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Archive for the ‘Musicals’ Category

Les Misèrables (2012)

Les-miserables-movie-poster1Directed by Tom Hooper

This was one of the posts that I lost when I lost my flash drive. As much as I hate rewriting things that I’ve already written, I won’t have a hard time rewriting this one. I have a lot to say about Les Misèrables in general, the musical and this movie version of it in particular.

When I went to study in London about ten years ago, I wasn’t planning on seeing the stage version of Les Misèrables. The touring coming comes to my town often enough, and I wanted to see things I wouldn’t have the chance to see at home. But then I saw a poster of the cast, and the man playing Enjolras was really attractive (I might use the term “super hot” if I weren’t trying to be taken seriously), so I let my friends persuade me to go with them. I knew many people who had seen the musical and thought it was the best thing ever, and I had read an abridged version of the book before I saw the play and seen the movie version from the 1930s and knew that there was fantastic material to work with, so I was expecting really good things. I was really disappointed. I kind of wish I could find the scathing essay I wrote about it. I told my friends that I didn’t really like it, and that got spread around the entire group I had come with, kind of like in the claymation version of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer when they find out that Herbie doesn’t like to make toys.  (“Melanie didn’t like Les Misèrables!”) I got a lot of weird looks after that from people in my study abroad group, but I didn’t care. I got that same kind of look when I told people I had no desire to see this movie because I didn’t much care for the musical, kind of a mix of shock and disgust. I was never planning on seeing this movie. Stupid best picture nomination. I wasted three hours of my life to see a subpar version of a subpar play.

So what’s the story? Convict Jean Valjean is released from prison. He steals some silver from a priest, who tells the police that he gave Jean Valjean the silver. The priest then tells Valjean that he has to turn his life around. Valjean does so, changing his name so that the stigma of having been a convict won’t follow him throughout his life. However, Javert, a policeman who worked at the prison, recognizes Jean Valjean for who he was, and Valjean must go on the run, taking the daughter of a factory worker with him.

The Good: Les Misèrables has some truly beautiful music. They may not be all completely memorable, and some are hard to tell from others (when I’m not actively listening to them, I always get “Bring Him Home” and “On My Own” mixed up), but they are beautiful nonetheless. I have never forgotten “Castle on a Cloud,” which I learned over twenty years ago in school, and “Stars,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” always give me goosebumps.

There was some decent acting. Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe both did fine jobs as Valjean and Javert, respectively. Crowe does especially well as Javert, who is perfectly convinced that the law is always right and simply cannot reconcile justice and mercy. Anne Hathaway and Samantha Barks both gave excellent performances as women torn apart by the way French society works. Aaron Tveit and Eddie Redmayne were very good as young revolutionaries Enjolras and Marius, and although I think they took up too much time in the movie, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen were perfectly cast as the comic relief-bringing Thènardiers.

The costuming, production design, and makeup were all admirable. Early 19th century France was brought to life thanks to those elements. I always like seeing a historical movie that doesn’t only involve wealthy people. It always makes me happy to have people acknowledge that a)poor people existed, and b)that poor people had different hairstyles, homes, and clothes than wealthy people.

The Bad: I don’t whose idea it was to have the actors sing live instead of lip-synching and putting in the songs later, but it was a bad idea. This movie would have been so much easier to watch if there hadn’t been so many cringe-worthy notes. I think the only person who pulled off all her singing with no problems was Samantha Barks, who played Èponine.

I have never understood the ending. It makes no sense to me to have all the people who have died throughout the movie/Jean Valjean’s life would be together in one place singing about the same thing. All those various people weren’t fighting for the same future, exactly. Also, if Heaven is a barricade as the finale hints, I don’t really want to go to Heaven.

The Ugly: Amanda Seyfried should never have been cast in this movie. Her singing is terrible to the point of distraction. She does have the right look, but I’m sure there are other innocent-looking blondes who could have sung the part much, much better.

