film

Does Ang Lee’s “The Wedding Banquet” Break Backs?

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Once I was old enough, I spent my summer breaks at home instead of having to go to a day care. My parents both worked, so I wound up spending many of those days home alone. While I did have chores that needed doing and friends that I could see, most of my day was spent doing whatever I liked, and it was my first taste of independence.  

One summer day while flipping through channels, I came across this movie that showed a Chinese wedding. While they were dressed in western clothes, they were engaging in various wedding games that seemed foreign to me based on the Southern weddings I had attended up to that point.

I must have continued searching channels, but upon returning I was transfixed by what I saw. Two men entered an apartment and began to kiss, tear at each other’s clothes, and they were practically undressed by the time they got up stairs, where they unexpectedly found one of the men’s father. They proceeded to discreetly dress and tend to the older man’s health, hoping he hadn’t heard their discourse that would have led to intercourse.

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While I had had my own experiences of this nature despite my youth (which is a long story on its own…), this was my first time seeing this in a film or in any way depicted on TV. I immediately identified with their need for secrecy, their fear of discovery, their worry of disappointing family. Basically, that was all reality for me and my young mind was both exhilarated at the chance to see other people, albeit fictional, with whom I could identify, and deathly afraid that this would also be the tragic path my life would follow because of being gay.

The movie was 1993’s “The Wedding Banquet,” by Ang Lee who is also known for “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” and that other famous gay flick “Brokeback Mountain.”

The film is about a Taiwanese man who is living his life as a gay American openly and happily with his partner in New York City. Half a world away in his homeland, his family is constantly harping on him about getting married, going so far as to send potential brides to visit him. Eventually, this pressure builds to the point where Wai’s partner Simon suggests that he marry a Taiwanese tenant Wei Wei, who fears her time in America will soon end with deportation if she can’t find a job or a man.

The marriage of convenience turns out to be anything but when Wai’s parents insist on coming to visit America for the wedding. One thing leads to another in a comical way until finally the deception begins to break down everyone involved. While the truth of the matter is not easy to accept or divulge, it turns out to be for the best.

The obvious themes of being gay and coming out are apparent here, and they’re explored thoughtfully. They are also paired with the cultural ramifications. While it is Taiwanese customs that are challenged by Wai’s homosexuality, it’s easy to switch out any culture, even an American one, and the story’s applicability stands.

Wai’s scene coming out  to his mother is genuine, even considering the early 90’s setting. The difficulties he describes gay people have finding relationships when even straight people have a hard time are headed breaking, and his explanation that he was “born this way” rings true even decades before Lady Gaga made it a tagline. When Wai’s father comes out in his own way, telling Simon that he knows about them and that he just wants to make sure his son is taken care of, I cried. It was beautiful and simple.

And that is probably the film’s greatest strength, aside from its clever writing: the endearing characters. Every single one gets into your soul in some way. In fact, none of them are antagonists in a major way as much as they are all struggling against the situation. In that sense, you get a chance to understand each one, and that’s where they get to you, and you can feel what they are all going through.

While Ang Lee is more well known for “Brokeback Mountain” and its challenge to American culture in particular made it more controversial and famous, I feel like I prefer the tone of “The Wedding Banquet”.  While the inherent warning of the former suggests that America’s steadfast adherence to traditional masculinity and heterosexuality can indeed be back-breaking and life-shattering, the latter shows the benefits benefits of cultural progress, even if the price is accepting an emerging culture that has very little precedent.

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Even more outstanding is that all is this was done in a time when marriage equality was unthinkable, even though gay marriage itself is not addressed. It’s just a shame that the themes explored in this film may not have appealed to a 90’s crowd that was still reeling from the AIDS crisis.

When I was explaining to my own partner last week about this film and how it still resonated with me, I was surprised that he knew what I was talking about (he doesn’t watch as many movies as I do) and produced a copy of it for us to watch. Finally watching it in its entirety bright back a flood of old feelings that I could more easily handle now that I can deal with that aspect if my life.

I am glad to say that my own life has turned out similarity to this film. While I had my own phase of being closeted, hiding from my parents who I really am, the truth has finally come out for us all. Like Wai, I have my own partner and my parents know him and see that I’m happy. It could have turned it much worse, and for many others the characters of “Brokeback Mountain” are an unfortunate reality. Perhaps “The Wedding Banquet” may be more of what we will see in the world.

