Welcome to the game of poems as Peter Dinklage spryly assumes the titular character of Joe Wright’s unusual romantic comedy musical adaptation of Cyrano (B-). To assess this Sicily-set film’s patchwork charms, one has to separate the generally high quality of the story and production values from the confounding and often distracting music and dance choices. Dinklage is quite charismatic and empathetic as the misfit linguist and warrior, and Haley Bennett is a luminous and appealing Roxane in a classic tale of seemingly unrequited love. Surprisingly for a film so steeped in words, the lyrics of the songs by members of the band the National are pretty consistently banal. Dinklage and co-stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. as dashing Christian and Ben Mendelsohn as diabolical De Guiche display a bit of a “gargling with razor blades” vocal quality. Thankfully Bennett is in lovely voice as the lone member of the ensemble who doesn’t sound like she’s singing in the shower. Like its lead character, the film has a sly and scrappy approach, and there are mercifully a total of three music sequences that work at least on some levels. Expect to be slackjawed at times and bowled over at others as the film struggles mightily with its sense of time and place and its curious sonic structure. It’s a scruffy, uneven mess with occasional madcap moments of blissful romance. The movie is recommended for viewers who would naturally find this kind of lavish, cerebral content alluring and not so much for others.
Adapting Shakespeare is a delicate art, making that plot and poetry resonate as a stage and movie musical even more of a deft craft and remaking a classic an act of delirious derring-do, so it’s no small feat that Steven Spielberg’s carefully considered revival of West Side Story (A-) is very often a resplendent triumph. This dramatic song and dance retelling of the Romeo and Juliet story circa 1950s New York City as star-crossed lovers yearn for a safe haven amidst a concrete landscape of rival gang feuds is a veritable cauldron of social issues, and Spielberg’s frequent screenwriter Tony Kushner further modernizes and recontextualizes many of the happenings to heighten the work’s modern resonance. Spielberg’s instincts for musical sequences are impeccable, and he has in Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler a magnetic pair in fine voice; their immediate romantic attraction is palpable and they are both wonderful in iconic roles. Supporting characters are roundly commendable as well, especially Mike Faist and David Alvarez as the charismatic gang leaders and Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno as supportive confidantes, the latter adding soothing resonance in the fabric of the extended WSS universe. The handsome production design and dreamlike cinematography are impressive; the dancing kinetic and the fighting muscular. Spielberg’s spellbinding mastery of the creative form is almost a character in itself; he makes clever go for broke choices and is clearly in an element he’s envisioned for decades. Ultimately the original source material is the only thing holding this enterprise back, what with the text stimulating both expectations and limitations. Spielberg’s production doesn’t completely answer the question as to why a re-telling needs to exist, but it nonetheless pulses with vitality and verve as its own singular entity. Around each street corner and sumptuous sequence, he demonstrates something’s coming indeed, something quite good.
Imagine being super average in a pantheon of magical creations; yes, I’m referring to both the central character of Disney’s latest animated film as well as the movie itself. A Colombian girl faces the frustration of being the only member of her family without superpowers in Encanto (C+) co-directed by Jared Bush, Byron Howard and Charise Castro Smith. Stephanie Beatriz is the tentative voice of protagonist Mirabel; and to her defense, she does ultimately get a better showcase after a spotty first act (even her “I want” number at the film’s opening is virtually indecipherable and atonal). The breakneck animation quality and the drudgery of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s very subpar catalogue of B-sides don’t help matters as the plucky misfit pieces together a mystery causing a fission in her family’s fantastical abode. As the frosty Ambuela Alma, María Cecilia Botero gets a thankless role basically blaming the heroine for her every move; it’s quite tedious for a while and punctuated with more awkward folk hip hop. Neither John Leguizamo nor any of the sprawling cast really stand out or fare much better in the overly complex story. Then there are finally some decent emotional moments as the film reaches its crescendo, not really enough to recommend a watch.
