Tag Archives: Musical

Comedy Musical “Less Than Kosher” Breaks Through with Surprising Take on Jewish Identity

A funny new film focuses on that pivitol time as a young person making a way in the world when you rediscover or finally find your voice. Shaina Silver-Baird, whose comic sensibility evokes a wry, mischievous love child of Aubrey Plaza and Kate McKinnon, is the co-creator/co-writer, executive producer and star of director Daniel AM Rosenberg’s comic musical Less Than Kosher (B+). She plays Viv, a washed-up thirtysomething ex-pop star and self-proclaimed “bad Jew” who reluctantly lands an unlikely job as the music leader at her family’s synagogue. Familial sassiness, a “meet not so cute” with the rabbi’s son, a memorable mushroom drug trip and a TikTok trending montage of “Judeo-Pop” remixes are among the funny episodes punctuated with devilish Tarantino yellow font chapter headings. The film is a joyous roundabout story of modern young Jewish life approaching its characters with no judgment as they maneuver the trappings of adulting. Viv’s sequences as cantor quickly become out-of-body spiritual experiences, one of which feels ripped out of a Disney Broadway showstopper. Silver-Baird proves she’s a gregarious comedienne as well as a lovely songstress, and she is matched in goofy temperament and tone opposite funnymen David Eisner and David Reale as rabbi and son, respectively. Rosenberg holds it all together with fun physical comedy and lots of original zingers. He leaves you wanting more as it’s not entirely clear what comes next for the comic characters, but it’s a berserk and buoyant work with lots of laughs and heart.

Note: This screening was part of the young professionals night at the 2024 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival. The festival’s theatrical movies run through February 26 with streaming films also available through March 7. Full line-up of films can be found here: https://ajff.org

”Mean Girls” Musical Movie Inconsistently Fetching

The North Shore High School Mathletes would ace this calculation: one update of a two decade old film comedy plus one translation of its stage musical adaptation equals only a fraction of the property’s legacy entertainment value. The 2024 musical version of Mean Girls (C+), co-directed by Samantha Jayne and Arturo Perez Jr., succeeds in delivering dollops of nostalgia and a star-is-born villain performance by Reneé Rapp as the pink terror Regina George. As a musical, though, it’s inconsistent, with the filmmakers framing production numbers awkwardly before finding their groove. Songs happen in this high school musical because characters are filming themselves on their phone or because they’re adjacent to the marching band practice room or because they’re fantasizing or because they’re describing something absurd; there are few connective threads holding all this together as an actual movie musical. It doesn’t help that the new-to-school protagonist played lowkey by Angourie Rice doesn’t get an “I want” moment and little time to establish herself before smitten with the guy in calculus class (a natural Christopher Briney) or lured in by the clique called The Plastics. Auliʻi Cravalho and Jaquel Spivey are a hoot and in great voice as the heroine’s genuine friends; reprising roles from the 2004 film, Tina Fey and Tim Meadows make very little impression. There’s some awkward choreography of students behaving like African animals; like a breeze from Poomba, it swiftly clears the savanna of laughs or charm. Rapp’s vampy antihero has the most fun in her role, and there are some creative montages leveraging social media to amplify the antics. For those who loved the original film or want to revisit its sly psychology put to music, there’s some fun to be had here. But it’s largely a missed opportunity twenty years later to say something new or differently about its themes of girls trying to treat each other better to the next generation.

Trio of Talented Actresses Give “Color Purple” Movie Musical New Life

There’s very little resisting Alice Walker’s most iconic work in any of its forms: the 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the 1985 Oscar-nominated movie, the elaborate Broadway 2005 musical stage show or its even more acclaimed stripped-down 2015 revival. So don your lavender, orchid, magenta and violet hues and grab your best friends to enjoy another inspiring telling of this ode to sisterhood in a crowd-pleasing auditorium. Nobody ever told Shakespeare he’s been interpreted too much. Director Blitz Bazawule’s 2023 film adaptation of the book-turned-musical The Color Purple (B) does show some signs of wear, despite some jubilant applause-worthy moments. His fresh lens on the tale gets a little lost in translation as he tries to plumb the depths of the sharply drawn characters while giving them their due as singers too. For those just hopping on the bandwagon, the story traces forty years in the life of Miss Celie (Fantasia Barrino) who is torn from her sister and children in the rural South in the early 1900s and faces hardships including an abusive husband “Mister” (Colman Domingo). With support from a sultry singer named Shug (Taraji P. Henson) and her stand-her-ground stepdaughter Sofia (Danielle Brooks), Celie ultimately finds extraordinary strength in the unbreakable bonds of a new kind of female empowerment. This new production includes three iconic and melodic moments of sonic uplift so potent and a final reel so tearjerking and triumphant viewers may forget the film’s sluggish start. Bazawule reveals his exposition a bit too much like a “greatest hits” for those who know the story rather than discovering it fresh as the characters would experience it. He also doesn’t land exactly how to effectively execute the musical numbers – are they real or fantasy? lived-in or larger than life? – until he hits the stride of barnburners “Hell No,” “Push Da Button,” and “I’m Here.” This re-imagining is handsomely photographed, poignantly acted and has a stirring finale. Barrino is so good in the final reel that one might wish she was extended more of a showcase early on in the film. This new Purple is recommended for the timeless story, the strength of the ensemble and bursts of greatness that blossom just when you need something beautiful to savor.

