by Philip Price
Director: Bryan Singer
Cast: Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee
Runtime: 2 hours & 14 minutes
It's not what you say, it's how you say it. It is this common expression that the rather simple and safe interpretation of the story of Queen that “Bohemian Rhapsody” tells might have benefited from remembering. In a nutshell, Bryan Singer and Dexter Fletcher's biopic covers the early years of Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and Roger Taylor's (Ben Hardy) band just before it recruits lead singer Freddie Mercury (Rami Malek) and becomes known as Queen up through their 1985 performance at Live Aid that is considered one of the greatest performances in rock history. This is all well and good and makes sense for the arc of the band during its peak time of popularity, but within this arc Anthony McCarten's (“The Theory of Everything”) screenplay never digs deep enough for audiences to really catch a glimpse of what actually defined Queen as a group or what made them, as a unit, so willing and trusting in one another to the extent they'd each be willing to bet everything on the titular song being a hit despite the fact a senior A&R exec with more experience than all of the members of Queen combined doesn't believe it to be. Of course, this is where one would retaliate with the, "fortune favors the bold," phrase that is also used in the movie and I'm not saying the members of Queen were wrong or stupid for doing this-obviously they weren't-or that the A&R exec was right-obviously he wasn't-but what I am saying is that “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the film, never gives the audience reason to trust in the word of Mercury, May, Taylor and bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) over this more experienced character outside of the fact it presumes the audience knows the story and music of Queen well enough to just go with it. And that's exactly what “Bohemian Rhapsody” does the majority of the time: it simply asks the audience to "go with it" as it rotates through the band's greatest hits and gives the expected beats of their meteoric rise, the inner tensions and turmoil that come with fame and notoriety, the distance that naturally grows between Mercury and the rest of his band mates, and their eventual reconciliation that leads to a triumphant return. It's all here, but the real disappointment with the story of Queen in particular is that it has so many unique variables and perspectives that this predictable pattern of the music biopic could have been used purely as a template while the actual style and substance of what was being communicated could have been fulfilled in more creative and effective ways. Instead, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is unapologetically "fine" and will largely be remembered for finding an excuse to play so many great songs on theater quality sound systems.
Of course, what was always going to be the biggest hurdle for a biopic about Queen and more specifically, about Mercury, was that of finding an actor who might portray the iconic rock deity without the performance feeling like a pale imitation of the idea each of us have of Freddie Mercury in our minds. The stories of Mercury's debauchery are as legendary as his vocal range and while I would have loved to have seen not only the type of performance Sacha Baron Cohen might have delivered in the role, but the undoubtedly R-rated film within which he would have delivered it what Rami Malek, star of television's “Mr. Robot,” has done with this opportunity is as good as can be expected even if, in certain instances, his wholly invested and deeply researched performance does in fact come off as something of a pale comparison. This is especially true when it comes to moments that Malek is supposed to spontaneously burst into song putting Mercury's pipes front and center and it becoming all the more evident how much Malek is not only lip-synching, but that no one else on the planet could imitate Mercury's voice in a way that would come off as even the least bit convincing. Jamie Foxx had strong enough chops and an abundance of swagger to the point he could pull off Ray Charles with real conviction and Joaquin Phoenix carried the right amount of mystery and pain behind his eyes to portray the Man in Black while learning to play guitar and sing just well enough to properly persuade the audience they were watching what could have very easily been a young Johnny Cash. With Mercury, things are different not only because no one else-even in the music business-could sing like Mercury, but because he carried such a distinct look that has become so singularly exclusive to the legend that continues to be built and grow around him.
All things considered then, it is a wonder any actor might be able to pull off convincing an audience they are actually watching Freddie Mercury for any sustained amount of time, but there are moments throughout “Bohemian Rhapsody” where Malek is able provide glimpses of what the performer might have been like in the "in-between" moments when Mercury was neither performing, writing music, or consorting with any number of random house guests that wanted to party as much as he reportedly did. Of course, it is in these instances that the film also chooses to paint Mercury as an unsuspecting player in his own life that stumbles into his homosexuality and is preyed upon by a manager that is either out to take advantage of the singer by any means necessary or is the most relentless of romantic pursuers despite being shot down any number of times. This is in reference to Allen Leech's Paul Prenter who, in real life, served as Mercury's manager for over a decade and coincidentally died the same year as Mercury (1991) from complications from AIDS. While there seems to have undoubtedly been some tension between Mercury and Prenter from time to time as well as between Prenter and the rest of the members of Queen the relationship the film largely focuses on in regards to Mercury is one that might surprise most given it would seem Mercury's sexuality was a foregone conclusion given his public persona, but Mercury was in fact engaged to and-as the movie tells it-genuinely in love with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). It is in the portrayal of Mercury and Austin's relationship as well as the eventual handling of Mercury's gay relationships that things not only feel rather sanitized in order to paint the singer in the most flattering of lights, but that the restrained approach is also taken in order to avoid garnering more personal interactions within these aforementioned "in-between moments". Yes, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is about the whole of Queen, but even the movie doesn't try to kid itself into believing Mercury wasn't the real draw and while getting deeper than surface-level about Mercury's private life would have immediately elevated this to a different level so as to better understand his choices as a performer in digging a little deeper not just on a singular level, but in regards to the band as a group of talented musicians who've crafted some of the biggest anthems in rock history wouldn't have been too shabby either.
Malek has a line in the film when discussing what it's like to be able to feel like the exact version of the person he always imagined himself to be when he's either on stage controlling an arena of thousands or in the company of Austin, but even something as insightful as this is so fleeting so as to get to the next plot point in the series of necessary story beats that must be hit in order to qualify as a feature that this kernel of an idea or feeling that is offered is abandoned almost as quickly as it was brought up-never to be explored further. Austin was something of a safe haven for Mercury when he had no one else to turn to and when the drinks and the drugs began to taste stale and both Boynton and Malek find a lovely sort of balance between the two characters so as to effectively convey a love for one another that has to withstand a harsh truth and thus transcend traditional relationships in a time when exploration was denounced and conformity was expected. It is in this aspect that ‘Bohemian’ finds its one true surprise in terms of narrative direction, but while the narrative plays it rather safe that isn't to say what the film does cover in terms of the band coming together and making music isn't at least entertaining as the sequence in which the band defiantly proposes the kind of record they'll produce as a follow-up to their self-titled album that featured their first commercial hit through to the composition of the title track isn't fairly exhilarating. It is in this instance that “Bohemian Rhapsody” almost too perfectly realizes how much of a double-edged sword it is. There is enough runtime to divulge the different elements of this six-minute opus and the lengths Mercury went to in the recording sessions to get the song as close to what he had in his head as possible, but we get none of the inspiration for the lyrics or the guitar solos. Hell, we don't even get that clichéd and hackneyed moment of one of the members of the band realizing what the name of the song should be through obvious inspiration. Naturally, one understands it's difficult to cram 15 or so years' worth of events into a two-hour movie and make it a coherent story with a beginning, middle, and end, but there is a specificity lacking in “Bohemian Rhapsody” that might have otherwise offered both a more sincere and thus a more moving portrait of this man and this band.
Furthermore, if the film was going to try and veer more towards a biopic of Queen as a band rather than emphasize the life of Mercury it might have done more to highlight the fact Queen wasn't made up of individuals who were inclined to fall into the trappings of the rock and roll lifestyle. Brian May earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics while Roger Taylor studied dentistry before the whole music gig took off for each of them. Even the last member to join the original line-up, John Deacon, was studying engineering when he was recruited by May, Taylor, and Mercury to be a part of Queen. In all honesty, Deacon might be the most unheralded of the group who in all actuality offered the most given six of the many songs he wrote for the band were released as singles including "You're My Best Friend," "I Want to Break Free" and "Another One Bites the Dust." The film also highlights the fact May penned the biggest stadium anthem of all time and makes a point to poke good fun at Taylor for being the weakest songwriter among the group. That this group of guys, outside of Mercury, were more or less average Joe's with wives and children who just so happened to possesses some exceptional creative talent and be a part of one of the biggest rock bands of all time is a unique approach all its own, but while the majority of McCarten's narrative understandably focuses on the life and times of Mercury it would have been nice had the film at least staged the lead singers moments with his band in a more credible fashion than what is delivered. Outside of the admittedly chill-inducing Live Aid re-creation each of the performance sequences look as if they were shot in the same venue with different costumes and clarifying text sent across the screen to state where in the world Queen was touring. Ultimately, while largely serviceable, “Bohemian Rhapsody” takes the undefinable nature of Freddie Mercury himself and conveys it through this box of convenience, of expectation, and of a certain categorization that would have undoubtedly made the real Mercury scoff for he was anything but definable. It only seems appropriate “Bohemian Rhapsody” might have transcended the genre of musical biopics in the same way its subject transcended every aspect of life, but hey-"Radio Gaga" is super legit, right?
by Philip Price
Director: George Tillman
Starring: Amandla Stenberg, Algee Smith & Regina Hall
Runtime: 2 hours & 13 minutes
“The Hate U Give” might come off as a perfectly-timed opportunity given the "Black Lives Matter" movement and the unfortunate, consistent headlines that tell us a young, unarmed black individual was gunned down by a white police officer, but fortunately, director George Tillman's adaptation of the Angie Thomas novel is not an opportunistic publicity stunt aimed at an audience who are already well-aware of the points the film is making. Rather, “The Hate U Give” is a well-rounded and appropriately angry piece of filmmaking that tells of both these types of crimes and the reasons for the feeling of need for movements such as "Black Lives Matter" in our country at the moment.
