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Posts Tagged ‘musical’

Some of my friends refuse to believe me when I say I’ve never seen the Disney animation of Aladdin. It’s true: didn’t see Aladdin, didn’t see Beauty and the Beast, didn’t see Little Mermaid. Of all of those 90s cartoons the only one I caught was Lion King, and that was because someone gave me free tickets to it. My whole attitude to the Disney Aladdin may in fact be coloured by the fact that, in November 2005, I found myself obliged to watch ‘A Whole New World’, one of the big production numbers of the film, performed on live TV by Peter Andre and Jordan. No living soul could remain unaffected by such an experience.

Given this baleful connection between Jordan and Disney’s Aladdin, I suppose there is something of an irony that the corporation’s latest attempt to farm money from their back catalogue by updating the charming animations with live action and CGI, which is of course a new version of Aladdin, was actually filmed there. It’s a funny old world sometimes, as well as a whole new one. Although possibly not in this movie, where much of the humour is either laboured or rather sentimental.

The fact that Guy Ritchie’s film is likely to define perceptions of this story for another generation causes me a mild pang, for it persists in relocating the story of Aladdin from ancient China to somewhere generically middle-eastern, and furthermore ruthlessly scythes Widow Twankey and Wishee-Washee from the plot (they don’t even have the bit where they divide up the audience for the singalong near the end). Instead we just meet Aladdin (Mena Massoud), an improbably well-groomed small-time crook and homeless person, who makes the acquaintance of sultan’s daughter Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott), who has some rather anachronistic ideas about emancipation and self-empowerment. Things get more complicated when…

Oh, come on, Constant Reader! Do I really need to describe the plot of Aladdin? It’s from A Thousand and One Nights (albeit somewhat unrecognisably), one of the most famous collections of folk-tales in history! There’s an evil vizier/magician (Marwan Kenzari). There’s a cave. There’s a lamp. There’s a genie (Will Smith). There are a finite number of wishes to be granted. There are show-tunes, power-ballads and dance routines. You know how this one goes, I would imagine.

Well, if nothing else it is less horrid than Tim Burton’s baffling version of Dumbo, but once again the whole thing is somewhat hobbled by the fact that it is essentially a recreation of the 1992 animation rather than an attempt to do something genuinely new and creative with the story: in addition to all the required beats from the folk-tale, the film is also obliged to include all the bits people will remember from the cartoon, as well. It even attempts to look like a cartoon, with a garish colour-palette and cinematography, although the list of things which seem to have influenced this new film is a long one: it is a peculiar chimerical beast made up of panto plotting, blockbuster CGI, Broadway show tunes, MOR power-ballads, and Bollywood dance routines. No doubt the film is expecting to receive plaudits for ethnically-appropriate casting (not that anyone is actually Chinese), although I do note that the closer a character is to the centre of the story, the greater the chance that they speak exclusively in an American English idiom.

Frankly, I found it rather hard going, not really being in the target audience – I only went because we normally go to the cinema on a Tuesday night and my friends preferred this to yet another trip to watch Godzilla: King of the Monsters (yes, I know; but I try to be kind to them anyway). It does acquire a certain energy and sense of fun once Will Smith turns up, but on the whole you could easily dismiss this as very bland, rather vacuous stuff.

I did notice, however, that beneath all the froth and nonsense there is a film putting across an unexpectedly rigorous, if somewhat flawed thesis about the nature of power, particularly as it relates to the citizens of traditional hierarchical societies. All the major characters are to some extent defined by their social mobility, or lack of it: none of them, initially at least, have any prospect of changing their station in the manner they would prefer. Aladdin is going to stay on the street forever, Jafar is not going to ascend the throne due to his lack of the blood royal, Jasmine (being a woman) is not going to be allowed to rule as she would like, and the Genie’s whole peculiar existence is defined by some rather arbitrary rules (you could argue that the Genie is in fact emblematic of the whole subtext of Aladdin).

Obviously this is a cause of frustration for all of them, and when Aladdin and Jafar decide to do something about it, it is in the same way: the use of magical (and thus unnatural, i.e., outside the bounds of conventional society) power to change their station in life. (The hero-and-villain-are-two-sides-of-the-same-coin trope is a common one, but it’s presented here in an unusually systematic fashion.) What’s notable is that neither of them is ultimately successful in this, and the changes that do result are more due to their essential characters than whatever magic they have managed to lay their hands on. The deeper subtext of the film is that power itself is an illusion at best, a trap at worst: we see Aladdin symbolically represented as a puppet of the Genie, an inversion of the supposed power relationship here. By the end of the film it has been made clear that the degree of power a person nominally wields is in inverse proportion to their ability to actually make free use of it – the Genie, whose powers seem to border on omnipotence (with a couple of exceptions), actually has the least control over his own existence, while it is the homeless Aladdin who is closest to being actually free.

And yet the film is ultimately rather conservative (perhaps this shouldn’t be a great surprise), choosing to ignore its own thesis in the closing stages and present a happy ending in which the characters do manage to achieve some fairly improbable changes in the previously-monolithic status quo of the film. The root cause of all the suffering and conflict in this story is the existence of the strictly hierarchical society, and therefore for the film to have a truly happy ending one would expect to see the old power structures torn down and a new model of society in some kind of nascent form – but no. There are some specific and not especially significant reforms, primarily that Jasmine gets to be the Sultana (one might describe this as her raisin d’etre). So in the end, as I said, the film is ultimately flawed in how it implements its sociological and political analysis. But some of the songs are quite catchy anyway.

