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Posted by on Nov 28, 2018 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews | 0 comments

Updated Movie Reviews (November 2018)

 

 

Here are my short reviews of four critically-acclaimed films that were released in November 2018:

A Star is Born 

A Star is Born, the fourth film adaptation of the tragic romance intermingled with music and convergent trajectories of fame told previously in 1937, 1954, and 1976 is a far more tender, yet emotionally devastating incarnate than its mild-mannered predecessors.

Hollywood hunk Bradley Cooper’s maiden voyage as a first-time director is an admirable pursuit.  While his re-make of the familiar film classic is annoyingly flawed, the film remains intensely satisfying thanks almost exclusively to the broad talents and natural charisma of the two lead actors — played by Cooper and global cultural icon, Lady Gaga.  Indeed, this movie musical odd couple is outstanding.  Look for Cooper to receive a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Director, Lady Gaga to be up for Best Actress, and a slam-dunk win for the soundtrack at the next Oscars.  Given that Cooper and Gaga composed much of the original music which includes 13 total songs is even more impressive.  Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand, enormous talents that they were back in 1976 (the previous version), didn’t write their own music.  So, let’s give Cooper and Gaga their rightful due.

As surprisingly good a film as A Star is Born is when Cooper and Lady Gaga are onscreen, crafting their music or just growing closer together in their relationship, much of the supporting cast around them is an embarrassment.  Sam Elliott, so often typecast as the genteel, wisdom-stoked cowboy-rancher is painfully out of place this time around, playing Cooper’s (much, much older) brother.  Elliott, age 76, is supposed to be the sibling to the 42-year-old Cooper.  But it’s not just the bizarre age gap that ruins a key aspect of the film.  Elliott is unnecessarily harsh and vulgar onscreen, supposedly the grounding anchor and emotional beacon for Cooper, whose life and career are clearly spinning out of control.  Somewhere drowned out by all the shouting and ceaseless profanity there’s probably some viable explanation as to why Cooper becomes a degenerative alcoholic based on things that happened many years earlier, but Elliott’s preachy role is so bothersome that I rolled my eyes and shelved any curiosity.

Comedian Andrew Dice Clay, who’s made a well-timed transition to more serious film roles, plays Gaga’s father.  He’s another character, entirely because he has nothing whatsoever to work with, who isn’t up to the high standards of the two leads.  Clay is presumably inserted into the heavy-handed script as a much-needed comedic diversion.  Unfortunately, neither he nor his scripted lines are very funny.  He’s a wasted opportunity.

Then, there are the customary drag queens who we’re supposed to believe are Gaga’s best buddies before she became a star.  Sorry, but I’m not buying a good-looking, supremely-talented singer, living with her dad while performing at an inner city gay bar and then accidentally being discovered by Cooper, who stumbles in one-night half-drunk.  All that’s missing were the drag queens screaming “You Go Girl!” while watching Gaga’s meteoric rise up the Billboard charts.  Oh wait, they actually do that.

Despite many flaws, A Star is Born is still worth the price of admission.  That’s a supreme testament to the power of the music and the exceptional talents of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga.

I rate this film a 7, with a recommendation to go see it.

 

First Man

Who knew Neil Armstrong could be so boring?

The first man to walk on the moon is portrayed not in heroic, but rather very human terms in First Man, which chronicles the former test-pilot-turned-NASA astronaut’s mission into outer space between 1961-1969, culminating in the historic “that’s one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind” proclamation from a scratchy-voice some 239,000 miles away from earth.

Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle (La La Land) reunites with his favorite star Ryan Gosling, who is perfectly cast as the highly-disciplined if emotionally-distant space commander of the most momentous scientific leap forward in human history.  Armstrong’s stern disposition makes him ideally suited to lead the mission.  But it also wedges alienation among colleagues and even fractures his bonds of marriage and precarious relationship with his own children, which is the most surprising outtake of the film.

We’ve seen this familiar topic covered many times before in movies, perhaps best shown in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13.  To the credit of First Man, we see quite a different side of the makings of what it takes to become a Gemini-Apollo astronaut.  While these men were exceptionally brave and dedicated to science and country and curiosity, such pursuits also took a separate toll on those around them.

Unfortunately, First Man becomes too emotionally strained from any capacity to empathize with the duality of ongoing struggles — both personal and professional.  How does a man who risks his life and becomes captivated with the obsession of walking on foreign celestial soil return back to earth and be the typical husband or dad?  Call this a post-traumatic-stress-disorder (PTSD) of the Third Kind.

The movie establishes an interesting premise but then fails to deliver.  Rarely has the American space program been portrayed in such utterly forgettable fashion.

First Man is a well-intended and noble disappointment.  I rate it a 4 on a 10 scale, with a recommendation that audiences wait until it’s released on cable.

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

I really wanted to enjoy Melissa McCarthy’s metamorphosis and cinematic transition from a lighthearted, comedic, no-one-takes-seriously standup stage performer into a bonafide actress.  McCarthy does manage to pull off quite a convincing effort, and then some.

Unfortunately, Can You Ever Forgive Me? drags as a film and isn’t quite up to the lofty standards one might expect for a someone who clearly has way more to offer onscreen, but who also desperately needs a fertile script and proper setting in which to blossom.

McCarthy plays the role of a struggling writer (I get it!) desperate to make money to pay her overdue bills.  About to be evicted from her cramped apartment, burdened with a sick cat, and no career prospects, the surly McCarthy stumbles upon the novel idea of forging letters and rare documents penned by famous people and then selling them to gullible dealers and collectors.  Why bother to write a book that might not sell when a single page hacked away on an old Corona typewriter and then baked in the oven set at 350 for 15 minutes can net the same “royalty” payment?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based loosely on a true story of a struggling New York writer who pulled off more than 400 forgeries during the 1980s.  For the most part, I believed the con.  While she’s clearly breaking the law, audiences will be forgiving since McCarthy is left with so few options in order to survive.  After all, who’s the real victim here?  A bunch of rich people who buy rare antiques, albeit forgeries, to frame upon walls to impress the hauteur?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? has some nice moments.  McCarthy plays the frumpy scotch and soda gulping loner to absolute perfection.  Unfortunately, there’s not much else to the tale or for us to care about.  We know she’ll eventually get caught.  While we understand the reason for and can even empathize with her criminal actions, none of this seems particularly meaningful in the same manner the exposure of master forgers has intrigued us before, as was the case with the fake “Howard Hughes Dairies” (Clifford Irving), as recounted in The Hoax.  If that was the grandest lie, this is but a series of tiny cons.

I give this film a grade of 5.5, mostly due to Melissa McCarthy’s fine performance and the unusual subject matter portrayed in the most realistic terms.  Worth your time, but like the fakes forged in the story, there’s not much here to either revere nor remember.

 

Widows

Rarely has a film captured the gritty underbelly of corruption from so many disparate vantage points based on gender and race like Widows does with male vs. female and Black vs. Latino vs. White mean-streets-of-Chicago, the story of four women from very different backgrounds who unwittingly carry out a meticulously-planned criminal caper through odd circumstances and utter desperation.

British filmmaker Steve McQueen both directed and co-wrote the movie, based on Lynda de Plante’s book of the same title.  Widows is McQueen’s first major motion picture release since 12 Years a Slave — the 2013 Best Picture Oscar winner.  His selectivity serves him well.  Moreover, his latest film clearly establishes McQueen as a “must see” filmmaker.  Here, I’ll explain.

There are subtle moments in Widows where we’re acutely aware we’re watching a master class in creative filmmaking.  Consider one run-of-the-mill scene where Colin Farrell (who’s outstanding in the role of a morally conflicted Chicago alderman running for re-election) bickers with his wife in a heated and intensely profane argument.  Instead of showing this marital spat by alternating frames face-to-face, instead, McQueen’s camera becomes an accidental voyeur positioned outside a moving automobile, peering into the dark tinted windows of a limousine.  While the couple rips into each other, we listen whilst watching the gritty neighborhood streets of South Chicago, Farrell’s home district, in the background as contextual topography.  One word:  Brilliant.

But it’s Viola Davis who steals the movie.  She’s become iconic in Hollywood for playing the always tough-minded, independent Black woman — despite the obvious disadvantages of her color and underclass.  This time, however, Davis is left upon a perilous high wire of privilege after her late husband (Liam Nesson) is killed in a failed heist.  A tangled web of troubles draws the Lakeshore Drive’s diva into a spider’s web of crime and larceny.  She’s left with no alternative other than to carry out her deceased husband’s master criminal plan to try and rob $5 million as a means of escape in order to survive.  As life is in some parts of Chicago, there are no good options.  It’s kill or be killed.

Widows includes a few breathtaking twists along the way, which no one sees coming.  Despite the seemingly outlandish proposition that four very average women, none with criminal backgrounds, could carry out such a complex crime to steal $5 million, the heist is remarkably believable.  There’s no suspension of our belief, as with most films of this genre.  This bridge of believability, not to mention our empathy with the widows, works immensely to the film’s credibility and makes for a movie experience we’re not always used to seeing in ultra-modern PC-infested America — Blacks in control but also despicable (no spoilers), women forced to make grueling choices merely as a means of survival, and the twisted political latticework of big city politics bonding traditions and dynasty at the cost of a potential renaissance.

Don’t be fooled into thinking Widows is some lighthearted, modernized, comedic reincarnate of the trashy Charlies Angels female-casted buddy movieonly this time with legitimate actors.  Yeah, all these women are some real badass bitches, but they don’t bare the bravado with boobs and bullets, but rather with their brains and brawn.  They’re flawed, too.  They’re human.

A warning:  I absolutely hated the first 35 minutes of the movie.  Loathed it.  Almost walked.  But then, slowly, scene by scene, it grew on me.  By the final closer some 2 hours and 7 minutes later, I was leering forward in my seat watching the credits, silently applauding.  A full theatre at Suncoast (Cinemark) sat quietly and watched the credits roll, as well.  That’s the sign of a well-made movie.  When the audience sits out of respect, that’s a movie to see.  After the film, I found myself talking to my wife about it and discussing — also the indication of something not merely cinema, but of life.

I give Widows a solid 8.5 on a 10 scale.  It’s brilliantly shot, well acted, violent, offensive, and an accurate portrayal of every tentacle of a criminal conspiracy and the motivations that make good people do wrong things.

One final word:  Shelve all your illusions about typecasting.  No actor in this film (other than Davis) plays the type of role you would probably expect.

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