CINDERELLA (2021)

September 2, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. In keeping with the times, writer-director Kay Cannon (the screenwriter for three PITCH PERFECT movies) has turned the classic and ancient Cinderella tale into an agenda movie, albeit one adorned with new and lively adaptations of popular songs. The earliest versions of the folk tale date back 2000 years, while the most widely-accepted fairy tale version was penned by 17th century French writer Charles Perrault, who also wrote “Little Red Riding Hood” and “Sleeping Beauty”. Since then, there have been countless renditions around the globe in various forms: literary, stage, musical theatre, TV, and animated and live action film. As far as I can tell, this is the first feminist take.

Opening with the town folks performing Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation”, we are then introduced to Ella (pop singer Camila Cabello in her first movie), who lives in the basement of her stepmother’s (Idina Menzel) home. Yes, Ella has two stepsisters, although neither are particularly wicked. In fact, Anastasia (Maddie Baillio) appears almost disinterested, while Drizella (Charlotte Spencer) is at times, downright hilarious (in a Leslie Mann kind of way). Even the stepmother has moments of respectability and decency with Ella.

Ella’s only friends are the three mice who also live in the basement. It’s here where she hones her talent as a dress designer and dreams of having her own business (“how hard can it be?”). For her, she sees fashion design as not just her way out of the basement, but more importantly, as her road to independence. She doesn’t need a man or anyone else, and is skilled in daily affirmations. Hers is less of a ‘dream’ and more of a goal, despite the challenges of her situation.

Of course this is still a Cinderella story, and Nicholas Galitzine plays Prince Robert, an unfocused young man who lacks the drive to be king and fulfill the ultimate wish of his father, King Rowan (Pierce Brosnan). On the other hand, Robert’s sister, Princess Gwen (Tallulah Greive) is both driven and filled with ideas on ways to improve the kingdom. Her father readily dismisses her from matters of importance (men things), while Queen Beatrice (Minnie Driver) initially tries to maintain peace in the family. Knowing that this is a musical, and seeing Pierce Brosnan’s name in the credits, might generate nightmarish flashbacks for those who experienced his singing in MAMMA MIA! (2008). While he does tease/threaten us with singing, most of his musical bits are quite tongue-in-cheek.

Bringing a jolt of energy to the story at a time when it’s desperately needed is Billy Porter as Ella’s non-binary Fabulous Godmother, known as Fab G. Porter’s costume and overall flamboyance are a hoot to watch, and oh by the way, he’s quite a singer as well. And yes, the three mice turn into coachmen played by James Corden, James Acaster, and Romesh Ranganathan. They do serve up some comic relief, but likely not as much as they or the filmmaker hopes. Surprisingly, the set design and costume design are fairly drab – the two exceptions being Porter and the ball.

In addition to the opening “Rhythm Nation” song, you’ll hear a version of Salt-N-Pepa’s “What a Man”, as well as other familiar tunes. The music and the shift in Ella’s approach are the contemporary touches, as the girl-power theme stresses there’s no need for a man … even a Prince. The twist on the Cinderella tale varies from previous versions, the most popular being Kenneth Branagh’s 2015 film with Lily James and Cate Blanchett, the 1997 film with Whitney Houston as the Fairy Godmother, and of course, Walt Disney’s 1950 animated classic. Ms. Cannon’s version is still a love story; it’s just love of one’s self and career, rather than the love of another person. A tale perfectly suited to the times.

In select theaters and on Amazon Prime beginning September 3, 2021

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THE PROM (2020)

December 3, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The success of his TV series “Glee” and “American Horror Story” has delivered Ryan Murphy the creative freedom to explore other projects. This time out he directs the cinema version of a Tony-nominated musical, and blends star power with newcomers in an extravaganza meant to fill the gap left by the darkened stages of Broadway during the pandemic. Created by Jack Viertel, with a book and screenplay from Bob Martin and Chad Beguelin, it’s a story of homophobia and narcissism, and the battle to defeat both.

