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

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

 

Upgrade (2018)

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All components of this machine are methodically oiled; the story, the action, the music and cinematography are well constructed parts which make a sizzling cool whole.

In the future where more things can be done with minimal effort, Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green) still loves mechanics and does up cars for business. A drive home after a meeting ends up in tragedy and Grey is brought back from paralysis thanks to secret tech implanted within him. This upgrade could help him solve the crime that caused the accident but at what cost?

Whenever you have a movie with enhanced technology involved, there’s always going to be that moral question raised of how far the character goes with it. This film takes the usual crime and futuristic model and gives it an awesome face-lift. The chip called STEM, inside of Grey, is a character which hands this film elements of danger but dark humour also. The feel of this future on screen is a warm welcome into utopia before descending into energetic dystopia.

The world on show, from the auto-driving cars to the progressive healthcare is like something from a ‘Black Mirror’ episode, the narrative of this movie definitely fits nicely into the mould of the worrying rise of technology. What ‘Upgrade’ obviously has that Charlie Brooker’s series doesn’t, is a blinding cinematic explosion of action and violence. The fight scenes within this film are sensational, elevated even further by camera movements which follow Grey and shake, rattle and roll through combat, properly throwing you into the mix.

This action does not shy away from bloody grind-house carnage, excess body-horror playfulness and it lifts the moody, troubling growth of the AI element in the plot. It’s not just the hand-to-hand battles which are exciting and special. The lighting is incredible, there are warehouses back lit by yellows and greens and hallways soaked with blood red, these strokes of colour add a superb neon noir to this grim environment that Grey has to wade through in search of answers.

Betty Gabriel is a fantastic watch as a cop on the hunt for who was behind the tragedy but she starts pegging that there’s something else going on with the apparent disabled mechanic, her march forwards is an interesting watch as we know she’s heading into danger. Marshall-Green is great in this, there are times when he seems to degrade into schlock-type forced dialogue delivery but this works in developing his developing technological state.

‘Upgrade’ is an impressive movie to delight in watching, with an ‘Ex Machina’ like tale of humans vs robotics boosted by unique fight scenes and an excellent score, this is surely a sci-fi feature that’ll go down as a cult classic in years to come.

8/10

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

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Ugh, here we go again! A sequel/prequel to the fifth highest grossing film of 2008 is on our shores and with the success of the first ABBA inspired musical, I imagine this follow up will stay in those successful footsteps even if it is a lame rom-com story and does very little to dispel the notion that it’s a stonking great cash grab.

It’s been five years since Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) wedding and she’s now busy planning the reopening of her mum’s hotel. As the final preparations are under way, the story cuts back and forth between this and Donna (Lily James) back in 1979; just graduated and wanting to see the world. The film then follows her meeting Sophie’s trio of fathers and how her stay in Greece came to be.

Firstly, it’s not a major issue that the songs are relentless throughout but this musical almost shoehorns songs in that vaguely fit in with what’s going on during the narrative. I was listening to lyrics and some just don’t coincide with what’s been or is happening at all. Secondly, the film only just kicks off and we’re right into a song, I know it’s a musical but there’s something about the ‘Mamma Mia’ landscape that serves up a cringe aspect alongside the jovial antics, extremely evident in the graduation sequence and the Waterloo themed restaurant.

This film feels like it was battering me over the head with song after Swedish created song, that by the end I was involved and part of the music. It’s as if I was bombarded to say Thank You for the Music because it was incessant. It may have been the broken will but I have to say that the glittery disco themed Super Trouper number was an enjoyable blast, Mamma Mia itself is a fun listen/watch and Angel Eyes is sold nicely thanks to the power of the actors behind the song.

Ol Parker’s screenplay from a story by him, Catherine Johnson and Richard Curtis is a loosely veiled attempt at tying two stories together. The plot doesn’t do much to really make you care for Donna, she just seems like a young gal gallivanting and exploring what our planet has to offer, though she seems to know she belongs in Greece after only going to visit Paris. The hotel re-opening is a flimsy excuse to get the sprawling cast back together but amongst the less than inspired writing there are some funny moments. A sassy Greek lady, a goat chase and the terrific double act of Julie Walters and Christine Baranski are great highlights.

Lily James is superb, she gives the background of Meryl Streep’s character such radiating presence. She may fall in and out of beds but she has such a bubbly performance throughout this film that you can’t help but like her and James’ infectious smile even made this cynical chap less so. Seyfried is a class act, she’s always reliable for musical features and her talented vocals do this film wonders amongst the likes of some less than gifted singers elsewhere in the cast. She manages to be expressive and likable in a role that sees her bridging gaps between the past and present. The ‘singing’ and dad-dancing of Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard is awkward but highly amusing. Cher rocks up like this wicked west persona; the helicopter and her introductory music add to this oncoming doom but she does little in the film and reveals a name before singing that song which is an eye roll AND sigh if ever there was one but it’s Cher, I can’t say anything bad, can I!?

This sun-drenched film arriving 10 years after the original didn’t need to arrive at all, it’s not a fascinating story and the cringe is most certainly real but it’s a carefree bop that knows what it is; a summery feel good distraction that will have die-hard ABBA fans singing in the cinemas and calling out for the inevitable singalong versions.

5.5/10

Hotel Artemis (2018)

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It pays to get care in this directorial debut from ‘Iron Man 3’ writer Drew Pearce, but did I really care that much about the film? Well, it certainly boasts a talented line up and story potential but it doesn’t break free from being a generic and an almost online streaming kind of movie.

After a botched robbery, the criminals led by Sherman (Sterling K. Brown) head to a members only location in Los Angeles. Hotel Artemis is a hotel and hospital establishment run by Jean (Jodie Foster), that is specifically designed to cater only the crooks of society, to keep them away from police attention. However, LA kingpin The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum) is on route and one of the members have something that belongs to him.

For a start, that aspect of the story also featured in the trailer never seems to come to anything, the King of Wolves never really gets to grips with that missing item because he has his own problems to deal with. The plot itself also from Drew Pearce finds itself located at a cool starting point, what with a dystopian LA of 2028 providing futuristic visuals and an underground means of operation that’s quite interesting. Sadly, the film doesn’t become as engrossing as it could have been and feels like a fun watch, but a forgettable one.

There’s dialogue within this movie that sounds like it’s come straight out of the Roger Moore era of Bond, with sign off lines that are cheesier than a cheddar block. Thanks to the designated rules listed by the Artemis, any promise of action is left til the dying moments, which does make the film somewhat less exciting to get through. Thanks to the cast though and some blasts of poppy music and a thankfully engaging score from Cliff Martinez, this film doesn’t fail too badly.

Jodie Foster is on top form as the nurse of the joint, she totters around and as the main centrepiece she’s a brilliant presence. She brings her character a sweet anxiety and a nice homely if not shady level of care. Sterling K. Brown is a fine actor and a charismatic chap but he doesn’t get much to do in this and he’s just an uninteresting character to follow. Dave Bautista destroys any rule breakers with great ease but shows he’s more than muscle, acting nicely opposite Foster and providing his orderly character touches of compassion. Charlie Day does more of his usual shouty stuff and Goldblum is underused. Sofia Boutella plays Nice, a for hire killer and she’s seriously bad ass, showcasing awesome skills of chopping bad guys down and cloaked in her thigh high sliced dress she looks like an Electra or Red Sonja and she’s a talented, fierce actor that deserves a leading role like that.

If anything, ‘Hotel Artemis’ tries throwing a bit too much of everything into the mix and becomes overcooked. There’s flashes of something special but it never checks in to those heights.

6/10

The Incredibles 2 (2018)

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After almost 14 years, the supers are back! It’s the one Pixar movie that everyone (well definitely I) thought deserved a sequel but was it worth the mega-wait or should they hang up their masks for good?

Kicking off where the last film ended, we see the Parr family aka The Incredibles try and put a halt to the fiendish plans of the Underminer. The consequences of their actions put more strain on the legal battle of super-powered individuals but Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk) who works in telecommunications, is keen to get heroes back in the spotlight for good and starts this idea by getting Helen aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to prove that supers shouldn’t be hiding in the shadows.

It was always going to be interesting to see how the animation heads of Pixar would fare creating a follow-up to their beloved 2004 feature, more so because of the comic-book movie saturation that is filling up cinemas. Brad Bird does a spectacular job in directing an animated superhero adventure that feels fresh. It’s a hugely exciting film to watch and it zips along with such breakneck speed as if you’re taking an adrenaline shot.

Bird also writes the story for the next phase in the Incredibles ongoing journey and though they’re still at the same age, the family has certainly got plenty on its plate to keep the film from feeling repetitive. Admittedly the progression of the plot is fairly predictable, in terms of the big baddie reveal being no surprise but that does little to put a dampener on a truly colourful and enjoyable movie.

Elements of how the world is today; our obsession with technology becomes ripe for the picking and the plot plays with this screen-happy culture very well. The constant tug of war with the legality of the superheroes’ presence is explored further and makes for a deeper thread running in and out of the family dramas and Elastigirl led antics. It’s refreshing to see Helen be front and centre and show off her skills in the field. The house bound tribulations of Bob trying to juggle stresses of homework, an adolescent girl and a baby developing jittery powers are a perfect balancing act with the awesome action set pieces featuring their mum.

Michael Giacchino’s score is a triumph and hands every sequence a perfectly energetic buzz or sounds trickling with notes of spy intrigue. That theme tune of his is as glorious as ever and gave me goosebumps, it’s like some jazzy fanfare that makes you feel indestructible. I have to comment on the lighting within this film also, gorgeous scenery with orange/red skies are stunning to look at, a literally flashy fight sequence in an electric cage is dazzling and generally the movie is an impressive work of art.

It’s no surprise that has the prize of having the best debut for an animation film because this is a supremely fantastic, fun, engaging and super superhero family movie. Here’s hoping the Parr family come back a bit sooner next time.

8.5/10