While it may have been a naive fantasy back in the 90’s, the film is now truer to life. That is as much a testament to how our society has developed as it is to Ang Lee’s ability to capture this particular slice of life, what it’s like to be gay, and to find acceptance.

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Batman: Mask of the Phantasm Retrospective

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So there’s a new Batman film on the horizon, if you haven’t heard. It’s the new Zack Snyder flick that follows up his mediocre Superman reboot, and pits two acclaimed heroes against each other. On the heels of the previous trilogy of Batman films by Christopher Nolan, this seems gimmicky and crude. In Nolan’s films we got to see Bruce Wayne explore what it takes to become Batman. This delving into pathos was more than we had seen compared to the films that had come before, such as the mid-nineties tripe of Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Even Tim Burton’s films gave cursory attention to Batman’s past, though the Gothic nature of those films made them timeless in their own rights. But what of that *other* Batman feature film? The one that bombed at the box office, but still garners acclaim to this very day?

Released in 1993, Batman: Mask of the Phantasm was supposed to be the vehicle that brought the well-regarded kids TV show wider notice. At only 76 minutes, it barely qualified as a feature film. It’s animation was spruced up a bit for the theaters, and it got to show a little bit of blood here and there. The question, however, is: is this enough to warrant giving Batman: Mask of the Phantasm such glowing acclaim?
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The short answer is a resounding YES.

Now for the long answer.

The film is based on the wildly successful Batman: The Animated Series, which has since been renamed more times than I can count. At the time, the show was riding on the coattails of Burton’s films, but it’s safe to say that the series reinvented itself apart from those films admirably. While taking certain cues from them here and there, such as the darker tone and a disfigured looking Penguin, the series displayed a Gotham City we haven’t seen since, an Art Deco playground for good and evil. Even thought the series launched in 1992, a film was arranged originally for direct-to-video, but was then pushed into theaters where it didn’t fare all that well.

Still it was a critical darling, and ironically it rivals even Christopher Nolan’s films in depth and complexity despite only taking up a fraction of the screen time.

Plot 

Plot is important to a film. Unlike television which can take seasons and years to tell a story, you only have minutes to do so in film before people lose interest. Surprisingly, even though the film lasts barely over an hour, it fluidly manages flashbacks and different plots without seeming rushed or incoherent. The bulk of the film is a classic murder mystery, which echoes the film noir influences the series adopted so adeptly.

Batman is framed for murder while a mysterious new vigilante in on the loose. Though this figure is also targeting known criminals, Batman must navigate law enforcement who assumes he is the culprit, the criminals themselves, the mysterious new figure, and finally and old adversary.  While all this is going on Bruce Wayne is reminded of his past when an old flame comes to town. Andrea Beaumont is the woman you’ve never ever heard of before who single-handedly nearly aborted the Batman before he ever donned the mask. Sharing similar tragic pasts, they bonded and even mended each other with a romance that started to change Bruce’s pessimistic views into more rosy-tinted ones.
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Then there are the criminals themselves, who have their ties to a certain district attorney, one who has eyes for Andrea and the end of Batman. Eventually, his roots are traced to the Joker himself, probably Batman’s greatest foe, other than the memories of romance that appear in this film.

Tying all of this together, we find that Andrea is the Phantasm, that she has been seeking revenge with plans to face off against the Joker herself. As it turns out, she and Bruce have much more in common than they realize, donning masks to fight crime, but Andrea has unfortunately become a twisted reflection of Batman, seeking petty revenge whereas Batman seeks to exercise justice.
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Other films have crumbled under much less, but Mask of the Phantasm bears it all easily. The themes of romance, morality, and even nostalgia thread the stories together. At some point in the film, almost every character laments his current state, pining for something more, and looking to the past for comfort. As he should, Batman is the paragon in these matters, but the cost is heavy, as it is poignantly displayed between Alfred and Bruce in the end.

