I accidentally came across To Live To Sing when the virtual reality show I wanted to see was in a venue with a low capacity. I’m glad I saw it.
The film begins with a show of local performers in a Chinese city. The show starts with a modern fan dance by schoolgirls. It’s then followed by the Jinli Sichuan Opera Troupe: a local troupe that performs traditional Chinese opera. Right after the show, the opera troupe goes back to their own end of the city where they put on their own daily show. They perform every day at the same time at the same small theatre and entertain the same local crowd they’ve charmed for years. They rehearse well and they get along mostly fine. They have their own disputes on how to do something artistically, but it doesn’t last long. The Troupe is led by Zhao Li whom oversees everything. Her niece Dan Dan, who was orphaned at a young age and raised by Zhao, is seen by Zhao as the future of the troupe as most are aging.
Things are changing in the area they live. A lot of old homes are being crushed under government orders in order to build new developments. The theatre is under threat. This will not only mean the end of the theatre but the end of the opera troupe too. Zhao is frustrated as her theatre doesn’t attract crowds big enough. The others are worried too, but they try to make plans fearing the worst. Dan Dan however sees this as a breakthrough moment as she always dreamt of being a pop star instead of being confined to an opera troupe where she only gets paid 10%. During the time of frustrations, Zhao notices a dwarf in Chinese opera wear. She tries to spot him out, but he runs away.
Zhao is trying to negotiate with the government about keeping her theatre. However she knows it will be uncertain due to the small crowds that come to her theatre. Zhao is very forbidding of any modernisms that come to the theatre. She is strict on tradition. Then one night when she’s out, she notices the dwarf. She tries to follow him but loses focus of him. She is by a night club and she is drawn to the music. Then the announcer announces a singer for her first performance. It’s Dan Dan, and in a showy dress. Dan Dan notices Zhao in the crowd and can’t sing. The two have a fight outside where Dan Dan walks off furiously. The following day, Zhao confessed to Dan Dan that she always saw her as her daughter. Dan Dan becomes more committed to the troupe.
Zhao has another encounter with the dwarf and the dwarf takes her to a restaurant. There she sees one of the men negotiate a future job deal. Feeling the threat harder, Zhao decides one day to break with tradition and do a show that fuses modern with traditional. The troupe is welcoming of it. They perform the show with the mix of modern and traditional. The crowd loved it, but Zhao notices the spirit of the dwarf as it takes her to a mysterious land of Chinese art and culture.
Despite the audience pleased with the performance, Zhao can’t lose focus as an official from the party will be attending a show to see whether to keep the theatre up or not. They get a chance! However it’s a very slim one as the areas nearby are being crushed. The night before, Zhao has the same fantasy of the dwarf taking her to that land. Then the day of the show. The audience is ready. The players are ready, but the official is not to be seen. There has to be a wait and it’s making the crowd impatient. Then the official finally arrives and they are able to put on their show. Just as the show is happening, Zhao is again taken away to that imaginary place. The show she’s in is a dazzling trip of the imagination, until the character played by Dan Dan is stabbed. It all falls apart.
We then learn that the official decided to have the theatre removed. The troupe is heartbroken, even though some talk about plans of what to do after. The next day where there’s no show, members of the local audience show up and wonder why know show? The film flashes five years later with Zhao and Dan Dan returning to the same spot and what’s become of it. They see the development and the ruins. However Zhao sees the dwarf again. Possibly to send one last message.
The film is a common story about art attempting to stay alive. The film also touches on the subject of gentrification. We see it all around us; old buildings being crushed for new developments with big profits in mind. I see it a lot in Vancouver. Here it shows it happening in the People’s Republic of China. In most countries, they have the freedom where they can come bring this issue up to the government. Not all chances work out successfully, but they’re still given a fair chance. In China, you’re chances are very limited with a chance that’s slim to none. When the government says it will happen, it will happen. Zhao was lucky to have that one chance where she could prove to the government the importance of her opera. It was unsuccessful but she still had it.
The film also showed another aspect or battle. It also showcased the battle between traditional art and the more modern art or entertainment that’s the call of the day. Without a doubt, Zhao is a purist of the traditional Chinese opera and starts off as forbidding to the new ways and the new sounds. We should not be surprised that she would be furious if she saw Dan Dan become a contemporary pop star. Despite her belief in traditionalism, she does convince herself to welcome the modern sounds and even mesh it into the traditional opera. We see that a lot in many countries of mixing traditional or classical with the modern. It’s actually very successful in many countries. It proves to be a success here too. However the film sends a message that even with modernisms, the traditional should not be lost. It should still be admired and celebrated.
One thing the film tried to make clear with the story is of the spirits of art and how it exists inside Zhao. You may notice there are many times a dwarf in opera garb is in Zhao’s vision. The dwarf leads Zhao to many images all telling the story of what will happen. However the dwarf doesn’t always lead Zhao to images of a happy ending. That image where the opera comes alive in Zhao’s dreams but leads to the stabbing of Dan Dan is what would send the message of the bad fate of the opera troupe and its house. However it’s right at the end where when it appears all has been long lost at the end, it’s not. The spirit of art still remains even in the ruins.
This is the first film I’ve seen from Chinese-Canadian writer/director Johnny Ma. Living in Vancouver, he’s able to do Chinese stories that would not be the most welcome in the People’s Republic. His first feature from 2016 Lao Shi was about battling bureaucracy and legal manipulation in China. The film was shown at the Hong Kong film festival but not in Shanghai. This film was shown in both Shanghai and Hong Kong. It doesn’t depict the government that bad here. Instead the focus is on art and its attempt to survive. Johnny does a very good story and is good at sending a message, but it is a bit uneven in its storyline. The film also has a real opera troupe as its cast and they all play fictional versions of themselves. That’s another quality to the film. It does make you wonder how they’re doing in their home country. The actors all did well by being themselves when they had to, performers when they had to, and actors when they had to. Zhao Xiaoli and Gan Guidan stood out the most as the two did show a close chemistry in the film that made the aunt/niece relationship look real.
To Live To Sing is a story of artistic ambitions with a bittersweet ending. However it’s a good and colorful, albeit imperfect, reminder that art will triumph.
On May 24, 1956 a song contest was started in Lugano, Switzerland that would eventually become a major entertainment event in Europe and even attract major interest around the world over the years. It was called the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Prix back then. Now the Eurovision Song Contest heads into 60 years of showcasing music and song and is bigger than ever.
THE START OF SOMETHING BIG
The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is the brainchild of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), a union of all the national broadcast associations from around Europe. It was in the early 1950’s. Europe was a divided war-torn continent struggling to rebuild itself and struggling to heal international relations that had only worsened due to the fighting of World War II that had ended in 1945.
In 1951, the Italian city of Sanremo started a music festival to help revitalize the city’s economy and the image of the city of Sanremo. The festival which was titled Festival della Canzone Italiana, or the Italian Song Festival, was held in January that year in the Sanremo Casino and was a hit.
The contest attracted the attention of the EBU and it inspired them of their own idea. They hoped for this Contest to unite the European nations through art and song. At a meeting of the EBU broadcasters in Monaco in 1955, the idea of a pan-European music festival was brought to the table. The Sanremo festival and its format served as the base for how this contest would be held. The following year on May 24, 1956, the first ever Eurovision Song Contest was held.
THE FIRST CONTEST
The very first Eurovision Song Contest was held at the Teatro Kursall in Lugano, Switzerland. The contest was only one hour and forty minutes long. The contest was broadcast both on television and radio since most people didn’t yet own a television set. Only solo performers were allowed to perform and songs were not to exceed three and a half minutes in length. There were fourteen songs performed by a total of twelve acts from seven different countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Austria, Denmark and the UK planned to perform but missed the submission deadline.
All participating countries fielded two songs performed with only Luxembourg and Switzerland having the same singer sing both songs. An orchestra for the whole contest was fielded but each country would have their own conductor conducting. Voting was done by two jury members from each participating country in secret ballot. In the end, 32 year-old Swiss singer Lys Assia won the contest for her song ‘Refrain.’ Along with her prizes, Lys was to perform her winning song at the end of the contest.
The first Contest was however marred by controversy. First, the fact the winner was decided by secret ballot. Second was the fact that the two members of Luxembourg’s jury who were to vote didn’t make it to Lugano. Both members of the Swiss jury were allowed to give a second vote. In fact no one knows what the official results of the contest are to this day. The EBU knew they had to make changes for the next contest if it were to continue.
THE SECOND CONTEST SETS THE STAGE
As I mentioned, the Contest had to iron out some things if it wanted to go further. One thing that wasn’t ironed out back then was the host nation. It was planned in the future that each competing nation would have their chance at hosting. However the increasing number of countries would make that concept an impossibility. Germany who finished second at last year’s contest was allowed to host the 1957 contest in Frankfurt.
This time there were ten nations competing with all seven nations from the previous year returning and Austria, UK and Denmark meeting the deadline this time. As in the previous year, there was an orchestra which was to be conducted by a conductor from each country. This time there was to be only one performance per country. There was no time limit of songs and the contest was open to duets. Denmark would field the first-ever duet in the Contest’s history.
In response to the voting controversy from the previous year, this year would start a judging format that would still exist to this day. This time the juries stayed in their home country and watched the competition from television and they were not allowed to vote for their own country. One voting aspect for this Contest and the four following was the juries were all given a total of ten points to divide among the performers whom they felt worthy. Only two performers from last year’s contest–the Netherlands’ Corry Brokken and last year’s winner Lys Assia– returned. Brokken won the contest but the big news was of the kiss of the Danish duo who performed: it lasted 13 seconds.
However it’s not to say this contest experienced issues. There was the issue of the time length of the songs. The Italian song was 5:09 minutes in length and the UK entry wasn’t even two minutes. Further Eurovision contests would permit for a song of a maximum length of three minutes.
THE CONTEST GROWS OVER TIME
In 1958, the contest was held in Hilversum, Netherlands. This would be a Eurovision tradition as the nation of the Contest winner would host the following year’s contest: a tradition rarely broken. Lys Assia and Corry Brokken were back. For the record, past champions are allowed to perform again and there’s no limit to how many Eurovisions they can participate. The contest was won by a French singer but it was the song that finished third– Domenico Modugno’s Volare— that would win the world over. Already the first hit generated from the Contest.
The contest would grow over the next ten years from ten countries in 1958 to eighteen in 1966. Yugoslavia debuted in 1961 and would become the only nation of the former Eastern Bloc to participate in the Contest during the years of the Cold War. The Contest was known for being out of tune with the common tastes of the record-buying public. While the times were embracing rock ‘n roll and Beatlemania, most songs in the Contest were in fact big band-style songs and the winners up to 1964 were all ballads. The first non-ballad to win was Luxembourg performer France Gall’s ‘Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son’ which sounded like the popular go-go music of the 1960’s. However there would be a major problem in 1969 when four songs shared the top score and thus four winners were declared. Five countries boycotted the following year and the EBU knew it had to revamp the scoring process in time for the 1970 Contest.
