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.
The Music Man (B). Greetings, loyal readers, and my apologies for the long delay since my last post. Alas, this new review does not involve a new movie. Last week I saw the movie of The Music Man for the first time, and I thought it was very nice. Shirley Jones (Oklahoma!) is just beautiful as Marian the librarian. Robert Preston (How the West Was Won) was previously unknown to me, but I thought he turned in a fine performance. As you probably already know, the story is about a con man whose scam is to blow into a small town, puff up excitement for a new boys’ marching band, sell everyone uniforms and musical instruments, and then skip town without teaching any of the kids to play a note. The Simpsons once did an homage to The Music Man in which the great Phil Hartman voiced a con artist whose racket was to sell monorail systems to towns that didn’t need them. But I digress. I liked The Music Man a lot, but it could have been improved; 2 1/2 hours is way too long, and a few of the songs are so corny that they would not be missed. Still, I enjoyed it.
Pitch Perfect 2 (B-). Second verse—same as the first! Anna Kendrick (Into the Woods) returns as Beca, a leading member of the national-championship-winning Barden Bellas. (That’s a college a capella singing group, in case you missed the first one.) A wardrobe malfunction during a performance attended by President Obama gets the Bellas suspended from stateside competitions, and their only shot at redemption is to win the world championship. You can guess at the trials and tribulations that pad out the movie. And I do mean “pad”; at 115 minutes, the film suffers from several long dead spots. And, like the original, it is unnecessarily vulgar—especially in scenes involving Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, Bridesmaids). But there are also several chuckles to be had, and the elaborate musical numbers are pretty entertaining. Although most of the Bellas graduate from college during this installment, new freshman member Emily (Hailee Steinfeld, The Homesman) can provide a bridge to future sequels if Pitch Perfect 2turns out to be an artistic triumph makes a ton of money. Elizabeth Banks (Our Idiot Brother) both appears and makes her feature-film directorial debut.