Cats movie review

For F*** Magazine

CATS

Director: Tom Hooper
Cast : James Corden, Judi Dench, Jason Derulo, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellen, Taylor Swift, Rebel Wilson, Francesca Hayward, Les Twins, Laurie Davidson, Robbie Fairchild, Steven McRae, Danny Collins, Naoimh Morgan
Genre : Musical/Horror
Run Time : 1 h 50 mins
Opens : 26 December 2019
Rating : PG

The following review might be unsuitable for children.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stage musical adaptation of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a compilation of children’s poems by T.S. Eliot, became an unlikely sensation. The show had long runs on both the West End and Broadway, and now comes to the screen in a way that can be most succinctly described as a mistake. Almost all of it is a mistake.

Calling it a “story” is being generous, because Cats is not really meant to have a coherent narrative. The premise is that the Jellicle Cats (say “dear little cats” in a low voice, with a thick posh accent) gather for the Jellicle Ball, a ceremony wherein they sing a song about themselves and one of their number is chosen by the leader Old Deuteronomy (Judi Dench) to ascend to the Heaviside Layer, after which they will be reborn.

The plot is cat reincarnation X Factor, okay? That’s the plot.

The movie adds on a subplot about Macavity (Idris Elba), who kidnaps some of the other cats to increase his chances of being the Jellicle Choice.

Believe it or not, there are good things about Cats. Most of the changes it makes to the stage musical are baffling and highly counterproductive. However, making Mr Mistoffelees (Laurie Davidson) the magic cat a soft boy with anxiety works for the story, even if the kinda-romantic subplot between him and Victoria (Francesca Hayward) feels forced.

Robbie Fairchild is good as Munkustrap, the de facto narrator – he was a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet who then became a Broadway star. Fairchild is one of the few performers in the show who sounds like they’ve undergone any actual musical theatre training.

Steven McRae, a principal dancer with London’s Royal Ballet who also dances tap, is a standout as Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat.

Dame Judi Dench can do no wrong and is weirdly dignified even when reclining somewhat seductively in a cat bed. Old Deuteronomy has always been played by a man, but the gender-flip works well. The few moments in the film that come close to being emotional are courtesy of Dench.

The choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler of Hamilton fame, building off the original choreography by Gillian Lynne, would have looked great if it were danced by actual humans and not the hybrid beasts we do get. Similarly, Hayward, a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, would have been mesmerising if it were her and not a strange fur-covered CGI approximation of her that were dancing the role.

Everything that makes Cats work as a theatrical production is rendered utterly null here. Even as theatre, Cats is divisive and widely mocked. However, it is a showcase of incredible physicality and athleticism and is, in many ways, purely experiential. You must be there to get it or even remotely think it works.

Some musicals are easier to translate to the screen than others – the ones best-suited to this transition are typically plot-heavy, because things are easier to follow in movie form. Cats never had any plot to begin with, so making a film adaptation is about as futile as herding, well, you know.

There was a 1998 filmed version of the stage show, which featured what pretty much are the standard John Napier costumes and scenic design one might see in a production of Cats. This movie has decided not to go with costumes at all.

It has decided to go with truly horrifying cat-human hybrid monsters.

It should go without saying, but human and cat physiology differ in many ways. However, human physiology is required to dance. As such, some aspects of the characters are very human-like, while others are cat-like. To quote another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, “those who have seen your face draw back in fear”. It’s a face covered in digital fur, with cat ears sat atop it and whiskers above the mouth, yet the noses, lips and teeth are very human. One never quite gets over it.

You can see a performer in makeup and a leotard and accept that they’re playing a cat in the context of theatre, but this “realistic” approach almost twists the visual cortex and medial prefrontal cortex, the parts of the brain that recognise something as human. The scale is also wildly inconsistent, changing not just between scenes, but between shots. In some moments, the cats are the height of trash cans, and in others, three of them fit in a dumbwaiter.

The instrumentation is baffling, and a lot of it seems to be midi, when a movie has access to an orchestra full of real instruments since there aren’t the space limitations of an orchestra pit (or in the case of most productions of Cats, a little alcove hidden behind the set). A flailing effort is made to give some of the songs more of a pop sound, with snyth drums.

There is a new song written by Lloyd Webber, with lyrics by Swift, called “Beautiful Ghosts”. “If you can’t get T.S. Eliot, get T.S.,” Swift (jokingly?) declared in a behind-the-scenes promo spot with all the hubris of a White Star Line official saying the Titanic doesn’t need that many lifeboats. “Beautiful Ghosts” has some awful lyrics (including rhyming “wanted” with “wanted”) and is the movie’s featured ballad, but is performed by Hayward, who is not primarily a singer and struggles vocally.

There are so many ways this movie doesn’t work; it’s a veritable fancy feast. It doesn’t work on a design level, it doesn’t work as a musical, it doesn’t work as family-friendly entertainment and it doesn’t work as an adaptation of the stage show. It. Doesn’t. Work.

The cast is mostly awful. James Corden and Rebel Wilson are annoying, but you knew this already. Both Bustopher Jones and Jennyanydots are silly characters who should be endearing but are rendered irritating by performers that many audiences are already predisposed to disliking.

Jason Derulo is an embarrassingly bad Rum Tum Tugger, unable to enunciate any of the lyrics and never exuding the irrepressible rock star charisma demanded of the character. He makes the sexiest character in the show decidedly unsexy. Derulo complained about his penis being digitally removed, which a) were they all filming this naked? And b) that’s the least of his concerns, really.

It pains us to say that Jennifer Hudson completely butchers “Memory”, the one song from this most people know. She goes for the Anne-Hathaway-in- LesMisérables-style crying delivery, complete with mucus. It results in a screechy, sometimes-unintelligible delivery that wants to be emotional, but cannot because it is sung by an unholy human-cat monster.

Taylor Swift is awful – she doesn’t have the voice to sing musical theatre, and she adds a “sexy” affectation on top so it sounds even shallower than usual. She also puts on a bad posh English accent. Of everyone in this, she seems the most pleased with herself, the most convinced she is doing great.

Idris Elba’s villainous Macavity is never intimidating because, again, this is all ridiculous.

Sir Ian McKellen laps milk out of a bowl and says “meow meow meow” and comes away with his dignity way less intact than Dench’s.

The characters apparently have no assholes, so critics have been quick to tear Cats a new one. To quote yet another Lloyd Webber musical, they’re “Falling over themselves to get all of the misery right”. The thing is, yes, bad movies exist, but bad movies made by major studios that are bad in this many ways are a rarity. Many, many people had to approve the bad decisions that comprise Cats. Hundreds of people worked on this – visual effects artists were working on the movie even after it had been released, with a version with “improved visual effects” made available to theatres a week into its US release – polishing the kitty litter, if you will.

In a world of franchises, of focus groups and test audiences, of movies needing to play to four quadrants and in every market around the world, a fiasco on this scale is a precious, beautiful, horrendous thing to behold. It is viscerally distressing – you feel it in your very bones. Something this bad is typically made by bumbling would-be auteurs with delusions of grandeur: your Tommy Wiseaus, your James Nguyens, your Neil Breens. Not Oscar-winning directors.

