Carol Channing 01/31/1921 -01/15/2019

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The death has taken place of the delightful, husky-voiced, unique comedienne and musical star Carol Elaine Channing, who originated the stage role of the apparently ditzy blonde gold digger Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Marilyn Monroe went to see it every night two weeks straight. Wouldn’t you? An effervescent, witty actress who made her bones in theatre where she created the indelible Hello, Dolly but also impressed on the big screen.  Rest in peace. Laughter is much more important than applause. Applause is almost a duty. Laughter is a reward.

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White Christmas (1954)

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When what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you’ve got left.  Years after being demobbed following wartime service in Europe, song-and-dance act Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) join sister act Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) to perform a Christmas show in rural Vermont where, they run into Gen. Waverly (Dean Jagger), the boys’ commander in World War II.  He is having a hard time adjusting to civilian life and is beset by financial difficulties; his quaint country inn is failing. So what’s the foursome to do but plan a yuletide miracle: a fun-filled musical extravaganza that’s sure to put Waverly and his business in the black by turning it into an entertainment venue! But when Phil and Judy pair off, that leaves Bob and Betty out in the cold … You don’t expect me to get serious with the kind of characters you and Rita have been throwing at me, do you? It’s getting so the PC thought police are making even this jolly time of year a pain in the ass what with songs and carols and anything mentioning the words ‘white’ and ‘Christmas’ causing conniptions. Here at Mondo Towers we are committed to having fun and that includes revisiting this sheerly delightful Technicolor VistaVision explosion of seasonal happiness which is a great taster for the big day. A sort of loose remake of Holiday Inn from a decade earlier, Kaye is teamed with Crosby and they make a great double act, even if this ain’t a Road movie and it was originally intended as the third vehicle for Crosby and Fred Astaire. Clooney and Vera-Ellen make perfect sparring partners for the guys, vivacious and sparky and smart, all at once.  Look fast for George Chakiris dancing behind Clooney and you don’t need me to tell you that all the songs are by Irving Berlin (and Clooney sings both parts on Sisters). The photograph of Freckle-Faced (Dog-Faced Boy) Haynes is that of Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa in The Little Rascals. The screenplay is by Norman Panama, Norman Krasna and Melvin Frank. Directed by Michael Curtiz, who elicits joyful performances from all concerned in what is for the most part an excellently staged production – and Bob Fosse did the choreography, although he’s uncredited.  Altogether wonderful entertainment, this was the biggest box office hit of its year. The countdown starts here … The crooner is now becoming the comic

 

Neptune’s Daughter (1948)

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Can’t you get in enough trouble here without going below the border? Aquatic dancer Eve Barrett (Esther Williams), now partnered with Joe Backett (Keenan Wynn) in a swimsuit design company, tries to stop her scatterbrained sister Betty (Betty Garrett), from falling in love with Jose O’Rourke (Ricardo Montalban), a suave South American polo player. Unbeknownst to Eve, Betty has actually fallen for Jack Spratt (Red Skelton), a masseur who is posing as Jose. To protect her sister, Eve finds the real Jose, agrees to a date and also falls in love… If you keep throwing yourself at men you are only going to get hurt!/Not if my aim is good! A fun, frolicsome Forties MGM musical of mistaken identity that teams swimming queen Williams with Latin Lothario Montalban for their third hit movie.  Garrett and Skelton are marvellous in the supporting roles. A Technicolor delight. Written by Dorothy Kingsley (a woman! Heaven forfend!), this clip of the great Frank Loesser’s satirical song is up especially for the censorious killjoys who should spend their time listening to rap music – get back to the land of normal sane people then, please. Preferably not! Merry Christmas – but you’ve probably cancelled that for religious/sexist reasons too. Bah, humbug to all the snowflakes!

