Dreamgirls (2006)

2015 #195
Bill Condon | 130 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Oscar-winning adaptation of the stage musical that doesn’t tell the story of the Supremes in fictionalised form, no sir.

Jamie Foxx is the ambitious car salesman who transforms a trio of black soul singers into a crossover hit by replacing chunky lead Jennifer Hudson with sexy Beyoncé Knowles. Personal issues dog the girls’ career, as Foxx becomes megalomaniacal, leaving early successes like R&B star Eddie Murphy in his wake.

Despite oddities, like diegetic performances being replaced part way by characters breaking into song, and questions over the story’s adherence to fact, the film is a compelling (if heightened) character drama.

4 out of 5

Show Boat (1951)

2014 #110
George Sidney | 103 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Show BoatYou’d be forgiven for thinking MGM want people to forget this movie even exists: it was dumped on US DVD back in 2000, it’s never had a UK disc release, and a long-rumoured special edition has never emerged. That’s a shame, because there’s a good-quality musical tucked away here.

The titular boat floats into a small community, where things immediately begin to go awry: someone reports the star couple (Robert Sterling and, more importantly, Ava Gardner) to the authorities for their interracial relationship, leading to them being carted off; fortunately, Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel) is around to hop on board in their place, owing in part to his instantly falling in love with the ship’s captain’s daughter (Kathryn Grayson). To be honest, I found much of this opening a little hoary, including an insipid and instantly forgettable love song between Keel and Grayson.

With that out of the way, however, things begin to warm up: the boat sets sail (not that any sails are involved) into the early-morning mist, to the strains of Ol’ Man River, a downright fantastic song. “I get weary and sick of trying / I’m tired of living and scared of dying”*Ol' Man Rivera bit fatalistic for a bright little musical about two people falling in love on a show boat? No, it’s just an indication of where things are going — into darkness, as modern parlance would have it, because from here on out everything goes to pot. To detail the ins and outs would be to spoil the narrative, but much of the film is more tragedy than cheesy Hollywood musical.

I think people forget just how many musicals actually are pretty glum. They’ve acquired the image of being happy-clappy-smiley-singy nonsenses, but many of them — and most of the best ones — come with a thick undercurrent of reality, or classical tragedy. I mean, West Side Story is based on Romeo and Juliet, for crying out loud — and doesn’t really sanitise the ending, as musical-haters might expect. Show Boat may build to a largely happy finale, but it’s not so for everyone, and the journey there is not all toe-tapping tunes and jazz hands.

This is the third film of Show Boat, based on a stage play that’s based on a novel. Apparently this version cuts back on both comedy elements and racial elements, so is presumably both less funny and less serious than some of the other versions. It seems many critics, scholars and fans consider one or more of the other versions to be superior. They may be right — I’ve not seen or read any of those — but, on its own merits, I think this is a very fine version of the apparent story, songs and themes.

The show boatPerhaps it isn’t a film to ease back with on a Sunday afternoon, but not every old film or musical needs to be. If you can get past the opening, Show Boat offers a tough, emotional, perhaps even challenging, view of the world that marks it out as a film deserving of some rediscovery. Can we have that special edition now, please?

4 out of 5

* In case anyone thinks I’m trying to deny black people their voice or something, the original lyric, as written, goes: “Ah gits weary / An’ sick of tryin’ / Ah’m tired of livin’ / An’ skeered of dyin'”. I changed it for clarity when read, though it being sung like that is in many respects vital to its intent. ^

Frozen (2013)

2014 #64
Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee | 102 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

FrozenFrozen is a grim single-location thriller about three college kids trapped on a ski-lift overnight, battling hypothermia and worse over a hundred-foot drop. Or at least it was until last year, when Disney went and released its all-consuming mega-musical. The 2010 thriller has been forgotten now, if it was ever that well known in the first place (it wasn’t, clearly), but when all the hype started to build around Disney’s super-hit, it was all I could think of. I wonder if, now that Disney’s version has made the transition to DVD, Blu-ray, on-demand and (from tomorrow) Sky Movies, anyone’s mistakenly sat down to the wrong version? I hope no one’s bunged it on and left their kids in front of it…

Anyway, Frozen — 2013 vintage — is an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen. I don’t know the original, but this version of the tale sees Nordic princess Elsa develop magical icy powers, nearly kill her younger sibling and best friend Anna, and be hidden away so as not to hurt anyone else. Years later, their parents have died and Elsa (now voiced by Idina Menzel) comes of age, so the royal world gathers for her coronation. It all goes wrong, she freezes the whole country, and treks off to create an ice palace. Anna (now Kristen Bell) goes after her, to save the kingdom and all that, teaming up with Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and his reindeer Sven (the latest in Disney’s long tradition of silent animal sidekicks). Oh, and there’s an incongruously-designed talking snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad).