Cats has brought forth the most entertaining reviews in a long time because it is awful in ways that movies just usually aren’t.

Summary: H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories about Eldritch abominations: stare at them for too long, or try to describe them, and one goes mad. Cats is the perfect Lovecraftian horror movie. The horror, the horror.

RATING: 1 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Rocketman review

ROCKETMAN

Director: Dexter Fletcher
Cast : Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard, Stephen Graham, Gemma Jones, Charlie Rowe, Steven Mackintosh
Genre : Biography/Fantasy/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 1 mins
Opens : 13 June 2019
Rating : R21

           After Bohemian Rhapsody took home multiple Oscars, including one for Best Picture, all eyes were on the next high-profile rock star biopic on the slate, Rocketman. The film tells the story of one Sir Elton John, offering up a flight of fancy rather than a grounded documentary-style take, and is all the better for it.

Elton John (Taron Egerton, Kit Connor and Matthew Illesley at different ages), born Reginald Dwight, was raised in suburban 1950s England by his indifferent mother Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and his kindly grandmother Ivy (Gemma Jones). Reggie, as he is known, doesn’t have much of a relationship with his father Stanley (Steven Mackintosh), who serves in the Royal Air Force.

The film tracks young Reggie’s journey from his time as a student in the Royal Academy of Music to his gigs playing in a backing band for touring American jazz musicians. Reggie changes his name to ‘Elton John’, and is signed on to a music publishing company as a songwriter. Soon afterwards, he is introduced to lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell), who will go on to become a long-time collaborator. Elton attains stratospheric success after a stunning American debut, but his personal life is in shambles. He is approached by music manager John Reid (Richard Madden) who pursues a relationship with him, but Elton finds little fulfilment, eventually becoming addicted to alcohol and drugs. It is up to Elton and those who care for him to turn his life around and ensure his talent doesn’t go to waste.

The rock star redemption tale told in Rocketman is a familiar one, and it hits all the beats one would expect: the initial struggle to get noticed, the breakthrough, a rocky personal life with relationship problems and substance abuse, and then a triumphant comeback. However, Rocketman turns this sense of familiarity into a strength, and benefits from its fantastical approach. Instead of being a staid biopic, the film is punctuated with fantasy sequences and musical numbers, and that’s where it’s able to become more than the sum of its parts.

While there are moments of Rocketman that are necessarily dark, director Dexter Fletcher infuses the whole movie with an unmistakable, almost childlike joy. Fletcher took over from Bryan Singer as director of Bohemian Rhapsody and being able to see the development of Rocketman from the ground up allows him to put more of his stamp on this movie. The film’s use of music and its placement of songs is impeccable. Because of the fantasy element, it’s not tied down to a strict timeline, allowing songs that were written later to appear earlier in the story. For example, “I Want Love” becomes a song about Elton’s childhood, and the yearnings of each member of his family.

Elton John is known for being outlandish and over the top, and the film embraces that while always emphasising his humanity. The film is produced by John himself and his husband David Furnish, and there was every danger that it could feel like a self-aggrandizing vanity project, but it’s clear that Elton John has a sense of humour. The film is an invitation to look at his life through his eyes, and while artistic license has been taken, there’s a moving honesty that flows through the movie.

At one point, Justin Timberlake was rumoured to be the frontrunner for the lead role, with Tom Hardy later attached to the part. Taron Egerton more than proves he was the right choice for the role. The Kingsman star showcases an impressive singing voice and inhabiting both the swagger and the secret insecurity that is key to bringing a part like this to life. In both his singing and mannerisms, Egerton doesn’t do a mere imitation of John and constantly seems dedicated to portraying all the facets of the singer, beyond the ones the public is familiar with.

Some of the film’s best moments are in its depiction of the friendship between John and Bernie Taupin. Jamie Bell’s portrayal of Taupin is sweet, earnest and withdrawn: John is the one in the limelight, with Taupin remaining behind the scenes, but there’s no denying the significance of his contribution to John’s music. The scene in which the two first meet and bond over their love of the country song “Streets of Laredo” is genuinely heart-warming, and the depiction of their major falling out is equally heart-breaking. “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is reimagined as a duet between John and Taupin and is one of the film’s most effective emotional beats.

Rocketman doesn’t purport to be a balanced take on events, it purports to be John’s take on them. As such, several characters are portrayed as one-dimensionally nasty. Both of his parents come out of this looking bad, and Bryce Dallas Howard has fun with the role of John’s uncaring mother. One almost wants to reach into the screen and shake her, yelling “your son deserves your love!”

Richard Madden is supremely slimy as John Reid, who is depicted as heartless, manipulative and promiscuous. The same character also appeared in Bohemian Rhapsody, played in that film by Aidan Gillen. It is in the portrayal of Reid as an outright cartoon supervillain that Rocketman runs the risk of having its credibility questioned, but the movie has a built-in defence of all this being from John’s point of view.

Rocketman ends relatively early in John’s career, so events like John’s friendship with Princess Diana and his writing music for The Lion King are not shown – perhaps there might be room for a sequel. There are moments of Rocketman that are awkward and cheesy, but thanks to Fletcher’s palpable love for John’s music and Egerton’s stirring performance, its charm is irresistible. It’s a movie that tells John’s truth in the purest way, cheesiness and all.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Aladdin (2019) movie review

ALADDIN (2019)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast : Will Smith, Mena Massoud, Naomi Scott, Marwan Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Billy Magnussen, Frank Welker, Alan Tudyk
Genre : Fantasy/Adventure/Musical
Run Time : 2 h 8 mins
Opens : 23 May 2019
Rating : PG

            The Disney live-action remake train keeps chugging along with Aladdin, based on the beloved 1992 film of the same name. Next stop: Agrabah.

Aladdin (Mena Massoud) is a street urchin eking out a hardscrabble existence as a thief on the streets of Agrabah. He meets Jasmine (Naomi Scott), the Princess of Agrabah, in the market, and immediately falls for her. Jafar (Marwan Kenzari), the Grand Vizier, tasks Aladdin with entering the mythical Cave of Wonders to retrieve a lamp for him – only a “diamond in the rough” will be allowed passage into the cave.

The lamp contains the Genie (Will Smith), a magical being who will grant whoever is in possession of the lamp three wishes. Aladdin transforms into Prince Ali in a bid to win Jasmine’s affection, as the law demands that she only marry a prince. Aladdin and the Genie are caught in Jafar’s scheme to usurp the throne from the Sultan (Navid Negahban), with the future of Agrabah in the hands of a humble ‘street rat’.

There seems to be a general backlash against Disney’s recent spate of live-action remakes of their animated movies, not because the movies are all that bad, but that they’re unnecessary. A change in context or setting can sometimes justify a remake – this reviewer feels the 2016 Pete’s Dragon movie is an underrated gem. A shift in genre sometimes makes the remake worthwhile – the 2016 Jungle Book movie played up the action and adventure elements and played down the ‘50s variety show’ feel of the 1967 film.

