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Mamma Mia!

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I feel an utter loss of clinical objectivity as I sit down to write this review. I can say that I had a ball and a half, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve seen this year. Like a similar adored hoot, Hairspray, Mamma Mia is a stage musical adapted to the big screen and stuffed with appealing stars. Where Mamma Mia lacks Hairspray’s deeper satirical touches about intolerance, it gains in sheer fantasy pleasure. Sure, the characters make huge decisions on a dime, mainly to move the plot (yes, there is one), but the joy of Mamma Mia is in all its relationships. And songs. Oh yes, the songs.

Love between girlfriends, new couples, old lovers, mothers & daughters, and the love of a special place on earth entwine like the eye-popping bougainvillea gracing the set. The bride (Amanda Seyfried, surprising me yet again) is adorable. The mother (Meryl Streep, a bottomless pit of delightful surprises) is relatable and cool. The fiancé (Dominic Cooper) is scrumptious. The best friends (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters) — a hoot. The old lovers (Skellan Skarsgard, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth) — dreamy. The Greek chorus is maybe unfairly too anonymous but they are darling.

If you didn’t know, the songs are all ABBA songs, reorchestrated and jiggered a bit to fit the story. Giving Abba Gold a fresh listen, it’s evident their songs were written with a story in mind for each of them, unlike the techno dance hits (uhn-tss-uhn-tss) of more recent years. The songs are, more often than you remember, in a minor key, driving a certain tension, even darkness or danger, below the soaring vocals or peppy tempos. It’s a gleefully appropriate score for a musical about so many kinds of feelings. A happy side effect of the familiar songs, besides being able to sing along loudly in harmony (I please the 5th), is the sense of joining in the moment. Three gal pals burst into song much more often in real life than anti-musical curmudgeons care to admit — but we do it to songs we already know. Roping the audience into this delicious conspiracy feels like a personal invitation into their glee. Using pop songs to carry a musical isn’t only as recent as Across the Universe or Moulin Rouge — lots of Golden Age musicals were scored with serendipitous standards.

Movie musicals also benefits from extra built-in chemistry among the cast due to all the extra rehearsal. A regular film might shoot a love scene on the first day the actors have met! That can’t compete with three intense weeks in sweatpants in a warehouse jumping around like loons together. The staging and choreography is funny and accessible and o-able — more like your friends dancing for pleasure than intense pros West Side Storying it up the lane in tandem. This lends to the “we’re all just winging it” feel which gives the movie a close intimacy (as do the heart-stopping close-ups).

The story is simple: a single mom’s daughter, wondering which of her mom’s old flames is her dad, invites all three candidates to her wedding. Obviously chaos ensues. The stakes are high (paternity!) and the feelings run higher (A daughter! A family! A secret! An old love!) and the whole hard core emotional event is distilled into a rapturous froth from which I have not yet emerged. While the character’s actions are impulsive (even by musical theatre standards), most of them feel like real people whom you might know and adore. Streep’s Donna is so full of life and love and vim that you just want to jump into the movie to lend a hand.

The whole film is moving and fun and scenic and ecstatic, and we cried too. You may already know if this is not your thing, but I hope you take a chance take a take a chance chance on Mamma Mia even if you think you won’t like it. The rest of you who are already in line: bring a diaper — the combined powers of Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan, Dominic Sky, and Phillip Michael will ruin your delicates.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 7/18/08
Time in minutes 108
Director Phyllida Lloyd
Studio Universal Pictures

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La Vie En Rose (La Mome)

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Long did I put off watching this film — it’s lonely watching foreign screeners with no companion and I kept hoping for a reprieve, until finally I had to complete my Oscar ballot. And yet I struggle still to find the words to describe this film. Marion Cotillard’s win? Totally justified. Best make up over Pirates and Norbit? Maybe not Norbit, but it really was extraordinary what they did with Cotillard’s face in close-up throughout the ravages of Piaf’s life. You’re seeing the movie for what’s happening under the makeup, however, and to try and learn a little about the voice of the woman they called their little sparrow.