Chalamet is “Wonka” in Charming Candy-Colored Prequel

Expect an everlasting gobstopper of a smile on your face as the greatest showman of the chocolate-loving world headlines a delightful new origin story. Paul King’s musical fantasy family feature Wonka (B+) stars Timothée Chalamet as the titular confectioner who arrives in Europe to realize his dream of opening a candy shop but finds himself choc-blocked by a series of rivals. Chalamet is absolutely enchanting, summoning his theatre kid charms to embody a crooning, inventive optimist, not yet cynical to the ways of the world or banishing anyone to the fudge room. Partnered with the fabulous young actress  Calah Lane in a series of adventures, they gracefully spark imagination and engage in deft wordplay. The whole ensemble is a hoot, including Olivia Colman as a wicked innkeeper, Rowan Atkinson as a priest with a sweet tooth and Hugh Grant as a surly Oompa-Loompa. King’s whimsical palette and maximalist production design sets the stage for fabulous surprises and sly humor around every corner; and Jody Talbot and Neil Hannon (frontman of Irish band Divine Comedy) bring uplift in the form of old-fashioned Broadway-style songs. When the plot shifts into all-out heist mode for a while, it’s a little less interesting; but like a string of taffy, Timmy springs it right back into sentimental health. This is definitely the non-ironic family feature of the year with just enough bite to keep everybody satisfied.

Even a Fairy Godmother Couldn’t Save Disney’s Wobbly “Wish”

Disney’s centennial emerges as its animation division experiences an awkward crossroads. Do animators lean into princesses, swashbucklers or steampunk? Do they focus on hand-drawn or computer generated animation? Tried and true Menkens and Mirandas or other new voices? Chris Buck and Fawn Veerasunthorn’s Wish (C+) is evidence of creative inertia, compromise and the wrong kind of recycling as its makers craft measures of vintage atmosphere but draw too heavily on fan service origin stories over forging interesting new paths. Your eyes aren’t deceiving you: that’s actually a mixture of watercolor and CG, a literal tug-of-war for tone in cartoon compositions before you even fixate on the film’s undercooked but byzantine story. It’s all a mallet to the palette. The plot focuses on Asha (voiced by a spirited Ariana DeBose), who makes a passionate plea to the stars after sensing a darkness in her kingdom led by Magnifico (Chris Pine, all snark and bark). The so-so music by Julia Michaels and Benjamin Rice (frequent Selena Gomez collaborators) is a nod to contemporary sensibilities but feels overwrought against the frilly imagery; they feel like stand-ins for something more hummable. There are indeed some creative flourishes: the notion that the deepest wishes of a country’s citizenry live inside precious bubbles within a royal repository and must be rescued and returned to their rightful owners feels like the stuff of Pixar pop psychology fusing into Disney proper. Buck and Veerasunthorn have delivered a pleasant enough fairy tale with heart, but it’s not quite emotional or funny enough to score classic status. They don’t even score with funny sidekicks. For all the building blocks assembled in the service of a Disney formula, it rarely reaches its higher yearning.

Megan Thee Stallion the Standout of “Dicks: The Musical”

Making a comic film with perpetual double dares to its audience to not be shocked by its master-crass of gags is a delicate art, and these filmmakers are too loosey goosey in their dirty ditty-filled romp to consistently nail their themes or targets. Director Larry Charles delivers the mixed bag of Dicks: The Musical (C) based on work by Aaron Jackson and Josh Sharp who reprise off-Broadway roles as sort-of adult identical twins who meet through business and try, Parent Trap style, to cajole their single parents, played by Megan Mullally (funny but with a ridiculous accent) and Nathan Lane (funny but not much to do here), into one big happy reunited family. A sassy Bowen Yang is fine as the wry omniscient narrator, but Megan Thee Stallion is the sublime surprise as the corporate boss with a women-rule-the-world song for the ages in one of the few sequences fully realized (gay clubs will have this on loop for eternity). There are also some creative puppets standing in as allegories and private parts amidst a bunch of hit or miss songs. The costumes, choreography and production design are generally a hoot, but the scattershot story rarely gets liftoff and the takeaways from the twisted morality tale are murky at best. The South Park movie and Book of Mormon stage show were much more successful in the mature musical milieu. As actors and writers, Jackson and Sharp seem to be laughing their way through the whole enterprise, but they’ve only reached a semi.

Musical Drama “Flora and Son” Full of Grace Notes

John Carney’s music-infused films – Once, Begin Again and Sing Street– chronicle lost souls tuning into one another via the art of song, and his latest, Flora and Son (B), sticks close to his finely tuned formula. Eve Hewson and newcomer Orén Kinlan are fabulous as the titular characters, a single mother and a troubled teenager looking for meaning in hardscrabble Dublin. Flora, estranged from her bassist husband (Jack Reynor’s charm makes him hard to hate) and in search of a higher calling, finds a California-based virtual guitar teacher, the roguish and rhythmic Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and soon the central quartet of characters gets its groove back through common craft. Despite the strength of the performances, the story and song quality aren’t quite up to the Carney measure of excellence, and the brisk tale somehow feels awkwardly truncated. Still, the way these characters connect has mountains of magic in it. Full of acerbic wit and Irish sting, Hewson is singular in her role and quite irresistible. She and Gordon-Levitt have undeniable chemistry. It’s now abundantly clear what to expect from a Carney film, and fans of the auteur should have plenty of humor and harmony to enjoy. (Sept. 29 on Apple TV streaming service)

“Carmen,” the 2023 Dance Movie, Rushes the Borders with Bombastic Banality

The luminescent cinematography within Benjamin Millepied’s peculiar adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s novella Carmen (D) is inversely proportional to the film’s startling lack of competent plotting, passable dialogue, inspiring acting or cogent dance moves. Strangely, Millepied was the ballet choreographer behind Black Swan, and yet the movement aesthetic in this work flutters on the wobbly wings of a damp duck. Stunning Melissa Barrera in the title role as a woman on the run at the Mexican border and dashing Paul Mescal portraying a former Marine at a crossroads possess a staggering lack of chemistry. At the heart of what’s supposed to be a tragic romance, the acclaimed actor is particularly adrift and appears to wish he were elsewhere. There are some pretty poses afoot here but very little beneath the surface. Kudos to director of photography Jörg Widmer for finding an artful canvas within this wasteland, especially with Fellini-esque performer Rossy de Palma in a hint of a supporting part. Composer Nicholas Britell manages some grace notes with his original score, an alternate take on the story’s operatic roots. Ultimately this is a languid and joyless affair failing at both song and dance and social commentary. The only thing star crossed in this unsteady romance is its inability to transcend its own pretentiousness. 

“Spirited” a Fun-Filled New Musical Spectacular, Available on Apple TV Service

The overlong runtime could make one think this Charles Dickens adaptation is more inspired by the author’s prolific publishing house word counts (£400+ for just a few more pages of script?) than the bones of his novella A Christmas Carol, but while stuffed like plump holiday poultry, Sean Anders’s Spirited (B-) is largely a lovable lark. This holiday comedy centers on Will Ferrell as a wide-eyed Ghost of Christmas Present who works in a league of modern-day “spirits as a service” opposite Ryan Reynolds as a cynical earthbound purveyor of humbugs and shady public relations campaigns. Both comic actors shine in their tailor-made roles and prove their musical chops since the film possesses a new songbook by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Octavia Spencer is also a solid songstress and contributor to the fantastical proceedings, along with Broadway journeymen such as Patrick Page and Joe Tippett. Many of the musical acts are rousing and fun, especially a throwback to 1800s England. The first act gets bogged down in procedure and unsure meta jokes plus a little Cop Rock deja vu, but once the emphasis lands squarely on how Ferrell and Reynolds flip the script on the classic story and start to rehabilitate each other, a litany of laughs and deserved emotion come center stage. It’s not a perfect addition to the holiday movie oeuvre but often a fun sprinkling of confetti from the Christmas canon. The hearty let’s-put-on-a-show vibe pairs well with the film’s trippy troupe and could very well propel this into the Yuletide movie pantheon. 

“Cyrano (2021)” Makes for a Peculiar Musical Drama

Now in theatres.

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.

Spielberg’s 2021 “West Side Story” Remake Surpasses Original

Now in theatres and Disney+

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.

Disney’s “Encanto” Better When It’s Singing

Now in theatres and on Disney+.

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.