Archive for the ‘Musical’ Category

Mamma Mia!

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

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Ok, I’ll admit it: I love ABBA. I don’t care what anybody says, they’re a great band. They’re over-the-top, ridiculous and terrific. I dare you to listen to an ABBA album and not sing along. It’s impossible. So, going into the new film version of the hit ABBA musical Mamma Mia!, I at least knew that the music was going to be good.

Yeah, the movie is cheesy, silly, contrived and about as complex as bubble-wrap, but I don’t know if I’d like to see a dark, complex musical based on the songs of ABBA. The plot complements the music, no real depth, no real nuance (I mean this as a compliment). This is a fun movie that requires very little thinking, just go in and enjoy the music and the performances.

The film is anchored by the one and only Meryl Streep, who looks like she’s having the time of her life in this role. She plays Donna, a carefree woman who runs a hotel with her daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) on a Greek island. Sophie, as the film opens, is set to marry Sky (Dominic Cooper), and desperately wants her father to attend the wedding. Unfortunately, she has no idea who that may be, but with the help of her mother’s diary, she has narrowed it down to three possible choices: Sam (Pierce Brosnan), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Harry (Colin Firth).

She invites all three to her wedding, not telling them why they’ve been invited (they believe that Donna has invited them), and, of course, Donna has no clue that any of her former lovers are on their way to the island. Of course, complications and misunderstandings ensue, helped (or hindered) by the arrival of Donna’s two best friends: Tanya (Christine Baranski) and Rosie (Julie Walters).

As I said earlier, this is a silly movie, but it’s catchy and easy going, and the musical numbers are great. The film is great to look at, as it takes place on a beautiful, lush Greek island (filmed partly in Greece, but also on some sound stages in England). Streep is the stand-out in the film, but she’s aided by a game cast, particularly Baranski and Walters.

Mamma Mia! is not a great piece of cinema, but it’s definitely a good time at the movies. And if you like ABBA, I’m going to guess you’ll get a kick out of it. (Look fast for ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus in cameos).

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (*** 1/2)

Wednesday, December 26th, 2007

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Tim Burton’s blood-soaked, deliciously macabre cinematic interpretation of Stephen Sondheim’s glorious, gory stage musical is a dark, visually astounding experience. It’s involving, grotesque, funny, heartbreaking, jaw-breaking and probably Burton’s most uncompromising artistic vision since Sleepy Hollow. He pulls no punches. Neither does Johnny Depp as the Demon Barber himself, in his sixth (!) collaboration with the director.

The film opens with ominous organ music and a fiendishly clever title sequence where drops of rain turn into drops of blood and a trail of blood flows through an animated London. The mix of over-the-top Gothic horror with tongue-in-cheek humor continues through the whole film. An obvious influence to Burton for Sweeney Todd seems to be the Hammer horror films of the 50s and 60s, and it doesn’t shock me to learn that originally Christopher Lee was cast in a role in this film (Lee did end up in the finished film version of Sleepy Hollow, though, another Burton film that was a Hammer homage.) The production design by Dante Ferretti is astonishing, and in fact, the London of Sweeney Todd is almost a character itself.

Like Hamlet and Kill Bill, Sweeney Todd is a revenge story. Benjamin Barker (Johnny Depp) was an innocent, naive barber with a beautiful wife and a young daughter. The sinister, vile Judge Turpin (Alan Rickman), with the help of his scheming, nasty henchman Beadle Bamford (Timothy Spall), sends Barker away to prison for a crime he did not commit, has his way with his wife, drives her to madness and suicide and steals his daughter and raises her as his own, basically imprisoning her in his mansion. Flash forward 15 years, when Barker returns to London under the name Sweeney Todd, to get his revenge.

