Tag Archives: 2018

A Star Is Born

Bradley Cooper makes an auspicious directorial debut with A Star Is Born, an often dazzling and occasionally overwrought crowd-pleaser that soars with rousing music and plenty of pathos. There have been four remakes since the original 1937 film and while the story does hit many of the expected beats that line up with the previous iterations, Cooper and crew are able to find just the right notes to deftly bring this timeless tale up to date. Anchored by strong chemistry between the leads and some admirable technical aspects behind the camera, this awards season contender may have what it takes to score some serious Oscar gold next February.

Cooper stars as Jackson Maine, a hard-drinking country singer whose best days are seemingly behind him until he meets a singer named Ally (Lady Gaga) in a burlesque bar one evening. Blown away by her raw talent, Maine invites her on tour and after a guest performance that brings down the house, Ally begins to pursue her own music career first as a singer-songwriter and then later transitioning into pop superstardom. As a romance blossoms between the two, their relationship is constantly tested by the rigorous pressures of the music industry and by the personal demons that continually drive Maine to the bottle.

Given how much Lady Gaga’s real-life career mirrors the trajectory of Ally’s character in the film, she was a smart choice for the lead role and proves that she has more to bring to the table on top of her stunning vocals. Her performance, both in scenes on and off the stage, feels natural and unrestrained in a way that most big-screen debuts typically do not. She and Cooper form a bond that’s not only believable for their characters but also makes it easy to root for them as a couple too. A scene of confrontation between the two, during which ugly remarks are exchanged by one another, is hard to watch but played perfectly by the two performers.

While Cooper and Gaga play the rock stars in front of the camera, there’s also rock star talent behind the camera in the form of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Matthew Libatique, known for his work with director Darren Aronofsky. He captures the on-stage sequences with an immediacy that makes them jump off the screen and feel like we have a backstage pass to an exhilarating rock concert. There are plenty of other eye-catching moments off-stage as well, including an especially a captivating close-up of Ally sharing a first glance with Jackson in a bar; the flawless composition of that shot in particular makes it especially memorable.

Of course, a film like this that’s so entrenched in the music industry lives and dies by the quality of its original music and A Star Is Born certainly does not disappoint in that area. The obvious stand-out is the slow-burn duet “Shallow”, whose name is probably being etched into the Best Original Song trophy as we speak, but other cuts like “Maybe It’s Time” and “Always Remember Us This Way” seem to have tremendous staying power as well. The combination of music and melodrama makes for a predictable but ultimately enjoyable movie that marks a promising start to Cooper’s career as a director and to Gaga’s career as an actress.

Note: this film was originally released the first weekend in October; it now returns to theaters for a limited IMAX engagement.

Score – 3.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Mortal Engines, starring Hera Hilmar and Hugo Weaving, is a post-apocalyptic tale set in a world where entire cities compete with one another for limited resources while mounted atop gigantic vehicles.
The Mule, starring Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper, tells the true story of a World War II veteran in his 80s who became a drug courier for a dangerous Mexican cartel.
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, starring Shameik Moore and Hailee Steinfeld, brings everyone’s favorite webslinger back to the animated world as he teams up with other iterations of Spider-Man from alternate universes.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Creed II

Michael B. Jordan steps into the ring once again as heavyweight boxer Adonis Creed in Creed II, a sequel to the 2015 film that was itself a reboot of a franchise that seemed to be down for the count but still had some fight left in it. While there are few fresh concepts or challenging ideas in this new entry, it willingly serves up the familiar pleasures and tropes that we commonly associate with boxing movies and specifically with the Rocky films of the past. Taking over for Ryan Coogler after his success with Marvel’s Black Panther, director Steven Caple Jr. isn’t able to match the rich emotional depths found in Creed although the fight scenes are often just as thrilling.

We’re re-introduced to Creed as he’s in the middle of hot streak, on the precipice of becoming the world heavyweight champion with his mentor Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) and his fiancé Bianca (Tessa Thompson) in his corner. We soon learn there’s trouble brewing in Ukraine as Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the boxer who killed Creed’s father Apollo in the ring during the events of Rocky IV, has been relentlessly training his son Viktor (Florian Munteanu) to overtake Creed on the world boxing stage. With the legacies of their fathers inextricably linking the two boxers together, Creed and Drago take to the ring in an all-or-nothing brawl.

As is to be expected, there are plenty of callbacks to past Rocky films and particularly to Rocky IV, although the tone of Creed II is thankfully much more grounded in reality than most of its predecessors. The chief issue this time around is that the overall narrative arc is painfully predictable from the first frame and save for a few notable character moments, Caple Jr. does little to stray from the formula that has worked quite well in the past. Still, he hits most of the familiar story beats with gusto and by the time we’re in the ring for the big fight, the groundwork that has been laid out is sufficient enough to root for our protagonist.

The script, co-written by Stallone along with Juel Taylor, spends plenty of time fleshing out the relationship between Creed and Bianca, which is a smart move given how much chemistry Jordan and Thompson have on-screen. However, I wish there had been more time dedicated to the Drago family and the tragic backstory that contributes to their presence in this film. A pivotal scene in Russia between Ivan and Viktor is a poignant reminder of just how separated they feel not only from one another but also from their own country as well. I wish Caple Jr. had taken more opportunities like this to balance the struggles of the hero with the villain.

Still, fans of boxing movies will find plenty to enjoy in the both the training montages (including a sequence in the desert with some memorable imagery) and the pair of electrifying fight scenes between the two heavyweights. Caple Jr. shoots these scenes with an appropriate level of visual verve and stages the action in a way that nicely juxtaposes Creed’s quickness against Drago’s seemingly insurmountable strength. Creed II is a serviceable entry in the Rocky franchise that doesn’t do as much as it could have done to distinguish itself from the pack but also isn’t the total letdown that it could have been either.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Ben Is Back, starring Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges, is an addiction drama about a young man who returns home on Christmas Eve in an effort to re-connect with his estranged family.
Mary Queen of Scots, starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, retells the true story of Mary Stuart’s attempt to overthrow her cousin Queen Elizabeth I in 16th century England.
Vox Lux, starring Natalie Portman and Jude Law, centers around an international pop singer who struggles to hold onto her success amid mounting scandals that threaten her career.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #21 – Creed II

It’s our first mobile podcast as I’m joined by my friends Joe and Casey to step into the ring to discuss Creed II, the new boxing movie starring Michael B. Jordan. Then we talk about other shows we’ve been watching, including Jack Ryan (first season streaming on Amazon Prime) and FX’s Fargo (all three seasons available on Hulu). I also try and fail miserably to correctly pronounce Mahershala Ali’s name several times. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

Ralph Breaks the Internet

Coming 6 years after the surprise breakout hit Wreck-It Ralph, Ralph Breaks the Internet reunites us with the titular video game character (John C. Reilly) and his best friend Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman). When the steering wheel for Vanellope’s Sugar Rush game breaks, the two must go online and traverse the World Wide Web in order to track down the hard-to-find replacement part. During their journeys, they run into various citizens of the digital world, including the head of a popular video site called BuzzzTube (Taraji P. Henson) and the head racer of a video game called Slaughter Race (Gal Gadot).

Walt Disney Animation Studios isn’t typically known for their sequels (this is their first since Fantasia 2000) and given how strong their track record has been since Wreck-It Ralph‘s release, it’s difficult not to feel a bit disappointed by this film. Compared to recent releases like Frozen, Zootopia, and Moana, Ralph Breaks the Internet isn’t up to par in terms of narrative quality and seems like it’s destined to have less staying power in the long run. Sure, kids may be excited to see the overall-wearing oaf once again but if you ask them 5 years from now whether they’d like to watch Wreck-It Ralph 1 or 2, I doubt anyone would be adamant about this particular entry.

Naturally, the most memorable aspect of this movie is the digital depiction of the Internet as a physical world in which avatars of human web surfers zip around from one website to another. This setting is filled with personifications of online scenarios we encounter everyday; for example, a character named KnowsMore (voiced by Alan Tudyk) exemplifies a search engine whose autofill function is humorously over-aggressive. The film’s funniest sequence finds Vanellope in Oh My Disney, a place for all things Disney in which she meets all of the famous Disney Princesses and they cleverly dissect the tropes associated with their characters.

Besides this stand-out setpiece, which was already spoiled thoroughly in the film’s trailer, there aren’t nearly enough subversive touches or tongue-in-cheek laughs to keep the comedic side of the story afloat. The script, penned by co-director Phil Johnston and Pamela Ribon, is packed with contrivances that pull our lead characters from one location to the next but the narrative begins to feel laborious by the third act. This is a screenplay that desperately could have used either some trimming or some “punch-up” (dialogue re-written for comedic emphasis) to make the plot-heavy elements a bit more palatable.

Despite the lack of humor, this movie has a worthwhile message for kids about friendship and allowing best friends to find their own path while still maintaining a relationship with them. Compared to last year’s abysmal The Emoji Movie, another animated film filled with product placement that attempts to create a digital version of the World Wide Web, Ralph Breaks the Internet clearly has the moral high ground. Unfortunately, it seems the creators couldn’t quite re-capture the spark and spontaneity of its predecessor and the result is a passable but relatively forgettable entry in the animated Disney canon.

Score – 2.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Possession of Hannah Grace, starring Kirby Johnson and Shay Mitchell, is a supernatural horror film that follows a policewoman who encounters unexplainable events while working a graveyard shift in the city morgue.
Bodied, starring Calum Worthy and Jackie Long, follows a graduate student who becomes immersed in the fiercely competitive world of battle rapping while working on his graduate thesis.
Screening at Cinema Center is Wildlife, starring Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal, which is the directorial debut from actor Paul Dano that centers around a struggling family in 1960s Montana.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Widows

Most modern heist films, like Ocean’s 8 from earlier this year or last year’s Logan Lucky, seem to aim for a certain kind of escapism as we get an inside peek into all the details that go into pulling off a big score. Widows, the latest from 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen, is comparatively much more grounded in reality but the results are no less electrifying than some of the best in the genre. Based on a British series from the 1980s, the film uses its setting of modern-day Chicago to examine a bevy of issues that plague our society but it does so without letting its weighty themes bog down the thrilling narrative.

Viola Davis leads a stellar ensemble cast as Veronica Rawlings, whose husband Harry (Liam Neeson) is killed in the opening minutes of the film as he and his crew of four find themselves in the middle of a heist gone wrong. Still reeling from the loss of her husband, she is confronted by local crime boss Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry) who demands that she settle the debt left unresolved by Harry’s botched robbery. After she discovers her late husband’s notebook full of plans for a potential job, Veronica teams up with the widows of the other thieves to pull off a $5 million robbery that will make her even with Manning, who is also running against incumbent Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) as alderman of a South Side precinct.

The cast, which also includes talented performers like Elizabeth Debicki and Daniel Kaluuya, is loaded with powerhouse talent and each actor puts everything they have into the pockets of time that they’re on-screen. Davis reaffirms her status as one of the most compelling actresses working today, channeling layers of grief and anger into a performance that works beautifully as an emotional backbone for the entire film. Debicki, who was also excellent in The Tale earlier this year, brings so much strength and resiliency to her portrayal of a wounded soul and Kaluuya brings pitch-perfect menace to his role as a mob enforcer.

While there is no shortage of brilliance in front of the camera, there is also an abundance of skill behind the camera, which starts with McQueen in the director’s chair. His previous films like Hunger and Shame have typically been character studies that focus more on mood than plot but his transition here into a densely packed narrative with many moving parts feels seamless. He has also re-teamed with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker to craft a movie that is visually engaging from the very first frame. Additionally, Hans Zimmer contributes a kinetic musical score that’s not nearly as showy as some of his work in the past.

Among all this excellent work, it’s the first-rate script, penned by McQueen along with Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, that stands out as possibly the most impressive aspect of a film that does so much right. The screenplay features all the clever plotting necessary for a film like this to work effectively but is also packed with hard-hitting dialogue that feels true to every character who speaks it. Widows feels like a blend of the crime caper thrills of Heat mixed with the sociological incisiveness of The Wire and is a perfect example of how just how exhilarating genre fare executed to the highest level can be.

Score – 4.5/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Creed II, starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, pits the son of boxer Apollo Creed against the son of Ivan Drago, the Russian heavyweight who was responsible for killing Apollo in the ring.
Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, tells the true story of Jamaican-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his driver Tony Lip as they find friendship amid racism in the 1960s Deep South.
Ralph Breaks the Internet, starring John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, is the belated follow-up to 2012’s Wreck-It Ralph that follows the titular video game character as he breaks out of his arcade machine and finds himself online.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Ep. #20 – Widows

I’m joined by my friend Charlie as we break out the getaway car to discuss Widows, the new heist film from 12 Years A Slave director Steve McQueen. Then we talk about other items we’ve been watching, including the new Coen Brothers film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which is now streaming on Netflix. We also have a chat about why I should watch X-Files and why Star Trek is like college football. Find us on FacebookTwitter and Letterboxd.

2018 Thanksgiving Weekend Preview

Thanksgiving is upon us and while that often means extra helpings at the dinner table, it also means extra options at the movie theater. Here are 5 big releases that will be out in time for Turkey Day:

Creed II, starring Michael B. Jordan and Sylvester Stallone, is the sequel to 2015’s Creed, which re-booted the Rocky franchise along with being a critical and commercial success. This time around, Creed is training to fight the son of Ivan Drago, the Russian heavyweight who killed Creed’s father in the ring during the events of Rocky IV. Stallone reprises his iconic role once again and is also credited as a co-screenwriter along with Juel Taylor. Steven Caple Jr. steps up to the director’s chair, replacing Ryan Coogler in the wake of his tremendous success with Black Panther. With its name recognition and a built-in audience, look for this one to replicate the financial (and possibly critical) success of its predecessor.

The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman and Vera Farmiga, follows the rise and fall of Gary Hart, a senator-turned-presidential hopeful whose political career crumbled after his extramarital affair was uncovered by the press. The true story of the 1988 scandal comes right around election time, although the film could instead be a victim of post-election fatigue. While the reviews have been favorable enough, particularly for Jackman’s performance as Hart, the box office numbers from its limited release have been far from promising ($56,000 in its opening weekend). The movie is directed by Jason Reitman, who has had his share of hits (Juno, Up in the Air) and flops (Labor Day, Men, Women & Children). Hopefully there’s enough left in the marketing budget to give this a push before its wider release.

Green Book, starring Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, tells the story of Jamaican-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his chauffeur Tony Lip as they tour the Deep South in the 1960s. While the two seem to have nothing in common during the start of their relationship, they begin to bond through shared experiences that erode the racial obstructions of the era. As one half of the Farrelly Brothers (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary), Peter Farrelly has typically excelled out gross-out comedies but he’s directing here for the first time on his own and the subject material is quite different than what he’s handled before. Positioned right in the heart of Oscar season, I could see this getting quite a few nominations and I could also see this being a runaway box office success along the lines of last year’s Hidden Figures.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: Wreck-It Ralph 2, starring John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman, looks to mirror the breakout success of its charming predecessor Wreck-It Ralph back in 2012. This installment follows the titular video game character along with his friend Vanellope as they break out of their arcade machine and find their way onto the World Wide Web. Based on the early advertising for this movie, it seems to rely much more heavily on pop culture references than the first film, integrating characters from loads of Disney properties from Star Wars to The Muppets. This could generate plenty of crossover appeal and translate to even bigger box office numbers than the original film but it could detract from the quality of the narrative if it goes too far with its cross-branding.

Robin Hood, starring Taron Egerton of the Kingsman films, is yet another re-telling of the classic tale of the hero in green who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. The supporting cast includes Jamie Foxx as Robin’s mentor Little John and Ben Mendelsohn as the treacherous Sheriff of Nottingham. With its over-the-top fight choreography, the trailer for the film makes it out to be a cross between last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword and the video game adaptation Assassin’s Creed. Both of those movies performed quite poorly at the box office, at least in the United States, and I could see Robin Hood sharing a similar fate. There have been countless other renditions of this story, including one as recent as Ridley Scott’s from 2010, and there doesn’t seem to be enough in this 2018 entry to distinguish itself from the pack.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

The Grinch

Illumination’s new take on Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch is the cinematic equivalent of sitting down next to a roasting fireplace in the dead of winter, armed with a piping cup of hot chocolate in one hand with a beloved pet resting under the other. Or perhaps it’s more apt to say that it’s like a plate of comfort food, piled high with freshly-carved Roast Beast. It’s a familiar pleasure and a welcome one, especially around the holidays, even if it’s one that won’t linger long in one’s memory after the experience. Riding high off the success of The Secret Life of Pets and the Despicable Me series, Illumination has crafted another family-friendly hit that kids (and possibly their parents) will likely enjoy.

Voicing the dyspeptic and diabolical titular character in this iteration is Benedict Cumberbatch, channeling an American accent not dissimilar from his work as Doctor Strange in the Marvel films. His Grinch has the same plan in mind as previous Grinches: dress up as a fake Santa Claus and attempt to crush the indomitable spirit of the Whoville citizens by stealing all of their decorations and presents on Christmas Eve. Whilst The Grinch devises his plan, Cindy Lou Who (Cameron Seely) also plots to catch Santa while he leaves presents so that she can ask a favor for her overworked mother Donna (Rashida Jones).

The Grinch is the third telling of Dr. Seuss’ children’s book and it lands right in the middle in terms of quality; it’s not as memorable as the 1966 TV special but also not nearly as off-putting as Ron Howard’s nightmare-inducing live-action version. The most remarkable thing about this entry is that it’s generally unremarkable, which isn’t exactly a bad thing while not being especially high praise either. It’s gratifying to see a film this uncynical in 2018 but it’s so good-natured that there are basically no stakes through the entire story and I wouldn’t be surprised if some kids are bored by the hour-mark.

The movie is so light on incident that it probably could have been half its runtime (the animated classic is only 26 minutes) and the conflict that does exist within the film doesn’t have much impact since the main character’s progression is so minimal. Except for an early montage in which he mildly inconveniences a few Whos during a trip to Whoville, The Grinch hardly exhibits any behavior that is particularly cruel or even mean-spirited. This Grinch, in comparison to the past film Grinches, seems generally more lonely than loathsome and the kindness that he shows to his adorable pet dog Max is present even before his heart grows three times larger.

Still, I give The Grinch credit for hitting the notes that it needed to hit and the animation is appropriately cheery and bright as we get plenty of shots swooping over the impeccably decorated Whoville. There are also some clever visual machinations during the Grinch’s Christmas raid as he deploys Wile E. Coyote-esque contraptions like throwing stars that wrap up a Christmas tree in seconds. There’s good reason why this tale of a curmudgeon who learns the value of empathy and kindness has been re-told several times and with hope, we’ll be telling it again and again in the future.

Score – 3/5

Coming to theaters this weekend:
Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, starring Eddie Redmayne and Johnny Depp, is another entry in the Wizarding World franchise in which Newt Scamander and a young Albus Dumbledore square off against the titular dark wizard.
Instant Family, starring Mark Wahlberg and Rose Byrne, is a family comedy about a married couple who gets in over their heads when they adopt three children at the same time.
Widows, starring Viola Davis and Elizabeth Debicki, is a heist film from 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen about four women who enter a life of crime after their husbands are killed during a robbery gone wrong.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup