weight. The songs, in a way, were sort of the background but they were far from secondary because the musical numbers often connected the horrific events that were unfolding and the personal battles that each character had to face. Watching “Cabaret,” directed by Bob Fosse, was really quite compelling and I couldn’t take my eyes (and my ears) off the screen. I think it deserved winning the eight Oscars it received because it was as complex or perhaps more so than, say, a typical “dramatic” Oscar-bait movie. Watching the film made me want to visit a Kit Kat Klub–cross-dressers, cigars, androgyny, debauchery and all. I’ll be on the lookout for more dark musicals like “Cabaret.”

Happy Feet

Happy Feet (2006)
★★ / ★★★★

An emperor penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood) was born without a knack for singing, but his talent lies in tapdancing. His colony, aside from his childhood friend (Brittany Murphy) and mother (Nicole Kidman), doesn’t like the fact that he’s different and one of the oldest penguins believe that Mumble was a curse because ever since he was born, food became more scarce. (Talk about correlation does not mean causation.) Determined to prove that his tapdancing has nothing to do with the famine, Mumble, his short penguin friends and Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving) went on a journey to search for the “aliens” (they were actually humans but they didn’t have the term for it) and kindly ask them through whatever means to stop taking their food. I like children’s movies but I hated the singing and dancing in this movie. I believe those elements took away some of the power (and time) to produce a well-developed story. The message about the humans’ destruction and disruption of the food chain was apparent but there were far too many extended singing and dancing sequences. (And it didn’t help that they weren’t that great to watch or listen to.) My favorite parts in the picture were the scenes that involved real danger for the penguins, such as being chased by a hungry seal, killer whales and birds. Yes, the animation was nothing short of spectacular but it doesn’t make up for its too light a tone about death and destruction. There were definitely some darker moments, especially in the second half when Mumble reached “heaven,” but I felt like George Miller, the director, could have pushed the envelope a little further by showing the audiences certain realities. After all, the point of the picture was the show that animals in the South Pole were struggling for survival. In fact, I think this film would have been far superior if it had ended in a bittersweet tone instead of a typical living-happily-ever-after note. Having said all that, I would have been harsher with this film if it was not intended for children. Given its flaws, it was still pretty entertaining because it had other messages such as tolerance, self-esteem and true friendships.

O Lucky Man!

O Lucky Man! (1973)
★★ / ★★★★

Malcolm McDowell and Lindsay Anderson team up once again in “O Lucky Man!” a sequel to the exemplary “If…” McDowell plays Mike Travis, an ambitious and enthusiastic coffee salesman whose main goal is to attain financial success. I thought it was very interesting how he seems like a force to be reckoned with in the beginning of the film, but as it goes on and meets quirky, greedy and insightful characters, he seems so insignificant in comparison. Although its premise is a commentary on the evils of capitalism, the dry and dark humor are consistent. Although I didn’t understand some of the jokes because I don’t know much about business and economics, the ones I understand are clever and have a staying power that’s still relevant today; especially now that competition is at its peak and the American economy is not doing so well. This film’s strength lies in its surrealism: some of the actors play multiple characters (Ralph Richardson, Rachel Roberts, Arthur Lowe…) and the events that unfold are extremely out of the ordinary and a bit random (such as the medical facility that use human subjects). I also enjoyed listening to Alan Price’s songs because they reflect what Mike Travis is going through yet at the same time comments on where he should be going. However, I felt like the film digressed too much. Despite Mike Travis’ adventures all over England, I feel as though he didn’t make any genuine human connection that could potentially warrant his change-of-heart during the film’s third act. Yes, he did have inspirations from poets and philosophers but I feel like those aren’t enough to change a person, especially a person who’s obsessed with climbing the economic ladder despite everything that’s put on his way to distract him from that goal. The most interesting character, other than Travis, was Patrcia (played by Helen Mirren) and I wanted to know more about her. In the end, I feel a certain disconnect from this picture–which is strange because, when it comes to films that run for about three hours, I usually feel a certain inclination for the project. “O Lucky Man!” is an unfortunate exception despite its intelligence and brilliant acting from McDowell.