Casting

The cast is the other half of what sells an animated feature. If the voice acting is sub par, no amount of animated wizardry  can make up the deficit. Voice Director Andrea Romano struck gold with his cast. Kevin Conroy is the voice of Batman like no screen actor could ever be. Unlike Christian Bale’s raspy drivel, Conroy can serve pleasantness with Bruce Wayne, and immediately dish out ferocious intensity as Batman. Future Desperate Housewife Dana Delaney also shines in her role as Bruce’s former lover. Then, of course, there is Mark Hamill as the Joker. I spent years of my childhood watching Star Wars and Batman, never once thinking that pious Luke Skywalker and devious Joker were characters from the same actor.
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These actors among the rest sell the film better than A-listers like Val Kilmer, George Clooney, and others who floundered in showing even less depth as real people than the two-dimensional did figures in this film.

The strength of this film is that, despite its intentions for a young audience, it never sacrifices its integrity to appeal to children. Just like the cartoon series, Mask of the Phantasm relies on storytelling, quality voice acting, and consistent art direction to provide an experience that draws you in. While most adults, understandably, associate animation like cartoons and comics with children, Mask of the Phantasm is like a graphic novel in motion.

Even the soundtrack, by the late Shirley Walker, stands toe to toe with Danny Elfman’s work. It’s a soundtrack that rivals all the films, and is superior to most, even the newest. You also get a sweet little R&B ditty by Tia Carrere during the end credits that was common in the 90’s, and it actually is a better song that what most Pop Princesses are putting out nowadays.

While I did watch other shows of the time like Tiny Toons and The Animaniacs, the Batman series was a breath of mature air that truly stimulated my mind as well as my eyes. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm took that all one step further and provided a cinematic experience that is nearly incomparable with the rest of the Batman franchise. Even as a child I felt sadness at the forlorn Andrea as she stared into the sea alone. I felt relief that Batman did the right thing without succumbing to the darkness he fought almost nightly. I felt disgusted with the corruption among so many in Gotham that made the city so dangerous. And ultimately, I understood the tragedy which prevented both Bruce and Andrea from following their young hearts.
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If a film can instill such complex emotions in a child who knows not even to search for these things, then what excuses do the other films have for providing less? Batman: Mask of the Phantasm is truly one of the best Batman films, and it doesn’t even need to rest on other installments in a trilogy to justify its existence.

Interstellar: A Review

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Released in 2014, Interstellar, a film by Christopher Nolan, is an epic sci-fi adventure in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Featuring award-winning special effects and a boundary pushing plot, Interstellar is sure to baffle the uninformed and enthrall the willing. But is it the kind of epic sci-fi film I would go for?

Let’s see.

• Special Effects

While I wouldn’t consider myself a slave to my vision, presentation is still important. Furthermore, if one is going to utilize computer graphics and other enhancements in film, they must look good. Nothing ruins the experience worse than poorly blended textures and rushed models. Interstellar earned its Oscar. The effects were beautiful, and the depiction of that black hole, at least the outside of it, was gorgeous. The real world settings used for the different planets still managed to look foreign, so nice work there as well. This was a feast for my eyes, which I didn’t realize were hungry.

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•Characters and Acting

The film was decently cast and well directed for the most part, but this movie wasn’t just about selling character drama. The astronauts all seemed scientifically professional if a bit too stoic when faced with new and frightening space phenomena. Anne Hathaway was a standout, but that’s no surprise. I wasn’t put off by any bad acting, but a few roles could have been enlivened so I wasnt immediately guessing who the background characters or the eventual casualties were from the get go.

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•Plot

This is where the movie suffered under my scrutiny. First of all, the pacing was off. While I admired that the very beginning showed us a deteriorating Earth rather than straight up telling us, I wish that same caution has been exercised in other places.

Having said that, some exposition was needed in places considering the highly conceptual science incorporated into the plot. That science was fun to see explored in a story like this. However, I felt the attempt to explain relativity and it’s effect on time was over-explained and lessened drama associated with its effects.

Furthermore, it was obvious to me that the that there were two main plots competing for screen time. One was the exploration of space, work holes, relativity, time dilation, ecological disaster, etc.

The other was Huey Lewis’ favorite: the power of love.

Yes, love.

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Love can cross time, space, worm holes, black holes, and plot holes.

Love can make future men seem like ghosts or monsters.

Okay, I get it.

I appreciate the attempt to fuse the themes of human nature with high science, but it just didn’t work for me here. Just when I thought the movie was over (and a decent ending that would have been), the love story took off and my disbelief was stretched more than spacetime at an event horizon.