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‘Many people lead lives of quiet desperation, but Elton John leads a life of loud desperation’ – if I had said that, I would be somewhat peeved, as it’s a quote that seems to have entered the public consciousness without anyone being able to remember who it was who actually thought it up in the first place. Still, it’s a good line, and that’s the most important thing. Whether or not he agrees with it, Elton himself (he has acquired that odd status of being one of those people recognisable from his first name alone, even though he has thoughtfully given himself three) clearly thinks his life has something to commend it, as he has apparently been trying to get his life-story filmed for nearly twenty years now. Now here it is, in the form of Rocketman, directed by Dexter Fletcher.

One day it may be possible to write about Rocketman without comparing it to Bohemian Rhapsody, but clearly not today. Fletcher wasn’t the credited director on the bemusingly successful Queen bio-pic, but he did finish it off after Bryan Singer was canned, and the subject matter is obviously very similar, too – the life story of a troubled legend of popular music, liberally garnished with hits from the back catalogue. Of course, there are differences as well, the first obvious one being the tone of the film, which opens with Elton (Taron Egerton) arriving unannounced at what seems to be a group therapy session, dressed in an outfit that makes him look like a cross between Mephistopheles and a macaw. Some discussion of Elton’s youth, as Reggie Dwight in the London suburb of Pinner, leads into the first of many full-on musical numbers, staged with verve and imagination.

These continue as Elton/Reggie’s life story unfolds: a musical prodigy troubled by a strained relationship with a cold and distant father, he wins a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music, starts playing keyboards in pubs at an improbably early age, and generally establishes himself as a jobbing musician by the late 1960s. The key moment comes when his natural facility with melody is put together with the lyrical talents of Bernie Taupin (a nicely-pitched performance from Jamie Bell, who fully understands his job is to support Egerton without upstaging him). Success comes quickly, with an early appearance in America leading to astronomical record sales, fuelled by a succession of belting tunes.

But is he really happy? With the fame and fortune come a troubled relationship with his lover and manager (Richard Madden), increasing dependence on drink and drugs, and a terrible sense of loneliness and isolation. This is a life story of extraordinary success (350 million records sold), hand in hand with desolating moments of heartbreak (Watford FC losing the 1984 FA Cup Final 2-0 to Everton).

(Funnily enough, Elton’s period of ownership at Watford is one of those interludes in his life that the film skips over entirely. Clearly, he was on board for a film depicting his struggles with addiction, loneliness, self-doubt, and betrayal, not to mention his failed marriage, but some things are clearly just too painful to revisit, even 35 years on.)

Another key difference between this film and that other one is that, of course, Elton John is still with us and has clearly taken a hands-on approach to the movie (he is credited as executive producer and his husband is one of the producers). To some extent this is no bad thing, as it was Elton himself who resisted attempts to overly-sanitise this film, insisting that his life would not get a PG-13 rating. On the other hand, one also kind of gets the sense that there has still been some smoothing over of rough edges – Elton is mostly presented entirely sympathetically, with no mention of the hair transplant, any of his well-known strops directed at fans or passers-by, or the surprising moment in the mid-80s when he phoned up a member of his staff and ordered him to make the weather outside less windy. Likewise, the film omits the 90th birthday party of his mother, which he didn’t go to as the pair had fallen out a few years previously – so his mum hired an impersonator to go and perform there anyway (I don’t know about you, but I think there’s masses of material for a great movie just in that one story).

I suppose much of this is understandable as the film concludes with Elton coming out of rehab at some unspecified point between 1983 (the film concludes with Egerton recreating the video for I’m Still Standing) and 1991 (the closing captions indicate that the star hasn’t had a drink in ’28 years’). One of the problems Rocketman has to contend with is that there isn’t really a moment in Elton’s career that corresponds with Queen’s legendary performance at Live Aid, and so it lacks a natural end point – the only possibility would have been his performance at the funeral in 1997, which would probably have entailed making a film with an entirely different tone. (An uncharitable observer might suggest that one of a number of things that Elton John and Freddie Mercury have in common is that neither of them have released any really noteworthy music since the 1990s, and Freddie has a better excuse for this.)

However, if the film comes pre-loaded with some flaws, it also has some in-built advantages, which it makes full use of, most obviously the Elton John back catalogue. Looking back, I remember always being aware of who Elton was, but not particularly familiar with his music in the way that I was with, say, the Beatles – I recall the first time I properly heard Crocodile Rock and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, which was on a re-run of Elton’s appearance on The Muppet Show – the image of the singer, in a peacock outfit, conducting a chorus of foam-rubber crocs in the ‘la la la la la’ section of the former song is one burned into my memory, and I was sorry not to see it recreated here. However, most of the famous Elton songs turn up here, although the one about the candle is only alluded to, and the ones licensed to Disney are absent as well – but we do get the title song, Crocodile Rock, Tiny Dancer, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Your Song, and many others.