There aren’t too many movies about writers creating new work in the musical theatre idiom, although All That Jazz and De Lovely come to mind, but the autobiographical show about rejection, healing and the creative process authored by Rent creator Jonathan Larson is intriguing fodder for a feature film. Under the first-time directorial helm of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tick…Tick…Boom! (B+) casts Andrew Garfield as Larson on the verge of age 30, living in 1990 New York, waiting tables and hoping desperately the workshop of his futuristic musical Superbia will put him on the proverbial map and somehow rescue him from the punishing grind. Garfield’s characterization is wild-eyed and eccentric, like a mad scientist with dulcet voice at the keyboard; despite spending a full movie with him, the character still feels a bit at arm’s length. The show-within-a-show structure complicates matters a bit too; and Miranda’s scrapbook meets memory play presentation of it all overstuffs a little too much peripheral detail into the mix to prove his savant-like knowledge of the composer’s career. But there are large parts of the film that really resonate, especially fantasy sequences such as a tuxedo and tap style number introducing high-class living, a diner transforming into performance art and an 11 o’clock duet number blending criss-crossing female voices like a cosmic moment in time. Amidst a whole bunch of Broadway cameos, Robin de Jesus and Laura Benanti shine in sterling supporting moments. Alexandra Shipp is a powerhouse and Vanessa Hudgins a delight in underdeveloped and bifurcated roles. Garfield largely succeeds in carrying most of the momentum on his shoulders and acquits himself nicely with some soaring final act ballads. It all feels a bit like a less urgent prequel to Rent, what with the starving artists, bohemian living and battle against AIDS tropes, but theatre lovers and those working to create their own opus will find much here with which to relate. Even when the behind the music motifs seem strangely surface, watching Garfield’s Larson is still a wunderkind to behold.
Tunefully tackling mental health, cancel culture and the nature of truth in the Internet age – and none of these topics with much dexterity – Stephen Chbosky’s mixed bag musical movie of Dear Evan Hansen (B-) nonetheless provides an absorbing showcase for an ensemble of female actress/singers who wave into a window of emotions more authentic than that of the film’s male lead. Call it Medicated High School Musical, and call it like it is that Ben Platt’s character translates awkwardly from the Great White Way to the silver screen. Platt is mostly crooning to the mezzanine balconies while Chbosky lenses the actor’s histrionics in awkward close-ups which reveal he is powdered in age-reducing prosthetics to reprise the lauded teenage performance he created nearly a decade ago on stage. The cinema canvas also surfaces flaws in the Broadway source material, namely that the audience is meant to sympathize with a character whose mounting lies prove to undermine his perceived good intentions. The characters breaking out into song isn’t really explained or consistent and can be confusing when one of them actually plays guitar as a plot device; and since emotion is already heightened, there’s often not much higher to go in some pedestrian presentational soliloquies. Were the YouTube fans meant to like the speech or the song? One must suspend a good bit of disbelief. However, let’s get to the good stuff, because there are many highlights in this overlong but often moving enterprise. First, the music is flawless, including two solid new songs to add to favorites such as “You Will Be Found.” The film is chock full of stunning female talent: Amandla Stenberg as an activist classmate whose tune “The Anonymous Ones” is a highlight, Amy Adams and Kaitlyn Dever as a mother and daughter recoiling from tragedy in earnest songs such as “Requiem” and “Only Us,” and Julianne Moore whose final reel “So Big/So Small” is a heartbreaker. Platt does indeed shine in many of his scenes of comedy and intense singing, even though the director should have reigned him in and clarified many aspects of the character. And Colton Ryan as a troubled classmate is so captivating in his two major sequences that it’s surprising he didn’t nab the lead role. Still, the parts of this story that work and surprise have the capacity to genuinely touch hearts and minds about the tug of war of man versus his worst instincts in a quest to belong. The film and its protagonist are often a tangled mess, but musical fans will likely grant Chbosky, Platt and company a full pardon for some of their missteps in bringing such an emotional wallop to the screen.
Cue the catchy overtures, swirling footlights and confetti cannons because the unhinged and hilarious musical movie event of the year is hoofing its way into the streaming services of Middle America. Down-on-their-luck Broadway stars shake up a small Indiana town as they rally behind a teen who wants to attend the high school dance with her girlfriend in director Ryan Murphy’s joyous musical TheProm (A-). Luminous newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman is the friend of Dorothy at the film’s center whose big-hearted journey down the mellow brick road to the year’s big party involves larger-than-life troubadours who imbue the townsfolk with star quality, bravery, tolerance and a beguiling Bob Fosse tinged talent called “zazz.” Casting for the ensemble is simply inspired, including delicious diva Meryl Streep, foppish godmother James Corden, oblivious blowhard Andrew Rannells and spunky day-drinking chorus girl Nicole Kidman. Murphy deftly balances a tender central tale with acerbic showbiz insider antics for a film entertaining, uplifting and heartbreaking in equal doses. If anything this celebrity goodie bag may be overstuffed with too much, but it’s hard to resist a singing and dancing variety show packed with ample doses of genuine homespun love. The themes of acceptance and reconciliation are a well timed clarion call to the better angels of our national consciousness, and it’s all gift wrapped in glitter for the age of Twitter. The glorious music, clever lyrics and fabulous choreography come together with precision especially in the youthquake euphoria of tunes such as “You Happened,” “Time to Dance,” and “Unruly Heart.” Keegan-Michael Key as the high school principal gets a lovely grace note in an ode to theatre called “We Look to You,” earning the first of many tear-jerking vignettes. For musical lovers, this Prom is a punch bowl of sweet and tart ingredients sure to rouse, stupefy and please.