However, 2017’s Beauty and the Beast was a remake that was driven purely by nostalgia – while generally competent in and of itself, it didn’t add anything significant to the animated film on which is was based, and was a movie that spent most of its time glancing at the floor, trying to hit its marks.

Aladdin has many of the problems that the Beauty and the Beast remake had, with some new ones too. First off, Guy Ritchie seems like a curious choice to helm a fantasy musical, since he is best known for his street-level crime comedies. It’s hard to know how much of the blame to assign to Ritchie, because Aladdin is a movie that feels made by committee. Like Beauty and the Beast before it, it is obligated to hit its marks and deliver the imagery that audiences remember from the animated film.

As a result, Aladdin often feels weirdly stilted. There is beauty to the design elements in the film, with the Palace of Agrabah looking like a cross between the Hagia Sophia in Turkey and the Alcázar of Seville in Spain. Unfortunately, Agrabah never registers as a living breathing place. Instead of a movie that’s vibrant, energetic and spilling off the screen, Aladdin feels flat. Agrabah is reminiscent of Disney’s Epcot theme park – this is most obvious during the “Prince Ali” number, which despite containing a thousand extras, is markedly underwhelming. While Aladdin serves up several grand tableaus, nothing is truly awe-inspiring. “A Whole New World” lacks the “soaring, tumbling, freewheeling” that the lyrics promise.

There is still a fair amount to appreciate: the photo-realistic CGI incarnations of Abu, Rajah, and Iago (voiced by Disney good luck charm Alan Tudyk) all work well, and Alan Menken’s songs continue to be magical. Plenty of the jokes land, and the film benefits from its humour being less self-referential and pop culture-centric than that of the animated film.

Integral to Aladdin’s appeal is the Genie, Robin Williams’ portrayal of the character being inextricably linked with the animated film. Williams’ genie was mercurial, manifesting in multiple forms and being a showcase for Williams’ skills as an impressionist.

The problem with getting a big name like Will Smith in a live-action movie is that Will Smith has to be recognisable as himself. In blue CGI form, the Genie looks like Will Smith, but just a little off such that it seems not quite right. The Genie’s penchant for changing forms is heavily downplayed, and while Smith is typically charming and charismatic as the Genie, the movie practically forces audiences to compare him to the animated incarnation. In the stage musical adaptation, the Genie is reimagined as a gadabout lounge singer-type, which fits the medium of a stage musical. There isn’t enough done conceptually to optimise Will Smith’s Genie for the medium of a live-action film, but the movie’s emphasis on the Genie’s desire not just to be free but to become mortal has the beginnings of an interesting idea.

Mena Massoud does fine work as Aladdin – he has a winsome smile and projects the innate decency that is key to the character. Aladdin is a good person who has been forced into difficult circumstances, and Massoud gives the character a good mix of sweetness and street smarts. Aladdin also does lots and lots of parkour; it’s clear that these scenes are much more in Ritchie’s wheelhouse than the musical numbers are.

Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is defiant but far from petulant, and the film places more emphasis on Jasmine’s desire to become Sultan herself and reshape Agrabah for its citizens. The changes to the Jasmine character to make her more of a leader are interesting, but not fully explored. Jasmine gets the film’s one new song “Speechless” – while Scott’s singing voice is impressive, the song doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the music and isn’t as good as “These Palace Walls” from the musical, which fulfils a similar purpose.

Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar is markedly disappointing. The film plays up Jafar’s hawkish interventionist tendencies; he is pushing the Sultan to declare war on neighbouring kingdoms. Jafar is a one-dimensional villain in the animated film, but Kenzari seems a little too restrained, never visibly taking pleasure in playing a sneering, moustache-twirling villain. Jafar as a politicking manipulator is an idea that’s touched on but never actually developed – he still becomes a cackling sorcerer at the end of the film, but Kenzari never revels in the evil.

Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much more dignified than the bumbling, easily misled old man of the cartoon. Nasim Pedrad handily steals the show as Dalia, a new character created for this version. One of the film’s funniest moments is when Pedrad exclaims “spoons!” Her interactions with the Genie seem more compelling than the love story between Aladdin and Jasmine.

Billy Magnussen also plays a new character, Prince Anders from Skånland. He’s merely there as an example of what Aladdin is up against in vying for Jasmine’s hand in marriage and is a largely superfluous character, but his presence does establish Agrabah as being part of a much larger world.

Aladdin is stuck being a live-action remake that serves mostly to remind viewers of its animated forebear. Especially when the source material is as popular as the 1992 Aladdin film, a remake actively invites comparisons. The film doesn’t adapt the source material well-enough to fit the different medium. While some might involuntarily gravitate towards the film’s packaged nostalgia, Aladdin cannot rise above being a shadow of the animated film.

RATING: 2.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

A Star Is Born (2018) review

A STAR IS BORN

Director : Bradley Cooper
Cast : Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron, Greg Grunberg, Michael Hanley
Genre : Drama/Romance/Musical
Run Time : 135 mins
Opens : 4 October 2018
Rating : M18

It’s a tale of love, loss and rock and roll: A familiar story is given a new lease of life by star/director Bradley Cooper and his leading lady Lady Gaga in this musical romantic drama.

Cooper plays hard-drinking rock star Jackson Maine, whose years on the road and life of excess have left him numb. Jackson finds new meaning in life when he chances upon Ally (Lady Gaga), a young singer performing at a dive bar. Jackson decides to take Ally under his wing and invites her onstage to sing a song she wrote with him at his concert. Jackson and Ally fall madly in love, but Jackson’s demons haunt their relationship, as prominent producer and Ally’s new manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) tussles with Jackson for control of the rising talent’s career.

A Star is Born is the third remake of the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. The film was subsequently remade in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. A third remake of the classic film has been in the works for a while, with actors including Christian Bale, Tom Cruise, Will Smith and Leonardo DiCaprio variously linked to the project. Clint Eastwood was going to make the film with Beyoncé. Considering the previous well-known iterations of the story and the somewhat bumpy production process, one would be forgiven for fearing a messy result.

Those fears are firmly assuaged with a film that has a linear, uncomplicated plot, but is inhabited by characters who feel like real people and whom audiences will care about. Praise has been heaped onto both Cooper and Gaga, who prove deserving of said praise. This does not feel like the work of a first-time filmmaker, and Cooper directs with a clear-eyed confidence. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique, oft-collaborator of Darren Aronofsky, contributes to the balance of the dreamlike and gritty, real atmospheres which entwine hypnotically.

This a movie about music, so it lives or dies by the soundtrack. Thankfully, the songs are great and do help in moving the story along. Lukas Nelson, son of Willie, and his band The Promise of the Real appear as Jackson Maine’s band. Nelson also served as Cooper’s ‘authenticity consultant’ and co-wrote the song Black Eyes. Lady Gaga co-wrote many of the film’s songs, including the signature track Shallow, a passionate, soaring duet.

Gaga’s hordes of little monsters across the world already know she’s talented, and while she has appeared in movies and on TV before, Gaga displays a side of herself we haven’t yet seen in this revelatory performance. While Lady Gaga has been an established pop star for a decade, she convincingly portrays a fresh-faced ingenue who undergoes a whirlwind transformation into a musical sensation. It’s an incandescent performance refreshingly free of vanity that lets Gaga showcase the full range of her artistry without coming off as self-indulgent.