Tillman luckily has a strong grasp on the multiple themes and rather epic scope of his film as Audrey Wells' adapted screenplay weaves in a multitude of challenges that face the black community outside of discrimination. Whether it be police brutality or white privilege or more universal issues that have become more associated with being black than is fair such as drug abuse, drug-dealing, and a lack of the traditional familial structure, Tillman is able to take each of these strands and weave them into a coherent narrative that, while maybe tying things up a bit too neatly at the end, is most admirable for admitting it doesn't have all the answers, but instead making plenty of suggestions on how to spark change.
In the most evocative scene in the film Amandla Stenberg's (“The Hunger Games”) Starr, a young black girl who lives in a suburban ghetto, but attends a mostly white private school, confronts her uncle (Common), a black police officer who worked alongside the cop that shot and killed Starr's friend Khalil (Algee Smith) while she was in the passenger seat, to clarify just how disparate the lines of race have become in the worst of ways. It is in this scene that the film offers the point of view of the police officer as much as it does the suspect who was pulled over for what, at first, was seemingly nothing more than a routine traffic stop. The scene offers not only an explanation, but something of a justification for the white officer's actions from the mouth of a black officer said in earnest and with fairness. Starr's counterpoint is the underlying theme of every strand Tillman and the writers throw into the discussion though; that racism isn't wholly based in the belief of superiority but is more pointedly exemplified in the assumption that all members of a race possess characteristics specific to that race. If Khalil had not been a young black man in a predominantly black suburb, he would likely have never been pulled over in the first place.
The material is strong if not slightly overwrought in certain instances, but the cast elevates both the potent and the melodramatic. Stenberg is particularly great here and carries the weight of this heavy narrative on her shoulders with an effortless cool that might make even the richest of entitled yuppies jealous. The true revelation though, is Russell Hornsby as Starr's reformed father Maverick 'Mav' Carter. Hornsby is in this completely from the opening scene in which a young father sits down with his three children (and I mean children) to have "the talk," but-if you're like me (meaning Caucasian)-this probably isn't "the talk" you're thinking of, as Mav instructs his children on the proper precautions to take when pulled over or questioned by the police. This sad state of reality should strike a chord with any audience member not already sympathetic to the perspective represented in the film while the film goes the extra mile to show that it understands why these pre-conceived notions of black people exist, but ultimately stands to say that if police officers are allowed to make such assumptions based on prejudice then they should, at the very least, be held accountable for their actions under such presumptions.
It's sticky territory to get into and there are layers of factors to unpack and defend on both sides of the argument in any given set of circumstances. One would like to believe cops aren't actively targeting black communities, but it's also clear black communities are monopolized by illegal activity and preyed upon by drug dealers and gang members whose origins lie in this group of people having been repressed and treated unfairly for so many years that in the five generations since slavery was abolished the descendants of those slaves have only been capable of coming so far. “The Hate U Give” eloquently, but honestly portrays this struggle, attesting to the need to respond to hate with love in order for love to exist rather than for hate to spread.
by Philip Price
Director: David Gordon Green
Starring: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, James Jude Courtney & Nick Castle
Runtime: 1 hour & 46 minutes
As much time has now passed between the original 1978 “Halloween” and star, original Scream Queen herself, Jamie Lee Curtis' return to the role of Laurie Strode (though she did reprise her role in the original 1981 sequel) in 1998's “Halloween H2O: 20 Years Later” as it now has between ‘H2O’ and 2018's “Halloween.” That is a long way of saying it's been 40 years since writer/director John Carpenter first introduced us to "The Shape" otherwise known as Michael Myers, but it is also to point out that while Curtis' 20-year reunion with her most famous character saw Strode as a woman on the run from her past, changing her name, concealing her identity, and attempting to move on while having raised a child in as much of a captive environment as possible director David Gordon Green's (“Pineapple Express”) new film sees Strode as someone who has lived with the trauma of that single night for forty years and who has been waiting for an opportunity to take back what was stolen from her. It's admittedly both a rarity and an oddity to be able to see two different, but fully fleshed out interpretations of a single character and the aftermath of dealing with such a traumatic event, but it is in considering the different ways in which Strode's life might have unraveled as a result of that Halloween night in 1978 that Green and co-writers Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley find their "in" in terms of how they can make their iteration of a Halloween sequel both different enough and justified enough for it to exist in the first place. In reality, we're dealing with a viewer's pick of alternate timelines based on preference and 2018's “Halloween” throws its hat in the ring by offering up the idea that everything that occurred in each of the seven sequels, including 1981's “Halloween II” that famously disclosed Laurie Strode was Michael Myers' long-lost baby sister, ever happened. No longer is anything canon except for what went down in the only installment Carpenter himself directed. And so, with that, Michael Myers no longer has a familial connection to Strode and thus no reason to make her his mission. This opens up the possibility for 2018's “Halloween” to simply be about a cold-blooded serial killer who murders at random because he's a monster following his impulses whereas Curtis' Strode is now the one who has built-up this connection between herself and Myers and sees it as her destiny that the two of them might once again come face to face. That Strode is more attached to Myers than he is her is the "in" Green needed to bring a fresh perspective to this endlessly re-made and ret-conned horror franchise, but it is with this twist on the original, principle character that not only do we get fertile new territory to explore, but we get to genuinely and sometimes gruesomely see the process of Laurie Strode truly taking back what was taken from her all those years ago.
As stated, the film begins 40 years to the day after the events of Carpenter's 1978 film in which two investigative journalists who produce a podcast we can assume is akin to “Serial” or the like arrive at the sanitarium where Myers has been kept for the past four decades, but who is about to be transported to a new facility due to a lack of any further interest in what can be gained by studying Myers' mind. There is a "new Loomis" as Strode so lovingly refers to him in Haluk Bilginer's Dr. Sartain who encourages the journalists, Aaron Korey (Jefferson Hall) and Dana Haines (Rhian Rees), to try and provoke Myers as he's stylistically chained to a larger than life checkerboard mat that Green uses to great effect as the inmates and German Shepherd K-9's on guard all go nuts the moment Korey brings out the notorious mask. Enhanced further by John and Cody Carpenter and Daniel Davies score the reinvigorated music on this thing is incredible. Green quickly sets the tone for the film through these expositional characters establishing the how and why around Myers not having spoken a word for the entirety of his incarceration and how this has factored into the decision to finally move the murderer. When Korey fails to provoke Myers though, he and Haines set out on a journey to find the ying to Myers' yang which, of course, is Curtis' Laurie Strode-the only surviving victim of the babysitter murders. It is in this introduction to Curtis' nearly 60-year old Strode that we learn what has become of the young, optimistic, somewhat naive, but mostly intelligent girl we saw in that first film. Laurie has learned to live with what happened to her, but never allowed herself to return to a state of anything resembling normalcy. The film tells us she's had two failed marriages, that she's battled issues of alcohol addiction, as well as having had her only daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), taken from her at the age of 12 whom she never regained custody of. Strode raised her own daughter as if it was inevitable what happened to her would one day happen to her daughter; pouring everything she experienced into Karen's childhood ultimately driving the young girl to a state of paranoid existence that Karen has in turn worked her entire life to suppress. Karen has grown up to become a well-adjusted human it would appear as she's become a psychologist herself and has what seems to be a strong marriage with Ray (the fantastic Toby Huss). Karen and Ray's teenage daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), experienced the complete opposite of what her mother did as a child, but Allyson has an affection for her grandmother who she reaches out to often. Allyson is caught between this rift and is tasked with trying to find a balance between her grandmother's paranoia and her mother's reluctance.
