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Tuesday, 15 June 2021 22:12

‘In The Heights’ flies high

Full disclosure: I love a movie musical.

I love the big production numbers and over-the-top performances. I love storytelling through song and watching scores of extras dance in unison. I love the way that a three-minute song can do the emotional heavy lifting of a half-hour’s worth of dialogue.

So I was always going to dig “In the Heights,” the Jon M. Chu-directed film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s iconic musical of the same name, currently in theaters and available via streaming on HBO Max. Sure, I had a few minor misgivings – the film had passed through multiple hands on its way to the screen, which is rarely a positive sign – but with Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hughes both onboard, I figured at the very least, we were looking at a high floor.

But as it turns out, the title is indicative of a lot more than just the neighborhood in which it is set, because by God, this movie SOARS.

Published in Movies

Long gone are the days where there was a sharp and specific line of demarcation between the realms of television and movies. It wasn’t so long ago that TV stars were TV stars and movie stars were movie stars and there was little movement between the two, with the occasional ascendent TV actor making the leap to the big screen and the odd fading movie star moving heading into our living rooms. Movies were important and TV wasn’t. Simple.

Obviously, that isn’t the case anymore, with actors moving easily between the two mediums and prestige television achieving feats of storytelling the equal of any cinematic experience. And the lines blur further with the original offerings of the streaming services landing in both camps.

So if you’re going to tell me that Netflix’s latest animated film is also the pilot episode of an upcoming series – sure. That’s the way the world works now.

Thus we have “Arlo the Alligator Boy,” an animated musical film from director Ryan Crego (who also co-wrote both the script and the movie’s numerous original songs). It’s a sweet, tuneful story of a young boy (who happens to also be an alligator) searching for where in the world he fits in. It’s a search that leads him from the swamps of his adolescence to the bright lights of New York City as he undertakes a quest to find the man he believes to be his father.

The subsequent TV series designs could not be more clear – the film plays much like an extended pilot, introducing the characters who will undoubtedly populate the 20-episode season to come. But there’s no disputing that the characters are charming, the visual style is memorable and the music straight up slaps. Not a bad payoff for investing your 90 minutes.

Published in Movies

We’ve seen a steady stream of movies converted into Broadway musicals in recent years to no small success. And there’s been plenty of transitioning in the other direction – the path from stage to screen has been well-traveled.

Converting musicals into movies is an interesting process. You never know if the filmmakers are going to be able to capture the essence of a musical – its spirit. Finding the right ways to convert the visceral nature of live performance onto film is always a crapshoot – one where sometimes you get “West Side Story,” sometimes you get “Cats.”

“The Prom” – currently streaming on Netflix – is the kind of movie that could be deemed nearer the former or the latter, depending on who you ask. Directed by Ryan Murphy and adapted to the screen by Chad Beguelin and Bob Martin from their and Matthew Sklar’s 2018 musical of the same name, it’s a brightly-colored and broad (and dated) look at LGBTQ inclusivity and celebrity activism.

“The Prom” is driven by high-energy performances, delightful production numbers and some songs that are catchy as hell, all in service of what is ultimately intended to be a very sweet love story. Oh, and the cast is dynamite. While it has its clunky and/or heavy-handed moments and occasional missteps, it is by and large a fun and (mostly) funny take on what it means to want to help versus actually stepping up and helping.

Published in Movies

Making a holiday movie is easy. Studios large and small alike churn new ones out every year with metronomic regularity. Throw some snow and lights into your basic romance and you’re basically there.

Making a GOOD holiday movie? Well, now we’re talking about something different. Different, and decidedly more difficult. To create something beyond the bland vanilla sameness of the usual Christmas movie claptrap takes vision, effort and a willingness to move beyond the tired tropes of the genre.

Netflix’s “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” – written and directed by David E. Talbert – brings a welcome new energy to the holiday movie landscape. With an engaging story, great music and performances and some dynamite production numbers, it’s a celebratory romp of a film, one that might well find its way into many people’s regular rotation of seasonal offerings. It is energetic and original and an absolute blast, packed with the sort of excitement and fun that one expects from the best Christmas movies.

Published in Movies
Sunday, 05 July 2020 16:23

‘Hamilton’ gets the job done

If you were even remotely connected to the theatre world five years ago, you were aware of the phenomenon that was “Hamilton.” Adoring fans were shouting the praises of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop Founding Fathers opus from the rooftops. The soundtrack was everywhere. Tickets were impossible to come by.

Now, a half-decade later, the masses who to this point were unable to see the show have finally gotten their chance.

A filmed version of the show, as directed by Thomas Kail and recorded back in 2016, was supposed to get a theatrical release this year. Instead, it made the move to streaming, landing on Disney+. And if social media buzz is any indication, a LOT of people watched it. That’s no surprise.

What is a surprise is how great it is.

Now, that’s not meant as a slight to the show itself. The plaudits and accolades speak volumes regarding the quality of the experience. No, what I’m talking about is the fact that filmed plays almost always fail to fully resonate. Best case, you get a dull, flat rendering of an experience meant to be energetic and visceral. Worst case, you get something effectively unwatchable.