Still, the actual ending want terrible, I just want expecting the movie to tear my focus from its attempt at pure logic, to a non sequitur shift to pure emotionalism. Interstellar isn’t the next 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it is a fun ride with a dazzling, if sometimes brutally blunt dash of science thrown in.

Guardians of the Galaxy: A Stellar Review

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Released in 2014, Guardians of the Galaxy is the new kid on Marvel’s block of comic book adaptations. Featuring a band of less than savory characters who become unlikely heroes, the film also is an unlikely success that managed to sidestep many pitfalls common to comic book films with slick presentation and cleverness.

First off, the cast is quite good. Going into this film, I was not one who was necessarily a fan of any of the actors, per se. It was more ambivalence than anything else, but I was surprised at how the actors won me over with their solid portrayals. Chris Pratt makes a dashing and charismatic leading man (and his famous transition from comedic fatty to svelte fox didn’t hurt). Zoe Saldana entertained me more in this film than any other role of hers, even more than as Uhura in Star Trek. Bradley Cooper stole the show as mutant raccoon Rocket, and he didn’t even have to rely on his good looks, which is a testament to his skills. Even Vin Diesel, with his minimal lines as Groot, brought to life a CGI character who added so much life and, dare I say, cuteness to the party.

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Lee Pace also gave a great performance as the film’s villain, even if you didn’t recognize him under that makeup, which is just another addition to the many roles this underrated actor has played. Even Karen Gillan, of Doctor Who fame, was fun to watch, even if I missed her Scottish accent.

I’m glad that the characters were so engaging, because the plot of the film was probably the weakest point. It wasn’t bad, but it was pretty straight forward and I got the sense that there was an implied wink and nod that suggested, “just stick with it, we’ve got big plans for this stuff”. Of course, the plot was serviceable in that it provided the means for all the characters to act and interact, but I had figured out all the twists and revelations in the first half hour.

I suppose that I could chalk up my lack of surprise to the mythic nature that comic books and their stories tends to follow, and in that sense the film did very well. In fact, I even found myself wondering if this film was the next big Star Wars type thing, but we have yet to tell on that.

Further, the wink and nod tended to address the fact that much of the plot has that been there done that feel. In particular, one fight scene was humorously abbreviated by a character’s use of a secret weapon that has been hinted at all through the movie. It still conveyed his danger, but it didn’t burden us with too much unnecessary action. In general, the film didn’t *try* to take itself to seriously, which allowed it to deliver fun times and gorgeous special effects without leaving the audience to worry about the film meeting drastic expectations.

Marvel was also a little too obvious with its attempts to plug this movie into its current franchises. While assembling The Avengers together film by film has so far been a successful undertaking, I get the feeling they are going to do more later, and hopefully they don’t tarnish what Guardians of the Galaxy seems to be doing well all by itself so far.

The biggest risk, I think, with this film was tying pop culture into a science fiction story. Film history is replete with attempts to do this that come off as tacky and exploitative, but this movie nails it. Not only is the soundtrack fun and classy, it is also part of the back story. The risks this film took on all paid off because all of the elements synergized wonderfully.

While Guardians of the Galaxy was not series I was previously familiar with, I am now eager to see what else is coming when they return.

Cloud Atlas: A Review of the Film

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I had wanted to see Cloud Atlas for quite a while. The concept of interwoven storylines and a futuro-sci-fi setting intrigued me, and the Wachowskis have made a few films before of similar scope that I enjoyed, most notably V for Vendetta.

Released in 2012, and one of the most expensive independent films ever produced, the story of Cloud Atlas is actually several interwoven stories that explore similar or related themes and characters across time. The idea is, in some cases, well utilized in its attempt to thread separate narratives along a single flow of action.

Of the things I liked in the film, I enjoyed the cast the best. Tom Hanks, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, and Halle Berry are the standouts to me. Normally I don’t find Halle Berry to be all that engaging an actress, despite being an Academy Award winner, but her performance here was quite good. Tom Hanks is always a pleasure, and Hugo Weaving always brings a menace to his villainous characters, and he does it so well.  He even crossdresses to play one of his characters, a little reminder of his adventures in the desert with Priscilla.