The film hedges its bets by staging some of these as simple recreations of Elton performing them (and it has to be said that Egerton often looks uncannily like the singer when doing so), but in other places opts to go for the full-on musical number approach. Like the opening number, these are mostly extremely well-done, slick and inventive, and because the film isn’t afraid to be a proper musical they can – for example – insert a song like 2001’s I Want Love (all right, maybe I was a bit harsh about Elton’s recent material) into a scene from the 1950s without it feeling too jarring. Egerton does all his own singing and is more than acceptable, just one aspect of a performance which really surprised me – I’ve always tended to think of Egerton as a rotten actor, but this may well be because I have only seen him in films which were a bit suspect (the Kingsman series) or actively rotten themselves (Eddie the Eagle and last year’s Robin Hood). Rocketman indicates there may yet be hope for him.

In the end we really enjoyed Rocketman. It handles the rags section rather better than riches, and loses focus towards the end, and it doesn’t deliver quite the feelgood emotional wallop of Bohemian Rhapsody, but it’s made with skill and creativity. Olinka, who in addition to being a former rock musician is also in training to become a psychotherapist, found it to be a particularly moving and insightful depiction of how none of us really find it easy to escape our origins, no matter how materially successful we may become. Viewed in those terms, the film has surprising depth and emotional heft, as well as delivering some slick and satisfying entertainment, and some really surprising clothes. In the end I would probably say that Elton has earned whatever indulgences the movie permits him, and I have no doubt he would agree with me.

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I love a really famously bad movie, me, but the problem is that a lot of the actual famously bad films don’t turn up on TV a lot. There’s a class of bad movie which has become celebrated for its badness – the much-discussed ‘so bad it’s good’ type of film, usually made on a low budget and often belonging to a disreputable genre – but the real stinkers of years gone by tend to vanish into obscurity. Luckily, the rise of the high-number movie channel means that obscurity isn’t as obscure as it used to be. Which was how I came to happen across a screening of Charles Jarrott’s 1973 movie Lost Horizon. I think I must have heard hushed, shocked whispers about this film, but the reality of it still came as rather a shock.

I think I must have read James Hilton’s hugely popular original novel, many years ago, but it’s the 1937 version of this story (directed by Frank Capra) that I’m most familiar with. The 1973 version opens in a broadly similar manner: there is unrest on the cards in the remote Asian city of Baskula, with everyone trying to get the hell out of Dodge before some guerrillas arrive. This includes a bunch of foreigners, most prominent amongst them being Richard Conway (Peter Finch), who is some sort of diplomat or trouble-shooter for the UN. Conway manages to get on the last plane out of Baskula, along with the kind of mixed-bag of fellow travellers that puts one in mind of a disaster movie of sorts – there’s gruff engineer Sam (George Kennedy), jaded journalist Sally (Sally Kellerman), out-of-place vaudeville comedian Harry (Bobby Van), and Conway’s own brother (Michael York). Little do any of them suspect that their pilot has been replaced by a mysterious stranger…

(I suppose the 26 year age difference between the two Conway brothers is just about explicable – maybe they’re not full brothers, or one of them is adopted. But you do wonder that nobody took one glance at Finch and York together and said ‘Father and son, I could maybe believe, but brothers? You have to be kidding me.’ Then again, as we shall perhaps see, whoever was in charge of preventing bizarre missteps and misjudgements on Lost Horizon seems to have been asleep on the job, or possibly even to have died there.)

Soon enough the refugees notice that their plane, rather than heading east to Hong Kong, is going the other way, and eventually crash-lands somewhere in the Himalayas. But Conway is clearly the kind of chap who gets kidnapped in planes that then crash all the time, and stays remarkably cool. This is justified when a group of locals in thick furs turn up, led by the enigmatic Mr Chang (John Gielgud, whose preparation for playing someone Asian basically extended to sticky-tape on the eyelids).

Chang leads them all back to his home in an idyllic valley, protected from the snow and ice by circling mountains, and the location of Shangri-La, a lamasery devoted to the creed of kindness and politeness. Shangri-La is almost totally isolated from the outside world and so the party will have to stay there for a while at least. So far, as noted, the film has vacillated between seeming like a low-rent disaster movie and a somewhat tepid adventure film, but the middle section of the film gets underway with the first of many songs. In amongst all the singing and dancing, various subplots play out for most of the refugees, while Conway Major discovers that they were kidnapped and brought here: the current boss of Shangri-La, who is two hundred years old and has one leg, is trying to recruit him as a successor. Meanwhile, Conway Minor has fallen in love with a local (Olivia Hussey) – well, given she looks and sounds European and is called Maria, you have to wonder exactly how local she is, but I digress – and is keen for them all to leave. Will Conway Major choose the outside world or Shangri-La?

Now, normally, Lost Horizon would have ended up as just a fairly bad movie, because this is one of those stories that’s very much of the era in which it was written. The film is shot through with problematic attitudes and assumptions that, even worse, it doesn’t even seem to be aware of. Viewed as a film of its era, the Capra version is still charming and engaging entertainment, but for a Hollywood movie from the early 1970s to treat the whole of Asia basically not as a place but as something that happens to westerners – well, as I say, problematic doesn’t really begin to cover it. We have already touched upon the issue of Gielgud playing someone called Chang; we should probably also mention that all the genuinely Asian characters in the movie are basically obliged to stay in the background – when the westerners require love interest they either find it with each other, or conveniently European residents of Shangri-La turn up. Perhaps one should not be surprised, for the fabled lamasery of Shangri-La resembles a second-rate resort hotel more than anything else; I can’t imagine the place getting an especially good score on TripAdvisor though.

