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Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999)

When I was a kid, if your Catholic school music teacher wanted to show a Biblical themed musical, chances are you were watching Jesus Christ, Superstar. As a result, kids like me – or maybe just me – spent their childhood confused as hell about hippie Judas. There’s a wider selection these days, but Andrew Lloyd Webber is still a mainstay, and you can now opt for a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat instead.

The musical, about Joseph of the Book of Genesis, his jealous brothers, and path to forgiveness, was always family friendly. Filled with songs that borrow from an array of musical styles from country hoedown to calypso, the numbers are jaunty and even a little silly. This direct-to-video film from 1999 makes the most of that and turns Weber’s hit into a wacky aural and visual feast.

The movie is framed around a primary school production of the musical. Students are shepherded into the auditorium by their dour teachers, including Alex Jennings and Ian McNeice, who soon spring into action as the singing, dancing characters in the story. They play the major roles while the kids occasionally run amok and snake their way into the scenes.

Maria Friedman stars as the Narrator, a spunky guide who invites us into the story of Joseph and ushers us through his journey from favored son of Jacob (Richard Attenborough) with a gift for interpreting dreams to Egyptian slave cum savior. Taking on the title character is Donny Osmond, revisiting the role he brought to life in earlier stage versions. Osmond, the syrupy voiced teen pop idol turned syrupy voiced fantasy for middle aged mothers, is a fitting choice that bridges all demographics. He retains his puppy dog’s earnestness, which proves useful when you want to gain sympathy because your brothers have sold you into slavery. His show-stopping ballad, “Close Every Door,” which Joseph sings after he is wrongly accused and imprisoned for seducing his master’s wife (Joan Collins), washes down like a dream.

It’s probably the most conventional Broadway number, highly singable and earwormy. The others are not as catchy, but they each have a unique flare and accompanying set piece. If you don’t like the pastiche of musical and visual style, then the experiment can be distracting. I think the artistic shifts tend toward the schizophrenic and make it harder to remain focused on Joseph. The religion teacher in me was agog at the bedazzled nipples in the Art Deco-inspired Potiphar number, the one in which Joan Collins undresses and seduces dear Donny. Just a couple scenes later, we have Bye, Bye, Birdie Pharaoh (Robert Torti), a hip-swiveling rock n’ roll king who summons Joseph to help him untangle some disturbing dreams. I’m guessing kids won’t care too much about these clashing styles, and the constant changeover may even keep their attention. They’ll work out the themes to this story, ones that include trusting in God and not coveting your brother’s awesome multicolored parachute cloak.

Selected songs below. You can find all clips and songs here.

“Any Dream Will Do”:

“Jacob and Sons”:

“Joseph’s Coat”:

“One More Angel in Heaven”:

“Potiphar”:

“Close Every Door”:

“Go, Go, Go Joseph”:

“Song of the King”:

“Those Canaan Days”:

“Benjamin Calypso”:

“Any Dream Will Do (Reprise)”:

Released: 1999
Prod: Andrew Lloyd Webber, Andy Picheta, Nigel Wright, Austin Shaw
Dir: David Mallet
Writer: Tim Rice, Michael Walsh,
Cast: Donny Osmond, Maria Friedman, Richard Attenborough, Robert Torti, Ian McNeice, Joan Collins, Christopher Biggins, Alex Jennings
Time: 76 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2017

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Detour (2016)

Detour is not the type of movie I watch for fun on a Saturday night, but dammit, Emory Cohen. The actor’s sensitive, Gilbert Blyth turn in Brooklyn has got me working my way through his back catalog and man, is it a dark, disturbing journey. Take Detour, which throws three lonely souls together on a cross-state road trip, ostensibly to kill one of the party’s stepfather. There’s a hitch in the plan, but not the typical kind like a cop coming up from behind on an empty road, though that happens too.

The film begins with Harper (Tye Sheridan), listening intently as a law professor expounds on how to get away with murder. The aspiring attorney has other things on his mind though. His mother is in a coma, thanks to a drunken joyride with his stepfather, Vincent (Stephen Moyer), who decides to visit his younger mistress instead of the hospital. Harper suspects Vincent’s upcoming trip to Las Vegas is more pleasure than business and is willing to take drastic measures to keep his stepfather from straying. The tidy coed gets sloshed, stumbles into a trashy bar, and sets off a very regrettable chain of events.

Harper meets Johnny Ray (Cohen), a coked up tough who has “Fear” tattooed in Lucida Calligraphy font on his bicep. The guy is clearly bluster, but he’s enough of a live wire that you’d avoid his sightline just to be safe. Harper does the opposite and drunkenly admits to wanting his stepfather dead, which is good enough as a job offer for Johnny. When he shows up at Harper’s house the next day, it’s too late to turn back, and the two, along with Johnny’s girl, Cherry (Bel Powley), hit the road towards Vegas.

