Tag: music/musical

Movie Review: A Night at the Opera (1935)

Night at the Opera

Seen: On film at the Brattle Theatre.

Weirdly, I haven’t caught up with the Marx Brothers. I saw Duck Soup years ago, that one episode of I Love Lucy when I was a kid, and that’s about it. An unexpectedly free night and some Marx Brothers screenings at the Brattle lined up perfectly to make my first film of 2014: A Night at the Opera. A wacky musical farce, the film stars Groucho Marx as Otis B Driftwood, a fast-talking business manager who worms his way into the opera scene, making some enemies along the way. He teams up with theater agent Fiorello (Chico Marx) and stage assistant Tomasso (Harpo Marx) on a cruise from Italy to New York, all in a wild gamble to make down-on-his-luck singer Ricardo (Allan Jones) an opera star and reunite him with his love Rosa (Kitty Carlisle). A lot of silliness ensues, and sometimes people break out into musical numbers.

Oh goodness, well, I guess you generally know what you’re getting into with a Marx Brothers movie, as far as I can tell, and that boils down to a zany affair. You’ve got Groucho spouting clever one-liners, Harpo clonking jerks on the head in wide-eyed innocence, and Chico doing his fake-Italian thing. They disrupt all manner of snooty-rich-people events, because fuck rich people, and cause general shock across the board through their wild antics. Overall this is a ridiculous, funny movie that allows each brother to show off their talents while following a basic plot outline so the action keeps moving. For me it wasn’t 100% successful as a comedy because some of the bits don’t quite work or are drawn out too much (Groucho and Chico’s over-elaborate reading of a contract sticks out as the worst offender), and the romantic subplot between Allan Jones and Kitty Carlisle is mostly dull, but there are so many scenes that had me laughing out loud that they must be doing something right. I absolutely loved the crowded ship bunk scene, my goodness, who knew that throwing a bunch of people into one tiny room could have me in stitches. I was also very impressed with Harpo’s gymnastics at the end, some death-defying rope tricks going on there.

Though I knew the story centered around opera, somehow I didn’t realize this would be so… musical. Now, you know me, I love musicals, but I’ve never been a huge fan of opera, and I generally enjoy musicals more when the songs serve the story somewhat. Here, the prolonged serenade between Rosa and Ricardo when the ship is departing was just boring, and the multiple performances of opera numbers on stage were a bit much. I did like the impromptu sequence with Ricardo singing on the ship’s deck during some totally unexplained folk festival(?) that involved bouncy costumes and heaps of spaghetti, especially since that allowed Chico and Harpo to break out into delightful piano and harp solos, respectively. But I could have done with fewer operatic sequences, I’ll be honest. Some of them just slowed things down, and took me out of the film’s otherwise fast-paced comedy. A minor complaint though, and one that betrays my own naive preconceptions; this is a vaudevillian 1930s comedy about the opera, so really why wouldn’t it have a strong musical component?


Movie Review: The Sapphires (2013)

Seen: On my laptop, streamed from netflix instant.

Loosely based on the real-life singing group (and written by the lead singer’s son), The Sapphires follows four musical Koori women- three sisters and their cousin- who tour Vietnam in 1968 to perform for American troops. They are accompanied by their drunken manager, Dave Lovelace (Chris O’Dowd), who is generally useless but seriously believes in their talent. While traveling the young women experience various ups and downs: the oldest, Gail (Deborah Mailman), fights to protect everyone else in an unfriendly environment; her sister Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell) embarks on an affair with a handsome soldier; Julie (Jessica Mauboy), the youngest, suddenly finds herself in the spotlight due to her strong singing voice; and their cousin Kay (Shari Sebbens), struggles with her conflicting identities as an Aboriginal woman who was forcibly raised in white society due to Australia’s aggressive anti-aboriginal policies.