What raises, or more accurately lowers, Lost Horizon to a whole different level of badness is the decision to do it as a musical. Now, I’m not saying that grafting songs onto an existing story is a necessarily bad idea – that’s basically the principle of opera, after all – but the way in which it is done here is compellingly horrible. For one thing, the pacing is just plain weird: there are no songs at all for the first forty minutes of the film, then about eight in the space of an hour. It’s a disconcerting shift in emphasis. The closing section of the film is likewise resolutely non-musical, leaving all the numbers sandwiched together in the middle. But there is more, much more than this. It is rather noticeable that most of the cast can’t sing: there is extensive use of dubbing for the actual songs. They can’t dance worth a damn, either: the film’s big numbers are mesmerisingly cack-handed in their staging.

As I mentioned, all the songs are crammed together in the middle section of the film, and the fact that most of them are genuinely grim (working on this movie split up Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and nearly put Bacharach into retirement) makes this a peculiarly gruelling film to watch. The succession of blandly upbeat songs essentially espousing hippy virtues – peace, love, family – could almost drive a person to violence, even without watching some of the accompanying routines – often, these do not resemble choreography as much as people undergoing rehabilitation after joint replacement surgery, while at one point ‘Living Together, Growing Together’ is paused while a large group of men in tangerine nappies perform massed rhythmic gymnastics. The overall effect is extraordinary: just a few seconds of ‘The World is a Circle’ or ‘Question Me an Answer’ and I find the will to live starting to leave my body. It may be best not to watch Lost Horizon without a defibrillator on standby.

Perhaps the most positive thing I can say about Lost Horizon is that I don’t really see how it managed to lose the $51 million ascribed to it by one website (it only cost $6 million to make in the first place), but this is more about basic mathematics than any intrinsic quality of the film. It is dim-witted, patronising, weirdly paced, very variably acted, consistently badly sung and danced, poorly directed, and has nothing to say for itself that doesn’t feel trite and obvious. Apart from that, though, I suppose it is not all that bad.

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I mentioned the other day the unusually long theatrical releases enjoyed in years past by films such as The Wild Bunch (seven years or so, in one UK cinema at least) and Reservoir Dogs (not quite as long, but over a wider area). However, as chance would have it one of the ‘high number’ TV channels in my region happened to be showing a film which puts both of these in the shade, by which I mean it was originally released in 1975 and is technically still running in some cinemas today (even if only at midnight on the weekends). No ordinary film gets a 44 year theatrical run, and whatever else you want to say about it, Jim Sharman’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show is not what you’d call an ordinary film.

From a certain point of view it resembles a fairly typical film adaptation of a successful stage show, but then this is to miss the unique nature of the Rocky Horror phenomenon. Rocky Horror is, of course, synonymous with its creator, Richard O’Brien, who is something of a genial self-mythologiser (at least where the origins of the show are concerned). One version of the story has it that O’Brien was appearing in Jesus Christ Superstar in London’s West End when the creator of that show, Andrew Lloyd Webber, attended a show and was sufficiently unimpressed by O’Brien’s performance that he had him sacked on the spot – unable to get work as a result, O’Brien wrote Rocky Horror as a way of making some money (other versions are less dramatic and suggest the actor started work on the project simply to amuse himself). Richard O’Brien has also suggested that the tone of the show was a calculated choice based on the fact that the two most successful film series in British history are the Hammer horrors and the Carry On films, and that Rocky Horror is intended as a kind of mash-up of the two. This strikes me as disingenuous, to say the least – it sounds good, but the film itself doesn’t really seem to show either as a significant influence.

The film concerns the travails of (initially) wholesome young couple Brad Majors (Barry Bostwick) and Janet Weiss (Susan Sarandon); the setting feels like it should be the Fifties but there is a very deliberate choice to show the characters listening to Nixon’s resignation on the radio at one point. Anyway, having recently become engaged, Brad and Janet are travelling to visit an old friend when their car breaks down and they have to take refuge in the mansion of eccentric (to say the least) scientist Dr Frank N Furter (Tim Curry), who is hosting a gathering of like-minded friends. The occasion is to celebrate the fact that he has recently completed an extraordinary experiment, and created a man in his laboratory! Although his motives for doing so are probably best not dwelt upon…

One thing you can say about The Rocky Horror Picture Show is that it has a visual identity of its own like few other films: if you come across it while channel-surfing, it’s instantly obvious what it is, perhaps (given the remarkable cultural penetration of the show) even if you’ve never seen it before. The movie is consumed by a camp sensibility in a way matched by few others, and this extends to the costumes, the set dressing, and most of the performances. It is its own thing much more than it is a spoof of any other film or genre.

