A Star is Born (2018)

A Star is Born

Jack (Bradley Cooper) shows Ally (Lady Gaga) what she has to offer the world of music.

There are many nods that Bradley Cooper makes in his directorial debut towards the former versions of A Star is Born. I won’t list them, for doing so would be stupid and rob you of the fun of finding out yourself. Even if Cooper did not make these “easter eggs”, his version of A Star is Born stands alone as a triumph, and certainly one of the best directorial debuts of the 21st century.

The original was made in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in the leads (the only one that was not a musical). The next (and the only other one I have seen as of this writing) was in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason (Garland’s loss at the Oscars that year to Grace Kelly is one still questioned to this day, and once you witness her, it is not hard to see why). Later in 1976, it was Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Now, it is Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga. Though the times are different, the premise is the same: a down on his luck star who is about to fade out finds a newcomer who he wishes to take under his wing, and they fall in love.

Like Garland and Streisand before her, Gaga clearly has pipes, and anyone with a single brain cell would say the same. She has even acted in minor parts before (she started as an extra on The Sopranos), but this is clearly her star making (how poetic) role as an actor. We know from the past that this is the same woman who has performed in extravagant (to say the least) costumes and settings, but it is (aside from one or two scenes) not visible in her performance as Ally. In short, she has totally made a serious statement for being an Oscar favorite in the next few months.

Speaking of Oscar contenders, there is veteran actor Sam Elliot as Bobby, who is Jack’s (Bradley Cooper) older brother. Not his dad, but older brother. I admit that seemed a little questionable at first, but there is no doubt in the acting that we can firmly believe these are two (half) siblings who have been through the mud and dirt over a dozen times and still can talk to each other. Elliot is nothing short of stellar.

Parents, in no way is this for kids. There is plenty of swears, some sexual content and partial nudity. High School and above.

You may have noticed by now I have not mentioned much about Bradley Cooper, mainly because I am still in awe of what he has done. For his first time as a director, he was not swinging for the fences so much as the parking lot. Clearly it is one of his very best performances, as is the case with the rest of the cast, mainly due to the fact that everything in the film feels completely authentic. Consider the small moments we have with Ally’s dad Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay) or his friend George (Dave Chappelle, yeah, you heard right). We are so involved in the world of Jack and Ally that we don’t think for one second about film making.

One of the key moments of the film is when Jack is telling Ally that, in order to make it, she needs more than talent. What she also needs is a message to tell the world. Cooper has always had talent. Now we are hearing his message.

 

Overall: Five Stars *****

The Greatest Showman (2017)

The Greatest Showman

P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman) and the birth of show business.

It should come as no surprise that The Greatest Showman has been a passion project of Hugh Jackman’s since 2009. He gives an all out performance that is the back bone of the film, which is more style than substance. Thankfully, the style more than makes up for it.

Jackman plays Barnum, the man who went through one of America’s first (if not the first) rags to riches story, from robbing street vendors as a kid to creating what is now known as the circus (though it did shut down for good in 2017). With his wife and childhood sweetheart Charity (Michelle Williams) and his two daughters (Austyn Johnson and Cameron Seely), Barnum gathers up the outcasts of society to perform a spectacle that changes history.

Such outcasts are the bearded lady (Keala Settle), with a voice that could blow the tent over, Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), the “general” and the Wheeler siblings, W.D. (Yahya-Abdul-Mateen II) and Anne (Zendaya, who is making her name known after years on the Disney Channel). Helping on the business side of things is Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron).

For me, I had wished the film would have more musical numbers in the circus setting, not just in the real world. I understand they are telling the story of PT Barnum, but couldn’t just a few numbers be used with the spectacle and visuals he was known for?

Another issue I had with the film was that it spent a little too much time on the famous European singer Jenni Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). It is true that she has some stellar vocal numbers (though Ferguson is dubbed over), but it is too much time away that I wanted spent at the circus.

Thankfully, each number is so awe-inspiring that the movie is worth seeing just for them. I am not sure which is my favorite yet (I have the soundtrack to go through still), but the ones that come to mind are the raw power of “This is Me”, the romantic duet “Rewrite the Stars” and the redemption of “From Now On”.

Parents, it is so wonderful that there is a movie musical (besides a Disney one) like this you can take the kids to. It is PG, and that is only for some mild thematic moments (maybe not mild, but not scary).

The Greatest Showman is not the best of musicals of recent years (certainly not better than La La Land, though the lyricists worked on this film), but it is still nice to know that there are some movies that are willing to risk a lot just to entertain us with originality and awe.

Basically, what Barnum would have done.

 

Overall: Three and a Half Stars *** 1/2

Sing Street (2016)

Sing Street

The band Sing Street, recording their first song…

 

Over a month after La La Land fever has subsided and the dust has settled, it has allowed me to see a gem of a movie called Sing Street, which would have easily made my top five films of 2016 if I only saw it in time. As of this writing, it is streaming on Netflix.

The film is written and directed by John Carney, who made both 2014’s highly overshadowed Begin Again (with Keira Knightly, Mark Ruffalo, and Adam Levine) and the 2007 masterpiece Once (probably the best musical of the 21st century). Mr. Carney is becoming a name I will now have to always be on the look out for so I can see his movies earlier.

Set in Dublin during the 1980s, Sing Street tells the story of a teenager named Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo). His parents (Aiden Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) are at constant war with each other (his mom is having an affair with another man). His music is his only true escape.

Due to money issues, Conor is to switch schools to a new school, under the strict rule of Brother Baxter (Don Wycherley). Despite not being able to afford the required black shoes, Conor must go shoeless instead of wear the one pair of brown shoes he owns (and don’t get Brother Baxter started on guys who wear makeup). It also does not help that he meets the local bully, Barry (Ian Kelly). All this changes when he meets the one girl across the street from the school named Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Even though he is told by Darren (Ben Carolan) that she has no interest in any of the boys in the school, Conor goes and introduces himself. When he finds out she is trying to be a model, he immediately recruits her to be in his band. She agrees, and he must recruit members to be in a band.

What the movie is smart about is that the members of the band actually know about music and have talent, yet still have enough characteristics to tell the members apart. Darren becomes the manager. The first recruit is Eamon (Mark McKenna, who I think looks a whole lot like 1980s child star Corey Feldman), who can play almost any instrument given to him. Eventually, Eamon agrees to playing bass. Then there is Ngig (Percy Chamburuka) as the keyboardist because “he’ll be able to play something: he’s black”. The last two members are Larry (Conor Hamilton) and Garry (Karl Rice), not including Raphina, who becomes the model for the Band’s music videos.

There are two key relationships that Conor has in this film, both of which are undoubtably palpable. The first is with Raphina. If todays teenagers were to see this film (and I would hope they would), they may be envious of the chemistry that Conor and Raphina have. Conor is brave enough to be himself around Raphina, and she brings her motto of life to Conor (and the band) of being “Happy Sad” (she lives in a girls home, and is seeing an older man). She tells Conor (who she likes to call “Cosmo”) to be Happy Sad because that’s what love is.

The other relationship is between Conor and his older brother Brendan (a marvelous Jack Reynor). He is a college drop out, still living at home. He is one of the better big brother characters in recent years. He takes Conor as a pupil as far as music goes (much like the Jack Black character in The School of Rock). He is confident that Raphina’s boyfriend won’t be a problem because, “no girl can every truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins”.

As was the case in Begin Again and Once, the music of Sing Street is stellar, and had me buying the soundtrack the day after viewing. One thing that was not the case was the rating of the movie, which the MPAA actually got right this time. It is PG-13. There is no real sexual content (despite a superfluous awkward view seconds of a women about to use a vibrator), so the film is really rated for its language and some thematic material. Basically, I would say only teenagers and above.

Without giving too much away, all I will say of the ending is that it did end as I expected, but the way I wanted it to. Think how rare that is for a movie viewing experience. I know there may not be a chance of it happening, but I would be so psyched if a sequel would happen (or at least the actors kept the band going).

They need to always get this band back together.

 

Overall: Four and a Half Stars **** 1/2

Song of the South (1946)

Song of the South

The Disney movie most people, of any age, will not be able to see…

I suppose I should start off with some form of explanation.

Those of you who have actually heard of Disney’s 1946 film Song of the South know it has never been released on VHS or DVD (let alone Blu-Ray). After a theatrical re-release in 1986, the Disney Company has basically swept the film under the rug, with no intention at all of re distributing it. The closest anyone can really get to the film is the Splash Mountain Attraction at the Disney theme parks. Some other countries have had releases on home video of the film, which I assume led to bootleg copies. This is how I managed to finally see the movie (thank you Amazon).

The story is simple enough. It tells the tale of an innocent young boy named Johnny (Bobby Driscoll, who would voice the title role of Disney’s animated Peter Pan before sadly succumbing to drugs). He travels to his Grandma’s house in Georgia with his parents and Aunt Tempy (Hattie McDanniel). His father must leave his wife and son to work for his newspaper, leaving Johnny in tears. His only hope is to find the mythical Uncle Remus, who has been telling stories ever since Johnny’s father was a boy.

James Baskett died shortly after his role as Uncle Remus, but it is truly a magical and pure performance (he would win an Honorary Oscar for the role.) When he tells the tales of Br’er Rabbit and others, I kept getting a sense it was actually Baskett doing all of the voices (he does do the voice of Br’er Fox). As was the case for all Disney films back then (and basically in general), the movie was filled with good songs. Still, if ever there were a song that was a Disney classic, it is “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah”, which is far more popular than the movie itself (and, as shown by Uncle Remus, is fun for anyone to sing).

So why has it not been on DVD before? Simply put, since the movie is taking place in Georgia after the Civil War, it is the depiction of African Americans as slaves. It is very sugar-coated (it is Disney, after all). The way the slaves (though they are never called that) are shown is very stereotypical.

I like to think I know a lot about movies and their history, but I know I don’t know everything. What I do know is that the history of movies took time to make drastic changes. Keep in mind a movie like Gone with the Wind (also starring Hattie McDaniel in her Oscar-winning role as Mammie, which made her the first African-American Oscar winner) was showing slaves walking and talking the same way. Unlike Song of the South, Gone with the Wind is available to the public (and rightly so).

The problem is that a movie like Song of the South is geared toward kids, while GWTW is not. I do feel that Song of the South is not a movie to be first experienced at a young age. A person must know what slavery is, and how drastic it was, before seeing Song of the South. In other words parents, a good talk with your kids before and after the movie is in order (if you manage to see this at all).

Will they release Song of the South to the public again? I do hope so. Disney is arguably the biggest name in show business, so a release would not entirely destroy them at all. When I got the film in my hand, I honestly felt quite honored, knowing I was watching something not many younger than me have seen (the last re-release was a year before I was born).

Perhaps the Disney Studio should remember the words of Uncle Remus:

“You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.”

It’s the truth. It’s ‘actch’ll.

Despite all the flaws of Song of the South, at the core it gave me a feeling about childhood innocence  that was “satisfactch’ll”.

 

Overall: Four Stars ****

La La Land (2016)

LLL d 41-42_6689.NEF

As Sebastian and Mia, Gosling and Stone simply glow…

A little less than a week ago, I finally got to buying four classic films starring the legendary Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers. Those two cinema icons are some of the few I can watch and have all the worries of my life wash away. That feeling came to me a lot while watching the visually glorious La La Land. It manages to balance being loyal to both the old school and the current.

After his highly entertaining movie Whiplash in 2014, director Damien Chazelle is proving he is more than a one trick pony. In a year of many downers across the globe, here is one of the years clear front-runners for best picture, and it is jubilant and energetic and toe tapping fun. The opening number (“Another Day in the Sun”)  is like one we never have seen, and may never again: it takes place in a traffic jam. How many other musicals can say they have a dance number in a traffic jam? That alone is stunning.

Emma Stone has never been better. She stars as Mia, a young wanna be movie star who has been trying and failing at auditions for years, scrapping around working at the coffee shop right next to where they filmed a scene with Bogie and Bergman in Casablanca. Eventually, she meets Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian. He is a die-hard devotee of Jazz, who plays at locals but never gets to have his music heard. Their personalities collide in another number with dancing that had shades of Astaire and Rodgers.

Learning dance numbers can never be easy, and we can see how much rehearsal was put into learning the numbers. One easy way to see this is that each number is, for the most part, shot by Chazelle in long takes. In other words, the actors had little to no room for error.

There are other minor roles, including Oscar Winner J.K. Simmons who proves there really are no small parts. There is also singer John Legend as one of Sebastian’s old friends, proving he has some actual talent beyond the singing world.

Of course, the music is stellar all around. Composer Justin Hurwitz has made a soundtrack (which I bought very shortly after seeing the film) with tunes that leeches happily on your brain and heart for the next couple months, if not the rest of your days.

Parents, it makes me happier than I thought possible to say that this movie is not that bad for young people. The rating is PG-13 rating is for swearing, and that is it (there is one F bomb, and someone gives the finger to another character, but that is it). All the language is no worse than that of a typical middle school lunchroom (minus the dancing). No violence or sexuality of any kind (minus kissing). If your kids are in middle school, they are ok with this film.

Is this really what it is like to work in Hollywood? I can only assume yes. There has to be struggle and strife to get a good start. La La Land makes that clear. It also makes clear that making a musical must be fun. You will get that sense through the whole time you are sitting in the theater…tapping your feet.

It has seldom felt so good to be a fool who dreams.

Overall: Five Stars *****

 

 

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

The tale that will forever be as old as time.......

The tale that will forever be as old as time…….

Beauty and the Beast was the first film I have memory of seeing in a theater, back when I was four years old. All I remember from the first viewing was being petrified of the beast, but then being engrossed by the story.

Now, almost a quarter of a century later, I decided to return to it again. It is still one of the best animated films ever made, as well as one of the best musicals.

Everyone knows the story: Belle, who lives in a quiet village, wants adventure, but gets more than she bargained for. Her father, Maurice, is an inventor, and on his way to a fair is lost and stumbles upon a castle beyond anything imaginable. The beast’s castle may have held the position of best magical film castle until Harry Potter came along.

The film has many successful parts. The songs are obviously one of them: “Be our Guest”, “Gaston” (one of the best villian songs ever written), and, of course, the title song. Even today, I catch myself singing with the songs as they play.

Another key aspect of the film is the supporting characters. There is Cogsworth, the over controlling clock, Mrs. Potts (voices wonderfully by Angela Landsbury), the teapot, and, of course, the scene stealing Lumiere (the late Jerry Orbach) the candlestick.

I won’t go more into the film, because chances are, if you are reading this, you have seen the film before. Parents, this is a film that is not to just put the kids in front of, hoping to get them distracted. You OWE IT to your children to watch the film with them.

In 2009, the Academy Awards started nominating more than five films for best picture (at least five, but no more than ten). This led to Up and Toy Story 3 being nominated for Best Picture (and rightfully so). Still, when there was only five nominated pictures, only one animated film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year, and that was Beauty and the Beast.

Overall: Five Stars *****

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

James Cagney salutes the grand old flag in "Yankee Doodle Dandy"

James Cagney salutes the grand old flag in “Yankee Doodle Dandy”

Around the age of 13 or 14, my dad introduced me to Yankee Doodle Dandy. It took me a few viewings before I finally understood the magic behind it. The only bad thing was my dad got the colorized version. Well, at least it made me realize why colorization of movies is a bad thing.

It tells the story of George M. Cohan (who was actually born July 3rd), the song writer/actor/singer/dancer who grew up in a family of performers but became a hit by himself with hits such as “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Give my regards to Broadway”. The patriotism reached new levels when he did “You’re a grand old flag” and (my favorite) “Over There”.

It is told in narration by Cohan after he is invited to see the President (Jack Young, who sounds exactly like FDR). We here of his times with his family, his parents (wonderfully played by Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp) and his little sister Josie (James’s real life sister Jeanne). He falls for Mary (Joan Leslie), who later becomes a source for a great song. The scene where they meet makes me smile more on every viewing. There is also a great comic scene with Eddie Foy Jr. playing his own father (“Would you mind spraying it again?”)

Still, the main reason to see the film is Jimmy. I have no idea how James Cagney did what he did in Yankee Doodle Dandy. Really, I just want to still be under his spell. He was known to be a great gangster character, but his performance as legendary show man George M. Cohan is surely his best. I would argue it may be the best musical performance in film history. It is not the best singing in a movie, nor even the best dancing. However, it most surely is the most energetic. It is like before each take, they wound him up like the energizer bunny, and let him loose at the sound of “Action!”.

I also like how the movie portrays the fact that a person does not need to be an action hero to be a patriot of a country. That seems to be the message around Hollywood these days. I mean no disrespect to anyone who has given their lives for our country, but I state that others who do other forms of service are just as patriotic at heart. How different would the world be if Cohan did not right his songs?

Parents, the movie is fine for any age that wants to see it. If you have a kid who likes musicals, this is essential viewing (Even John Travolta stated it was one of his favorites, and he did quite well as a performer).

I end with a memory. It is January 2002, a few months after 9/11. I am auditioning for my 8th grade musical, “Bugsy Malone, Jr.” Everyone gets up and sings “God Bless America”. I get up and sing “Over There”. I, along with another girl, am the only one who does not sing “God Bless America”. I end up getting the lead role (the other girl got the love interest role of mine). In short, thank you George M. Cohan.

Overall: 5 Stars *****