Except the movie takes some unexpected, well, detours. Johnny insists on seeing some snarly drug boss named Frank (John Lynch, who will always be Lord Archibald Craven or Balinor to me). It’s a meeting he characterizes as a courtesy call but is actually a mandatory stop and one that could have disastrous consequences for Cherry. A casual sit-down at some sleepy diner also escalates into a situation that well, doesn’t end cleanly. The most surprising diversion though is the film’s narrative shift. The movie starts to flash back as it moves forward, and the slow drip reveal of Harper and Vincent’s relationship, and of its deterioration, unsettles the entire timeline.

Detour rumbles and disturbs but leaves its best parts untouched. The talented cast, all garlanded with breakout star laurels, give meat to the script. Sheridan is a capable lead, walking his character down a fine line of privilege and insecurity and tipping him just over the edge when he gets too close to type. His is not the most interesting role but has the most closure. Powley, meanwhile, gets the most underwritten part. The actress is a tour de force in The Diary of a Teenage Girl but is too confined as the girlfriend/hooker/occasional drug mule. Still, she’s magnetic and it’s hard to take your eyes off her. I have to say Cohen is the best, and not because I keep toggling between sweet Tony Fiorello and trashy Tony Fiorello. Johnny is actually a pretty stale character, kind of a C-grade Ben Foster type. But Cohen shares a scene with Lynch that immediately transforms his character into someone who’s much less tough and selfish than he appears. That’s the Cohen I love.

Released: 2009
Prod: Julie Baines, Phil Hunt, Stephen Kelliher, Jason Newmark, Compton Ross
Dir: Christopher Smith
Writer: Christopher Smith
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Emory Cohen, Bel Powley, John Lynch, Stephen Moyer, Gbenga Akinnagbe
Time: 96 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2017

Hysteria (2011)

hysteria 2011

It was thought in the late 1800s, and probably long before then, that a woman suffering from hysteria required stimulation in her nether regions in order to “coax the uterus back into position.” This would right the body and mind, temporarily curing a woman of nervousness, stress, loss of appetite, and any number of symptoms owing to the her weak constitution. Of course, hysteria wasn’t a single disease so often as it was a manifestation of a basic human need. And the thing to satisfy that need – the humble vibrator.

The story of the first such electric massager is brought to humorous life in this film, which weaves a tale of invention with social and cultural change in Victorian England. Mortimer Granville (a wonderfully bemused Hugh Dancy) is a forward thinking doctor who insists on cleansing wounds in order to minimize the chance of infection by germs. The preposterous idea that microscopic bugs could cause so much disease and death gets him bounced from one hospital to another until he lands a position at Dr. Robert Darymple’s (Jonathan Pryce) clinic. Well respected for his ability to relieve women of their suffering, if one can call it that, he enlists the young Mortimer to assist in his hands-on practice, and possibly to form an alliance with his younger daughter, Emily (Felicity Jones).

It’s an amusing film that has great fun with its subject. That Dr. Granville could be so progressive on some areas of medicine yet still subscribe to the belief that women are “unable to experience pleasure without male penetration” garners knowing chuckles. The men are oblivious to the true nature of their work as they briskly oil their hands and finger their way past layers of skirt. Meanwhile, their patients are propped up on an elevated lounge chair, their lower halves covered with a gold and burgundy canopy that lends a certain elegance to the whole affair. Let’s say we’ve come, er, a long way.

And you see how easy it is to give into the temptation to make double entendres and other such coy winks at the audience. There’s sometimes a little too much tongue, and whatever else, in cheek, and the creation of the vibrator and the tremendous social changes that spurred its popularity can seem trite, as if the real significance of the story was brushed aside for some big masturbation joke. One of the first tests of the “feather duster,” as it was initially conceived by Granville’s inventor friend (Rupert Everett), is on an opera singer who’s lost her voice without her weekly sessions. Its success causes her to literally sing in ecstasy, to which I say, to each her own.

The film attempts to add context and seriousness, however, with Charlotte (Maggie Gyllenhaal), Dr. Darymple’s fiery activist daughter and Granville’s intellectual match. She blazes across the screen, full of righteous indignation, demanding her dowry in order to support a poor house for the indigents who are also her friends. The woman is formidable, and so is Gyllenhaal; there’s never a doubt that Charlotte can determine her course in both work and pleasure, seeking gratification in her high ideals and, should chance allow, a partner who shares those commitments. So while Granville is a hero of sorts, the climactic scene shows Charlotte to be the true model of a liberated woman.

Released: 2011
Prod: Tracey Becker, Judy Cairo, Sarah Curtis
Dir: Tanya Wexler
Writer: Jonah Lisa Dyer, Stephen Dyer, Howard Gensler
Cast: Hugh Dancy, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Felicity Jones, Jonathan Pryce, Rupert Evertt, Ashley Jensen, Sheridan Smith, Gemma Jones, Georgie Glen, Anna Chancellor, Tobias Menzies
Time: 95 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Cuban Fury

cuban fury

There’s a bit of Cuban but not so much fury in this romantic dance flick. Despite a winning cast and pulsating soundtrack, the movie hews too closely to convention and offers nothing that hasn’t been done better elsewhere. It shakes and spins largely on the charms of star Nick Frost, who turns out to be an ace romantic lead.

Frost plays Bruce Garrett, an erstwhile salsa dance champion who ended his career after school bullies shoved sequins down his throat. That would do it for just about anyone. Bruce is content to leave that episode of his life entirely in the past but changes his mind when his new boss, Julia (Rashida Jones), confesses her love for dancing. It doesn’t take long for the bejeweled satin shirts and brushed leather, one-and-a-half inch heel shoes to come flying out.

But it’s not just his past or a bout of serious nerves that he’s dealing with. Bruce must also contend with Drew (a deliciously hammy Chris O’Dowd), a slimy, cocky coworker who gives himself far more credit than he deserves, in every aspect of life. Drew takes every chance to belittle Bruce and steal the limelight, whether at a sales presentation or at bowling night. He isn’t below outright lying and theft either and steps up his tricks in order to win over Julia.

Almost everyone shines in his or her role. Frost wears his romantic leading man role well. Bruce is sweet and sympathetic without being too much of a pushover, and every insult he takes only spurs him on. O’Dowd, meanwhile, does a great job of losing any and all of his heartthrob bonafides as the smarmy foil to Bruce. Jones is less of a standout, appealing to be sure but fading as little more than the object of desire. The rest of the cast compensate though with over-the-top flair, not in an oppressive way but with energy and a sly wink that makes you want to cozy up next to them. Olivia Colman is Bruce’s supportive sister, Rory Kinnear is his suspicious golfing buddy, and Kayvan Novak is his talentless but cheerful classmate.

For all their efforts though, the cast can’t outperform the dry script. There are bursts of wit, but the return isn’t worth it. Even the dance sequences fail to sustain the excitement. The general tenor of the jokes leans towards sexual insecurity and traditional gender norms, particularly in regards to dance, and that’s just not very funny these days. Also, the story doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of the genre. Of course that may not have been the point, but that’s why Cuban Fury is a romantic comedy just like any other.

Released: 2014
Prod: James Biddle, Nira Park
Dir: James Griffiths
Writer: Jon Brown
Cast: Nick Frost, Chris O’Dowd, Rashida Jones, Olivia Colman, Ian McShane, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Alexandra Roach, Rory Kinnear, Kayvan Novak
Time: 98 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016

Grimsby (2016)

grimsby

If you’re like me and have an aversion to embarrassing discomfort, then you probably also like your Sacha Baron Cohen in small doses. He’s sharp when playing supporting roles (see Sweeney Todd or Talladega Nights) – his manic energy gives a film just the right amount of kick and kink, but let him loose and it’s almost too much of a good thing. Grimsby is one case of Baron Cohen gone amok, and rather than highly concentrated funny, he tries out every profane gag he can think of. Shock and awe is the strategy, which works with a satire like Borat, but this film veers into Brüno territory. A lazy and base faux comedy spy thriller, it mildly seeks to say something about the jobbing working class, as if true heroism was sticking a virus-infected firework up your bum and keeping the Fast and Furious franchise afloat.

Nobby, a Liam Gallagher lookalike from Grimsby, is played with unrestrained glee by Baron Cohen, who also co-wrote and produced, ensuring that he gets to indulge in every crass stereotype for the sake of comedy. A neighborhood favorite who can be counted on for a good time at the pub and who is also loving family man to his devoted wife (Rebel Wilson) and football team of children, Nobby has it all. Except for his little brother, Sebastian (Mark Strong being very Mark Strong-like), from whom he was separated twenty-eight years ago by adoption. When word gets back of Sebastian’s whereabouts, Nobby rushes off to see him.

A few decades and an upper-class childhood in London can do a lot for a hometown kid, and Sebastian is now a world apart from the big brother he once idolized. An elite member of MI6 whose main responsibilities include shooting and punching people, his current mission is to prevent the assassination of a philanthropist (Penélope Cruz) and world health leader. Nobby’s over-exuberance at the reunion causes Sebastian to kill the wrong person, and to infect Daniel Radcliffe with HIV. He’s forced to go rogue, all whilst trying to prove his innocence, uncover a conspiracy, and shake off his brother.

Grimsby rushes along at a brisk 83 minutes, popping off crude jokes like a desperate high school show off. There’s a teabagging scene, a timely jab at Cosby, and a bit about poop. But most people will remember this movie for the elephant sex. It’s not a one and done gag either but an extended sequence that probably comes with a director’s cut. If the film was not so eager to gross out and push boundaries, it might have been a decent action comedy. Isla Fisher, who plays Sebastian’s capable contact at headquarters, could use a meatier role, but the misfits appeal of the two brothers does make for good entertainment. Strong is delightfully game when parodying his hard man persona and keeps an iron face throughout. Shame it’s wasted on raunch.

Alt Title: The Brothers Grimsby
Released: 2016
Prod: Sacha Baron Cohen, Peter Baynham, Ant Hines, Nira Park, Todd Schulman
Dir: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Rebel Wilson, Isla Fisher, Penélope Cruz, Gabourey Sidibe, Annabelle Wallis, Ian McShane, Scott Adkins, Yusuf Hofri, Barkhad Abdi
Time: 83 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2016