As I say, I’m dubious about O’Brien’s suggestion that Rocky Horror has much to do with the Carry Ons or Hammer (though I detect a certain commonality of approach with the Dr Phibes films). The closest real link between the House of Horror and Rocky Horror (unless you count Charles Gray’s appearance) is that the latter re-uses some old props from Revenge of Frankenstein, and was filmed on location at Hammer’s old base at Bray Studios. It doesn’t really have the relentless innuendo or slapstick (or indeed the actual sense of innocence) you usually find in a Carry On film; compare The Rocky Horror Picture Show with Carry On Screaming and you’ll see that these two films are actually quite far apart in tone and approach.

The film seems to owe at least as big a debt to American sci-fi movies of the Fifties as it does to any English influence – the litany of films invoked by O’Brien in the iconic opening number is mostly American, after all. The setting is certainly American and the plot refers to things like the UFO flap of the 1950s. The clincher, for me, is the musical score, which is stuffed with pastiche rock ‘n’ roll songs intended to recall the same period. If Rocky Horror starts anywhere, it is as a piece of fake Americana, eventually subverted by notions of campness.

Whatever it’s supposed to be, I always find The Rocky Horror Picture Show to be terrifically watchable, mainly because the songs are so good. The slow ones are generally at least pleasant and easy on the ear, while the up-tempo numbers are fun and witty (the complaint that they all sound the same seems to me to be a bit unfair, given they were all written in the same rock ‘n’ roll mode). The cast put them over well, too – I can’t honestly claim to ever have been fond of ‘Let’s Do the Time Warp Again’, but I really like ‘Science Fiction Double Feature’, ‘Damn It Janet’, and many of the others.

If there’s a problem, it’s that – viewed as a piece of conventional musical theatre – The Rocky Horror Show is all over the place. It does contain ‘I Am’ and ‘I Want’ songs, but they’re often in very peculiar places – the most obvious example of an ‘I Want’ song is ‘Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me’, but it’s nearly halfway through the film (much later than is normal). The plot of the film basically falls to bits even earlier than this, at least in terms of normal narrative progression. There’s really no point in worrying too much about the story, because it simply doesn’t make a lot of sense or follow any real logic. Well before the end, the film simply becomes a collection of (pretty good) songs – tellingly, it also becomes essentially sung-through, after the opening includes a reasonable amount of dialogue.

Devotees of the film and the show would doubtless say that Rocky Horror is about an attitude more than a narrative, and I couldn’t honestly argue with them. You could perhaps make a case that the film is about the way in which strait-laced American society in the 1950s was undermined and subverted by the permissiveness of the 1960s and early 70s, symbolised here by rock ‘n’ roll music and the film’s obsession with cross-dressing and minority sexual practices, but looking for a serious subtext to The Rocky Horror Picture Show is surely missing the point by an enormous margin.

I do wonder, though, if the show hasn’t been a victim of its own success. It’s hard to get a real sense of what society was actually like back in 1973 when the stage production opened, and it may be that it was a genuinely startling and transgressive new show at the time. These days, as I say, it has achieved a remarkably high profile and perhaps this has given it a cosiness and sense of familiarity which has to some extent pulled its teeth. I saw a revival on stage in 1994 and despite the large number of slightly puerile sight-gags it was very much a family show, with people taking their children along for a pantomime-like experience of audience participation. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, like its theatrical progenitor, was long ago absorbed into the mainstream and accommodated there, if never completely assimilated – but it remains an energetic piece of entertainment, and practically the type specimen of a cult movie.

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Christmas! It’s a time for family, for sharing, for massive over-indulgence, for lying around in stupefied torpor. What it’s never been before, in my family at least, is a time for enjoying the latest cinematic offerings, mainly due to all the over-indulgence and stupefied torpidity I just mentioned. Still, one thing about family (mine, at least) is their capacity to change and surprise you, and so it proved this year. It turned out that there were not one but two films on release that my small young relatives were quite keen to see, and it was really just a question of who got roped into going to see what and when.

Now, it transpired that Young Niece was particularly interested in seeing Rob Marshall’s Mary Poppins Returns. As I believe I may have mentioned before, catching this particular movie was right there on my list of things to do this Christmas season: very near the bottom, somewhere between transcribing the Queen’s speech and then translating it into Basque and volunteering to have an elective laparotomy, so I ducked out of this one. My Significant Other was very happy to accompany her, along with various other senior members of the tribe. Significant Other drew my attention to the fact that, back in the dim and distant echoes of history, I did occasionally indulge in the odd guest post about films I hadn’t personally seen myself, and dropped some loaded hints that it might be a nice idea to revive this tradition for the Poppins movie. She and Young Niece seemed quite keen on this idea and I found I couldn’t in all good conscience turn them down. So here we go, for the first time in ages I will attempt to post a review of a film which I haven’t actually seen.

I have, of course, seen the original 1964 Mary Poppins, a film which used to be just a fondly-remembered family favourite and near-fixture of the festive TV schedules, but which Disney – particularly since the release of Saving Mr Banks in 2013, perhaps – have worked hard to reposition as some kind of iconic, epochal classic of popular cinema. Disney, whose consolidation of their already iron grip on popular box office has started to cause some consternation even amongst those who like much of their output, have also hit upon a lucrative thing in the shape of retooling and reimagining many of their classic old films – a couple of years ago we had the new CGI version of The Jungle Book, due to be followed in 2019 by freshly computerised remakes of Dumbo and The Lion King. All this considered, the appearance of a Poppins sequel only 54 years after the original – the gap is a bit on the long side, I think you’ll agree – is really not as surprising as it first appears.