1971 allowed for groups up to six to perform.1973 saw the first non-European country to enter performers: Israel. It would not be the last but it would be the most consistent, appearing a total of 41 times and winning three times. 1974 saw the performance of ABBA and ‘Waterloo’ which would launch the band into stardom and would even considered by most to be the best Eurovision Song Contest ever. 1975 would see the one-to-twelve points scoring system that would stick ever since. Before the 1976 contest, there would be protests in Sweden over how commercial the contest became. Sweden withdrew that year as a result.
1980 would see Morocco enter for the first and only time. Over the years the Contest would grow in terms of nations being broadcast to although participating nations were the only ones allows to field juries for voting. The Contest would also see more numbers include dancing in their performances as dance had a key factor in the UK’s Bucks Fizz winning in 1981 for ‘Making You Mind Up.’ Also from that winning performance was the rip of the female singers’ skirts to reveal a miniskirt. That would lead to more onstage gimmicks and more sexually provocative performances over time. The Contest would even introduce the world to a Canadian diva competing for Switzerland in 1998 by the name of Celine Dion and even won with the song ‘Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.’ The 80’s would also see the Contest’s first and only two-time winner with Ireland’s Johnny Logan: in 1980 with ‘What’s Another Year’ and in 1987 with ‘Hold Me Now.’
1990 would pave the way for the post-Cold war era of Europe and would also change the ESC as a result. 1990 was known for featuring a lot of politically-focused songs with the fall of Communism being a top song topic. The winner was ‘Insieme:1992,’ an Italian song about the upcoming European Union. The changes of Europe were first evident in 1993 when three nations of the former Yugoslavia entered the contest for the first time. However they would be the three winners of a pre-qualifying round of seven ‘newcoming’ nations to the ESC: all former members of the Eastern Bloc. That was another difficulty for the contest: dealing with new nations who wanted to participate. 1994 saw the seven lowest-placing countries from 1993 not invited the following year and allowing for seven debuting countries all from the former Eastern Bloc. 1996 tried to solve things by having an audio-only pre-qualifying contest to reduce the 29 submissions to a manageable 23 performers.
1997 saw the introduction of televoting but only five of the 25 participating countries used televoting to decide the winners. The number would grow to 22 out of 25 in 1998. 1998 would also have the first ever transsexual, Israel’s Dana International, to perform. She even won with her song ‘Diva.’ 1999 would see the departure of the orchestra and the arrival of pre-recorded music. However pre-recorded vocals were not allowed and are still not allowed.
The maximum number of countries was always a frustration with the EBU. Due to the break-up of the USSR, the fall of the iron curtain and Yugoslavia’s republics going their separate ways, more nations wanted to compete at the contest and that would lead the EBU to make rules to put a limit on having a manageable number of countries performing on the night. That would be seen unfair in many people’s eyes. Then 2004 saw the debut of a Semi-Final for the Contest. 2008 would see the current format of two semi-finals and a Grant Final for the Contest. 2015 would feature the debut of the first non-European invitee since Morocco in 1980: Australia.
This year the contest will have 42 competing nations including Australia returning. The contest will be held in the Globe Theatre of Stockholm, Sweden; host country of last year’s winner Mans Zelmerlow who won for ‘Heroes.’ 42 countries will perform. There were to be 43 but Romania was disallowed because of unpaid debts owing to the EBU. 36 of the countries will compete in the semi-finals. The host nation and the Big Five countries (UK, Spain, France, Italy and Germany) are to bypass the semis as they qualify for the final. However they are to perform in the semis as a ‘dress rehearsal’ and they are allowed to vote on the other semi finalists who are contending for Finals berths.
RULES, RULES, RULES
It never fails. When you have a performance contest, you have rules that go along with it. Here’s a brief guide to some of the rules of the Contest. And I’ll try to make it brief.
When the contest started, a performer could sing in whatever language they wanted. In 1966, it was declared performers can only perform in their native language. The restriction was lifted in 1973 but returned for 1977 as songs sung in English from Austria and Finland at the 1976 Contest delivered sexually-suggestive lyrics. The restriction was kept intact from 1977 to 1998. However regional dialects and even rare languages native to the country–like Switzerland’s 1989 entry which was sung in Romansh– were permitted. 1999 saw a return to singing in whatever language the performer chooses to perform. There have even been entries in past Contests which consisted completely of imaginary languages.
Since 1999, all but one winner have been sung either partially or completely in English. It’s very common for a performer to sing their song in the national song contest in the native language but sing their song in English at the Eurovision Contest. Thirty-nine of the 42 songs in the Contest this year will either be partially or completely sung in English. Only three songs will be sung completely in another language and an additional three songs will mix English lyrics with lyrics of another language. The one song with a regional language is Ukraine as Jamala’s ‘1944’ will be sung both in English and Crimean Tatar.
It’s pretty obvious most of the performers at the ESC are citizens of the country they represent. However it’s not set in stone. There have been many times certain countries would field a singer or songwriters from other countries. The best example is Luxembourg. In its 37 appearances from 1956 to 1993, only four singers were actual citizens of Luxembourg. In fact all five singers who won the ESC for Luxembourg were in fact citizens of other countries: four from France and one from Greece. And Monaco’s winning entry from 1971 consisted of the lead singer, backup singers, songwriter and conductor all French citizens. In fact lead singer Severine only ever set foot in Monaco only once just weeks before the Contest when she performed her song live before Prince Ranier.
It’s still happening in modern times. There have been three times when a Canadian singer sang for Switzerland including a then-20 year-old Celine Dion back in 1988. Azerbaijan always fields singers that are citizens of their country but hires Swedish songwriters to write winning songs. Ir’s paid off as Azerbaijan has had five Top 5 finishes including a win in 2011.
Although this is a European Contest, there have been countries outside of Europe who have participated. Israel is the most notable with 38 appearances and even winning three times. Morocco participated only once in 1980. Australia was invited last year and they were invited again this year.
