Monthly Archives: October 2016

Musical flop on movie reviews

Everybody gets the fact that after a dream comes true it can still fall apart. And then what? That’s the intriguing question answered in the affecting, but uneven documentary “Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened.”

Co-written and directed by Lonny Price, the film revisits Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical flop “Merrily We Roll Along.” Any theater nerd knows the cautionary tale that producers tell their children at bedtime. Price’s documentary covers the show’s creation, shocking failure and far- and long-reaching aftershocks.

Price knows his subject. He was one of the stars in the show and like other wide-eyed castmates 35 years ago, including a pre-“Seinfeld” Jason Alexander, felt like he’d hit the jackpot at the time. No wonder. The musical marked the latest new collaboration of composer-lyricist Sondheim and director Hal Prince, each riding high after a decade of hits. Among them, “Company.” D.A. Pennebaker’s fascinating 1970 doc covered the recording of that show’s cast album.

The musical “Merrily,” like the play it’s based on, is told in reverse. Disillusioned and corrupted middle-aged friends become their younger, optimistic selves with each scene. The show had big things to say about friendship, betrayal and disappointment. Good stuff. But the show all went wrong thanks to various reasons and poor decisions. The bond between Sondheim and Prince snapped. Shellshocked young performers reeled from the harsh reality bite.

In the film’s superior first half, Price weaves fresh interview material with already-filmed footage from an in-the-works documentary which had been abandoned. The young performers’ OMG! enthusiasm is contagious. The same goes for Sondheim’s music — the show’s score is chockablock with hits. But the failure of “Merrily” is exposed halfway into the doc, which is too early. Too much of the movie consists of where-are-they-now chats with now middle-aged ex-“Merrily” alums.

The film’s second act packs a bittersweet punch, along with the fact that the failed show is now much-respected. But all of that could have been tied up in a quicker epilogue. The chorus, so to speak, lacks a hook. Too bad, considering that, to quote a Sondheim song from the show, they “had a good thing going.”

Doctor Strange on post election

NEW YORK — Moviegoers drained by the drama of the presidential election sought refuge at the movies over the weekend, where ticket sales were robust for just about everything.

Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” led the North American box office for the second week with $43 million, according to studio estimates Sunday. That was an especially strong hold for the Benedict Cumberbatch-led superhero blockbuster, which is now nearing $500 million globally. “Trolls,” the musical animated release from 20th Century Fox with Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake, also held well in its second week with $35.1 million, bringing its cumulative domestic total to $94 million.

Denis Villeneuve’s science-fiction thriller “Arrival,” starring Amy Adams, scored the weekend’s top debut with a better-than-expected $24 million for Paramount Pictures. Opening in fourth was Universal Pictures’ “Almost Christmas,” the first holiday-themed release to hit theaters. The family gathering comedy, starring Danny Glover and Gabrielle Union, debuted with $15.6 million.

The weekend box office was up about 47 percent from last year, according to comScore. The Friday holiday of Veteran’s Day also helped stoke business. Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for comScore, said the wide variety of releases gave moviegoers plenty of choice for escapism over the postelection weekend.

The good showing for “Arrival,” which cost $47 million to produce, was a welcome relief for Paramount. The studio has endured a string of disappointments — including “Ben-Hur” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows” — with a relatively thin slate of releases.

Paramount paid $20 million for the film’s domestic distribution rights. The film, in which a linguist is tasked by the government to communicate with newly arrived aliens, has drawn good reviews from critics.

Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” also made its much awaited debuted, albeit on just two screens. The Sony Pictures release, which opens nationwide next week, grossed $120,300 from two theaters (one in New York, on in Los Angeles). The two locations are the only places in North America the film is screening in Lee’s innovative 120 frames-per-second version (five times the normal rate), in addition to being in 3-D and at 4k resolution.

Songs and a great role by Dwayne Johnson

“I am not a Princess!” protests the young heroine of “Moana,” right in the middle of her hero’s quest to fulfill her destiny.

Her spirit is exuberant and the setting is novel, but the trickster demigod Maui, voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, has a clear, honest appraisal. “You’re wearing a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a Princess.”

It’s hardly a knock against “Moana” to suggest it has throwback elements. Its first half hour is old school Disney: a teen daughter on a Pacific island (voiced by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho) yearns to travel out to the sea, but her father, the village chief (“Star Wars”‘ Temuera Morrison) demands she stay on land to watch over her people.

Think of it as the inverse of “Little Mermaid,” which makes sense since “Moana” directors Ron Clements and John Musker made that film.

Moana is, of course, a “chosen one,” as the stars of all kid movies are these days. Her island’s food supplies are drying up because of a curse accidentally caused by the meddling Maui. If Moana can sail across the gorgeously rendered blue sea and convince the powerful Polynesian pest to return a gemstone to a lava monster – basically return the One True Ring to Mount Doom – all will be well in Moana’s oceanfront Shire.

The story may not be so original, but it’s the details that shine. Moana is a strong, determined and funny young woman, and Johnson is outstanding as her pompous but crafty, tattooed partner. Yes, The Rock can carry a tune and his big song-and-dance number “You’re Welcome” is a hoot.

The music doesn’t offer “Frozen”-levels of goosebumps but the songs, co-written by “Hamilton”‘s Lin-Manuel Miranda, put wind in the sails of this way-finding adventure. There’s also that animal sidekick (a gloriously dumb chicken) and an original, big concept character: the guiding force of the ocean itself.

Best movie review for this month

There’s little originality scared up by “The Monster,” but that doesn’t make director Bryan Bertino’s horror flick easier to watch through the gaps in your fingers.

What elevates the story of a mother and daughter stalked by the titular creature after their car breaks down is the acting of Zoe Kazan and her on-screen child, Ella Ballentine (“Anne of Green Gables”).

Much of the film’s 90 minutes of running time is padded out by flashbacks to explain the domestic breakdown that led them to break down on that particular stretch of road.

There’s little originality scared up by “The Monster,” but that doesn’t make director Bryan Bertino’s horror flick easier to watch through the gaps in your fingers.

What elevates the story of a mother and daughter stalked by the titular creature after their car breaks down is the acting of Zoe Kazan and her on-screen child, Ella Ballentine (“Anne of Green Gables”).

Much of the film’s 90 minutes of running time is padded out by flashbacks to explain the domestic breakdown that led them to break down on that particular stretch of road.

There’s never any explanation for where exactly that reject from an “Aliens” movie came from, but once the screaming starts Bertino doesn’t give viewers time to think about it. It’s just a drooling MacGuffin.

All about film electrical workers

Director David Hackl’s “Life on the Line” is supposed to be a moving story about men working electrical lines. Viewers, however, might require a high-voltage shock just to endure it.

The action/drama film, which premiered at the Napa Valley Film Festival a year ago, has an impressive cast headlined by John Travolta, Kate Bosworth and Sharon Stone.

But the script, written by Primo Brown, Marvin Peart and Peter I. Horton, is a complete and utter melodramatic bore.

Shockingly predictable and formulaic, perhaps the only saving grace is Jeff Toyne’s appropriate music.

It starts off promising, at least conceptually, but resorts to well-trodden conventions of the genre and overly effusive scenes, with a rape premise horribly woven in.

While Travolta and Bosworth, playing the lead characters of Beau and Bailey, respectively, deliver admirable performances, the story they’re working under is just not up to snuff.

The production values are mediocre and the story surprisingly veers away from a lineman’s day-to-day routine, but director Hackl and the writing team did at least conceive a versatile character in Beau, though he too gets pulled into the melodrama on occasion.

“Life on the Line” is a film that probably won’t hold your attention throughout its 97-minute running time, but it is, at the very least, a well-intentioned tribute to the workers who often sacrifice themselves to make sure lights stay on.

In Hackl’s film, Travolta plays a distraught uncle, Beau, who loses his brother to “the line.” Once a free spirit, Beau grounds himself and raises his orphaned niece, Bailey (Bosworth), who grows to love him but yearns to leave the small town.

Not even close to holiday treat

All I want for Christmas is my two hours back.

Over the course of five long days, the large ensemble cast of David E. Talbert’s “Almost Christmas” fights, crashes a car, cooks, cheats, fights, runs for congress, fights and, of course, reconciles.

The overdrawn cliché circles around the Meyers family’s first Christmas without their mother and Walter’s (Danny Glover) wife- a decent if not somewhat overdone movie premise.

But, as far as this season’s comedies go, “Almost Christmas” is one audiences can skip.

Gabrielle Union, who also executive produced the film, is laughable in the sense that someone, including herself, thought her lines felt the least bit natural. Each overused phrase that falls out of her character, Rachel’s, vindictive, childish mouth takes viewers further out of the movie experience. She’s frustrating in her immaturity and unbelievable as a mother. Union is somehow old enough to have an adolescent daughter but she’s still in school, is still upset with her neighbor over a high school misunderstanding, but she’s also a divorcee.

Her pretentious sister, Cheryl, played by Kimberly Elise is a successful medical professional (it’s unclear in which field, exactly), and is implausibly married to raging buffoon, JB Smoove. Cheryl and Rachel hate each other, again for reasons that are never explained, but for brief, confusing moments, that story line drops out and they seem to be just fine. It would’ve served the film better to have had a reason for their dual loathing and even a bit of consistency around it would have helped.

Big brother Christian (Romany Malco) plays the “been there, seen that” character who’s overworked and neglectful of his family during the holidays but don’t worry, the cliffhanger of “will he or won’t he” do the right thing doesn’t last too long without a predictable resolution. In a comedy, Malco, who was hilarious in “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” is underused and his skill for humor is underutilized.