Tag Archives: musical

Aladdin is pleasant, summer diversion

Disney’s live-action remake of Aladdin is good solid fare for young ones, but alas does not rise to the level many adults will feel fully engaged or entertained. Fine performances by Will Smith as the Genie and Naomi Scott as Princess Jasmine keep the story moving forward, but the movie has trouble keeping its momentum despite its magic carpet.

The story follows the outlines of the traditional story, or at least a popular version as told through the folktales in One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights. Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a street waif and, in this movie version, a thief, runs across the princess in the streets of Agrabah somewhere in the Middle East. Presumable, the story takes place during the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire (about the 16th century) where Sultans ruled over a vast expanse of territory and riches. Of course, the wise and judicious Sultan (a monarch), father of Jasmine, doesn’t recognize the villainous Grand Vizier — the head of the government — Jafar who is trying to undermine him.

Jafar, however, recognizes Aladdin’s preternatural abilities as a thief and survivor, if not his pure heart. He tricks Aladdin into a cave of riches, where he seizes the magic lamp and unleashes the genie. The rest of the story takes off from here as Aladdin attempts to woo Princess Jasmine by pretending to be a prince. Jafar sees through Aladdin’s facade and attempts to claim the lamp and the genie’s powers while everyone else is trying to figure out what’s going on. Comic relief through Aladdin’s pet monkey Abu helps lighten the story, but, unlike Princess Jasmine’s protective Bengal Tiger Rajah, his antics are also well integrated into the plot.

As narrative, the movie seems to go through the paces without much forward momentum. The critical scenes are spliced together in a logical, chronological order. The musical numbers are entertaining but not gripping or compelling elements of the plot, despite one production involving more than 1,000 dancers and extras.

Overall, the main themes are good ones for modern society: Princess Jasmine bucks the patriarchy despite her well meaning father. Aladdin loses himself in wealth, but finds his soul with the help of the genie. The diversity of the cast reflects the expectations of modern Hollywood. I found the performances of Massoud a bit flat and Marwan Kenzari as Jafar a bit one dimensional. Nevertheless, Naomi Scott, Will Smith, and Nasim Pedrad as Dalia, the princess’s handmaiden and confidante, more than enough to keep me interested.

Thus, overall, Aladdin is a pleasant if not inspired movie, a pleasant summer diversion that will be suitable for children even though it doesn’t quite live up to the artistic expectations of Disney feature films.

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Rocketman soars with fantasy and authenticity

“Rocketman,” the musical-fantasy-biopic of British pop music virtuoso Elton John, is a remarkable achievement in filmmaking. Despite the well-known nature of his trials and tribulations on and off-stage, the movie keeps audiences engaged through a smooth weave of iconic songs into critical points in Elton John’s personal and professional development. What seems like an entertaining musical in the beginning, quickly evolves into a meaningful and heartfelt story of the rise and near-collapse of a pop icon.

The movie begins with Elton John’s heartbreaking origins growing up in a working-class section of the town of Pinner in Southeast England. Isolation from his detached father and free-spirit mother eventually leads him to music. At first, the film feels like a more conventional musical, mixing well-known songs penned by Elton John and his long-time co-writer Bernie Taupin with critical events in his upbringing and personal development. As the movie unfolds, however, these events (and the meaning behind the lyrics) reveal themselves as part of a well-scripted story that is tightly written and intentional. The fantasy elements bring audiences into the emotional and personal world of a young man increasingly estranged from his parents and doubts about his own self worth, even has he shows a remarkable aptitude for songwriting, voice interpretation, and musicianship.

The movie is boosted in no small part by an Oscar-caliber performance by Taron Egerton (from the “Kingsman” action movies) who also sings most of the tracks. Indeed, “Rocketman” may well be a break-out role for Egerton, establishing him has a highly versatile actor willing to take on bold roles. The movie is so well scripted and directed, I didn’t find any scene gratuitous, including what is apparently the first gay-male sex scene in a major Hollywood movie (although this is scene is tame by contemporary standards). This polished result is a tribute to screenwriter Lee Hall as well as director Dexter Fletcher (Bohemian Rhapsody).

Notably, “Rocketman” was produced by Elton John and his husband David Furnish. While the movie clearly reflects Elton John’s perspective, the story is reflective and doesn’t shy away from his severe and prolonged battles with addiction, the dysfunctional effects resulting from the relentless pressure to perform on a world stage, his struggles with his own sexual identity, or how his behaviors and choices fractured critical relationships. The screenplay’s vulnerability is a tribute to Elton John, deepens the story, and elevates the messages he clearly hopes his current, more balanced approach to life can convey.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin fans will find a lot to enjoy in “Rocketman.” But they will also come away with new interpretations, or appreciations, of their talent, their songs, and the meanings behind the lyrics.

Strong performances, a tightly written screenplay, and topflight directing and editing will likely keep “Rocketman” in contention for major awards despite its relatively early release in the year.

Update 6/20/2019: Check out the Facebook review: 4,093 people reached, 588 engagements, 397 reactions, 21 comments, and 35 shares.

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Review: La La Land entertains with music, dance, and substance

The contemporary romantic dance musical La La Land continues to post strong earnings at the box office, generating $40 million domestically and $68 million worldwide (double its production budget). The film is destined to generate much more as a Golden Globe nominee and potential Oscar contender. I will be surprised if the film fails to bring home a major award.

Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, 10 Cloverfield Lane), the plot follows the two aspiring artists in Los Angeles—Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist unwilling to compromise on the purity of his art, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who finds the rough and tumble world of Hollywood dispiriting and overwhelming.

The characters are well developed, and their arcs are clearly defined over the course of the story. Sebastian’s intransigence in the face of pressures to bow to bland public musical tastes is artfully depicted in a scene in a lounge (managed by the reliably excellent J.K. Simmons) where he is fired for straying into free form jazz rather than remain focused on the uninteresting background music he was hired to play. His unwavering commitment to art nearly leaves him destitute but secures the admiration of Mia through a serendipitous meeting in the lounge.

La La Land incorporates much of Chazelle’s hard earned experience, as well as that of Gosling and Stone, into its scenes, giving the film a gritty realism while effectively driving the plot. For example, Mia is performing a heartfelt line when one of the casting director’s takes a personal call, an event borrowed from Gosling’s own auditioning experience. The callous nature of Hollywood and the film industry, as well as the idolatry that draws so many into it, is captured well through these small vignettes which increasing drive Mia to a breaking point when she stakes her savings and professional aspirations on a one woman show.

Chazelle’s story masterfully plays off the differing paths of the lead characters as it builds to the climax, a penultimate point that challenges the characters’ commitment to themselves and their art. But the weave of the story is much more complex than a simple clash of futures or paths. One of the more innovative techniques Chazelle uses reels back through time to chart different courses for the characters at key plot points. This begins at the outset of the film when the characters are introduced after a grand dance number choreographed on an LA freeway so congested traffic has come to a stop. But the technique is used several times to convey different outcomes, allowing the audience to internalize the storytelling technique while pondering more substantive questions about decisions and relationships. This becomes crucial for the film’s climax, bittersweet third act that focuses on the emotional and professional state of the characters to highlight what is ultimately a story about the choices we make and the personal consequences of those decisions.

The film is grand and soaring, much like the most audacious mid-twentieth century musicals, but the story is more complex and artful than many of the classics. Drawing inspiration from classic musicals, including Singing in the Rain and the Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as well as performances by theatrical numbers by Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and others, Chazelle has crafted a film that plays homage to this bygone film genre as well as the real-life experiences of those trying to make it in today’s film industry.

La La Land is distinguished by its production values, ability to entertain, and financial success as a contemporary musical. More interestingly, Chazelle’s determination to tell a complicated story adds to the richness of the film, giving his experienced actors the freedom to explore their characters and relationships. The ending will not be satisfying to many, but this is also his point: real life involves choices and meaningful trade-offs. Our decisions about which choices to make lead to different outcomes, and the results may not be completely satisfying even as we accomplish our professional goals.

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