A Star is Born (2018)

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From comedy star in ‘The Hangover’ to more dramatic turns in films like ‘American Sniper’, Bradley Cooper has certainly been down many avenues and now he throws his stetson behind the camera for his directorial debut; a musical romance and fourth remake of the ‘A Star is Born’ brand.

Hugely famous country star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) seriously struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. On a desperate trawl to find a bar, Maine staggers into one where waitress by day-singer by night Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing. He quickly falls for her looks and talent and they begin a whirlwind relationship that sees Ally become a singer/songwriter idol.

In the 1950’s Judy Garland headlined the first remake and the 70’s saw Barbra Streisand take the lead in a rock and roll setting, one Bollywood film later and now it’s mega popstar Lady Gaga’s turn to take the cinematic stage. There’s no doubt that she’ll be up for an Oscar nomination because her performance is sensational and she makes the film what it is. The road to success with tricky obstacles and media manipulation is ripe for the times currently in Hollywood and the music perfectly encapsulates Ally and Jackson’s rocky relationship.

This movie is like a biopic of Gaga’s career, you can just see how the films’ content of moulding someone to how the management want them to be, mirrors her Poker Face days, before her songwriting and more heartfelt tunes took flight. The pop music side of Ally’s journey and the SNL showbiz aspect are necessary attributes in showing how the industry works and really demonstrates Ally as a strong individual to stick with all these changes in the dream of being recognised for her talent. She also sticks with Maine because he saw that spark within her, their relationship may be odd and harbour some cheesy moments but it feels real and the pair work beautifully together.

At a certain point it does feel like the film stretches ever so slightly and you could almost check out of the plot but thanks to the music you get drawn back in. Also, there is a very predictable narrative to follow but there’s some stunning cinematography from Matthew Libatique which goes from a pristine bathroom to a gorgeously crimson tinged drag club and the films final shot rests on a powerful, stunning image and though it is silent it sings a thousand words. On top of the great DoP work, the musical numbers themselves are toe-tappingly heartfelt and ‘Shallow’; a song penned by Gaga and Mark Ronson is gunning for an Oscar nom as well and rightly so because it screams with drama.

Cooper, with his flushed red cheeks and slurring Western drawl embodies the stereotypical drunken cowboy singer but softens this rough edges with a clear love for his Ally rose. Gaga is incredible throughout, her voice is a God given gift that fills the heart and the speakers with power. It isn’t just her singing talents that sell the film, she makes Ally a fully rounded character and you truly buy into her rise to stardom with a difficult romance aiding the way.

‘A Star is Born’ is a country and western musical for modern times and like TV show ‘Nashville’, it hits with lyrical gems and dramatic characters to soar to the top of the charts.

7/10

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

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Ugh, here we go again! A sequel/prequel to the fifth highest grossing film of 2008 is on our shores and with the success of the first ABBA inspired musical, I imagine this follow up will stay in those successful footsteps even if it is a lame rom-com story and does very little to dispel the notion that it’s a stonking great cash grab.

It’s been five years since Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) wedding and she’s now busy planning the reopening of her mum’s hotel. As the final preparations are under way, the story cuts back and forth between this and Donna (Lily James) back in 1979; just graduated and wanting to see the world. The film then follows her meeting Sophie’s trio of fathers and how her stay in Greece came to be.

Firstly, it’s not a major issue that the songs are relentless throughout but this musical almost shoehorns songs in that vaguely fit in with what’s going on during the narrative. I was listening to lyrics and some just don’t coincide with what’s been or is happening at all. Secondly, the film only just kicks off and we’re right into a song, I know it’s a musical but there’s something about the ‘Mamma Mia’ landscape that serves up a cringe aspect alongside the jovial antics, extremely evident in the graduation sequence and the Waterloo themed restaurant.

This film feels like it was battering me over the head with song after Swedish created song, that by the end I was involved and part of the music. It’s as if I was bombarded to say Thank You for the Music because it was incessant. It may have been the broken will but I have to say that the glittery disco themed Super Trouper number was an enjoyable blast, Mamma Mia itself is a fun listen/watch and Angel Eyes is sold nicely thanks to the power of the actors behind the song.