In exploring this cross-generational element Green, McBride, and Fradley's screenplay is quick to turn the trope of the "final girl" on its head making their “Halloween” not just about surviving the night, but about what happens as a result of surviving that night. In essence, while Strode naturally becomes something of this tragic heroine figure she is also still very much a hero in many regards as she is not only ready and willing to confront both this severe physical and mental pain that was bestowed upon her, but she is stepping out and saying she wants to confront the perpetrator of this trauma and take back the life she lost. While it's not difficult to draw parallels to the current cultural climate, “Halloween” never feels as if it's preaching from the pulpit, but more it is simply using this iteration of Strode to illustrate a character who isn't going to run away this time, who isn't going to simply roll over and die, but rather she is going to continue living until she takes back what she deserves. In this type of role and make no mistake this is a role with a capital R, Curtis is exceptional. It's a given the woman is badass-almost channeling a Sarah Connor-esque vibe at times-but this idea of someone who needs to be heard and understood and maybe most importantly-empathized with-is only lent an ear when the listener thinks they can gain something from the interaction as is exemplified when Korey and Haines first show up at Strode's house. The two journalists put on a front as if they are there for the benefit of Strode-that, if she were to talk about her experiences and open up these wounds-it might help her to better manage her feelings and allow her some closure, but Curtis' performance lets the viewer know rather quickly she's not buying it and that she understands all these people want is something for themselves, some piece of vulnerability that they can peddle to their advantage. Strode is so wounded still she finds it difficult to trust anyone, but by not trusting anyone she has grown to be trapped in this loneliness to the point that when someone does come and actively wants to talk with her it's understandably difficult not to forgive their agenda and give in to what she might choose to perceive as kindness. Again, it's a rather heartbreaking path Strode has traveled, but it brings a certain amount of weight to the series that, outside of the Rob Zombie films, this franchise has failed to capture in the some 30-odd years it has been trying to figure out its next move.
It is in this idea of Strode being more attached to Michael than he is to her that we get a version of The Shape that feels more vacant, more neutral, more an amalgam of nothing than has been true in the past. This may be the result of having watched the previous ten films in the series consistently and for the first time over the past couple of months, but there came to be this affection for the character. It wasn't ever to the extent one would root for Myers to kill more random, innocent people, but there was certainly a familiarity that developed. By cutting off all family ties Green and co. are able to fuel this perception that Michael is hollower, colder than he's been since the original. It is then the randomness of it all that makes it the most terrifying; if there is no rhyme or reason to Myers' victims it could literally be anyone and it is this possibility that Green divulges in a very stylistic, but insanely brutal tracking shot in this moment the serial killer is re-introduced to Haddonfield for the first time since 1978. James Jude Courtney and original Michael Myers, Nick Castle, embody this character with such a stark presence without ever being overbearing that it's not hard to buy into how expertly this hulking character can kill with such quietness and precision. Surprisingly, Green delivers a fair amount of the first act with Myers out of his mask (though we never see his face) and in search of an escape route giving the audience some especially teasing compositions that allow viewers to paint a more complete image of Myers, the human being, while ensuring that once he puts the mask back on it feels as if it is a new man; as if Clark Kent just went into a phone booth to become Superman-there is an immediate shift in the intimidation-but also in the believed immortality of the character. Every head tilt is calculated, every step made with intent, and Green utilizes the lurking, but assured presence of Myers to create some of the more terrifying sequences we've seen in a straight-up slasher flick in some time. That isn't to say this new “Halloween” is necessarily the scariest movie I've seen this year, but there are moments of real, genuine terror.
If it's not evident as of yet, David Gordon Green has crafted a “Halloween” film that not only pays homage to the original and even a number of the sequels that came after it despite erasing their stories, but he has also crafted a film that is about something. This is the aspect from which there was the most concern going in as it seems every avenue that one could take in approaching the “Halloween” series had been exhausted in one way or another since that first sequel in 1981. So, the question undoubtedly looming over Green's head going into this project was what story was still worth telling in regard to these characters and this mythology? Obviously, getting Jamie Lee Curtis back made a difference and the decision to make it a direct sequel to the original helped, but was this ultimately going to become a re-hashed version of the original only Laurie Strode would now fill the Loomis role and her granddaughter by default becoming the new Laurie? That seemed to be the most obvious route and the safest in terms of kick-starting another franchise the studios and the film's producers could continue to make money from, but it is in this regard that 2018's “Halloween” is the most successful as it is most certainly not a carbon copy of the original appropriately updated for the current era, but it is a true continuation of the original film and an honest look at the repercussions of the events of that night. It is about the generational illness of trauma that has been inflicted on each of the three main female characters and how they each individually have come to terms with and how they deal with these afflictions; the film never sacrificing character for the sake of a scare. That said, the film also features plenty of what the masses will flock to a Halloween film for though it does fall in points slightly by bending over backwards to get to that ultimate face-off we know is coming between Michael Myers and Laurie Strode. Fortunately, that final face-off is worth the price of admission alone with Green delivering one of the more substantial conclusions of the series that feels as definitive as it does intrigue for what it might mean for the future of the franchise. It's a fine line to walk, but with “Halloween” Green has managed to both remind us of what was so innovative about the original while taking the narrative in a fresh, and eye-opening direction.
by Philip Price
Are you rushing or are you dragging? This quote from the most famous scene of director Damien Chazelle's second feature, “Whiplash,” kept coming to the forefront of my mind as I sat and took in his latest project-a project that, on the surface-feels radically different from anything the guy has done before. While Chazelle has carved out his niche by making films as influenced by the music that shape them as they are the pictures that compose them the closest thing “First Man” has to a musical number is a tease that Neil Armstrong was a fairly good piano player and that he might have written a musical with a friend in college. Are you rushing or are you dragging though? This line of dialogue from music instructor Fletcher via J.K. Simmons reoccurred to me though, due to the fact that this time around, in his fourth feature, Chazelle couldn't quite seem to figure out what tempo he wanted to keep. That is to say, there is this grand juxtaposition in “First Man” between the sections in which we're fully engulfed in the development of the NASA missions and the defining of the procedures and the role Ryan Gosling's Armstrong played in these decisions and then there is the home life of Armstrong, a visually warmer, but still very cold atmosphere that this man inhabits due largely to the fact he is still grieving and dealing with the death of his young daughter-even years after she has passed away. On their own, both serve as equally compelling narratives about a man in crisis each trying to figure out how to overcome something that has both never been done before and something they've never had to deal with or ever dreamt of having to deal with before. And sometimes, when these two disparate environments if not similar situations in regards to their circumstances come together they do so in effective ways; one crossing over with the other creating a broader picture of the layers that not only played into the daily lives of these men, these engineers, these astronauts, but into the lives of their wives (both Claire Foy and Olivia Hamilton are stand-outs in two different types of supportive roles), and their families. There is a particular instance dealing in how "good" the Armstrong's once were at attending funerals as a result of the line of work Neil was in, but while certain moments feel layered and others pop due largely to the stakes at hand there is an inconsistent tone to the overall piece where many sequences dealing in the moon missions feel as if they're rushing given the sheer amount of information screenwriter Josh Singer (“Spotlight”) is trying to cover while the more personal, introspective moments at home tend to drag in an honest attempt to truly convey Armstrong's mental and emotional processes. Fortunately, by the end, Chazelle is able to haul his intentions over these hurtles and merge the contrasting tones to create a moment that is both visually and emotionally monumental.
While “First Man” may feel radically different from anything Chazelle has done before on the surface, it is actually quite similar to that of the aforementioned “Whiplash.” This is true in regard to the main characters of both films and their respective journeys. Both Miles Teller's Andrew and Ryan Gosling's portrayal of Neil Armstrong paint pictures of two equally obsessive and ambitious men who will sacrifice whatever personal needs fall by the wayside in order to achieve their goals. It is in the reason for the ambition that “Whiplash” and “First Man” diverge somewhat for, while Andrew was more obsessed with success for reasons of validation, Armstrong has a much more complicated reason for this need to accomplish what no other human being had even attempted at the time. For Armstrong, this drive and desire in Chazelle's film stems from the inability to find a cure for his daughter's malignant tumor that grew within a part of her brain stem ultimately resulting in the three-year-old succumbing to pneumonia. As Armstrong, Gosling plays the man who took that giant leap for mankind as a man who found it difficult to make the small steps in his life-or at least looked at life very practically and after his daughter's death found it difficult to convince himself those small steps might be meaningful or mean anything. In “First Man,” both Chazelle and Gosling are keen to let the audience know this is not so much a movie about space as it is a movie that concerns itself with space, but more how this great unknown relates to the grief and loneliness of this individual who was haunted by the loss of his daughter, was pathologically introverted, and seemed to feel that if he could overcome this obstacle of landing on the moon that he might be able to come to terms with this crushing loss he'd experienced. While this approach may upend certain expectations given the rather simple, all-American portrait and legacy that every generation after the moon landing has been raised on in regard to Armstrong the fact “First Man” deconstructs this myth and lends this journey to the moon as a more personal journey allows the film to succeed by making the heroes journey, to which we all already knew the ending, that much more engaging. Armstrong hides these emotions and troubles and like most men of that time projected only an image of complete competence and skill-all of which he was more than capable of backing-up, of course-but there was naturally more to him than this and more to his life in general. More even, than the death of his daughter as, once he is recruited by NASA, Armstrong and his family also have to deal with the pressures and needs of the mission, the eventual deaths of many of his close friends, and the brushes with death he himself would have.
