by Ken B.
There’s a scene in Mamma Mia! that plays out like a pop culture journalist’s fever dream (well, that’s almost every scene in Mamma Mia!, but this one in particular): Meryl Streep, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, and thirty or forty nameless extras dancing on a pier, belting out ABBA’s “Dancing Queen”. Benny Andersson has a five second cameo as a piano player on a boat during that sequence. It is indeed something to behold. If you’ve ever wondered what would happen when a handful of world famous actors got together for 108 minutes and told a flimsy story through relentlessly bouncy covers of ABBA songs, this is your chance to see that visualized.
The story is set on a Greek island, where Donna (Streep) has run an old hotel for several years. Her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) is about to get married to a man named Sky (Dominic Cooper). Sophie wants her father to attend her wedding, but Donna was a single mother, and she doesn’t know who to invite. Instead, after investigating her mother’s diary from years ago, she secretly sends out invitations to three possibilities: banker Harry Bright (Colin Firth), architect Sam Carmichael (Pierce Brosnan), and writer Bill Anderson (Stellan Skarsgård). She hopes to identify her father from the moment she sees him. Of course, it won’t be that easy.
The first thing to be addressed in a musical is the music. Every song, of course, is a cover of a song by ABBA. If you’re familiar with their discography, you know what to expect. The singers range. Meryl Streep is quite good (is there anything she can’t do?), as is Amanda Seyfried, a fact that would be solidified a few years later in Les Misérables. Everyone else falls somewhere along the mid range of tolerability, except Brosnan. A large part of his career has been sealed in the history books as the James Bond of the mid ‘90s and early ‘00s, and to put it nicely, singing won’t be joining those ranks anytime in the near future. Or ever.
It’s clear the primary ideals of Mamma Mia! were not particularly artistic. Its demands were simple: Provide two hours of light entertainment packed with music that will both suit fans of comedies, ABBA, and the popular stage musical it’s based on. It doesn’t particularly care about fleshing out a story, or even a compelling place to put the songs. They seem too deliberate to exist (kind of like those vocabulary assignments you got when you were ten where you had to put all of the words of the week in sentences, and it was always really forced). Because that’s how the placement of the music comes off in Mamma Mia!, it really hurts the overall flow of the film at times.
Still, there’s little ability to deny an overwhelming sense of fun Phyllida Lloyd’s film contains. The scenery is picturesque, the pacing is bouncy, and the cast seems to be genuinely enjoying themselves, regardless of how good (or bad) their singing is. There comes a time when an otherwise totally non-recommendable film can keep its head above water on entertainment value alone, and Mamma Mia! fulfills that quota with impressive ease.
There’s almost no doubt in my mind that the reason Mamma Mia! was released in the same weekend as The Dark Knight in July 2008 was to generate sufficient counter-programming to the bleak and depressing world the middle entry of Nolan’s saga represents. Indeed, while the superhero film reigns far superior in my book, Mamma Mia! has a well formed idea of what its own demographic will want, and does indeed fulfill it for the most part. This is a casually fascinating movie, and quite easy to comprehend. Its target audiences already knows it will like it, and those outside of it know they won’t.
by Ken B.
Frozen trounces along for 102 minutes as a grandly musical and visually stunning film. It’s very much an example of classic Disney, from the mythical elements to the princesses to an underlying message of great importance. While it is not entirely perfect, for the most part, Frozen is a very much enjoyable film, escaping just a target audience of little kids and achieving the status of being a solid movie for just about everyone.
It is set in a fictional northern European kingdom, Arendelle, where since childhood Princess Elsa (voice of Idina Menzel) has withheld the power to conjure ice and snow. She has been forced to hide it since an event in childhood where her sister Anna (voice of Kristen Bell) was nearly killed in an incident caused by her powers. All memories Anna withheld of Elsa’s abilities were magically modified to eschew any fantastical elements. As a result of the event, Elsa became deeply introverted and spent the remainder of her childhood largely alone, away from Anna.