The details of the plot, at least, are fairly easy to glean from the trailers and a quick visit to Wikipedia: the Banks children from the first film have grown up and  turned into Emily Mortimer and Ben Whishaw. Whishaw now has children of his own, although his wife has died (a fairly ruthless swipe of the scriptwriter’s pen); in time-honoured fashion, the now-grown children have become rather stressed and joyless drones, in grave peril of forgetting about The Important Things In Life. The fact that the bank is threatening to foreclose on their home and throw them all out into the street probably isn’t helping much. What better time for someone to dust off an old kite which has been lying about the place and summon, not entirely unlike the Woman in Black, the supernatural dominatrix Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt), to sort everything out?

Well, in my case I suspect it would have taken a snootful of pethidine to make this particular load of sugar go down, but Young Niece did seem quite impressed when they came out, as did Significant Other. I asked them to provide a few further details, firstly about what they thought of the film in general. (I should probably mention that Young Niece is a talkative ten years of age while English is not Significant Other’s first language.)

‘It was really good, imaginative and creative – it made a real picture in your mind of reality and it introduced the magic. I think it had sort of the same story as the first one with modern and exciting elements – though I think the first one was more exciting, set in the olden times.

‘It was really clever with the director, how he took the old story and turned it into a new story… the actors played it like they were in the moment. Emily Blunt played Mary Poppins really well – she stepped into Julie Andrew’s shoes. She was really sharp but also a lot of fun.’

Anything else to add about Emily Blunt? (Personally, I’m hoping this film doesn’t mark the point at which we lose Blunt to the clutches of bland global megastardom.) ‘When Mary Poppins arrived she was a little bit bossy, but after the fabulous bath everybody loved her.’ (I believe the ‘fabulous bath’ may be a reference to a big special effects set-piece sequence.)

‘Emily Blunt put a lot of character in… she changed the accent in her voice during some of the songs. It’s a little difficult to be the nanny and also the big showgirl.’ (The only other performers to be singled out for a mention were Angela Lansbury – who seems to mainly be present to encourage my father in his tendency to get the original film mixed up with Bedknobs and Broomsticks – and Meryl Streep, whose appearance as Cousin Topsy drew praise – ‘she looked different, which was good.’)

Thoughts on production values? ‘The costumes were very colourful and looked the part – the lamp-lighters were wearing clothes like they would wear… not so colourful.’ (As an aside, nice to see my niece is so aware of the class divide at such a tender age.) ‘The animation was absolutely fabulous, especially the way they did the lamp-lighters and Mary Poppins on the kite. It was just amazing and it looked really real and joyful.’

Any favourite moments? ‘The best bit was when they were working together to turn time back to get the share certificate.’ (I should probably explain the concept of a plot spoiler to her in a bit more detail, now I think on it.) They also enjoyed ‘the stunt with bikes and the gymnastics, how they got up Big Ben… there were some amazing stunts and acrobatics.’

My suspicion was that this would be another film about getting in touch with your inner child and reconnecting with joy and all the usual waffle like that, so I asked them what they thought the message of the film really was. ‘Nothing is impossible,’ was the answer both of them gave, quite independently, which must mean something I expect. In an attempt to include all the generations of the family, I asked our venerable patriarch the same question and he came back with ‘Money isn’t everything’, which is an interesting moral for a film with a budget of $130 million.

So there you go, a little lighter on the piercing insight than usual, and indeed the pithy one-liners, but you can’t have everything, especially considering I was in the theatre next door enjoying an entirely different film while they were taking all this in. They all seemed to come out smiling, anyway, and I expect that if you enjoyed the original film you’ll probably enjoy this one too. Personally I think I would still much rather feed the birds, fly a kite, or chim-chiminee my chim-chim-cherees than go anywhere near it, but everyone is different, aren’t they? Anyway…

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The thing about a movie like A Star is Born is that, when it comes to doing a properly pithy review, all the best lines have probably been taken already. The new version (directed by Bradley Cooper) is, after all, the fourth iteration of this particular story, which has a strong claim to be the most remade film in history – I know there have been 27 versions of The Three Musketeers, or whatever, but here we are talking about something originated for the screen, not an adaptation of a novel or a play. I will be honest and admit I have not been able to come up with anything as good as the Village Voice‘s verdict on the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand, ‘A bore is starred.’

The long gap between the most recent A Star is Borns does not preclude a tiny bit of behind-the-scenes continuity between the two – presumably for obscure contractual reasons, hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters is credited for both despite having no career worth mentioning these days – but otherwise the new film is its own thing – or at least as much of its own thing as one can reasonably expect, given that it credits both the Streisand and Judy Garland versions as contributing to the story.

Cooper plays hard-living country rocker Jackson Maine, a successful musician who is beginning to have serious trouble with various personal demons. One night, after a gig in New York, he drops into a drag bar while desperately searching for something to drink (hey, we’ve all been there). His mind is taken off the booze when he sees a performance by an unknown singer named Ally (played by Lady Gaga, who is played by Stefani Germanotta as usual). He is much taken by her incredible vocal stylings, and soon after the rest of her, even the nose which she claims has been such a brake on her career: shallow and worthless music industry professionals are only interested in superficial appearance, not real talent.