Ever hear the saying “Never work with animals or children?” I’ve never known of a Eurovision act with a live animal involved but I’ve learned about children. There have been times when children performed as backup singers or even as a performer and the EBU didn’t have a problem with that. However the problem first started when 13 year-old Belgian singer Sandra Kim won the contest with ‘J’aime la Vie.’ The problem was she passed herself off as fifteen in the song. But it would be the 1989 Contest that would cause chagrin among the EBU as France’s entry was an 11 year-old girl and Israel’s entered duo consisted of a 12 year-old boy. The EBU made a rule for the following year that performers on stage must be 16 years of age in the Eurovision year, including dancers and backup singers. Performers under 16 would have to wait until 2003 for the Junior Eurovision Song Contest to begin to have their day in the sun.
There’s no specific guidelines for what topics the songs should be about. For those who’ve seen the contest, anything seems to go. There have been topics that are universal like love and peace, topics that are regional like war or triumph among past genocide, topics that are sexual in nature, topics that are political, topics that are humorous and even topics that are either ridiculous or sent in an eccentric manner. Anything goes, almost. The only time I’ve heard of a song disqualified for its content was back in 2009 when Georgia entered ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In.’ Many felt it referenced Russia’s Vladimir Putin especially since Georgia was part of the victorious Orange Revolution years earlier. The fact that the ESC was being held in Moscow that year made things that more complicated. There was one case in 2012 when the act for San Marino was to perform ‘The Facebook Song’ but couldn’t because it interfered with the Contest’s product placement rules. The song would be retitled ‘The Social Network Song.’
The Performance and Performers In A Nutshell:
There are some unbasic rules when it comes to submitting a country’s performer and/or performance. Some countries hold their own national song contest to determine the national entrant for the ESC that year and some have a board that picks the performer and the song. Most likely they are a citizen of the country but they don’t have to be. Past performers are allowed to return again, even if they’re a past winner, but Johnny Logan the only two-time winner as a performer.
Then there are the basic rules. The song must be no longer than three minutes in length. The limit of on-stage performers varies over the years but the current limit is six performers on stage at once, including dancers. Up until 1999, the song was to be orchestrated even if musicians were added along. Live music, even by artists performing on stage, has been banned since 2004. Vocals are all to be done live with no lip-syncing. The biggest thing however is that the song is to be completely original. No cover songs are allowed and no sampling of other records are allowed either, not even in rap entries. Recorded versions of the song are allowed to be released before the Contest or even the national contest but a release before September 1st of the year before the Contest would disqualify them. These eligibility rules have led to a number of entries in the past being disqualified.
Voting The Winner:
As the rules of the Contest are ever changing, so are the rules in declaring the winner. Starting with the topic of who decides the winner, the secret-ballot from the first Contest caused friction. Then from 1957 to 1962, it was ten member juries who viewed the Contest from their home country and called in their results. 1963 brought it to a twenty-member jury but was reduced back to ten from 1964 to 1970. Then from 1971 to 1973, there were juries of only two that were present at the actual contest to give points to the winners. In 1974, the format returned to juries staying at home to decide and call in the results. The number of jury members started at 11 but eventually rose to sixteen.
In 1996, it was noted how out of sync the ESC juries were with the record-buying public in terms of deciding winners. In 1997, televoting where viewers called in their favorites was introduced but used as an experiment given to five of the 25 countries at the Contest that year. In 1998, it was expanded to all countries except those that had weak telephone systems. 2001 and 2002 allowed the country’s respective broadcasting association to decide between televoting or a jury decision. The Contests from 2004 and 2008 were exclusively televoting. From 2009 to 2015, televoting and jury results were combined into a single score per country with the televoting result taking precedence if there was a tie. In 2015, it was the juries that took precedence.
Deciding the winners is harder to explain than the points system for the songs. From 1957 to 1961, juries were given a total of 10 points to divide among the performances they liked best. In 1962, juries gave 1 point for 3rd place, 2 for second or 3 for 1st. From 1964 to 1966, it was a point for 3rd, three points for 2nd and five points for third. 1967 marked the return of 10 points to divide however 1970 saw an introduction of tie-breaking rules after the four-way tie in 1969 which led to many countries respond by boycotting. From 1971 to 1973, the juries gave anywhere from 2 to 10 points per song. 1974 was a return to 10 points to divide.
However it was the 1975 Contest that would introduce a scoring format that has stuck since. Each country would rank their Top 10 but of course would not vote for their own country. The country they rank 10th would get one point, 9th would get two points, and so on until 8 points for 3rd place. The country they ranked second would be awarded 10 points and the country they ranked #1 would get 12 points. Since then, twelve points or douze points would be synonymous with Eurovision.
For This Year:
This year’s Contest will be held in the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. They were awarded the Contest upon the win of Mans Zelmerlow for his song ‘Heroes.’ In a rare turn of events, Zelmerlow will co-host the Contest with Petra Mede. Not that often the reigning champion co-hosts. It seems right that Sweden hosts as they have one of the biggest Eurovision legacies with a total of six wins. Only Ireland has won more with seven.
The Contest will be broadcast to 50 countries and can be viewed on LiveStream through the website eurovision.tv. The USA will have live broadcast of the final for the first time ever: on Cable channel Logo-TV. Draws were held months ago to decide who competes in the two semi-finals. The officials allocated the draw for geographical means to keep ‘neighbor voting,’ which I will reflect on later, down to a minimum. Most countries will have citizens of their own country as performers but Switzerland will again have a Canadian as a performer: Vancouverite Rykka with ‘The Last Of Our Kind.’ Romania wasn’t the only country to experience friction before this year’s Contest. Germany had to replace its entry because it soon came to light their originally entered performer had been vocal in the past of extreme right-wing views.
There’s the interval acts too: performances taking place while viewers place their televotes. Zelmerlow will perform his winning song from last year ‘Heroes’ during the interval of the first Semifinal held on Tuesday the 10th, the interval act for the second Semi on Thursday will be a dance ensemble and the interval act for Saturday’s Final will be Justin Timberlake performing ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from the movie Trolls. Interesting note is Timberlake co-wrote and co-produced the song with two Swedish songwriters: Shellback and Max Martin.
Also something new for this year’s Contest. You know how there’s always confusion with the 50/50 system of televoting and jury voting on which overrides in the case of ties. Well, introduces for the first time this year countries will deliver two sets of scores. Now both televoting and juries from each country will give their own separate one to twelve points. This should take away from the confusion and make the contest more even.
I’ll admit I like seeing the Contest. I was lucky to see it live on LiveStream in 2013 and 2014. I live in Canada and none of the networks will be showing the contest live. I will be too busy to watch any of the Contest live thanks to my work schedule and music rehearsal.
I can understand of the Contest’s greatness. It’s the world’s most watched non-sporting event with a wide array of performers of various countries performing their song to win over the rest of Europe. It’s excellent that it helped launch the careers of Celine Dion, ABBA, Bucks Fizz and Ruslana as well as a stepping stone for Julio Iglesias and Nana Mouskouri. It’s also been the stage for established acts like Toto Cutogno, Cliff Richard, Lulu and Engelbert Humperdinck. It has also unleashed some classic songs like ‘Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son,’ ‘Waterloo,’ ‘Making Your Mind Up,’ ‘Volare,’ ‘Love Is Blue (l’Amour Est Bleu),’ ‘Save All Your Kisses For Me,’ and ‘Euphoria.’
However I won’t deny the drawbacks of the Contest. I will admit there are some idiotic performances that rely too much on getting their gimmick to propel them to the win. In fact I hope I don’t sound bigoted but I strongly believe the wins of Israel’s Dana International in 1998 and Austria’s Conchita Wurst in 2014 were because of the hype of both being transgender. I’ll admit there are some songs and performances too eccentric to be real. I will also admit that often the winners are out of sync with the current trends in music. Even with the inclusion of televoting starting in 1997, the winning songs still don’t sound that current. I can even remember while teenpop ruled the late 90’s, early-2000’s worldwide and even in Europe, 1999’s winner was a schlager song from Sweden , 2000’s was a folksy rock song from Denmark and 2001’s was a calypso number from Estonia. Speaking of televoting, I will admit that even though countries can’t vote for their own performers, that hasn’t stopped them from giving top votes to performers from neighboring countries. Yeah, ‘neighbor voting’ has definitely been an issue with the Contest lately and has even questioned the credibility of televoting. I will admit there have been times I felt the song that came in second place was often better than the winning song. I will admit the Contest can propel the winning song to hit status internationally but not always. I will also admit that sometimes the Contest can end up being the peak of a performer’s career in most cases. I really learned a lot from the 2013 BBC show ‘How To Win Eurovision’ that was a show that showed all the idiocy that happens with the ESC but still showed why it was still important for the UK to get back on top. For the record, the UK’s fifth and last win was in 1997, their 23rd and last Top 3 finish was in 2002 and had all three of their last-place finishes in this 21st century. Yes, their legacy of five wins and 15 second-places is definitely a thing of the past.
I will admit to the negative but I still believe it is an enjoyable show to see. I won’t deny some acts try to gimmick their way to the win. However there have been many times even in the era of televoting that the less-gimmicky songs like 2007’s ‘Molitva’ and 2010’s ‘Satellite’ have gone on to win. Even 2012’s ‘Euphoria,’ which some people compare to David Guetta’s ‘Titanium,’ could not only win but burn up the dance floors worldwide too. I myself welcome gimmicks but only as long as they’re not stupid, not too weird and not too distracting from the song itself or could even boost the song. Hey, 2006’s winner ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ had a gimmick that made the song. I still like seeing it on YouTube. Basically the Contest was to focus on the song. More often than not, it is the song that rises to the top. Even last year’s winner ‘Heroes’ was a song with a good message with a stage performance from Zelmerlow with an interactive backdrop that worked with his movements and help make for a stage show that helped him win. Actually the Contest is less eccentric than it was seven years ago. I guess those no-nonsense songs that won are sending a message.
The Eurovision Song Contest was originally created in 1956 to bridge gaps in Europe that was healing after World War II. 60 years later, Europe is more unified and there’s less international animosity than ever. I don’t know if the Contest actually achieved all that in its 60 years but it does make for one entertaining show!
DISCLAIMER: Okay, I know I’m late in reviewing a lot of movies, including this one. I’m hoping to do some catching up in this time. So please bear with me.
James ‘Whitey’ Bulger is a man of infamy. Black Mass is a movie that attempts to reveal what type of person Bulger was and how he was able to get away with what he did all this time.
It’s 1975. The streets of South Boston are ruled by James ‘Whitey’ Bulger and his Irish-American Winter Hill Gang with Stephen Flemmi as his right-hand man, Kevin Weeks as his rising rookie and Johnny Martorano as his merciless hitman. However it’s rivaled by the Angiullo brothers who have ties to the New England Mafia family.
In the middle of this, former FBI Agent John Connolly returns to Boston in hopes of stopping the Angiullo brothers and does the tricky task of trying to get Whitey’s help to do so. Besides Whitey and brother Billy Bulger, who’s the president of the Massachusetts State Senate, are childhood friends. At first, Whitey is reluctant to be an informant but agrees after one of his Winter Hill Gang members is gunned down.
No kidding having Whitey as an informant for an FBI agent is touchy stuff and it even causes suspicion from Connolly’s boss. However it becomes a case where Bulger is the one pulling Connolly’s strings as he uses Connolly’s ‘protection’ for covering his crimes. Whitey becomes more violent after his six year-old son dies of an allergic reaction to aspirin. He even gains more success in achieving FBI control in terms of trying to down the Angiullos. Connolly however becomes more attached to Whitey which interferes with his marriage.
However the bond between Bulger and Connolly reach a turning point as Whitey orders one of his men to kill two men associated with a scheme Whitey was to profit over. One man in whitey’s ring, Brian Halloran, comes across as untrustworthy and senses him to be a possible rat. Fearing for his life, Halloran goes to the FBI for help but to no avail. Connolly informs Whitey of Halloran’s sayings and Halloran is killed.
Bulger’s lust for blood and his own menacing behavior only grow over time and it leads to a downfall in his relationship with Connolly. Over time a new district attorney, Fred Wyshak, is hired in Boston. Despite Connolly’s attempt to befriend the ‘bulldog’ attorney, Wyshak refuses and attempts to have Bulger arrested. Eventually the secrets are unraveled thanks to the help of the Boston Globe which leads to the arrests of Connolly and Bulger’s three other men. Bulger however is successful in avoiding arrest of his own however he would be arrested in 2011 after 16 years ‘on the run.’
I’m sure what most people would be interested in seeing when they watch this film is yet another character played by Johnny Depp. The weird thing is about how unrecognizable he comes across with his balding hair and blue eyes. However I’m sure he was chosen because of how he could embody the character of Whitey with his criminal mentality and his personal demons both on the street and within himself. Mind you Whitey was quite the character in real life to give himself his own exile before ultimately being brought to justice only as he was in his 80’s. Some may find Johnny’s hair and make-up rather distracting but it doesn’t take away from the story.
This is a story of intrigue. Those who know the story of Whitey Bulger, or even those who only know the name but not the whole story, will take an interest in why Whitey carried this all out and why an FBI agent was willing to assist. No doubt the story is mainly about Whitey. However the story is about Connolly too. It makes one wonder why a childhood friend would be so loyal to the point he’d be willing to go against his job in order to help him out despite the fact he’s carrying out such hideous crimes. No doubt the theme of loyalty is very present in the film as it is a common fact that loyalty to family and friends is something valued greatly in Boston. The theme of loyalty comes to the point where we see a scene of Bulger on the run but not before thanking Billy just before he and the other men are sentenced.
The make-up of Depp as Bulger may get a lot of attention but the highlight of the film was his performance of a man who is smart but troubled and very easy to infuriate. Depp also did a good job of conveying Bulger’s growing anger and personal motives in his carrying out in the crime activities but he also did a good job in showcasing Whitey’s mind in why Bulger felt it was right in doing all these hideous crimes and why he needed his men to carry it out and an FBI to be ahead of the game. Even showing how the accidental death of his son would be the turning point in Bulger and his lust for control and vengeance adds to the story and the character. The film rested predominantly on the story of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger but it was Depp’s ability to show Whitey the person that made the story work at its best.
Sure, Johnny Depp carried the film but the film did feature other good supporting performances as well like that of Joel Edgerton as Connolly whose loyalty is questioned, Benedict Cumberbatch as Billy. The performances of the wives caught in the middle–Erica McDermott as Mary Bulger and Julianne Nicholson as Marianne Connolly– added to the human element of the story and kept it from being your typical hard-story crime drama.
This actually Scott Cooper’s third film as a director. The former actor’s best film making feat up to now has been Crazy Heart about a faded country star on a comeback. I don’t know if it’s as good as Crazy Heart but this is a very good film done by Cooper and is definitely his commercial breakthrough. Writers Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk did a good job of keeping it from being your typical mob-leader story.
Black Mass isn’t simply about an infamous crime leader. It’s also about the codes of loyalty some people would do for their friends, even if it meant violating their duties as an FBI. Very insightful and full of intense moments.
Into The Woods is the latest Broadway musical to hit the big screen. The question is does it entertain and charm well enough for moviegoers?
The film begins just as the fairy tales do so: Little Red Riding Hood is about to go to grandma’s with her basket, Jack has to sell the cow as she’s getting old, Cinderella is being mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters, a lonely couple want a child, and Rapunzel is imprisoned in a castle by the Witch. The Witch puts a request on the couple. You first thing it’s just Rapunzel’s hair but she also asks for a red cape, a white cow and a golden slipper.
As they search the stories proceed: Riding Hood is lured off the path by a wolf, Jack goers to market but will only accept an offer that would mean the return of his cow, Cinderella arrives at the ball. However the couple find their way into the story or pass by it: Jack receives magic beans from the husband, the wife tries to swipe Cinderella’s slipper off her feet after running from the ball, the husband passes the tower Rapunzel is kept captive in, and both notice Riding Hood’s cape.
After a series of misadventures, the couple has all the items needed to produce the spell to receive their baby, all the fairy tale characters have their expected happy endings and the witch is able to regain her beauty with the potion. However the ‘Happily ever after’ endings don’t end up being so happy after all. The Baker worries he might end up being a poor father to his son just like his own father, Cinderella loses her charm for prince charming and the lavish life with it, Rapunzel is scared by the outside world, the witch loses her powers with her returned youth and Jack is pursued by the giant’s wife –ahem, widow– who came down to earth via a second beanstalk and demands Jack or she will destroy the village and its inhabitants.