It is in the dynamics between Armstrong and his family at home that give pause to the idea we needed a film about Neil Armstrong even if Chazelle chooses to give the biggest emotional weight of this story to a single scene where Armstrong's wife, Janet (Foy), forces him to sit down and tell his sons that he may never see them again once he leaves on Apollo 11. While one might have wished Chazelle would have chosen to make this aspect of our subject's life more incisive throughout so as to highlight the fact that not only was our protagonist dealing with this loss, but possibly the contrasting way in which Janet processed this life event or even the fact of how the couple was then able to go on with an older son who he himself lost a sibling and experienced this loss along with his parents as well as then having a younger son who never knew this experience everyone else in his family then shared. Though “First Man” is first and foremost a movie about Neil Armstrong and the ways he chose to respond and conduct himself in the wake of life tragedies it might have been clearer as to why this was the case if we had the slightest bit more context as to how those closest to him also responded and therefore potentially influenced these responses. While Chazelle effectively conveys that Armstrong's desire to escape the earth is his way of coming to terms with this loss of his daughter and that the moon landing might have served as some kind of redemption even, what is less visibly communicated in “First Man” is this idea that Armstrong, for being so broken and becoming more and more quiet over time given the more grief he experienced, was a man who found it more difficult to look his sons in the face and tell them the cold hard truth than it was for him to strap himself to a rocket and go farther from the earth than any human in history. It is very telling, but while it is this kind of insight or suggestion that the more personal, intuitive moments of the movie should thrive on we really only see this kind of moment where Armstrong isn't let off the hook in this scene where Janet forces him to sit down and actually confront a fear. Even in this scene, Armstrong conducts the moment as if he were in a board meeting rather than having a conversation with the two people who admire him most on the planet and who he has the most influence over. What is it that he sees in the vast emptiness of space that might fill his own emptiness is the idea Chazelle and Singer are seemingly chasing and though they have James R. Hansen's authorized biography to go off of and Gosling's strong if not stoic performance on which to build the film, Armstrong is a man as mysterious as the moon itself and therefore admittedly difficult to crack. And though we don't always glean what might leave the best impression of who Armstrong actually was what is evident by the end of the film is that so much weight shouldn't be attached to the majesty with which one lives their life, but the peace they are able to attain within it.
It should be evident by what this review has touched on thus far that “First Man” may not exactly be the ‘Apollo 13’-esque adventure/drama it initially appeared to be, but rather a more meditative and, like Armstrong himself, more introverted look at the mentality of a man who just so happened to be the first man to step foot on the moon. That isn't to say “First Man” doesn't also feature exhilarating sequences of space travel as there is one such brief moment of optimism when a docking test goes as planned that Justin Hurwitz's score spins into the more soaring symphonics audiences are accustomed to in movies that typically feature historic moments built-up to feel as iconic in the moment as they've come to be in the time that has passed since. This isn't to diminish the encompassing scope of the moon landing sequence either as Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren (“La La Land”) capture the moment in stunning IMAX 65 mm. It is in this final sequence, which occurs nearly two hours into the film, that the aesthetic actually switches from that of the grainier picture of the 16 and 35 mm film stock to the cleanest picture available to a modern filmmaker in the IMAX cameras. While it would seem false to try and derive any meaning for the use of standard film stock for the majority of the film to that of IMAX specifically for the short sequence on the lunar surface outside of the obvious, there is something to the choice that strikes it as being a more intentional choice. Everything prior to the moon landing that deals in space travel in “First Man” maintains a very claustrophobic feel. This is to say that, unlike what many were probably expecting, “First Man” doesn't contain a host of wide, gorgeous shots of the Johnson Space Center in Houston or even of shuttles taking off, but rather Chazelle keeps his camera inside the cockpit only allowing us to see as much of the outside world or blackness of space as the astronauts inside could. The sound design is key here as well as, while Hurwitz's score is top notch, it is in these sequences where shuttles take off or burst through the atmosphere that we feel the rivets, the unwieldy doors, and the nuts and bolts that make-up the craft shake so much it's as if they could come loose or fall off at any moment. Sandgren focuses his camera on these elements, these things that look like they belong more to a bygone era than they do today, so as to remind us of how little was actually in between these men and the vacuum of space. Furthermore, “First Man” does feature a host of credible character actors you'll recognize each of which brings you further into the life of Armstrong while Foy is of particular note playing this wife who is straddled with a role akin to that of a wife whose husband has gone off to war where she has to wait to hear if her husband is coming back or not. Foy turns what feels like it might have been a more slight or underwritten character into one of great depth and heartbreak simply by the way she knowingly looks at her husband. Through all of this though, what is maybe the most valuable thing to come out of “First Man” beyond a better understanding of who Armstrong, the man, truly was is this reinvigorated sense of appreciation for this outlandish and radical thing these men actually accomplished that we have kind of come to take for granted today.
by Philip Price
There's always been this desire by a certain generation of Spider-Man fans to see the web-slinger's villain, Venom, portrayed on the big screen in the effortlessly cool yet terrifyingly fun way he was presented in both the comics and the ‘90s animated series that devoted an entire stretch of episodes to the Stan Lee and Avi Arad-created story titled "The Venom Saga". Venom's popularity has always been about little more than how "cool" the character looks as there is little else of actual depth to the character beyond the fact it's a sludge from space that requires a host to bond with for its survival. In the comics, Venom became most notable as one of Spider-Man's archenemies after Peter Parker realized the insidious nature of what was referred to as the "symbiote" and trashed the suit only for the symbiote to then join with a second host: Eddie Brock. In the animated series Brock was a well-meaning guy looking for his big break who just so happened to view Parker as a rival reporter. Needless to say, in joining with the symbiote and becoming Venom Brock inherited the alien's enhanced abilities and felt a power for the first time in his life he wasn't going to readily give up. So, one can see how-despite the rather artificial intrigues of the symbiote in and of itself that-once this liquid-like form joins with a human host who has their own personality and problems things might become more complicated and therefore more dramatically interesting, right? Well, consider that and then consider the fact director Ruben Fleischer (“Zombieland”) and screenwriters Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, and Kelly Marcel only have about half of those source material ideas to work with in order to create a full-length feature around the character. This is what 2018's “Venom” was tasked with and thus why it turns out to be a mostly forgettable B-monster movie made in the vein of Sam Raimi's original live-action “Spider-Man,” but with none of the fun or genuine thrills that movie packed in. It's a re-purposed Spider-Man origin story, but with a symbiote instead of a radioactive arachnid where the individual blessed and/or cursed with these powers has to figure out how to control them and then decide how to use them for good. Seriously-Venom, the symbiote, likes to bites heads off, but Tom Hardy's Eddie Brock is an out-and-out good guy with no shades of moral conflict leaving the film itself to not be the interesting anti-hero tale it billed itself to be, but instead feels like a recycled Spider-Man movie from an alternate universe where the symbiote was brought to a world where Peter Parker doesn't exist (at least for the time being) and the titular character becomes by default the hero of the story. In other unfortunate words, “Venom” adds nothing to these tropes audiences have seen countless times over the last two decades but is all the worse for it due to the promise of being a real scoundrel's story.
It's a mystery how long this “Venom” script has been lying around-probably since around the same time Raimi's “Spider-Man 3” came out in 2007 and Sony and Columbia were hoping to cash-in on a Topher Grace spin-off starring the character. Hell, maybe it hasn't even been that long-maybe it's only been gestating since the second Spider-Man re-boot failed in 2014 when Sony was mapping out a Sinister Six cinematic universe that would no doubt include the symbiote at some point in the game. Whether the script has been passed around for ten years or five years though, the point is the same in that this thing feels as dated as it looks. “Venom” begins, as many of these things do, in the cosmos where a shuttle that is the property of the LIFE Foundation as run by the evil Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is on its way back into the earth's atmosphere with samples of these symbiotic life forms aboard. Also, as these things do, one of the symbiotes is tired of being contained and breaks free causing the shuttle to crash land in Malaysia allowing one of the samples to get away. The other samples are returned to the LIFE Foundation's San Francisco headquarters where Drake and his team of top scientists, including Jenny Slate's Dr. Dora Skirth, can begin conducting tests with the goal being to figure out how humans might one day inhabit other worlds given the human race is less than a generation away from destroying earth. Not so much a coincidence is the fact Eddie Brock has been run out of New York, for reasons that are never explained, and now resides in the Bay area with fiancée Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) while working as a well-renowned investigative journalist for a network that has given him his own show. Brock's bosses have booked an interview with the mostly reclusive Drake who needs to get ahead of the PR fire surrounding his shuttle crash and naturally Brock is tasked with the interview while being warned to stay on script and focus on the space shuttle scenario. Brock can't help but to go rogue though, and lucky for him Weying just so happens to be an attorney whose firm was contracted by Drake's company to assist in the legal matters dealing with the shuttle crash and Brock sees no issue with hacking into his fiancée's laptop and viewing classified documents that lead him to confront Drake about what is really going on behind the sleek and optimistic facade his company presents. Drake, being the powerful man that he is, not only gets Brock fired, but Weying too. This betrayal of trust leads to a break-up which by default leaves Brock with little of his former life and thus the reason he's both intrigued and terrified when circumstances that are actually beyond his control bring him face to face with a symbiote that finds him to be a compatible host.
Here's the thing with “Venom” though, it's not necessarily a weird enough movie to be called weird by virtue of what it presents on screen, but it's weird by virtue of the fact that it exists at all. There were numerous moments throughout the movie where I had to stop and laugh not for the fact of what I'd just experienced being so bonkers, but because I couldn't believe I was actually watching a $100-plus million production of a Venom movie. The fact this is where we're at-not that “Guardians of the Galaxy” or even “Ant-Man” didn't feel this way to a certain degree, but they were still whole properties in and of themselves-in that we're at a point where properties are being tapped to the extent extraneous characters from those properties are becoming their own properties independent of the brand they were once considered to be a part of feels both strikingly exciting and desperate. As with all things, it depends on the situation and in the case of the final product that Fleischer, Hardy, and co. have delivered this is one of those situations where nearly every aspect wreaks of desperation. That is to say, it seems the team behind this wanted to and intended to make a rather interesting comic book movie that teetered the line between campy buddy comedy and a melodramatic actioner (and if that sounds odd, trust me it really goes for that combo), but while “Venom” can be really fascinating in individual instances and absolutely nuts for long stretches none of it is ever fun enough to make it even the least bit memorable. Know also that if you remain in your seat hopeful for a trademark (in association with) Marvel post-credits scene you'll get what is absolutely one of the worst post-credits scenes of all time. The best of these bonkers moments though, come from the interplay between Hardy as Brock and Hardy as Venom as it seems the actor took this role strictly for the fact he might both have the opportunity to conduct conversations only with himself for large portions of the running time as well as to be able to cover his face for a fair amount of the movie. Once the movie trudges through all of the exposition as laid out in the previous paragraph and reaches the point where the symbiote finds Brock and Brock has to figure out what the hell is going on inside him things then give way to a Hardy performance that is as manic and, by default, as comedic as anything we've seen from the actor. The first hour or so of the film wades strictly in the melodrama with only occasional bursts of action and a tone far too serious for what we're about to witness for as soon as we get dual Hardy covered in CGI space goop we get that buddy comedy that literally involves Brock and Venom working through their differences to become pals which extends to Weying's new doctor boyfriend, Dan (Reid Scott), along with Academy Award-nominated actress Michelle Williams genuinely delivering a line that reads, "Hey, I'm sorry about Venom."
How much of what is laughable is intended is the question that will forever surround “Venom.” It would seem Williams would be delivering a line like the one mentioned above in jest, but in the context of the scene in which she throws it out there it's almost as if the film expects the audience to feel an authentic sense of loss and pity for Brock even though the forthcoming reveal is beyond obvious. This is also the case with the now infamous "turd in the wind" line, but again-in the context of the movie-it's difficult to tell whether or not this was meant to be mostly terrifying with a slight hint of charm or if Hardy is completely winking at us; it's so hard to tell with all that stuff on his face. Speaking of the CGI there are a handful of moments where as much is convincing; namely in the scene in which Brock first experiences the power the symbiote has entitled him to where a group of mercenaries bombard him in his hotel room in an attempt to recoup the specimen. There is also a moment in the climactic battle between Venom and Drake's symbiote alter ego, Riot, where the two symbiotes and their hosts are bound together while fighting to remain the dominant species. It is in these scenes that the melding of Hardy's performance, the special effects, and the action are cohesive and deliver an authentically cool fusion of every element the movie is throwing at the wall. And then there are times when the CGI looks iffy at best, where action scenes are hastily cut and pasted together (I'm looking at you, motorcycle chase), and one performance seems so completely out of tune with another. This is largely true when it comes to the contrasting approaches of Hardy and Ahmed who seem to be in two completely different movies with Fleischer apparently having no idea how to guide either of them to the tone of the other. A hazy hue also hangs over the film which makes it look as if it were shot in 2002. This choice in aesthetic is puzzling as Matthew Libatique (“A Star is Born”) is one of the most prominent cinematographers working today, but his touch here only adds to the films already dated feel and if your movie, which features a completely CGI creature, already looks dated on opening weekend it's not hard to imagine how rough this will appear in a few years' time. “Venom” is a movie that needed more attention paid to the special effects than it did craft services and while I wasn't on set I'm willing to bet those spreads were more aesthetically pleasing than what Fleischer and Libatique have served up here. It was always difficult to be optimistic about a solo Venom project even with the casting of credible talents like Hardy, Williams, and Ahmed, but there was hope that this experiment of a movie might find a way to find a purpose and convey something compelling in the realm of exploring this bodily transformation experience, integrated with the infection and technology aspects, and all of the intertwining psychological and physical elements that might go along with it. Alas, “Venom” is more an abnormality than it is a true experiment for, at the end of the day, the film seems to have no idea why it's being executed and therefore no idea what to do with itself.
by Philip Price
Often in movies about individuals who strive to make a living telling stories the process of capturing the true essence of such lives strays from the actual topic of why the way these particular people tell stories is so special. What it actually takes to get from a lyric to a melody to an arrangement or in whatever order inspiration decides to strike is completely glossed over. With “A Star is Born,” Bradley Cooper goes from movie star to film director, screenwriter, musician and songwriter with no doubt countless other titles one could heap upon him. While there are plenty of leading men-types in Hollywood these days what has always allowed Cooper to stand apart is his full immersion and commitment to each and every role he takes on. Given as much, it then felt inevitable that Cooper would bring such qualities and thus the same level of commitment to these new, more principal, roles. In taking on these new roles though and applying them to what is the fourth incarnation of “A Star is Born” Cooper has seemingly found a way to work through the finding of his artistic voice in a thinly veiled metaphor of sorts via the world of musicians and the music industry in place of Hollywood and the studio system. While past incarnations of the film have dealt specifically with actors and featured no music whatsoever 2018's “A Star is Born” is not so much a re-make of the previous versions as much as it is a familiar set of archetypes by which Cooper can work through his creative process by exploring the creative process. I say all of this having only read about the past films while having decided to not watch any of them prior to seeing this latest version so as to have as little precedent or expectation of what should come to define it. The point being, “A Star is Born” never struck me as a movie about the rise of a young and talented artist through the ranks of fame, but more as an exploration of more introspective shades of fame e.g. why some people and not others are "famous" despite the likely fact one may possess more talent than the other. Someone might be a technically proficient singer, so why would they not aspire to sing? OK, but do they have something to say and not only that, but do they have a way to say it that will make people shut up and listen? This main idea works as both a throughline for Cooper's film as well as his own trajectory as an artist who has to figure out if how he wants to say something in fact merits this fourth incarnation of a well-worn story. In short, 2018's “A Star is Born” has plenty to add to the conversation.
It should be noted that I'm a sucker for movies about musicians. I was someone who always desired to live this life, to be able to tour the world, and support myself and my family by creating song after song and sharing them with the world. I've had small tastes of what it must feel like to come off the high that performing in front of massive audiences must bring every night only to be brought back down to reality by having to go back to a minimum-wage customer service job the next day. I've dreamt of being able to so effortlessly pick up an instrument-any instrument-and compose the way Cooper's Jack or Gaga's Ally does here, but-in another point of deep understanding with the picture the film presents-was always relegated to watching my brother inhabit that side of the talent pool. I wrote lyrics, I hummed melodies, but when it came to crafting a genuine *tune* it was he who truly had the talent for finding a way to say something people would undoubtedly listen to. I never had the actual talent to match my ambition, but I had enough talent and enough talented people around me that were kind enough to include me and thus get a sense of what I wanted out of life. While those heights have not and will likely never be reached it is such experiences as this that only because the experience of witnessing something like “A Star is Born” to hit that much harder.
The film, in essence, chronicles the rise of a singer who had once given up on her dream and the path she crosses with that of a burnt out southern rocker; their paths intersecting on her rise and his fall. This is the skeleton of what Cooper and co-writers Will Fetters (a couple of Nicholas Sparks adaptations) and Eric Roth (“Forrest Gump”) are working with, but it is in the minutiae of this rather broad description that the trio really find their story and that director Cooper really discovers his knack for homing in on what really stands out about his presentation of these familiar archetypes. In the case of this particular “A Star is Born” what stands out most is the chemistry and therefore the love story between the two principal characters. This is only emphasized further by the dynamic the context these characters find themselves in presents. From where Cooper's Jackson is coming from, the world he brings Gaga's Ally into, and how it catapults her past not only where he's at, but seemingly past where he's ever been given the crossover from one genre to another. Thankfully, both the screenplay and Cooper's direction don't ever send this scenario down the road most traveled in that Jack never becomes jealous of Ally's success as fame was always a by-product of doing what he loved, but rather it becomes more a question of authenticity for Jack and not letting Ally sacrifice hers for the gain of the label at her artistic expense. Pepper in themes of depression, addiction, and daddy issues that runs throughout in regard to Jack's character and Cooper and co. have more than enough to dig their guitars and southern drawls into.
