Frohliche Weihnacten (Music Thoughts: My Favourite Christmas Songs, Lyambiko)

xg6mzlyagf3cc_600I know we just finished Halloween, and have to go through Thanksgiving, but here I am, listening to my first Christmas album of the season. But whether we like it or not, it is coming. And what better first album to start with but Lyambiko’s ‘My Favourite Christmas Songs.’  I don’t know every German jazz vocal artist out there, but I have to say that she is my favorite. She has a very great way with lyric interpretation – she knows how to insert meaning and nuance to what she is interpreting. And I like what she does with these Christmas songs. And she has good taste, because her favorite Christmas songs are also mine. This is a very melancholy, introspective Holiday album, and if you knew me, that’s what I gravitate to more often than not. Even a song like ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’ has a very sad context in her interpretation. All the usual suspects are here, but my favorite tracks are ‘Merry Christmas Darling,’ ‘Little Christmas Tree,’ and ‘Christmastime Is Here,’ which she duets with Luca Sestak (who is he?) I know a lot of times we feel like we are assaulted by the Mariah Carey ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You,’ but here she gives it a very subtle rendition. All in all, a fine by-the-fireplace Christmas album.

Sucks And The City (Movie Thoughts: Here And Now)

hnI have one question after seeing ‘Here and Now.’  Is Sarah Jessica Parker really such a bad actress? Because she is really awful here – mannered acting, really doing the ‘hard sell’ in most of her emotions. To express sadness, she goes all out with a frown, and her dialogue so labored and plastic it’s jarring to listen to. I don’t remember if she was this bad when she was in ‘Sex and the City’ but was she? And to think this is the type of movie which really requires a charismatic performance. As Vivienne, a world-renowned jazz singer who just finds out she has cancer, the character *is* the whole film, and in this case, Parker eviscerates the movie. Written by Laura Eason, the film is supposedly inspired by Agnes Varda’s ‘Cleo from 5 to 7.’ Director Fabien Constant infuses the film with a lot of style, but there are a lot of stumbles. First, Vivienne is supposed to be a famous singer yet she freely walks around New York City, emoting full blast, without anyone noticing her. And in an almost laughable scene, she attends a jazz set, and she goes up to sing wearing the exact street clothes that she has been wearing all day.  This just lowers how much you buy whatever this film is selling.  When Renee Zellwegger shows up in a scene as Vivienne’s long-lost friend, you can see the difference in how a real actress tackles a role. There is just so much wrong in this here and now that’s unforgivable.

I Hear A Rhapsody (Movie Thoughts: Bohemian Rhapsody)

downloadbh‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is a serviceable, by-the-numbers biography of Freddie Mercury. It doesn’t set out to conquer the world, it just exists to exist. Credited as directed by Bryan Singer, who was fired before the film was finished, the movie feels very corporate, as if put together by a team of scientists in a factory. It tells a story of a life, but never goes deep enough in that life. I will have to say that while it is watchable and engrossing for what it is, it was missing heart, and definitely soulless.

I did not know much about Freddie Mercury going in the film – I didn’t even know he was Pakistani – and I didn’t feel like I knew more about him after seeing the film. I learned of how he got into forming the band Queen, and we get a glimpse of how they became famous. But I never saw what ignited the spark between him. He seems to have been a very complex person – most artists are – but here complexity means two buck toothed prosthetic dentures and a pleated jacket. I know a lot of people feel the character has been whitewashed of its gayness, but that only felt like the beginning of the character’s deficiencies. Relationships are presented but never explored – what was the real core of his relationship with Mary Austin, for example, besides a mutual love of flouncy blouses?  This is the kind of film wherein to signify that Mercury has contracted AIDS, we see him sneezing droplets of blood into a Kleenex. Rami Malek, as Mercury gives a dedicated performance, but I was ultimately unmoved by it – even with that performance, the character never came alive for me. And must they really re enact his whole Live Aid performance when the real thing can easily be seen on YouTube? The whole film, to me, felt like a theme park version of a vibrant story and I hope one day we get to see a better retelling of it.

Isn’t It Funny? (Movie/Stage Thoughts: Funny Girl, The Orpheum Theater, Manchester)

onesheetI have never seen a production of ‘Funny Girl.’  I saw a concert version a couple of years back with different Fannys, but I don’t think that counts. Of course, I have seen the film, but I haven’t in the last decade. I had heard accolades of the London production which originated at the Menier Chocolate Factory directed by Michael Mayer, and I know it moved to great success on West End. I had wanted to see that, but when I was at London last year, it had already left to tour.

So when I found out that the production was filmed and to be presented at cinemas nationwide, I knew I wanted to see it. Of course, ‘Funny Girl’ is the kind of show wherein you have to have someone in the title role who is not only triple threat, but has to be vulnerable, and funny. And by God, do we have that and more in Sheridan Smith. I was astounded by how good she is. Streisand will always be the gold standard in which you measure anyone doing this role, but for a brief second there, I forgot her. Her ghost still mostly haunts, but when Smith is on stage, it seems like it is only hers. In a way she is almost the anti-Streisand, her singing more in the vein of  “an actress who sings,” eschewing the usual ‘stand and belt’ style that most actresses would use for this role. And her physical look fits the character better – a lot less self-aware, and it makes the ‘ugly duckling falls in love with the prince’  story line more believable and even more heartbreaking.  The dependent/victim role has never looked more appealing in Sheridan Smith’s hands.