Well, they have a lovely evening together and then part, and Ally assumes that’s the end of it. But what’s this? Jackson sends a car to whisk her off to his next gig, which she of course ends up going to. He drags her on stage for an unplanned duet, and the rest is, well, not quite history, but certainly very late-stage prehistory. (Well, this is one way of picking up girls, I suppose.) Stardom soon beckons for Ally (as you might have anticipated if you were paying attention to the title of the film) – but will Jackson be able to deal with his girlfriend’s fame and talent threatening to eclipse his own?

As I say, all the best lines about A Star is Born have already been taken, and it was Mark Kermode who observed with typical sagacity that the film has two main challenges as a piece of drama: it has to convince you that Bradley Cooper is a famous rock star and Lady Gaga isn’t. Well, I would say it manages to pull this off – Cooper has a decent voice (not sure if he’s doing his own guitar-playing though) and does the business when his character is on stage, while – and I didn’t know this – apparently Germanotta spent ten years taking method acting lessons at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York. So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that there is really nothing much wrong with her performance at all.

That said, it’s when Cooper is acting and Germanotta is singing that the film feels like it’s operating at full power. Cooper as director seems fully aware that, as a musical (even a diegetic one, which is strictly speaking what this is), having a singer of her range and technical ability in the lead role is the film’s trump card. Where most trailers for forthcoming attractions build up to a big dramatic moment or special-effects money shot, the one for A Star is Born is based around the moment when Gaga lets rip with a (let me just check with a popular lyric-transcribing website) ‘Oooooaahaaaooouoooouooooohaaaa’ and practically lifts the roof off any cinema where it is showing. It is a properly spine-tingling moment and I expect the musical number it accompanies to be inescapably ubiquitous from now until next year’s awards season concludes.

It’s a bit which comes fairly early on in the film, which until this point has been skimming along almost irresistibly, with a very well-judged mixture of grit, warmth, and romance. The opening section is certainly the film’s best – not because the rest of it is actually bad as such, but it’s just not quite to the same standard.

There’s just a bit too much of it, for one thing – the movie feels like it could comfortably absorb ten or fifteen minutes of cuts from its middle section – as it is, it occasionally feels like it’s laying everything on a bit thick. Then again, this is a chunky, crowd-pleasing, manipulative musical melodrama, so maybe that’s kind of the point.

Even so, I did find myself wondering what this story is supposed to be about – is it trying to make a point about the brutal nature of the fame game, or is it really just about the stresses and strains on this particular relationship? The story is obviously trying to tick all the bases, by showing Ally’s rise to stardom while depicting Jackson’s decline and fall, but it almost feels as if these things are happening in isolation from each other – the film makes it clear from its opening moments that Maine is a man with serious issues, which only get worse as the story continues. It’s not difficult to imagine his story following a vaguely similar trajectory even had he never met Ally – as a result, they almost feel like ships passing one another, the ups and downs of their actual relationship incidental, and this inevitably impacts on how affecting and moving the drama of the film is.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of big, sentimental movie that audiences often take to their hearts in a very big way, and I can imagine A Star is Born becoming a major success, both critically and commercially. Is it too soon to talk about next year’s awards? Possibly, but the Academy in particular has a distinct weakness for this kind of new-take-on-an-old-favourite offering. And while I don’t think this is a particularly great film, it’s a substantial one with some wonderful individual moments.

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It was Friday night, and the lights were low (as you would expect, in a cinema). There were people everywhere – a sense of expectation hanging in the air. My impatience was slowly creeping up my spine and growing strong. Sitting there no-one could harm me. They just stared at me and wondered why.

As regular readers will be able to confirm, I can keep this sort of thing up indefinitely, but I expect you are more interested in hearing about Ol Parker’s Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again than in clumsily repurposed pop song lyrics, so let’s crack on with that. As it seems like the UK is currently experiencing a shortage of everything except shortages, cinema tickets are not quite big enough to accommodate that title in full, and so the ones we ended up with were apparently for a film entitled Mamma Mia! HWGA. By a strange coincidence, when I asked Next Desk Colleague if he wanted to come and see the film, his response actually was ‘Hwga!’, or at least a very similar sound. The same was true of nearly all my male co-workers when I broached the possibility with them – although there was one guy whose response of ‘I have a serious issue with the intrinsically non-diegetic nature of the musical as a cinematic form’ rather impressed me. Nearly all the distaff members of the office hurled themselves at the chance, though.

So I eventually rocked up to the new film in the company of a bevy of women of various ages and nationalities, all rather excited and wont to emit vowel sounds at unexpected moments as proceedings got underway. Fortunately my Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant had also agreed to come, so I wasn’t the only possessor of a Y chromosome in the party and didn’t feel quite so much of a stranger in a strange land. (I was still a bit worried I might end up spending two hours doing the Peter Rabbit face, though.)