Soon everything goes opposite to what’s planned. Casualties include the Baker’s wife who fell for Prince Charming before her accidental death, Rapunzel as she ran off forever with her prince, Riding Hood’s mother and grandmother, and Jack’s mother. The latter three killed in the Giant’s Wife’s rampage. On top of it, Cinderella and Prince Charming part ways. At first those still standing–the Baker, Cinderella, Jack and Red Riding Hood– think that Jack should be offered back only for them to blame each other. Nevertheless they do work things out, defend against the Giant and there’s the genesis of a new fairy tale the Baker reads to his son.
I have to say as a musical, Into The Woods was probably not the first time fairy tales have been mixed together to surround a main plot. It’s not even the first in motion pictures. Remember Shrek? What it needed to do was stay true to the fables while mixing the story of the baker and his wife as well as the haunting of the Witch during the first half and then allow for a believable twist to the fables we all know to occur in the second half. Even though the twist occurred starting with the giant’s wife appearing, all the twists of the stories had to appear sensible and pertinent to the original story. Some of the twists were very surprising and even tragic but it did come together in the end. That’s how the stage musical of Into The Woods worked.
The next trick was to bring Sondheim’s musical to the screen. Putting a stage musical to screen is a very difficult thing. There’s a lot of decision-making on what from the stage play to leave in and what to leave out. That would fall into the hands of director Rob Marshall and scriptwriter James Lapine who wrote the original Broadway version. However when it’s Disney that buys the rights, you think it would be a big break but there was an added challenge. Naturally with this being a musical about a mish mash of fairy tales, Disney would want to make this a family film and that could be intrusive to the control Sondheim and Lapine have over the play. This was not the case as both Sondheim and Lapine insisted to Disney that any changes would have to be approved by them. Even then, they would have to work within time constraints and keep it to a respectable running length.
In the end, Sondheim, Marshall, Lapine and the production company were able to create a finished adaptation 125 minutes in length that brings the musical to a big screen audience with big-name stars and additional musical talents. I myself cannot compare the film to the stage version since I’ve never seen the stage version. I will start by saying it doesn’t surprise me that Disney acquired the rights to adapting the musical to film as Disney is world famous for bringing fairy tales to life. I will say that one can do a good job differentiating the actors who know how to do musical acting and those who don’t. You just know it. There were some like Chris Pine and Mackenzie Mauzy who struggled, there were some like Billy Magnussen and James Corden who could have done a better job, there are some like Daniel Huttlestone, Lilla Crawford and Tracey Ullman who know how to deliver both singing and acting and then there are actors like Emily Blunt and Meryl Streep who are able to deliver a performance in a musical. Meryl was especially excellent as she had the role that would hold the film all together. Musical film is another genre she can add to her list of accomplishments.
I will say that the film adaptation did very well in terms of special effects and set design to give the fell like there really was one terrain in the world where all the original stories happen at once. Colleen Atwood once again knows how to create the right costumes for the movie. The music was not a problem at all as the songs were well-sung and fit the scenes well. The film also did a good job of handling the story where all the fables get their twist in the end. However the film does leave some noticeable things out. There are some times where it felt the story had key scenes left out like the big bad wolf living in the tree about to eat Red or Jack in the giant’s house or Cinderella’s fairy godmother creating her clothes for the ball. There were even some times when one could easily forget that this is a musical and it would take a song some time later to remind you. There were even a couple of scenes that made you wonder if it should have been kept in. I can’t think of a better way to do it but I’m sure there are areas that could have been done better. Rob Marshall did a very good job of directing. It’s fair to say this is his best work since Chicago but there are some areas I feel he could have been better, like not having us forget this is a musical in some areas. It may not completely be his fault as the script was written by James Lepine. Lepine may be an accomplished scriptwriter and director in musical theatre and this may be Lepine’s best musical ever but somehow he could have done a better job at a stage-to-screen adaptation.
The film adaptation of Into The Woods has been long awaited. Now that it’s here, it’s imperfect but very enjoyable and entertaining.
DISCLAIMER: Hi. This is my second-last summer movie review where I’m playing catch-up on my reviews. When I give my review of Harry Potter, I will finally be all caught up. In the meantime enjoy yet another late summer movie review.
There should be a “Captain” in there somewhere.
As I said before, the summer movie season is usually about the tried-and-true making big box office results. It’s at the box office where we learn if it’s tried-and-true or tried-and-tired. Up for this summer is the fourth installment of the Pirates of The Caribbean series: On Stranger Tides. Returning is Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow, his most popular role of all-time. The big questions are does Jack still have the winning charm at the box office? Also does the latest Pirates adventure still have what it takes to thrill and charm and keep the Pirates phenomenon active?
This time Jack’s quest is the Fountain Of Youth. King George wants Jack to guide it to beat the Spanish. The one surprise is that his nemesis from the first movie, Hector Barbossa, is now a privateer in the British navy and now heading it. Already the intrigue would start for the die-hard POTC fans. Another interesting thing that he would be foiled by an imposter of himself: former lover Angelica who is Blackbeard’s daughter.
The part of the mission involving capturing a mermaid’s tear and a captive falling in love with a mermaid is probably the only thing in the movie that’s even close to fresh. The tear being collected by Blackbeard starts the rivalry scenario all over again. The main rivalry in the movie is different, if not unique. This time Jack Sparrow and Barbossa join forces to defeat Blackbeard. Barbossa has a grudge match of his own against Blackbeard for his amputated leg. Meanwhile the Spanish battle the Pirates for the sake of killing the fountain because they believe it’s cursed. Often rivalry upon rivalry upon rivalry gets too confusing unless it makes sense. Not here..
One glimpse at the storyline is that you could easily see it was hatched together in an instant. We see the typical formulas of the Pirates movies: Jack being his flamboyant cocky self, rival pirates, lands to conquer, new nemeses and new loves. This has been common ever since the first Pirates movie burst on. Its winning formula is now starting to become stale and predictable. Even the character of Jack Sparrow has lost his charm over the years. When he first arrived, he was arrogant, eccentric but charismatic and was able to charm the audience. If it weren’t for Jack’s personality, the first Pirates of The Caribbean movie could have been seen as a joke. Now Jack looks like a rehash that’s getting tired out and only tries to be entertaining. Penelope Cruz plays the typical lover of Jack. Villains are practically predictable. Often when an action scene or a battle comes on, I often question “Who didn’t expect that?” The only things close to being fresh was the mermaids and the surprise of Barbossa being an ally of Jack instead of a rival. Outside of that, it remains formulaic.
As for the business, it’s already showing signs of waning. The first movie, Dead Man’s Chest is the biggest grosser with almost $425 million. The follow-up, The Curse Of The Black Pearl had a record-setting opening weekend but its overall gross failed to top Chest. On Stranger Tides is the lowest-grossing of the Pirates movies with only $240 million. The future of the Pirates franchise should make a lot of Disney execs think whether the fifth movie is worth it or not.
Pirates Of The Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is a movie that will only excite Pirates fans at the most. It offers little freshness or anything unpredictable. So unless you’re a fan of Jack Sparrow, I believe it’s not worth it.
Oh yeah, just to let you know you’ll only have one more summer movie review after this. Then I’m finally caught up.
There’s one thing about really bad movies. Most of which get lost into oblivion. Many bad Hollywood movies get to be laughing stocks forever. And then there are some that develop a cult following often as audience participation movies. The most legendary is the Rocky Horror Picture Show: the raunchy musical that made no sense and lives on as an audience participation free-for-all. There hasn’t been a movie that could replace the Rocky Horror Picture Show or even rank well with it. There was an attempt from 1995’s Showgirls many years earlier but it didn’t pan out. The latest one to enter the flock is 2003’s The Room. It has developed a huge cult following too. But will it replace the Rocky Horror Picture Show in terms of being an audience participation phenom?
The film was written, directed and produced by Tommy Wiseau who also plays the lead character Johnny. The film stars as Johnny comes home to his fiancee Lisa. He’s a successful banker with a loving relationship with Lisa who’s a successful real estate agent. His young friend Denny, an orphaned kid with a troubled upbringing, comes to visit but has to leave because of… you get the idea. After Johnny leaves, we learn Lisa is bored with Johnny and is more interested in Mark, his best friend. Lisa and Mark end up making more than love, so to speak. Lisa’s mother insists that she marries Johnny because of his stability. Later Johnny doesn’t get the promotion promised to him. Johnny later learns of talk from Lisa’s best friend that things aren’t going right and start suspecting things. Johnny soon finds out that Denny has been getting into drugs. Not even Johnny’s friend Peter, a psychologist, can help him with his issues. Finally Johnny’s surprise birthday party happens and the truth comes out. At the end Johnny commits suicide and Mark tells Lisa how selfish she is over Johnny’s dead bloody body.
Okay you can draw out your own conclusion through my description of the movie. But the key ingredient towards its awfulness has to be the lines. Laughing moments happen more often than they should. Playing football happens at the most awkward times. ‘Future wife’ is said instead of ‘fiancee.’ “Everything’s going to to be fine” is uttered more often than it should. But the real creme de la creme of lousiness comes with the lines uttered only once: “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” “I feel like I’m sitting on an atomic bomb waiting for it to go off.” “Everybody betrayed me! I fed up with the world.” “You betrayed me… you that good… you, you’re just a chicken, chirp-chirp-chirp-chirp, cheep, cheep.” “Why Lisa, why? Please talk to me! Please!” Yeah, that bad. If the bad lines weren’t enough, there were also fight scenes that looked like they weren’t coordinated at all, cinematography that was bad, story lines that made no sense at all, and love-making scenes set to R&B music that came across as cheesy as hell. Even the end scene as people cry over Johnny’s dead body leaves the audience laughing. All this made over a budget of $6,000,000? And to think Tommy first tried to market it as a drama but then marketed it as a black comedy. That adds to its weirdness it’s already garnered.
You’d think a movie like that would be too insufferable to watch, right? Well some people somewhere sometime ago turned this into an audience participation movie and that’s where its success came. People dress up as their favorite characters. People throw things around like spoons, food and footballs during certain scenes. People say “Hi…” and “Bye…” whenever a character enters or exits. People hurl insults and lewd comments during the scenes. People shout “Go, go, go!” during the landscape shots. People also reenact the cheesy lines as they come during the movie. It’s a lot like Rocky Horror. Over at the screening I saw at Vancouver’s Rio Theatre, there was one host dressed up as Tommy Wiseau reenacting his voice and holding an impression contest before the movie was aired. The theatre was filled with mostly twentysomethings; some dressed up as the characters. In the end, the movie is not the same without the audience participation. Sure you could watch it alone on your DVD and laugh but it’s not as fun without the crowd.
It’s already garnered a cult following in the last few years. Will The Room ever achieve the same cult status as Rocky Horror? I doubt it. It hasn’t stood the test of time that Rocky Horror has. The Room’s test of time is something only the future will tell. Also while I’ve never heard of any cast or crew from Rocky Horror often showing up at screenings, occasionallyTommy Wiseau will make a guest appearance at certain screenings of The Room. He wasn’t here in Vancouver, at least this time.
In conclusion, it’s no wonder that The Room is labeled the Citizen Kane of bad movies. The cult following of audience participation is a celebration of its lousiness and makes for a fun night out at the movies. Prepare to laugh like you never laughed before.