Hollywood to Broadway – Hello, Dolly!

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Original Broadway Show: Hello, Dolly!, opened on January 16, 1964
The Movie: Hello, Dolly!, (1969)
The Broadway Show: Hello, Dolly!, opened on April 20, 2017

 

When Hello, Dolly! first ambled into town it had built in elegance.  Produced by legendary theater impresario David Merrick, directed by famed choreographer Gower Champion, and starring Broadway favorite Carol Channing, the musical was traditional as they come and played like gangbusters winning 10 Tony Awards and remaining on the Great White Way for a record setting run.  Well known for its stunt-casting after Channing left, famous Dollys included stars like Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, and Phyllis Diller, not to mention an ingenious staging of an all-black cast led by Pearl Bailey.  Hello, Dolly! also had a healthy life on the road with Channing touring as Dolly for years (decades, really), occasionally stopping back in NYC for limited engagements.   Strangely, the first exposure I had to the show wasn’t from a Carol Channing tour but Sally Struthers who performed the role in a local community theater production.

Four years into the Broadway run, 20th Century Fox released a film version of Hello, Dolly! and poor Carol Channing once again got the short end of the Broadway-to-Hollywood stick.  Channing was famously passed over for Marilyn Monroe when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes made the silver screen leap and this time around none other than Barbra Streisand got her part.  This might have been some sweet revenge for Streisand who lost the Tony Award for Funny Girl to Channing in Hello, Dolly! – it’s well known that Channing and Streisand used to lunch regularly when both were treading the boards but Streisand stopped talking to Channing soon after she was bested by Carol.

Actually, maybe Channing had the last laugh since the film version of Hello, Dolly! was a fairly enormous flop when it opened…almost ruining 20th Century Fox in the process.  Miraculously, it was nominated for 7 Oscars (including Best Picture!) and won three but the film hasn’t aged well over the years.  However opulent the production and costume design were, if the musical itself was by the numbers oatmeal the film is dry melba toast.  It’s worth watching for the complete disdain co-star Walter Matthau has for his leading lady…even when he’s supposed to be falling in love with her.

Endlessly produced by theaters big and small across the world, Hello Dolly! still hadn’t had a Channing-less revival on Broadway until it was announced the Bette Midler had agreed to return to NYC in her first musical in over four decades.  Naturally, the theater community erupted with delight and the show’s advance soared to a record-setting $40 million dollars.  In fact, the show is so sold out that Midler isn’t even doing any press for it.  There’s no need…no one can get a ticket without paying a huge chunk of cash or waiting in line for a limited amount of standing room seats given out each morning.

That’s how I lucked out at seeing the show on my recent trip to The Big Apple. Getting in line with my friend around 4:30 in the morning, we weren’t even the first in line but had no trouble getting a ticket when the box office opened at 10:00am.  Already having opened to glowing reviews, I knew this would be a memorable experience and it truly was.  It’s hard to express the pure joy this production elicits…it’s just something you pretty much have to see for yourself.  Midler was in fabulous form, nailing the comedy and nuance of the role and doing a darn good job singing Jerry Herman’s score along the way.  While she’s a bona fide superstar and everyone there was there to see her, she never upstaged her co-stars…all of whom are the cherry-picked best of the best.  From David Hyde Piece’s droll but sincere Horace to Kate Baldwin’s gorgeous Irene, the voices are beautiful and the ensemble is sharp and crisp.  Special mention must be made for Beanie Feldstein  (Jonah Hill’s younger sister) who makes for a hysterical Minnie Fay.

With Midler scheduled to remain in the show for a year, ticket demand may free up as newer shows populate the landscape but be prepared for this to remain a tough ticket for some time.  The production itself is designed to run after Midler leaves…it just needs a star of her caliber to bring in the audiences.  With uber-producer Scott Rudin running things, expect some stunt casting to rival original producer David Merrick’s in the A-list department.

Movie Review ~ The Mummy (2017)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ancient princess is awakened from her crypt beneath the desert, bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia, and terrors that defy human comprehension.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

Review: You’re going to hear from a lot of people that The Mummy, Universal’s first entry in their new Dark Universe franchise, is a baffling bomb.  Those people aren’t totally wrong but they’re not completely off the mark either.  The worst thing a movie can be is neither good nor bad but just mediocre and too much of this new take on The Mummy straddles that fence, stubbornly refusing to slump into schlock or get its ass into a higher-quality gear.  It’s not a total wash but the potential was there to take a fun step forward and the studio is too, uh, wrapped up in their quest for a new charter film series that they’ve lost sight of the here and the now.

As most of these creature-features often do, The Mummy opens with a little history lesson concerning an ambitious Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service) seduced by evil forces that promise her eternal life.  Clearing her way to the throne in a bloody rampage, she’s eventually captured and buried alive in a deluxe sarcophagus within an ultra-complex underground prison.  Remaining hidden for thousands of years, she’s unearthed by two unscrupulous soldiers (Tom Cruise, Oblivion and Jake Johnson, Safety Not Guaranteed) looking for antiquities to sell on the black market in modern day Iraq.  Once released from her prison, she wastes little time in bringing down a plane transporting her to London and proceeding to suck the life out of anyone that gets in her way, turning them into the walking dead for good measure.  It’s up to Cruise and a pretty prehistorian (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle) to end the madness, a task made more difficult when our Mummy Princess sets her sights on making Cruise her eternal mate.

The framework of plot supplied by a screenplay written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park), Christopher McQuarrie (Edge of Tomorrow), and Dylan Kussman (Flight) has potential to it but director Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us) never fully trusts the material, opting instead to let Cruise take up too much space and pushing others to the sidelines.  Let’s not forget that in addition to the above brief outline, Cruise is introduced to the Prodigium, a secret group dedicated to hunting supernatural baddies and beasties.  Led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (yep, the one and only), look closely during a visit to Prodigium’s lab for a few familiar creatures that may pop up in future Dark Universe entries.

I get the feeling that when the script for The Mummy was sent to Cruise, it was with the intent he consider taking on Dr. Jekyll (played here by a twinkle-eyed Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner) but Cruise missed the memo and just assumed he’d be the lead.  Clearly written for a younger actor, everyone in the film at one time or another looks at Cruise (who’s still in fine shape and loves a good stunt sequence) and clearly is thinking, “You’re too old for this role!”  His chemistry with both of his leading ladies is strained and it becomes the Cruise show the moment he arrives onscreen with the titular character taking a frustrating back-seat to the A-list star.

Crowe seems keen on having some fun and while his storyline could be excised from the film entirely, he at least has the right idea of what his contributions are.  Knowing that Universal plans to craft a new franchise from their Stable of Scary, I wonder if the whole Prodigium business was folded in late in the game to tee up the Dark Universe.  Poor Wallis has a role that is entirely exposition, I don’t think she’s given one line that isn’t specifically meant to explain or clarify so the performance feels like the appendix it was written to be.  The true star here is Boutella and whenever she’s onscreen the film starts to crackle and pop only to be muffled by Cruise’s overbearing presence.  I like Cruise quite a lot but even I must admit he’s been given too much room to play.

Amidst a bunch of hokum happenings and a screenplay that’s pretty pokey, there are a handful of slick moments of fun that hint at what the movie could have been had it found a better focus.  A mid-air disaster is staged with edge-of-your-seat excitement and an underwater chase managed to make me hold my breath as Cruise and Wallis try to outswim a horde of the undead.  Being released in 2D and 3D formats, I caught it in 3D and since so much of the film is set at night or in dark underground lairs I’d advise going for a 2D screening which might produce clearer visuals.

There’s nothing I look forward to more than a good old-fashioned monster movie.  I don’t need flashy special effects or 3D gimmickry to get on board, just give me a good creature, a decent plot, and invested performances and I’m happy.  While Universal’s reboot of The Mummy doesn’t consistently hit any of the above specifications, it grazes them long enough to produce a somewhat enjoyable but ultimately misguided first step into a new franchise involving their classic catalog of monsters.

Movie Review ~ Wonder Woman (2017)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained warrior. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, David Thewlis, Danny Huston, Connie Nielsen, Lucy Davis, Elena Anaya, Saïd Taghmaoui, Ewen Bremner, Eugene Brave Rock

Director: Patty Jenkins

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: As a child, every few weeks my parents and I would travel 115 miles south to visit my mom’s family.  Getting up early and missing Saturday morning cartoons wasn’t that big of a deal to me…it was the Sunday return trip that caused great anxiety in our car.  You see, Sunday afternoon at 4pm is when reruns of Wonder Woman were on.  Capping off a block of programming that included The Six Million Dollar Man followed by The Bionic Woman, Wonder Woman was Must See TV for this fella and my parents came to the understanding that come hell or high water, we had to be home by four.  Now, several times this didn’t happen and let’s say…things got messy.

That context is helpful to you, dear reader, in understanding why this long planned big screen adaptation of Wonder Woman was more than just another anticipated summer blockbuster for me.  This was the arrival of a character I truly grew up with, maybe more so than Batman or my ultimate favorite, Superman.  I came to Wonder Woman via the Lynda Carter television show and not like many did by way of DC Comics.  Created by William Moulton Marston, the Amazonian Princess first appeared in 1941 and quickly became a popular symbol not only of strength but of a woman with the ideals to be a natural leader of all.

A reboot of the TV show was attempted but failed at the pilot stage several years back and while Wonder Woman was hinted at being a part of the planned Warner Brothers DC Universe at some point, it wasn’t until the character was a surprise addition to 2016’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice that fans finally saw the light at the end of a long dark tunnel.  While many (including me) had their own issues with BvS, most agreed that Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was a memorable highlight of that film and looked forward to the stand-alone movie that would be released before Justice League later in 2017.  Then the deplorable Suicide Squad was released late summer 2016 and people began to worry that Wonder Woman’s bright beacon of hope would be unfashionably oppressed by DC Universe’s strangely dark style.