With a fun, soulful soundtrack and a really likable cast, The Sapphires is a darned enjoyable musical that also offers a glimpse into a specific historical moment that I admittedly know little about. It is made clear early on how these girls have grown up: as Koori in a country that resents their people so much that the government sought to eradicate them through forced indoctrination and child-stealing (of course, to an American this does sound familiar). Gail and her sisters are strong-willed, incredibly motivated, and fiercely loyal to their family and community. They take a stand against the racist rules of their country by refusing to be ignored, and their efforts to be heard are rewarded with a terrifying but significant opportunity to perform for huge crowds in Vietnam. What’s interesting about this movie is that, while the protagonists’ struggle against prejudice and hatred is of course a major factor, the story never leans on it as a defining plot point. This is about individuals whose Koori background is integral to their identity but not their defining feature, resulting in a multi-layered and often lighthearted script that explores how these women react and adapt to their unique situation.

While I think in many ways this is History Lite, I was so charmed by The Sapphires that I didn’t really care. It balances humor and romance (led by Dave and Gail’s adorable interactions) along with tragedy and social commentary, peppered heavily with excellent musical sequences. I loved the cast, especially O’Dowd and Mailman in the leads. It’s a little cheesy at times and seems so intent on keeping things upbeat that the more seriously emotional points aren’t always effective, but I did enjoy myself immensely. And now I’m encouraged to learn more about this moment in Australia’s history, and indeed more about USO performers in the Vietnam War. Yay learning!


Pair This Movie With: Another musical about a girl group, perhaps? I still haven’t seen it but I imagine Dreamgirls might fit. Or maybe Linda Linda Linda. Alternatively, there’s The Boat That Rocked for another look at a real life rock music thing in the 60’s, but with mostly white British dudes. And Chris O’Dowd again.

Movie Review: Frozen (2013)

"FROZEN" (Pictured) ELSA. ©2013 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

Seen: In 2D at the Kerasotes Showplace theater in Secaucus, NJ.

Growing up I was a bit of a fairy tale nerd, and Hans Christian Andersen was one of my favorite storytellers. Mostly because of how much I adored his story “The Snow Queen,” an exciting adventure wherein a brave girl journeys across the land to rescue her male best friend, who’s been captured and brainwashed by the titular evil queen. I’d followed the ups and downs of Disney’s adaptation of the story, which radically changes the central plot and only includes white people, and of course is titled Frozen, something ambiguous and un-girly. The marketing was terrible but Idina Menzel and positive reviews had me curious. The story centers around two princess sisters, one- Elsa- born with deadly ice powers that she is forced to hide from the world, and the other- Anna- born with regular boring human abilities. During her coronation Elsa freaks out and accidentally encases her kingdom in perpetual winter, and it’s up to Anna to save the day with the help of Kristoff, a goofy ice picker.

Focusing on two cool (ha!) ladies and the bonds of sisterhood, Frozen is an enjoyable adventure with some progressive themes. The characters are fun and interesting, the setting is lovely, and the magic is awesome. The landscapes are gorgeous and the effects are really beautiful, with Elsa’s versatile power showing itself in a range of visually-striking ways. I wish I could whip up a sexy ice dress for myself, just to hang out in (although it seems unlikely she would give herself stilettos for walking around in an ice castle, I mean really). I liked that romance was more of a subplot because Anna’s relationship with Elsa was paramount. Especially since the romance, while cute, seemed hypocritical after Kristoff berated Anna for getting engaged to a guy she just met (but I guess that was part of the point?). I also liked that the ideas of good vs evil were more of a gray area, making the story more about acceptance and understanding than black and white moral codes.

While overall I can say I did like Frozen a lot, there are various things nagging at me that keep me from loving it. For one thing, I generally find it off-putting when movies start out as musicals and then forget about it halfway through. It works in Mulan because it’s basically a commentary on the soldiers’ mentality before and after they’re confronted with actual battle, but that’s the main successful example I can think of. In Frozen, there are several songs in a row in the beginning, and they’re cute but kind of forgettable and a little too casual in their lyrics (“for the first time in forever” makes me think of something you’d hear in a pop song, as opposed to a fantasy musical, but that’s me being nitpicky, I don’t know). There is one stunning sequence, and for some reason it’s Idina’s only solo, but I think that’s the only song that truly stands out. I thought the snowman’s song was funny, but that’s primarily because it’s a silly concept, not because the song itself is especially memorable.

