A Star is Born (2018)

A Star is Born 2018.png

Music is essentially 12 notes between any octave – 12 notes and the octave repeat. It’s the same story told over and over, forever. All any artist can offer this world is how they see those 12 notes. That’s it. Seasoned musician country rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) discovers and falls in love with struggling singer/songwriter Ally (Lady Gaga) when she performs in a drag bar. She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight, bringing her on stage at one of his gigs to perform a song she’s written and he has arranged. He feels sorry for her when she tells him she is constantly told, You sound great, but you don’t look so great. Jackson is playing better than ever despite his crippling tinnitus which means his ears buzz every time he’s onstage and his hearing is diminishing, while Ally shines in the light of his stardom. As Ally’s career takes off when she’s taken under his wing and then makes a deal with the help of her nasty manager Rez (Rafi Gavron) the personal side of their relationship is breaking down. The self-sabotaging Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons, drinking, drugging, fighting with his older brother and caretaker Bobby (Sam Elliott) who taught him everything he knew while Ally performs to adoring fans and he struggles with his hearing problem … Look, talent comes everywhere, but having something to say and a way to say it so that people listen to it, that’s a whole other bag. And unless you get out and you try to do it, you’ll never know. That’s just the truth. The fourth incarnation of this story under this title and a remake of the 1976 pop star version, this is an adaptation of a story that first came to the screen under the title What Price Hollywood? a cautionary tale about movie stardom. Electrifying and enervating by turns, I changed my mind about this film probably three times while viewing it. It hits all the screenwriting marks – one hour into running time, things begin to change and at minute sixty-five Ally is taking over and the last hour is rife with issues. A lot of the problems are summed up by the term naturalistic – something that could be described as a substitute for acting technique by one half of the duo at the story’s centre:  scenes are too long and you long for some reaction shots. Jackson’s earthiness is juxtaposed with the savvy pop Ally manufactures at her manager’s behest.  These people are performing for very different audiences but the film is truly at its height when they are duetting despite their contrasting aesthetics. The last seventy-five minutes drag rather repetitively with the suicide scene and its inevitability triggered by Jack’s admission to the psychiatrist that he first attempted it aged 13 which just indicates what we already know. The Saturday Night Live performance scene is poorly judged. The downward spiral needed one more story beat – to show that Jackson had some will to live:  the appeal of this Evergreen story lies in the will to power transformation of the ugly duckling into the swan while her progenitor dies to make way for her celebrity. It seems too easy for one talent to surrender to another. It gains traction however from the powerful songs which were largely co-written by the stars (with other writers including Lukas Nelson, Willie’s son) and their performance in live settings as they tell the story of the relationship and the diverging destinations of the protagonists. It’s all about her really – as we see from the clever titles in blood red echoing Garland and the final shot, a massive close up on Ally’s jolie laide face. It’s more than forty years since the last incarnation which means we missed the Nineties version and one of the issues here which is lightly touched upon is how the nature of celebrity has altered through social media and paparazzi in an entirely new century – it’s handled just enough to remain cinematic without horrible phone screens and irritating typage appearing (thank you to the debutant director for this mercy). Their differing styles are heightened as he looks from his old school perspective at the dancers Rez has deployed to give Ally mass marketability onstage:  it’s not just popularity she wants, it’s world pop domination. What we know about the woman for whom the story now exists is inscribed in the screenplay: Lady Gaga’s own physical attributes – the nose job was covered, oh, a decade ago?! in her real life and it of course alludes to Streisand in the same role; while she (sort of) protests about photos that don’t even look like me and we have seen for ourselves Gaga’s gradually altering appearance offscreen, meat dresses notwithstanding; and her appeal to Little Monsters is managed through her association with drag queens and her makeover with icky red hair (she objects to the suggestion that she turn blonde – why?) and the content of her lyrics; while her voracious desire for multi-platform fame is given a cover by bringing on a vicious British manager to be the bad guy. The central mismatched lovers find their balance in their family issues – with Andrew Dice Clay coming off like a nice version of Amy Winehouse’s dad complete with his delusions of Sinatra-style infamy. Cooper’s problematically deep speaking voice for the role is actually addressed in the script when he tells big brother Sam Elliott I stole your voice which is both an in-joke and a nod to the audience’s familiarity with the western star’s growl;  Cooper’s self-effacing performance – which of course makes Gaga’s star shine brighter – makes this hard to endure since his alcoholic demise is hard-wired into our cultural DNA and sometimes it’s quite impossible to understand what he’s trying to say – ironically, since, his message here is, you need to make your voice heard. It’s well played because the pair are playing off each other’s inspiring talent albeit the vampirism quickly feels one-sided.  Still, it’s quite a double act, no matter how you feel about them. An imperfect but striking piece of work. Written by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters (who says he was inspired by what happened to Kurt Cobain), adapted from Moss Hart’s 1954 screenplay which was an inspiration for the 1976 screenplay by John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion and Frank Pierson.  The 1937 screenplay was by William Wellman and Robert Carson while the original screenplay about star-crossed lovers colliding, What Price Hollywood?, was written by Adela Rogers St Johns and Louis Stevens. Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die