Yet this film somehow blows away that best case. I can say with confidence that this version of “Hamilton” is far and away the best filmed representation of a stage play that I have ever seen. Granted, there’s a fair amount of production value here, but the fundamental staginess of the show remains intact. You never once forget you’re watching a play, and yet … it clicks on the small screen to a remarkable degree.

It’s utterly unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Published in Buzz
Monday, 23 December 2019 22:25

Who let the ‘Cats’ out?

Sometimes, you see a trailer for a movie that captures your attention for all the wrong reasons. You find yourself questioning what possible series of increasingly poor decisions would lead to a world in which this movie came to be. You’re asking fundamental questions like “How?” and – perhaps more importantly – “Why?”

Those are the feelings that bubbled up from deep inside most reasonable people upon first viewing the trailer for “Cats,” director Tom Hooper’s star-studded adaptation of the (somewhat bewilderingly) beloved Broadway musical. Watching CGI-blended cat/human monstrosities gambol and cavort across the screen for just those few moments raised far more questions than any piece of art could ever answer.

Here’s the thing – that ain’t even the half of it.

“Cats” is a tortured fever dream of a film, the sort of nightmarish cinematic experience that feels like the unholy offspring of a coked-up studio executive notes session and a dark ritual intended to summon forth the Elder Gods. I walked out of this movie expecting my phone to ring, with a voice on the other end speak-singing a semi-melodic song informing me that I would die in seven days.

We are all cursed. We are all damned. We are all Cats.

Published in Movies

ORONO – Thanks to one Orono theatre company, the dead are rising … and singing … and dancing.

Some Theatre Company’s production of “Evil Dead: The Musical” – with book and lyrics by George Reinblatt and music by Reinblatt, Frank Cipolla, Christopher Bond and Melissa Morris – is running at the Keith Anderson House in Orono through Nov. 9; the show is directed by Elaine Bard, with musical direction by Jason Wilkes.

It’s based on the Sam Raimi movie series of the same name, a beloved cult favorite that starred Bruce Campbell as an out-of-his-depth guy who winds up thrust into an apocalyptic fight between good and evil that he is not even remotely prepared for. It is gory and visceral while also being winkingly self-aware and wildly funny. And as of 2003 – it’s a musical.

And in the capable hands of the folks at STC, it is a hell of a lot of fun.

Published in Style

BANGOR – The music of an American icon is ringing forth from the stage of the Bangor Opera House.

Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” – conceived and adapted by Peter Glazer from the songs and writings of Woody Guthrie – is directed by Chris “Red” Blissett and music directed by Jeremy Sevelovitz, both of whom also star. The show runs through Sept. 29.

It’s a celebration of the legendary life of Woody Guthrie, one that uses his vast catalog of songs and an assortment of other writings to tell a tale of early 20th century America. With six actors taking turns embodying Guthrie himself, sharing his stories of the common man and the hardscrabble lives being lived by the struggling population through times of war and depression. Heather Astbury-Libby, John Burstein, Gaylen Smith and Tova Volcheck join Blisset and Sevelovitz to bring this performance to life.

Published in Style

Few cinematic subgenres are as predictable as the musical biopic. We’ve grown accustomed to watching the lives of famous musicians broken down into beats that have been repeated so many times as to become rote – it’s a sort of rock-and-roll lifestyle shorthand. We know how these goes.

That said, that formulaicness hasn’t necessarily prevented these films from succeeding both critically and commercially. Heck, last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” made $900 million at the box office and netted Rami Malek a Best Actor Oscar for playing Queen lead singer Freddie Mercury.

After that kind of run, it’s no surprise that Hollywood would return to the well again, this time with “Rocketman” starring Taron Egerton as Elton John. What is surprising is this: “Rocketman” is a better movie than “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Egerton’s performance as Elton John is better than Malek’s as Freddie Mercury.

Seriously. The movie won’t do nearly the same box office numbers and Egerton won’t get a sniff of the awards-show attention that Malek received, but that doesn’t change the fact that both are better.

They’re better because “Rocketman” – directed by Dexter Fletcher (the same guy who cleaned up Bryan Singer’s mess on “Bohemian Rhapsody”) – leans into the inherent weirdness of rock stardom in a way we don’t often see, embracing the flamboyance of its subject through a liberal dusting of full-blown musical numbers and magical realism. When you’re telling the story of a provocatively stylish and over-the-top icon, you’ve got to do it in a provocatively stylish and over-the-top fashion.

(Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if in a movie about a singer, your lead performer, you know … sings.)

Published in Movies

BANGOR – A musical tale of coming of age and coming out, a story of family and fate, is showing at the Bangor Opera House.

Penobscot Theatre is presenting “Fun Home,” a musical based on Alison Bechdel’s 2006 graphic memoir of the same name, with music by Jeanine Tesori and book and lyrics by Lisa Kron. The show runs through May 12.

Directed by Tricia A. Hobbs with musical direction by David John Madore, it’s the story of Bechdel herself, looking at her personal journey of gender identity through the lens of her past while also coming to terms with some of her family’s secrets. This is a challenging and thought-provoking piece, asking questions about self and selfishness and what it means to sacrifice. It is about choices – both those we make and those that the universe makes for us. It is about love and connection and secrets. It is about sexuality and discovery.

And it is one of the most emotionally impactful productions to grace this stage in a very long time.

Published in Style
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