Celebrity (1998)

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I’ve become the person I’ve always hated, but I’m happier. Novelist Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh) is in a crisis – he’s got writer’s block and everything is falling apart and his two critically panned novels are such failures he has to work as a travel writer.  It was seeing all the losers at his high school reunion that triggered his decision to divorce his sexually bashful and rather neurotic wife, Robin (Judy Davis), and he dives into a new job as an entertainment journalist. His assignments take him to the swankiest corners of Manhattan, but as he jumps from one lavish party to another and engages in numerous empty romances, with some seriously combative actresses and models keeping him busy, he starts to doubt the worth of his work. He’s writing screenplays on the side to keep in the creative game hoping some of his interview subjects will give him the time of day. Meanwhile, top TV producer Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna) falls for Robin and introduces her to the world of celebrity. Suddenly she finds herself with a TV show and Lee finds himself competing with his ex-wife … The celebrity-packed ensemble in this Woody Allen film cannot conceal that this is one of the many in his body of work which disappoints – that said, there are some great lines, filled with truth about the horrors of middle life:  the sheer mundanity of marriage, the compromises, the failures, the lack of a career, the diverging paths couples might take following their divorce. And there’s a truly horrible scene when Lee meets one of the critics who wrote a devastating review of one of his books. There’s not a little self-parody in this monochrome outing (shot by Sven Nykvist), with Tony sneering about film director John Papadakis (Andre Gregory), He’s very arty, pretentious, one of those assholes who shoots all his films in black and white. Branagh isn’t a great lead for such material in which he is basically a hammy avatar for all Allen’s own starring roles and his accent occasionally grates:  as he treads and sleeps his way through New York society you wonder at his unfeasible romantic success. Davis isn’t a whole lot better. But there are many bright moments in this unfocused work, as actors, artists and models step forward and do their ‘bit’ with some bristling lines in a film which in another universe might have wanted to be La Dolce Vita but is really a cynical trawl through misplaced modern values while paradoxically extolling them. There’s a very funny scene when Robin asks a prostitute Nina (Bebe Neuwirth) who’s been on her show for some training in oral sex and her mentor chokes on a banana. We even muster sympathy for the besotted Lee when he scorns his devoted book editor galpal Bonnie (Famke Janssen) for the unreliable actress Nola (Winona Ryder) and has to watch her rip up the only copy of his third, potentially brilliant novel and see the pages fly away from a boat at South Street Seaport. A Nobel Prize-winning author whom she’s also editing turns out a surprisingly similar book on the same subject (this happened to a friend of mine minus the outing to Sweden). Donald Trump makes an appearance as an interviewee, declaring his intention to tear down St Patrick’s Cathedral and replace it with a Big Beautiful Building and Leonardo Di Caprio plays a bratty druggy movie star into threesomes – and foursomes. Bruce Jay Friedman makes his second 1998 movie appearance (the other was You’ve Got Mail) most likely because he used to write fake stories about celebrities for fan magazines! There’s a unique opportunity to visit the late, lamented Elaine’s where Woody used to play clarinet every Monday night (hence his absence from the Academy Awards over the years). Like a lot of Allen’s work, both lesser and greater, this feels a lot better now that a lot of time has passed even if it’s a tad overlong. Weird. I wrote about you before I even knew you existed.

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Can-Can (1960)

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If in Lesbos, a pure Lesbian can, Baby, you can can-can too. In Montmartre, Paris, 1896, nightclub owner Simone Pistache (Shirley MacLaine) is known for her performances of the can-can, a provocative (panty-free) dance recently outlawed for being immoral.  The women in the club, including Claudine (Juliet Prowse) use their feminine wiles to get the police to look the other way (eventually). Though Simone’s dancing delights patrons to no end, it also attracts the ire of the self-righteous Judge Philippe Forrestier (Louis Jourdan), who aims to punish her. The judge hatches a plot to photograph Simone in the act and ends up falling for her – much to the chagrin of her boyfriend, handsome lawyer François Durnais (Frank Sinatra)… Based on Abe Burrows’ musical comedy, this was written by Dorothy Kingsley and Charles Lederer. The music (by Cole Porter) was arranged and conducted by Nelson Riddle, famous for his work with Sinatra, whose duet with Judge Paul Barriére (Maurice Chevalier) of the opening and closing number I Love Paris was deleted from the release print. MacLaine gives a barnstorming performance in the lead and Sinatra is … himself. Let’s Do It, You Do Something To Me and Just One of Those Things are among the great songs. It’s beautifully staged (with Hollywood’s interior decorator to the stars Tony Duquette getting a consultant’s credit) and witty, with particularly smart lyrics. The ladies and gentlemen are costumed in great style by Irene Sharaff. It may be set in Paris but it was shot (gorgeously, by Billy Daniels) on the studio lot and was the occasion of a famous set visit by Nikita Khrushchev who denounced the scene as depraved in what he believed was a propaganda coup. It wasn’t remotely as decadent as having somewhere between 20 and 60 million of your own citizens murdered (why keep count) but hey, that’s showbiz. Directed by Walter Lang.