Fear not, though, because not only does Wonder Woman make a most excellent showing in her first solo big-screen adventure, but it’s by far the best comic book adaptation in almost a decade.  Besting the best of the boys club that came before her, this heroine has brains and brawn in addition to her beauty.  It’s more entertaining than you can possibly imagine and would make even the hardest non-fan of comic book movies buckle in their resolve.

While longtime fans may be bug-eyed that the screenplay by Allen Heinberg from a story by Zac Snyder, Heinberg, and Jason Fuchs moves the action from WWII to WWI, it plays into the overall success of the picture by showing Wonder Woman’s superhero emerge at the same moment that war-time weapons took a strikingly modern leap forward.  Why wouldn’t a solider be just as amazed at a woman deflecting bullets as they would be by the automatic machine gun that’s firing them at her?

Wonder Woman is a classic origin story that manages to breeze quickly through the lore while satisfyingly hitting all the right notes at the same time.  Living among the Amazon women on Themyscira (Paradise Island), young Princess Diana is a force of nature ready to learn to fight but kept at bay by her overprotective mother (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator).  Secretly trained by her aunt (Robin Wright, Everest, buff as hell) over the ensuing years, her skills are put to good use when a plane carrying U.S. spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, Into the Woods) crash lands in the sky blue waters off the coast.  Soon, Diana is accompanying Steve back to jolly old England (“This place is hideous”, exclaims Diana upon seeing the gloomy London harbor) and embarking on a quest to stop a crazed General (Danny Huston, Big Eyes) and his evil scientist comrade (Elena Anaya, The Skin I Live In, frightening in a Phantom of the Opera-esque ceramic mask) from releasing a chemical weapon onto their enemies.

Proving that maybe more females should be in charge of high caliber action films, director Patty Jenkins should be lauded for crafting one of the best entries in recent memory.  Not only does she stage her battle scenes with grand flare but she manages to never over sexualize her star as I fear her male colleagues would have.  There’s no gratuitous shots looking up at Wonder Woman (and up her skirt in the process), no scenes framed with her cleavage taking center stage, no temptation to give fanboys an opportunity to linger too long on the exposed skin.  Instead, she presents Wonder Woman and all of the characters (male and female) as equals in the eyes of the camera.  In fact, the most skin on display here is from Pine as he emerges from a healing spring on Themyscira, providing for some fun dialogue between Diana and Steve.

Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) was a star on the rise going into this film but she firmly cements her justified ascent with a fully layered flesh and blood performance.  Her delightful naiveté when entering the modern world reminded me of Daryl Hannah’s fish out of water exuberance as a mermaid on dry land in 1984’s Splash.  We’ve seen this stranger in a strange land done before but never with such charm.  As she grows to see that humans are deeply flawed, Gadot admirably portrays the disappointment of someone learning the truth after realizing they had believed too long in fiction.

Though he already has a strong foothold in the Star Trek franchise, Pine turns in one of his best performances as the American solider striving to do what’s best for his country.  Pine and Gadot have excellent chemistry and when the inevitable sparks begin to fly, it turns into a courtship during combat that feels well earned.  As for the bad guys and gals, Huston is his typical smarmy villain while Anaya memorably makes for a more interesting foe to our heroes.

The film has a lot packed into its 141 minute run-time but never feels long or taxing.  Yes, the last half hour delves into the kind of special effects heavy finale that tends to assist my eyes in glazing over at double speed but so much was excellent up until then that Wonder Woman’s battle royale (with an enemy revealed in a nice twist)  managed to hold me at the edge of my seat.  While there’s no post-credit scene, the film doesn’t need one because the correct edges have been rounded off and just the right amount of loose ends remain for future installments to easily pick up and run with.

Some say that summer blockbusters begin in May but for me the summer has truly begun in June with Wonder Woman’s much appreciated arrival.  There’s no regret to be had for seeing this one in the biggest theater possible with a packed audience.  Enjoy!

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

The Facts:

Synopsis: Captain Jack Sparrow searches for the trident of Poseidon.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Javier Bardem, Brenton Thwaites, Kaya Scodelario, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom

Directors: Joachim Rønning, Espen Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: You’d be entirely forgiven if you look askance at the arrival of the fifth entry in Disney’s impossibly lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.  After making a huge splash in 2003 with their surprise hit based on the ever-popular theme park ride, Disney quickly plotted filming back-to-back installments to capitalize on the public’s Pirates-fever.  Trouble was, these films made the unwise choice to focus less on furthering the story and more time on star Johnny Depp’s increasingly tedious portrayal of boozy Captain Jack Sparrow. Though Depp netted an Oscar nom for the first film, his subsequent appearances gave him a mile when he should have only been allowed an inch (or centimeter if we’re being honest).  One last try at keeping the Pirates franchise alive was attempted in 2011 but it too got lost in a sea of Depp shenanigans and an over-reliance on CGI action sequences.