Advertisements

A Woman’s Secret (1949)

A Womans Secret.jpg

I’ll admit mister that I’ve heard stories that make less sense than that. Popular singer Marian Washburn (Maureen O’Hara) suddenly and inexplicably loses her voice, causing a shake-up at the nightclub where she performs. Her worried but loyal piano playe Luke Jordan (Melvyn Douglas) helps to promote a new, younger singer Susan Caldwell (Gloria Grahame) to temporarily replace Marian. Susan finds some early acclaim after being coached and improved, expanding her very limited range, but decides to leave the club after a few performances. Soon after Susan quits, she is shot and Marian becomes a suspect, telling the police that she shot Susan in a fury when she told her she was giving up singing, forfeiting the future she herself could have had. Luke counts on Detective Fowler (Jay C. Flippen) being able to prove Marian’s innocence Mrs. Fowler never seems to realise that crime goes on twenty-four hours a day.  Adapted from Vicki Baum’s Mortgage on Life by producer and screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, this was Nicholas Ray’s debut feature, although They Live By Night was released first. The constant flashbacks make more of a mystery than there really is, with O’Hara particularly good as the woman who is basically scorned – by another woman. Their contrasting performing styles carry the film. There are some nice visual touches but hardly of the variety that mark out Ray’s later work and this is rather a perverse noir rendered more straight backstage melodrama by virtue of the presence of Douglas who never lets things get too strange. Mary Philips – the first Mrs Humphrey Bogart – is terrific as Mrs Fowler, the person who gets to the bottom of it all in a story that throws up some bright dialogue.  I’ve told you we’re going to keep talking about this until we stumble on something or other that will clear it up

Curtain Up (1952)

