‘A Star Is Born’: Review

A Star Is Born BannerI can’t remember the last time I’ve looked forward to a movie as much as A Star Is Born. Probably evidence enough that I’m writing my first blog post in over a year and it’s about this movie, so it had to have awoken something inside of me to actually put forth an effort and get this out. It’s so messed up that we live in a world nowadays where memes can literally make you excited to see a movie. I remember seeing the trailer for A Star Is Born in the theatres in front of some movie I can’t remember and thinking, “in theory that looks good, but it looks so ungodly cheesy.” I thought that for months, enjoyed the trailer when I had to watch it again, but then suddenly one day something clicked. People started making fun of Lady Gaga’s “Haaaaa Ah Ah Ah Ahhhhh” singing from the trailer, then the ridiculous Bradley Cooper lines and how he said them became memes as well. This was a movie that looked like it was going to suck, so the memes fell in line, until critics saw it and it was actually good. Fast forward a bit because this is already getting too long, and with all this, heavily meme-reliant, my hype for A Star Is Born couldn’t have been any bigger. Now on the other side of seeing it, ironically it delivered exactly what the trailer promised, a messy, over-dramatic cliche fest peppered with great moments that never get strung along into something wholly worthy of its stock.

The biggest problem with A Star Is Born is that there’s so much of varying quality stuffed into a bag that can’t help but overflow from everything jammed inside. It’s a film that never really knows what it wants to be or should be, varying from scene to scene like there’s three different movies crammed in here. The best stuff from the movie, maybe the first half or so, comes before the actual star has been born. Everything with Bradley Cooper’s Jack and Lady Gaga’s Ally fostering their relationship from meeting in a bar all the way through to before Gaga actually becomes a full-fledged pop star is great. It does a nice job balancing the large rock n roll moments with the intimate relationship building and emotional pulling that both characters do. The latter half goes off the deep end (not in the shallow anymore…) and doubles down on too many of the cliches that the film did well enough in the first half to eschew, because everything else around it was working at such a nice clip, but can no longer do when everything gets a little too far out from under what the film originally was and what made it good in the first place.

Another thing that works against the film, and too be fair has done the same in the three previous versions, is how light-speed this film works from the development of Jack and Ally’s relationship to Gaga becoming a pop star. It’s something you really just have to accept, but it really does no favours to a film that’s already all over the place and messy in the first place, disorienting you even further to how you’re supposed to feel. There’s a scene where Jack and Ally get in a huge fight, Jack says some incredibly mean and should be plot-affecting stuff to Ally, until they just make up in the next scene. The film somehow feels rushed and over-long at the same time. It feels long, but also like they’ve put everything on fast-forward, something again that just causes disorientation more than anything.

I felt there were some missed opportunities here, as well. There was a great opportunity to do something about how Ally became basically trapped by Jack, and how no matter how much Jack would self-destruct that she would always be there. It’s almost a form of mental abuse, a Stockholm syndrome that Ally was stuck in that never gets explored or fleshed out to the depths it could’ve been, instead you’re just to assume that she just LOVES him a lot and that’s why she sticks around. It gets so icky reading things this way, though, as it’s clear how much of a mess Jack is and how Ally sticks around the whole way through, even when she’s constantly mentioned herself about how bad his drinking and destructive behaviour is, yet she still sticks around no matter what. As much as they told a fairly good “love” story between the two, it never feels like some kind of deep inseparable love that’s never been seen before and thus could excuse any of this stuff in some way, it’s all just very human and leaves Ally looking more foolish than anything.  

Bradley Cooper’s direction is largely good, if not mostly unnoticeable besides a few choice directing flares that undermine his already emotion-packed scenes and only serves to cheapen them. A few times he almost “pauses” on a moment, like early on when Jack wants to touch Ally’s nose, Cooper the director takes you out of the moment, switches up the camera and music, puts on some slow motion and lets Cooper stroke her nose in a sensual manner that’s supposed to evoke this special, first contact-breaking moment, but in actuality it just seems jarring and funny because of that, in what was supposed to be a relatively serious moment. The same technique is used a few more times throughout the film, almost as if Cooper remembered he was directing this film and wanted to put some kind of “stamp” on it so as not to just make it some basic run-of-the-mill directing job, unfortunately it just makes it seem all the more out of place.

Either way, the performances are what holds the film together and Cooper and Gaga are nothing if not committed. As much as Gaga has been heralded coming into it (and rightfully so, although she’s not quite as good as I anticipated) it’s Cooper who somehow turns in a performance both ridiculous and affecting, one that does well to focus on his charm inside the sleaze and gruff that he does just good enough of a job to pull off. It’s funny in parts seeing Gaga herself, the in-real-life pop mega star, play this regular girl with almost literal stars in her eyes, but she pulls it off quite easily, making you believe her both when she’s cleaning up after her father in their house or singing her heart out in a packed stadium. Both actors work excellent together, individually, in small moments and when pulling off all the music performances. Speaking of, I dare you not to have several of the, surprisingly great, original songs stuck in your head after the credits roll. There are a couple major songs in here they repeat a few times in the movie, purposefully to get it ear-wormed into your head.

In the end, A Star Is Born ends up as a beautiful mess. A scattershot of a lot of ideas, tones and stories that never coalesce into a mass sum of its parts. While within this collection of cliche, repetition, hilariously horrible foreshadowing (there’s a bunch and  serves as the main highlight on how devastatingly on the nose and devoid of subtlety the film is), soap opera beats and over-philosophizing line deliveries that sound like they’re coming from a parody, there’s unmistakable craft and care over the top of the choppy seas that this ship sails. Its pair of performances are as real as their characters portend to be, while easy lynchpins to make you feel, they make you feel, nonetheless.

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‘Silence’: Review

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Martin Scorsese is so good and operates at such a high level after 50 years of directing (I had to look this up to be sure, that’s two of my lifetimes making stunning films) that I feel everybody, including myself, is kind of brushing Silence to the side like “eh, another amazing Scorsese film, what else is new.” Any other lesser director, or one not as well-known directs this film and there’s gonna be storming the streets over how good this thing is, but with Scorsese it just seems like another day at the office. I’ve been waiting years for Scorsese to get his passion project finished and now that it’s here and as good as it is it’s kind of demoralizing to see it fall by the wayside during end of the year awards talk, not that that’s the be-all and end-all of whether a movie is good or not, but still.

This is an uncomfortable film to watch and Scorsese doesn’t reward you at the end for sitting through this punishment, it’s not Hollywood fanfare where we all come out happy in the end and necessarily excited for life. It’s about two priests who travel into anti-Catholicism Japan in the 17th century in search of their mentor who has been missing for years. Both men get deeper and deeper into this religious war zone and suffer hardship after hardship affecting both their religious and physical demeanour.

While Liam Neeson and Adam Driver share their name on the poster with Andrew Garfield, it’s largely a showcase for Garfield who he pulls it off with aplomb. I’ve always liked Garfield fine enough, he’s never really wowed me or did anything horrible, just been doing well existing and putting in fine work. But, he certainly proved that if you give him a meaty part and something for him to sink his teeth in, like this film, he’ll go full bore and deliver something special. A lot of the film works in quiet moments and also because of the Japanese to English language barrier a lot of the emotions and reactions are played off the actor’s faces. Garfield is especially wonderful in how he’s able to act with his face and emote all this pain and feeling that wears him down through the hours of the audience watching the film and the years inside the film.

Scorsese never makes easy films, but he also never makes films that are so over-complicated and convoluted that they treat the audience like an idiot because of wanting to seem “smart” and educated. He’s so assured in his direction that a psuedo-comedy like The Wolf Of Wall Street and a deeply religious exploration like Silence can be told by the same equal measured by Scorsese’s respect for the medium and how expertly each part of it informs the whole, no matter the subject matter. Silence is a film that is powerful in the quiet moments and understated in the grandiose, revelatory moments. It’s a film that is interested in showing how things are and how they were, no matter the pain that it delivered and may continue to for some. Scorsese documents it and wraps it all up in an engaging filmic package that he clicks on as easy as autopilot, while still showing how much he cares.

‘La La Land’: Review

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La La Land works well enough because it operates within every preconceived notion and cliche of what you would be perceive this movie to be. It’s quirky, sends up Hollywood pictures of yesteryear and has a couple who meet then dislike each then like each other then date then have the best time of their lives then something UNEXPECTEDLY splits them apart then they become a “better” person from that relationship.

Now none of this is particularly bad per se, and La La Land has enough to distract from its formulaic misgivings, but still in doing so the film seems unoriginal in spite of what it’s trying to project on the screen. It so badly wants to rise from the ashes of all these old time Hollywood movies and become something different and masterful, but it’s still tied down by its trite machinations. I mean, sure, it’s not like the two main characters end up together happily ever after or anything like that, it’s not that formulaic, but it does the next best thing by having its cake and eating it too by saying, “Hey, we’re not gonna put them together, but see they’re better off for that and, awww, heck, fine, we’ll show you them together in some alternative world dream sequence.” Because the film is never content on straying TOO far from that happy Hollywood medium, less it get pulled out of its preordained rut. It’s a fine enough device, giving you the sad and happy by showing you both sides of how following your dreams or staying with a lover can work out either way and letting you choose what applies, but it still rings too cheap and easy.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are both exceptional in there roles, although I’m quite less enamoured with Stone even when while I still see the good stuff she’s putting out there. The writing and performances do a pretty good job in letting these characters be fun and eccentric without it veering too far into camp and seeming like these are just movie characters spouting these writer-speak words that nobody in real-life would ever say. In other words this movie wasn’t written by Diablo Cody. On the other hand, I couldn’t help but thinking that Gosling and Stone’s characters suffer from Gilmore Girls syndrome, where it’s all fun and charming to see them crack wise at each other and make funny little quips and have all these cutesy sayings, but imagine actually running into these people in real life and you won’t be able to find a razor blade fast enough to get away from these unbearable people.

I enjoyed all the musical aspects, ie breaking into song, but I honestly couldn’t help but thinking that the film didn’t really need any of it and at the end of things it just became more gimmicky than anything. There’s not a single song that stands out (good or bad) and it’s not like the film is worse off for any of it, or that it provides a disruption, it just seems like the musical aspect was force-fed into this movie that didn’t really need that to operate at a high level.

Believe it or not after the first four paragraphs that I wrote, but I actually liked this film. While I hated that it had to rely on so many cliches to get where it was going, it operates so well inside these cliches that it puts itself head and shoulders above what most do with them. Damien Chazelle is a good director and writer who crafts this film on such a grandiose stage thanks to his assured eye and vision that it’s hard to believe it’s only his third film. Everyone behind and in front of the camera delivers this whole package with such passion that it’s hard not to be moved by its emotion and the final grace notes from each character. La La Land is a film that loves old Hollywood musicals a bit too much, it has its own heart, but it just can’t resist the bright lights.

‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’: Review

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*Nobody reads these things, but mad spoilers ensue*

Rogue One works because it knows when to be a Star Wars movie and when not to be a Star Wars movie. The film is billed as a standalone movie in the franchise, and technically it is seeing as the cast is 90% new characters. It’s really Episode 3.5, as it provides a connective link between the two sets of trilogies and shows how the Death Star came to be.

The thing I hate more than anything else in movies deep into a franchise, spin-offs or whatever of the like is the cute little winks and nods to popular characters of the past just for the simple sake of getting a quick rise out of the audience just for mentioning them. This film has them, of course, but it’s done in such a small scale and organic way that it never feels like the film is stepping aside from its story to focus in on these elements. It bridges the gap between the two trilogies so it makes sense to shade in element of Darth Vader’s rise and fill out the story of how the Death Star came to be and what exactly lead to the moments at the beginning of A New Hope, the place we all originally were thrust into this world. Every other nod is treated as more of an easter egg where if you’re just watching the movie on face value (and/or you’re just a casual fan) you might not get it, but nothing will seem wildly out of place, but for more heedy viewers all the little references are there.

This is all in contrast to The Force Awakens where they pretty much just copied A New Hope and had a heavy presence of characters from the original trilogy. I mean, sure they kind of had a different mission to accomplish with The Force Awakens compared with Rogue One, where the former movie had to re-instill and reboot this franchise in people’s mind by playing to the broadest sensibilities possible to a. ensure the movie and subsequent franchise would be a success and b. to have a connective vessel point for these new characters. Whereas Rogue One is in the wake of the success of that movie and can follow a more niche guide because they knew it was going to be a one-and-done film rather than a direct sequels that had to follow in the story wake of The Force Awakens.

But, mostly Rogue One works because it makes sense and its chief example of this is that every damn body dies in this thing. It makes sense that since we’ve never heard of any of these people in the original trilogy that probably a lot of them wouldn’t be around at the conclusion of it. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting it at first, of course some people were going to die, but then the body count started rising and it all clued in for me and I hoped they would go that sensible route, because it made sense, and they did. I’m still amazed that Disney green lit this movie where literally the whole main cast dies, good and bad. Sure, they had in their back pocket the up note of an end scene where Princess Leia gets the Death Star plans and we see her in all her CGI glory, kicking directly off into A New Hope. But still, damn, I keep scrolling through the main cast on IMDB and I’m just like, “Dead, dead, dead, dead, dead.”

Honestly, I was just as excited about getting a new Gareth Edwards film than I was another Star Wars movie. I absolutely loved his first film Monsters which is almost a masterpiece for me. I was less enamoured with Godzilla, as I thought it was just fine and didn’t really do anything new. But, what I knew with both of those movies is that he obviously has a flare for staging epic battle scenes, but his sensibilities also extends into a passion for smaller human elements. I felt that Rogue One was actually pretty skimpy on the dramatic emotional beats, outside of the Galen Erso and Jyn Erso father/daughter stuff, but it served the film well in that there wasn’t an overabundance on any of that (not that it was bad or anything, it just picked and choosed well what it wanted to accomplish), as the film clearly wanted to focus on the larger battle aspects. And I thanked the high heavens that they didn’t do anything with a Jyn Erso/Cassian Ando romantic relationship because few things are worse than shoehorning a romantic relationship into a movie just because that’s what 95% of them do.

I gotta say I was pretty lukewarm on the movie for about the first 80%, but they really stuck the landing on the last section of the film and were seemingly allowed to do what they wanted and pulled everything off. Like I said earlier, I think this film was allowed to succeed in that it was operating inside of this area between the two trilogies where they knew this would be a one-and-done movie and could go all out and tell a story that didn’t need to be extended or have the end set up sequels (because they’re already made!) or have characters do unnecessary things because they needed to bank on them for the future. I don’t know fully where this stands for me in regard to the whole series, although I do find people thinking this is the best one pretty ludicrous, but I do know if they keep giving these films to auteur action/genre directors like Gareth Edwards and Rian Johnson then we’ll be in more than good hands.

‘Moonlight’: Review

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Moonlight is a film about many things. It’s about childhood, growing up, sexuality (repressed and expressive), race, love and a myriad of other constant filmic themes, but Moonlight takes them all into its melting plot and lets them simmer in concert with each other, feeding into the story of one young man.

Moonlight follows Chiron through three stages of his life, firstly as a young child who gets pseudo-mentored by a crack dealer, secondly as an often-bullied teenager and lastly as a full grown adult now working on the block and running drugs. Many through lines exist throughout the three sections including his fractured relationship with his crack-addicted mother, his discovering of his (homo)sexuality and his friend Kevin who is the first person he first becomes intimate with and eventually shapes a lot of who he becomes and subsequently who he never became.

The film works because it takes all these large themes and plays them out on the small scale and focuses them on one character as he progresses through his “boyhood.” It allows us to relate on certain levels (ie. growing up, sexuality, first love, bullying), but it also creates further layers in presenting it through ways that one may not be familiar with directly. It uses the presence of drugs, living in the ghetto, homosexuality, black lives and uses it to inform and play against certain stereotypes and what we generally think are associated with these ideas and making it clear that that’s not always the case.

It’s wonderfully acted by all three of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes who all display the quiet stillness of Chiron and are all remarkably skilled at showcasing every emotion that runs through his brain by portraying it on their face. While Chiron never says much verbally, it’s usually always painted directly on his face. The film’s cinematography is wonderfully done with a lot of dark muted blues that help suspend the film in this depressed dreamscape for a lot of what’s representing Chiron and his current head space.

Ultimately, Moonlight is about a lot of various things, but at the base of things it’s about those small personal moments that we hold near and dear to us for years, and something that can provide a life-changing effect for oneself, that might never even register on someone else’s radar. That’s the thing about growing up, love or whatever, it’s never the big, grandiose moments that have the biggest effect on our lives and relationships, it’s the the small personal moments that act as connective tissue to the different stages of your life, for good and bad, and something that continues to trace throughout your life and helps make you the person who you were twenty ago, who you are now, and the person who you’ll be after the next twenty years.

‘Manchester By The Sea’: Review

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Grief and despair are so often chronicled by film and television because it’s an easy way to elicit emotions in characters and thus trigger a reaction in the audience. Nowadays we’re so brainwashed into what we think this means when watching it portrayed in media where everything has to be overdramatized to further stress a point to make sure its intent is 100% coming across. Nine times out of ten, in real life, things aren’t that cut and dry and it isn’t so easy to explain motivations behind actions and reasons behind emotions. Manchester By The Sea knows all of this and infuses it into every scene, making every frame of the film resonate in its real world fidelity.

Manchester By The Sea is a raw nerve of a film led by Case Affleck’s frayed end. Casey Affleck is a mind-blowingly good actor who plays sullen and downtrodden like it’s his life’s work (I guess because it pretty much is). Somehow after all this time and after amazing performance after amazing performance it still feels like Affleck is undervalued, under-appreciated and underrated, but with this latest performance he aims to put all that in the past.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a tired of life janitor doing the minimum to get by, who’s forced back into his old life and former town after his brother dies and leaves custody of his son to Lee. As the film unfolds you see exactly why Lee had such a hard break from his former life, a mind-numbing tragedy that leaves Lee barely able to function mentally at times and leaves him in a pseudo state of paralyzed despair. Of course Lee and his nephew Patrick have different ideas on how this guardianship thing will work out, with Lee wanting to cut bait from town as soon as possible and bring Patrick back to Boston, but with Patrick not wanting to leave town. We’ve seen this story thousands of times before, two opposing forces with opposite goals who of course will come together in the end in solid unity, expect that doesn’t happen here, because Manchester By The Sea doesn’t do things how movies typically do. Try as he might, Lee is too crippled by his former life, the memories, his walking tragic reminder of an ex-wife, to competently give Patrick the life and parenting that a teenager needs. Instead, Patrick stays in Manchester-by-the-sea (the town its set in and obviously the film is named after) and Lee goes back to his old life. Even back in Boston with the small tethers of his previous life rattling around in his brain, it’s too much for him to handle and something he can’t, and won’t, let be inflicted on another person.

Nothing wraps up neatly in the film, as most things don’t in real life, there’s no grand reunions, reconciliations, understandings or rekindling of relationships, it’s just a reshuffling of the deck. Kenneth Lonergan directs an open wound of a film that is expertly prodded by the damaged souls of Affleck as Lee, Michelle Williams as his ex-wife and Lucas Hedges as Patrick. It’s a film that isn’t interested in how things have been done, but in how things are done, no matter how sloppy, messy and anticlimactic it might be, because that’s where true raw emotion is found, in the places that people don’t want to look.

‘Suicide Squad’: Review

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For a movie that suffers in literally every aspect it might be kind of weird to say, but the chief overshadowing problem of Suicide Squad is that everybody is just trying too damn hard. Every aspect of this film is just lambasted in trying to make everything so “cool” and “different” that is just becomes so muddled that none of it work. One of the biggest problems for me was the dialogue, this movie is literally written seemingly in the hopes of making every line stand out as some kind of meme-y flip on standard dialogue. Nobody just talks normally with basic word choices and phrases (that’s not a bad thing!), nope, every line has to be flipped into some cutesy little saying because this movie needs to remind you at every second how “edgy” and against the grain they are. None of it works and it backfires amazingly. This is the through line of the entire film.

The plot suffers from the same thing, it’s actually pretty simple at the base of things, but because this movie can’t do anything straight it makes it into a confusing mess that never really makes sense. An archeologist gets possessed by a witch after touching some funky idol, then said witch flips on everybody, holds the city hostage and unleashes a bunch of monsters. That’s it, I mean the story doesn’t mean anything, because the whole point of this movie is just to watch the “Suicide Squad” do crazy shit, crack one-liners and kill people.

The most amazing thing about the plot of the movie is the whole acquiring and purpose of the “Suicide Squad” in the first place. Alright, so, get a load of this, the government wants to assemble a group of metahumans to protect against other metahumans and superheroes in case any of them go bad, so of course they decide to pick a bunch of criminals??? It’s never outlined why they decided to pick criminals, people who would have no reason to want to help the government (besides sentences reductions that are minimal), is there not other “good” superheroes you could’ve rounded up. And not only that, it’s not like they train these dudes or let them in on anything, god forbid they plan for these people and set out plans. Nope, when shit goes down they just break them out of their jail cells throw them into the wild and go “save us, guys!” and then wonder why everything goes to shit. The greatest example of this is why the hell is Harley Quinn in this group, she has no special powers or anything like Deadshot’s amazing aim or El Diablo’s fire or Killer Croc’s strength, nope, she’s just a crazy girl with a baseball bat. It makes zero sense why they would field a legit crazy person with no discernible “superhero” advantages when literally any basic human solider would’ve been a better option. She literally becomes one of the major downfalls and distractions of the group with her all Joker business. Viola Davis is terrible at her job, basically, is what this paragraph is getting at.

This, also, might be the most on-the-nose movie I’ve seen in recent memory, especially when it comes to its cliched jukebox of a soundtrack. Right from the outset its song after song that seems like it was placed in the film after someone googled “what are the most popular rock songs that have been done to death in movies over the last 50 years” and just compiled them all in one place. You got The Rolling Stones, AC/DC, CCR Black Sabbath, The White Stripes, Queen etc. etc. that all come in places that just blatantly seem like the director screaming at you “Hey! Isn’t this sooo cool and badass, like, the lyrics and song titles completely fit what’s going on on screen!” It’s hilarious and I could foresee a dangerous drinking game where you take a shot each time an on-the-nose classic rock choice pops up.

Let’s wrap up and talk about the performances for a minute, which, yep, were pretty uniformly bad. Actually, let’s start with the good, Will Smith was fantastic in this, without a doubt. I don’t know if it was that Will Smith was doing such a great job or that everybody else was so terrible, or both, but it was so painfully clear watching him in this that he was actually trying and so much so that he seemed like he was in a completely different movie. Margot Robbie was even worse than I expected as Harley Quinn to the point where I physically cringed whenever she came on the screen, especially with her one-liners in her horrible accent that always featured a second or two pause at the end like she was waiting for the audience’s laughing reaction that never came. Jared Leto as the Joker is another prime example in this movie of trying to hard and coming out on the opposite end of making this crazy person seem so try hard that he wasn’t even scary or “crazy,” just laughable in what he thought that meant. I’m a big Joel Kinnaman fan, but unfortunately try as he might the script and what he was asked to do didn’t really do him any favours and he suffered under the might of it. Jai Courtney has my favourite performance, not because he was good or anything, but because he literally plays a stereotype of an Australian complete with a boomerang weapon and rampant alcoholism and even greater than that his character literally contributes nothing to the movie in plot, character or worthwhile comedic way.

I’m a gigantic David Ayer fan and have love everything he’s ever done, but dude ripped off all the chains and delivered this over-saturated mess that plays like your 13-year-old brother’s favourite video game. It’s actually kind of amazing that this film of this magnitude fails on so many levels where eventually it just becomes a snowball effect with everything latching on and just building in how bad it is with everything coming together in a giant mess that was telegraphed from the opening frames of the movie. The greatest strength of this movie is Will Smith acting and portraying a real person amidst the chaos of all this pageantry, it’s just too bad that everything else was more concerned with the flash and pomp of creating a cool-looking 2 minute video game trailer than an actual movie with purpose and motivation.