Celluloid Heroes: Eight Musicals of the 21st Century

A funny thing happened this decade — the once dying genre of live-action movie musicals seems to have returned to the movie repertoire. As the decade closes, I can think of exactly two major westerns, but I keep remembering musicals that I should consider for this piece (including the mostly well-regarded French musical “Love Songs,” which I forgot to see before writing this, je suis désolé).

As a lifelong fan and a nearly lifelong tough critic of musicals, I love most of these films. However, this list is not so much a traditional “best of” and I’ve included one choice I definitely don’t like. (It won’t be hard to guess which.) These are musicals that I think contributed to the development of this polarizing and hard to pull off genre. They don’t hark back to times gone by or try to recapture a past glory that will never return, but actually take us into the future. That’s important now that musicals seem to have a future.

“Dancer in the Dark” (2000)

Earlier this year, the brilliant but often irritating Danish director Lars von Trier shocked hard-to-shock European festival audiences with graphic sexual violence in “Antichrist.” Back in 2000, all he needed to divide audiences was some really intense melodrama and an approach to making dark musicals partially borrowed from TV creator Dennis Potter (“Pennies from Heaven,” “The Singing Detective”).

Featuring a literally once-in-a-lifetime lead performance by singer-songwriter Björk as a young mother ready to sacrifice everything to save her son’s failing eyesight, “Dancer in the Dark” is maybe the most emotionally potent story of parental love I’ve ever seen. As a musical, it’s strange and arresting.

Like the Potter television shows and movies and “Chicago,” further down the list, the musical numbers take place in the mind of the lead character. In this case, however, it is particularly poignant as our heroine is a fan of musicals who, though she is gradually going blind, is attempting to appear in a community theater production of “The Sound of Music.” Below, she musically confesses her situation to a smitten Peter Stormare (yes, the guy from “Fargo”). Lumberjacks or not, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” sure seems like a long time ago.

Moulin Rouge” (2001)
As the non-musical Pixar films became the dominant template for animation and the musical form lost its last apparent movie bastion, big studios began to experiment with musicals starring humans. Unfortunately for me, the first and still one of the most popular of this decade’s high profile film musicals was Baz Luhrmann’s beautifully shot, amazingly designed, dull-witted, and over-edited “Moulin Rouge.”

Yes, this musical fan is not a fan of the musical that’s been credited with resurrecting the genre. Why? A couple of sequences work, but on the whole I expect the funny parts of a movie to make me laugh and, even more important, I like to see the movies I’m seeing. As far as I can tell, Luhrmann simply doesn’t have the confidence in this film to allow us time to view the arresting images he’s worked so hard to craft, nor does he permit time to actually see the hard work his dancers and actors put in. Editor Jil Bilcock is expected to do all the performing instead.

As for what Luhrmann and his arrangers did with the various classic songs they threw into a musical Cuisinart, the less I say about it the better. At the risk of sounding like a fogey (or a member of an 18th century Austrian court), too many notes. Way, way, way, too many notes. See if you disagree.

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Break out the Bloody Marys, “The Hangover” Lingers at #1

As I was too chicken to more than implicitly predict last time, “The Hangover” held on to its #1 spot with a cool $33.4 million. Variety reminds us that this is only a 26% drop, very rare in today’s opening-weekend-centric turn-’em-and-burn-’em movie world. The star-free ensemble farce is clearly benefiting from excellent word of mouth so that folks who might ordinarily avoid an R-rated comedy about a Vegas bachelor party gone off the rails are being attracted. Good work.

Also Pixar/Disney did fabulously with its unbeatable, yet rare, principle that if you work really hard and imaginatively to provide quality family entertainment with a heart and soul as well as a bit of show-biz razzle-dazzle, people will actually show — you should pardon the express — “Up.” The CGI 3-D animation-fest with a cranky elderly protagonist that no sane executive would ever have greenlit were it not for Pixar’s unprecedented track record, earned $30.5 million and dropped a low 31%.

Denzel Washington, Meanwhile, in star-driven product land, “The Taking of Pelham 123” met the rather modest expectations for a lavish, all-star, action-remake and hit $25 million, while the Eddie Murphy family flick, “Imagine That,” netted a sad $5.7 million for the #6 spot on its opening weekend at over 3000 screens.

Now, I want to add that, while trashing movies I haven’t personally seen is against my religion (for all I know, I’ll end up sorta liking Tony Scott’s “Pelham” — stranger things have happened, I’m the guy who liked “Domino”), even more against my religion is trashing the concept of remakes, though on the whole they tend to be less good than earlier successful versions.  True, it doesn’t exactly scream “originality” to take on a property that’s been previously successful, but no one says, “Oh God, not another remake of ‘Romeo and Juliet.'” There is absolutely nothing wrong with restaging an old concept, as long as you have something of your own to say with that property and are not simply going with something that looks likes a safe bet in a business where safe bets don’t exist. Lack of “originality” is not the problem; abject creative cowardice is.

Movie remakes go back to Hollywood’s youth. Probably my single favorite little-known Hollywood factoid is that the 1941 “The Maltese Falcon” starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston was actually the third adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s great detective novel made over a period of about ten years. I also happen to think that Philip Kaufman’s 1978 version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is arguably even better than the rather great original version directed by Don Siegel in 1956. And, moving to TV land for just a second, is there any human being on the planet who thinks the recently concluded “Battlestar Gallactica” (don’t tell me how it ends!) isn’t a million times better than the unbelievably awful original? As Roger Ebert likes to say, movies are not what they are about but how they are about it. If you have something fresh to say by revisiting an old story, by all means say it, just make sure you’re not kidding yourself.

Anyhow, returning to this weekend’s b.o., what I think harmed both “Pelham” and “Imagine That” was that, as far as was visible from either the marketing or the response to it, these were movies that offered not one thing fresh or exciting or in any way of a great deal of interest other than the services of its stars. That’s good for something — big stars are the closest thing on the planet to a certain level of guarantee of public interest and sometimes that’s all you really need. But if you really want to hit it big, you’ve got to gamble a little bit that the audience is more interested in being genuinely entertained than lulled by the presence of name entertainment brands.

On the other hand, “Terminator Salvation,” which nobody seems to like too much, is actually doing very well abroad and the very honestly entertaining “Drag Me to Hell” isn’t exactly burning up the U.S. box office. So, who knows?

  

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This Weekend’s Box Office: A Test of Star Power (Updated)

I’m trying to get out of the house this evening for a change, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I jump the gun slightly on this week’s b.o. preview. That means we won’t be hearing from Bullz-Eye critics this week or some of my other usual suspects, though updates are not impossible if something earth shattering grabs my attention.

Anyhow, we’ve got an interesting weekend shaping up as two superstar vehicles, starring a total of three veteran megastars, do battle with yet another ultra-powerful Pixar/Disney feature, “Up,” and a genuine sleeper, “The Hangover.” In fact, the modest, no-star, R-rated comedy surprised almost everyone last week by narrowly defeating the wildly popular PG Pixar film.

The HangoverAs the Hollywood Reporter‘s Carl DiOrio reminds us, the well-received comedy did about twice as well as it was expected to do (and it was already expected to do quite well), grabbing $45 million on its opening weekend and additionally doing strong business during the week, when some of us adults decide to hit the movies. Variety says largely the same thing.

Still, there is one potential powerhouse this week in what, again per DiOrio, turns out to be the third version of the NYC subway thriller, “The Taking of Pelham 123,” first seen in 1974 with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw, and then again in a 1998 TV movie with Edward James Olmos and Vincent D’Onofrio. This a fifty-something superstar two-for-one package in which Denzel Washington’s transit nerd will face off against badass hijacker John Travolta, backed up by a very strong supporting cast led by James Gandolfini, who seems to be getting the best reviews of anyone connected with the film.

Indeed, the critical consensus on this one is not especially kind, perhaps hurt by the recent resurgence of interest/respect for the original film by those of us in the Filmgeek-American community. Critics can’t help comparing it to the compelling and blackly humorous original. The Onion‘s always interesting Nathan Rabin has hard words for “L.A. Confidential” screenwriter Brian Helgeland (stepping into the shoes of Peter Stone, one of the wittiest screen-scribes of his day), hyper-maximalist director Tony Scott, and especially the former Vinnie Barbarino:

John Travolta’s wildly successful post-comeback crusade to become synonymous with crap continues with…Tony Scott’s bracingly awful remake/desecration of the classic ‘70s thriller. The miscalculations begin with Travolta’s distractingly Tetris-shaped facial hair—long rectangular sideburns paired with a geometric Fu Manchu—and extend to every facet of the production. Cursed with following in the outsized footsteps of world-class heavy Robert Shaw, Travolta devours the scenery; his performance is 0% inspiration, 100% perspiration.

Nevertheless, a picture like this is not made or broken by reviews, though word of mouth (or word of Blackberry and text message or cell phone) is another story. It’s expected to do well, and possibly hit the #2 spot, but I wouldn’t bet on it doing any better.  On the other hand, it’s got Denzel Washington, who should never be discounted. (And, for pity’s sake, read my new Bullz-Eye feature on the actor’s back catalog: “Washington Insiders.” Plug, plug, plug.)

Expectations are more modest for a new family vehicle for Eddie Murphy from Nickelodeon, “Imagine That.” The film pairs Murphy in a comedic father-daughter situation with young Yara Shahidi. Between a rather soft premise and that Nickelodeon imprimatur, especially with a sub-meh 36% on RT, it’s hard to imagine this one having much appeal outside of pre-tween girls, die-hard Eddie fans, and families who’ve already seen “Up” five times. Still, the family mojo is always good for something. Let’s see if our nation’s dutiful parents push this one into the top five or six… [Update: I also note, via our own now-linked to review by David Medsker, that the premise is somewhat simliar to both “Up” (which I haven’t seen yet) and the Adam Sandler vehicle “Bedtime Stories” (which I will likely never see, not matter how accurate Dave is when he says that Keri Russell “oozes cuteness”…if she oozes anything, that would be it). Though Dave has some mild kind words for the Murphy film, I don’t think that it helps with its’ appeal much, either.]

That’s pretty much it except for three interesting films in limited release. For starters, we have a well-reviewed (though not ecstatically so), moody science fiction film called “Moon” from Duncan Jones — who can’t escape being David Bowie‘s son — with Sam Rockwell as a cloned astronaut and Kevin Spacey as the voice of a HAL-9000/Marvin-the-Paranoid-Android-esque ship’s computer. Film geeks will also be curious about a new film from filmic godfather Francis Ford Coppola, “Tetro” which has been getting a mixed response. (Currently 50% at RT — that’s pretty precisely mixed.) It’s opening just on the coasts.

It’s also only opening in L.A. and New York, but look to be hearing more about the new RT 95 percenter documentary “Food, Inc.“, on the hot topic of the politics of what we’re all eating, as the year wears on. It’s also got a great trailer — the notional tomatoes are on me.

  

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Bullz-Eye’s Stand-Up Comics Hall of Fame: The Class of 2009

It’s a whole new year, and what better way to celebrate than by honoring five of the funniest mofos ever to walk the planet?

Yes, that’s right, it’s time to induct a new class into Bullz-Eye’s Stand-Up Comics Hall of Fame! The inaugural class included notable funnymen Richard Pryor, Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Cosby, Lenny Bruce, and Bill Hicks — tough acts to follow, to be sure, but if anyone can stand up to the pressure, it’s the five comedy legends in the class of ’09.

Don RicklesLike Don Rickles, for instance. The curmudgeonly insult comic has been gracing talk show couches for decades, tossing off cutting one-liners and turning the phrase “hockey puck” into something more than sports terminology. His routines may seem quaint today, but catch him on a good night, and he’ll put any younger comic to shame — even a new insult legend like, say, a certain canine puppet.

Another oldie-but-goodie on this year’s list is Bob Newhart, the film and sitcom star whose deadpan stare and trademark stammer has always masked an unexpectedly subversive sense of humor — remember the way he ended Newhart by turning the entire series into a bad dream suffered by the character he played on The Bob Newhart Show? Though surely the most old-fashioned humorist in this year’s class, Newhart was also one of the most groundbreaking comics of his era — and his routines have aged better than most.

Speaking of groundbreaking, how about Steve Martin? The silver-haired stand-up has kept a fairly low profile for the last 10 years or so, periodically emerging to star in one poorly reviewed film or another, but during his heyday, Martin was a platinum-selling, SNL-hosting pioneer of absurdist humor. Who else could have snuck a ditty about King Tut onto Top 40 radio, then gone on to a career as a critically respected novelist and playwright? Even now, Martin remains as nuttily prolific as ever; 2009 will see him reprising his role as the nouveau Inspector Clouseau in Pink Panther 2 and releasing an album of original banjo music.

Sam KinisonThe one member of this year’s class who won’t be releasing anything new is Sam Kinison, the screeching ex-reverend who perished after his car was hit by a teenage drunk driver in 1992. He’s remembered today chiefly as the beret-wearing little screaming dude whose Jessica Hahn-led video for “Wild Thing” sparked a tidal wave of nocturnal emissions in the ’80s, but Kinison’s humor was smarter — and more tender — than he was given credit for.

“Tender” is not a word often used to describe our fifth inductee. Actually, these days, “funny” isn’t often used either, but Eddie Murphy‘s incendiary early run was so incredible that no amount of Meet Dave-level “comedies” can wipe away his legacy. Forget about The Adventures of Pluto Nash — no comedy collection is complete without Murphy’s Delirious, not to mention most of his movie and television appearances from 1980-87.

So, like we said — the first HOF class was a tough act to follow, but we think you’ll agree that this year’s set of honorees is up to the standard. So what are you waiting for? Read all about them here!

  

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