My actual biggest issue is the animation- specifically the character design. I am so sick of these pasty, plasticine figures with their huge eyes, pouty lips, and doughy cheeks, it’s just ugly. The female body types are all the same, the clothing moves like clay, and everyone only has like 3 facial expressions. I’ve never been a bit proponent of CG animation, it’s always looked kind of gross to me (especially human figures, which is why I think Pixar is most successful with characters like Wall-E or the Toy Story toys), but this one got to me more than usual for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because I found myself truly appreciating the landscapes and architecture, which were wonderfully rendered and made the uninspired character design even more apparent. Honestly the most visually appealing part of Frozen was probably the trailer for The Boxtrolls that preceded it, because I am so fucking psyched for more stop-motion animation from Laika.

Anyway. I did enjoy this movie, and I’d like to see it again. I’m so glad there’s a story that focuses on sisters, similar to how I loved that Brave was about a mother-daughter relationship. I’m also excited that one of the protagonists is basically a lady X-Man, with all the magic powers, isolationist angst, and gay metaphors that come along with being a mutant. Rad. Oh also the so-called “twist”? Is that really a twist? Both the thing with Hans and the thing with “an act of true love” were pretty easy to spot early on, but I’d had multiple people telling me there was a big twist at the end so I spent the whole time waiting for it all to be taking place in a kid’s snow globe or something.

ONE FINAL NOTE: I feel like no one’s talking about how this movie was co-directed and written by a lady, specifically Jennifer Lee who also co-wrote Wreck-It Ralph. I know we don’t need to ruminate on gender things all the time, but I just think it’s really neat since so few women write or direct Disney films. You’re awesome, Jennifer!


Pair This Movie With: I’ve seen a few people comment that this kind of a version of Wicked, which is fair, and I totally wanted to listen to the Wicked soundtrack when I got home. There are also parallels to Enchanted in its commentary on “falling in love in one day”-type fairy tales (and Idina again!). It would also pair well with Tangled, not only because the characters look exactly the same, but because they both have plucky heroines who escape their confinement, and they probably take place in the same universe or whatever. Not gonna get into that.

Movie Review: 20 centímetros (20 Centimeters) (2005)

Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

I found 20 Centimeters on my netflix queue a few weeks ago and wasn’t sure why it was there, but the summary sounded intriguing enough to bump it up. I didn’t really know anything about it aside from what netflix told me, but I’m glad I took the risk because it turned out to be a pretty cool movie. The story follows Marieta (Mónica Cervera) a trans sex worker who is saving up for reassignment surgery and trying to break in to the regular workforce. Unfortunately, her roommate Tomás (Miguel O’Dogherty), whom she supports financially, has made a bad investment with her money, and her friend and neighbor is in trouble with some mob, and her dreamy new boyfriend is obsessed with the huge penis she wants to be rid of. Through it all, her narcolepsy causes her to fall asleep at inopportune times, slipping into intense fantasies where she’s a musical star.

Ok, high concept, I KNOW, but somehow 20 Centimeters works despite its narrative busy-ness. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s colorful, and a little kooky. On paper this sounds like it could be depressing or exploitative but there is a balance of tone and subplots that presents a complex, human story. The central figure of Marieta grounds the film, with a fantastic and impressive performance by Mónica Cervera, who helps create a realistic character within this over the top premise. She is charismatic and sympathetic, and impressively changeable in her many dream-roles. Marieta’s experiences (good and bad) as a transwoman are explored, but she is not wholly defined by that identity. I found the general investigation of lower-class life in urban Spain compelling in itself, with a range of characters popping in and out of Marieta’s day to day.

As a musical 20 Centimeters is highly referential, pulling from Jacques Demy, Bob Fosse, Gene Kelly, and others in an eclectic offering of musical numbers. Some are really ridiculous and fluffy, some are sexy and romantic, and some are just kind of weird. I actually felt like there were too many songs, which is rarely a problem for me, but I was getting so interested in the characters and some of these irrelevant musical numbers took away from the story and certainly hindered its flow. Also their quality was a little hit and miss, but some I did truly love. I’ll admit I was enjoying this movie anyway, but then the final number happens as Marieta is finally getting her surgery, and for several days I only wanted to listen to Queen and dance around majestically because maybe things will work out in life. And it’s just really great.


Pair This Movie With: The musical-inside-the-protagonist’s-head thing of course made me think of Chicago, which would be a fun double feature. Alternatively, for another musical comedy-drama about a talented trans person there is the fantastic Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The film’s tone and themes are reminiscent of Almodóvar, so one of his films would be a good pairing too.

Movie Review: Wild Zero (1999)

Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from Hollywood Express in Cambridge.

I know a movie is cool when the dudes at my local rental place Hollywood Express aren’t familiar with it, I felt pretty cool myself for stumping them. I know they must have been really impressed and will probably want to be my best friend now. Yup. Commissioned by my friend Ben to make a gig poster for Guitar Wolf, the band starring in Wild Zero, I was keen to see this film as soon as possible both for inspiration and because it sounded fucking RAD. Basically invading aliens are causing the human dead to rise (Plan 9-style) and it’s up to punk band Guitar Wolf, their biggest fan Ace (Masashi Endô), and badass arms dealer Yamazaki (Haruka Nakajo) to take down this unexpected zombie army. It’s all in the name of love, as Ace meets sweet and shy Tobio (Kwancharu Shitichai) right before the attack, and fights to save her if he can. Meanwhile Guitar Wolf’s vengeful ex-manager the Captain (Makoto Inamiya) is tracking the group down with a buttload of weapons, totally unaware of the whole zombie thing.

Between the zombies, the rock and roll, the aliens, the frenetic storytelling, the hyper-stylization, the impressive attention to hair care, and the high body count, Wild Zero definitely excels in the “ridiculous” category. It’s a loopy, loopy movie and you know that’s just the kind of thing I like. The story itself is all over the place, with characters running back and forth between various locations and half-forgotten subplots, and audiences are likely to forget there’s even an alien invasion forthcoming until UFO’s are hovering directly above our heroes’ heads. The script is hilarious, juggling over the top dialogue with earnest characters and a bit of a heartfelt message thrown in there. I loved the low budget effects, totally unexpected weaponization of musical instruments, and frequent outbursts of ROCK N ROLLLLLLL. I also appreciated the overall weirdness, because honestly what even is happening here? I have no idea. And that’s great.

With Guitar Wolf’s members oozing cool, Ace making goofy faces all the time, Captain sporting a range of hot pants, I found most of the characters extremely entertaining. To no one’s surprise, Yamazaki was my favorite, because she was a take-no-shit lady who happened to hold a huge cache of weapons AND ALSO wore a super ludicrous outfit the whole time. So she was badass while making me laugh, what a neat lady. I also have to say (and spoiler alert here, I guess, if you care about the film’s plot?), I thought it was cool that a trans* character became a central romantic plot point. At first when Ace learns that his new love Tobio has a penis, he freaks out and I was like “Aw man, can we not have this turn into a transphobic joke?” but then Guitar Wolf pops up to act as Ace’s spiritual guide, and yells at him because love knows no borders, nationalities, or genders! Ace realizes he loves Tobio no matter what, and spends the rest of the movie trying to save her from zombies, and they end up happily ever after! It’s like, the trans* thing becomes a non-issue once Ace just accepts it. A totally unexpected but definitely welcome part of this movie, I’d say.

Anyway, great job, Wild Zero. You’ve got rock and roll and zombies and magic and once in a while aliens, plus lots of jokes. And a guitar that’s secretly a katana. There is that too.


Pair This Movie With: More weird movies! At various points I thought of Repo Man, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare, and Gregg Araki films. I also think a fun pairing would be Rock n’ Roll High School, since Guitar Wolf is definitely channeling The Ramones a bit here.

PS It must be said, FUCK all of the transphobic, misogynist, sexist assholes who have written about this movie online. I was trying to find Yamazaki’s character name because I couldn’t remember it but I wanted to talk about her, and I found myself wading through a shit ton of awful reviews of this movie (none of which named her, by the way) that were laden with so much prejudiced and offensive commentary, it made me want to cry. Everyone is awful.