Though this is a musical (with some great songs, by the way), make no mistake, this is a violent, bloody motion picture. Though much of the credit to the film’s success goes, no doubt, to Burton, it must be said that the film would not work quite as well without Depp’s intensely focused, superb characterization of Todd/Barker. He is a man possessed by the idea of revenge, it not only drives him, but it consumes him. It’s another great performance by Depp, who also does a pretty good job with the songs. Helena Bonham Carter is well-cast as Mrs. Lovett, the well-meaning, slightly daffy owner of the meat pie shop right below Sweeney’s barber shop. Of course, the meat pies will play a part in the story…

Alan Rickman’s Judge Turpin is a genuinely evil man, and Rickman plays the part with relish. Timothy Spall, who has been playing a lot of filthy, disgusting creatures lately (just look at his work in the Harry Potter films), has great fun with his role as Bamford. His facial expressions help sell the character. Sacha Baron Cohen has a small but crucial role as Signor Adolfo Pirelli, and has some of the film’s biggest laughs.

Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener are fine as the film’s romantic straight leads, even though their job pretty much is to provide a small silver lining to this dark tale of woe. Ed Sanders plays the young Toby, who works for Signor Adolfo Pirelli, and also is given some great lines. Laura Michelle Kelly portrays Barker’s wife in flashbacks.

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is gripping in the way few movie musicals are allowed to be. As I said earlier, it’s uncompromising in its vision, all the way to the end. And the reunion of Depp and Burton is cause for celebration.

Note: The IMDB page for this film gives away a few surprises, so I’d stay away from it until after you’ve seen the movie.

Across the Universe (*** 1/2)

Sunday, October 7th, 2007

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There will never be another rock band like The Beatles. They are the most iconic and influential musical group of the 20th century, and their music is still relevant and wonderful. That being said, putting a new spin on something classic is not blasphemy. Many critics and audiences cringe at the very idea of a new approach to The Beatles, and indeed, the new musical Across the Universe was met with scowls, boos and hisses by many people. The first screenings were reviled, and its director, Julie Taymor, was fired and replaced by another filmmaker. After a long battle, Taymor’s original cut was released (this is the version that made it to the theatres.)

A movie musical that dares to tell the majority of its story with, gasp, music? How shocking and despicable! In a year of sequel after sequel being crammed down our throats, it’s refreshing to watch a film that is inventive and tells a standard story in a creative way. The film tells the story of Jude (Jim Sturgess), a dockworker from Liverpool, who travels to America to find his father, and ends up meeting Max (Joe Anderson), a wily college student and eventually falls in love with Max’s angelic sister Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood, who is luminous in this role). No bonus points for guessing where they got the names from (most of the main characters in this film are lifted from the Beatles’ songs). All this takes place against the backdrop of the 60s, that tumultuous time period in our nation’s history. Oh yeah, and that was also when most of this music was written, huh. What a coincidence.

This is a fun movie to watch. The musical scenes are inventive and take risks in the presentation of songs that have become rock standards. “I Want You,” for instance, is now sang by a giant Uncle Sam who emerges out of a recruitment poster and plucks a young man onto an assembly line of enlisted men, and later “She’s So Heavy” is sung by a platoon of soldiers dragging the Statue of Liberty across Vietnam. Taymor’s approach is theatrical, over-the-top and perfect for this material. One of the most touching numbers is when Prudence (T.V. Caprio) sings “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” while pining over a fellow cheerleader. All these years and I had no idea that the song was a gay anthem.

Other stand-out sequences include a stirring interpretation of “Let it Be,” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” sang in a club by the Jimi Hendrix clone JoJo (Martin Luther) after the assassination of Dr. King. Elsewhere, we have Bono playing Dr. Robert and doing a great cover of “I am the Walrus.” Joe Cocker plays three roles (!) and rocks the house with “Come Together.”

I have read review after review of this film that bemoans the lack of plot and character development. I can say that this film has the exact amount of plot and character development as, say, Moulin Rogue. Like that film, Across the Universe takes full advantage of the medium, making a movie full of life, bursting with striking images and song. This movie is a celebration.