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

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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.

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

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If you kept it simpler and danced from the heart … Australian ballroom dancer Scott Hastings (Paul Mercurio) wants to do his own thing and make up steps on the dancefloor, much to the disdain of his traditional colleagues. He is denounced by Barry Fife (Bill Hunter) who runs Dancesport, the competitive ballroom scene.  Scott’s partner Liz (Gia Carides) abandons him for Ken (John Hannan) whose partner Pam Short (Kerrry Shrimpton) has broken both her legs. So when a plain, left-footed local girl Fran (Tara Morice) approaches him he has little option but to take up the offer. Her Spanish father teaches them to dance the Paso Doble and her grandmother tells Scott he must learn to dance with his heart. Together, the team gives it their all but they only have three weeks to get ready for the Pan-Pacific competition and Barry Fife tells Scott that dancing their own way cost Scott’s parents while Liz wants him back … You stick with your roles until eventually they bring their own rewards. The first of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain trilogy, this is a low budget adaptation of a theatre improvisation and play which brought him to the world stage in a fairytale manner, much as our heroes take the competition. The faux-documentary style with direct address to camera gives way to more straightforward musical drama which however never rises much beyond the level of caricature in over the top characterisations, plenty of intimidating close ups of faces (the dancing feet, a little less) and restricted locations. However the sheer zip and zest of the performances, the funny Australian stereotyping and the heartfelt Cinderella story combined with the ugly duckling becoming a swan and falling for the daring prince who realises his pathetic dad (Barry Otto) is actually quite a chap, makes it all sequins and spangles and fun and wins you over in the end. There’s a wonderful soundtrack. Along with Muriel’s Wedding and Dead Calm, this film put Australia on the global movie map once again.

This is Bob Hope (2017) (TVM)

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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)

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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.

G.I. Blues (1960)

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There is no need to borrow a baby to get into my apartment.  You underestimate your attraction. Stationed in West Germany with the American military, soldier Tulsa McLean (Elvis Presley) hopes to open up a nightclub when he gets out of the army. He lacks the capital for such a venture, but a chance to raise the cash comes his way through a friendly wager with his colleagues. Local dancer Lili (Juliet Prowse) is a notorious ice queen, and Tulsa bets everything he has that a friend of his, Dynamite (Edson Stroll) can earn her affections. But, when Dynamite is dispatched to Alaska, it’s up to Tulsa to melt Lili’s heart and as his friends Cookie (Robert Ivers) and Turk follow the couple and watch Tulsa negotiate his way into Lili’s affections from nearby, a baby enters the picture when Cookie falls for Lili’s Italian roommate Tina (Leticia Roman) … An unremarkable service comedy by screenwriters Edmund Beloin and Henry Garson gets the musical romcom makeover starring the King. This gained traction because of course Elvis Presley was himself stationed in Germany, as part of the post-war occupation, curtailing his musical career. This was the first of nine films in partnership with Norman Taurog and it curdled his screen persona and his film performances thereafter. However it is beloved of many fans precisely because of the echoes in his own life – he finds Blue Suede Shoes by Elvis Presley in a jukebox! – and the songs are outstanding.  There’s some excellent location photography, including on a cable car ride. Juliet Prowse is remarkably charming and her presence alone elevates this in the canon. The King died on this day in 1977. Long live the King!

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

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That’s what you call karma and it’s pronounced Ha! In 1979 young Donna (Lily James), Tanya (Jessica Keenan Wynn) and Rosie (Alexa Davis) graduate from Oxford University — leaving Donna free to embark on a series of adventures throughout Europe starting in Paris where she has a one-night stand with Harry (Hugh Skinner). She feels her destiny lies in Greece, specifically on the island of Kalokairi. She misses the ferry and hitches a ride on a boat owned by handsome Swede Bill (Josh Dylan) who drops her off to participate in a race but promises to return. On the island she immediately feels at home and sings at the local taverna. During a storm she seeks help to rescue a horse on the property where she’s squatting and English architect Sam (Jeremy Irvine) comes to her aid. They fall for one another and start a relationship – until she finds a photograph in his desk and he admits he’s engaged. In the present day, Donna’s daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) has finished off the renovation Donna always dreamed of but her husband Sky (Dominic Cooper) is doing a hotel management course in New York and a storm threatens the opening party. Her plans to reunite with her mother’s old friends and boyfriends on the Greek island may be scuppered although Dad (Pierce Brosnan) is at hand to help out … Crosscutting between past and present, drawing parallels between the mother and daughter, this aims to fill the awkward moral gaps the first film (and original musical) opened.  It has cinematic ambition its shambolic predecessor lacked and the flaws are more obvious as a result. Written by director Ol Parker with Richard Curtis and using plot from Catherine Johnson’s original this tells a lot of what we know. The choreography is horrible, the laughs cheap and most of the best songs were already used up so we get a lot of lesser tracks only diehard ABBA album owners might know: this really only gains momentum an hour in when Dancing Queen (finally!) gets a run through and the boyfriends in their present-day versions show up – thank goodness for Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard (who gets to wear a fat suit as his twin in a funny scene). Cher’s much-trumpeted appearance as Streep’s mother is brief but frightening – she looks like Lady Gaga (same surgeon, methinks). The Bjorns make surreptitious appearances early on; Meryl Streep’s younger iteration has brown eyes (whoops) but she can sing;  everyone sings, more or less; Andy Garcia is a Mexican managing the Bella Donna and guess who he used to date? And so on. Truly terrible. Resistance is futile.

Carmen Jones (1954)

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Boy, if the army was made up of nothin’ but soldiers like you, war wouldn’t do nobody no good.  During WWII parachute factory worker Carmen (Dorothy Dandridge) is romanced by a stalwart GI named Joe (Harry Belafonte) who is about to go to flying school. Conflict arises when a boxing champ captures Carmen’s heart after she has seduced Joe and caused him to go AWOL. Carmen remains a flamboyant flirt and Joe is pursued by the Military Police and the romantic duo have a final terrible fight … Bizet’s stunning and tragic, earthy opera gets an update and a racial twist in this striking, zesty adaptation by Oscar Hammerstein II. The performers are dubbed but that doesn’t detract from the incredibly raunchy Dandridge (vocals by Marilyn Horne) who was being manipulated by director Otto Preminger at the time:  she simply steams up the screen with Belafonte hopelessly in her grip – until she is in his. Pearl Bailey is also dazzling in the role of Frankie. But this is all about Dandridge and she is astonishing. Daring and wonderful.

Happy 90th Birthday Burt Bacharach 12th May 2018!

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Many happy returns to the man responsible for composing some of the great songs, songs to make you laugh, songs to make you swoon, songs to make you sigh, songs to make you cry. He makes all our hearts beat so much lighter.  Sitting front row at one of his performances years ago is one of my fondest memories. Happy birthday Burt!