Ol Parker’s screenplay from a story by him, Catherine Johnson and Richard Curtis is a loosely veiled attempt at tying two stories together. The plot doesn’t do much to really make you care for Donna, she just seems like a young gal gallivanting and exploring what our planet has to offer, though she seems to know she belongs in Greece after only going to visit Paris. The hotel re-opening is a flimsy excuse to get the sprawling cast back together but amongst the less than inspired writing there are some funny moments. A sassy Greek lady, a goat chase and the terrific double act of Julie Walters and Christine Baranski are great highlights.

Lily James is superb, she gives the background of Meryl Streep’s character such radiating presence. She may fall in and out of beds but she has such a bubbly performance throughout this film that you can’t help but like her and James’ infectious smile even made this cynical chap less so. Seyfried is a class act, she’s always reliable for musical features and her talented vocals do this film wonders amongst the likes of some less than gifted singers elsewhere in the cast. She manages to be expressive and likable in a role that sees her bridging gaps between the past and present. The ‘singing’ and dad-dancing of Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard is awkward but highly amusing. Cher rocks up like this wicked west persona; the helicopter and her introductory music add to this oncoming doom but she does little in the film and reveals a name before singing that song which is an eye roll AND sigh if ever there was one but it’s Cher, I can’t say anything bad, can I!?

This sun-drenched film arriving 10 years after the original didn’t need to arrive at all, it’s not a fascinating story and the cringe is most certainly real but it’s a carefree bop that knows what it is; a summery feel good distraction that will have die-hard ABBA fans singing in the cinemas and calling out for the inevitable singalong versions.

5.5/10

The Greatest Showman (2017)

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Pulling out all the stops, this movie tries shooting for the ol’ razzle dazzle and though there is a definite amount of flair and showbiz style through transitions and musical numbers, it all feels empty and try hard. The story of the man himself; Mr. P.T Barnum is glossed over to make way for a post Christmas family feature that requires no smarts.

As a child, Phineas Barnum was less well off but a dreamer and he finally got the girl he’d loved. Now residing in New York with their two daughters, Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and Charity (Michelle Williams) seem happier than ever, but Barnum wants more and he eventually creates a ‘circus’ of sideshows and freaks to sell tickets and give his family all they could ever wish.

Riding on the success of Academy darling and theatrical luvvie of late 2016/early 2017 ‘La La Land’, this musical drama employs the writing talents of Pasek and Paul to conjure up a bunch of songs. They certainly come under the ear-worm label as I’m still annoyingly humming them as I write this. Saying that, they’re nowhere near as close as subtle or stylishly cool as the songs in the Gosling/Stone led runaway hit. To be honest, there came a time when a character began to sing that I audibly groaned because they just appear almost consistently. I know it’s a musical but they are irritating hokey songs that strive for the stars but end up somewhere amongst bland superficial lyrics of being special – whoever you are – yeah that old chestnut.

Certain elements in this just stood out like cheap distractions at a local funfair. The alarming dubbing of an older man speaking for the clunky walking dwarf. The ‘Siamese Act’ who were clearly two performers standing side by side and the ‘Bearded Lady’ who’s facial fuzz looked like glued on hair a couple of times. I know Barnum revelled in fooling audiences and providing fake attractions but this film doesn’t even show us this as it makes him seem like an idol of blossoming variety entertainment.

Hugh Jackman is a charismatic actor and he certainly helps this film from totally falling flat but I feel he’s too much of a nice guy to play the role of someone who hoaxed the public. Michelle Williams is a glamorous wife and mother and gets to showcase some singing prowess and dancing ability but she has little to do, other than stand by and watch Jackman parade as the enigmatic showman he is. Rebecca Ferguson plays opera singer Jenny Lind but doesn’t even wow because she’s there as a cheap sideline narrative and her song is sung by someone else, plus she’s meant to be a pro opera performer but her song sounds like the typical X Factor winners track. Zendaya carries a believable amount of emotion in her role as acrobat and racially shunned figure for Zac Efron to fall in love with. For me, I found her to be the most engaging and interesting character to follow, with Efron close behind.