Here we are in 2017 and while Dead Men Tell No Tales suffers from many of the same barnacles that sunk previous installments, directors Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (Kon-Tiki) and screenwriter Jeff Nathanson have mostly reigned in their returning star while crafting a continuing tale on the high seas that’s more swashbuckling than shticky.

If you’re behind on the Pirates films, some of what comes next would be considered spoilers but I’ll keep it as brief as possible.

A long prologue introduces young Henry Turner, son of Will Turner (Orlando Bloom, Troy) and Elizabeth Swan (Keira Knightly, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) as he makes a moonlight voyage to the bottom of the ocean in search of his father.  Will’s been imprisoned by a curse on the ghost ship The Flying Dutchman, and his young son pledges to find Jack Sparrow and get his father back on dry land where he belongs.  Flash forward nine years and Henry (Brenton Thwaites, Oculus) is laboring on a ship that runs afoul of a cursed vessel belonging to Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem, Skyfall) and his cleverly CGI-ed crew.  Salazar also has an interest in finding Jack Sparrow seeing that he’s the one who cut his sailing days short in the first place and uses Henry to pass a message on to his old nemesis.

Meanwhile, back in warmer climates Sparrow attempts to pull off a bank heist that provides the film with its first extended action sequence.  Feeling like an old-School western that would have been filmed on a studio backlot, it’s a fun (if pointless) introduction back to Jack and his men with satisfyingly comedic results.  It at least dovetails nicely into introducing Kayla Scodelario (The Maze Runner) as Carina, a plucky lass in trouble with the law on suspicion of being a witch.  Turns out she’s just a bookworm with a penchant for telling anyone trying to man-splain something to her where to shove it and she’s got the same pluck Knightly exhibited in the original film.

Getting into how Henry, Jack, and Carina end up back on the Black Pearl with Captain Barbosa (Geoffrey Rush, Minions, letting the costume do most of the work for him) searching for the trident of Poseidon could occupy several pages and I have a deadline to make so just take my word for it that Nathanson doesn’t have to push too hard to intertwine the end goals of these three castaways.  It’s a fantasy film with little to no need for a ton of explanation.

Without question this entry is the second most enjoyable one to date.  It’s the shortest one of the bunch and uses its time and talents wisely without working bits down to the nub.  Depp (Dark Shadows) may not look rejuvenated but it feels like he actually showed up for this outing.  While Thwaites and Scodelario give spunky performances the two lack the kind of romantic chemistry the film desperately wants them to have.  Coming off more like squabbling siblings they both fare far better when they get to make some headway with their own story.  Rush is getting a bit on the campy side by now but the way he seems to relish drilling down into his pirate brogue is at the very least amusing.  I always get a kick out of Bardem’s take on villainous characters because somehow he manages to find the humanity below the hate and isn’t afraid to go to weird places to get there.  Most of his dialogue is purely expositional but he chews on his words as hard as he chews on the scenery as a once honorable man trying to rid the world of Pirates who now haunts the seas as a vengeful fright searching for Jack Sparrow (or, as Salazar would say, ‘Jah Spah-ro’.

Rønning and Espen keep things moving at a good pace and stage their big special effects sequences with some interesting flair.  A mid-movie chase by three zombie sharks could have gone SyFy Movie Channel wrong but wind up providing a few decent thrills matched up with seamless CGI.  My only complaint is that so much of the movie is staged in dark environments that you wind up losing the location details and it becomes just another overly CGI imagined world.  At the screening I attended, the 3D was askew which likely added to the visual fatigue but I’m sure had the effect been working properly more depth would have been added into the mix.

On two recent trips to Disney World, I had more fun waiting in line for the Pirates of the Caribbean ride than I did at any of the previous three films.  Aside from the original, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a marked improvement in the Pirates series and if a post-credit stinger is any indication, Disney is hoping audiences get their sea legs again and demand more skull and crossbones fun.  As long as Depp is kept at bay and more focus is put on the lore behind any adventure embarked upon, I’d be willing to get my feet wet.

Hollywood to Broadway – Anastasia

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Anastasia (1997)
The Broadway Show: Anastasia, opened on April 24, 2017

Yes, yes, I know that there was a version of Anastasia from 1956 that netted star Ingrid Bergman a Best Actress Oscar but since the Broadway version was inspired/adapted from the 1997 animated movie let’s focus on that one instead.