Cooper’s performance as a shambling rock star who is a shadow of his former self is eminently sympathetic. We gradually learn bits of Jackson’s tragic back-story and through his heated interactions with manager/older brother Bobby, see how Jackson’s self-destructive tendencies wear on those around him. The character is constantly burning bridges and trying to put out the resulting fires. Cooper draws on his own struggles with substance abuse earlier in his career, making this a personal, raw performance. Cooper also has a lovely singing voice that’s very apt for the type of character he’s playing. Cooper cast his own (absolutely adorable) dog Charlie in the film.

The supporting cast, including comedian Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father Lorenzo and Dave Chappelle as Jackson’s friend Noodle, all bring authentic, endearing performances to the fore. Musical theatre star Anthony Ramos is a joyous presence as Ally’s friend and co-worker Ramon but doesn’t get to sing. Rafi Gavron’s Rez comes off as a little flat by comparison, the manager character being the most one-note.

While the palpable chemistry between the leads carries this a long way, A Star is Born does demand a level of suspension of disbelief. Ally’s meteoric rise through the industry is almost too good to be true, and we rarely see Jackson and Ally’s relationship from the outside – in real life, gossip and speculation from fans and the media is sure to weigh at least a little on the romance.

There are many moments when the movie veers too close to all-out melodrama – it seems like Gaga is willing to go there, while Cooper reins things in. Co-writer Will Fetters’ credits include the syrupy Nicholas Sparks adaptations or Sparks-esque romances Remember Me, The Lucky One and The Best of Me, and some vestiges of that remain. Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, Munich, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and Cooper rewrote Fetters’ initial draft. The movie’s ending plunges head-first into schmaltz, but by then, A Star is Born has earned the right to be shamelessly manipulative.

The rapturous reviews and deafening Oscar buzz are in danger of over-hyping A Star is Born by a little, but there is still plenty to admire. This is a film that will make audiences hungrily expect Cooper’s next directorial effort and Gaga’s next starring role. It’s a story that’s been told before, but this heady, emotional, heartfelt take on it proves that in the right hands, stars can indeed be reborn.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Basmati Blues movie review

For inSing

BASMATI BLUES

Director : Danny Barron
Cast : Brie Larson, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Scott Bakula, Saahil Sehgal, Donald Sutherland, Tyne Daly, Lakshmi Manchu
Genre : Musical/Comedy/Romance
Run Time : 1h 47mins
Opens : 8 Feb 2018
Rating : PG

Many famous actors have done movies they’d rather the filmgoing public forget about: Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zellweger have Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, Jennifer Aniston has Leprechaun, Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire have Don’s Plum, and George Clooney has Batman and Robin.

Brie Larson has Basmati Blues.

In this musical romantic comedy, Larson plays Dr. Linda Watt, a scientist who, with her father Ben (Scott Bakula), has invented the genetically-engineered Rice 9. Linda is sent by her boss Gurgon (Donald Sutherland) to Bilari, India to sell the new strain of rice to local farmers.

In India, Linda meets Rajit (Utkarsh Ambudkar), an agriculture student who has returned to his village because he cannot afford his tuition. Linda is wooed by William Patel (Saahil Sehgal), the crooked agriculture ministry liaison. It turns out that Gurgon plans to exploit the farmers and is counting on them not reading the fine print in the contract. Linda must save the people she has befriended from the schemes of her boss.

Basmati Blues was made in 2013, before Larson hit the big time with her Best Actress Oscar win for Room. Larson is now an A-lister, set to play Captain Marvel in the MCU. This means it’s an opportune moment to release Basmati Blues, which really should’ve sat on a shelf forever.

Despite the producers’ protestations to the contrary, Basmati Blues is a white saviour movie. It trades in outmoded exoticism and retrograde stereotypes and is a fish-out-of-water love story in which a sheltered white woman learns to embrace life as she falls in love with a man in a foreign land. Basmati Blues attempts to address the western exploitation of India by way of having its villains be unscrupulous corporate overlords, but it takes a step forward and about ten back. The film was shot in the South Indian state of Kerala, but takes place in Uttar Pradesh in the North, with no effort made to ensure the authenticity of details like the languages used on signage.

Nearly every decision seems like the wrong one, and this is amateur hour in the extreme. Director Dan Baron makes his feature film debut with this film, which is ostensibly a love letter to Bollywood musicals. There are ways to do tasteful homages to the cinema of other countries – this is not the way. The production values seem cheap, the choreography is inept, and many of the songs are downright awful. We will admit to kind of enjoying the romantic duet “Foolish Heart”.

One of the primary tasks of any musical is to convince audiences that it’s perfectly normal for the characters to burst into song. Basmati Blues does not achieve this. Brie Larson dances around a lab, singing about how great it is to be a scientist, and things don’t get any less awkward from there.

None of this is Brie Larson’s fault, apart from that she should’ve known after reading the script not to have said yes to this. Her performance is sufficiently amiable, and she has a fine singing voice, but it’s hard not to feel waves of second-hand embarrassment washing over the audience whenever the Oscar winner is onscreen.

Utkarsh Ambudkar, best known for his role in The Mindy Project, is charming and earnest and, like Larson, trying to make the most out of terrible material. Saahil Sehgal is extremely handsome and believably slick, but the love triangle is tiresome. There are more misunderstandings between the main couple than in five rom-coms put together.

Respectable actors Sutherland and Daly are absolutely slumming it, but Daly does have the best voice in the whole cast. Bakula is barely in the film, but even so, he hasn’t lost his ‘aw shucks’ charm.

The Hanlon’s Razor principle states “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” The filmmakers behind Basmati Blues likely never intended malice, and some might probably even be genuine fans of Bollywood cinema. However, stupidity is enough to do damage. This misbegotten travesty is a blight on Larson’s filmography, and is destined to become a so-bad-it’s-good cult classic. Prepare to cringe like you never have before.

RATING: 1.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Greatest Showman movie review

For inSing

THE GREATEST SHOWMAN

Director : Michael Gracey
Cast : Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Yahya Abdul Mateen II, Paul Sparks
Genre : Musical/Drama
Run Time : 1h 45m
Opens : 28 December 2017
Rating : PG

For years, Hugh Jackman has been saying “let’s put on a show” – specifically, a movie musical based on the life of showbiz pioneer P.T. Barnum. The project was announced in 2009, and with The Greatest Showman, Jackman’s dream has come true – but just how much was this endeavour worth the actor’s blood, sweat and tears?

Phineas Taylor ‘P.T.’ Barnum (Hugh Jackman) is an enterprising showman who, after being fired from his job as a shipping company clerk, takes the biggest risk of his life: he sinks whatever money he has left into a museum of oddities. Barnum came from nothing, but married far above his station to Charity Hallett (Michelle Williams), his childhood sweetheart. The couple have two daughters: Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely).