Beginning with the performances it is in Cooper and Gaga's representations of their characters that the film is truly defined. As much as Gaga is the powerhouse vocalist and almost overpowering in her presence as a performer not to mention the meta aspect of it all (to see Gaga play a persona so opposite that of her Gaga persona is both a peak behind the curtain and a testament to her talent) it is Cooper who is initially the most charismatic presence in the film and the one that draws us into the world just as he does Ally. Jackson Maine is a rock star who likely had a string of hit singles a decade or so ago and has continued to tour ever since and gets lucky with the occasional contemporary hit on country radio from time to time. The touring is where the money's at though and for Jack specifically it is where the guy is able to escape his demons. The routine of going out on stage every night to binge everything he feels has become so necessary that were it to be taken from him it's hard to imagine he'd survive too long after. Even this sacred routine is being threatened though, as Jack's older brother, manager and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliott), is pressuring him to wear inner-ears during his shows so as to not damage his ear drums more than he already has. Jack-whether it be an act of defiance or true conviction-refuses to put a barrier between himself and the only thing that keeps his blood pumping though. As a result, the middle-aged rocker is going deaf and to make matters worse is drinking himself half to death both before and after he exits the stage. He lives for the thrill of performing live, but he survives by the grace of a constant drink. It is upon his quest for another drink after having run out of his personal stash that he seeks out a local bar that unbeknownst to Jack is a drag bar that happens to be where Gaga's Ally performs on Friday nights. Ally, who was once a waitress at the bar has moved on in terms of occupation (but not far off as she and Anthony Ramos' Ramon now work as part of the wait staff at an upscale establishment) but is still the only woman allowed to come and perform with the rest of the queens on these Friday nights. Ramon coaxes Jack into the bar and convinces him he has to hear his friend sing. Little does Jack know this encounter will not only change the course of his life but will significantly alter the outlook the heavily sunburnt and egregiously gin-soaked rocker has on his existence as well. Cooper inhabits Jack in a way one isn't even aware Bradley Cooper exists, but instead we become fully convinced that Jackson Maine is a living, breathing soul that is teetering on the edge of self-destruction before he finds a reason that might be reason enough to continue fighting the good fight.
As Ally, Gaga is as natural and in control as one could hope, but that one would never expect a rather novice pop star to be when it comes to acting. Just as before, it should be noted that I've been a fan of Lady Gaga's since I first saw the music video for "Just Dance" in an American Eagle 10 years ago and knew from those first moments given the type of music she was making combined with the cheeky images to go along with it that she "got" it. She understood and still understands the power of imagery and persona as an artist and how these and a sense of mythos resonate to a higher degree than that of baring it all as a girl and her piano. Gaga, the artist, has had to acclimate several times to the shifting trends and styles over the last 10 years, but aside from a misstep here or there Stefani Germanotta has largely adapted in ways that have only made her brand that much more powerful and that kind of aura Germanotta has created in Gaga only continues to grow with her talent only being re-affirmed once more in “A Star is Born.” Gaga could have very easily played Ally as an autobiographical role, but Ally is very clearly not Gaga and that is evident from the moment we watch Ally take the trash out at her aforementioned wait job where she has become complacent in this role of a day job that helps pay the bills while her father, an equally complex if not extensively explored Andrew "Dice" Clay, runs his chauffeur business out of the house they share together. Ally is a thirtysomething non-starter who has been told that despite her voice and songwriting abilities that she simply doesn't have the look to make it in show business. Gaga portrays this crushed mentality with a wide-eyed innocence that allows for everything Jack opens her eyes to in his world to not only be admired and charmed by but appreciated in the sense she never feels entitled to any of it simply because of her talent. It is the fact that in her arc she never loses this combination of innocence and reverence that lends Ally this endearing quality while Gaga also enables the character with a thick skin who has seen so many promises come and pass that her expectations are all but nothing. So, when things do begin to actually take off and Ally has to not only guide her relationship with Jack in the sense of a normal romantic relationship, but also in regards to the fact she is surpassing the man she loves and the man that opened the door for her to reach such heights to become not just who she is as a person, but as a symbol there is fertile ground for Gaga to not only show her range, but for the movie to explore these more introspective aspects of fame as mentioned earlier.
It is in these quiet moments between Ally and Jack that sometimes take place in the loudest of environments-often in the midst of a performance-that convey the honesty of what Cooper seems to be chasing with his “A Star is Born;” this idea that even when two people genuinely love one another with nothing to come between that love other than the circumstances of their lives-that sometimes even that kind of love has trouble surviving. As cheesy as it sounds, it's a pure and rather simple love story made so by the bond over those twelve notes between any octave that can be conveyed in any number of ways AKA the love of crafting engaging stories. There is a line in the film that refers to these same twelve notes that make up every song ever made that refers to each and every one of them essentially being the same story told over and over again and how all any artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes. “A Star is Born” is about two people who love the way each other see those notes. To this extent, it should also be noted that the music in the film-all 16 original tracks-chart the narrative as well as one could hope with the same kind of ownership and authenticity that both Gaga and Cooper exude in any moment they're singing them. Standouts are obviously those that have been promoted in the trailers such as "Maybe it's Time" and "Shallow," but other tracks such as "Always Remember Us This Way", "Is That Alright?" and "I'll Never Love Again" are each powerful reminders of the themes at play and the love between these two broken souls. The songs combined with the way in which Cooper and cinematographer Matthew Libatique capture the live performances always from the perspective of being on or to the side of the stage create a thrilling experience from top to bottom every time the film decides to venture in front of a crowd. One would feel remiss to not mention Dave Chapelle as he is quite here but is only featured in such a capacity that his contribution isn't what stands out as one of the more memorable aspects as you're leaving the theater. And sure, while the introduction to the world of Jackson Maine and the rise of Ally's fame give the first hour an undeniable momentum with the second hour stalling intermittently as it tries to navigate Jack's addiction issues and how it correlates to issues with his equally alcoholic father, the film nails the ending in a way that is so devastatingly heart-wrenching it's impossible to not feel everything that has come before it.
by Philip Price
At this point I question if there’s even a point to me sitting down and taking time out of my day to write a review of a new Kevin Hart movie. I mean, unless Hart decides to work outside his comfort zone with a director that might challenge him or unless he’s part of an ensemble cast one pretty much knows what they’re getting from a Kevin Hart comedy, right? Given “Night School” is the first production to be released under Hart’s own production company though one can safely assume that if this is successful-which all signs point to why wouldn’t it be?-that the general viewing public can expect more of this same, middle-of-the-road comedy with recycled premises and recycled jokes that hold Hart at the center as a character who must overcome something in order to realize something about himself...while being made fun of for being short, of course. That said, I appreciate and kind of admire Hart for always willing to be the brunt of the joke and despite “Night School” being a rather large missed opportunity given it pairs the immensely charming and infinitely likable Hart with “Girls Trip” breakout Tiffany Haddish and her director on that film, Malcolm D. Lee (who’s also made “The Best Man” films and the most recent ‘Barbershop’ picture), there is still enough here for it to qualify as an entertaining enough time at the movies. No, that’s not necessarily a ringing endorsement, but it does mean this doesn’t feel wholly like a cheap, quickly manufactured product with little effort put in and therefore little expectations held for it. In fact, it’s actually the opposite in that it’s not hard to see Hart, his co-stars, and his company are genuinely trying to make something with, well...heart. Does this mean it actually holds some weight? Not really and it isn’t as consistently funny enough given the stars of the film, but this is a rare comedy that doesn’t have an ugly side to it. It’s an optimistic comedy, if you will, whereas the majority of big studio comedies tend to be both cynical and egotistical “Night School” sets itself apart from the pack if not for being the funniest of the year, but for holding out the most hope in humanity and seeing the good in the resilience of the human spirit. Not exactly an easy thing to do these days.
In “Night School,” Hart plays Theodore AKA Teddy Walker. Teddy is a guy who goes back to get his GED after dropping out of high school in order to get the kind of job he thinks he needs to keep his fiancée. At the titular night school, Haddish is the no-nonsense teacher, Carrie, with Hart being joined by a solid ensemble cast of fellow comedians that includes stand-outs like Romany Malco as Jaylen, a conspiracy theorist who fears the inevitable takeover of machines, and Rob Riggle who is Mackenzie, a dense-dad that's worked hard labor jobs for 30-plus years and is now going back to get his GED as a way to bargain with his young son to stay in school and get his diploma. Mary Lynn Rajskub also stars as a stay at home mom who dropped out of high school when she became pregnant with she and her now husband's (Owen Harn) first child who has to now actively convince herself she loves her family in order to keep her sanity and who is hoping to find some outlet outside the home. Al Madrigal also shows up as an immigrant aspiring to be a pop star/dental hygienist after having lost his previous job as a waiter at an upscale restaurant due to a dispute with none other than Teddy. Rounding out the class is the younger Mila (Anne Winters) who is solely in attendance to avoid having to go to juvy as well as an incarcerated convict named Bobby as played by rapper Fat Joe. Taran Killam is Teddy's former high school nemesis turned principal of their alma mater where Teddy is attending the titular night school which only leads to complications and hijinks as these things do. To complicate things further, Teddy also decides to try and hide the fact that he is going back to school from fiancée Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke) for no other reason than to keep up the facade he's concocted despite having blown-up his place of business on the night he asked Lisa to marry him. Granted, the movie communicates that Lisa understands Teddy is now on the hunt for a new job and that she doesn't realize he's a high school dropout, but this all feels twisted solely for the sake of conflict and making the audience doubt the authenticity of the relationship furthermore than it does a natural conclusion of Teddy's unfortunate circumstances. Teddy does have real prospects though as longtime best friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz) promises to hook Teddy up with a financial analyzer position where he works once Teddy has his degree. Until Teddy passes the GED exam though, he resorts to working at a fast-food chain based around selling Christian chicken and living with his parents (Keith David and Donna Biscoe).
