Fighting With My Family (2019)

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Paige, I myself have come from a wrestling family too. I know exactly what it means to you. But don’t worry about being the next me. Be the first you.  Born into a tight-knit wrestling family, Paige Knight (Florence Pugh) and her brother Zak ‘Zodiak’ (Jack Lowden) are ecstatic when they get the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to try out for the WWE which would take them out of their low-achieving background with loving former thief father (Nick Frost) and ex-addict mum (Lena Headey) and an elder half-brother currently in prison. But when only Paige earns a spot in the competitive training programme led by Hutch (Vince Vaughn), she must leave her loved ones behind and face this new cutthroat world alone in Florida at the NXT training camp. Paige’s journey pushes her to dig deep and ultimately prove to the world that what makes her different is the very thing that can make her a star but back in smalltown England Zak spirals into a depression, confined to drab domesticity with a pregnant girlfriend and left to train local kids …  Dick me dead and bury me pregnant. As everyone knows, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson saw a documentary on British TV about a family of wrestlers from Norwich and thought it would be a good idea for a film so he produced this (and appears briefly) with actor/writer (The Office) Stephen Merchant on directing duties. There are no real insights into this faux sport – only an early argument over what fake versus fixed might mean. There is a certain rackety warmth and the central roles are underwritten yet any power the film might possess derives from the performances by Lowden and particularly Pugh, whose star continues to steadily rise. Pugh obviously has the meatier role as the character who gets the transformational arc, trying to be American and finally reverting to Gothic type (she’s inspired by a Charmed character);  Lowden has to man up to the consequences of extra-marital sex with his rather better class of girlfriend while his sister takes his dream away. It is their considerable charisma and the occasional humour that lifts this story above the fairly squalid origins – and the grim freakshows known as Reality TV whose ’emotional journey’ it apes. Quite why clips from the source documentary were shown during the end credits is anyone’s guess – rather undoing the whole point of the film.  You want some advice? Here’s The Rock’s advice: Shut your mouth! What you want? What you want? How about what The Rock wants? The Rock wants you to go out there, take no prisoners, have no regrets, have no fear! Lay it all out on the line! 

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Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

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I’d hate to take a bite out of you. You’re a cookie full of arsenic.  New York City newspaper journalist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) has a considerable influence on public opinion with his Broadway column, but one thing that he can’t control is his younger sister, Susan (Susan Harrison), who is in a relationship with aspiring jazz guitarist Steve Dallas (Marty Milner). Hunsecker strongly disproves of the romance and recruits publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to find a way to split the couple, no matter how ruthless the method.  Falco comes up with a scheme to convince another columnist who is Hunsecker’s bitter rival to run the smear item suggesting Steve is a commie and a junkie, so that Susan won’t suspect it comes from her brother’s camp but it affects her terribly and the men compete for her affections… I love this dirty town An astonishing portrait of venality and viciousness, Lancaster (who produced) and Curtis are simply unforgettable. Major stars at the time, they were steeped in the character psychology of to-the-death rivalry in a story widely assumed to be inspired by Walter Winchell, the feared real-life columnist.  Harrison is memorable as the young woman whose brother has an almost incestuous obsession with her but it’s the face off between the male villains that makes this one of the most rivetting studies of cruelty ever put on film.  They are the yin to the other’s yang, the flip side of the same bad penny. The best of everything is good enough for me. Those mean streets of Manhattan are photographed by James Wong Howe and they are slick with rain and glistening with fear. Ernest Lehman and Clifford Odets wrote the screenplay from a story by Lehman (himself a press agent in another life) and Alexander Mackendrick was making his American directing debut after holding the fort at Britain’s Ealing Studios for many years. It’s a film that looks and sounds great (courtesy of a marvellous score by Elmer Bernstein incorporating the work of the Chico Hamilton Quintet), with that wonderful quality – the ring of truth. You’re dead son. Get yourself buried

The Patsy (1964)

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Uh, the people in the theater know I ain’t gonna die. Here, it’s a movie stage.  Eccentric hotel bellhop Stanley Belt (Jerry Lewis) is recruited unexpectedly by the comedy team of a top entertainer who has died in a plane crash and whom they are seeking to replace with a nobody. Stanley struggles to become a song-and-dance man as the team including producer Caryl (Everett Sloane), writer Chic (Phil Harris) and assistant Ellen (Ina Balin) – grooms him to become a star. But as the date of a high-stakes appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show grows near, they begin to fear that the only astonishing thing about Stanley is his utter lack of talent. They drop him but Ellen supports him, he becomes a hit and now they want him back … They simply want to make you a star. An unofficial sequel to The Bellboy, this is one where you either love Lewis’s autistic-modernist shtick, or you plain don’t. However the raft of appearances by celebrities and personalities of the big and small screen is jaw-dropping and Lewis’ voice training scene is priceless. You might find broad similarities to The Girl Can’t Help It, which had starred Jayne Mansfield in a work by Lewis’ mentor Frank Tashlin but this takes the concept of a rock ‘n’ roll death and inscribes the dread fear of the comedian – being rewritten by his own team.  There are clever Chaplinesque situations and witty insights into backstage sycophants and their motivations. At its heart this is a serious film about the pressure to be funny.  Featuring the final screen performances of both Peter Lorre and Everett Sloane as part of his manipulative entourage. Directed by Lewis, who co-wrote with Bill Richmond. This is a movie

Curtain Up (1952)

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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.

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.

A Double Life (1947)

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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)

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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.

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.

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.