Of all the non-Disney animated films that started popping up in the mid to late ‘90s, there was something about 20th Century Fox’s Anastasia that hit the right chord. Hard to believe that a pretty grim plotline involving the family of a Russian Czar being murdered and a mystery girl that could be the lone surviving heir became the basis for a fancifcul musical romp, former Disney animator Don Bluth was riding a nice wave of second banana popularity and managed to massage this one into a family affair. Digging into the supernatural for its villain Rasputin, it wasn’t to be taken very seriously but it surely seemed to remain a fond favorite of a lot of little girls over the years.

Honestly, it’s never been a particular favorite of mine, though full disclosure I’m writing this review from memory instead of recent exposure, but I do remember the handful of songs from Broadway composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty being a definite highlight. Nabbing two Oscar nominations for their work, Ahrens and Flaherty would get their chance at a full blown musical version of Anastasia twenty years later but would the adults that were pre-teens in 1997 shell out Broadway prices to bring their children to see Anastasia live again live onstage?

From the screaming crowds and squeals of delight emanating from the Broadhurst Theatre in NYC, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. I have to say, though, that the entire affair was completely lost on me and I’m debating whether it was just fatigue from doing standing room for my 7th show in five days or if I simply didn’t care for the piece in general. Make no mistake, it’s got a lovely cast led by the beautiful and genuine Christy Altomare and two swoon-ready leads in Derek Klena and Ramin Karimloo (the only actor to receive rapturous entrance applause) but there’s something fairly vacant about it all. Director Darko Tresnjak, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, and projection designer Aaron Rhyne work wonders with making sense out of swiftly changing scenes by nimbly moving the action around St. Petersburg and Paris and Linda Cho’s costumes are downright stunning.

Yet for all the gloss and glam the material feels kind of ham-fisted and the new music from Ahrens and Flaherty, while orchestrated grandly, never actually soars. The best music is still the two most popular songs from the movie, ‘Once Upon a December’ and ‘A Rumor in St. Petersburg’. Aside from a more than capable set of leads, there’s dynamite supporting work by theater grande dame Mary Beth Peil (Tony nominated here) and a riotous Caroline O’Connor as her mischievous lady in waiting. Whenever those two are onstage the musical snaps to life but with too many ballads and songs that sound the same it’s enough to lull even the most alert tourist into a gentle slumber…I actually dozed off a few times and I was standing up!

Already doing great box office numbers and with productions announced around the world, Anastasia will be coming to your neck of the words eventually and I think the design elements would travel quite well. Here’s hoping the tour gets tweaked a bit to take the air out of some of the scenes and one or two songs get the heave ho to keep the mystery at the heart of Anastasia something we actually want to get to the bottom of.

Hollywood to Broadway – Groundhog Day

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Groundhog Day (1993)
The Broadway Show:
Groundhog Day, opened on April 17, 2017

As usual, I find myself confessing some deep dark movie sins on this blog and here’s another one to add to the list. Ok…here we go. Promise you’ll still like me after? No turning back now… Until recently, I wasn’t a fan of Groundhog Day.

Are you still there?

Good…thank you for sticking around.

Y’see, I think Groundhog Day was originally sold to 13 year old me as the kind of comedy that would have me rolling in the aisles at Bill Murray’s crazy antics as a cranky weatherman that falls into a vortex of having to repeat the same day in an endless loop. The trouble was, the comedy ran deeper than surface gags and one-liners and there was a sadness to it all that I just didn’t understand at that time. Coming back to it as an adult, I found the film to be a real delight with a dynamic craftsmanship most modern conceptual comedies could only dream of.

As Phil Connors, Murray is in top form as the over-it-all newscaster seemingly slumming it reporting from Philadelphia on whether good ‘ole Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow and foretell six more weeks of winter. Waking up the next day with an eerie sense of déjà vu, Phil eventually realizes he’s stuck re-living the same day over and over and over and over and over again with no way to break the cycle. Along the way he becomes an expert piano player and learns French. Eventually he tests the limits of his “power” and experiments with what life would be like as a jerk or as a nice guy, finally overcoming his mythological torture when he gets things right. Murray had good support from Andie MacDowell who feels like a good straight man to Murray’s particular type of comedy…and who can forget Stephen Tobolowsky’s nebbish Ned? Directed by Murray’s frequent collaborator, the late Harold Ramis, Groundhog Day is one of those near perfect comedic treats that works across multiple age-groups, even if the humor was lost on me as a teen.

 

Unbelievable as it sounds, the one and only Stephen Sondheim was the first composer who showed an interest in bringing Groundhog Day to the stage but by the time the musical premiered at The Old Vic in London last year, the composer was Tim Minchin. Minchin is a well-known Australian comedian that found success back in 2010 with his adaptation of Matilda. Having recently seen Matilda, I knew that Minchin favored tricky lyrics and music that wasn’t always hummable…but that Down Under style of comedy seemed like a great fit with Groundhog Day’s structure and it turns out I was right.