The Greatest Showman (2017)

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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.

Encore (1951)

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My great aunt Louise very nearly had a man’s mind. She also very nearly had a man’s moustache. Anthology dramatization of three short stories by W. Somerset Maugham.  The Ant and the Grasshopper: Tom (Nigel Patrick) is a thorn in the side of his diligent brother George (Roland Culver) but a chance meeting with a wealthy woman changes everything. Directed by Pat Jackson and adapted by T.E.B. Clarke. Winter Cruise: Miss Reid (Kay Walsh) is boring her fellow cruise ship passengers with incessant talking, so  led by the captain (Noel Purcell) they set her up on a date with a handsome steward (Jacques Francois) that has surprising consequences for everyone. Directed by Anthony Pelissier and adapted by Arthur Macrae. Gigolo and Gigolette: Stella (Glynis Johns) and her husband Syd (Terence Morgan) are professional daredevils, but her worries about the future upon meeting two old troupers with a similarly dangerous act prompt her to risk it all at the casino in Monte Carlo. Directed by Harold French and adapted by Eric Ambler. I’ve always had a taste for Maugham’s stories and this is a pleasingly piquant collection, each introduced by the man himself from Villa La Mauresque, his home on the Riviera, where some of the action is set. Each story has a different rhythm and tone and yet they all coalesce into a solid whole with the obligatory (and rather unexpected) twist ending, giving Glynis Johns one of the best of her early roles. This was the third of a trilogy of films based on Maugham’s stories and it’s a treat.

The First Wives Club (1996)

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There are only three ages for women in Hollywood – babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy. In 1969 at college class valedictorian Cynthia Swann (Stockard Channing) presents her best friends with pearl necklaces.  A quarter of a century later she throws herself off a building after being betrayed by her adulterous billionaire husband. Her friends reunite at her funeral: Annie (Diane Keaton) is depressed and in therapy after separating from her husband Aaron (Stephen Collins) who’s screwing Annie’s therapist Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden);  Brenda (Bette Midler) is divorced from the cheapo millionaire husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) she made rich and now he’s shacked up with bulimic Shelly the Barracuda (Sarah Jessica Parker);  Elise (Goldie Hawn) is a big acting star with no work, addictions to cosmetic procedures and alcohol and a soon-to-be-ex-husband producer Bill (Victor Garber) sleeping with a young actress Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkley) who’s getting the lead role in a movie – and Elise is only going to play her mother! And Bill’s looking for half of everything – plus alimony. The women pretend to each other everything is fine but the truth is told over a drink or ten following the church service. When they each receive letters that Cynthia got her maid to mail them before her suicide they realise that they have been taken for granted by their husbands and decide to create the First Wives Club, aiming to get revenge on their exes. Annie’s lesbian daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas)  gets in on the plan by asking for a job at her father’s advertising agency so she can supply her mother with inside information.  Brenda enlists the support of society hostess Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith) – another trophy wife victim – to persuade Shelly to hire unattainable decorator Duarto Felice (Bronson Pinchot) to do over her and Morty’s fabulous penthouse with outrageously expensive tat. Brenda then discovers from her uncle Carmine (Philip Bosco) who has Mafia connections that Morty is guilty of income tax fraud, while Annie makes a plan to revive her advertising career and buy out Aaron’s partners. However, as their plan moves ahead things start to fall apart when they find out that Bill appears to have no checkered past and nothing for them to use against him. Or does he? Elise gets drunk which results in her and Brenda hurling appalling insults at each other and the women then drift apart. When Annie starts thinking about closing down the First Wives Club, her friends come back, saying that they want to see this to the end and Bill hasn’t done anything blatantly wrong – at least as far as he knows. Figuring that revenge would make them no better than their husbands, they instead use these situations to push their men into funding the establishment of a non-profit organisation for abused women, in memory of Cynthia. But not before Elise finds out Phoebe is underage, Brenda kidnaps Morty in a Mafia meat van and Annie takes over …  I do have feelings! I’m an actress! I have all of them! There are digs at everyone in this movie – not just the moronic men who dump their wives in the prime of their lives but vain actors, plastic surgery victims, chumps in therapy – it’s an equal opportunities offender.  This is a real NYC movie with walk on cameos from Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem and Ivana Trump who utters the immortal line, Don’t get mad – get everything! Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s novel by Robert Harling and directed by Hugh Wilson. Great fun and far sharper than Marc Shaiman’s soft score would suggest.

White Christmas (1954)

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I’m dreaming of a white Christmas with every Christmas card I write. Singer Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) has his life saved on Christmas night towards the end of WW2 (Bing Crosby) by soldier Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) who persuades him to become a double act. Davis fancies Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) who performs with her sister Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and he basically cons Wallace into joining them at a ski lodge in rural Vermont where the girls are going to perform a Christmas show – but they discover there’s no snow and it’s owned by Gen. Waverly (Dean Jagger), the boys’ commander in World War II, who, they learn, is having financial difficulties; his quaint country inn is failing. A season without snow could be a disaster. 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 back in the black! Then Betty figures Wallace isn’t the guy she thinks he is and abandons ship … Christmas is coming and this is as much a part of the celebration as that vat of cocoa and egg nog I’m currently drowning in as I watch the snow coming down. Originally intended for Fred Astaire opposite Crosby (who’d already had a bit of a hit with that little title tune in their smash movie Holiday Inn…) Astaire dropped out when he read the script so it went to Donald O’Connor. Then Crosby’s wife died and he went into mourning before coming back to it when Danny Kaye got involved and, well, here we are. There are nice jibes about showbiz, a nod to what retired people are supposed to do with their time when their faculties are still intact, and not a few great songs which are only written by the legendary Irving Berlin. With dance numbers to die for, romantic confusion and some crisp witticisms delivered with style – with a crew like that, would you expect any less? – this is tremendous, sentimental entertainment.  Shot in VistaVision (Paramount’s version of widescreen) this has some of the most gleaming reds you’ll see in cinema:  no Santa suit will ever match up to what these guys and gals wear for the ultimate seasonal singalong. Written by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama and Melvin Frank and directed by Michael (‘Bring on the empty horses!’) Curtiz. Look fast for George Chakiris in the dance troupe. 

Kill Your Friends (2015)

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How far would you go? John Niven’s 2008 novel is a tour de force of misanthropy, monstrousness and murder. The ragged tale of a ruthless A&R in London at the height of Britpop, it allegedly served as a gloss on the author’s own experiences in the music biz. It comes off as a vaguely more realistic take on American Psycho and indeed Steven Stelfox (played here by Nicholas Hoult) does have a whiff of Patrick Bateman about him. It’s also uproariously funny. Onscreen the humour is a little hard to detect in a production directed by Owen Harris from Niven’s own adaptation – somehow, while all the words are right, and the scenes fit, they don’t add up to a tonally correct film.  It simply lacks the coke-addled energy of the writing. As Stelfox cuts a swathe through his rivals inside his record company including James Corden, Tom Riley and (gruesomely) Georgia King while keeping an inveterately nosy copper (Ed Hogg) at bay with a publishing deal, there is a grim look to this which obviates the point of the novel – the lustre of the industry, the lure of fame and the sheer joy of being off your face. Shame! But the songs, the songs …

Hot Tub Time Machine (2010)

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I’m gonna tell everyone in prison that I travelled back in time to kill my own father! Three friends are stuck in a rut in full-blown mid-life crisis: underachiever (and kicked out by his girlfriend) Adam (John Cusack), henpecked husband Nick (Craig Robinson) and party animal Lou (Rob Cordrry). Accompanied by Adam’s nephew shut-in Jacob (Clark Duke) they travel to Winterfest and after getting into the tub on the balcony and consuming Chernobly – the Russian answer to Red Bull! – they turn out on the slopes and it’s … 1986. MTV is playing music videos (of all things), Michael Jackson is still black and Poison are playing tonight.  But when they look at their youthful images in the mirror Jacob is flickering – he hasn’t been conceived yet. And weird repairman Chevy Chase hasn’t got the right equipment to whip them back to 2010. And it’s the night Adam split up with his girlfriend and she stuck a fork in his eye, Jacob’s mom got together with Lou and it’s imperative everything stay the same so that they get back to the present intact … It’s not The Terminator or Back to the Future but the parameters of the latter are called upon big time in the person of one-armed bellboy Crispin Glover and a seriously Freudian scene with the future zillionaire Lou. Director Steve Pink reminds us of another collaboration with star/producer John Cusack riffing on the fork joke from Grosse Pointe Blank. It’s a surprisingly warm film about male friendship and kind-hearted about relationships and what ifs:  in Adam’s case it’s a chance meeting with music journalist April (Lizzy Caplan) who makes him realise he can change things. And Nick bawls out his nine year old future wife on the phone! Back to the future indeed! Written by Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris.

Whitney: Can I Be Me (2017)

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She died from a broken heart.  Nick Broomfield’s signature appearances in his documentary films are the stuff of comedy – headphones half off, boom in hand, chasing his subjects and trying to weasel information from them so that you wind up feeling sorry for all of them, even the serial killers. That doesn’t happen here, more’s the pity. This archive documentary about Whitney Houston co-directed with Rudi Dolezal is of a different variety, but continuing in the vein of Kurt and Courtney, another devastating portrait of a heinous showbiz marriage and possible murder [allegedly].  This was constrained by the inevitable limits on music usage and archives. Houston was from the hood but the daughter of gospel singer (Cissy) and businessman (John) who would become her eventual managers. Her brothers supplied her with drugs from a very young age (pre-teen) and she stole her mother’s moves and the career her mother felt should have been hers. Early footage shows her singing in her mom’s church aged 12. By the time she was 19 she was found by music supremo Clive Davis and taken on by Arista and appearing on TV: she looks so innocent but she was far from it. She sold an incredible number of records – records that were never too black, because if they were, they were redone. When she appears at the 1989 Soul Train Awards it’s a watershed moment – a cataclysmic devastation in her life because she was booed for being too white and she met Bobby Brown. She’d had a woman in her life since they met back in East Orange, Robyn Crawford, and it was known they were in a relationship. Crawford travelled with her as her personal assistant (I met someone who was PA on one of her music videos and he claimed he had to literally pull Houston off Crawford in her trailer to get her to set.) The newspapers were sniffing around. Houston was into hard drugs, Brown was into liquor. When they got together, they both got into – both, with the tragic outcome that forms the undertow to this sordid story. Interviews with backing singers, band members and a former security director make it clear (eventually) that Brown gave her street cred, she gave him … money and opportunity. He dragged her down to his level, as one quip has it. He preyed on her insecurities and lack of self-esteem (she wore wigs and weaves because her hair wouldn’t grow) and was sleeping with every woman he could. She struggled with wanting to make music that was more authentically black in a business that was trying to do crossover. These interviews are by far the film’s most satisfying sequences. After The Bodyguard came out she could no longer shop at the mall:  she was a superstar and people just stared at her all the time. By the time she made Waiting to Exhale she OD’d. Crawford was stuck between the co-dependent couple and a daughter entered the picture. Remarks are made about the awful family and the pressures of paying a huge entourage – she herself is interviewed in various stages of her career (and addiction) and comments about always having to be the ballerina on the stage. Her musical director (and drummer) talks about watching her every night, seeing her back expand as she would reach those incredible notes and likening her to a boxer. By 1999, when Whitney did her final tour, Crawford was apparently forced out because the difficulties between her and Brown had become overwhelming. It is the second tentpole disaster in this narrative. Whitney then became more drug-dependent. It’s a pity that Broomfield wasn’t (presumbly for legal reasons) able to step into some of these interviews more. An interview with Burt Bacharach (who worked with her cousin Dionne Warwick) makes it clear why she was somewhat notoriously thrown off a proposed live TV broadcast – missing cues, singing the wrong songs…  When she did a Michael Jackson tribute she was horrifically emaciated. Brown’s sister was (if you believe anything in those National Enquirer stories of yore…) fully participatory in those drug binges – principally crack cocaine – but she just talks about how fun it was living with Whitney and Bobby and there’s bizarre home movie footage of them re-enacting Ike and Tina Turner in a take on What’s Love Got to Do With It. It is known but not said directly that their small daughter witnessed them and then became a junkie herself. They were living in Atlanta, well away from Cissy, whose pernicious shadow hangs over this film.  Houston’s father sued her for $100 million when he was 81 and dying and Whitney was on the TV interview circuit trying to (literally) cover her tracks. An interview by Oprah Winfrey with Cissy Houston upon the publication of her memoir makes it clear that her daughter’s drug addiction was one issue (she saw her ‘really high’ back in the late 80s) but her Lesbianism (or bisexuality) was a bridge too far:  another commentator generalises and says female homosexuality is absolutely not discussed in the black community. And yet another says, If Robyn had been accepted, everything would have been different. This begins and ends with Whitney Houston’s awful death on the eve of the Grammys right before Clive Davis’ annual party, in February 2012. This is a sad, shocking, disturbing and sometimes nuanced piece of work but never surprising.  The 1999 tour footage is overused by dint of necessity. The interviews with the couple together, invariably monopolised by Brown, are blood curdling. But in a sense we’ve seen it all before, particularly with Amy. It conforms to a terrible pattern of makeover, overwork and addiction that characterises the careers of great performers whose narrow worlds are run by money-grubbing charlatans and hangers-on and leeches. The film is called Can I Be Me because that was Whitney Houston’s favourite of her songs and what she always wanted to be and nobody would allow it. A modern tragedy.