When wax figures and stuffed animals alone fail to draw crowds, Barnum puts out the call for human oddities and persons with unique acts to join his museum, which soon gets rebranded as a ‘circus’. These include bearded lady Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), dwarf Charles Stratton (Sam Humphrey) who takes on the stage name ‘General Tom Thumb’, sibling trapeze artists Anne (Zendaya) and W.D. (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) Wheeler, conjoined twins Chang (Yusaku Komori) and Eng (Danial Son) Bunker, and Prince Constantine (Shannon Holtzappfel), whose whole body is covered in tattoos.

Barnum ropes in playwright Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to be his partner. The aristocratic young man is initially hesitant to throw in with Barnum, but eventually does. Carlyle falls in love with Anne, but because of racial prejudices, both fear they will be ostracised if they enter a relationship. James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks), theatre critic for the New York Herald, decries Barnum’s show as vile and debasing, while angry hordes protest the show because they do not want the ‘freaks’ to be seen out in public.

As Barnum’s success grows despite ever-increasing odds, so does his hubris. Barnum becomes besotted with opera singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson), dubbed the ‘Swedish Nightingale’. He forsakes his crew of circus oddities and his own family to advance Jenny’s career in the United States. As Barnum chases fame and fortune, he must re-evaluate his priorities and decide how much is enough.

The Greatest Showman very much wants to be a great time for the whole family: uplifting, joyous, inspirational and bursting with dazzling visual spectacle. This is a movie that works better if you know nothing about P.T. Barnum. This movie dearly hopes you know nothing about P.T. Barnum. This won’t be the first review to state that perhaps the historical figure is not the best match for a tolerance-driven story about embracing one’s differences. There’s a site called History vs. Hollywood that handily compares fact-based movies with actual events, and the page for The Greatest Showman might as well just say “yeah, no”.

This is a man who got his big break exhibiting a slave woman named Joice Heth, billing her as being 161-years-old and having been George Washington’s nursemaid. After Heth died, Barnum held a live autopsy in a Broadway theatre, attended by 1500 paying audience members. And that’s just the beginning of his career in showbusiness.

Looking past that – which is a lot to look past – there is plenty in The Greatest Showman to appreciate. This is an adoring tribute to the glory days of the movie musical. Movie musicals must often hide that they are musicals, since a big section of filmgoers dislike the genre. In The Greatest Showman, there are eleven original songs, written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul – the duo who won an Oscar for La La Land and a Tony for Dear Evan Hansen. This film was in development before Pasek and Paul made it big.

The film’s songs all have a radio-friendly Top 40 sound – Jackman has said that he wanted the music to be something his youngest daughter would want to listen to. This is a bit of a double-edged sword – the anachronistic-sounding songs make it feel like the movie is so close to a full-on throwback, but took one crucial step back. Some of the pop instrumentation is distracting, and the movie’s low point is when the opera singer performs what is decidedly not opera.

The big signature number “This Is Me”, an ecstatic celebration of being different that is performed with gusto and sincerity by Settle, is anthemic and has a wonderful message. “Rewrite the Stars” is meant to be a sweeping romantic duet, but is instead entirely cheesy. “You know I want you/ It’s not a secret I try to hide/ But I can’t have you” are actual lyrics in the song.

The film’s group numbers are uniformly excellent. There is such dynamism to the staging, and the choreography by Ashley Wallen is a technical achievement, given the synchronisation involved, not to mention groups of dancers navigating various obstacles and special effects going off. “The Other Side”, a duet between Barnum and Carlyle in which the former talks the latter into joining him, features a fiendishly clever bit in which shot glasses are moved across a bar counter to the beat of the music.

Jackman gives this his all, and it is invigorating to see a performer who is so in his element. He’s a song and dance man as much as he is a claw-baring action hero, and he’s right at home in this movie.

Williams puts in a quietly moving performance, and her solo number, the wistful “Tightrope”, is this reviewer’s favourite song of the film. Efron is slick and charming – he’s kind of floundered about choosing many bad projects, but The Greatest Showman fits his skill set to a tee.

Zendaya is captivating, effortlessly poised and glamorous, yet also evincing the sadness beneath Anne’s surface. The forbidden romance between Anne and Phillip is clumsily executed, but has its moments. Both characters are fictional.

Unfortunately, the circus oddities do not get sufficient development. Tom Thumb and Lettie read as individuals, but the group is often relegated to providing background texture. It seems like there’s so much to each character, each of their struggles growing up different from everyone else, that doesn’t get explored.

Then there’s the strawman critic played by Sparks, who feels like a built-in defence against the film’s would-be negative reviews – but The Greatest Showman is hardly the first movie to use this device.

If you long for the heyday of big-budget, glitzy movie musicals, The Greatest Showman is as close as Hollywood has come in a while. The ambition behind the movie, especially since this is director Michael Gracey’s feature film debut, is commendable. However, it is, at the very least, troubling that a figure as monstrous as P.T. Barnum has been fashioned into a vehicle for the film’s very worthwhile positive messaging.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Coco Movie Review

For inSing

COCO

Director : Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Voice Cast : Gael García Bernal, Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor
Genre : Animation/Comedy/Musical
Run Time : 109 mins (+22 mins for Olaf’s Frozen Adventure)
Opens : 23 November 2017
Rating : PG

Coco-posterThe dead have never been more alive than in this animated fantasy-comedy-musical. Nobody’s suffering from even the slightest hint of rigor mortis, and the Land of the Dead is filled with dancing and singing. That’s not to say there isn’t drama afoot.

Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who dreams of being a musician, and who idolises the singer and film star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous musician in the history of Mexico. There’s just one catch: music is forbidden from the Rivera household. This is because Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was married to a musician, who abandoned the family and broke her heart. Miguel’s great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), the oldest living member of the Rivera clan, has never quite recovered from this.

On the night of Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebration, the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. Miguel accidentally finds himself a visitor in the Land of the Dead where he meets his deceased relatives, who attempt to get Miguel safely home to the land of the living. Miguel befriends the roguish trickster Hector (Gael García Bernal), who says he can help Miguel cross back. It’s a family reunion between the living and the dead, but it’s also a race against time – if Miguel doesn’t make it back by sunrise, he will find himself a permanent resident in this ghostly realm.

Coco-Miguel-Hector-tram

The Mexican tradition of Día de Muertos has figured in popular culture before, notably in the computer game Grim Fandango, the earlier animated film The Book of Life, and in the pre-titles sequence of the Bond movie Spectre. Día de Muertos embodies an uplifting attitude towards death that treats it as a part of life – death is still mourned, but perhaps is not as feared or as a dreaded as in other cultures.

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Coco does not appear to cherry-pick elements of Mexican culture to bolt on to a generic product. This is a film which is richly authentic and takes sheer delight in being so. While director Unkrich is white and was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Coco does not feel like the work of a curious outsider peering in through the window. The screenplay is credited to Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, and this is a strong, fully-realised story. Molina was promoted to co-director partway through production. The central conceit is clever, the characters are distinctive but not overly gimmicky, and the jaw-dropping twist is sheer masterful storytelling.