All the lights and stage magic never lit a spark in me and it just became a tiresome boringly told story, filled by ever irritating songs. It’s a mess of a musical but one that has just enough charm in places to keep the circus tent from falling down.

4.5/10

La La Land (2017)

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Well, not for a long while have I been eagerly anticipating a movie like the release of this musical drama. Add on top the record-breaking Golden Globes haul then you have a very excited chap. For the most part this film delivers, it’s stylish, fun, heartfelt but I don’t agree with all the souped up hype it’s received.

After a minor amount of road-rage where aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz musician Seb (Ryan Gosling) cross paths, they end up bumping into each other again and again which leads to a romance through the year. As they try following their dreams in LA it becomes a harder challenge to keep the love alive.

I have to say that I absolutely adored the first half or so of this film. It harks back to that classic glitz and glamour of Hollywood old with a neat dose of a modern touch thanks to the musical and confident direction from Damien Chazelle. Just from the sweeping opening on a Los Angeles highway to the delicate changes in lighting, the songs and story begin with a bang.

It helps that we get brilliant performances and a clear chemistry between the two main characters but also the style adds a neat note to the song-sheet that is this feature. There’s times that it looks and sounds like a studio set production and you’d expect Fred Astaire to come tap dancing in. The writing by Chazelle, is for the most part a well handled story that lends a two-sided coin to the LA lifestyle but with an obvious landing on dreams to follow and achieve.

As I sat in my seat I found myself hooked and smiling along to a wonderful series of scenes but then annoyingly, there came a specific moment where I even felt myself disengaging and from then on, the writing becomes very generic and almost cliched. It drifts into a romantic plot you’d expect to find in every other manically churned out rom-com. This frustrated me because I was expecting it to keep going with the gleeful whizz of CinemaScope delight but instead…it wains.

It is almost saved as we get a short burst of style near the end showing a quick run of events. So yes I agree it’s a fantastically well made and enchanting film, it deserved 3 perhaps 4 of the Globes it picked up out of 7. This is obviously, as I realised as they were winning, a case of the voters loving films that celebrate America or the US saving the day -(note Argo winning Best Picture)

Song wise, ‘Another of Day of Sun’ is jolly, sun-drenched and a perfect, literally perfect way to start a film of this genre. ‘City of Stars’ is sung well and has a melancholy yet magical sound but I don’t see how that gets the attention when Stone’s ‘Audition’ song is better performed and has better lyrics. Though it’s naff for jazz and a typical Top 40’s track, John Legend’s performance of ‘Start a Fire’ works well in showcasing the path Seb is taking away from his dream.

I’m not a total grouch because I did enjoy the majority of the film, I just don’t feel it should have broke GG records and I hope the Oscars gives some variety because ‘La La Land’ does swerve into a nearly boring not great second half.

7/10

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (2016)

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Crazy, stupid and random but totally in a good way, this is a genuinely funny musical mockumentary from The Lonely Island trio, that squeezes in songs, cameos and a vague story about friendship and roots.

After the heyday of The Style Boyz, it was clear Conner (Andy Samberg) was the star breaking out to become Conner4Real. He has fellow Style Boy Owen (Jorma Taccone) as his DJ as they get filmed in the short run up to Conner’s 2nd album release and following tour. However his appeal may be waning as reviews are unkind and past beef with Lawrence (Akiva Schaffer) comes into the picture.

The mockumentary style is handled very well and transitions it to this celeb filled environment of the 21st century with plenty of jokes and pop-shots including brilliant lines about Zayn Malik and later, Taylor Swift There’s even humour to be had with the filming as the camera guys miss an epic event or confusion to whose documentary entourage are whose at the Poppies.

Of course with this type of filming for the movie, it gives plenty of chances to know Conner and see him in all stages of ups and downs. It’s the only way this movie would have worked and been as funny as it opens the door to numerous cameos who send themselves up and act deadly serious when portraying Conner as this genius icon. One only problem with the film is there are so many actors involved to portray his people that some get left very underused.