Harvey Fierstein, in his rewriting of the book, has made the show feel a lot more like a book musical. Funny Girl, as it stood, felt more like a concert (I heard David Merrick wanted to cut all scenes without Fanny in them. ) but in this version, the story flows better, making the songs mean more. ‘People,’ here is more casual, not an aria but more akin to Carousel’s bench scene, essaying that exact moment Fanny realizes how it feels to finally fall for someone. For me, it is the best song and scene of the show, sort of like that moment you realize that she is doomed and destined for a real heartbreak as you tell yourself, ‘this will end in tears.’  Mayer’s direction is spare, and he gives his actors a lot of room to breathe.  Darius Campbell as Nick Arnstein feels less one -note, beneath his dashing gambler persona, you can sense an insecurity, at times even a longing – he is given a point of view like never before – they made ‘Who Are You Now’ a duet to give him a voice, for example.  Styne’s score is really a mixed bag – but the highs are up there. At this point, the familiar songs can be overly familiar, t it’s always good to see and hear them in their natural habitat, which is musical theater.  Also, the show’s creaks are more evident, too: without a great star performance, there’s not much there in the show – it’s really Gypsy-lite.

The film was shot well, with enough closeups so we can feel the characters more. I certainly feel fortunate to have seen this production, as it made me realizes how much I needed to see Smith’s performance, and well, people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.

What We Erase, We Find (Film Thoughts: Boy Erased)

bera‘Boy Erased’ is one of those movies that you know, even before going in, will break your heart. And it will. Joel Edgerton directed this film based on the memoir of Gerald Conley, which is based on his experience enrolled in gay conversion therapy sessions. The film chooses all the right buttons to provoke your feelings, rip your heart apart. And it helps that the cast is all good, from Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman as the parents to Lucas Hedges as Jared, the boy whose sexual orientation is being erased. I went along for the ride, expecting what I will get, and got it.

But I wanted something more. I wish the characters were better developed. Even Jared’s character, the center of the piece, felt a little hollow, his sexual awakening unconvincing. Hedges tries to fill in the gaps and ultimately we understand, but still I wanted a little more texture. Kidman and Crowe serve as opposite sides of the point, and only in Kidman’s performance do we see some three-dimension in her role. And the film is a little too white-bred, for sure.

There are similarites to a movie earlier this year that dealt with the same topic – ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ – and I liked this one slightly better. Still, the film wasn’t an enjoyable experience. It still hits close – in a similar world, the same experience could have happened to me. Still, I think people who will see the film will like it a lot, and obviously the message needs to go out to people who needs it most.

Into The Wild (Film Thoughts: Wildlife)

p15750243_p_v8_aa‘Wild Life’ is one of those movies that are a lot of things, but never feels crowded.  It’s a story about a marriage and its disintegration. It’s a coming-of-age film. It’s a snapshot of life in a particular time (1960) in rural America. It’s all beautifully woven anchored by great performances, directed with grace by Paul Dano, sensitively written by hom and his girlfriend Zoe Kazan.

Jeannette and Jerry Brinson (Carey Mulligan and Jake Gylenhaal) are just like any other American family. They have a fourteen year old son Joe, (Ed Oxenbould) and he plays football. It’s your typical American family, but it’s all for show. Joe isn’t really interested in the sport, and Jerry just lost his job at the golf course because his boss thinks that he’s too friendly with the clientele. When he volunteers to help with fighting the brush fires, Jeanette goes on a transformation. Or is she just finally finding herself? This all happens before Joe’s eyes and he matures before he even realizes it. The film is at times painful to endure, but it’s real. Mulligan moves with ease in showing the change in her character, but I just have this weird thing in me that I see Katie Holms in her – or the other way around perhaps? Gylenhaal gives a solid performance as always, and there is wisdom in Oxnbould’s youth – his is my favorite performance here. This is the kind of film that may seem slight, but as you think about it more, the more you will realize its layers.

Guards Down (Music Thoughts: Walls, Barbra Streisand)

126783-wallsJust in time for the midterm elections, Barbra Streisand has released her new album. And politics is on her mind, and she wants to protest. Is someone going to tell her not to? I dare you. Thank God it’s a good album, full of mostly original songs that speak different messages, all cohesive, all unifying. This is a protest to Trump, but she does so not with anger, but with love.

Her voice is still a force, though we all know that at 70 years old, it’s not what it used to be. But she can and does still manage to essay her songs the Barbra way. She still swoops up whenever she wants to (sometimes unnecessarily, but it won’t be Barbra if it didn’t) And you know what I like about this album? There’s a little bit more rhythmic production.(Desmond Child is one of the producers here)  There’s a bounce to ‘What The World Needs Now’ that’s R & B tinged (the last time she sounded like this was ‘Till I Loved You’, and she has Babyface and Michael McDonald in the track) and her carrier single ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ sounds modern enough to fit in Top 40 radio. Of course, I like the ballads, especially the LGBT themed ‘Love Is Never Wrong.’  Her medlette of ‘Imagine’ with ‘What A Wonderful World’ is fine enough, though I was a bit underwhelmed by its melodic transitions. And theater geeks like myself marvel at her inclusion of ‘Take Care Of This House’ from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Leonard Bernstein’s flop musical with Alan Jay Lerner (her operatic notes are tentative but still effective)

But probably my favorite track is her new version of ‘Happy Days Are Here Again.’ When I saw the song on the track listing, I immediately thought – uh oh, filler. I mean, how many times does she need to sing and record that song? But this version is drama with a capital D. She acts her way through it, under a funereal paced arrangement, and she is over the top, she goes all out, and it’s the most authentic I have heard her in years. When she lets out that big sigh at the end, I wanted to stand up and clap and say Yass Kween Barbra, you are still our diva.  It’s great to see that sometimes, we can still see Barbra tear down her walls.