In adulthood, following the death of her parents, Elsa, as the oldest child, is to be named queen. At a ball on the night of her coronation, after dismissing Anna’s request to marry a foreign prince (voice of Santino Fontana) because the two had only met earlier that day, Elsa accidentally unleashes her powers, and is alienated by those who see it. She subsequently runs away into the mountains, creates an ice castle, and casts an eternal winter over Arendelle. Anna then attempts to find her sister and reverse the curse cast over the kingdom, with the help of a local ice merchant named Kristoff (voice of Jonathan Groff) and Olaf (voice of Josh Gad), an anthropomorphic snowman created by Elsa.
The main attraction to Frozen ever since it was released was the music – namely Best Song winner “Let it Go”, a greatly empowering rally anthem for Elsa in the first act. As of this writing, the official clip on YouTube has 215 million views. The songs, by Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, serve a decent effect for the story in developing characters and expanding upon plot points. As with any good musical, it adds an element to the production in total. Frozen genuinely needs and uses its musical numbers, they’re not just tacked on for the sake of tacking them on. While Broadway veteran Menzel has the strongest voice, the supporting cast can hold their own in a song. Another definitive positive is what the voices back – the animation, which is immaculate, from small character details to grand sweeping mountains.
I have a friend that considers herself some kind of a self-styled aficionado on animated films, among other things, or really animation in general. She generally favors Japanese anime over American animation, but she did indeed see Frozen. She mainly enjoyed it, but said in no uncertain terms that she hated Olaf. I never asked why, but now having seen the film, I feel like the character does serve as a visualization (and cause) of one of the main problems with the movie. Olaf is a character largely in the film for comic relief, but his segments and jokes seem largely stuffed into the film for no apparent reason. Frozen is a film with some definite dark elements in its plot, but the overall mood of the picture gets quite lopsided when these are mixed with a talking snowman singing about how excited he is for summer. (The joke within, which is Anna and Kristoff debating internally whether or not to inform Olaf about what happens to snow when it gets warm, works much better than the song itself). This kind of comedic interweaving is there for kids, but it comes off as tonal inconsistency for everyone else, and undermines its overall impact.
Frozen isn’t flawless – the above mentioned problems as well as a quite conventional plot outline compared to the radical movements and filmmaking revolutions of Disney renaissance staples such as The Lion King keep this movie from among my favorite from this studio, but it still serves as an easy recommendation for both seasoned moviegoers and those wanting to introduce Disney to children. No matter how you slice it, this is a solid piece of cinema and animation from a studio where we have collectively come to expect nothing but the best (maybe because they’re quickly taking over the world’s media).
Buy from Amazon: DVD / Blu-ray / Soundtrack
by Ken B.
Nine is a big, lavish, colorful production. I didn’t really like it. It is, as many of you know, based off a wildly acclaimed 1982 Broadway musical, which in turn is based off Federico Fellini’s great 8½ (1963). One of the defining factors of Fellini’s film about the mind of a faded director was its surreal imagery and feel. Nine is the antithesis of this, whether intentional or not. It is alive, possibly grotesquely alive, with hints of sensuality, memory, and depression nearly buried by an overstuffed execution at the movie’s very worst moments.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars, and is of course wonderful, as Guido Contini, an Italian filmmaker nearing the age of fifty in 1962 Italy. (Much like Guido Anselimi in 8½, he is ill, aggravated by his chaotic career and lifestyle.) He has a wife, Luisa (Marion Cotillard), and a mistress, Carla (Penélope Cruz). Guido is faced with directing a project he has no motivation to create. His most recent pictures have been flops, and many who see him imply that he made his greatest films long ago. At a press conference, only two bits of information concerning the film are made available (possibly because these are the only things that Guido knows): It will be called Italia, which a reporter points out is a pretty bold title, and it will star who is considered Contini’s muse, actress Claudia Jenssen (Nicole Kidman).
This 118 minute movie revolves around Guido coping with his struggle, with memories from his childhood, and balancing this with the facets of the dissolving equilibrium of his personal and professional lives, all interspersed with lush musical numbers. They all vary in memorability, quality, and ease of placement (there are only two I can actively remember, even less than 24 hours after viewing it), but share the same type of blaring style.
The point of Nine is not to have quiet, intimate sequences of character development, but it’s worth wondering how much more enjoyable the film would have been if director Rob Marshall and screenwriters Michael Tolkin and Anthony Minghella had attempted to work a little more of it in. Such a suggestion works its way through in early scenes, like between Guido and a costume designer (Judi Dench).
For every positive quality about Nine, there is a corresponding negative. You could see it for the grand production design and the great acting, or be scared off due to the bloated nature and forgetability. I don’t know what exactly you want in a movie, and it is easy to see people quickly falling passionately for what Nine resonates. However, it is my experience that the poorer aspects of the film end up weighing the entire production just under the line of calling it a good movie.
by Ken B.
It’s rare for such a simple, pleasant, harmless film to come along. White Christmas moves at an enjoyable rate, contains a handful of well choreographed and beautifully sung songs, and remains nothing short of commendably entertaining for its 120 minute runtime.
Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye play Bob Wallace and Phil Davis, two World War II veterans who used to entertain their fellow troops in the 151st Division. Upon returning home, they transform their pastime into a full blown act, becoming immensely successful and respected by their peers. However, as the years go by, there is evidence that the partnership may have been destined to be perfunctory – it only started after Bob saved Phil’s life one time during the war, and such a proposition would have been hard to deny following the circumstances at hand. In any case, they are sent to observe a new singing act, which consists of sisters Judy (Vera-Ellen) and Betty (Rosemary Clooney). Bob and Phil are immediately captivated by them, and join them on a trip up to an inn up in Vermont where they were scheduled to perform, run by General Tom Waverly (Dean Jagger). The inn, as it transpires, is in desperate straits and may have to close. Bob and Phil, not willing to let their former superior officer’s business fail, hatch a plan to bring business back in the days before Christmas.
This movie is directed by Michael Curtiz, who directed Casablanca (1942), a film that sits comfortably in a high spot on my personal top 10 list. While White Christmas may not be able to achieve that same position, there is still a notable and sufficient quality at hand. It’s beautiful to look at – lush sets of the inn, great and large musical numbers photographed brilliantly by Loyal Griggs, and colorful costume designs.
The most obvious truth of films like White Christmas is that if the music is not satisfying, then the film has failed as whole. The songs within are varying degrees of that, and of course at the top is the recurring titular piece, “White Christmas”, which first debuted in Holiday Inn (Sandrich, 1942), a film of great geographic similarity. However, unlike Holiday Inn, which used a thinner plot as simply a way to carry its own songs, White Christmas has an efficient enough storyline that it could be carried as a movie on its own, and creating a more full experience.
White Christmas has become something of a holiday staple for valid reasons; an interesting story, energetic performances, good music, and a general warm buzz that spreads throughout. It’s not perfect in any sense, but there’s just enough positivity going around that I give this my third three-star rating in a row (I really need some variety).
by Ken B.
Here is a movie that could have, or maybe should have, been thirty minutes shorter, yet I still recommend it. Across the Universe is a very strange movie. It is not a musical, but it needs music to exist. You see, every plot point is either initiated, expressed, or concludes with a cover of a Beatles song. There are around 30 songs spread throughout this 133 minute film. I really liked the whole idea. However, as a Beatles fan, perhaps I was more forgiving of the film’s storytelling and pacing errors than a more impartial reviewer would have.
There are a few different stories at play here, but the one that both gets the most screen time and was the most promoted is a love story. Jude (Jim Sturgess) is a young Liverpool based worker at a shipyard who sets off to America in the late 1960s when he believes he has located his biological father, Wes Hubert (Robert Clohessy), who is a maintenance man at Princeton University. Jude quickly becomes friends with a student named Max (Joe Anderson), and while at Joe’s house over Thanksgiving, falls for Max’s sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood).
Max drops out of school and moves to New York City with Jude. They move to an apartment which is a counterculture hub, headed up by Joplin-esque singer Sadie (Dana Fuchs). Also in residence are Prudence (T.V. Carpio), a high school cheerleader who ran away from her Ohio hometown (also, when she moved in, she came in through the bathroom window), and Jojo (Martin Luther McCoy), a guitarist who moved to the city following his son’s death.
There is a particular visual prerogative to Across the Universe. DP Bruno Delbonnel does a remarkable job shooting the film – everything from a wide shot on a beach that opens the film to a surreal sequence at a draft office with computer animated Uncle Sams reaching out for a drafted Max while reciting the lyrics to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” to Eddie Izzard playing Mr. Kite, appearing in an LSD fueled circus, complete with blocky drawings of animals to a rooftop performance that ends the movie.
By far the largest and most notable problem with the film is the pacing. Apparently, during post-production, a version of the movie with a runtime of around 98 minutes was greeted warmly by test audiences (the theatrical release was negatively received), but director Julie Taymor objected to a recut of the film without her consent. While I can’t comment on that edit of the film, I imagine a shorter movie wouldn’t have hurt much. Most of the second act moves glacially.
The acting is solid but not very noteworthy. Sturgess is relatable enough as our romantic hero, but Wood is arguably given the most to go through as a character. She handles it well enough. But in a movie like Across the Universe, dramatic acting is secondary to singing, and the answer there is that it is neither explicitly bad nor explicitly good. Only nitpickers will have real qualms about the singing, but only the easily persuaded will consider them anything other than fulfilling what’s required.
Across the Universe is a good movie, thunderous with a highly active imagination, spilling over visuals, but also forgetting the importance of a certain degree of brevity in an adventurous endeavor like this. I am giving it three stars because I enjoy Beatles music and how it was treated, and films with an arthouse undertone. Consider a downgrade if one or both of those things make you want to throw an apple at a movie projector.
Buy from Amazon: DVD / Blu-ray / Soundtrack
by Ken B.
Is this review poorly written? Yes. The first paragraph was written on March 30, 2013 and the rest was written April 27, 2013, going off a handful of notes jotted down during viewing. I’m nearly embarrassed to have it published.
Godspell, a 1973 adaptation of an off-Broadway musical, has an objective to combine three things: parables, music, and vaudeville. There could possibly be more, but they didn’t show. The most obvious thing about this movie is its energy, which it appears to have an endless supply of. It also has a fair stock of well balanced folk music, although I can’t say I can remember any specifically when writing this review. There really is no plot in the cinematic sense of the word. We have a bunch of mostly nameless New Yorkers following a man presumed to be Jesus around the city one day, as he runs down various parables contained in the book of Matthew (see the film’s subtitle). Each is reinforced with a song until we get to the movie’s end, the crucifixion, or at least, a rock opera version of it. That’s not a spoiler.
I can’t say I really have a lot to say about Godspell, even though it has a lot to say about existing. It occupies a dream world flawlessly, you know, the kind of universe that exists when you’re dreaming, and everything makes sense. Everything. If you watch the movie, you’ll understand what I’m saying. And even though I can’t really remember the music, the movie would have probably felt much lesser and worthless without it. It’s a vital part of the film, mostly because it is indeed based off of a musical itself. It also helps that I can remember the actors could sing quite well.
I mentioned that this movie is filled with energy, and that’s clear right from the start of the 103 minute feature. It’s a fun spectacle, never ceasing at maintaining the attention of its viewing audience, whoever may stumble across this movie.
Godspell, however, may be too energetic for some, to the point where it becomes nearly patronizing. I could definitely sense moments like this, but thankfully, they were kept to a reasonable minimum. There’s always a risk when an avant garde project like this is brought to the screen.
But in the end, Godspell is a well made movie. Yes, it looks bloody absurd, and sometimes that’s a cause of (un?)intentional humor. Yes, the movie itself is more or less inexplicable, and yes, many readers probably clicked away in disbelief when reading the words “parables” and “vaudeville” in the same sentence. But it’s a movie that should be viewed at least once, as it sort of sneaks in with the other Bible-related musicals of the early 1970s, like Jesus Christ Superstar or Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. It’s a part of the time period, and should be viewed as such.