This being a Pixar film, the visuals are a joy to behold. The animation team had to rethink how the characters move, since the skeletal denizens of the afterlife do not have the musculature which informs how flesh-and-blood human beings move. The designers have great fun devising the look of the Land of the Dead. It’s colourful and zany, but everything feels guided by rock-solid design principles, and not one detail seems superfluous.

Coco-Miguel-Dante

Directors of photography Matt Aspbury and Danielle Feinberg utilise warm lighting that makes the afterlife appear inviting and festive rather than foreboding, while keeping it otherworldly. The film features a variety of creatures known as Alebrije, which function as spirit guides. Mama Imelda’s Alebrije, a winged jaguar called Pepita, is especially striking. Miguel’s ‘Alebrije’ of sorts is a mangy-but-loveable stray dog named Dante – after Dante’s Inferno.

The voice actors impart believable verve, and are just heightened and theatrical enough without coming off as too over-the-top. Miguel is eminently loveable, and the character’s conflict between following his passion for music and the life his family dictates for him is one that is readily relatable.

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The Hector character is a likeable scamp who can fast-talk his way out of any jam, and who ‘knows a guy who knows a guy’. Once Hector is introduced, we think we’ve got him all figured out, since he fits that old archetype to a tee. Bernal lends the character surprising nuance, and as we learn more about him, there’s considerable depth to be found.

Coco-Ernesto-dela-Cruz-Miguel

Bratt has fun as the beloved matinee idol Ernesto de la Cruz. He sings the song “Remember Me”, but for the other songs, Ernesto’s singing voice is provided by Antonio Sol. The mini-mythology of the canon of songs that Ernesto has sung and movies he’s starred in provides valuable texture to the world.

Coco-Miguel-1

As in almost every culture, music figures heavily in Mexican traditions. Coco features songs written by Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Frozen fame, as well as Germaine Franco and co-screenwriter Molina. The film’s signature song “Remember Me” is a stirring, evocative number and it works as a crucial plot point as well as it does a standalone ballad.

Coco did not just move this reviewer to tears, it made him bawl. There’s power and enveloping warmth to this tale and the visually inventive way in which it’s told. Just as Inside Out was the launchpad for many a family discussion on mental health after watching the movie, Coco is a great way for kids to process death and how it is a part of life. Steeped in a fascinating culture and bringing that culture to mass audiences, Coco is an all-involving celebratory masterpiece.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Musical Review: The Addams Family Musical

For inSing

THE ADDAMS FAMILY MUSICAL 

15 November to 3 December at the MediaCorp MES Theatre in Singapore

Even almost 80 years after they first graced the pages of The New Yorker, Charles Addams’ creation remains popular. There are no shortage of Wednesday Addamses every Halloween, and the instantly recognisable Victor Mizzy-composed theme song is wont to make everyone snap along. It seems like a no-brainer for the larger-than-life clan to take to the stage in musical form.

Gomez (Cameron Blakely), Morticia (Rebecca Thornhill) Addams and their children Wednesday (Carrie Hope Fletcher) and Pugsley (Grant McIntyre) live a blissfully off-kilter existence. A dilapidated mansion situated in Central Park that is haunted by their ancestors serves as home. In addition to the immediate family, we also meet Grandma (Valda Aviks), Gomez’s brother Fester (Cory English), zombie butler Lurch (Dickon Gough) and the disembodied hand Thing.

The Addams Family is about to be thrown into chaos, because Wednesday is intent on marrying her boyfriend Lucas Beineke (Oliver Ormson), a normal, all-American boy whose family is from Ohio. This sends Gomez into a panic, as he goes about trying to hide Wednesday’s plans from her mother. When Lucas and his parents Alice (Charlotte Page) and Mal (Dale Rapley) visit the Addamses for dinner, Wednesday pleads with her family to ‘act normal’. Alas, normal is but an illusion, as the prospective in-laws meet the peculiar Addamses and are subjected to all manner of unexplained goings-on.

The show features music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, with a book by Marshall Rickman and Rick Elice. The initial Broadway production garnered mixed to negative reviews, and has since been reworked for a U.S. and U.K. tour – this production is the same one that just toured the U.K., with several key cast changes.

This reviewer didn’t have the highest expectations of the musical – it seemed like Rocky Horror lite, with the Beinekes as ersatz versions of Brad and Janet. Several Addams Family stories have hinged on regular folk being foils to our mysterious and creepy heroes, so this isn’t particularly new territory. Then there’s the matter of the whole thing hinging on Wednesday’s romantic relationships – isn’t that precisely the kind of thing Wednesday wouldn’t be into?

However, this reviewer was completely won over. The show is a delight, consistently funny and tuneful with a committed cast. The libretto is littered with silly puns and cheeky double entendres, most of which land. The tonal balance between the goofy light-heartedness and the macabre and diabolical that is so crucial to this property is pulled off without a hitch.

Under the direction of Andrew Corcoran, the pit orchestra sounds much larger than its eight musicians, with many pulling double or triple duty – pianist Joel Nah also plays the accordion, for instance. For the most part, the songs are not the persistent ear-worms this reviewer was hoping for, and with a few numbers, their inspirations are a little too apparent – the first verse of “Secrets” is more or less a reworked “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid. However, the cast more than sells it.

Then, there’s the design. Diego Pitarch’s set is cleverly designed to look more expensive than it is. There are Gothic accents in the right places, and plenty of cascading fog. The Addamses are all instantly recgonisable, with Pitarch’s costume designs retaining signature elements while judiciously adding flourishes. For example, Wednesday has a corset, and her dress isn’t straight black but a dark bluish-green.

The most impressive costumes belong to the assorted spectral ancestors who comprise the show’s Greek chorus, which include a pirate, a matador, a tribal warrior, a Spanish Inquisitor, a Roman Emperor and a Tudor Queen. These reminded this reviewer of the work of Colleen Atwood, who is Tim Burton’s regular costume designer. They look sufficiently authentic, while also being heightened and fantastical.

 

Blakely is a charismatic Gomez – the actor has remarkable physical comedy chops, and looks like he’s relishing every moment. It’s a larger-than-life performance that includes dance moves that seem physically impossible for human legs to execute – or at the very least, improbable. As the henpecked head of the house, the audience empathizes with Gomez, while also rooting for him because he’s such a dedicated father and husband. His warm rendition of the bittersweet number “Happy/Sad”, which draws inspiration from Sondheim’s song in Company named “Sorry/Grateful” aims squarely at heartstrings.

Thornhill sticks to what works, dutifully conveying the traits that Morticia has always been identified with. She exudes a wonderfully sardonic air, and glides across the stage with an effortless slinkiness. Her solo number “Death is Just Around the Corner” exemplifies the show’s synthesis of dark humour and pastiche of classic Broadway musicals. Blakely and Thornhill’s big dance number, “Tango de Amor”, is absolutely mesmerising.

Carrie Hope Fletcher – that’s all we need to say. The boundlessly talented, immensely likeable theatre star/online personality/author is a truly winning Wednesday. She and Blakely sell the father-daughter bonding moments for all they’re worth – it’s the second time they’ve played father and daughter, since Fletcher played Éponine and Blakely played Thénardier.

