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.
Alas sometimes these super sequel troopers leave you feeling like a number two. Ol Parker’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (C+) has a lot working against it: soundtrack of ABBA B-sides as opposed to the first film’s greatest hits, a largely missing Meryl Streep (whose credibility helped elevate the preceding film to its guilty pleasure status) and the lack of the musical whodunit propelling the original’s narrative. Still, many of the songs soar with giddy delight (“Waterloo,” “Angel Eyes and “I’ve Been Waiting for You” are favorites), and it’s fun to see the assorted cast of characters cavorting on a lovely Greek Island once more. Lacking a consistent or cogent new plot, Parker goes full Godfather II with flashbacks to Streep’s younger self lovingly played by Lily James. She’s good, but neither she nor present-day Amanda Seyfried can quite heed the script’s S.O.S. It’s all rather obligatory but watchable, and both a spry director and a game ensemble give their all with the paltry lot they’ve got. Thank you for the music; no thank you for the cash grab.
The coming of age musical fantasy Saturday Church (B), written and directed by Damon Cardasis, is a balm for modern times as well as a bit of a love offering, with tender and affecting performances set to soaring music punctuating a meaningful meditation on what makes a family. Luka Kain is magnetic as the teenage protagonist exploring his sexual and gender identity against the backdrop of a home befallen by tragedy and mixed signals. Margot Bingham is superb as his absentee but well-meaning mom, and Regina Taylor plays effectively against type as a judgmental guardian aunt, but it’s the gender fluid ensemble providing their own brand of sassy youth fellowship at the real-life NYC haven of the film’s title who are acolytes for the movie’s inclusive glory. MJ Rodriguez is the film’s heart as the teen protagonist’s big-sisterly companion, and Marquis Rodriguez is a winning delight as a friend and love interest. Interior monologues become bursts into songs (it’s hard not to think of some of it as a mini-Rent without the artsy angst); and although many of the sequences overreach, the film is a minor miracle, unflinching in its depiction of runaways and discarded outcasts who cannot always live up to the “Conditions of Love” described in one of the standout songs of Nathan Larson’s score. The film felt like it was evolving into the Billy Elliot of drag, what with our hero finding new ways to express himself, but stops short of striking a penultimate pose. It’s a generous, entertaining and important film.
After the original film showcased the fresh sounds and culture of collegiate a capella and the sequel amped up girl power in glorious fashion, Trish Sie’s Pitch Perfect 3 (C-) squanders the goodwill the musical comedy franchise has engendered with a denouement that temporarily turns the franchise into a head-scratching thriller before briefly returning to form for a tepid final bow. The Bellas are missing their fellas (would it have been too much to bankroll a Skylar Astin or Adam DeVine cameo?) and end up on a USO road show with a contrived competition, but thankfully the funny and talented Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson rise above the material. It seems they’d be fun just laughing together in a blank room. The film’s fictional bands don’t feel rooted in reality, the military subplots feel underdeveloped; and, as maestro of the film’s obligatory contest, DJ Khaled is so bad at playing himself that perhaps Christopher Plummer could have stepped in. John Lithgow’s character is a shark jumper in human form, and “Fat Amy” develops so many new superpowers, I half expected her to “Force project” herself through time and space. Of course the joy of these films is largely discovered in the quality of the musical sequences and droll comic lines, and there are enough here for fans to complete the viewing of the trilogy. There are also some occasional inside jokes that land like sweet lozenges amidst the hastily assembled script’s sore wanderlust. The series went from throw down to throwaway fast, but long live any entry into that adds Britney Spears and George Michael covers into its canon.
