The Greatest Showman (B). This musical has done only so-so with the critics (Metacritic.com score 45/100 last time I checked), but I must say that I was entertained. The versatile and (to me) eminently likable Hugh Jackman (Logan) stars as P.T. Barnum in a film that is apparently very loosely based on the real Barnum’s life. It is exceptionally sentimental, setting up all sorts of underdogs for us to root for—the impoverished child Barnum in love with the daughter of a rich meanie, the slightly less impoverished adult Barnum hatching his first scheme to entertain the masses, the gaggle of differently abled people (unkindly called “freaks” by some characters) Barnum recruits for his show, and even an inter-racial potential couple. There are lots of songs, and I must say they mostly sounded kind of the same to me. And the big song-and-dance numbers featuring Barnum’s performers resemble the big song-and-dance numbers you might see on “Dancing with the Stars,” and the lights and noise pretty well bludgeon you into submission. Michelle Williams (Oz the Great and Powerful) isn’t given much to do as Barnum’s wife, but Zac Efron (Neighbors) and the formerly unknown to me Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming) have nice supporting roles and a nice musical number together. If you don’t mind a little sap and a little schmaltz, I say give The Greatest Showman a chance.
That Thing You Do! (A-). Today was way too cold to venture out and do anything, so I decided to revisit this old favorite. I could hardly believe it was released in 1996! Anyway, if you like feel-good movies, you should keep this one within arm’s reach at all times. Tom Hanks (A Hologram for the King) wrote, directed, and starred in this rags-to-riches story about an Erie, PA garage band that hits it big circa 1964, with the help of a mostly benevolent manager (Hanks). Tom Everett Scott (Hallmark TV’s Christmas Connection) plays the band’s drummer, a good-natured jazz-lover; Steve Zahn (Sahara) is the goofy guitarist; and cute little Liv Tyler (The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) plays the girlfriend of the band’s moody leader Jimmy (Johnathon Schaech, Flight 7500). The film also features Charlize Theron (Atomic Blonde) in a very early role as the drummer’s girlfriend. Bryan Cranston (Argo) also pops up in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him role (as astronaut Gus Grissom!). The DVD also contains a short making-of featurette, two trailers, several commercials, and two music videos of songs from the movie. This movie is guaranteed to put a smile on your face, so get yourself a copy!
La La Land (B+). To me, musicals are like Westerns—it’s such a novelty when a new one gets made, you just have to go see it. But when I set out to see this new musical from the director of Whiplash, I had no idea it was getting so much love from the critics. Apparently it has lots of Oscar buzz, especially for star Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight). It’s not perfect, but I enjoyed it quite a bit. It hearkens back to the glory days of the movie musical, with a few big, show-stopping song-and-dance numbers, and with the simplest of plots. Aspiring actress Mia (Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling, Crazy, Stupid, Love) meet in Los Angeles, sing some songs, fall in love, sing some more songs, and hit complications in their relationship and their careers. Stone and Gosling aren’t natural-born singers, but they have charisma and chemistry to burn, and they really make the show work. If Rogue One is sold out, why not give La La Land a try?
Moana (B). First we have a short–a cute little story that dramatizes the battle between an office drudge’s fearful brain on the one hand and his excitable heart and stomach on the other. It’s kind of like a radically shortened and simplified Inside Out. The main feature is set in a Polynesian South Seas-type milieu. Moana is the high-spirited daughter of an island chief, and she thrills to her grandmother’s ancient stories of Maui, a trickster demigod who stole a gemstone from an island goddess, only to lose it in a battle with a lava demon. Could the tales be true? Lo! The Ocean itself brings the gemstone to Moana, and she must go on a quest to find Maui (voice of Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas) and force him to return the gemstone to its rightful place, lest a looming wave of darkness overwhelm her people. I give Moana high marks for beautiful visuals, enjoyable musical numbers in the early going, and an appealing heroine. The adventure plot is a little pedestrian, so I wouldn’t put this movie in the same category as first-tier Disney like Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, or Zootopia. Nevertheless, it’s a solid, family-friendly effort.
Sing Street (B-). I’m back from a 10-day holiday, plus an extra week-long sabbatical nursing a bad cold, and I’m eager to see some current releases. This one, from John Carney (director of Begin Again and Once), was OK but a little bit of a disappointment. The year is 1985. A sensitive Dublin teenager named Conor (newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) falls in love with an older girl named Raphina (Lucy Boynton, Miss Potter) and tries to impress her by asking her to be in a music video for his rock band. When she agrees, he has to come up with said band, and the rest of the movie kind of goes from there. I liked a couple of the supporting characters, like Conor’s song-writing buddy who’s strangely fond of rabbits, and Conor’s older brother Brendan, who’s a screw-up but genuinely cares about his little brother and helps him grow his musical taste. Boynton looks a little too old for 16, but she’s a suitably attractive muse; she looks a little like Emma Roberts (We’re the Millers) with a splash of Debbie Gibson (Mega Shark vs. Mecha Shark). Conor’s mom (Maria Doyle Kennedy) looked very familiar, and it turns out she was in another famous Irish rock-n-roll movie, The Commitments. On the downside, Carney makes the Catholic priest who runs his school unnecessarily mean, and implies he’s a predator to boot, and I didn’t care for the movie’s ending at all. So it’s kind of a mixed bag.
She Loves Me, by the Greater Lewisville Community Theatre. I saw this musical three years ago over in Fort Worth and liked it quite well. (Click here for that review.) If you like old-fashioned romantic musical comedy, this is one you should see if you get the chance. The main plot is that two lonely people have fallen in love by writing to each other through a lonely-hearts club, but unbeknownst to them they have also started working together at the same perfume shop—and they can’t stand each other in real life. (The movie You’ve Got Mail is loosely based on the same premise.) Anyhoo, this production’s run ends tomorrow, so my main point is to say a few words about GLCT, which I had never experienced before. In a nutshell, I liked it fine and wouldn’t hesitate to go back. The facility is old and a little time-worn, and the sound system was a little spotty at times. But the theater itself was fine (and cozy, seating maybe 100-120 people I would guess). The performances were mostly good, and a couple of the guys could really sing. And at $22 for a full-price ticket, it won’t break the bank. I’ll be back next time they do a show that catches my eye.
The Last Five Years (C). If this little musical actually played in any theaters in Dallas, I totally missed it. But I read a rave review in The Weekly Standard, and so when I saw the DVD on sale at Target I snapped it up. It didn’t hurt that it stars Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air). It’s based on an off-Broadway show, and it is the story of the romantic journey of Jamie (Jeremy Jordan, TV’s Smash) and Cathy (Kendrick). I’m not giving anything away by revealing that there’s a gimmick: the characters alternate singing songs about their story, but Cathy starts at the end, and Jamie starts at the beginning. So we know from the very first scene how it ends: Jamie takes off, and Cathy is heartbroken. Knowing the destination, how much did I enjoy the ride? Eh, decently well. On the plus side, the performers were good, and Kendrick in particularly gives it her all. A few of the songs are catchy, and the movie moves along briskly, wrapping up in 94 minutes. On the other hand, many of the songs are kind of generic, and the story moves so fast I didn’t feel like I got to know the characters very well. If you like musicals, I say give it a try and see what you think.