Meryl Streep stars as Dee Dee Allen, and along with James Corden as Barry Glickman, their opening night exuberance for “Eleanor! The Eleanor Roosevelt Musical” fades quickly when the reviews hit. Licking their wounds at Sardi’s, the two are told by the producer that nobody likes narcissists. Joined by chorus girl Angie Dickinson (played by Nicole Kidman) and Julliard-educated actor/bartender Trent Oliver (Andrew Rannells), they decide what’s needed to revamp their careers is a ‘cause celebre’. Thanks to Twitter trends, they locate the plight of Emma Nolan (newcomer Jo Ellen Pellman), whose Indiana High School PTA has just voted to cancel prom rather than allow Emma to bring another girl as a date.

As you would imagine, becoming an activist for the wrong reasons (publicity) can make things messy. These flamboyant city slickers aren’t exactly welcomed with open arms by Midwestern folks. Plenty of touching moments occur between Barry and Emma, Barry and Dee Dee, Angie and Emma, Dee Dee and school Principal Mr. Hawkins (Keegan-Michael Key), and mostly, Emma and her closeted girlfriend Alyssa (Ariana DeBose, who will also star in Steven Spielberg’s upcoming remake of WEST SIDE STORY). PTA leader and leading homophobe Mrs. Greene (a fiery Kerry Washington) does a nice job as a bigot and caring parent.

So while a story exists and messages are conveyed, this is, more than anything, a glitzy musical covered in primary colors as only Ryan Murphy can. Each of our main players gets a featured song, with Ms. Streep’s campy “Not About Me” a highlight, along with Ms. Kidman’s Fosse-esque “Zazz”. Mr. Corden probably gets more than his fair share of screen time, while Ms. Pellman and Ms. DeBose shine brightly in their numbers, and both possess lovely voices. Young Ms. Pellman is especially impressive holding her own on screen with Oscar winners Streep and Kidman.

There likely aren’t many gay teen rom-com musicals set in middle-America, especially ones with a Tina Louise reference, but leave it to Ryan Murphy to make it work. There is some quality humor, though it’s likely the song and dance segments are what will draw the audience. Choreographer Casey Nicholaw takes full advantage of the athletic youngsters and fills the screens with backflips and leaps – complimenting the dance moves of the stars. It’s a shame inclusivity must still be addressed, but at least it can be battled in a fun and colorful way.

Opening in theaters December 4, 2020 and on Netflix December 11, 2020

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CATS (2019)

December 19, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Tom Hooper must really enjoy this process. In 2012 he brought mega-hit stage musical LES MISERABLES to the screen. It was nominated for 8 Oscars and won 3, including one for Anne Hathaway. This time, Mr. Hooper again turns his talents towards a colossally successful stage musical, and costumes, make-up, and visual effects are even more crucial. Whereas Les Mis was adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel, CATS was adapted by songwriter Andrew Lloyd Webber from a 1939 poetry collection of T.S. Elilot. Of course, Mr. Webber is also the genius behind other brilliant musicals, including THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (from the novel by Gaston Leroux).

Tom Hooper and Lee Hall have adapted the screenplay from the stage presentation, and the sung-through musical approach means there is minimal dialogue. Songs are used to tell the story and introduce the key characters. Choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler (a 3-time Tony winner, “Hamilton”) is the real star. Multiple dance styles are featured, including: classical ballet, contemporary, hip-hop, and traditional tap. The dancing is tremendous, and of course, a big part of that is Francesca Hayward, who plays new kitten on the block, Victoria. Ms. Hayward is a Principal Ballerina at The Royal Ballet. Numerous other skilled dancers are in the cast as well.

The story (such that it is) revolves around a tribe of Jellicle cats who have an annual ritual of selecting one to ascend to the Heaviside Layer and come back with a new Jellicle life. Sweet Victoria is unceremoniously dumped in the alley by her owner, and is quickly surrounded by this tribe of cats that basically aren’t very nice. It’s in this opening sequence where we realize these humans as cats actually look a bit creepy and take a while to get accustomed to. Given the structure, the story plods along through each successive song, with certain characters getting their moment to shine. These include Rebel Wilson as humorous and chunky Gumbie cat Jennyanydots, Rum Tum Tiger cat played by talented musician/singer/dancer Jason Derulo, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson as outcast Grizabella, James Corden as the usually-hungry Bustopher Jones, and Oscar winner Judi Dench as Old Deuteronomy.  Always hovering, is the mystical Macavity played by glowing-green-eyed Idris Elba, and making a later appearance is Taylor Swift as Bombalurina, singing the Macavity tribute song.

The two most memorable numbers come courtesy of Ian McKellan as Gus the Theatre Cat, and Ms. Hudson who belts out the most famous song of the production, “Memory”, in a vocal and emotional highlight of the film. Visually, it’s Mr. Mistofelees (Laurie Davidson) magic number that breaks us out of the muted palette. The other musical numbers mostly just fall flat and aren’t very entertaining or enjoyable.

It’s pure coincidence that the screening for this film was the same day as the new Star Wars movie. The franchise for the latter began in 1977, while “Cats” first hit the stage in 1981. That’s quite a legacy for both. As for this film version from director Hooper, I do wonder if enough viewers will respond to a musical where the story and songs are overshadowed by the dancing, and the sets and costumes offer no ‘wow’ factor. Many will find these characters hard to connect with … at least outside of that incredible Jennifer Hudson vocal. It seems these kitties should have remained on stage.

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THE LADY IN THE VAN (2016)

February 5, 2016

lady in the van Greetings again from the darkness. “There’s air freshener behind the Virgin”. That line should provide the necessary caution for you to be braced for just about anything to be said by any character in this latest from director Nicholas Hytner.  Billed as “A mostly true story”, it’s actually more commentary on how we treat those less fortunate and how we use others for our own gain. That bleak message is cloaked here in humor and a wonderful performance from Dame Maggie Smith.

Alan Bennett is an author, playwright and screenwriter known for The History Boys and The Madness of King George (Oscar nominated for his script). He is also at the core of this story – every bit as much as Ms. Shepherd, the lady in the van. While living in upper crust Camden Town, Mr. Bennett offered to let Ms. Shepherd park her van in his driveway for a few weeks until she could make other arrangements. This van was also her home, and the years (as they are apt to do) came and went until this arrangement had lasted 15 years (1974-1989).

You might assume that Ms. Shepherd was an extremely appreciative “squatter”, but in fact, she was quite a cantankerous and difficult woman, possibly/probably suffering from mental instability. Maggie Smith brings a humanity to the role that she had previously owned onstage and radio. She goes far deeper than the wise-cracking old lady role we have grown accustomed to seeing her play … though her vicious dialogue delivery remains in prime form. Throughout the film, we assemble bits and pieces of Ms. Shepherd’s background: an educated-French speaking musician-turned nun-former ambulance driver-who “possibly” won awards for her talents. She is also carrying a burden of guilt from a past tragic accident that keeps her in the confessional on a consistent basis.

Mr. Bennett is played by Alex Jennings (The Queen, 2006), and the film actually presents dual Bennetts – the one doing the writing, and the one doing the living. These two Bennetts are a virtual married couple – arguing over Ms. Shepherd, and jabbing each other with barbs aimed directly at known emotional weaknesses. The living Bennett claims to be so full of British timidity that he couldn’t possibly confront the woman junking up his driveway. The writer Bennett takes the high road and claims he would rather write spy stories than focus his pen on the odorous, obnoxious transient living in his front yard. Of course, now that we have a play and movie, it’s difficult to avoid viewing Mr. Bennett’s actions as anything less than inspiration for his writing … though the extended charitable actions cannot be minimized.

With director Hytner and writer Bennett reuniting, it’s also interesting to note that more than a dozen actors from The History Boys make appearances here. The list includes James Corden, Frances de la Tour, and Dominic Cooper. Also in supporting roles are Roger Allam and Deborah Findlay (playing constantly irritated neighbors), Gwen Taylor as Bennett’s dementia-stricken mother, Jim Broadbent as a blackmailing former cop, and Marion Bailey as a staffer at the abbey.

Filmed at the same house where the van was parked for so many years, the film is a reminder to us to exercise tolerance and charity in dealing with the poor. Even Bennett’s grudgingly-offered assistance is a step above what would typically be expected. While we could feel a wide spectrum of emotions for the two main parties here, it’s Ms. Shepherd’s character who says “I didn’t choose. I was chosen”. We are left to interpret her words in a way that is either quite sad or accepting.

The film mostly avoids dime store sentimentality, and that’s in large part due to Maggie Smith’s performance. Few are as effective at frightening young kids or putting the elite in their place. The ending scene shows the real Alan Bennett cruising into the driveway on his bicycle just as the blue plaque honoring the lady in the van is displayed. We can be certain this gesture would not generate a “thank you” from her.

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