After all the accolades afforded Lin-Manuel Miranda’s late 1700s historical hip hopera, its stage director and now movie helmer Thomas Kail scores the mic drop of best filmed play as well. If Disney’s Hall of the Presidents pulled a Night at the Museum, springing to multiethnic sung-through life on a spare set with a turntable, you’d have a beginning approximation of the experience that is Hamilton (A). This political pageant with shades of Jesus Christ Superstar and a mixtape of modern music genres depicts a new American nation engaged in a battle for its soul with its titular renaissance man (played by Miranda) making unexpected impact on the laws, lifestyle and legacy of tender through-composed territory. Themes such as the duel between independence and interdependence and the multidimensionality of a man give the proceeding a glorious gravitas. Kail’s multi-camera presentation of the live performance plunges viewers right into the ensemble, dotted with audience reactions and even a one-minute intermission helping punctuate some theatrical conventions such as Act 2 double castings. All the creative moments – from the graceful choreography to cabinet meetings staged as rap battles to fancy flashbacks with the exceptional Renée Elise Goldsberry and show stoppers like Leslie Odom Jr’s “The Room Where it Happens” roundly resonate in close-up. It’s as exciting as a document of a sassily syncopated staged play can be on screen. Plus it’s a satisfying document of a highly resonant work made even more profound as a nation still grapples with identity and destiny.
Don’t judge a talented ensemble by its misbegotten digital feline fur cover. Once you get past the regrettable and slightly creepy augmented Snapchat aesthetic, Tom Hooper’s adaptation of the musical Cats (B-) hits some pretty nifty notes. Ardent evan-Jellicles of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic tuner based on T.S. Eliot’s poems about ragtag whiskered strays vying for redemption will find there’s a terrific theatrical bravura and a deft, often dreamlike showmanship beneath the layers of the bizarro production design. After a high-energy and effective opener, there are admittedly a few comedic clunkers (I’m looking at you, Rebel Wilson and James Corden!) before the likes of Dame Judi Dench, Sir Ian McKellan and even Taylor Swift put their impish imprint on some rather well sung, elaborately staged and choreographed kitty ditties. Some of the scale and CGI effects defy logic, but you’ve got to suspend belief a bit anyway since you’re watching a fantasy about crooning human/cat hybrids after all. This material has never been known for having a cogent plot; in fact, Hooper shapes and improves the narrative though-line a bit from its stage origins with a sense that the characters are caught up in an actual contest. Ballet impresario Francesca Hayward is divine as the spirited protagonist, as are talented dancer/singers Robert Fairchild and Laurie Davidson in some of the less star-driven roles. Jennifer Hudson does a helluva “Memory,” and the new Lloyd Webber song “Beautiful Ghosts” (sung by Hayward, lyrics by another T.S., Ms. Swift) provides a lovely contemporary counterpoint. The film’s feral spirit can lull you right into its bonkers universe; and even though not every sequence lands on its feet, the film will undoubtedly bring joy to many as it survives multiple derisive deaths to at last experience safe harbor in the loving protection of cult fans.
Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s Frozen 2 (C-) features lovely animation of an autumnal enchanted forest, but the most prominent lingering act of nature from the film is that of treading water. Unlike the first film’s brisk telling of a fairy tale anchored by sisterly love and icy ditties, the sequel meanders into a hodgepodge of splintered themes and subplots which fail to coalesce into anything revelatory or majestic. Mediocre songs, average new characters, recycled sight gags and over-reliance on flashbacks and folklore from the first film make this excursion feel more like a cash grab than a logical extension of the story. None of the voice actors gets much of a chance to shine, and the directors’ experimentation with a number of formats for songs and detours on the plot path doesn’t do the follow-up any favors. Luckily for parents who couldn’t get the earworm “Let It Go” out of their head, there’s not much of a tune or tale to remember this time around.
Dexter Fletcher is the director who finished filming Bohemian Rhapsody after its filmmaker was dismissed and further flexes his love of musical storytelling in the Elton John biopic Rocketman (B-), a motion picture whose blissed-out protagonist is rather hard to get to know, even after a whole film about his life has unspooled. Taron Egerton is convincing and charismatic in the lead role, and Jamie Bell is also enjoyable as Bernie Taupin, the musician’s longtime lyricist and friend. The story, told in both the musical style of characters breaking out into song and sequences reenacting live performances, gets glowing support in terms of flamboyant costumes, buoyant choreography and Bryce Dallas Howard in a juicy role as the musician’s mum. Unfortunately the plot is inert, and stock characters like the agent/love interest played by Richard Madden are crocodiles who fail to rock. Many of the jukebox musical numbers come to brilliant life with delightful orchestrations, especially “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting,” “Tiny Dancer” and “Your Song.” However, some favorites from the catalogue are oddly missing or marginalized, and John’s character choices are mainly muddled in a drug and alcohol fog. Much more bittersweet than celebratory, the film is crying out for a drying out, and the ultimate detoxifying denouement is begging for an audience still standing by the end, but sorry seems to be the prevailing word.
For a physical production practically perfect as Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns (C+), its makers should have spent some tuppence on the sequel’s songs and screenwriting and provided its glum protagonist with a jolly holiday from all the topsy turvy plot contrivances. The lavish set design, resplendent costumes and meticulous vintage Disney animation are all in fine form, and the movie opens and closes very, very well. There’s just a lot of filler material that’s super- califragilstic- expiali- average in between. Emily Blunt’s taciturn take on London’s cloud nanny gets eclipsed in all the madcappery, and Marshall’s tenuous grasp of tone does few favors for Ben Whishaw, Colin Firth, Meryl Streep or Lin-Manuel Miranda, the latter projecting for the balcony seats even though he’s on the Cherry Tree Lane where it happens. While passive protagonist MP tries to save two generations of Banks children from eviction and from their own imaginative inertia, it’s unclear for whom the audience is even supposed to cheer. Plus the youngest kids (the true heart of the film) frankly seem pretty well adjusted at the beginning of the movie. Marshall brings little razzle dazzle in the form of fresh choreography, aside from a song trying to make fetch happen for lamp lighters (was that a skateboard ramp at one point?) And oh, don’t name check the bird lady just to wing-flap out of another plot hole. Despite the lovely craft, the art of the film’s storytelling is lacking. The fact that there’s not one single element this belated sequel improves on over the original shouldn’t sway families from seeing it, and there are indeed some tender and nostalgic moments; but this spoonful of chutzpah proves mild tonic.
Director Bradley Cooper’s unlikely remake of A Star is Born (B) throws in all the tropes of a good melodrama: it’s a Rose of a Love Story packaged within a gritty and naturalistic ‘70s film aesthetic. It’s also a vanity project seemingly stripped of vanity, and Cooper and leading Lady Gaga pull the heartstrings in one of the most spectacular love affairs since Rocky Balboa met Adrian Pennino. He’s a rockabilly musician fighting the demons of addiction; and she’s a moonlighting waitress and his singer/songwriter salvation with a pop music career on an upward trajectory. Their romance and music soar, for the most part; and when all elements are working in precision, it’s amazing to behold (their first duet as well as a stunning finale are alternately indelible and incredible). There’s just too much predictable not-very-good filler stretching the experience into an unnecessary “Oscar qualifying” length (movies with long running times have more pedigree, so they say, and this feels way longer than its 127 minutes!). The on-screen lead lovebirds also co-wrote the stirring music with help from the likes of Diane Warren, Mark Ronson, Lukas Nelson and Jason Isbell. There’s a long stretch of story without a new song that seems to lack oxygen because of it. Overall, the film is a marvelous star vehicle for the pop icon, who de-glams and leaves it all on the screen. I’m not sure a glimpse of Gaga’s lady was fully necessary; nonetheless the musician proves a revelation of an actress in every frame. Cooper is a bit too Sling Blade in his role with a distracting drawl that doesn’t fully match his character, and Sam Elliott is inexplicably cast as his brother (you know, the kind of sibling who is about 40 years older). Cooper’s directorial debut is intentionally messy around the edges; and there are times it feels he has captured the magic of love on screen. It’s far from original, but like a play with a soul-stirring revival, it’s worth seeing for these stars’ fetching takes on the roles.