A Star is Born (2018)

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From comedy star in ‘The Hangover’ to more dramatic turns in films like ‘American Sniper’, Bradley Cooper has certainly been down many avenues and now he throws his stetson behind the camera for his directorial debut; a musical romance and fourth remake of the ‘A Star is Born’ brand.

Hugely famous country star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) seriously struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. On a desperate trawl to find a bar, Maine staggers into one where waitress by day-singer by night Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing. He quickly falls for her looks and talent and they begin a whirlwind relationship that sees Ally become a singer/songwriter idol.

In the 1950’s Judy Garland headlined the first remake and the 70’s saw Barbra Streisand take the lead in a rock and roll setting, one Bollywood film later and now it’s mega popstar Lady Gaga’s turn to take the cinematic stage. There’s no doubt that she’ll be up for an Oscar nomination because her performance is sensational and she makes the film what it is. The road to success with tricky obstacles and media manipulation is ripe for the times currently in Hollywood and the music perfectly encapsulates Ally and Jackson’s rocky relationship.

This movie is like a biopic of Gaga’s career, you can just see how the films’ content of moulding someone to how the management want them to be, mirrors her Poker Face days, before her songwriting and more heartfelt tunes took flight. The pop music side of Ally’s journey and the SNL showbiz aspect are necessary attributes in showing how the industry works and really demonstrates Ally as a strong individual to stick with all these changes in the dream of being recognised for her talent. She also sticks with Maine because he saw that spark within her, their relationship may be odd and harbour some cheesy moments but it feels real and the pair work beautifully together.

At a certain point it does feel like the film stretches ever so slightly and you could almost check out of the plot but thanks to the music you get drawn back in. Also, there is a very predictable narrative to follow but there’s some stunning cinematography from Matthew Libatique which goes from a pristine bathroom to a gorgeously crimson tinged drag club and the films final shot rests on a powerful, stunning image and though it is silent it sings a thousand words. On top of the great DoP work, the musical numbers themselves are toe-tappingly heartfelt and ‘Shallow’; a song penned by Gaga and Mark Ronson is gunning for an Oscar nom as well and rightly so because it screams with drama.

Cooper, with his flushed red cheeks and slurring Western drawl embodies the stereotypical drunken cowboy singer but softens this rough edges with a clear love for his Ally rose. Gaga is incredible throughout, her voice is a God given gift that fills the heart and the speakers with power. It isn’t just her singing talents that sell the film, she makes Ally a fully rounded character and you truly buy into her rise to stardom with a difficult romance aiding the way.

‘A Star is Born’ is a country and western musical for modern times and like TV show ‘Nashville’, it hits with lyrical gems and dramatic characters to soar to the top of the charts.

7/10

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First Man (2018)

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There’s no doubt that the moon landings of 1969 were a monumental achievement, but is Damien Chazelle’s latest feature as monumental an experience?

‘First Man’ follows Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) as he takes up a job for the Gemini programs, as NASA and America hope to reach the stars and send a man to the moon. As the Soviets claim their own space race victories, Armstrong becomes determined to succeed even if that means losing time with his family and wife Janet (Claire Foy).

Chazelle’s directorial career is extraordinarily good, this is only his fourth movie and in less than ten years. Each one has been critically acclaimed and adored by audiences so there’d be no surprise if the 33 year old would feel pressure to follow suit with this Armstrong biopic. The film may not be his most stylistic one but as you’d expect the use of music; scored by Justin Hurwitz, is exceptional. Chazelle truly knows how to utilise sound, whether Hurwitz’s score is twinkling like the stars or cutting out completely to really create dramatic tension, it’s a bold demonstration of sound mixing that adds to the formidable power of space.

Another positive about the film is that it isn’t afraid to highlight the costs and questions these Gemini and Apollo missions cause. People waving placards or queries about the price of human life to achieve this daring quest become little drop points amongst the course of Neil Armstrong’s pursuits. This is a blessed relief because the actual focus on the astronaut is less than engaging, a large percentage of ‘First Man’ feels like a paint by numbers drag which does little to excite.

This is a biographical look not at the exploration of space or the moon landing itself but more about the man, Armstrong himself. It never really rockets to anything special and dare I use the B word; it often feels a little bit boring. It is as if the film cannot really connect to Neil, even if the camera feels forever by his side. There are some absolutely amazing shots in this film but the story drags the whole thing back down to Earth.

Gosling is a charismatic actor and he manages to ensure his portrayal of the first man on the moon is reflective and he shows off this quiet, laser-focused attitude but a lot of the time it makes the film less than interesting to follow because he’s so drained of emotion. Claire Foy is the stand-out as the woman behind the man, she displays a great balance of love and sadness to the man who wants to step on the lunar surface.

‘First Man’ has a lot of impressive visual standouts, so when we’re being thrust into the capsules or training pods with the astronauts the film is exquisite, it’s let down however by the grounded home-life and disengaged approach to Neil Armstrong.

6/10

The Little Stranger (2018)

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British gentry and inflections of Gothic horror are to be found in Lenny Abrahamson’s recent feature. ‘The Little Stranger’ is adapted from a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, a book that plays around with the themes of finance and evil, which the film attempts to do but doesn’t altogether get a handle of.

Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) pays numerous visits to an estate out in the country to help with the physical pains felt by RAF veteran Roddy Ayres (Will Poulter). As his trips to the house become more frequent he starts feeling an unshakeable presence through the house which he pins down with rational answers but Roddy’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is sure something else is going on as is her their mother Angela (Charlotte Rampling).

Abrahamson; the man behind a musician in a papier-mache mask and a kidnapped mother and child, shows he can switch genres well, but there is a connection. The director always seems prone to keep focus on the story’s characters, his latest feature is no different. The characters create a large proportion of the odd mysteries but unlike with Frank or Ma and Jack, the figures roaming through ‘The Little Stranger’ lack a special something and in the end, that’s the main weakness for this film.

This drama does feel too long as well, it snails through the narrative and though it’s not a bore to sit through, the gentile pace is prone to uninteresting spells. A lot of the film comes across like a theatrical play, a drawing room scene especially feels that way and I’m sure this tone stems from scriptwriter Lucinda Coxon who has many plays under her belt. This quality is by no means a negative, in fact it does show off the great acting but it stifles the stride and the times when the film could be more scarily cinematic.

Perhaps if the film stayed in the confines of the home then the run-time would have some minutes shaved off but ultimately it would have kept up an unsettling atmosphere and curious character, of which the house most certainly is one. It almost breathes with a strange desire for trouble. What the film explores well is the air of something not being fully right, through creaking halls and scratched walls, Abrahamson ensures the ghoulish moments are all the more striking by utilising a calm approach to the tension, this is echoed by the slow-moving camerawork which floats in and around the rooms of the dilapidating country house.

You can’t quite put a finger on Dr. Faraday, this is thanks to the fascinating performance from Gleeson who is charming in an irregular way but also quietly threatening. The more he appears, frequently stopping by the big house, the more he feels like an unwelcome stranger. Wilson plays a nice balance of hope against meekness, a smart soul trapped by an event in the past.

This film reminded me of ‘I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House’, not because Wilson also appears in it but because both have great yet rare moments of spooky atmosphere stitched together in fairly quaint, hushed hushed settings and both carry intrigue which speedily vanishes to unwanted disappointment.

5.5/10

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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So, normally I’m not a fan of rom-coms; the calculable nature of them and how cheesy the dialogue can often be, puts me off them. Surprisingly this film won me over, sure there are cheesier moments but there’s smart writing and spectacular production quality which made it a more satisfying example to come out of the genre.

Economics professor and New York resident Rachel (Constance Wu) is invited to her boyfriend’s best friends wedding. Nick (Henry Golding), the best man, hopes that his large family will love Rachel as much as he does. As the celebrations get under way in Singapore, Rachel faces difficulties living up to the high hopes of Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ brings together a massive cast of talented actors who offer comedy and emotion to a rich story adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel. This tale of romance and acceptance may have slight touches of being over-sentimental but that in no way jolts us from the dazzling charm, which the stars and story convey. The screenplay also ends down familiar territory but there’s so much to cheer on in this picture, that the predictability becomes a muted backseat passenger in a joyful experience.

This is an extremely extravagant and beautiful movie. A wedding sequence is torn straight out of a jungle and is perhaps one of the most ridiculously over the top ceremonies but it fills the heart and it’ll likely fill some eyes with tears. The many lush settings and cinematography are crackling with a luxury that will do wonders for the tourism board of Singapore.

On the flip side of the romantic coin is the comedy sparkle, which does work well throughout. It is not solely ‘Community’ alumni Ken Jeong that gifts some funny to the movie; but a gay fashionista, a snap-happy single lad and Awkwafina’s Goh Peik Lin all bring a delicious amount of humour to the table. The latter is bursting with a comic energy that lifts the film even higher than it already is.

Constance Wu is the bridge to the audience; she grounds us to the glittering, affluent world we’re stepping into. She makes her fish out of water character a heart-warming and believable figure to follow. Wu isn’t just stunning and likable but she’s headstrong and smart too which make her moments facing adversity a strong example of women standing strong and proud. Henry Golding is the handsome and charming boyfriend but isn’t the lead usual movies would stumble to. The actor is confident in playing this caring man but doesn’t ever overshadow the brilliance of his leading lady. This movie features the incredible Gemma Chan and unlike her synth days from ‘Humans’, she demonstrates a wealth of touching emotion as Astrid.

Like the dumplings that a family make within the plot, this film is a sweet and often loving romantic filling wrapped up with fluffy comedy and pinched together with a stroke of drama and judgement. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ has blown the box office apart and with it’s affable cast and elegant, delightful storytelling it’s not hard to see why.

7.5/10

 

The Children Act (2018)

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This is a drama with a profound core revolving around a quandary of life and death. It’s very easy to say that Emma Thompson is the crowning aspect within ‘The Children Act’. There is a lot of weighty material going on in this plot and not all of it is as stirring as the film would believe it is.

The Honorable Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson) is a well respected judge but away from the courts she’s facing a communication breakdown with her husband Jack (Stanley Tucci). On top of this she is given a case about a 17 year old with leukaemia; his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses and are refusing a blood transfusion which leaves Maye to make an informed choice on the teenagers welfare.

Richard Eyre; with a sturdy background in theatre and directing play adaptations for TV certainly knows how to facilitate strong performances for this thought-provoking story. It’s a shame then that he overdoes the melodrama and thrusts too much emotional manipulation onto the audience come the final minutes of this film.

Before that point, the first two acts are solid and methodically attentive to both the trials of court room lore and her marriage behind closed doors. The High Court of Justice scenes are gripping and tackle tricky issues of law and morals, family and love, death and life which are beautifully explored in Ian McEwan’s script. This sensitive development of healthcare versus dignity never backs down by taking one side and that makes the dialogue based within the court rooms very interesting to hear.

After the verdict is decided, it isn’t only the melodramatic nature that spoils the film but the scripted behaviour and actions of one character are apparently signs of a forced upbringing but are just strange and make the story a surreal ache to get through. I was totally out of the film by the midst of the third act and any chance of evoking a sad reaction from me was utterly in the wind.

Thompson is as sensational as you’d expect, she has such a great emotive range which is second to none. In her eyes, a thousand words are spoken even when she is just silently listening or contemplating. Tucci doesn’t have a large role but brings a subtlety to his turn as Jack, there’s definitely an interest he portrays of quiet, honest conflict for Fiona’s personal life.

‘The Children Act’ has a lot going for it and with a powerful duo of performances, the story especially in the first stages is dignified and absorbing but after a while, it views like a train coming to a halt but still with a mile of track left to go.

5.5/10

Yardie (2018)

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Idris Elba has proved to be a great presence on screen, but does his recognisable voice translate to be as effective behind the camera? ‘Yardie’ is his debut film as director and though, at times it feels like a frustrating muddle of scenes, there’s a powerful collection of actors and music tracks to keep the movie from failing.

Jamaica 1983 and 10 years after his brother was shot, Dennis Campbell aka ‘D’ (Aml Ameen) is told by King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), to head to London with a cocaine package and deliver it to British gangster/club owner Rico (Stephen Graham). The drug deal becomes a bust and ‘D’ could end up starting a war between cultures in London which will have an impact on people back in Jamaica.

A large percentage of this film, majoritively in the earlier stages has a feel reminiscent of Brazil’s 2002 ‘City of God’. The style choices made in this recent release with freeze-frames on certain characters, the tropical setting lit by rays of sun and the story of a young kid growing up on a path of gangs and violence add to the Meirelles/Lund parallels. This is no bad comparison as the first parts of this film are strong, it’s just a shame that as the central character hits Hackney, the story doesn’t quite keep to its convictions and feels a bit tame.

It is clear that Elba directs with an eye or perhaps ear on creating heart in his first feature. He probably had a major influence over the music choices, what with his extra curricular DJ activities, he ensures the story pulsates with Caribbean reggae sounds. The soundtrack gives this film a great aural power, which isn’t mirrored by the plain plot. The main revenge arc is simple and could be effective but is lost amongst other plot points which flit in and out. The characters don’t help this narrative too much either, ‘D’ isn’t always that enthralling, King Fox is an interesting character but there’s never enough of him to keep the tension bubbling.

Ameen is good as Dennis, he does bestow this chap plenty of cheek and charisma in places, if not enough innocence to make his journey more charged with an engagement factor. Stephen Graham is the stand out, he is a captivating presence in this film. The shifting of accents, bearing of golden teeth and the nasty unpredictability are all expertly mastered by the actor and he stops the London-set scenes from being empty on erratic tension.

A fine debut from Idris Elba in the controlling chair, just not a riveting one that secures him as a director with a leading voice, yet. ‘Yardie’ becomes a film which feels long but there are sights and sounds of soul in this drama which help give it some needed liveliness.

6/10

 

King of Thieves (2018)

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Starring a handful of British talents and directed by the man behind the moving ‘The Theory of Everything’, you’d think this film based on a massive heist in the diamond district of London would be better than it actually turns out to be.

After a personal tragedy, Brian Reader (Michael Caine) is roped back into the underworld of robberies. He brings a team together of former thieves and brings an alarm specialist and new face into the fold, in the shape of Basil (Charlie Cox). The six elderly gentlemen plan to break into a vault in Hatton Garden, which holds over £200 million in diamonds, cash and gold.

This is 100% one of those movies that fits into the mould of the real story being more interesting than the film itself. It’s such a shame because this could have been an interesting look into the men that committed this crime but it descends into a rough and often unfunny thread of bickering and gruff London blokes cracking nasty comments. ‘King of Thieves’ definitely outlives its early charm and whilst there are some doses of alright comedy, they are few and far between a heist that arrives too soon and isn’t as exciting as it deserved to be.

There are elements within the robbery which are playful and work on the humour revolving around their senior years and a couple of stronger moments utilise on the tension of them in the act and the possibility of being caught. A Tchaikovsky backed sequence of thieving is a stand out snippet with ‘Whiplash’ levels of editing and a burst of diamond hungry energy. This and the quality of the performers involved don’t outweigh the overly long run-time and a film that doesn’t seem to know what angle it’s going for.

James Marsh directs a bunch of recognisable faces and there certainly seems to be a gentle chemistry between them, the first stages of this film are breezy but then it goes on and on in a way where stylistic choices of gangsters in the past flit into proceedings, grey army treachery bogs down a script laden with tiresome expletives and a police-heavy third act which isn’t as riveting or tense as, again it deserved to be.

Benjamin Wallfisch’s music, at points echoes the bouncy yet dramatic score which BBC’s ‘Hustle’ used so well and in fact this film does have some of the pre-swindling set up and snappy edits of the con itself, which mirrors the lighthearted entertainment of the Adrian Lester TV series but it doesn’t keep to this warmness. That would be fine if the eventual darker notes and masculine aggression weren’t so mishandled, becoming cringey character traits losing all the charm of the film.

‘King of Thieves’ may have acting royalty involved from Caine to Jim Broadbent but that doesn’t keep its crown from slipping away from meaty real events into a doddery, average retelling.

5.5/10