In fact several of the cast assume roles as different genders. Across time and place, the cast is consistent, which helps establish some continuity for the audience to follow. A great deal of makeup and creative wardrobe were used to evoke different times and personalities. The makeup in particular has received criticism, especially when depicting a futuristic Korean society with several of the actors wearing prosthetic face pieces to make them look Asian.

I didn’t find this offensive as it was clear to me that the actors were meant to be recognized across time regardless of race or gender. Had this movie been animated, I doubt people would complain if characters were drawn as different nationalities in different settings.

The movie is quite long, and sometimes the cuts between stories can be frenetic, but the build up through the first half works out quite well. The latter part of the film, though, does begin to buckle under the strain of the ambitious scope. This is mostly because the focus is frayed among the different strands of story that suffer from a lack of priority.

There are some clear themes that provide a strong framework for all the plots, such as equality and disenfranchisement, with slavery, race, and sexuality being some specific applications. Tom Hanks’ character also follows an arc of redemption that is fairly good, a testament to his acting skills.

Otherwise the stories all start to congeal at the end as if the effort to adapt everything from novel to screen had created a great wound, and things just never healed properly. The climaxes mostly seemed to go by a check list of things that needed to be complete, rather than express any culmination of plot and theme.

The film’s tagline, “Everything is connected,” is basically a by the numbers promise, and yes that much is delivered, but not with nearly as much flair as the build up seems to indicate. In fact, most of the characters never develop. Instead they merely get things done in order to ensure that things do connect.

This is why I mentioned this film lacks priorities. Perhaps in the novel the author was able to imbue all of his narratives with equal power. This is not so in the movie, and some storylines could have benefited from more editing, and even one storyline, Jim Broadbent’s main one, could have been cut out entirely despite its light-hearted feel providing a counterweight to some of the heavier plots.

One story’s climax in particular was emotional, the one where a homosexual composer, wonderfully portrayed by Ben Whishaw,  commits suicide. Watching his lover cradling him moments after the deed was heartbreaking, but slightly aggravating as well for two reasons.

The first reason is that this is just another example of depicting homosexual love as being fraught with tragedy. Yes, this character was a “product of his times” and all that jazz, but it is just too convenient to make homosexuals these tragic, troubled, unhappy creatures.

The second reason is that the surviving lover plays an important role in another, chronologically later story, but there is no reason depicted as to why his lover’s suicide was a catalyst for his later actions. That character barely had enough screen time for us to even see how events could have affected or changed him.

And therein is the flaw of this film. We are shown *what* happens, but very little of *why* things happen. I’m not sure if it was an oversight of the adaptation process, or if the filmmakers didn’t think an audience would much care for more in depth exploration of the characters’ motives, but the reason why someone pursues something is just as important as the plot itself, and provides the relevance that makes it engaging.

Telling me that within three hours you are going to weave together a handful of seemingly separate plots isn’t an example of good filmmaking as much as it is an act of sleight of hand.

Exodus: Gods and Kings: Risks and Costs?

Get ready for another biblically-inspired film, y’all. In fact, it’s yet another rendition of the story of Exodus. Ridley Scott is well-known for his historical epics. Gladiator is one of the best of such films, and a Best Picture winner. But Ridley Scott is well known for other great films like Alien and Blade Runner. He is also notoriously inconsistent. Where will Exodus: Gods and Kings fall?

First it must be said, and I’m not the first to notice, that this film features a scandalously white-washed cast. Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton lead the cast and both are superb actors, but are modern audiences really able to suspend their disbelief enough to believe that two UK guys can pass for ancient people of the Middle East?

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Sure we’ve got makeup artists and the like who can do wonders with face painting, and Bale can cultivate a biblical beard, but we’ve already seen this with Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. Of course one would want to cast capable actors, and perhaps quality acting can trump realism now and then, but this film seems a bit excessive. There is a wealth of skilled actors of color, and I think this film was a missed opportunity to showcase them.

Besides, it isn’t the racism-rampant 1950s anymore. This film risks looking out of touch as well as out of place.

Ridley Scott is a great director, and he has an eclectic body of work that reflects his versatility. Alien is a classic in both sci-fi and horror, and Gladiator proved that sword and sandal flicks don’t have to be religious to be successful.