Curtain Up

One should never do a play written by a woman, they always hold you up. In an English provincial town a second-rate repertory company assembles at the Theatre Royal  to rehearse the following week’s play, a melodrama titled Tarnished Gold. Harry (Robert Morley) the hot-tempered Producer, is highly critical of the play, which has been foisted on him and is unenthusiastic about its prospects. The cast includes Jerry (Michael Medwin) a young and sometimes keen actor, Maud (Olive Sloan) a widowed actress who was once famous on the West End stage, Sandra (Kay Kendall) who is waiting for (and receives) a call from a London producer who calls her instead of her philandering and semi-alcoholic husband (Liam Gaffney), and Avis (Joan Rice) a timid young girl who is quickly realising that acting is not for her. The cast is equally unenthusiastic about the play. Little progress is made. ‘Jacko’ (Lloyd Lamble) the director, is at his wits end and threatens to resign, his regular habit when things go wrong. Things can’t get any worse but then the author of the play, Jeremy St Claire turns up and she turns out to be  a woman – Catherine Beckwith (Margaret Rutherford).  She insists on ‘sitting at the feet’ of the Director. She and Harry are quickly at each other’s throats. Harry tears up most of Act 1 and tells her to do what Edgar Wallace did – disappear into a phone kiosk for a couple of hours and come back with forty new pages. He storms angrily off stage, falling into the pit and injuring himself, literally losing the run of things as his fantastical ramblings take hold. Despite the forebodings of the cast, Miss Beckwith insists on taking over the rehearsal according to her own ideas. She recasts the play as a period piece and introduces new stage techniques. How will it work out? … I think I see the beginning of a plot on page twenty-seven. And we are on page one. Oh joy! Three of my favourite British actors in one film! Morley, Rutherford and Kendall, who don’t have a huge amount to work with in this adaptation of Philip King’s play On Monday Next by Jack Davies and Michael Pertwee (brother of the greatest Doctor Who!) but who do have some sly repartee and physical comedy to play.  Morley/Harry refers to a production of Rebecca – in reality he and Rutherford were in the original London stage production, with Rutherford playing Mrs Danvers. Imagine that! Their clash here is very amusing. Stringer Davis, Rutherford’s offscreen husband, turns up as Avis’ dad just in time to see Jerry kiss his daughter. Kendall has some mini-drama over her husband’s infidelity but it’s her career that’s in the ascendant while he thinks real acting is for cinema – which makes this even more of a mockery of popular theatre. It’s pretty thin stuff, only of interest for the sparky players. The impact is elevated with a Malcolm Arnold score and it’s directed by Ralph Smart.

A Double Life (1947)

A Double Life 1947.jpg
I wanted to be something better than I was – an actor, a real actor. Highly regarded middle-aged Broadway stage actor Anthony ‘Tony’ John (Ronald Colman) has a violent temper, which leads his actress wife, Brita (Signe Hasso), to leave him.  He can never escape the roles he plays and lives with them night and day and whether they’re comic or dramatic, he’s tough to be around. It’s a living nightmare not a holiday John’s producer Max Lasker (Philip Loeb) wants them to play in Othello together and it’s hugely successful, running for two years, but the strain drives John insane, to the point of killing his mistress, Pat Kroll (Shelley Winters). John does not remember the incident, but is forced to face his actions when promoter Bill Friend (Edmond O’Brien) uses the murder to publicise the play… I had to tear myself apart and put myself together againThe first of four collaborations between husband and wife writing team Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin with director George Cukor, this has the great production values typical in the post-war period, stuffed with atmospheric locations and design, all New York taxis and elevated trains, with great music by Miklós Rosza and a wonderful sense of performance inscribed in the titles sequence when the curtains are raised. Suddenly you’re startled by the sound of your own voice Theatre was a wonderful addition to the film noir genre (the following year’s The Velvet Touch is another great example) and the complexity of Shakespeare’s hero is perfect for an actor on the verge. The screenwriters were both veterans of Broadway and would become specialists in marriage dramas, famed for their notions of marriage between equals (they did the Hepburn-Tracy comedies Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike) and here Hasso is a perfectly reasonable ex-wife, unable to cope with the vicissitudes of her husband’s mental trauma. Now he’s hearing voices that nobody else does. Kill me tomorrow, let me live tonight! Ronald Colman won the Academy Award for his performance, confusing Shakespeare with his daily life and almost killing Brita on stage. All the time you’re caught and there’s no time to change your mind  The stresses of preparing and rehearsing are brilliantly caught by the writers whose intimate knowledge of that arena is acutely conveyed.  Jealousy – find it – hold it – live it- Jealousy! A very young Winters is marvellous in her first big screen role as the waitress who takes his fancy and comes to a very sticky end. In their first scene together (when they meet in the restaurant) Winters did everything wrong and they did 96 takes. Colman took her for lunch and chatted to her casually, asking about her background. Afterwards she did the scene perfectly. She credited Colman with probably saving her career. You’re two men now, grappling for control. You and Othello. With Whit Bissell, Ray Collins and Millard Mitchell among the cast, this is tastily played. (Watch closely for Paddy Chayefsky in an uncredited role as a photographer and the first screen Tarzan, Elmo Lincoln plays a detective, also uncredited).  The final scenes, when reality and illusion blur so terribly, bring everything to a suitably tragic conclusion. The warring poles of the drama are figured in Milton Krasner’s luminous monochrome cinematography, the light and shade of two opposing worlds chiming their dreadful song. Edited by former child actor and future director Robert Parrish. I don’t believe in myself but I expect others to believe in me