It’s a film that you can tell has plenty of scenes and riffs left on the cutting room floor to be seen on special features or not at all. I loved the CMZ cutaways though, led by Will Arnett that positively rip into the TV gossip channels with gusto and slurping hilarity. As it’s written by The Lonely Island and produced by Judd Apatow you can feel that improv and zany comedy aura. Most of the time it works to be honest which is great, there’s only a couple of places where the comedy seems to lull and the film loses the welcome pacy nature, actually it’s the first half which zips and pows before a second half which is not as good.

To the songs; which are brilliant. The opening ‘I’m So Humble’ to kick in the beginning credits is catchy, over the top and backed by excessive holograms to give a nice little knock to the Coachella buzz of a holo-performer. ‘Equal Rights’ is stupidly hilarious, the one word retorts after Conner trying to seem open to gay acceptance are fast and fun, the Pink duet backs this as she looks on bemused to his lyrics. I would go on and comment on the other songs but truly most if not all of the songs are cleverly penned.

Andy Samberg knows how to play the doofus arrogant man and delivers his moronic lines with perfect timing but still has enough humanity left that you can stick on side with him. Jorma Taccone plays the pointless Conner4Real DJ well, showcasing his booth with humour and going on a journey as he decides whether to stay with his old friend. Bill Hader is hardly in it but gets a laugh out loud scene about flat-lining, Imogen Poots also underused is okay in sending up celeb couples but doesn’t get much to prove. Justin Timberlake is great though in a backseat role but stealing limelight enough to make his character memorable. It’s people like Simon Cowell, Usher and even Ringo Starr that get more of the laughs as they speak to the camera.

A mixture of deadpan humour and dumbness as they wax lyrical about a very obviously idiotic performer shoots this musical mockumentary into the starry heights of satirical comedy that works.

7.5/10

Sing Street (2016)

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Feeling properly 80’s, this Irish comedy/drama is layered with perfect music and a story full of smiles, heart and feel good nostalgia. Hey, I’m not even an 80’s kid, but I know of the songs and styles from that decade and this film pulls off that aura with ease and brilliance.

Due to money problems at home, music fan Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is moved to a free state school. He sees a girl outside one day and talks to Raphina (Lucy Boynton), inviting her to star in his band’s video. Now all he has to do is actually start up a band and write some songs, leading him on a discovery of love, art and lyrics.

John Carney who brought us one of my favourite films to chill out to – ‘Once’ is back with his musical presence and realistic writing for this special movie. He writes a fantastically immersive story that throws us into the life and times of 1985 and the way this band comes across looks and sounds like they’re a bona fide group of that era. Carney directs the film in a way that fills the narrative and us watching with great optimism. It’s a passionate and cheerful feature that may be simple in places but is dealt with so enjoyably that I don’t care.

Amongst the amazing sounds of the 1980’s, including Duran Duran and The Cure to mention just a couple, there’s a magnificent composition of tracks from Gary Clark, along with Carney he truly captures the beats of familiar artists from the time and transfers them into funny yet authentic sounding tunes for the teen filled Sing Street band to perform. If none of the original songs from this movie get an Oscar nomination then justice doesn’t exist because they deserve recognition and I think ‘Go Now’ may be the one to win it because of Adam Levine’s influence. It’s not just the music that makes you tap your feet and hum a rhythm, the way each band’s music video is seen is so on point and the changing fashions of Conor as he enters school is excellent.

An awful lot in this movie makes you smile and laugh, enough to do so out loud even as I did, more than once. It isn’t just a well handled musical comedy though, the amount of tingling heart and coming of age drama involved makes it even more appealing. As we go over the much beaten track of young love and possible heartbreak, this film deals with it in an irresistible way or perhaps in a zany new romantic way to fit the tone of the movie and make you almost forget that you’ve seen these types of films before.

Walsh-Peelo makes a stunning acting debut, his look fits the 80’s mould just right and he’s both likable and emotive ensuring we want to stay following his passage of growth, like a musical Ferris Bueller he’s captivating and bliss to watch. Boynton is gorgeous, mysterious and confident in a role that delves just a sliver into a dark past that makes her more than just eye candy and subject material for a male band to write about. Jack Reynor as Conor’s brother is a funny watch but he’s damaged, knowledgeable of music but feeling trapped by his older age and lack of trying he gets plenty of time to shine and a heroic burst of pride at the end. All the Sing Street band members are acted greatly too, bringing fun characteristics to the piece.

My heart is warmed to the top after watching this film, which is now one of my favourites. Truly I mean that, this is a musical triumph that’s filled with genuine joy and bitter-sweet drama that I want to see all over again. And again.

8/10

Oscars 2015 Look Back

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A fairly predictable night at the 87th Academy Awards, with all acting winners being the ones I expected and on the whole, ones I was happy to see pick up the golden statuette. The show itself started off spectacularly with showman Neil Patrick Harris doing his usual song and dance shtick, but he does it so well it doesn’t matter. ‘Moving Pictures’ was stylish, cool and one of the better notes of Harris’ hosting gig.

J.K Simmons deserved the win, his role as Fletcher in WHIPLASH is blisteringly good. The harsh way he tries to inspire a new musical icon is violent and cold and Simmons does well giving the teacher some light shades from time to time, either in marvellous one liners or a brief scene of sadness. Patricia Arquette was the out and out favourite all along, scooping up major prizes in the run up to last night, it was a shoe-in for her to get the biggie. Don’t get me wrong, I felt her motherly vulnerable performance held a lot of BOYHOOD together but I would have loved to see Rosamund Pike win, for shock value and doing something Pike had never really done before. Eddie Redmayne is someone I never really loved until seeing his turn as Stephen Hawking. He embodies the genius and his bodily acting as Hawking is outstanding, he thoroughly deserved the win and I was glad he got it, a sweet and gentlemanly speech too. Julianne Moore was the fourth out of four predictable acting wins but from the small snippets I’ve seen of STILL ALICE she looks damn good. Just have to see it now and watch what got the trophy.

Birdman got Best Picture and director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu clawed up another two for Original Screenplay and Directing. I’m more than happy with these three big prizes as Birdman was not a bio-pic, it’s theatrical, clever, funny and excellent. I have to admit I thought Boyhood would win but luckily it didn’t. It’s a sheer statement and project but not an overwhelming treat of a film whereas Birdman stands out. The second year in a row for a Mexican to win Director and gladly it seems the Oscars voters are rewarding the talents and not just American releases. Just waiting for more female recognition and they’re doing better.

Glory got Best Original Song for SELMA, beating off earworm ditty, ‘Everything is Awesome’ featured in THE LEGO MOVIE, still a major snub for not being in Animation but it’s too late now! Glory well and truly deserved the win, John Legend and Common collected the Oscar mere minutes after their hair raising performance. The production value of the Edmund Pettus bridge and large groups marching on the Dolby Theatre stage was emotional and powerful. It got a rapturous ovation and tears were shed by snubbed David Oyelowo and Chris Pine also.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is a lovely Anderson film and the whole look is perfect, so it was 100% agreeable that it picked up all the visual elements, such as costuming and production design. The state of Zubrowka is quirky and sweeps through doll house like mountains, hotels and prisons in typical Wes design.

Neil Patrick Harris himself threw in a couple of good jokes and zingers but on the whole the show did drag on, his magic suitcase prediction gag was a pointless waste of time. The opening number and his Whiplash/Birdman skit were the peaks of his hosting role. Harris stepping out in his tighty whities was brilliant and perfectly spoofed. I don’t know who may get the honour next time but Fey and Poehler are full of character and have chemistry so hopefully they’ll move up from Golden Globes duty.

A long and sometime odd show, Gaga and Sound of Music being a case in point, but I still can’t shake off the Oscar buzz every year it comes around. Even when the films aren’t as exciting or the winners are expected, there’s something fun about staying up to watch the Academy Awards. See you again next year. #stayweird #staydifferent.