Just watching how she purposefully strides across the stage, crossbow in hand, one can tell she completely gets the character. Carrie’s largely teenage female fanbase contributed significantly to the show’s success in the U.K. If you’re overly attached to Christina Ricci’s specific portrayal of Wednesday, hearing the character sing about how she loves all things cute and cuddly might be discordant, but the character still feels like Wednesday throughout.

With the makeup and costumes, the supporting cast members are all convincing as their respective Addams denizens. McIntyre hits the sweet spot of making Pugsley unsettling but also weirdly endearing, while Aviks gets several key opportunities to steal the show. English’s Fester is bizarre and likeable, just the way the character should be. The already-towering Dickon Gough gets some extra height out of his platform boots, and displays laudable physicality as the inarticulate Lurch.

Alas, the weak link in the cast seems to be Oliver Ormson. He has the look of a handsome all-American jock, but his voice is too reedy and doesn’t complement Fletcher’s well enough, with Fletcher singing rings around him. Still, the pair generates adequate chemistry, and “Crazier Than You” is the wild ride it should be.

Page is the surprise standout as Alice – her character goes through quite the dramatic arc, and her solo in the Act One closer “Full Disclosure” has resonant feminist undertones. Page gives the part her all, and Rapley complements her nicely as the buttoned-down conservative, midwestern dad.

The Addams Family Musical is far from the kookiest, most out-there depiction of Charles Addams’ beloved creation, but even with its conventional storyline, there’s enough dark humour and stylistic oomph to propel the show. It’s a devilishly good time for the whole family, if you don’t mind lying to your kids when they ask you to explain some of the bawdier jokes.

Jedd Jong

 

Sister Act the Musical Press Call

For F*** Magazine

SHE AIN’T HEAVY, SHE’S MY SISTER
F*** joins the congregation for the preview of Sister Act the musical
By Jedd Jong

The Asian tour of the musical Sister Act takes the soulful nuns to Singapore, following a U.S. national tour. F*** was at the MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore, for the press call on 8th May 2017, ahead of the show’s premiere on 9th May. We were treated to a performance of two numbers from the show, spoke with some of the cast and crew, and took a backstage tour to get a glimpse of the production’s inner workings.

Based on the beloved 1992 film of the same name, Sister Act chronicles the misadventures of Deloris Van Cartier (Dené Hill), a lounge singer who inadvertently witnesses her mobster boyfriend Curtis (Brandon Godfrey) commit a murder. For her protection, Deloris is placed in a convent, where she runs afoul of the Mother Superior (Rebecca Mason-Wygal), a stickler for tradition. Deloris winds up revitalising the convent with an innovative approach to religious music, befriending Sister Mary Patrick (Emma Brock) and helping the shy Sister Mary Robert (Sophie Kim) unearth her powerful potential as a vocalist. In the meantime, Curtis gets wind of her whereabouts, as police officer Eddie Souther (Will T. Travis) hunts Curtis down.

Sister Act’s libretto was written by Bill and Cheri Steinkellner with additional book material by Douglas Carter Beane; with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater. Menken and Slater have also collaborated on Disney’s animated films Tangled and Home on the Range, and the film-to-stage musicals The Little Mermaid, Leap of Faith and A Bronx Tale. Sister Act opened on London’s West End in 2009 and ran for just over a year, with a revised version of the show running on Broadway from 2011 to 2012. Sister Act was nominated for multiple Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical, but won none.

While the plot remains largely faithful to that of the film, audiences should expect some differences. The film tooks place in the early 90s, which is when it was made, while the musical is set in 1970s Philadelphia. Music director Chris Babbage described it as a “musical snapshot of a moment in history,” stating that the score incorporates elements of “disco, a little bit of funk, a little bit of Motown”.

 

Unfortunately for fans attached to the covers of I Will Follow Him, My God (My Guy) and Oh Maria performed in the film, those are absent from the stage version. “Everything in this score is fresh,” said Babbage. He promised “intricate harmonies among the nuns as they learn to sing and as they have their big show-stopping numbers, 2, 3, 4-part harmonies,” adding that the lead role of Deloris is vocally challenging because the disco numbers require a large range. Babbage’s personal favourite number is Fabulous, Baby!, which establishes Deloris’s character at the top of the show, that he said “encapsulates Deloris and her energy,”

Sophie Kim, who plays Sister Mary Robert, is the first Asian actress to win the role in an English-language production of Sister Act. Kim is an established musical theatre star in South Korea, having performed in productions of West Side Story, Dreamgirls, Mamma Mia and Rent there. In 2010, she made the leap to Broadway, attending the New York Film Academy’s Musical Theatre Conservatory, working hard to overcome the language barrier. She went on to play Gigi in Miss Saigon and Tuptim in The King and I. Kim explained the affinity she has with Mary Robert, saying “this character is just like me in [the] U.S. I obeyed and followed whatever [anyone] told me to do. I always followed rules as well.” According to her, it is Mary Robert who “is going through the biggest change in this show.” Kim admires how Mary Robert becomes a “really brave, amazing woman who can stand up for what she believes,” saying its why she loves the role.

Brandon Godfrey plays Curtis Jackson, the mobster who goes from Deloris’ boyfriend to ruthlessly pursuing her after she sees him kill a man. The equivalent character in the film was named Vince LaRocca, and in the first version of the stage musical, was named Curtis Shank. Godfrey, alongside the actors playing Curtis’ goons, performed When I Find My Baby for the press.

When asked if it’s more fun to play the bad guy, Godfrey replied “Oh, absolutely.” Godfrey, who also played the abusive Mister in The Colour Purple, said he is often cast in villainous roles “because of [his] size”. While he might play a tough guy on stage, Godfrey has a sensitive side: his favourite part in the show is when Mother Superior finds a Bible under Deloris’ pillow, and softens her attitude towards the nightclub singer. “The whole time, Mother Superior has been angry at this girl, and then she realises ‘wow, we’ve done our job’, so that’s my favourite part,” Godfrey said.

Production stage manager Molly Goodwin took a group of journalists backstage for a glimpse behind the scenes. Goodwin was also the stage manager for the 2014-2015 US tour of the show, and thus knew Sister Act inside-out. Five shipping containers are required to transport the set pieces, costumes and other gear. Goodwin showed us where she’s stationed during each show: a console with monitors showing the front-of-house and the music director in the orchestra pit, with a cue sheet on a stand indicating when various lighting, sound and set cues are meant to occur in the show. Goodwin explained that she has more than 12 people, handling various aspects of the production, in her ear via a headset during each show.

Goodwin introduced us to a star of the show with no lines: the statue of Mother Mary. The figure stands just under five metres tall, and is covered by a tarp whenever the curtain is down. The statue has two sides: for most of the show, the side painted in normal colours is what the audience sees. Then for the finale, the statue is spun around to reveal a facade completely covered in mirrored tiles, like a disco ball. The statue is not the only one who gets a sparkly makeover: the cast don sequinned habits for the climactic number Spread the Love Around, which was performed at the press call. Goodwin described the mass backstage costume change as being choreographed like a dance.