 

Doctor Dolittle (1967)

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There’s no doubt about it – animals are far more interesting than people.  In early Victorian England, Dr. John Dolittle (Rex Harrison) lives in a small village where he much prefers the company of animals to humans.  He trains as a veterinarian and specialises in caring for and verbally communicating with animals. When Dr. Dolittle is unjustly sent to an insane asylum for freeing lovesick circus seal Sophie from captivity so she can return to her husband at the North Pole, his animals and two closest human friends, Matthew Mugg (Anthony Newley) and Tommy Stubbins (William Dix), liberate him. Afterwards they join Emma Fairfax (Samantha Eggar) and set out by boat to find a famed and elusive creature: the Great Pink Sea Snail, fetching up on an island where the natives prove a challenge…  How do you make money with a Pushmi-Pullyu? Songwriter Leslie Bricusse adapted Hugh Lofting’s classic children’s books and Harrison and Newley take their theatrical shtick to the screen with zest. A witty, whimsical delight, this was a controversial flop following some disastrous choices of location shooting led to huge production overruns and Harrison’s loathsome behaviour made filming a chore for the human cast.  The songs are fun, the action marvellous (Harrison’s love scene with Sophie the Seal has to be seen to be appreciated) and it’s a wonderfully colourful musical directed with some flair by Richard Fleischer.  I have nothing in common with the human race

Up With the Lark (1943)

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Don’t be so effeminate. Call me Bill.  Ethel (Ethel Revnell) and Gracie (Gracie West) lose their jobs as telephone operators when the hotel where they work is burgled. They are persuaded by the police to pose as Land Girls in the countryside where the gang of black marketeers is headquartered… This is no ordinary gaol. We take pride in making people feel at home. In which the radio comedy stars play intrepid dimwits caught up in something bigger than they are and inadvertently help catch criminals.  A true relic of its time, this B flick is done on the cheap with some very strange performances albeit Ivor Barnard’s multiple roles should be seen. Directed by Phil Brandon from a story by Val Valentine and a screenplay by James Seymour. If you can’t go cuckoo go cock-a-doodle-doo!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

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Being human is a condition that requires a little anaesthesia. In 1970 college student and Heathrow Airport baggage handler Farrokh (Freddie) Bulsara (Rami Malek) goes to a nightclub to watch a local band called Smile where he meets guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) who’ve just lost their bassist/singer. He gives an impromptu display of his four octave range and offers to be the band’s new lead vocalist. The diva has arrived fully formed. With the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) the band – now known as Queen – plays at local gigs across Britain until they sell their van to produce their debut album which earns them a contract with EMI. At the same time, Farrokh legally changes his name to Freddie Mercury and becomes engaged to Biba store clerk Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) with whom he lives. During the band’s U.S. tour, Freddie begins to question his sexuality. In 1975, Queen record their fourth album, A Night at the Opera but leave EMI when executive Ray Foster (an unrecognisable Mike Myers) refuses to have the six-minute song Bohemian Rhapsody released as the album’s first single. Freddie has Capital Radio DJ Kenny Everett (Dickie Beau) debut the song on the airwaves. Despite mixed reviews, it becomes a smash hit. Shortly after the band’s world tour, Freddie begins an affair with Paul Prenter (Allen Leech), his personal manager, and Mary breaks up with Freddie when he comes out to her as bisexual, although she assures him that he is gay. They reach unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career after sacking manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen) in a sleight of hand engineered by Prenter who leads Freddie in an increasingly debauched way of life as he records his albums in Munich, drugged up and losing contact with the band and their new manager and former lawyer Jim ‘Miami’ Beach (Tom Hollander). Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with them just in time for Live Aid, a concert which Prenter decided not to tell Freddie about. While facing a recent AIDS diagnosis which he discloses a week before the world’s biggest ever concert, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music. .. How many more Galileos do you want?! The dramatic peaks of this controversial and troubled production (is there any other kind?) are the composition of the legendary epic song that gives rise to the title; and the final twenty-minute set at Live Aid on 13th July 1985.  The writing of the songs is what underpins the film’s dramatic core – from the first words or notes or flashes of inspiration to the band’s individual contributions in studios intercut with live performance this might be one of the best expositions of composition certainly in terms of rock band biopics, demonstrating how something gets written, produced and performed. But it’s really all about Freddie the showman and the other guys are just sketches of perfectly reasonable young musicians, not fully formed characters who might have had reason to knock Freddie sideways even if Roger tries (it was produced by them with Jim Beach, so it was never going to go full fetish). There might be complaints about the telescoping of certain incidents (the AIDS diagnosis) for dramatic purpose but it serves the wider ambition, which is to delineate just how extraordinary the connection with the audience was from their very first performance. Mercury’s own lifestyle and how he became ill is then suggested rather than graphically explored (whew) but the seedy Prenter is assigned the role of villain in chief and Leech does what he can in the character role where his costuming becomes the model for Freddie’s gay Village People look (prompting an apposite line from Brian). Boynton is rather good in another underwritten role as the toothsome Mary whose friendship was the hinge for Freddie’s sanity and a reality check when he went over the edge.  The social and cultural backdrop of Zoroastrianism and being a Parsi immigrant in Britain is paid its due even if it’s a little perfunctory but works to explain Freddie’s exoticism and the originality which he gleefully exploits for presentation amid these middle class boys. It’s ironic that it’s Roger who wants to cross-dress for the I Want to Break Free video and Freddie who gets pilloried for it at a press conference. Roger, there’s only room in this band for one hysterical queen. It’s far from perfect but once you get accustomed to the wildly charismatic Malek (and his enormous teeth – extra incisors, folks!) it’s quite thrilling, taking us from the wet dull dank hinterland of England in the early 1970s when the apex of fame is an appearance on Top of the Pops, where the BBC man insists that they lip-sync; through the leather-clad descent into a druggy fug not giving a four x about what people thought until it was too late while the other guys got married and had families. Freddie’s efforts to find Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) years after their first encounter at his party are quite touching particularly because he’s the first man he takes home to meet the parents, on the morning of Live Aid, prompting a reconciliation that leads the folks to watch him on the telly. Anthony McCarten’s screenplay (from a story written with Peter Morgan) is flawed and rather kitsch but somehow the parts make up an entertainment that will have you stomping in the aisles. How these extraordinarily well-educated men heard music and put it through their own misfitted filter for a wider world is the whole show. Basically, this is Queen’s Greatest Hits. Oh, and Freddie’s cats are absolutely delightful. Directed for the most part by Bryan Singer who flung a hissy fit à la Freddie and had to be replaced by Dexter Fletcher. I pity your wife if you think six minutes is forever