You don’t need me to tell you that Frozen is a phenomenon, adored the world over. A woman in Japan even filed for divorce because her husband didn’t like it (I kid you not). All your criticisms make Elsa sadUnlike the best Disneys, however, I think its appeal resides firmly with little girls — you don’t actually have to go very far on the internet to find people baffled by its success. Plenty of people think the music is bland, the characters underdeveloped, the moral and emotional arcs not fully thought-through, the visual style a rip-off from Tangled, and more. While they do have some points, they’re also being a tad harsh.

The much-discussed, and Oscar-nominated, songs Do You Want to Build a Snowman? and Let It Go are certainly overrated by the film’s fans. Neither compares to even the weakest numbers in films like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast, and while they’re not bad — the latter in particular is quite hummable and liable to get stuck in your head (including Mendel’s whiningly nasal delivery) — I wouldn’t say either belong among Disney’s real classic tunes. In fact, I enjoyed almost every other song in the film more. That’s partly expectation I guess (there was less pressure on the others), but I also think the remainder are just more entertaining. That said, there’s sadly no villain’s song. There’s not really room for one, but regular readers will know how much my preference tends to extend to those tunes. (It did originally have a villain’s song, but that changed when the storyline was re-written. It’s still in the final film, though: it’s Let It Go. No, really.)

Not Jar Jar BinksThe lack of villain’s song is attributable to the fact that, for nearly the entire film, there are no nasty characters. A villain emerges right at the end to give us a climax, but for once that works — a genuine twist! It’s almost a shame it has to resort to that, but how else do you end a Hollywood movie other than a big dramatic confrontation? Plus, aforementioned snowman Olaf confounded my expectations, pulling off the quite remarkable feat of not being the most irritating CGI character since Jar Jar Binks. (I don’t know who is the most irritating CGI character since Jar Jar Binks, but Olaf is alright.)

Said characters deliver some funny bits, engage in some action sequences… Like the songs, everything’s fine without being exceptional. I don’t think this is a Disney film that lives in its moment, as it were. By which I mean that some of their weaker efforts rely on Good Bits to keep you entertained, and even those which are wholly marvellous still contain stand-out songs, jokes, or sequences. I’m not sure Frozen possesses many of those, but it does function well when regarded as a whole piece. That might mean you don’t head for the DVD chapter menu to jump to a favourite bit, but then this is a film, not a YouTube clip — “working as a whole” is a better goal to have achieved.

Musically, comedically, and in the quality of the animation, I’d put the whole experience on a par with other recent CGI Disney musicals, not any better — and considering Tangled is a few years old, the lack of improvement in the animation is perhaps disappointing. It's snow jokeIt’s not bad — it’s adequately cartoony — and actually the ice and snow effects are very, very good. It’s the character animation that I felt let it down, especially some of the more minor roles — there were points where their style and movement looked little better than you’d find in a video game cut scene.

However, thematically it does excel. There’s a dearth of good moral messages for little girls in modern cinema — heck, cinema of all eras, really, because the older messages tend to be along the lines of “true love = happiness” — find a man and get married, that’ll do ya. Frozen forges forward, but without descending into the man-hating feminism that would make it a target for the kind of old-fashioned conservatives who’d prefer little girls only heard the old messages. Without meaning to ruin the ending, the princesses fall back on their own abilities to save the day, rather than relying on their One True Love to ride in and rescue them. Elsewhere, there’s strong stuff about accepting who you are even if others don’t; about not living in fear; about the perils of falling in love too quickly… None of it is as heavy-handed as it sounds when spelled out — like all the best moral messages, it’s going to seep in rather than be forced upon people. If Frozen is a film that appeals primarily to little girls, at least it’s doing something good with its power.

Not letting it goFrozen is by no means a bad Disney movie, and it does have a lot of favourable aspects. Whether the internet’s right and it’s not as good as Tangled, I wouldn’t care to say (I enjoyed Tangled, but at this point have largely forgotten it); conversely, the sometimes-rabid fan base are perhaps being a little over-enthusiastic. There’s nothing wrong with a kids’ movie being beloved by kids, though; and with all the dreadful things the media churns out for little girls to obsess over and centre their life values around, this is undoubtedly one of the most positive.

4 out of 5

Frozen is on Sky Movies Premiere from Christmas Day.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Tangled (2010)

2011 #69
Nathan Greno & Byron Howard | 100 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

TangledDisney’s 50th animated feature is Rapunzel in all but name, for no particularly good reason. It seemed to be met with universal praise on its release last year, critics hailing it as a return to Disney’s previous quality after a run of lacklustre releases, in particular the underwhelming return to 2D in the year before’s The Princess and the Frog.

Well, to get that comparison immediately out of the way, Tangled isn’t as good as The Princess and the Frog in my estimation. I’m not sure why it seems to have been more widely praised — it’s solid and good fun, but I thought Frog had more going for it.

Which isn’t to say Tangled is bad. It’s funny, which is its biggest asset, and exciting at times — as usual, the highly moveable camera of CG animation adds fluidity, speed and excitement to the action sequences, making them one of the high points.

It’s not all good and shiny though. The setting — a comedic-ish fantasy-kingdom world — can come across a bit like lightweight Shrek, lacking the anachronistic postmodern real-world references that made that film zing. Worse, the songs are distinctly unmemorable — I’d forgotten some of them by the time it came to their own reprise. A gang of thugs singing about their dreams is the best thanks to its comedy, but I couldn’t hum or sing any of it for you now. I especially lament the lack of a decent villain’s song, Why not just call it Rapunzel?a number I usually particularly enjoy. It has one, I suppose, but it’s one of the weakest examples I’ve ever heard.

Tangled isn’t bad by any measure, but I don’t feel it should be the praise-magnet it became. There are certainly better Disney musicals — it can’t hold a candle to those; and there are better funny fairytales too — but at least it holds up as a solid addition to that sub-genre.

4 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Tangled is on Disney Cinemagic this Sunday, 23rd October, at 5pm and 9pm.

Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

2010 #106
Vincente Minnelli | 108 mins | TV | U

Someone (who exactly is long lost to the depths of my memory) once observed that, though a lot of people claim to not like musicals, they’re quite happy to acknowledge their love for The Sound of Music, or Grease, or Disney films, or (these days) Mamma Mia, apparently unaware that all those bits where people start singing make those films musicals. I expect such a person’s defence would run along the lines of affirming they like those musicals, but don’t like musicals on the whole. Despite its occasional fair placing on lists of great musicals — or even great films, sometimes — I think Meet Me in St. Louis would fall into that second group.

The film is based on Sally Benson’s autobiographical stories, collected as 5135 Kensington, though at times it reminded me of Pride & Prejudice — a family of daughters seeking marriage — albeit a version of Pride & Prejudice with much of the dramatic tension removed. For instance, Austen’s tale spends a long time creating a bad impression of Mr Darcy, only to eventually reveal his (mostly) good intentions. St. Louis, on the other hand, manages all of five minutes (if that) in which John Truett (the Darcy-ish character) is suspected of having done something dastardly before the truth is revealed.

Garland and O'BrienJudy Garland is fine in the lead role — still playing a teen, despite being 21, but suitably distant from Dorothy. Margaret O’Brien receives prominent second billing in the role of ‘Tootie’, despite being just seven years old. She was, I learn, something of a star at the time, in spite of her young age, which perhaps explains the (arguably) undue prominence in both the credits and the film itself. That said, she’s a rather good actress, and picked up an Oscar for her performance here (and other roles she played in 1944).

Most of the time Meet Me in St. Louis ambles along agreeably enough, throwing in a few nice songs — including well-known numbers like The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas — before (spoilers!) everything turns out alright in the end. It’s all perfectly pleasant, but I’m not sure I could offer it any higher praise than that.

3 out of 5

Meet Me in St. Louis is on Film4 today, Wednesday 17th December 2014, at 4:10pm.

The Band Wagon (1953)

2010 #91
Vincente Minnelli | 108 mins | TV (HD) | U

The Band WagonIn this behind-the-scenes musical, Fred Astaire plays Tony Hunter, a slightly washed-up star of stage and screen. One can’t help but wonder if his performance has an autobiographical edge. It’s of no concern to the viewer though, because he’s as wonderful as ever.

The plot sees respected musical writers the Martons (Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant) penning a new production for Hunter to star in. They hire famed Theatre director Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), who slowly turns the production into a rather serious version of Faust, starring ballet star Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse). She doesn’t get on with Hunter (thanks, of course, to a series of silly misunderstandings), while his role is slowly squeezed away. No one is happy. On the bright side, hilarity ensues. Everything turns out OK in the end, naturally, but along the way we get plenty of comedy and plenty of song & dance.

There are several great numbers: Astaire dancing his way around an amusement arcade; That’s Entertainment, written for the film and easily demonstrating why it quickly became a standard; a bizarre number with Astaire, Fabray and Buchanan dressed up as babies, dancing around on their knees (memorable, if nothing else); and a big closing dance routine… that I actually liked! It’s a hard-boiled crime thriller told through the medium of dance (obviously; plus voiceover). It’s different to the norm — the voiceover adds a discernible story, and rather than showcase ballet it reinterprets noir-ish tropes — and it works marvellously.

Minnelli shoots the dances in wide shots with long takes, using few if any cuts mid-sequence, which is of course the perfect way to watch Astaire in action. Every frame shows everything he’s doing, which is frequently essential, and there are no cuts to spoil his natural rhythm or shatter the illusion of a seamless routine.

I always feel like a four-star review should justify why there’s no fifth star — there must be something at fault, otherwise why not full marks? Perhaps this is a simplistic philosophy though, because I’ve not got a bad word to say about The Band Wagon, but it’s still:

4 out of 5

Brigadoon (1954)

2010 #93
Vincente Minnelli | 104 mins | TV (HD) | U / G

“Oh dear,” is surely the initial reaction to Brigadoon. The Scottish accents are appalling, the costumes and setting gratingly twee, the Highlands recreated entirely on a soundstage. I wonder if many Americans visited Scotland in the wake of this film expecting to find such things? If they did, I imagine they were sorely disappointed.

But, importantly — and thankfully — it does grow on you as it goes on. The ill-conceived cast, costumes and studio-bound setting begin to pale under the charm of Gene Kelly and the machinations of the plot. Even the Scottish accents, though consistently dreadful, eventually become less irritating. The casting of Kelly and Cyd Charisse resulted in several musical numbers being dropped and a greater emphasis placed on dance. As I think has become apparent in some previous reviews, I’m not the biggest dance fan, but luckily Brigadoon contains no extended sequence to rival those I dislike in An American in Paris or Oklahoma!. Instead, the routines remain at the kind of length where I can still afford them some appreciation, and they are worthy of that.

The reveal that Brigadoon is a village stuck in time, only emerging from the fog for a single day every hundred years, is saved for the halfway point. It’s one of those occasions where, as a modern viewer, you know the twist and almost wonder why it takes so long to be revealed; equally, it doesn’t hamper proceedings in any meaningful way. In fact, the shock when (spoiler!) the film suddenly cuts to a busy, noisy New York for the final ten minutes is a bigger one. There’s a neat conclusion though, working its way around the film’s self-established rules without destroying them.

If you go doon to the woods today...I think it’s fair to say this isn’t the greatest of musicals (though I know some might disagree). The poor realisation of Scotland takes some getting used to — and remains either irritating or amusing, depending on your mileage for such things — and generally there’s a dearth of particularly memorable songs or dances. But it’s not bad either, once things get underway.

My ultimate verdict is stuck somewhere between a 3 and a 4. I’ve erred on the generous side, again, because I liked it more than An American in Paris (which I also gave a 4) and I’m soft. I really need to stop giving every film I sort-of-quite-like a 4 though — a better scale/spread of ratings is needed on here, I feel.

4 out of 5

An American in Paris (1951)

2009 #93
Vincente Minnelli | 109 mins | DVD | U

An American in ParisIf anyone is interested in An American in Paris and has found this alleged-review in search of something interesting to read, I’m afraid you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Not because I didn’t like the film, but because I’ve not got anything to say about it.

The main reason for such an oversight is that, getting round to this review a month or so since I watched it, I can’t remember enough of it well enough to provide anything close to meaningful criticism. This could sound like a criticism in itself — designating the film unmemorable — but the sad truth is it’s not all that uncommon for me. This is why I usually write notes (like this (just in case you don’t know what notes might look like)), so that when I do get to a review (inevitably late) I can translate said notes into something passably resembling a review. Viewing An American in Paris over the Christmas/New Year period, however, there was no time for note-taking.

