benjamin (2018)

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I love the way that you don’t choose success. Rising filmmaker Benjamin (Colin Morgan) is struggling with the final cut of his second feature film produced by Tessa (Anna Chancellor) who insists the picture is locked but he fears disaster. Just before its debut screening he encounters French rock singer and music student Noah (Phénix Brossard) at a gig and they become an item but Benjamin sabotages everything with self-doubt and then his film gets a muted response followed by a terrible review. He meets Noah’s parents but his bitter ex Paul (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) turns up at the same restaurant and humiliates him and the relationship with Noah is over.  He has a one-night stand with his leading man Harry (Jack Rowan) and is filled with regret and depression and when best friend and writing partner Stephen (Joel Fry) has a disastrous standup gig he’s convinced he’s committed suicide but really it’s all about him … I think maybe we should say it’s about the loss of self-esteem. Comic Simon Amstell is responsible for the late, lamented Grandma’s House, an extremely funny London Jewish family comedy that aired on BBC over a decade ago.  Here he mines his own life again rather like his protagonist – this, too, is his second film – and Morgan gives a luminous, sometimes mesmerising, performance as the filmmaker who can’t help but ruin everything. Jessica Raine is terrifically busy as his randy publicist Billie in this portrait of filmmaking in present day London with an hilarious review of The Monk Movie by Mark Kermode. Some dialogue is lost in delivery unfortunately but this is played in a minor key. Everyone’s a critic. It’s a small valentine to love. Sydney and Dave are excellent as Benjamin’s cat.  Is this going to be a film soon?

 

 

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Judy (2019)

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I’m only Judy Garland for an hour a night. Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) tells young Judy Garland (Darci Shaw) just how special she is while he bullies her and drugs her with her mother’s (Natasha Powell) collusion to keep her thin to star in The Wizard of Oz. Mickey Rooney turns her down and she is forced to endure a fake birthday party for the press. Thirty years later the beloved actress and singer (Renée Zellwegger) is bankrupt and scrabbling to play any gig she can with her young children Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Llloyd) in order to get enough money for the next day – literally singing for her supper. She deposits the kids with her ex Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) when no hotel in LA will have her because of her history of non-payment.  She attends a party at older daughter Liza Minnelli’s (Gemma-Leah Devereux ) where she marvels at Liza’s lack of nerves before her own next show. She encounters Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) a young guy who clearly wants to impress her. Her only hope of getting her kids back and having a home of her own again is to sing concerts and she is bailed out by an offer from promoter Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) to play a long cabaret engagement at The Talk of the Town nightclub in London. Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley) is appointed her assistant and minder and has to help get her onstage each night as Judy battles nerves, drink and pills. While there, she reminisces with friends and fans and begins a whirlwind romance with Mickey who turns up to surprise her and she is smitten again … I see how great you are. I don’t see the problems. Adapted by Tom Edge from the play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter this never quite escapes its stage roots and each song (including Come Rain or Come ShineThe Trolley Song, Over the Rainbow) serves – performed either when she is late, drunk, nervous, or abusive – as a trigger for another flashback to the Thirties at MGM to explain the status quo. The trouble with this is that there is no joy in the performance, which may be true to life but this narrow focus ill-serves a biopic although there are moments when Zellwegger has an uncanny resemblance to Garland – facially, with gesture and movement as she nails the physique of a depleted, bag of bones Judy in her final months. She also sings the songs herself but the lip-syncing seems off.  Despite a two-hour running time her relationships feel underwritten and under-represented. Even the backstage antics with the talented Buckley (a glorious singer in her own right) don’t seem busy enough for that situation and while it may be true the idea that she never rehearsed with her music director (Matt Nalton) it seems preposterous whether or not she was always using the same music charts from Carnegie Hall. The highlights of her career are ignored but she enjoys the offstage attention of two diehard Friends of Dorothy (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerquiera) in a subplot which feels tacked on even if it’s a serviceable nod to the gay fans that Judy so openly acknowledged (and her funeral occurred in NYC just a few hours before the Stonewall Riots – coincidence?). It has its moments and one occurs close to the end when Delfont is suing her after she has used the F word at a member of the audience. Buckley and Nalton take her for a farewell lunch and tempt her to eat something. She plays with a piece of delicious cake on her plate and finally takes a bite and savours the taste. She declares, I think maybe I was just hungry.  It’s a rare piece of black comedy referencing the starvation she endured as a teenager and finally lightens the mood as if this constant state of hanger might well explain her decades of poor decision-making and a bad rep. There’s an attempt at a feel-good ending onstage but it’s not enough and rings rather hollow, trying to squeeze more emotion out of that tiny diaphragm in a set of songs that aren’t especially well directed.  This is a film about performance, not feeling. It’s a BBC Films production and it seems under funded, threadbare and careworn, practically uncinematic. Surely such a star deserves better, even at the fag-end of her career. Directed by Rupert Goold. What have you ever done that would make anyone listen to you?

All About Nina (2018)

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Let me take care of you. Thirtysomething Nina Geld’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) passion and talent have made her a rising star in the NYC comedy scene, but she’s an emotional mess offstage. Her married policeman lover Joe (Chace Crawford) resorts to violence when she goes back to her apartment with a one-night stand where she finds that he’s let himself in. She takes a cab to Joe’s house  to show his wife what’s going on and gets told to leave the city. When a new professional opportunity arises in Los Angeles, she moves west and house-shares with spiritual author Lake (Kate del Castillo) who tries to get her out of her comfort zone when she sees her pain.  Nina is forced to confront her own deeply troubled past just as an unexpected romance with Rafe (Common) begins to thrive… Let’s take things one step at a time. The debut film of writer/director Eva Vives, this demands and gets a barnstorming performance from Winstead who has to go on an emotional rollercoaster – from horrific stories about her father to the unexpected delight of having a potentially successful relationship rather than a familiar series of sexual hit and runs, which just triggers more self-destructive behaviour. From its truisms about showbusiness and a possible opportunity to appear on an SNL clone whose top dog Larry Michaels (Beau Bridges) pits all contemporary female standups against each other in an audition;  dealing with the fallout of trust issues from child abuse; to what it takes to go viral and whether that makes you popular or untouchable; this treads with a sureness all the way until the very end when it ultimately fails to deliver an answer but has Nina back onstage, where she really lives. As unpredictable as watching a standup having a meltdown – which is what this is all about, and quite as thrilling. Winstead is brilliant in a frank, raw and revelatory performance.

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! 

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.