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, in case you have recently arrived from Neptune, is a sequel to 2008’s Mamma Mia!, an alarmingly successful contraption based around creatively-cast performers doing unorthodox cover versions of songs by Abba, one of the greatest pop groups in the history of the planet. This recipe ended up making $615 million, somehow, and so inevitably a sequel has arrived.

The first thing we should say is – now, does this constitute a spoiler? It’s a plot point that’s introduced virtually at the start, so I’d usually say no, but at the same time it’s deliberately obfuscated in the trailer, so… Oh, what the hell (spoiler alert). So – some time has passed since the first film, and central figure Donna (Meryl Streep) has carked it in the meantime, though whether this was a creative decision or just the result of Streep not really wanting to do the movie I’m not sure; suffice to say that despite her prominence in the publicity, her actual involvement is minimal.

This opens up the film to employ a structure which will probably be familiar to fans of The Godfather Part 2, although quite how big the crossover audience between The Godfather and Mamma Mia! is I’m not sure. Basically, we have one storyline which is a prequel to the original film, in which a young Donna (Lily James, whose publicity material will probably now contain the words ‘has been compared to Meryl Streep’ in perpetuity) leaves Oxford University, goes travelling in Europe, and embarks on the regimen of random promiscuity which will eventually leave her a single parent in charge of a rather cruddy Greek hotel.

The other plot strand concerns Donna’s daughter Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), who is struggling to reopen the same hotel thirty years later, with the help of her mother’s friends and widower (Pierce Brosnan). It soon becomes clear that Brosnan is basically being kept locked in a shed, well away from any sheet music, in case he attempts to sing again. (We will return to this.) Also helping out is a new character played by Andy Garcia, named Fernando (which if you ask me is tantamount to cheating). Will the reopening of the hotel be a big success? Will Sophie’s other two possible-fathers (Stellan Skarsgard and Colin Firth) make it to the island in time? Will anyone get the chance to sing ‘King Kong Song’?

I am tempted to say that if you’re the kind of person who found The Greatest Showman just a bit too gritty and hard-hitting, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again will probably be right up your alley, filled as it is with appealing young actors, some of the broadest comedy turns imaginable, and – of course – a selection of indestructibly great pop classics.

That said, of course, I suspected this film might face what I call the More Abba Gold problem. Permit me to explain – Abba Gold is pretty much an essential album for anyone interested in pop music, being literally all killer, no filler: perfect hooks and choruses, emotional resonance, immaculate production, and so on. Every song on it is deservedly famous. More Abba Gold? Not so much. I mean, it’s still got songs like ‘Honey Honey’ and ‘Summer Night City’ on it, which are quite well known, but also things like ‘Cassandra’ and ‘So Long’ which I doubt I’ve ever heard. The question is this: are there enough first-rank Abba songs left to fill up another two hour movie?

Well… they kind of try to dodge this issue, mainly by reprising some of the songs from the first time round. There’s another go at ‘Mamma Mia’ itself, a reprise of ‘Dancing Queen’, and a moment when one of the characters, in a French restaurant with a bust of Napoleon, finds himself reaching for a metaphor for defeat, leading to the inevitable production number (this was probably the first moment at which I found myself with my head between my knees in the cinema). But some of the songs are more obscure this time around – the first big tune, bizarrely, is ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’, which at least occasions a truly mind-boggling solo from Celia Imrie, while also popping up are things like ‘Andante Andante’, ‘Kisses of Fire’, and ‘Why Did It Have to Be Me?’ The film’s big climax comes when Cher swoops in, basically playing herself, and sings ‘Fernando’ to Garcia (though I have to wonder what Garcia’s character was doing carrying a rifle across the Rio Grande in 1959, when he would have been about twelve). (The soundtrack album features Meryl Streep’s version of ‘The Day Before You Came’, which I must warn you does not appear at any point in the film. Not that you shouldn’t stay till the end of the credits, though.)

Still, even an obscure Abba song is most likely a masterpiece of composition and production, and overall the music passes muster. But I have to say that much of the charm, if that’s the right word, of the original film is that it’s basically about a bunch of randy middle-aged people on an island together launching unprovoked assaults on the highlights of the Abba back catalogue. The focus here is much more on randy young people, and despite winning performances from many of the cast (and I have to say that if Josh Dylan, who plays the young Skarsgard, ever visits my workplace he will be beating women off with a stick, based on the reactions of my colleagues), it is somehow less mesmerically weird and exciting and funny than the original film.

We’re practically into the home straight by the time all the original characters reconvene on the island, and I have to say I can’t help feeling some of them are a little underserved. I didn’t go to Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again to listen to Lily James singing; I went there to listen to Pierce Brosnan not singing (and to watch Colin Firth not dancing, for that matter). Brosnan is permitted a brief reprise of his legendary version of ‘S.O.S’ but is otherwise restricted to doing choruses alongside other people, which if you ask me is just not fair.

Still, everyone was singing along with the choruses during the film, and we all emerged with big smiles upon our faces, so I suppose Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again really does the job as a piece of entertainment. It isn’t as riotously silly as the first film, but it’s still a case of a deeply spurious non-plot being deployed to facilitate as many wonderful tunes as they can possibly get away with, topped off with a lot of knockabout humour and even a few quite touching emotional moments. I expect it will end up doing very well for itself. It’s simple and it’s plain – why should I complain?

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