If you’re the kind of person who would love to run off to join the circus with a singing and dancing Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron, you’re in luck with the arrival of Michael Gracey’s The Greatest Showman (B+). This handsomely produced, high gloss musical adaptation of the mid-19th century life of P.T. Barnum (don’t tell them his story was already famously musicalized in 1980’s Tony winner Barnum) is highly enjoyable, especially with a mild suspension of disbelief but not much more than musicals require anyway. It’s a hybrid of Moulin Rouge! and a Disney animated film come to life and has about as much historical accuracy as that studio’s Pocahontas, but by golly, it still paints with all the colors of a win. The music of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, high off twin accolades for La La Land and Dear Evan Hansen, swirls with catchy uplift; and the choreography, while inexplicably reminiscent of a Michael Jackson video, is rousing. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting acting needed from the cast, but everyone including Jackman in the lead, Efron as his apprentice, and even Michelle Williams in the thankless part of best supporting spouse, all do well with their tightrope of tunes and trots. The themes about embracing outcasts and chasing your dreams resonate through and through. Broadway lovers will have this one on heavy rotation for years.
The search for elusive love is literally operatic in Tom Gustafson’s sexy, dreamlike musical adaptation Hello Again (B+), a film that traces ten romantic vignettes across the ten decades of the twentieth century. A percussive longing possesses all the movie’s melodic segments, as does a poetic score by Michael John LaChiusa. The twin language of the film is singing and sexuality, and it is filmed in a kaleidoscope of bold colors and lovely period pastiche. The sprawling cast is uniformly brave and brazen, with standouts including Rumer Willis as a smoldering mistress who christens bathtubs and movie palaces with her prowess and T.R. Knight as a seducer extraordinaire aboard the Titanic who won’t let an iceberg stand in the way of his happy ending. Cheyenne Jackson and Audra McDonald enchant in an extended duet of the flesh as a music exec and his muse, Jenna Ushkowitz delights in a sassy naughty nurse number and Martha Plimpton holds her own amidst the array of trained vocalists in a puzzling futuristic bookend to the interlocking stories. The film is austere and may frustrate some as it riffs down rabbit holes through time periods and twisty themes to wrestle with physical love, betrayal and obsession in all of its many splendid forms. It’s an unconventional curiosity box of sights and sounds worth discovering.
Damien Chazelle’s kaleidoscopic modern musical La La Land (B+) explores the eternal question of whether you should put your art or your love life first. Or maybe you can have both! OK, it’s not exactly a universal question – and possibly a first-world problem at that – but in the hands of starry-eyed and fleet-footed leads Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, they surely confront these themes with a spectacular charm offensive. After an impressive musical number atop and around cars stopped on the Los Angeles freeway (west coast Fame meets West Side Story), the film riffs into Meet Cutes and Meet-Not-So-Cutes, ups and downs and very few surprises aside from it all being a musical. Much is done in an Umbrellas of Cherbourg type leitmotif, but it doesn’t necessarily rain with consistent results. The songs are enjoyable, and Stone is luminescent in a big audition number. The Technicolor dance sequences are quite whimsical and wonderful. Gosling gets his best role yet, with the film exploiting many of his dapper deadpan assets. Stone is a radiant delight, with note-perfect expressions and game takes on a sometimes cliché ingenue part. The whole enterprise would have benefited from some zestier supporting characters and a smidgen of extra substance. Sometimes it’s a film that begs to be loved just a bit too much, but this love letter to a town where dreams are made, dashed and rehashed is overall pretty nifty to behold.
Co-directors John Clements and Ron Musker have animated quests with more Herculean tasks, drawn crooning crabs making a bigger undersea splash and created caves with greater wonders than the adventure afoot in Moana (C+), their mostly adrift Disney Polynesian epic wannabe. It’s quite enchanting to look at, at least for the first act; and newcomer Auli’i Cravalho brings lovely life to the brave and modern title character. Coupled with a goofy demigod convincingly acted and sung by Dwayne Johnson, the heroine embarks on an ill-conceived odyssey marked by listless villains, average banter and misbegotten mishaps. There’s one good song (of seven) played several times in the film, a propulsive anthem by Hamilton‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda called “How Far I’ll Go,” but alas its prescient title begs the answer “too far” or “not far enough.” The most inventive use of tattoos since Memento and a creative battalion of Mad Max style pirate ships cannot lift the story to the gravitas to which it sometimes aspires. Bogged down in bluster and with story conceits which fail to differentiate it in the Disney kingdom canon, the film is barely better than its makers’ Treasure Planet and The Great Mouse Detective. The co-directors have found unexpected box office success but might have been better off leaving this journey in the bottle.