Fame (1980)

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I mean, if I don’t have a personality of my own, so what? I’m an actress! I can put on as many personalities as I want! Accepted in the Drama department of New York’s High School for the Performing Arts are sensitive Montgomery MacNeil (Paul McCrane) who thinks he’s gay, Doris Finsecker (Maureen Teefy), a shy Jewish girl, and brash Ralph Garci (Barry Miller) who succeeds after failed auditions for Music and Dance. In the Music department, Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is an aspiring keyboardist whose electronic equipment horrifies Mr. Shorofsky (Albert Hague), a conservative music teacher. Lisa Monroe (Laura Dean) is accepted in the Dance department, despite having no interest in the subject. Brazen Coco Hernandez (Irene Cara) is accepted in all three departments because of her all-around talent. Leroy Johnson (Gene Anthony Ray) goes to the school, performing as part of a dance routine for an auditioning friend, but the dance teachers are more impressed by his talents than hers. We follow the progress of the students through four years of high school until it’s time for graduation …  I’s young, I’s single, and I loves to mingle! Time to ‘fess up:  like all kids of the Eighties my Thursday nights were Top of the Pops followed by Fame, the TV show inspired by this Alan Parker film. And two of the highlights of my life were – therefore – seeing the back of Lee Curreri at NBC when he was recording a kids’ show; and some years later, Debbie Allen (Lydia the taskmaster dance teacher) leading the parade at New Orleans Mardi Gras, cher! That’s the fame of Fame, which had us delirious on all platforms before the term came into use. Its diverse cast pleases millennial taste although the un-PC jokes (about being gay, Jewish, black, female) would probably tee off some. It’s an equal opportunities offender! Personable, characterful, there’s one for everybody in the audience which is why everyone could relate. It’s bold and dramatic and fun and the Hot Lunch sequence makes you squeal with sheer enjoyment while the songs are just great.  Some of the plot lines strain to reach a conclusion and it’s not exactly tied up with a big red bow at the end, but you know, it’s kinda wonderful in an enervating way and no way can you not sing with delight and dance yourself dizzy watching it again! The film within a film is The Rocky Horror Picture Show and for those of us who used to go see it as a weekly performing event it’s a fabulous aide memoire. Shot at a time when Annie and Grease were on Broadway, this is a liberating, joyful viewing experience and the cast are wildly talented and charismatic in a NYC before it was cleaned up.  It’s simply teeming with infectious energy, danger, ambition and inchoate teenage rage. Written by Christopher Gore.  Music is the hardest profession of them all

Hudson Hawk (1990)

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I’m being blackmailed into robbing a bank by a psychotic American corporation and the CIA. Thief extraordinaire Hudson Hawk (Bruce Willis) has just been released from prison and all he wants is a nice cappuccino which his partner in crime Tommy Five-Tone (Danny Aiello) is happy to provide en route to their co-owned bar which has been yuppified beyond recognition. However, before he can enjoy his favorite beverage, the highly eccentric and wealthy Darwin Mayflower (Richard E. Grant) and his equally odd wife, Minerva (Sandra Bernhard), rope Hawk into an ambitious series of heists involving the local Mafia, the Mario Brothers. Into the fray enters CIA honcho George Kaplan (James Coburn) and before he knows it, Hawk is transported to Rome where he encounters the beautiful Anna Baragli (Andie McDowell) at an art auction.  Soon Hawk is stealing major works by Leonardo Da Vinci, priceless pieces that the Mayflowers plan to use in an exceedingly nefarious way but behind the conspiracy is there another conspiracy?You cease to amaze me, convict.  You are a terrible cat burglar. What one character calls glib repartee is what sustains this breezy exercise in the ridiculous, or what might have been called a vanity project for Willis, who devised the story. It’s a daft, beautifully shot (grazie a Dante Spinotti!) heist caper, with the wisecracking smart aleck Willis repeatedly conned into stealing great works of art. At the conclusion da Vinci’s theory that man would fly is proven. McDowell is cute as the undercover nun, the charismatic Coburn does a witty nostalgic twist on his Our Man Flint character and Grant and Bernhard are reliably ridiculous as the insanely villainous Mayflower Industries husband and wife team. Taken the right way, as a comic book (and part-musical with Willis and Aiello warbling big tunes during their artful burglaries) you won’t worry too much about logic. I have fond memories of it because back in the day, when director Michael Lehmann was a name (Heathers! Meet the Applegates!) I won all of his work on VHS from either Empire or Q. Sigh. The Nineties. Truly another (better) time. Written by Stephen E. de Souza and Daniel (Heathers) Waters.  I’ll torture you so slowly you’ll think it’s a career

A Star is Born (2018)

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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

Pitch Perfect 3 (2017)

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One of the hottest groups on the planet – they are Ever Moist! After the highs of winning the world championships, a capella group the Bellas find themselves split apart and discovering there aren’t job prospects for making music with your mouth. Beca (Anna Kendrick) will not play second fiddle to a dreadful rapper and gives up her producing job.  Inadvertently reunited by Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) who mistakenly believes everyone is happy in their jobs, they jump at a chance to go on an overseas USO tour courtesy of Aubrey’s (Anna Camp) neglectful naval commander father. When they arrive at their departure point they find out from John (John Michael Higgins) and Gail (Elizabeth Banks) who are filming them for a documentary that they are now in a competition once again. They have come together to make some music in some glamorous locations but find themselves up against a group that play instruments as well as sing. Beca still wants to DJ and sees an opportunity when DJ Khaled materialises with his entourage but when Fat Amy’s errant criminal dad Fergus (John Lithgow) surfaces the entire group are put in danger because he wants to access an account she didn’t even know she had … I’ve been a very naughty girl Turnip Top! The relationship between cosy crim and Fat Amy, his every arrival signalled by her pink bunny rabbit, is at the heart of the ‘plot,’ which is otherwise paper-thin if fun. The last in a franchise, this peters out but with some witty moments, usually connected with Wilson and her deadly put-downs. The concluding action sequence is a blast. Naturally the finale is a performance. Despite the wonderful locations, the cinematography feels cheap and doesn’t take total advantage of the visual possibilities, more like a home movie tape of highlights which echoes the rudimentary storytelling, held together by some fun performances. All that’s left is to weigh up how much smaller Kendrick can get, and how much bigger Wilson can become… Written by Kay Cannon and Mike White and directed by Trish Sie.