The movie’s greatest strength is in fact that it is so well-intentioned meaning that it makes up for its lack of consistent laughs with a general overall vibe that makes you want to forgive it for not fully delivering the goods. Should “Night School” have aspired to be more considering it teamed a megastar of comedy at the moment, Mr. Hart, with the hottest rising star in comedy right now AKA Ms. Haddish? Definitely, but as has been discussed many times over the last several months: to loft one's expectations onto a film rather than accepting the film for what it is can only lead to bad things and big disappointments. And so, while “Night School” may benefit from this forgiveness of sorts it isn't afforded as much simply for being only "OK," but rather it garners such sympathies due to the fact it does indeed make actual strides at being forgiving itself. This is largely of note in the aspect that the film addresses learning disabilities and goes for this kind of understanding of the process needed by those that experience such difficulties as not being best served by the time-tested methods of traditional schooling. Despite some sections of the film resorting to the type of humor we typically see in such comedies-we get a whole sequence where the ragtag group of night school students break into the principal's office to try and swipe a copy of their exam that results in broken bones and barf gags-there are just as many sections that dedicate themselves to shining a light on these reasons people may fail in the classroom that have nothing to do with their level of effort, interest, or even outside factors that might influence, but instead are based in either psychological or developmental issues that can never be cured, but must instead be catered to. And so, while “Night School” isn't as funny as it should be it is an admirable endeavor for, at the very least, conveying this message of how much those who truly care and invest the time in our future generations actually have to care and how much time actually has to be poured into cultivating those who may not respond to the standard curriculum as effectively as they might to a different method. Of course, one could argue that given the film wasn't designed to be an inspiring drama or piece of insight into the education system, but rather a broad comedy that isn't all that funny that it fails more than it succeeds, and they wouldn't be wrong. Still, “Night School” is so overwhelmingly positive in its message and is buoyed to such an extent by its charismatic ensemble that, while it may not remain memorable for long, will leave a smile on your face as you exit the theater.
To the extent that it's kind-hearted, but not as funny as it should be that is likely all one needs to know in order to determine whether they might venture out to see this or not, but it is of note to offer a little further insight into what makes the strides that “Night School” does take in the right direction so compelling. This is largely due to the appeal of Haddish and while, if you saw her in her breakout “Girls Trip” role last summer, you'll know that she banked off being the loudmouth, crazy type that would go to any extent for a good laugh and while the lack of that mentality in Carrie is what may have led to a downturn in the number of overall laughs here it is because of Haddish's restraint along with the audience's knowledge of knowing she can level up if necessary that lends this whole scenario a more grounded foundation. Sure, Haddish is allowed to crazy every now and then-especially in those moments they've already over exposed in the trailers-but if “Night School” is good for nothing else it shows that Haddish can in fact bring more than one facet of her larger than life personality to the big screen and that's a plus as audiences will become much more familiar with the comedian over the next couple of months given she has two more feature films coming out that she is either the lead in or featured prominently. It would be easy for Haddish to experience a meteoric rise and burn out just as quick and it remains to be seen how well she and the people around her will navigate her career, but “Night School” at least shows us not only that there is more than one layer to the actress, but that she can play to those multiple layers effectively. So, if you're coming to the table for Haddish know that while she may not be as prominent a presence as the marketing would lead one to believe she still brings her A-game and displays a knack for gauging how best that presence can serve the material. Haddish's contributions largely assist in championing this message of empowerment that says that even if the path you follow to reach a goal isn't the same path most people use to reach that goal, it doesn't matter. Hart, on the other hand, delivers more of the same that audiences have come to expect from him. This isn't all bad news (I rather enjoyed “The Wedding Ringer” and “About Last Night”), but it does mean that if you're coming for Hart you know what you're going to get and what you expect is more or less what you receive. “Night School” is by no means a failure, but it probably should have hit the comedy books a bit harder.
by Philip Price
Eli Roth’s “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” despite being a straight-up kids movie with a release date in the dead of September, was one of my most anticipated films of the fall if not of the entire year. Despite the obvious warning signs though, I think it’s actually pretty easy to see why this was the case. First, there is Jack Black who has done well to understand the current phase of his career; with last year's “Jumanji” sequel as well as “Goosebumps” he is slowly establishing himself as the guy that will be fondly remembered by the tweens and younger teens of the current generation as that funny guy who was in all of their favorite movies. Better even, when those same kids get older they can go back and discover more of Black's rather impressive collection of work. Another encouraging factor going in was the fact this was a kid’s movie with Cate freakin' Blanchett in it. Now, Blanchett has been doing more work in more commercially viable popcorn flicks as of late with the last ‘Thor’ film and “Ocean's 8,” but it seemed it would take a really great script or great character to really entice an actor of her caliber. Blanchett certainly seems to be having a great time exploring the genre, but unfortunately, she doesn’t have nearly as much to do as one would expect sans the excellent bickering back and forth between her and Black. This cast, this genre, this time of year...what more could there be that might help propel this project to the heights it seemed so obviously destined to reach? I say this somewhat ironically as it seems most critics and audiences didn't expect much from another kid-centric Black film-especially one based on a children's book from the seventies and especially not one directed by the guy who made 2018's “Death Wish,” but alas...here we are. As someone who has always adored Black's range and versatility there was this sense of optimism and support, but the point of concern was always Roth. Roth is a director raised on the Amblin films that are very clearly an inspiration for his “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” but unfortunately Roth's homage to spooky if not exactly scary kids fare doesn't pass that test of being a magical film about magical people. The finished product can certainly be endearing for long stretches, but the big picture never gels and is more a hodge-podge of several different "chosen one" archetypes than it is a single, focused, satisfying narrative. And though “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” proved to be more disappointing than hoped for it’s not impossible to see how the film might become more appealing over time-especially to the generation that will grow up on it.
Based on John Bellairs' 1973 novel of the same name, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” follows the recently orphaned Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) who is sent to Michigan in the fall of 1955 to live with his estranged as well as outright strange, uncle Jonathan (Black). Lewis quickly discovers his uncle is a warlock AKA a boy witch and that his uncle's quirky neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Blanchett), is a witch in her own right. Further, Lewis discovers both are guarding secrets concerning the house Jonathan has just invited young Lewis to live in with him. Much to Jonathan's surprise, Lewis is something of a bookworm and a rather engaging child who is more than thrilled to enter this world of magic and sorcery where. Lewis begins to learn from his uncle as well as Ms. Zimmerman and the trio form something of a comfortable family unit. As Lewis learns the ins and outs of magic spells and ancient curses he also has to balance this peculiar existence with trying to fit in at a new school and make friends. Class president and all-around popular kid, Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic), quickly takes to being kind to the admittedly odd Lewis, but it's easy for everyone but Lewis to see Tarby has ulterior motives. And though Jonathan and Ms. Zimmerman seem to be enjoying their time with Lewis, teaching him their ways as well as poker while keeping him on a steady diet of cookies there is the ever-lurking evil of the hidden clock in the house's walls that seems to be counting down to something, but to what-neither can figure out. Besides the whole orphan deal, this is where the tropes really begin to pile-up as Jonathan possesses a book of spells that is off-limits to Lewis (his one and only rule in the house), but in order to prove he's cool and convince Tarby magic is in fact real Lewis goes to the lengths of stealing the forbidden book and bringing an evil wizard named Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) back to life. As these things go, Izard has a history with Jonathan along with an evil plan that may or may not, but obviously does deal with the magical clock hidden within the walls of the house, counting down to whatever it might be that is certainly anything but good. And so, Lewis, his uncle Jonathan, and Ms. Zimmerman must find the clock before it's too late, but must each overcome their own insecurities and histories along the way.