Most of the other reasons I didn’t like the movie have to do with the weaknesses of the musical itself. Way too much time is spent on the Thènardiers at the expense of other things from the novel that would have made things make more sense. I wish a bit more time had been spent on the bishop, for example; that felt kind of glossed over. I hated that Javert didn’t recognize Valjean because of his face, but because he was strong. I can understand that people change after twenty years, but I’m sure that Javert had met other strong men in prison before. There was nothing really special for Javert to recognize him. (In the novel, in case you’re wondering, Valjean acts like a human jack to get carts off of men. That’s not something you see often, and makes a lot more sense. Not sure why that was changed.) I was annoyed by Marius and Cosette’s literal love at first sight. They did nothing except see each other, and suddenly life wasn’t worth living without each other? There are other little bits and pieces like that throughout the movie that just add up to me being annoyed with the whole thing.

Okay, now I get to talk about how the book compares to the movie. Since seeing the musical ten years ago, I have read the unabridged version. It’s not perfect. Victor Hugo needed a friend to tell him that when your characters are racing through the sewers in a life-and-death situation, you don’t need to cut from the action to give an entire history of the sewers of Paris. But one amazing, amazing thing that Hugo did do was give everyone a history. The first fifty to one hundred pages are not about Jean Valjean at all, but about the bishop, who, we learn, has given up all of his privileges and only keeps enough of his salary to keep himself fed. The rest he gives to the poor. The only thing he kept was his silver, so when he not only allows Jean Valjean to keep the plate, but also gives him the candlesticks, it’s a huge deal. The students all have back stories, so we care a lot more when they die so uselessly. The Thènardiers are not funny at all. They show the corruption and evil that can happen in poorer classes. They are menacing and horrible. Also, they are the parents of Gavroche, which gets skipped over in the movie completely. There are more connections which make everything that happens much more meaningful. I realize that not everything from a 1500 page book can make it into a three-hour movie, but that’s why making  Les Misèrables into a musical was just a bad idea to begin with. My final advice? If you haven’t seen the movie already, skip it and read the unabridged book. If you have seen the movie already, read the unabridged book. You will be amazed at the depth of feeling.

Oscars Won: Best performance by an actress in a supporting role (Anne Hathaway); best achievement in makeup and hairstyling; best achievement in sound mixing.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best motion picture of the year; best performance by an actor in a leading role (Hugh Jackman); best achievement in costume design; best achievement in music written for motion pictures, original song (“Suddenly”); best achievement in production design.

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

moulin rouge!Directed by Baz Luhrmann

I was a freshman in college when Moulin Rouge! came out, and I had a friend who was obsessed with the soundtrack. Whenever we would go and hang out and play games at his apartment, that CD would be playing. It made watching the movie kind of surreal; the music had seeped into my subconscious without my knowledge. I knew all the music, but I had never seen the movie before (overprotective friends again), so I had a strange sense of déjà vu. I’m not sure that helped my general perception of the movie, which was of noise, color, and oddness.

So what’s the story? Young Christian comes to Paris from Great Britain so that he can write about the Bohemians ideals of truth, beauty, freedom, and love. At the famous nightclub Moulin Rouge, he meets and falls for Satine, a performer/prostitute who has dreams of being a real actress. Will they be able to find happiness in the noisy, colorful life that is Paris?

The Good: There was some good acting. Nicole Kidman did a nice job as Satine, even if I did think she was Amy Adams ninety percent of the time. Jim Broadbent was excellent as Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge, who is sympathetic to Satine and Christian’s love, but who also wants his own dreams to come true. Ewan McGregor is a little bit nondescript as Christian at the beginning of the movie, but he does jealousy and heartbreak well towards the end. Toulouse-Lautrec is played by John Leguizamo, who does a good job of showing the yearning for a love that he will never have.

Before I talk about the cinematography, I want to make something clear. I don’t get carsick. I don’t airsick or seasick or rollercoaster sick. But I have known to get sick from certain visual stimuli. I can’t play first-person shooter games, for example, or any first-person games, really. I have run, not walked, out of IMAX movies because I was about to be sick. Moulin Rouge! did the same thing to me. The jerky, constantly moving cinematography did not make agree with my stomach. Or with my head. So I was watching Moulin Rouge through a haze of headache and stomachache. But just because I didn’t like the cinematography and it didn’t agree with my stomach doesn’t mean the cinematography is bad, per se; it’s creative and different and fits with the whirling gaiety of the nightclub. I just didn’t personally like it. I wish I had a section called “Things I didn’t personally like, but can respect for their artistry.” That would make writing reviews easier sometimes. But I since I didn’t feel it was bad, I’m going to leave cinematography in the good category.

The makeup and costumes and production design were over the top and crazy, but so were the lives of the denizens of the Moulin Rouge. Like the crazy cinematography, it worked for the film and what the filmmakers were trying to do accomplish. Again, I’m not sure I liked it that much, but it was admirable.

The Bad: The music rubbed me the wrong way. Yes, it is very clever to use modern music in a movie that takes place over a hundred years ago, but I feel like the filmmakers were a little too clever sometimes, like they were drawing attention to their own cleverness. I feel like they were saying, “Look how clever we are! We used ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ to show how immature all these men are who frequent nightclubs! Aren’t we smart?” It became more of a gimmick than something meaningful.

The Ugly: The story was terrible, unoriginal, and uninspired. It was kind of a cheap rip off of Cabaret combined with La bohème. (Possible spoilers ahead) Christian and Satine fell in love for no reason at all. The Duke was silly and not believable as a real person. Also, if you were coughing up blood in 19th century Paris, you knew you were dying of consumption. Tuberculosis wasn’t uncommon then. And while I’m no expert, I’m pretty sure that if you are about to die from tuberculosis, you don’t have the energy to appear in a musical theater production, especially not one based in India with lots of high-energy dancing. The ending is curiously flat. The movie as a whole feels more like an excuse to do crazy musical numbers with modern music than a movie that has anything meaningful to say.

Oscars Won: Best art direction-set decoration; best costume design.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Nicole Kidman); best cinematography; best film editing; best makeup; best sound.

Cabaret (1972)

cabaretDirected by Bob Fosse

Okay, I’m back. I’m finally better enough that my writing once again makes sense. And I’m glad, because I’ve missed this. Now on to 1972!

I liked musicals when I was young. I’m not sure why. Maybe I liked believing in a place where people burst spontaneously into song and dancing with your enemy could solve problems. Maybe I didn’t notice that story and character development tend to suffer when the director has to make room for musical numbers. Maybe I liked the happy endings. But whatever it was that I liked as a child is gone now. Musicals make me very impatient. I still retain a nostalgic liking for the musicals I liked growing up, but I have a hard time with musicals that I am seeing for the first time. Since Cabaret has adult themes, it is not a musical I grew up with. Although I can see some of what people like about it, I didn’t particularly care for it.

So what’s the story? Young English author Brian Roberts moves to Germany in the 1930s. At his boardinghouse, he meets Sally Bowles, an effervescent American nightclub singer/aspiring actress. Together they experience the heady turmoil of pre-World War II Berlin.

The Good: I will give Cabaret props because even though it has musical numbers, all of the musical numbers take place in the nightclub. No one randomly breaks into song on the street or anywhere else. I did like that aspect of Cabaret as a musical. It made it realistic enough that I didn’t want to throw something at the TV.

The acting was good. Liza Minelli made a wonderful Sally, a woman who finds every experience in life worth trying, a woman who just loves life for life’s sake. I quite liked Michael York as Brian, the quiet Englishman who’s not quite sure of his sexuality or what he wants out of life. But the people who I really loved (and whose story I found more interesting than that of Sally and Brian’s) were Fritz Wepper and Marisa Berenson as a gold-digging man and a rich young woman, respectively. Both characters were extremely compelling, and being unsure if they will get a happy ending after all makes them semi-tragic.

The Bad: Even though the characters didn’t randomly burst into song, I didn’t feel like the songs added anything to the movie. The songs could have all been cut, and the only thing it would have done to the movie is make it shorter. There wasn’t even any fabulous dancing to make the musical numbers worth it. And I think some of the cabaret dancers were men in drag, but I couldn’t ever be sure, so I was distracted during the musical numbers trying to figure it out.

The Ugly: There wasn’t anything ugly about Cabaret per se, but I had a really hard time connecting to the movie at all. I can’t even blame being sick, because I was really into other movies I watched while I was sick. Anyway, I’m just going to have to risk the wrath of the internet and say I think Cabaret is overrated.

Oscars Won: Best actress in a leading role (Liza Minnelli); best actor in a supporting role (Joel Grey); best director; best cinematography; best art direction-set direction; best sound; best film editing; best music, scoring original song score and/or adaptation.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best writing, screenplay based on material from another medium.

The King and I (1956)

king and iDirected by Walter Lang

This is the second movie I’ve watched this week that I’ve seen more times than I can count, but it’s the first movie this week that was based on a play which was based on a book which was based on a true story. I loved musicals when I was young(which I think is funny considering how little patience I have with them now), and this was one of my favorite musicals. I can still sing along with all of the songs, and I think it will always have a special place in my heart.

So what’s the story? Anna Leonowens, a widowed Englishwoman, comes to Siam (now Thailand) to be the governess to the children of the king.

The Good: I love the music in this movie. I don’t love all of the songs, because I think there are one or two that slow the movie down, but most of them are enjoyable. And the score is amazing. All I have to do is see the cover of this movie and I have “The March of the Siamese Children” in my head. Not only that, but I am happy to have that song in my head. That never happens.

I like the lead actors in this movie. Yul Brynner plays a man who is trying to hold on to tradition and effect change at the same time. His inner struggle is plain on his face as he tries to make hard decisions. Deborah Kerr makes an excellent Anna. She is smart and determined and compassionate and courageous.

The costumes are gorgeous. Because of this movie, I have had a lifelong dream of polkaing in a dress with a giant hoopskirt. But Anna’s dresses are not the only beautiful ones in The King and I. The women of the court also wear lovely things. Even the king’s clothes are very sumptuous. It’s all very fun.

As impatient as I am with musical numbers that don’t help advance the plot or at least help with characterization, I love the Uncle Tom’s Cabin ballet. It’s different and beautiful and mesmerizing. I’m glad it’s in the movie.

The Bad: It bothers me a little bit that many of the “Asian” people in The King and I were played by Latinos. I can see the reasoning behind hiring Rita Moreno, because she’s amazing, and who wouldn’t pick Rita Moreno if she were a choice? But were the producers really unable to find enough children to play the king’s children who were, if not Thai, at least Asian? There weren’t ten to fifteen Asian kids living in California in 1956?

The Ugly: I have seen this movie many times, and it never bothered me before, so maybe I’m being ultra picky, but the attitude of the movie toward Siam in general and the king in particular is very condescending. There is very much an air of “everything in European culture is good because the Europeans are so enlightened, but there is nothing good about Siamese culture.” The king is only admired because he is trying to westernize his country. He makes silly mistakes (like wanting to send only male elephants to America) that are then corrected by the superior Englishwoman. At one point, Anna tells her young son, Louis, that in many ways, the king was no older than Louis. Really? This is a grown man who had ruled a country and managed to keep it independent in a time of colonization. He is very different from an eight-year-old. I think this might not bother me so much if these characters weren’t based on real people, but since they are, I feel like the characterization of the king and the attitude toward Siam in general is very disrespectful. And yes, I understand that The King and I is from a different era, which is why I can still enjoy this movie. But I can also understand why it’s banned in Thailand. Not that I advocate banning, but I can sympathize with the feelings behind the banning in this particular case.

Oscars Won: Best actor in a leading role (Yul Brynner); best art direction-set direction, color; best costume design, color; best sound, recording; best music, scoring of a musical picture.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actress in a leading role (Deborah Kerr); best director; best cinematography, color.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

wizard of ozDirected by Victor Fleming

I don’t remember the first time I saw The Wizard of Oz. It must have been before I was six, because that’s when I read the book for the first time, and I definitely noticed the differences. I have seen it many times since the first, as I sure many people in the United States have. My mom reminisced about how it always used to be on TV on Easter. It’s a classic that I think will never really leave the public consciousness.

So what’s the story? Dorothy Gale is running away from her Kansas farm when she gets caught in a tornado and transported to the magical land of Oz. She sings, dances, makes friends and learns a valuable lesson as she tries to avoid the Wicked Witch of the West.

The Good: Watching this as an adult, I was struck by the costumes and makeup. It must have taken serious creativity to make three grown men into a scarecrow, a tin man, and a lion. And those costumes are fairly convincing. Okay, so the Cowardly Lion walks on two legs instead of all fours, but watch carefully when he first appears; he is on four legs then, and it’s really quite impressive. The flying monkeys also must have taken some serious work. I don’t even want to know how long it took everyone to get into their makeup every day. The fantasy would have failed without those two things, so it’s a good thing they were both excellent.

I was very impressed by Ray Bolger, who plays the Scarecrow. He moves like his legs are really made of straw. It’s just a tiny detail, but I think it shows his ability. Also, I’m going to allow myself to be impressed with Frank Morgan, who plays five roles in this movie, which I didn’t realize until just now when I saw it on IMDb. It’s obvious that he plays the Wizard of Oz and Professor Marvel, but he also has three other parts. The costumes and makeup helped there, too, but his acting skills also needed to come into play.

I can’t decide how I feel about the music. I feel like just about everyone in the English-speaking world can sing along with many of them, but it is so easy for them to get stuck in your head. I’m not sure if that’s a sign of a good song or a bad song or if it means nothing at all, but it’s annoying. But the songs are fun, even if they don’t usually advance the plot or reveal much character. I’m guess I’m kind of neutral on the subject of the songs in the movie. I do like the background music, though.

The Bad: Some of the acting is hammy by today’s standards. I’m guessing it’s because they were making a movie based on a children’s book and were aiming to appeal to children, but occasionally I cringed.

I was also sad about the screenplay. L. Frank Baum’s book is not only a great adventure story, but it’s also a satire, and there are some lovely lines about people with no brains working in the government, etc. I wish the writers had kept some of those pointed little jabs in.

The Ugly: I hate the ending. It has always made me so mad that it’s just a dream. Why can’t it have been real? What’s wrong with having a little bit of magic in the world? It’s not a dream in the book. Dorothy really goes to Oz and eventually moves there with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. I know it will probably never happen since this is a major classic, but I would love it if someone made another movie version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and stuck a little bit more closely to the source material.

Oscars Won: Best music, original song (“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”); best music, original score.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best cinematography, color; best art direction; best effects, special effects.

Chicago (2002)

chicagoDirected by Rob Marshall

This is the one of the movies (the other is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner) that inspired me to watch all of the movies nominated for best picture. When I saw Chicago for the first time, I was not impressed; it made me wonder how bad the other nominees were for this movie to have won best picture.

So what’s the story? In 1920s Chicago, vaudeville star Velma Kelly murders her husband and sister when she finds them sleeping together. Actress wannabe Roxie Hart kills her lover when he decides to break off their relationship and reveals that he never had the connections to make her a star. Both women are represented by Billy Flynn, a defense attorney who has never lost a case. Will his defense be enough to save them from the hangman’s rope?

The Good: Catherine Zeta-Jones. She is amazing as Velma Kelly. She not only sings and dances, but she acts while she’s doing it. In the scene where she’s trying to convince Roxie to be her partner in a new act (the song “I Can’t Do It Alone”), you can see the desperation written on her face. She’s a proud woman begging for help, and it hurts her, but she does what she has to do. She completely deserved her Oscar for best supporting actress.

The musical numbers were fantastic. I don’t automatically like movie musicals. If the songs don’t add something either to the plot or to the development of character, they feel like a waste of time to me. But I loved the songs in Chicago. “Cell Block Tango” is my favorite. I liked the symbolism of “We Both Reached for the Gun” and Richard Gere’s tap dance. All of the musical numbers added to the movie.

I did like the trope of having the musical numbers be inside Roxie’s head. That was a good way to make a musical believable, because people don’t normally break into song in a courtroom. That meant the editing had to be good, and it was. The movie cut beautifully between what was happening in the real world and what was being sung in Roxie’s mind. Having Taye Diggs as the announcer to tie it all together was a smart choice, too.

The Bad: Renèe Zellweger is not a dancer, nor does she have a voice of the same caliber of Catherine Zeta-Jones’s or Queen Latifah’s. She wasn’t horrible, but when you put someone great next to someone merely good, it makes you cringe. That last dance number is particularly bad. Catherine Zeta-Jones looked like dancing is as natural to her as walking, which makes Renèe Zellweger look stiff. It’s just not good.

The Ugly: This movie has no heart or soul. The theme of the movie is that you can get away with anything if you are famous enough. While that might be true, I don’t feel like it’s something to celebrate.

Oscars Won: Best picture; best actress in a supporting role (Catherine Zeta-Jones); best art direction – set direction; best costume design; best film editing; best sound.

Other Oscar Nominations: Best actress in a leading role (Renèe Zellweger); best actor in a supporting role (John C. Reilly); best actress in a supporting role (Queen Latifah); best director; best writing, adapted screenplay; best cinematography; best music, original song (“I Move On”).

Doctor Dolittle (1967)

doctor dolittleDirected by Richard Fleischer

An actual conversation:

Me: Guess what I watched last night! Doctor Dolittle! The one with Rex Harrison.

My mother (in a horrified voice): WHY?

Me: For my blog. It was nominated for best picture.

My mother: Well, you really took one for the team on that one.

Contrary to the way this conversation makes it sound, Doctor Dolittle is not an evil movie. It is, however, a rather tedious movie in which forty-five minutes’ worth of plot is stretched to fill two and half hours.

So what’s the story? Dr. Dolittle is a kindly country doctor who learns to talk to animals with the help of his parrot, Polynesia. Because he can communicate with animals better than humans, he decides to be a vet instead of a doctor. For reasons not made clear in the movie, he wants to find the Great Pink Sea Snail and talk to it, so after he gets enough money and breaks out of the insane asylum, he goes on a voyage to find it.

The Good: As I watched this movie, I kept thinking what a nightmare it must have been to make. It was the 1960s, so the animals aren’t CGI or puppets, but real live animals. If you count the ducks and the goats and the pigs and the cows and the bears and the ridiculously cute lion cubs and all the other animals, there must be hundreds of animals.  I can’t even imagine trying to orchestrate such a thing. That alone is very impressive.

There was some fun humor. I even laughed out loud a couple of times. I enjoyed the song that Emma sang as she was storming away from meeting Dr. Dolittle for the first time.

I will also admit that Rex Harrison did a good job. Although on the surface the role of Dr. Dolittle is quite similar to that of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (a middle-aged linguist who doesn’t get on well with people), he didn’t play the roles the same way. Dr. Dolittle is much kinder and gentler, and it showed in Harrison’s face.

The Bad: There wasn’t much of a story. The movie kind of meandered around various vignettes. There’s the house scene, where we and Stubbins are introduced to the doctor and his many animal friends. There’s the ugly scene between Bellowes and the doctor. There’s the courtroom scene. There’s the breaking out of jail scene. There’s the voyaging scene and the island scene. I remember being amused by the book when I was a child, which makes me think that there was good source material, but the writers couldn’t seem to find a straightforward linear story from it.

Also, the love triangle was…odd. I could see no reason for Emma to fall for Dr. Dolittle, the middle-aged linguist, over Matthew, the charming young Irishman. I don’t care what My Fair Lady teaches us. Attractive young women do not fall in love with middle-aged linguists who don’t get on with people and can’t sing. I don’t buy it.

The Ugly: It was two and one-half hours long. With fourteen mediocre musical numbers. Enough said.

Oscars Won: Best effects, special effects; best music, original song (“Talk to the Animals”).

Other Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best cinematography; best film editing; best sound; best music, original music score; best music, scoring of music, adaptation or treatment; best art direction-set direction.

A Curiosity: Richard Attenborough is in this movie for about as long as Judi Dench is in Shakespeare in Love, but Richard Attenborough sings a song. He got a Golden Globe for best supporting actor for this. I didn’t know he could sing. And I’m not sure that what he did counted as being a supporting actor. I wish I knew how these things are judged.