While I literally couldn’t relay a bar of music I heard in Groundhog Day if you paid me $10K, the show was constructed so well and performed so effortlessly that I have to give great credit to the creative time that saw this one through to the finish line. It’s fascinating to me that a show so American would have its successful world premiere in London (it won the Olivier Award for Best Musical) but perhaps producers thought if they could be a hit in the UK then a US run would be a slam dunk. Nominated for 7 Tony Awards, Groundhog Day started performances at the tail end of a solid year of new musicals so it faces an uphill battle on Tony night for most of the categories it’s nominated in. One category up for grabs , though, is Best Actor and while I haven’t seen star Andy Karl’s biggest competition (Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hanson), Karl is downright beloved in the Broadway community and would surely deserve the honor. Coming back from a potentially sidelining injury during previews is sure to garner more goodwill (if not an outright sympathy vote) but what Karl’s doing onstage is pretty exemplary work. Phil is one of those classic musical characters we shouldn’t be rooting for but wind up cheering on and that’s thanks almost entirely to Karl’s genuine performance as a man that turns a corner after reaching multiple dead ends.

Minchin’s music and lyrics blend nicely with Danny Rubin’s faithful adaptation of his screenplay, only making minor adjustments that translate better to the stage. Karl’s co-stars are all solid, though a song for a local babe that opens Act 2 feels extraneous. Kudos also to the director and choreographer for making some enjoyable sleight of hand stage magic to get Karl back to the beginning of his day in increasingly creative ways.

Though it’s housed in the beautiful August Wilson Theater with its quaint (read: too small!) seats, this feels like a show that might work better on tour in Middle America. I’m not sure the entire production with its multiple turntables and high tech LED displays would easily transition to a bus and truck road show and it does need a star performance to anchor the evening…but if it comes to your neck of the woods give it a shot.

Check out my look at Sunset Boulevard!
Check out my look at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!

 

Hollywood to Broadway – Sunset Boulevard

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Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The Broadway Show:
Sunset Boulevard, opened on February 9, 2017

You don’t get more Hollywood than Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Released in 1950, the movie was a scathing bite at the Tinsel Town hand that fed the majority of the people involved. Nowadays there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than patting itself on the back and showering movies about the film industry with plaudits (hello, La La Land!) but back when Sunset Boulevard arrived not many industry people were immediately lining up to sing its praises as an insider’s look into the studio system. Nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress, the movie was up against some stiff competition (All About Eve, Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride) and wound up winning just three: Art Direction, Screenplay, and Franz Waxman justly took home gold for his haunting score.

Even if over the years Gloria Swanson’s unhinged fading silent film star would be fodder for parody from the likes of Carol Burnett, the picture remains oddly timely and still a strikingly beautiful film. Filled with unforgettable moments such as Swanson’s creepy crawl toward the screen as it fades to black, it’s an unqualified classic that earns its place as one of Hollywood’s crown jewels of filmmaking. It’s also a pleasure to see legends such as Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, and Buster Keaton play themselves, further blurring the line between reality and fiction.

I was barely a teenager in 1993 when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard premiered in London. I’m not even going to go into its troubled path behind the scenes involving lawsuits from two divas (Patti LuPone & Faye Dunaway) who were both hired and fired before the show even premiered stateside. When the musical arrived in NYC in 1994 it easily won a host of Tony Awards including, among others, Best Musical, Best Actress for Glenn Close, and another for its gargantuan set designed by John Napier. The sheer size of the production was legendary but made it difficult to recoup its investment so it didn’t wind up being the true smash it could have been. Even a touring production folded quickly due to the constraints of such a behemoth making the move from theater to theater on a weekly basis. Subsequent productions scaled back the proceedings (one even had its actors playing their own instruments…shudder!) but it wasn’t until 2016 when a semi-stage run in London with Close reprising her role that there was talk Broadway might get another trip down Sunset Boulevard.

I’ll admit the chief reason I planned my trip to NYC was for the chance to see Close in the role she will forever be identified with (at least onstage). Seeing Close, um, up close was too good of an opportunity to pass up and add to that a 40 piece orchestra in Broadway’s famed Palace Theatre and the writing was on the wall…I had to see it.

There’s no way to accurately describe the experience of seeing Sunset Boulevard the way I think it was meant to be seen, with its original leading lady and a grand orchestra in a scaled back production smartly restaged by director Lonny Price that may have been smaller set-wise but felt grandly operatic all the same. Removing the lavish set dressings allowed the music (some of it borrowed from Waxman’s original score) and the performances to be the justified stars of the show.

Handsome Brit Michael Xavier sports a spot-on American accent and handily takes on doomed screenwriter Joe Gillis while Swede Fred Johanson is imposing but loyal as Max, Norma’s chauffer – both men sing wonderfully. Price has assembled a well-oiled ensemble including one that plays a ghostly visage of a young Norma Desmond that haunts her elder self throughout the evening.

The show is all about Close, though, and she’s unforgettable. She already made for a thrilling Norma in 1994 (at least on CD) but seeing her take on the same role over 20 years later was revelatory. The voice isn’t always rock solid but these moments of grated fragility only add to the overall sadness of the character. From her first entrance to the goosebump-inducing finale, it’s impossible to look at anyone but Close because she’s always completely ‘in’ the scene even during the very few times where she’s not the focus.

Gloria Swanson and Glenn Close will both be remembered for their interpretations of Norma Desmond, and while Close’s original reading was just adjacent to Swanson’s screen performance in this revival she goes deeper and recreates the role from the ground up. It was everything I wanted and more – well worth the trip!

Hollywood to Broadway – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Book:
  ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, by Roald Dahl. Published in 1964
The Movies: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
The Broadway Show:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, opened on April 23, 2017

Mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to anyone of a certain age and it’s highly likely the first image that pops into their brain is Gene Wilder’s master of chocolate from the film adaptation in 1971. Titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to highlight Wilder’s star presence, there’s a valid reason why people have a certain fondness for it. With a script from Dahl himself that was wacky with whimsy while maintaining his overly sinister edge, the film chugs along nicely although it always has felt longer to me than its 100 minutes. This is largely in part to several dud songs from Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley (‘Cheer Up Charlie’ is such a morose cocktail it should be followed with an anti-depressant chaser) and a gross belching scene with Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and his grandfather (Jack Albertson) that I’ve found less tolerable as each year passes. And how about that terrifying journey on Wonka’s boat with images of slimy insects and a chicken getting its head chopped off? Don’t remember it? You’ve probably been watching an edited version toned down for the kiddies coming at it fresh.

Still, though it takes a while to get there with a whole heap of exposition that’s admittedly mostly necessary, there’s nothing quite like that first glimpse of Wonka’s fabulously designed factory centerpiece with its edible plants and chocolate river. It becomes less appetizing as it goes on but for a while there is truly is scrumdidilyumptious.

What wasn’t so tasty was Tim Burton’s 2005 re-imagining that put Charlie back in the title but became an even more tripped-out version than it’s ‘70s predecessor. Typically Burton-esque with oversized CGI set-pieces and oversaturated candy-coated colors, I still don’t see any real reason to spend much time digesting this one. Featuring another creepy performance by Burton muse Johnny Depp and a forgettable supporting cast of oddballs, the Bricusse/Newley songs were ousted in favor of new compositions from Danny Elfman and are pale comparisons with even the most throw-away tunes from the original. It’s a dark and threatening film and while it’s been some time since I’ve seen it all the way through, I remember wanting it to be over before Charlie and his fellow Golden Ticket winners even set foot inside the fabled factory.  The less said about this one, the better.

Flash forward to 2013 when London’s West End featured the premiere of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stage musical. Maintaining several of the Bricusse/Newley songs and padded with music from Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman the show was directed by Sam Mendes to be bigger than life. From the clips I’ve seen online, this show was huge from beginning to end and was a popular title during it’s nearly four year run in the UK. Bringing it to Broadway was inevitable but by the time it jumped the pond Mendes was out as director and it seems like he took most of the set with him. What opened in April at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre has been drastically reworked, ditching the overwhelming enormity of its Brit big brother and replacing them with production values seemingly designed to make the show easier to tour (it’ll be coming to a theater near you in 2018) and that just didn’t sit well with me.

While Christian Borle sounded great and played the sarcastic side of Wonka to a T, the actor is just one of many in the show that looks like they are dying a slow death while children in the audience scream and beg their parents for more candy at intermission. In a way, I felt sorry for them because these are talented performers who likely signed up to participate in a spectacle but learned too late they’d be Our Town-ing it for much of the show. Just wait until Act 2 when the big reveal of the edible room appears on a rolling platform the size of a department store window. The ‘children’ (strangely played by adults in NYC, save for Charlie himself) don’t even all fit on it at the same time! The one bright spot of the show were the Oompa-Loompas, brought hilariously to life via some overly simplistic theater magic that nonetheless had me howling with laughter along with the rest of the audience.  Parents be warned, some of the children go out in increasingly perverse fashion…with one unfortunate being ripped apart and another exploding in a cascade of purple glitter.

The last show I saw during my eight days in NYC, I couldn’t help but be a bummed out by this small scale bon-bon that often looked appetizing but wasn’t filling in the least.

Movie Review ~ Personal Shopper

The Facts:

Synopsis: Revolves around a ghost story that takes place in the fashion underworld of Paris.

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Anders Danielsen Lie, Lars Eidinger, Nora von Waldstätten, Pamela Betsy Cooper, Benjamin Biolay

Director: Olivier Assayas

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I think we’re getting to the point where we can get past that Kristen Stewart headlined the Twilight franchise, right?  I mean, it’s time to recognize that she wasn’t the cause of all that misery she just collected a paycheck for it.  Sure, her off screen persona is decidedly aloof and she doesn’t smile a lot…but to deny admitting she’s a strong actress seems so very 2012.  After directing you to 2014’s Clouds of Sills Maria, I’d introduce Personal Shopper as Exhibit B in my defense case in the People vs Kristen Stewart.

While Personal Shopper is a lesser film than Clouds of Sills Maria (for which Stewart won France’s prestigious Caesar Award, becoming the first American actress ever to do so), this second collaboration between Stewart and director Oliver Assayas features the actress in nearly every frame of the movie.  Capably holding our focus for the entirety of its running length, Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman) finally headlines a project that seems not only to be her cup of tea but one that plays a game she’s fully invested in.  She disappeared halfway through Clouds of Sills Maria and her absence was felt but she’s entirely captivating here as Maureen, an assistant to a tabloid-friendly superstar we barely see.

Scarier than you might expect with some legitimate jolts to your nerves, Personal Shopper is both a ghost story and a plaintive drama wrapped up in one Gallic package.  Opening with Maureen alone in a creaking manse as she tries to make contact with a spirit thought to be haunting the joint, we eventually learn she’s trying to make a connection to her recently deceased twin brother.  Both twins had a touch of the medium in them and with his sudden death, Maureen needs closure before she can move on with her life.

As she waits for another opportunity to locate his spirit, she spends her days traveling through Paris and beyond to pick up/out clothes and accessories for her employer.  The deeper she digs the more compact the movie becomes and before you know it, mysterious texts from an anonymous phone number tease of something sinister afoot and soon she’s involved with a murder.  To say more would spoil what Assayas has in store for you but it wouldn’t give much away to say that, in typical Assayas fashion, much of the the mystery is left for the audience to decode on their own.

Perhaps a bit too slow for most (I could see this being a bang-up 50-minute short film), I wasn’t ever bored by the movie and the performances (including Stewart) are off-kilter just enough to keep you guessing without dismissing them outright as merely bonkers.  Much of the movie is focused on the lengthy text conversation between Maureen and the mystery caller and this could have been an interminable bore had Assayas’s script not been so taut. I definitely was left with some questions but the more I thought about it the more I realized that the questions were far more interesting than the potential answers — that makes for an overall rewarding experience.

Movie Review ~ Raw

The Facts:

Synopsis: When a young vegetarian undergoes a carnivorous hazing ritual at vet school, an unbidden taste for meat begins to grow in her.

Stars: Garance Marillier, Ella Rumpf, Rabah Nait Oufella

Director: Julia Ducournau

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Usually, if a movie features well-prepared food with sumptuous ingredients people will tell you to go in with a full-stomach to avoid it growling too much at the sights of such a feast.  I’d advise anyone seeing Raw to be absolutely, positively sure your stomach is free from any contents and to certainly avoid eating while watching.  After a busy day where I forgot to eat lunch, I made the mistake of firing up this French horror film while eating dinner and that was a mistake.  A big mistake.

Joining her older sister (Ella Rumpf) at a prestigious veterinary college in Belgium, Justine (a wildly game Garance Marillier) is plunged into the school’s storied hazing rituals which make the drinking challenges in 2016’s Goat look like a tea party.  Naïve and very vegetarian, Justine gets no breaks for being the sister of an upperclassmen, eventually being forced to consume a raw rabbit kidney much to her own horror.  Developing an unsightly skin rash and nursing an increasingly insatiable for uncooked meat, Justine transforms into a flesh-eater not above eating a crudely amputated finger of a similarly cannibalistic loved one.  As the hunger grows so does the competition between sisters as they each set sights on Justine’s bisexual roommate (Rabah Nait Oufella) who may turn out to be satisfying on more than one level.

Writer/director Julia Ducournau’s debut is a bold and bloody feature with a feminist streak amidst the gore.  While it falters around the mid-point and never quite makes it back up the hill, it has a clever ending and go-for-broke performances that make sure it’s never boring.  Excessive in every sense, Ducournau takes multiple cues from Italian horror-master Dario Argento in the way she uses color and light to create some seriously atmospheric sequences.

If you have your ear to the film festival circuit, you may have heard how the graphic violence in Raw was enough to cause audience members to pass out and upchuck their popcorn and Jujubes.  Safe to say that if you’re inclined to heave at the sight of flesh being gnawed at this isn’t the movie for you.  While I did look away a few times (‘hairball’ is all I’ll say…you’ve been warned) and caught a few scenes through carefully splayed fingers, the bloody grisliness featured in Raw wasn’t enough for me to reach for my smelling salts or the remote to turn it off.

The extremity of the movie begins to wear and at times becomes too repetitive, but in a sea of zombie films and space alien features, Raw is a nice international reminder that horror doesn’t have to feature the undead or extraterrestrials to create a sense of dread.  Sometimes our own bodies crave something that can scare us even more.