But enough on my lackadaisical reviewing habits, what can I say about the film? Well, it’s got a Gershwin score, and I always like that; particularly memorable is I Got Rhythm being performed by Gene Kelly and a group of young kids who can’t speak English. It’s a different take on a familiar number that’s thoroughly entertaining. The dancing is all great, of course, and Leslie Caron — last-minute replacement for a pregnant Cyd Charisse — shines in her debut role. The film ends with a lengthy ballet which, to be frank, isn’t really to my taste; dance fans of a certain type will undoubtedly love it though.

And that’s your lot, I’m afraid. I can only apologise to you, dear reader, and to all involved with this perfectly lovely film for not being able to offer a more appropriate set of thoughts.

4 out of 5

High Society (1956)

2009 #54
Charles Walters | 107 mins | DVD | U

High SocietyCole Porter-scored musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, which is probably most famous for featuring Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and being star Grace Kelly’s final film before becoming a princess.

Despite rarely singing, Kelly is by far the film’s standout element — it’s easy to believe three different men would be vying for her affection, but she also gets the chance to show the greatest range of any cast member. Admittedly it’s shades of comedy rather than a full awards-worthy display of ability, but she carries the film beautifully. It’s no wonder her husband-to-be, Prince Rainier of Monaco, objected to her appearing in movies when she played roles such as this: a divorcee who at one point allegedly sleeps with another man on the eve of her wedding to a third is surely no role for a princess. (Turns out she didn’t sleep with him, mind.)

Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra are more-or-less themselves as the male leads, though the sole song they perform together, Well, Did You Evah!, is one of the film’s best — despite being a late addition from a previous Cole Porter musical after it was realised Crosby and Sinatra didn’t have a number together. Louis Armstrong also plays himself, literally, and brightens up the screen whenever he appears. His band’s duet with Crosby, Now You Has Jazz, is another of the film’s highlights.

Despite being adapted from an acclaimed play and film, the plot feels like a relatively slight contrivance to link together a couple of songs — alternately of the Romantic and Comedic variety — and some farcical humour with a romance-based thread. That the right people end up together is no surprise — so little surprise, in fact, that the story doesn’t even bother with such trivial things as making the final entanglements come together believably.

No matter. It’s the journey to the inevitable conclusion, through a few comical scenes and a few decent tunes, that makes High Society a perfectly pleasant dose of entertainment.

4 out of 5

High Society is on TCM UK today, Saturday 4th April 2015, at 4:15pm, and on Sunday at 9:35am.

Commentary! The Musical (2008)

2009 26a
Jed Whedon & Joss Whedon | 42 mins | DVD

Commentary! The MusicalCommentary! The Musical falls somewhere between DVD extra, TV episode and short film. Whatever it should be classed as, it’s utter genius.

You’ve surely heard of Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, the project Joss Whedon created during the infamous US Writers’ Strike. (That in itself you could debate the status of. Three-part miniseries? Short film? Feature film? (At 42 minutes it’s over the Academy’s boundary.) And endlessly on.) Well, on the Dr. Horrible DVD can be found this — an alternate audio track, on which the cast and crew discuss the making of the feature… except it’s all scripted and the majority is sung. Not your traditional audio commentary then.

As an audio commentary, it does little to illuminate the production of Dr Horrible — though, surprisingly, it does do some — but instead focuses its energy on spoofing commentary tracks, DVD extras, and the American film and TV industry in general. Specific targets include the Writers’ Strike and its lack of success, rivalry between lead actors, the importance of ensemble cast members, Asians in US TV and film, the dissection of art by DVD extras, and many more. It’s almost all incredibly funny — inevitably there are a few duff gags and dull songs, although they are uncommonly rare — and it moves at a rate of knots, meaning it rewards multiple listens to pick up every gag. Having already re-listened to a couple of tracks, I can attest to noticing funny lines that I was too busy laughing through before. In a spot of technical impressiveness, the commentary is often surprisingly scene-specific, sometimes even shot-specific. When you consider the effort that must’ve been involved to script and time both songs and spoken dialogue to make this happen, it’s even more impressive.

It’s this careful scripting and the sure-handed attentiveness to theme that marks Commentary! The Musical out as a fictional work in its own right, rather than ‘merely’ a DVD extra, in much the same way that Mystery Science Theater 3000 or the short-lived (and easily forgotten) Rob Brydon series Director’s Commentary are original works. With its well-targeted thematically-appropriate comedy and plentiful gags, it’s pure delight for fans of DVDs, or anyone else with a mind open to the concept.

5 out of 5