When this writer asked Goodwin how she deals with the stress of stage managing a major production like Sister Act, Goodwin said that she feels in her element, and that sitting behind a desk and accounting would be really stressful for her. She said she sometimes has to remind her co-workers, “Guys, guys, we need to take the stress level down! We’re not cutting anybody open, we’re playing dress-up and make-believe!”, adding “we just have to keep a realistic perspective on everything.”

What’s the biggest thing audiences can look forward to from Sister Act? According to Nancy Evans, who plays Sister Mary Lazarus, it’s a good time. She hopes audiences will find themselves “having fun and feeling good about themselves as well as the show,” adding that “it’s a high-energy show that makes people laugh and cry, and stand up and sing at the end.”

Sister Act is presented by BASE Entertainment Asia and runs from 9th May to 28th May at the MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands. Tickets are from $65 to $185 via Sistic and MBS.

Beauty and the Beast (2017)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017)

Director : Bill Condon
Cast : Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Josh Gad, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellen, Ewan McGregor
Genre : Musical/Fantasy/Romance
Run Time : 2h 9min
Opens : 16 March 2017
Rating : PG (Some Intense Sequences)

You know how this story goes: Belle (Watson), who lives in a provincial French town with her father Maurice (Kline), is misunderstood by the townsfolk because she’s intellectually-inclined and doesn’t conform to the norms of the time. Belle catches the eye of the boorish Gaston (Evans), always accompanied by his sidekick Lefou (Gad), but Belle rebuffs Gaston’s advances. When Maurice loses his way in the woods and is held prisoner by a frightening Beast (Stevens), Belle volunteers to take her father’s place as the Beast’s captive. The Beast was formerly a handsome prince, who has been cursed by an Enchantress for his haughtiness and unkindness. The household staff of the castle were also cursed: the suave head butler Lumiere (McGregor) is a candelabra, fussbudget majordomo Cogsworth (McKellen) is a clock, and matronly head of the kitchen Mrs. Potts (Thompson) is a teapot. Belle must fall in love with the Beast to break the curse, but when Gaston learns of the Beast’s existence, he will stop at nothing to kill the Beast and take Belle for himself.

These days, the foundation stones of the House of Mouse are nostalgia. Beauty and the Beast is a remake of the landmark 1991 animated film, which was in turn based on the 18th Century French fairy tale by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve. It’s easy to be cynical about the practice of live-action remakes, a practice Disney is keen on continuing. While there are elements to this lushly designed, beautifully photographed live-action remake that are worthwhile, it does hew closely to the venerated 1991 version. Director Bill Condon, who earned his musical cred with Chicago and Dreamgirls, dutifully assembles a work of prefab nostalgia.

This is not to say Beauty and the Beast is not enjoyable. This reviewer had goosebumps through much of the film, and there’s a novelty in seeing flesh-and-blood actors (alongside multiple computer-generated characters) telling this tale. There is an effort to stick a little closer to the original story. For example, the Beast imprisons Maurice because Maurice plucked a rose from the castle gardens, Belle having requested her father bring a rose back from his travels. That’s in this version. Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos’ adaptation of Linda Woolverton’s screenplay includes flashes of rib-tickling wit.

The production design by four-time Oscar nominee Sarah Greenwood is sumptuous, with lots of dizzying details to take in. Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are similarly beautiful, but the friend whom this reviewer saw the film with noticed that the gold leaf details were printed onto the dress rather than sewn on. It’s also fun to parse when exactly this is set, given clues like Gaston having fought in “the war”, Belle reading Shakespeare to the Beast, the powdered wigs worn by the aristocrats, and the mention of the black plague, historical markers that were absent from the 1991 version.

Much of the nostalgia factor is directly linked to the music. The songs from the 1991 film, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by the late Howard Ashman, have been etched into the collective consciousness. In this iteration, there are lush orchestral arrangements and some very pretty harpsichord parts.

However, this reviewer couldn’t suppress his disappointment that the songs from the stage musical adaptation, including If I Can’t Love Her, Home, Me and Human Again, are conspicuously absent. Instead, Menken has re-teamed with Tim Rice, the lyricist for the additional songs in the stage musical, to write a few new numbers. These include the Beast’s solo Evermore, which is a sweet torch song but is an also-ran replacement for If I Can’t Love Her, and Days in the Sun, a more melancholic take on the wistful Human Again. It seems odd that given how this started out as a direct movie adaptation of the stage musical, those songs are all gone. Menken and Rice are plenty talented, so the new songs are good – just not as good as what we had on Broadway.

Watson has stated that the character of Belle was a big influence on her when she was growing up, and as such she’s honoured to get to play her. While Watson is fully convincing as a feisty bookworm, since she spent around ten years playing one earlier in her career, there seems to be something missing. Perhaps it’s how iconic the animated Belle is, that it’s hard not to see Watson the actress/activist when looking at this Belle. Her singing voice has also been autotuned into oblivion, disappointing when compared to how lively and engaging voice actress Paige O’Hara’s performance was in the 1991 version.

Stevens sounds remarkably like the Beast’s original voice actor, Robby Benson. This version makes multiple attempts to render him as sympathetic as possible, to tamp down the icky Stockholm Syndrome connotations. As such, the Beast is never really fearsome, even when he’s locking up Maurice in the beginning. At times, his computer-generated visage seems suitably animalistic, and at others, it looks like hair has been digitally flocked onto Stevens’ face. He also looks more than a little awkward while singing.

Gaston steals the show, as Gaston is wont to do. Evans flings himself into the part with great aplomb, seemingly channelling Hugh Jackman, who played Gaston on stage in the Sydney production. Much has been made of how Lefou is “officially” gay, and it can’t help but seem like a marketing device to generate controversy more than anything else. Gad is ideal casting and a fine complement to Evans. Maurice is less of the clumsy, absent-minded elderly man he was in the animated film, Kline lending the character warmth and a degree of grounding.

The all-star cast extends into the actors voicing the enchanted objects. McGregor seems to be putting in the most work, affecting a French accent and having fun with the role. He shares great vocal chemistry with McKellen, whose voice sounds apt emanating from a stuffy, unyielding worrywart. Thompson does a full-on Angela Lansbury impression, which is quite charming. This also marks a reunion for Hermione and Prof. Trelawney. Stanley Tucci voices a new character, the court composer-turned harpsichord Cadenza. Broadway star Audra McDonald voices the wardrobe Mme. Garderobe, and gets to perform an aria that seems awfully like Prima Donna from The Phantom of the Opera. The enchanted objects must’ve been the biggest stumbling block in translating the animated film into live-action, and there are several moments which work much better in the 1991 film, Be Our Guest being chief among them.

Beauty and the Beast will charm and entrance large sections of moviegoers, but it seems preoccupied with hitting its marks, glancing down at the floor on occasion. Things get lost in translation, and Disney devotees will be locked into continuously comparing this with its animated forebear. Still, it will be largely futile to resist gasping when each petal falls off the rose, even though we know how it’s going to end.

Summary: While it’s largely bound by an enforced slavishness to the now-classic 1991 animated film, more than enough delights await within this refurbished castle.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong