Review: A Star is Born

Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Written by: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos
Released: October 18, 2018
Grade: A-

A Star is Born
A remake of a 1937 film starring a woman with limited acting experience and a director who has never made a movie before?  Nope, I’m not talking about a 5-minute short film from a first-year college student.  This is the latest big-budget release from Warner Bros. Pictures.  Of course, I’m being mischievous with that simple overview and there are many reasons why this terrific project, which has started well at the U.S. box-office, is in line for multiple Oscar nominations.

A Star is Born is a proven story with audience appeal.  You’d think it was written by William Shakespeare given the desire by studios to retell it again and again.  The 1937 original starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March and that was followed by the 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason and then the troubled 1976 version with Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.  Bollywood even gave it a crack in 2013 with an Indian adaptation starring Aditya Roy Kapur and Shraddha Kapoor.

Bradley Cooper, in addition to his lead performance, pulls on the reins as the film’s director and while this marks his debut, he’s hardly an unknown quantity.  He’s a three-time Academy Award nominated actor who has worked under the guidance of directors including Clint Eastwood, David O. Russell, Cameron Crowe and Susanne Bier.  He’s also familiar with the subject matter.  Cooper has previously discussed his addiction to drugs and painkillers during his 20s and how it almost destroyed his promising career.

The casting of a renowned pop star as co-lead may sound like a “cash grab” to lure her millions of music fans but again, you can push those cynical thoughts to the side once you’ve seen her outstanding performance.  Lady Gaga has created a delicate, likeable character who serves as the film’s emotional barometer in that as her feelings change, so too will those of the audience.  Her work also goes far beyond what’s seen on screen as she co-wrote most of the original songs.  It’s her film as much as it is Cooper’s.

In terms of the narrative, Cooper steps into the shoes of Jackson Maine.  In the opening scene of the movie, we see him do two things – sing in front of thousands of adoring fans at a concert and then drink hard liquor in the back of a limousine.  That pretty much sums him up.  He’s a successful singer-songwriter but his love for alcohol threatens to permanently derail his career and destroy his relationship with friends and colleagues.  It’s a story that’s been seen countless times in real life within the music industry.

It’s through a chance encounter in a bar that Jackson meets Ally (Gaga), a struggling singer who is yet to catch her “big break” and who lacks the courage to perform her own songs.  I’m not sure which carries more weight but it’s clear that he is attracted to both her beauty and her talent.  He also enjoys her frank nature and the way in which she doesn’t fawn over his celebrity status.  Within a matter of days, the pair have become inseparable with Jackson dragging Ally up on stage to introduce her to the world and showcase her amazing voice.

The first half of A Star is Born is jaw-droppingly good as we watch Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga interact and write songs together (highlighted by a scene outside a convenience store).  It’s not a musical but the song lyrics still serve a valuable purpose as they allow the characters to express their feelings.  The second half isn’t quite as strong.  Ally has valid problems of her own (e.g. a manager trying to change her style) but these are pushed into the background as the film focuses more on Jackson and his increasing issues with alcohol.

Great performances mixed with great music.  A Star is Born is a must-see!

Review: Bad Times at the El Royale

Directed by: Drew Goddard
Written by: Drew Goddard
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth
Released: October 11, 2018
Grade: A-

Bad Times at the El Royale
There are plenty of recognisable names on the film’s poster but the real star of Bad Times at the El Royale is the hotel itself.  Inspired by an actual hotel that once existed, the El Royale straddles the border between California and Nevada.  Each guest is given a choice – they can enjoy the “warmth and sunshine” of a room located in California or the “hope and opportunity” that comes with a room on the Nevada side.

It was once “Tahoe’s best kept secret” but the El Royale has fallen on hard times following the loss of its gaming licence.  With next-to-no guests, they have just a single employee, Miles (Pullman), who collects the money at the front desk and cleans the rooms when he has time.  He’s not particularly motivated as evidenced in the film’s introduction.

With the hotel completely empty, Miles is surprised by the arrival of a string of unrelated guests.  Jeff Bridges is a priest from Indiana on official business.  Cynthia Erivo is a struggling singer on her way to an unpaid job.  Jon Hamm is a busy appliance salesman who loves a chat.  Dakota Johnson is a young woman looking to keep a low profile.

Written and directed by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods), Bad Times at the El Royale is the kind of movie where the less you know going in, the better.  It’s an entertaining thriller where it’s clear that every character is hiding something and it’s up to the audiences to put the pieces together.  The performances are top-notch and there are some great one-on-one conversations.

Goddard has structured the film in a way that creates maximum intrigue.  It’s split into chapters where the focus is on a different person.  Just when you think you’ve got your head around a particular character, the film is quick to throw in an unexpected twist and change perspective.  A great example is the first major transition between the Jon Hamm and Cynthia Erivo narratives.  The fluid timeline will also keep viewers on their toes as the film slips back-and-forth between different periods of the day.

My only minor quibble was the arrival of Chris Hemsworth who, showing off his perfect abs at any opportunity, has a key part to play during the final act.  I could understand the motives of everyone in this ensemble but the Hemsworth character, without giving too much away, is too much of a goof.  The film wants to portray him as a tough, cunning individual but his poorly thought out plans don’t fit with that image.

The 140-minute running time might sound off-putting to some but Bad Times at the El Royale is fun stuff.

Review: Venom

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Written by: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel
Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Michelle Lee
Released: October 4, 2018
Grade: C+

I wouldn’t describe Venom as a hero but I wouldn’t call him a villain either.  He sits somewhere in the middle and that fact alone makes him an intriguing individual.  He comes into existence when an alien life form infuses itself within the body of Eddie Brock (Hardy), a sacked journalist living in San Francisco.  What we’re left with is an interesting mishmash.  The alien tries to influence Eddie’s thoughts and actions but he’s not seeking full control.  He’s open to some of Eddie’s suggestions and the banter between the pair provides the film’s comedic backbone.

Unfortunately, he’s the only appealing character.  Michelle Williams (Brokeback Mountain) plays Eddie’s one-time girlfriend but has little purpose apart from being a concerned, helpful citizen.  Riz Ahmed (Four Lions) is the main “bad guy” but he’s just an over-the-top super villain with a dubious, illogical plan and a team of incompetent henchmen.  There are a handful of other characters but none have a strong screen presence.

The film’s major weaknesses is its screenplay.  So many sequences lack credibility.  Carlton Drake (that’s the villain) is an uber-rich guy with a futuristic research facility overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.  He’s experimenting on alien lifeforms and performing other ground breaking research and yet, he’s dumb enough not to have security cameras in his labs.  This allows Eddie Brock to sneak in (with the help of a newfound friend) and come into contact with the alien for the first time.

More head-scratching moments arise from a subplot involving a second alien which infiltrates several humans in Malaysia before making its way to the United States.  This happened six months prior to the San Francisco storyline so how did the alien survive so long, what was it eating, and why weren’t any eyebrows raised about the trashed ambulance or the attack in the food market?  There were no shortage of eyewitnesses!

Tom Hardy (The Revenant) does his best to salvage the film and while some have been critical, I think he’s a good choice for the lead role.  He portrays Eddie Brock as a relaxed, carefree kind of guy who has a bit of fun with the alien.  This is best illustrated during a scene in a convenience store (without giving too much away) which adds one final laugh before the credits start to roll.  The visual effects guys also deserve praise in bringing these creepy, slimy aliens to life.

Venom is the first film in a new Marvel Universe being created and distributed through Sony Pictures.  It’s a rocky start but based on the two clips shown during the closing credits (one in the middle and one at the very end), there’s hope this could develop into something bigger and better.

Review: First Man

Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Josh Singer
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Ciarán Hinds
Released: October 11, 2018
Grade: A-

First Man
Spoiler alert!  This film ends with Neil Armstrong making a “giant leap of mankind” and becoming the first man to step foot on the surface of the moon.  I make that comment sarcastically because it’s one of the most widely known events in human history (well, unless you’re a conspiracy theorist).  The take away from First Man is therefore not a bleedingly obvious history lesson but rather, insight into who Armstrong was as a person and the decade of hard work that led to the famed Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

Oscar-winning screenwriter Josh Singer (Spotlight) faced an unenviable task in encapsulating Armstrong’s story inside of two hours.  Given he couldn’t speak to the subject himself (Armstrong passed away in 2012), he interviewed family members, advisers and former astronauts.  The most important source material came from writer James R. Hansen who spent more than 50 hours interviewing Armstrong before publishing his official biography in 2005.

Perhaps the most surprising detail we learn about Armstrong is that he while he was extremely driven in terms of career, he was a quiet, reserved individual.  I don’t think there’s a single scene in the movie where we see him raise his voice or express profound emotion.  When spoken to by the hungry media at a pre-launch press conference, you’d think Armstrong was simply on a mission to walk across the street such was his level of enthusiasm.  Ryan Gosling (Blue Valentine, The Big Short) delivers a restrained but powerful performance that captures these personality traits.

The focus is Armstrong but there’s still plenty to be learned about other characters in this big ensemble.  Claire Foy gives a heartfelt performance as Armstrong’s wife, Janet.  She’s supportive of her husband’s career but at the same time, she’s worried about the experimental, high-risk nature of the space program.  Corey Stoll is also great as Buzz Aldrin, Armstrong’s co-pilot on the Apollo 11 mission, and the film doesn’t shy away from their frosty, fractured relationship.

There’s a broader perspective too.  The film delves into the public’s opinion of the American space program and how it wasn’t universally appreciated.  There were protests (including chants of “Whitey’s on the moon”) by those who felt it was a significant waste of taxpayer money.  We also get to see what went on behind the scenes at NASA in terms of training and preparation.  As an example, there’s an eyebrow raising moment where a NASA director drafts a press release to be used if the astronauts don’t return safely.

33-year-old Damien Chazelle will add to his power in Hollywood with another outstanding directorial effort.  His last two movies were both nominated at the Academy Awards for best picture (Whiplash, La La Land) and First Man is odds-on to continue that impressive streak.  It’s beautifully shot.  The use of handheld cameras by cinematographer Linus Sandgren creates an enaging, documentary-like feel.

The film’s momentum is a touch sluggish during the middle stages but the emotion ramps up during the final act as Chazelle dispenses with all other perspectives and shows the entirety of the Apollo 11 flight from only Armstrong’s viewpoint.  There are no shots of his anxious wife or the busy mission control team.  It’s as if we’re in space and watching events unfold against the backdrop of a grand, memorable film score from composer Justin Hurwitz.

It’s “go for launch” in terms of this year’s Oscar season and First Man will be spoken about frequently over the coming months.

Review: Night School

Directed by: Malcolm D. Lee
Written by: Kevin Hart, Harry Ratchford, Joey Wells, Matthew Kellard, Nicholas Stoller, John Hamburg
Starring: Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Rob Riggle, Taran Killam, Romany Malco
Released: September 27, 2018
Grade: C

Night School
Director Malcolm D. Lee made one of the best comedies of 2017.  Girls Trip was about four middle aged ladies who got together for a fun, boozy weekend at a music festival in New Orleans.  It had strong characters, memorable scenes and many great one-liners.  Aside from the laughs, the film also had a big heart as it delved into the subject of long-term friendships and how they change and evolve over time.

The director may be the same but none of the adjectives and descriptors used in my opening paragraph apply to Night School.  It’s a woefully dull comedy that fails to extract any laughs from its silly premise.  As the film opens, we learn that Teddy Walker (Hart) never officially graduated from high school 17 years ago.  He was all set to complete the final exams for his General Equivalency Diploma (GED) but he had a panic attack and fled the examination hall.

It hasn’t held him back though.  Thanks to his natural ability to schmooze customers, Teddy has become a very successful salesperson at BBQ City.  There’s a wall which honours the “employee of the month” and, probably to the disappointment of all the other staff, Teddy’s photo is the only one that appears.  That’s how good he is.  The juicy commissions help pay for his expensive taste in cars, food and fashion.

His cruisy lifestyle comes to an abrupt halt when the BBQ City store explodes (a bizarre scene in its own right), the store owner flees the country, and Teddy finds himself unemployed.  A good friend agrees to give him a plumb job in a financial services firm but before he can be appointed, Teddy must attend night school and get his GED.

This leads into the introduction of Carrie (Haddish) – a disgruntled, underpaid teacher who has taken on a group of misfits in a night school class so she can afford luxury expenses such as “rent and antibiotics”.  Her class consists of a conspiracy theorist, a drug user, a religious mother, an incarcerated criminal, a dim-witted father, and a waiter-turned-Uber driver.  Teddy’s efforts to sweet talk Carrie into giving him an easy ride amount to nothing.  If he’s going to get that GED, he’s going to have to study and work hard.

There are a bunch of other subplots but like the main show, they’re lacking when it comes to humour.  Teddy accepts a part-time job at an overly religious fast food restaurant and has to lure customers by wearing a chicken suit.  There’s a baseball-bat loving principal (Killam) who tries to sabotage Teddy because he bullied him in high school.  There’s a sequence where Teddy and Carrie end up in a boxing ring to help with his learning difficulties.  It’s all so random and I couldn’t care less what became of these characters (unlike Girls Trip).

Kevin Hart has been better.  Tiffany Haddish has been better.  Night School should have been better.

Review: American Animals

Directed by: Bart Layton
Written by: Bart Layton
Starring: Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Jared Abrahamson, Ann Dowd, Udo Kier
Released: October 4, 2018
Grade: A-

American Animals
Four American college students break into a library at a prestigious university in Kentucky and attempt to steal a number of rare, extremely valuable books to sell on the black market.  That alone makes American Animals sound like a cool heist flick but there’s so much more to this fascinating piece of cinema that makes it essential viewing.

Firstly, as we’re told during the opening credits, this is a true story.  The planning began in 2003 and the actual robbery took place in 2004.  Secondly, we know things didn’t go to plan and the guys were caught.  This is made clear from the outset and so as we watch events unfold, we know there’s no slick Ocean’s Eleven style finale where they walk off into the night with a sack full of gold.

The most intriguing element to the movie is the decision of British writer-director Bart Layton (The Impostor) to make it part re-enactment, part documentary.  We watch actors bring this compelling story to life but in between, we are treated to interviews from the real life students who committed the crime.  There’s even a point where an actor and his real-life counterpart sit in a car together in the same scene.  It’s very creative.

There’s a lot to take away from American Animals.  Through the interviews with the real students, we understand their respective mindsets and you may be surprised as to their motives.  It wasn’t all about the money and other factors came into play.  The film also makes commentary about how memories change over time and how the stories from those involved are not consistent.  I’m reminded of the great line from the 1998 film adaptation of Great Expectations – “I’m not going to tell this story the way it happened, I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.”

Layton has done a terrific job balancing up the film’s different tones.  The first half is quite comedic as we watch the students bumble their way through the planning phase.  They know nothing when it comes to crime and it reaches a point where they rent heist movies from a local video store in search of ideas.  The mood shifts significantly in the second half as we follow the robbery and its aftermath.  A line had been crossed and there was no going back.  You can sense the regret and remorse from the real-life people involved (who would spend time in prison).

American Animals is anything but your ordinary crime thriller.