On the other hand, Kingdom of Heaven proved that a film about the Crusades can be more boring than a history book about them, and Prometheus exposed the possibility that maybe some of Ridley’s past successes were strikes of lightning that don’t always happen twice.

Ridley Scott is great at assembling elements like story and cast and direction, but he doesn’t always execute things well. It’s almost like he relies too much on the elements themselves, but his vision isn’t always clear on how to tie it all together.

What I question about Exodus: Gods and Kings is its purpose. Why is he making this film? What will this film provide us that hasn’t been produced before? If this film is merely an attempt to use modern technology to retell a film classic, then fine. There’s nothing really wrong with that, even if that is a lackluster motive. I certainly wouldn’t be impressed if a modern architect wanted to rebuild The Parthenon using modern tools. Been there, done that. Try something new.

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This film will undeniably be compared to its predecessors, the aforementioned The Ten Commandments and Prince of Egypt. The latter is animated, has a gorgeous musical soundtrack, and even entertains an atheist like me. What can this new film bring to the table?

Surely, Exodus will make gobs of money. Religious movie goers will be relatively easy to please, even if Ridley Scott is going for a more “realistic” approach regarding the mystical plagues of Egypt. (Realistic plagues, but not a realistic cast?)

What seems to be happening is a bit of scraping from the bottom of the barrel on this one. The film is derivative, Hollywood-ized, whitewashed, and unoriginal. What about a film from Ramses’ perspective?  Or even an original love story between an Egyptian soldier and Hebrew slave, with the events of the exodus as a back drop?

There are so many angles one could take other than the same old same old.

To Movie or Not to Movie? A Question for Musicals

I remember my excitement when I stood in line for my ticket to see 2004’s Phantom of the Opera. I was at the height of my craze of listening to the musical. Singing along to it. Switching between the Canadian cast (my favorite) and the London cast.

Sadly, watching the film was disappointing. Gerard Butler’s rock and roll voice did little to make me believe he was the angel of music, but his performance wasn’t the only one to bedevil the film. It seemed the film took a turn toward the parody that Andrew Lloyd Webber had originally intended his musical to be before making it something better.

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I remember hearing a woman in the audience sobbing during the climactic scene. I wanted to cry, too, but not for the Phantom’s pity, but for the wasted opportunity of the film. And for the money I spent on the ticket.

Not all musical films are bad. My favorite is 1972’s Cabaret. It adapted the stage production excellently, and even altered the story for film in a way I find superior. The musical numbers were plausible yet exciting and the parts were all well portrayed, garnering two of the film’s stars Academy Awards.

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In 2002 we got Chicago which also garnered much critical acclaim. It was glitzier and flashy and trashy in the best ways, and I barely noticed Catherine Zeta-Jones was preggers.

Otherwise, film adaptations of musicals seem to be a spotty affair. Damn Yankees mixed mediocre Hollywood and the best of Broadway together for a “blah” experience, Mamma Mia! was really hokey, but maybe it was supposed to be that way. Les Miserables seemed to do okay, and let’s not forget ever popular Grease whose dismal sequel is largely forgotten (as it should be).

It’s this inconsistency that makes me nervous when someone wants to adapt musicals to film. They are very polarizing, catering either to hardcore fans or the laymen movie goers. What is the magic formula that caters to both?

Probably the next big thing, now that Les Mis has come out, is Miss Saigon. It’s one of the most recent musicals in both setting and conception, and even features a more modern structure and darker, more contemporary conflicts.

Miss Saigon is practically begging to be on screen, but would a film do it justice? Could a cast match the magic that is Lea Salonga; could a director translate the vision to the screen without making it a mess?

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I can imagine a version of the film that recreates the tragic love of a young girl not just for a man, but her love of a dream for a better place. It’s a film that celebrates her spirit and warns us of a world that threatens to break it.

I can also see an over-politicized mess with extra scenes of the Vietnam War that draw us away from the intimate nature of a musical in favor of a Michael Bay-esque orgy of cheap effects and lens flare.

These are the thoughts that come up with these adaptations. There is beauty in adapting a musical to the cinema so that millions can see what most don’t get to experience on Broadway. But the question remains, does it compromise the integrity of a musical to be shoehorned into a medium that is tauntingly similar but fundamentally different?