The story is a wild pendulum portraying Edith Piaf’s childhood in 1918 to her premature dotage in 1963. In those 45 years her body ages 70, and in every scene, 33 year old Cotillard has to find her inner sense of excess. Being totally unfamiliar with her story, I came away from La Vie En Rose with tremendous respect or her talent and resilience, and in awe of the conditions she survived, coming out radiant as a flower in good times, and crushed like a delicate flower in bad times. The movie dwelled much on her losses (and her big breaks), but many questions remain for those of us unschooled in Piaf lore. I was confused by some of the causes even as I felt the emotional effects, thanks to deep performances. Many ancillary people in her life were unexplained or assumed, perhaps. Like a husband!?

The film focuses much more on her being, her inner life, than on her life events, which is in itself riveting, but I still found myself distracted saying, “Who is that guy? When did she get married? Why is she blamed for that death?” And still, much is left for us to infer by her actions. Not knowing why her ailments made her hunch, her pain, her jaundice, into incidental mysteries falling away from their portrayal. Don’t get me wrong, even while lost I was enraptured by Cotillard and the fluid dance o the camera through her world of misery and glamour. Maya Barsony sang where Piaf herself was not on the soundtrack, but Cotillard sells it with fire. The voice is unique, the story even more so, but the overall pleasure of the movie is Cotillard dragging us by the hand so effortlessly through so many years of this icon’s life.

Written and directed by Olivier Dahan, La Vie En Rose is a love poem, full of images and metaphor, to the immense voice and spirit of the Little Sparrow. It is a film truly worthy of your attention and I hope that you will exert the effort to see it.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 2/14/07 (belgium)
Time in minutes 140
Director Olivier Dahan
Studio Picturehouse

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If you (like me) missed this in the theatre, this is a tender little ultralow budget movie about the intimate connection of making music. It could sort of be described as a musical, since 60 percent of it (per the director) is musical performance. However, the warm folkiness of the songs and their generally non-narrative-pushing content make it feel more like a long, lovely home movie of a short portion of two people’s lives. The two leads, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, are credited only as Guy and Girl, lending their story the sweet universality of a song.

It could also sort of be described as a romance, since 70 percent of it is the sparkling chemistry between its leads. Hansard and Irglova were already acquainted musically and socially before making this film, so their lack of acting experience disappears under their easy, vaguely crushed-out vibe and their music performances. Hansard himself wrote the songs attributed to him, and Irglova wrote or collaborated on others, so the magical flow of creating a song together flows truly through them.

The film takes place in Dublin, Ireland, a land chockablock with accents thick and thin, but more importantly, a vibrant, ever-present culture of music and bonhomie. Our leads attend a party where, later in the evening, the table littered with bottles and forgotten dishes, everyone is expected to make and share in song. I felt this was significant because while music is clearly in the blood of our Guy and Girl (she is Czech, not Irish, but it matters not), it is also in the very air around them.

I drifted briefly into a nostalgic haze recalling evening witnessing my talented college friends plucking beautiful songs out of the air and capturing them like butterflies in a jar on mealy cassette tapes. It’s so pleasurable to be in that environment, and equally pleasurable to watch these two connect on a level different from (but comparable to) a romantic one, The whole film as a very voyeuristic/long-lens home video feel, as if these two happened to bump into each other on camera, and the camera just tagged along for a short time. Their “once” creates something really special, no matter where their lives take them after. Director of Photography Tim Fleming makes us a collaborator in the moment, as I so vainly felt in those college music sessions long ago.

The songs themselves have a really pleasant ache to them, a folksy melancholy but also beautiful melodies. They feel home-grown too – pouring confidence but not arrogance out of their instruments and voices with a sweet naturalness. Their individual songwriting is brought to life by the other, while the complications in their lives remain firmly in place. Once is a sweet, gentle, lovely musical about songwriting, one which I think you may enjoy.

MPAA Rating R-language
Release date 3/23/07
Time in minutes 85
Director John Carney
Studio Fox Searchlight

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Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

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Dewey Cox is a man whose life started hard, but the music carried him through. Walk Hard, if you couldn’t tell by the preview, is a parody of music biopics. These films, especially of late, have had a certain strange formula (despite the disparity of their subjects) that was indeed ripe for gentle mockery. Honestly, how strangely similar were Walk The Line and Ray? But Walk Hard is not making a mockery of the music or the musicians. It only playfully takes the teases the filmmakers and the conventions that have developed in telling these tortured artists’ stories. These biopic directors are trying to make a myth out of a man; instead they reduce him to a formulaic punchline.

Had the great Christopher Guest made this movie, it would have been a grimly funny character study, accurate in tone, but likely not as silly and hilarious as this one. Director Jake Kasdan (The Zero Effect, The TV Set) wrote the script with reigning überkind Judd Apatow, with every wink and telegraphed plot point in place. The result is not what could have been a self-satisfied mug fest “aren’t we clever” – instead it is a fun, “hey guys, let’s put on a show” romp starring seemingly everyone in the current comedy universe, from Craig Robinson to Harold Ramis and just about everyone inbetween. It’s only Matinee price because it is occasionally a little sketch comedy “see where this is going, tee hee” but it’s a fun ride. You’ll have to see it twice just to process the cameos.

Walk Hard makes fun of the formula, makes fun of the self-importance of these biopics, makes fun of the black and white portrayals of the supporting characters, and even the cultural naivete of the eras Cox lives through. One thing it does not do, however, is make fun of the actual music. The songs in Walk Hard are great. When it’s right, they can be funny (Mama You Gots To Love Your Negro Man, Let’s Duet) but they are always musically sound work you’d want to listen to again and again. John C. Reilly (playing Cox from age 14 onward) sings with the natural enthusiasm of a man born to this life – he becomes Cox. As the women in his life, Kristen Wiig and Jenna Fischer fulfill their archetypes with “I’m not just The Girl” gusto. (Groovy acoustic solo artist Angela Correa sings smokily for Jenna.)

Reilly is always dead serious, even when loudly braying a cornball joke – he doesn’t wink. The movie does, all around him. It’s a loving tribute to the biopic genre as much as a treatise on the absurdity of portraying an artist’s lifetime of influences in a neat, linear package, godly as well. What you will walk out of Walk Hard with though is a hankering for more Dewey Cox songs. Be sure to stay through the credits for a little bonus.

MPAA Rating R-sexual content, drug use, language, nudity
Release date 12/21/07
Time in minutes 96
Director Jake Kasdan
Studio Columbia Pictures

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Sweeney Todd

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The moment this film was announced, theatre freaks and Goths clenched up in anticipation. Tim Burton! Johnny Depp! Really, probably only Guillermo del Toro could come close to being a second viable choice to helm this project. At least we know they will get how very epic and dark Sweeney Todd should be. My companion and I, Sweeney fans who have each worked on a production, could track every change. We could applaud the necessary and difficult cuts (Parlor Songs) and puzzle over the omissions (the chorus part in God, That’s Good). Fans, a spoiler: there is NO chorus part, and it is indeed distracting. That said, because we know were every neon-red drop of blood was meant to fall, the screenplay choices were not troublesome in terms of following the story. I would love to hear from someone not familiar with the show on this.

But how is it, you press urgently. I confess I had trouble because of certain favorite moments being eliminated – an unfair assessment of the film as its own work, I grant. The sets are gorgeous – grungy, dark, evil, stylized, but still solid. The costumes and makeup (save Johnny’s synthetic white streak, wicking away blood like so much rainwater) are richly layered in desaturated squalor and grime. It is a lifeless, dreary London, through which blood boils like, well, a city on fire. (Yes, omitted).

Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are both simply too beautiful and young looking to fully inhabit these roles visually. Depp certainly has the wild-eyed intensity that is needed, and Bonham-Carter has the doe-eyed cleverness and wit. Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin and Timothy Spall as the Beadle? Perfection. Sacha Baron Cohen as Pirelli – I knew he would nail the quick patter and fey flamboyance, but could he sing it? Yes! My companion had troubles with his overly impeccable accent work (my trouble was with Bonham-Carter’s wispy diction) but he made Pirelli the hilarious rat he needs to be.

Newcomer Jayne Wisener (Johanna) is a china doll of a gal, a slip of a girl who opens her cherubic mouth and gives her “Green Finch and Linnet Bird” solo wings I never knew it had when sung by older voices. Another newcomer, Ed Sanders as Toby, steals the show from the big names by being perfectly earnest and vulnerable and singing his hard songs with real beauty. Finally, as Jonathan, Jamie Campbell Bower seems too young and pretty to be the lovestruck sailor, but his sweet voice helped prop up Sondheim’s difficult score where the amateurs flag a bit. All of these folks, when I saw them listed, seemed far too young, but this film showed me that they were really more age appropriate than the grownups that usually limn their roles on stage.

Oh wait, who am I forgetting? Right, Depp and Bonham-Carter. I confess I am very sad that Depp’s tenor cannot grab you by your crumpet in the same way a full baritone can. The whole score felt like the bass section had been discreetly snuck out of the back door, robbing the instrumentals of much of their oomph. His pitch, his styling, his acting-while-singing is all great, it just felt wan compared to the material. Bonham-Carter’s voice for the most part is soft, reedy, and precisely clipped, not brassy or balls to the wall either. In a duet with Toby, it’s a lovely effect, but in the darkly comic “A Little Priest” (best staging ever!) it lacks gravy. She and Johnny both sang out at one point and I got excited, hoping for more.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it is a musical, but even at its most Broadway, it’s no Oklahoma, It’s dark, dissonant, miserable, and brilliant. Come on, murder, cannibalism, abuse, revenge, depravity, all in song? Burton goes a step further, removing any inorganic group singing and keeping it intimate, close, tiny. At first this drove me bananas. Why do I see a movie of a musical if not to see MORE HOT PIES? But upon spirited reflection with my wise cohort, we found it to be (paradoxically) more centrist despite its extreme themes. Musical-haters don’t have to endure glorious kicklines of strangers (I’m looking at you, Hairspray) and opera lovers can focus on the leads’ close-in performances. Burton also eludes the disease that made his Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory not quite gel.

As an added bonus, if someone sees the movie and then goes to see a stage production, the play will blow their brains open because it won’t be in the shadow of Biggest Production Ever from the silver screen (I’m looking at you, Chicago). Burton’s Sweeney Todd is very different, but it’s a solid movie.

MPAA Rating R-graphic bloody violence
Release date 12/21/07
Time in minutes 117
Director Tim Burton
Studio Dreamworks / Warner Brothers

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Across The Universe

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Director Julie Taymor made a splash with her wildly popular and visually original stage production of the Lion King. She brought her hyperreal artistic sensibilities successfully to Titus and Frida on screen. In Across the Universe, Taymor makes a sort of movie musical out of Beatles songs, sung live by the characters. Their music (or is the quote about John Lennon’s music?) has been described as the “soundtrack of our lives” by Baby Boomers, with some justification. It definitely bridges the first and second halves of the 20th century perfectly, from perfect head in the sand “status quo is nifty” to the cultural revolution that started in the 1960’s. So it makes sense to take the lives of some people who are straddling that divide and score it with Beatles songs; and it is delightful to have Taymor in charge of visually interpreting the bridge.

My companion turned to me after the movie and said, “How much of that film did you like?” I said 2/3 without even thinking. He said, with some amazement, “Me too! I first thought a half but then I found it was 2/3.” What third did we not like? A complaint I have frequently leveled against the Boomer generation is their astounding (and, admittedly, precedence- and trend-setting) narcissism, In the drug-addled 1960’s, this was played out by trying to change the world by doing drugs and “opening their minds” and changing perceptions, man. How self-involved is that? From their miraculous post-war natation to their being of age when minority children are being gunned down for wanting equal rights, they have been a focus of attention. What does this have to do with Across the Universe? Everything.

For the very first time, after all the Big Chills and Born on the Fourth of Julys and all these Boomer movies, Across the Universe really gave me a glimpse into that era so close before my own. I felt connected with the post-Korean, pre-Vietnam anxiety, the horrors of Kent State and the riots – the passions which have since been buried by apathy and numbness. It was thrilling to peek into this window that had been shown to me so many times but never engaged me in such a way. After “A Little Help From My Friends” (annoyingly, not on the soundtrack album), I made the decision to buy the DVD. Huzzah!

And a little while passed and it was good, I was loving it. Then, the dropout period started – the psychedelia, Dr. Robert-worshipping painted-love-bus-riding, commune-crashing insane pointless clowny circus tripping happened. It was too long, too pointless, too boring, and not even as visually rewarding as the other segments. It was agonizingly self-involved and dreadful, infuriating. I cringed with regret to tell my friend, an Eddie Izzard devotee, that he was the main event of the “worst” part of the movie. They had me, for the first time I had been captured by the Boomer experience, and then they lost me in a swirl of ridiculous boredom. Plot, time, place, anything was lost. At the beginning of the movie I had felt we were being forced to care about people we hardly knew, but then they grabbed us all at once; after the wild purposelessness of Act II, they had to start again from scratch.

They did get me back, with or after “Happiness is a Warm Gun” (my notes were hard to read) and the rest of the movie was back to very good. But man, am I mad about Act II! I like musicals, I enjoy crazy abstraction done with a purpose like Moulin Rouge, but this lengthy and aimless segment really tried my patience.

Taymor’s art direction and staging is awesome. The arrangements of these songs are super-rich and full without being “modernized.” I thought these arrangements really showcased the complexities and interest of the Beatles’ melodies beautifully. The singing and acting is great, the army section was fantastic. It’s a good movie – but when the LSD bus comes to town, you won’t regret a trip to the lobby.

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 9/14/07 (limited)
Time in minutes 131
Director Julie Taymor
Studio Columbia Pictures

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I love love love the Broadway soundtrack to Hairspray.  So much, in fact, that I went without dinner and still bounced a check in order to own it, it’s so infectious and cheerful and fun.  Marc Shaiman’s music (South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut, Down With Love) can capture a feeling in a bottle like no one else in the business today.  Even with Harvey Fierstein croaking out the notes for Edna Turnblad, it’s a delish disc.  When they announced the casting of John Travolta in the role (originated in the 1988 movie by legendary drag queen Divine), I was more than a little nervous.  Mr. Travolta has rarely been a pleaser for me.  The rest of the cast (and the score) drew me in and tickled me pink, but John had me clutching my companion in ecstasy.  As in the original film, Edna being played by a man is done with nary a wink.  Travolta even moves like a woman, a common lack in other comedy drag.  Pairing an established hoofer/crooner like Travolta with an equally skilled one like Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, Pulp Fiction) is priceless.

But I digress.  Hairspray is really the story of Tracy Turnblad (newcomer Nikki Blonsky) and the segregated dance world of 1962 Baltimore.  Blonsky is plump, sweet, firey, charming, funny, and has some serious moves.  Her opening solo is simultaneously a warm sincere monologue and a huge production number starring one person.  Blonsky and director Adam Shankman (ignore his filmography) successfully give us what appears to be so hard to convey on the big screen:  that full-to-bursting feeling of joy that inspires musicals but rarely inhabits them.  At no point did anyone breaking into song in a scene feel telegraphed or artificial, it was just right in that world.  Shankman has broken the code and made the movie musical accessible to detractors again.  (Full disclosure: I am so not one of those detractors!)  The original film was only one chromosome way from being a musical anyway, but unlike say, The Producers, Hairspray’s songs demand to be sung and there’s no extraneous or gratuitous blather.  Also unlike the Producers musical movie, Hairspray doesn’t feel weird and flat.

Plenty of numbers are shot in small spaces (in a house, a bus, a hallway) and feel intimate, but not cramped.  The difference is the minimalist shots – just straight on with few cuts, giving us the ramping energy and build up without annoying us with unnecessary close-ups or inserts.  The scenes explode with energy and emotion and the yummiest costumes since I don’t know when.  Rita Ryack is my new movie costume hero.  I love that era and she makes it sing, scene after scene.  The movie never feels overblown or exaggerated, just a view of a world of high energy people doing what they do naturally, like your theatre friends at a bar.  Even the extras have great little things to do.  Watch for at least 3 very special low-key cameos. Hairspray feels like a bunch of friends putting on a great show, not a craven bid to cash in on a stage sensation.

James Marsden plays Corny Collins, a cartoonish TV host with an eponymous teen dance show, the focus of Tracy’s life.  Now, I have never previously warmed up to him as an actor (see: X-Men, Superman Returns) but I could not take my eyes off him any time he was onscreen – he’s got the vibe, the moves, the pipes, and he is hilarious.  Go James!  I’m sorry I accused you of sleeping your way into the role of Cyclops.

Zac Efron has a big following from his stint with High School Musical, but acquits himself as more than just a real life Tiger Beat sensation in 2007 by playing a Teen Beat sensation of 1962 with unwinking, sweet sincerity.  OK, he winks, but he’s not winking at the camera.

All the casting is perfect, melding the actors’ personae and filmography and make it look as if they were just being driven to this film over the course of their careers.  Elijah Kelly (Seaweed), Brittany Snow (Amber) and Taylor Parks (Lil’ Inez) should burst into the public consciousness with their performances along with their famous co-stars.

As the cherry on the delicious, fattening sundae, my dancer friend confirmed that the dancing is indeed quite awesome.  Shankman has a lot of choreography in his background, but this takes the cake.  Hairspray is a frothy musical about the deep topics of hate due to race, weight, or background, and of course it centers it on following your dream and your heart.  It couldn’t be more positive if it had an extra proton, and it’s hilarious and beautifully done.  Please, see it on the big screen.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 7/20/07
Time in minutes 107
Director Adam Shankman
Studio New Line Cinema

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ShowBusiness: The Road to Broadway

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Filmmaker Dori Berinstein knows her stuff.  She began this documentary at the beginning of the 2003-2004 Broadway season, choosing four musicals to follow through to the 2004 Tonys.  She chose Wicked, Avenue Q, Caroline, or Change, and Taboo to follow from pre-production through the awards show.  Luckily, they were all nominated, though not equally.  If you don’t already know how those awards went down, don’t look it up online, because she shot their concurrent stories with a great nailbiter pace building up to the results.  If you aren’t interested in the business part of show business, however, there’s still a lot of behind the scenes with performers and audience to keep your interest.  If you think this is just an excuse to showcase a bunch of songs, you’re wrong – the tastes of the shows are tantalizingly brief.  A Tony award or boffo box office are not, in themselves, pure indicators of superiority, but of course in this business called Show, “winner of three Tony Awards” is just as effective an audience builder as Oscars are for movies or Grammy albums.

At the outset, each of these musicals has something going against it:  Wicked has a massive fourteen million dollar budget; Caroline, or Change (besides it’s awkward title) has a grim, declarative score and story, rather than being escapist; Taboo is a rock musical about Boy George growing up gay in London, which can be a difficult topic or genre to digest; Avenue Q is a very adult-themed show dressed up as a kiddie puppet show.  What’s great about this movie for me, coming from a community theatre (read: mostly donated time and resources) standpoint, is even though these people are more openly profit-driven, career performers, and professional artists, they still have the same passion that makes us amateurs do it for free after a 40 hour work week.

Berinstein seems to know everyone – the access she gets is amazing (maybe co-producer and Brodway stalwart Alan Cumming helped too).  She shoots rehearsals, workshops, songwriting sessions, street performances, press dinners, opening night ceremonies, CD recording sessions, even riding in the limo with one Tony nominee.  She also captures the moment when some of the nominations are announced on television (by Tony host Hugh Jackman, a master at that craft) and the nominees find out for the first time.  It’s incredibly prescient of Berinstein to know where to be and get in there, especially with four shows and the ephemeral nature of the collaborative process.

The critics have great quotes about their (uninformed or not) predictions for these shows.  The fans are flushed with intensity – Show Business sees them not as bank vaults to be plundered, but as rabid, adoring consumers to be satisfied.  It’s a rosy and warty look at what makes the big shows happen, and what makes them tick.  I hope you’ll see it, even if you’re not “into” musical theatre – it’s really well done.

MPAA Rating PG
Release date 5/11/07 (limited)
Time in minutes 102
Director Dori Berinstein
Studio Regent Releasing

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Whether it wants to admit it or not, Dreamgirls wants to be this year’s Chicago – a splashy, gorgeous adaptation of a beloved 1970-80’s Broadway hit. Screenwriter/director Bill Condon (whose screenplay for Chicago was nominated for an Oscar) has the chops to adapt it, but the Dreamgirls show itself lacks the dark fantasy of Chicago to balance out the intrinsic whimsy of a musical. This is not a flaw (and heaven knows I love me whimsy and darkness), but it’s comparing apples with Oscar-winning oranges.

With that expectation eliminated, let’s talk about Dreamgirls’ virtues, which are major:

1. It has a difficult, two-decade spanning songbook from the beginnings of the black/white rock/R&B fusion through the early, pan-ethnic but soul-free disco era.

2. It has a powerhouse cast of singers who happen also to be good actors, or is it actors who are great singers? Either way, bonanza.

3. A mélange of delectable hair and clothing fashions from the 20th Century’s most politically tumultuous period.

4. A good stage-to-screen adaptation which elevates what could have been just a musical revue into a real journey and echoes the real cultural icons of the time.

5. Kick ass orchestrations by either composer Henry Krieger or someone did not bother to credit.

6. Hey-wait-that-was-amazing camera shots byTobias A. Schliessler.

That list is enough to recommend the film right there. Eddie Murphy comes in swinging as Jimmy Early, a James Brown-esque star of the ilk that made Camelot-era white folks uncomfortable but who changed pop music forever. He’s frigging great. Jamie Foxx, definitely taking pains not to ride on his laurels after Ray, gives guts to his intensely amoral and charismatic charmer. Anika Noni Rose is all sweetness and light and then slams you with a slow burn and her own solo-worthy pipes. Beyonce Knowles is nearly unrecognizable (though breathlessly beautiful) in period eyebrows and the modest but sexy fashions of the era. She has left Foxxy Cleopatra behind and proved she can act and act mighty fine; perhaps she is unconsciously emulating Diana Ross back when she too surprised us all in Lady Sings The Blues.

Finally, the restless audience clapped for “and introducing Jennifer Hudson as Effie.” My word! She has a difficult character to play, a difficult song to own (redefining showstopper and breakdown in the process) and she absolutely rocks this movie to its core. For those like me who were unaware, she was an American Idol contestant who was voted off somewhat early and sparking much popular protest. Knowing that does give Effie’s journey some extra weight and charge, but even ignorant as I was, Hudson ruled. Take that, Idol, she might get an Oscar nomination thanks to your mistake. Beats doing a Ford commercial.

Despite the smooth script and gorgeous photography, including unusual and affecting shots and fabulous in-camera transitions, I found the editing to be terrible. I rarely notice such things, but the cuts were rhythmically jarring and weird throughout the movie. I found myself distracted often, and it wasn’t because there was nothing holding my attention.

That aside, Dreamgirls the film manages the simple message of Dreamgirls the play with aplomb – hearts before business, the team before the diva, dreams can come true of you pull together, don’t screw people over just for a buck, and a reminder of how much American music owes to African-American artists. Good, solid, and true. Nothing new, but everything infectious and terrific. Enjoy.

Comments Off on The Producers

The Producers

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Susan Strohman brought this musical stage adaptation of the 1968 Mel Brooks film to Broadway in 2001 and the entire universe simply had to have it. Now Strohman brings exactly that show (but with a few more locations) to the big screen. It’s like the fanciest A&E/BBC presentation of a stage hit ever made. When I say exactly that show (I did only see the touring production but still), I mean, the stage show, complete with head-turning poses for reaction shots, follow spot operators during a gooey love number, and (I swear) pauses for laughter. Well, to be honest, it had a lot of classic 1940s and 1950s movie musical look to it as well. (Think Singing In The Rain.) Robin Wagner designed the show and took those sets right to the film studio, but he did contribute to the additions as well. The cameras are stationary, gazing upon two walls of any given room, never passing through doorways or panning more than 90 degrees to one side. The lights are colorful, rich, full, and all over the place (but invisible). The actors are enormously hammy, in the way that audiences have creamed their jeans over and hocked their jewels in order to enjoy since the show opened.

So, does that mean it’s a good movie? If you have never seen musical theatre performed live, or if the old Hollywood musicals are surreal confections of horror to you, then you should not, repeat NOT see this movie. The 2005 film version of the 2001 stage version of the 1968 film of the Producers is so incredibly self-reflexive at this point, so purposefully nodding at the legacy that brought it to the screen, that unless you have a dial in your aesthetic for this kind of entertainment, it will turn you right off. That said, if you are any kind of self-respecting theatre or movie musical geek, you will love it (so bump it up to Matinee for you folks).

I actually liked it better than the touring show that I saw; this could be the inimitable Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick chemistry, and it could also be a reason related to the supporting cast (I’ll get to them in a minute). When I saw the stage show, I knew that the actors, bless them (and they weren’t the ones LA got to see either) were trying to fill some big shoes, but I had heard all the songs before and so those jokes had already shot their wad on me. All that was left was brilliant set pieces and hilarious staging, which that production had like crazy. This film, however, somehow made the big numbers fresh again. Whether that was through the extended freedom of having two million chorus members instead of 10, or having great locations like the fountain from the 1968 film, or the “new” supporting cast, whatever happened, I liked it.

Uma Thurman and Will Ferrell replace the original cast members from the show (including, controversially, Tony nominee Brad Oscar as Franz Liepkind). Initially I balked at such blatant studio interference, disgusted with their dismissal of cast members who had performed so admirably onstage when making a film version. They kept the Tony winner Gary Beach (Roger DeBris) and nominee Roger Bart (Carmen Ghia) (and they are delightful). However, Uma and Will brought something new and exciting to the table: their newness and enthusiasm. Consummate professionals Lane and Broderick may be, and experienced film actors as well, but they felt more as if they were being bronzed by the making of this film, whereas Uma and Will approached it like they were getting their first big break. They were a splash of color in a well-staged, well-directed, but strangely flat splashy movie musical. I was even disappointed in the onscreen production of “Springtime for Hitler” which was nowhere near as gaudy and decadent as the touring company’s version, and focused more on DeBris’ embarrassing fey swishiness. Mel Brooks knows what makes people laugh (and knew even better back before the Reagan era) but when you have two movie studios footing the bill and an impeccable staff, can’t you make the pivotal comedic scene in a classic, crass, racist, avaricious, lascivious, campy, satirical story more than being about how hilariously gay people walk?

MPAA Rating PG-13
Release date 12/25/05
Time in minutes 134
Director Susan Stroman
Studio Universal/Columbia