Yentl (C). Hm, seems to me that the Magnolia Theater is pushing the limits of what counts as a “classic” in its Tuesday night classic-movie series. Nevertheless, onward! This was my first time see this 1983 musical starring (and directed by) Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl). What can I say? If you want an extra-hearty helping of Ms. Streisand, this is the movie for you. The movie is set in “Eastern Europe” in 1904 (I think that’s what the caption said), and Streisand plays Yentl, a young Jewish woman who scoffs at marriage and wants only to be allowed to study Torah. Alas! Such study is reserved for men! But that’s little obstacle for plucky Yentl, who skedaddles from her small town as soon as her dear old dad dies, disguises herself as a man, and joins the yeshiva in the next town over. She soon falls for her passionate study partner Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin, The Princess Bride), but he’s madly in love with his fiancée Hadass (Amy Irving, Traffic). Oh, and there’s the little detail that he thinks Yentl is a man (although he does seems to get kind of handsy in after-school horseplay with his younger study partner). As the melodrama builds, Yentl pushes her cross-dressing scheme surprisingly far. Anyhoo, the movie was okay, but I didn’t think much of the songs, and I couldn’t quite suspend disbelief at the idea that Streisand (then 40ish) could pass for a Jewish man too young to grow a beard.
The Muppet Movie (C). I’m continuing my romp through the classics with this recent offering from fathomevents.com. Although I enjoyed the muppets TV show in my youth, I never saw this, their first theatrical release, which came out in 1979. Turns out I didn’t miss all that much. It’s the story of how Kermit the Frog (voice of Jim Henson) decided to follow his dream of being an entertainer, left his swamp, and hit the road for Hollywood. It’s a road-trip movie, with Kermit picking up a band of oddballs (Fozzie Bear (voice of Frank Oz), Miss Piggy (Oz), Gonzo (Dave Goelz), etc.) along the way while simultaneously being pursued by a fast-food-frog-legs entrepreneur (Charles Durning, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) who wants Kermit to be his front man, er, frog. The jokes and sight gags really aren’t all that funny, but the frequent musical numbers tend to be better (especially Kermit’s wistful “The Rainbow Connection”). There are loads of celebrity cameos, including Edgar Bergin, Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Mel Brooks, Big Bird, and even Orson Welles, but only Steve Martin’s rude waiter is very funny. I’m glad I saw it, but I doubt I’ll ever watch it again. (I might look for “The Rainbow Connection” on iTunes, though.)
Funny Girl (B). I was back at the Magnolia Theater this past Tuesday night for The Big Movie — the 1968 musical that was Barbra Streisand’s first movie role. In fact, I think this is only the second Streisand movie I have ever seen, the first being What’s Up, Doc?, which I saw on network TV a couple of times when I was a kid. Anyhoo, Funny Girl is a biopic about real life entertainer Fanny Brice, who performed in Ziegfeld’s Follies in the early 20th century. Streisand turns in a rip-roaring performance as Brice and tied with Katharine Hepburn for the best-actress Oscar™. Omar Sharif (Dr. Zhivago) co-stars as the suave gambler who sweeps her off her feet. It was an entertaining movie, but not quite top tier in my book. It’s two and a half hours long, which is kind of long but not long enough to justify the 15-minute intermission we were forced to sit through! Anyway, I say it’s worth seeing if you like musicals.
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.