Tag: musical

Movie Review: Frozen

It can be difficult to keep up when life throws things into upheaval. Most of the time it’s a matter of distractions or relaxation opportunities slipping away as we get pulled into one direction or another by so-called ‘adult responsibilities’. Sometimes the circumstances are a bit more tragic. And sometimes you just get born with a power over the elements that you can’t control and is tied closely to your emotions so things like insecurity and panic cause localized cataclysms.

You know, typical teenager problems.

Courtesy Disney

Frozen comes to us from Disney, and instead of just one princess, they give us two this time around. Elsa and Anna are the daughters of the king and queen of the cold land of Arendelle. Elsa, the older daughter, was born with the aforementioned powers, in this case giving her dominion over snow and ice. At first, this is fine, and fun for Anna as this means the sisters can build snowmen and toboggan indoors. However, an accident leaves Anna without memory of her sister’s ability and Elsa without her freedom, locked away in the castle away from Anna. A tragedy leaves the sisters without their parents, which leads to Elsa needing to be crowned queen at a time when she is both emotionally vulnerable and reuniting with her sister in the midst of all sorts of ancillary drama. As you expect, this all goes swimmingly and nobody runs into any problems whatsoever.

I kid. The whole thing collapses like an awning buried in snow.

Disney continues to set the standard for visual impressiveness in animated features. Moving from hand-drawn animation to CGI has been greatly aided by the addition of Pixar to their stable, and the influence shows. The style skews more towards realistic humans in their proportions and structure, emulating the drawing styles of classics like Beauty and the Beast, but the computing power of the Pixar folks allows for some truly impressive snow and ice effects. It’s easy to believe that Elsa’s powers are truly magical when we see how she creates what she creates.

Courtesy Disney
The characters feel very human despite their computerized construction.

I’m being deliberately vague and skimping on details, but that’s because Frozen surprised me, and if like me you’ve been hemmed in by winter already and haven’t gotten out to see the film yet, you should be surprised, too. It wasn’t a surprise in the style of a bait and switch, either. What pleasantly shocked me about Frozen was its whip-smart writing and its ability to present two very different female leads as both strong and empathetic. We understand Elsa’s struggle to both accept herself and present herself to the world, and we admire Anna’s upbeat attitude and the fact that she needs no permission to do what she feels is right. She’s more than willing to take things on all by herself, and her determination is inspiring.

Disney films in this vein are famous for their songs, and Frozen has got some good ones. There’s a reason ‘Let It Go’ has been so prominent for so long. However, the film feels front-loaded with its singing numbers. They come and go somewhat quickly, almost as if the film is in a hurry to get them out of the way so we can focus more on character and plot development. With characters and writing this good, it’s somewhat understandable, and it doesn’t really hurt the movie in any way. It just struck me as odd that the balance across the running time seemed off.

Courtesy Disney
There are great lighting and weather effects, too.

Frozen feels confident. Much like its leads, the film is going to say what it needs to say regardless of how it’s received, and it’s admirable for that. The film itself is quite good, and young girls especially should be seeing it. While its overall quality doesn’t quite match the wit, pace, heart, and pure fun of The LEGO Movie, and its Pixar-esque qualities also invite comparisons to the superior Wall-E and Up, Frozen is by no means a film to be missed. The characters are fantastic, the songs are memorable, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and its message is one that deserves to be shouted from the balcony of any ice castle anywhere. If you have a family with young ladies, or just want to see what female empowerment looks like within the ‘princess’ genre, Frozen is right up your alley.

Movie Review: Les Miserables

I’m one of those kids who grew up in the 80s, and along with a love of Transformers and a front-row seat for the growth of home computing from the Apple ][e to the iPad and Google Glass, like many kids in the 80s my soundtrack for road trips foisted on me and my sisters by my parents was those of Broadway musicals. One of the very best that was often asked for by both my sisters and myself was Les Miserables. The big broad tale adapted from Victor Hugo’s 19th century novel makes for a fantastic stage production. It has fantastic music, deep and complex characters, a fascinating backdrop… and it tries really, really hard to be one of the grandest films ever created.

Courtesy Universal Pictures

Our story begins with Jean Valjean, a convict of 19 years who finally gets paroled much to the chagrin of local constable Javert. After an encounter with a benevolent and deeply patient and understanding bishop, Valjean does everything he can reinvent himself as a good citizen. He becomes the owner of a factory and mayor of a small town, before one of his workers, Fantine, is shunned so hard out of the factory she turns to prostitution to pay the bills of her daughter, currently living with a corrupt innkeeping couple. When she dies, Valjean swears to take her daughter into his keeping. He raises her as his own, pursued by Javert, and becomes involved in the June Rebellion of 1832.

The scope of this tale and the involvement of the characters with real events poise it on the edge of truly epic territory, and the revolutionary zeal that permeates the third act definitely reinforces this status. Les Miserables is bent on demonstrating that people can be capable of great change, be it in themselves or for society, and gives examples of both success and failure. Add to this a memorable and moving selection of songs that run the gamut of emotion, from determined resolve to the first pangs of love to despair and loss, and it’s clear why this stage production of this novel has stood the test of time. And now we have a film adaptation of that stage production of the same novel, and unfortunately, something got lost along the way.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
The actors really do give their all.

I’m sure a lot of people would jump right into the most immediate flaw in the production, which is the delivery of the songs. Some new songs were added and others had their lyrics changed, which in and of itself can infuriate hardcore Les Mis fans the way the absence of Tom Bombadil from the Lord of the Rings trilogy enrages hardcore Tolkien fans. A good deal of a song’s quality, however, is in the delivery rather than the lyrics, and that means somebody has to sing them. For the most part the cast does an admirable job, with obvious standouts being Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, and Samantha Barks. However, Russell Crowe presents a problem. He’s a great actor, and his singing voice is perfectly fine, even if his range seems a touch limited based on what we hear. The problem is, there are times when he has to transition from singing to acting, and you can almost hear an audible clunk like there’s something stuck in his gearbox. And Amanda Seyfried, lovely as ever, sounds almost nervous at times, in a way that has nothing to do with her character, as she tries to sing some of her lines. How much of this is actually on the cast, though? Let’s pull back and look at the film from a broader perspective.

Les Miserables was directed by Tom Hooper, late of his Oscar-winning direction in The King’s Speech. I like Tom Hooper – his work on the John Adams mini-series is exemplary – but something is just off on his work in Les Mis. He made the decision to have his actors sing on-set, with no dub-overs and (apparently) minimal sound correction. This leads to things like nervous actors (Seyfried), actors having to make odd transitions (Crowe), and some songs just not ringing as true as they could. A key moment in Jackman’s “Who Am I” feels undercut by what must surely have been a decision by Hooper. On top of this, most of the songs are presented with the camera directly in the face of the singer. While this does push the actors to emote in a believable way that evokes pathos, and both Hathaway and Jackman are clearly up to the task, it tends to rip the context out from under the songs. Instead of imagining these high emotional moments in the backdrop of the events in the character’s life, we get the moment encapsulated and isolated in a way that disrupts the narrative flow. As good as the music is, focusing this tightly on it causes the story to suffer and makes the issues in any song all the more glaring.

Courtesy Universal Pictures
You had one job. ONE JOB, JAVERT.

I’ll say again that I like Tom Hooper, and he still manages to present some excellent shots in Les Miserables. He does discomfort, tension, intimate character work, and historical atmosphere very well. However, the film never really clicked for me. I like the songs, but they didn’t have the punch they could have. I was moved to tears, but not as much as I could have been. This sort of film is very difficult to review because it both tries hard enough that I want to come down on the side of recommending it, but also makes more than enough mistakes to warrant giving it a pass. I’m sure there’s a song in there somewhere.

Stuff I Liked: 19th century France never felt squeaky clean or over-produced. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen make great Thernadiers. Costume design was good. As I said, Hooper presents some fantastic shots here and there.
Stuff I Didn’t Like: The constant close-ups were at first unnerving, then annoying. A little editing of the songs could have smoothed over a lot of issues. Russell Crowe feels misdirected in places, which undercuts an otherwise exemplary performance. Marius and Cosette’s romance feels a touch ridiculous as presented and much of the third act seemed a bit rushed.
Stuff I Loved: Jackman and Hathaway are absolutely fantastic. For all of the faults in his performance, Crowe does a great job with the complex and compelling character of Javert. Despite their changes and presentation, many of the songs still have their emotional weight and power, especially “I Dreamed A Dream”, “Bring Him Home”, and “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”.

Bottom Line: I wanted to like Les Miserables. What it manages to accomplish is admirable. But, unfortunately, it stumbles too much and makes too many mistakes to earn a strong recommendation. You would have just as good an experience listening to the soundtrack from either the film or the musical, and nothing will compare to seeing it on stage. Granted, the film version is cheaper, but this is truly a case of you get what you pay for.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Repo! The Genetic Opera

This week’s IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! brought to you by a generous donation from Kimberly Franco. Thank you for your support!

Logo courtesy Netflix. No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

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Here we have something of an odd specimen. In most musical productions, the idea is to either use the songs for comedic effect or to underscore the powerful emotions in play during a given scene. While Repo! The Genetic Opera certainly takes its material seriously, there’s also a feeling that it knows how many mainstream audience members will receive it. It’s possible that it will either make the production seem wonderfully self-aware or disappointingly pretentious. The only way to know for sure, in keeping with its theme and mood, is to slice this sexy specimen open and tear its bloody guts out.

Courtesy Twisted Pictures

It’s the future, and life sucks. Life sucks mostly because there’s been a world-wide epidemic of organ failure caused by industrial waste or some other disaster. As people die in droves, evil corporation GeneCo emerges with a solution: custom-made replacement organs available at reasonable prices to the consumer, and an addictive surgical aid called Zydrate that keeps the organs in your body and you in a pleasant state of mind. Financing is available, but if you can’t make your payments, GeneCo sends a Repo Man to reclaim their property from you. It’s 2062, and GeneCo’s CEO, Rotti Largo, must choose an heir from among his three despicable children while his biggest & baddest Repo Man, Nathan Wallace, tries to protect his sickly daughter Shilo from the dark and dangerous world outside her bedroom window, a world she’s never experienced in all of her seventeen years.

One of the best things the film has going for it is its music. Terrence Zdunich put together most of the songs, and as the Greek Chorus-style narrator known only as Grave-Robber, he lays a lot of convincing passion and tongue-in-cheek fun on us. Anthony Steward Head, Paul Sorvino and the timelessly talented Sarah Brightman do much of the emotional heavy lifting while Bill Moseley, Ogre and a breathy and surprisingly well-voiced Paris Hilton slip in for some comic relief. The star is Alexa Vega, however, who makes her little-girl-growing-up story the central attraction of the affair, outside of all the artful surgery and shameless eye candy.

Courtesy Twisted Pictures
Yeah… Shilo’s dad ain’t exactly a nice guy.

Coming to us as it does from the hands that helped craft the Saw series, to call Repo! The Genetic Opera ‘gorn’ is a bit of an understatement. And yet, there’s enough visual appeal in both its male and female cast members that the blood & guts never completely derail the goings-on. It juxtaposes undeniable beauty with callous cruelty and sadistic violence. Being disgusting and sexy at the same time isn’t an easy feat, but Repo! somehow manages to pull it off. It’s impressive for that if nothing else.

Repo! also manages to pull off being camp while letting its cast convey some actual emotions. Sure, it’s mostly done in song so it’s melodramatic and over-the-top half the time, but it never strays too far into the completely-serious territory that dooms other would-be camp flicks like Masters of the Universe. However, it also doesn’t have the reckless abandon of campy classics like Flash Gordon. The result is a quasi-serious sometimes-amusing musical gorn flick that plays like the Saw boys putting on a production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Courtesy Twisted Pictures
One of the coolest narrators ever.

Speaking of Rocky Horror, Repo! might be that infamous flick’s 21st-century successor. Between the timbre of the music, the presence of underground stars like Terrence & Ogre and the campy, over-the-top nature of the entire production, it should be no wonder that Repo! has gained something of a cult following, complete with showings at local theatres, encouraged audience participation and live emulation of the performances. While it’s preoccupation with gorn and overwhelmingly dark tone didn’t exactly make it a hit with critics or even the major box office, there’s something endearing about it that keeps in the hearts and minds of many die-hard fans.

In other words, Repo! the Genetic Opera is kind of like a stray cat taken in by a friend. Sure, it’s kinda cute and purrs at you appealingly when you show up, but its coat is a little on the mangy side and your friend really needs to get it to a vet. If you’re a cat person, you’re still going to scratch it behind the ears and let it rub up on your leg, and if you’re not you’re going to refuse to step foot in your friend’s place again until they clean the animal. Repo! the Genetic Opera is not for everyone, but its songs can worm their way into your ears easily and the characters are extremely memorable. Check it out on Netflix Instant if it sounds up your alley, but beware. As many fans can attest, the material introduced within the film can be quite addictive. We should just be thankful that it doesn’t come in a little glass vial.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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