This is Bob Hope (2017) (TVM)

This is Bob Hope American Masters.jpg

The PBS series American Masters tackles the most influential comic of them all, London-born Leslie Townes Hope, aka Bob. Narrated by Billy Crystal, reading from Hope’s diaries, this commences with difficult stuff:  Woody Allen addresses the star’s Republicanism and the film is bookended with another thorny issue – his hopeless philandering, which his adopted children admit their mother knew about and tolerated as long as nothing was brought home. The bulk of the film however is a compelling story of child poverty, reform school and clawing his way from Cleveland to Broadway, through vaudeville, singing and dancing, until he found his niche MC’ing shows and getting a break on radio until comedy shorts and Hollywood beckoned in 1934. He basically developed the first standup routine and specialised in topical jokes. He became in demand to the point that he needed writers to supply him with gags. They needed a character to build the shtick around so the ‘type’ was a cowardly, skirt-chasing braggart – not unlike Hope in real life. It’s a persona that’s much-imitated and Woody Allen’s work exemplifies this but he declares of his inspiration, ‘He’s just more gifted’. Hope’s writers? Guys like Mel Shavelson and Larry Gelbart.  Dick Cavett suggests that Hope’s vocal tone is responsible for his impact:  ‘the very sound of his voice made you laugh.’ Brooke Shields contributes, ‘He could do more with a look or a glance than most of us could do with a monologue.’ His signature song, ‘Thanks for the Memory’ was a rare moment of emotion;  while his one dramatic performance showed he had acting chops too. He had the number one radio show in 1941 and throughout the war years, when he brought an entourage to the fringes of the combat zones to entertain the troops, a lifelong avocation doing 57 tours in 50 years. On radio, on the screen with Bing Crosby in the Road movies or on TV specials, he conquered all the main entertainment media and made a fortune through canny investments – a fact he was advised to tackle head-on by joking about it. Filled with marvellous footage, newsreel, photographs, clips and interviews (including Kermit, Leonard Maltin, Conan O’Brien and Margaret Cho), this is an essential history of an innovator, written, produced and directed in a zippy style by John Scheinfeld.

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

A Hard Days Night.jpg

Get me a bottle of milk and some tranquilisers. Screenwriter Alun Owen and director Richard Lester’s semi-documentary, wholly New Wave account of a day in the life of the world’s biggest band works wonderfully.  Shot in glistening monochrome by the inventive Gilbert Taylor the Beatles are on a train with Paul’s bolshie Irish grandfather (Wilfrid Brambell) who is ‘very clean,’ as everyone keeps remarking. Hounded by their fans, they are performing on a TV show directed by Victor Spinetti while their put-upon manager Norm (Norman Rossington) and road manager Shake (John Junkin) try to corral this travelling circus as Grandpa keeps going missing, showing up variously in a casino and a police station. Taylor and the five camera operators run around with Arriflexes capturing the minutiae of the band’s characters who are defined in smart exchanges and incidents, with wonderfully droll moments of mockery, self- and otherwise.  The resulting freedom accorded Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr adds to the sense of  naturalism and reality. The visual wit is complemented by the auditory, with overdubbing and non-synchronous sound combining to create an overwhelming atmosphere of effervescent fun and immediacy:  these guys are young and pulpy and enjoying their first brush with fame and their caustic, cheeky chappie Scouse personalities come across extraordinarily. That enjoyment wouldn’t last (see Ron Howard’s Eight Days a Week) but these indelible images contributed to their myth. You probably know the songs … Edited by John Jympson.

Black Swan (2010)

Black Swan.jpg

The only person standing in your way is you.  Featured dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young NYC ballerina whose passion for the dance rules every facet of her life which is rigidly controlled at home by her disappointed domineering single mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who says she gave up everything to have Nina (but she never made it out of the corps). When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for their opening production of Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice, perfect for the role of the White Swan. She has competition in newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) however:  she personifies the Black Swan – her look, her clothing, her behaviour are literally delicate Nina’s polar opposite. As rivalry between the two dancers transforms into a twisted friendship and then into a fiercer rivalry as Lily is cast as Nina’s alternate, Nina’s dark side gradually emerges … Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film states its themes in the first frames:  a battle to the death onstage and then a hallucinatory trip tunnelling into the dark underground of New York City’s underbelly on the subway – a kind of diabolism seems writ large from the off. This psychological horror’s most recent comparator is probably Jacob’s Ladder and that’s three decades old.  But it’s really a film about femininity. The sheer repulsive physicality of it is offputting and not for the squeamish:  the bulimic purging; the bloodied squashed misshapen feet; ripping off of cuticles; continuous self-harming – Nina’s long nails tear at her shoulder and then she sees feathers sprouting in the holes; licking a spot of cake frosting constitutes a meal;  and when Beth takes the knife Nina has returned and stabs herself in the face. The sheer proliferation of close ups of skin is revolting. It’s also in the little things – Nina thinking everyone is talking about her (they are); the lights being switched off when she needs to rehearse;  the piano accompanist refusing to stay late; the need to please the director – when he asks her about her sexual experience and tells her to masturbate and she wakes up and does it in her bed only to find Mom in the chair beside her … Now that’s horrifying! The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both  Nina’s fragile mind is devastated by the pressure to perform with feeling rather than mere technical skill and first she thinks she sees herself everywhere in the form of a double – behind her own reflection, walking towards her in the subway – and her mind becomes fragmented in her own image. Then she sees … Lily. Lily the Black Swan. Lily who smokes, drinks, takes drugs and then goes down on her. Or does she?  The lines between dream and reality are blurred. Portman is great as the ingenue who needs to please and we are reminded of The Red Shoes, that classic balletomane’s film, and there are echoes of that madness and drive for perfection everywhere. Hershey, Kunis and Ryder are no less good in their supporting roles, buffeting the central thematic, the narrative’s corps de ballet. This is about obsession and we follow Nina right over the other side and into out and out madness and disbelief.  The climax brings everything together in the most devastating, logical fashion. Performance is all.  Mad, crazed and melodramatic, this is absolutely on the money when it comes to female (and mother-daughter) rivalry and is literally a danse macabre.  Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin.

Meet Me Tonight (1952)

Meet Me Tonight theatrical

Three short stories by Noel Coward comprise this film. The Red Peppers: The constant squabbling between married song and dance team Lily (Kay Walsh) and George Pepper (Ted Ray) takes a turn when their co-workers begin carping, too and they get more than they bargained for when they complain. Fumed Oak:  Henry Gow (Stanley Holloway) reaches the end of his rope with his nagging wife (Betty Ann Davies), tyrannical mother-in-law (Mary Merrall) and his hopeless adenoidal misery of a daughter (Dorothy Gordon) announcing his plans for escape. Ways and Means:  High society fraudsters Stella (Valerie Hobson) and Toby Cartwright (Nigel Patrick) prove to be the guests from hell and it takes the ingenuity of chauffeur and burglar Murdoch (Jack Warner) to sort them out for their hostess Olive (Jessie Royce Landis) after their plan to rob her proves an insult too far… Adapted by Noël Coward from his own one-act plays (Tonight at 8.30) and directed by Anthony Pelissier this is very much of its time and the viciousness of Henry Gow towards his family might be personal to Coward but plays a little differently today. There is little trace of the attractive urbanity of his most famous work however the sparky performances and pleasant twist conclusion is one for completionists, and that includes fans of Coward’s compositions, co-written with Eric Rogers. Cinematographer Desmond Dickinson does a decent job of making Pinewood resemble Monaco for the last episode while the editing is by future director Clive Donner.

The Greatest Showman (2017)

The_Greatest_Showman_poster (1).png

Any other critic might call it a celebration of humanity. A young Phineas Barnum and his tailor father Philo are mocked at the home of the wealthy Hallett family but he falls in love with their lovely daughter Charity and they keep in touch by letter when she is sent to school. When he grows up the adult Phineas (Hugh Jackman) marries Charity (Michelle Williams) and moves from job to job while rearing two little girls in poverty until he hits on the idea of a show with nature’s oddities, creating a community of people who are shunned – Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Irish Giant, et al. He persuades high society playwright Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron) to join forces to give him respectability and their success brings them fame – even Queen Victoria wants an audience with them. Phineas meets Swedish songbird Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and mortgages everything to bring her all over the USA but she wants him as well – and betrays him, lying to the press, prompting Charity to leave him. When he returns to NYC protesters burn down the circus and Philip runs into the burning building to try to rescue his beloved Anne (Zendaya) an acrobat of colour whom he must battle society to spend his life with …  This moves quickly and expeditiously, daring you to see the cracks – in fact it’s really a stage musical with few concessions to anything you don’t know outside the business of show. It’s got a very inclusive message which is right-on for the current climate. Written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon and directed by first-timer Michael Gracey, there were reshoots apparently supervised by James Mangold who receives an executive producer credit – he had worked closely with Jackman on Logan.  It all adds up to a very nice night out at the musical theatre – even if it bears little relationship to the reality behind the real-life subject or even the musical Barnum by Cy Coleman, Paul Stewart and Mark Bramble. The songs are by Benj Pasek and Michael Paul and bear no relationship with any music produced in the nineteenth century:  to call the music ersatz would be misleading, it’s very contemporary and could come from any new musical you’ve seen or heard lately. However it’s a great showcase for some heartfelt, showstopping numbers  – particularly Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle) leading on This Is Me and Efron and Zendaya’s Rewrite the Stars. There are few dramatic segues so this won’t trouble your brain overly much:  it’s a swaggering, confident piece of work which has little faith in the audience – a criticism constantly made of Barnum himself by the resident journo critic James Gordon Bennett (Paul Sparks) who chronicles his highs and his lows but eventually comes round.  He says it there, it comes out here. Praise is due cinematographer Seamus McGarvey for keeping everything looking absolutely splendid.

The Good Companions (1957)

The_Good_Companions_FilmPoster.jpeg.jpg

What originally attracted me was the magnificent way you were all so loyal. Miss Trant (Celia Johnson), a philanthropic, adventure-seeking spinster, joins forces with songwriter Inigo Jollifant (John Fraser) and the newly unemployed Jess Oakroyd (Eric Portman) to re-energize a faltering musical theater troupe, the Dinky Doos who purvey their ramshackle show throughout the English provinces much in the way they did twenty-five years earlier. Although rock ‘n’ roll, striptease and television are about to capture the world’s attention, the troupe revels in its sense of community, and Jollifant falls for the star, Susie Dean (Janette Scott), who ultimately gets her chance on the West End…. The romance between the leads provides much of the subplotting in this second (musical) adaptation of J. B. Priestley’s popular 1930s classic but Scott plays her part a little too low key compared with Hollywood style and it’s really the backstage situations which arouse interest here and the occasionally showy cameos by personalities – Anthony Newley shows up and advises Fraser, Anybody can write a concerto, it takes a composer to write a pop! Joyce Grenfell does her bit with aplomb (providing another somewhat unexpected romance subplot) and when a fight breaks out in a theatre it’s rather fun to watch Thora Hird (who’s Portman’s missing wife) bash people with an umbrella. Hugh Griffith as the twitchy old trouper Morton Mitcham is always worth watching. The score and songs by Laurie Johnson aren’t particularly memorable but the final musical scene-sequence is quite well achieved and Gilbert Taylor’s colour cinematography is very warm. Rather charming, in its own way if not always appropriately staged (how ironic). Adapted by J. L. Morrison and T. J. Hodson and directed by J. Lee Thompson, if you can credit it!