The fact Eli Roth was taking a spin with a different target audience was always the main concern here, as I said before. Sure, it may have been more a point of intrigue than an outright curiosity given we've seen the guy can make a solid horror flick, but the test was going to be if he could manage those same tendencies adjusted for a younger crowd. And just to clarify, in case you're unsure-yes, that would be the Eli Roth who made “Cabin Fever,” both ‘Hostel’ movies, and who starred in “Inglorious Basterds” as "The Bear Jew"...yeah, remember that scene? Needless to say, my hope was that with Roth's sensibilities, if he was able to balance them well, he would be able to keep the film appropriately scary while injecting an underlying quality of sincere terror. Point being, this had all the ingredients of a movie aimed at kids that also seemed as if it could become a Halloween staple, but while Roth certainly pushes the envelope in terms of content a PG audience can handle the movie itself never manages to find its groove well enough to hammer any of these scares home. One of the biggest identifiers of those eighties Amblin movies was that, as children who might relate, the characters and their environment would become so ingrained in the viewers that watching the movie would feel akin to traveling somewhere that felt like a home away from home. The story would become so familiar, the characters so reliable, and the jokes would forever remain funny to the point the movie became this safe haven of sorts and while this may become true of “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” over time or with repeated viewings what came to be the biggest mark against the film after a first, initial viewing is the fact its atmosphere possessed no such welcoming signs. This isn't because it doesn't try-Roth and his practical set designers do well to create this period in 1955 that is adorned with magical oddities and big, ornate houses on abandoned, leaf-covered streets, but while the physical representations of this atmosphere are available in plain sight Roth doesn't meld these sets with the narrative in a strong enough way that they come to mean anything more than where the action takes place. As it is, the action could have taken place anywhere, but what the audience needed was for the action to take place in this titular house because it couldn't possibly take place anywhere else. Unfortunately, as the story never comes to be conveyed in any clear or resonant way the place in which it all occurs remains just as much a mystery as well.
Not being able to replicate this sense of familiarity or pose this sense of cautionary greetings to this world deliver some hard strikes against “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” but while Roth is unable to ever make his movie feel as if it really gets going or give it the real jump start it needs one might hope that given the talent he has employed they could make up for the director's shortcomings. As is shown on the screen though, both Black and Blanchett aren't given enough character to play with to create something that is either wholly endearing or even memorable. Both actors certainly do what they can with the material (Bellairs novel was adapted by Eric Kripke, a veteran of TV writing, but who only has a couple of feature credits to his name), but while uncle Jonathan has peculiarities galore and while Black plays up each of them as much as he can more times than not the character feels as if he exists solely to deliver a punchline that allows Roth to cut to his next scene rather than a core character who has a dog in the fight. It should be Jonathan who has the biggest dog in the fight though, given his history with Izard, our main antagonist, but rather than delving into the past relationship between Jonathan and Izard and how the turn to dark magic came for one and not the other Roth decides to gloss over much of this fertile drama for quick flashbacks that blame it on WWII and a demon in the woods offering a reprieve from such horrors while tempting Izard with a bigger solution. This more serves to justify Izard's actions rather than his entire change in character, but “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” doesn't give much credence to such thoughts and instead turns its focus on young Lewis who is obviously brought into the fold at the time he is for reasons beyond anyone's control and to the grievance of Jonathan and Ms. Zimmerman who likely hoped for a more logical way to deal with their clock problem. While it's clear Lewis is being set-up and then groomed to be this "chosen one" that rescues everyone from the antithesis of the pure-intentioned warlock he's becoming it's never really clear why this is the case outside of the fact he's Jonathan's nephew. What actually makes Lewis so special? There is no connective string, no throughline theme, no epiphany that the characters come to that brings a clarity to them or the audience. Instead, Roth simply hits the beats of the genre in a competent enough fashion that the viewer understands the good guys win and the bad guys lost. This might have sufficed for any other straight-up kids movie released in the dead of September, but there is so much obvious potential here it's a shame a more adept director with a clearer vision wasn't able to welcome audiences into this house with a clock in its walls.
by Philip Price
10. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald
This sequel, said to be the second film in a planned five-film franchise, picks up where the first film concluded by following-up the reveal that Colin Farrell's Percival Graves was actually the powerful dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald as played by Johnny Depp. The titular Grindelwald was captured by the Magical Congress of the United States of America with the help of our hero, Eddie Redmayne's Newt Scamander, but Grindelwald has since escaped custody and set about gathering followers, most unsuspecting of his true agenda to raise pure-blood wizards to rule over all non-magical beings. With ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald,’ returning director David Yates (who also helmed the fifth, sixth, and both parts of the seventh ‘Harry Potter’ films) and sole screenwriter and creator of this wizarding world, J.K. Rowling, we pick-up with a young Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) as he enlists former student Scamander to help thwart Grindelwald’s plans unaware of the dangers that lie ahead. Premieres: 11/16
9. Holmes and Watson
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly re-team for the first time in over a decade for a humorous take on Arthur Conan Doyle's classic mysteries featuring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. With Ferrell as Holmes and Reilly as Watson, the two will surely provide plenty of laughs given the simple fact they are hilarious together, but while we are just over three months away from the release date there has been no trailer and hardly a peep of a poster. While the combo of Ferrell ad Reilly is enough to have me excited the other drawback to the film outside of the fact Sony seems to be hiding it for some reason is the fact this is the first time the duo won't be joined by writer/director Adam McKay (‘Talladega Nights,’ “Step Brothers”). Instead, writer/director Etan Cohen is behind this collaboration and while Cohen has solid writing credits such as “Tropic Thunder” and “Men in Black 3” his directorial debut was the underwhelming Ferrell/Kevin Hart-starrer “Get Hard.” That said, Cohen didn't write that flick, but has taken double duty on “Holmes and Watson” as he is the sole screenwriter as well as being at the helm. Though I can't help but be excited by the pairing let's hope Cohen rewards my optimism. Premieres: 12/21
This titled exactly-the-same, 40-year-later sequel is said to pick up in real time after the events of the first film, disregarding all subsequent films, and follows the residents of Haddonfield on another horrifying Halloween night as Jamie Lee Curtis’ Laurie Strode faces her greatest fears when Michael Myers escapes the asylum where he’s been locked up since his first killing spree. Naturally, Strode has attempted to move on with her life and seemingly has as this movie will feature Judy Greer as Laurie's daughter, Karen, as well as Andi Matichak as her granddaughter. Where the narrative will go outside the "one final confrontation" remains to be seen, but given the screenplay was penned by new franchise director David Gordon Green (“Stronger”) along with Danny McBride (yes, that Danny McBride) there is a fair amount of curiosity here as well. There will undoubtedly be a lot of influence from the original film at play here and I'm anxious to see how Green decided to balance that with his and McBride's interpretation. Premieres: 10/19
Though this is Paul Dano's directorial debut this thing wreaks of awards season fodder as it is set in the ‘60s, is a family drama, and stars the likes Carey Mulligan and Jake Gyllenhaal. While all of this may contribute to some audiences being immensely drawn to the material with the grounded, cold reality of the story (the film is based on Richard Ford's 1990 novel of the same name) no doubt being a detractor for others I have to say I'm all in for this one. Gyllenhaal is one of the most exciting and intriguing actors working today; even when his projects seem typical or predictable a la last year's “Stronger” they still turn out more effective and his performances more compelling than anticipated. Wildlife premiered at Sundance earlier this year and has slowly been gaining steam ever since with much of the praise being heaped upon Carey Mulligan's performance as a woman whose marriage is falling apart and who, in the midst of dealing with this and raising her teenage son (Ed Oxenbould) finds another, older man. Premieres: 10/19
6. Bohemian Rhapsody
The feature film version of Queen's story has had a hell of a development history as well as multiple production troubles most of which derive from original director Bryan Singer (“The Usual Suspects”) being fired from the gig due to tensions with his star, Rami Malek, and his apparent lack of regard for punctuality. “Eddie the Eagle” director Dexter Fletcher was brought into complete the film, but it has since been finalized that Singer will in fact be the credited director on the picture. It's been a weird road, no doubt, and as much as I would have loved to have seen the Freddie Mercury-centric film that Sacha Baron Cohen wanted to make “Bohemian Rhapsody” will have to do. I'm all in on any kind of music biopic, that's a given, but I have to wonder how much of this will indeed be focused on Mercury and how much of it will put equal stock in the remaining band members given they were seemingly given their way when Cohen stepped away from the project. Regardless, what comes to pass-whether it be a masterpiece, or a dumpster fire-is certain to hold a fair amount of intrigue through its release. Premieres: 11/2
I've been more of a fan of the DCEU (or whatever it's being referred to as now) than I haven't as I thoroughly relished in the behemoths that were “Man of Steel” and “Batman V. Superman,” as well as appreciating the ambition with which “Wonder Woman” tried to rise above its required standards, but once the studio started over-meddling such as was the case with both “Suicide Squad” and last fall's “Justice League” it became apparent there was no real direction the studio had in mind or were dedicated to other than turning a profit and catering to whatever it seemed fans wanted in order to accomplish that. If one thing is for sure though, it's that nothing is for sure-not even Batman, apparently. What has worked for Marvel Studios was never and is never going to work for the DCEU. Marvel has its brand and has defined that brand-what Warner Bros. and DC need to figure out is what their brand is and how they want to define it. With “Aquaman,” it seems they might be attempting to course-correct in the best way they know how as things certainly seem to be lighter and brighter in James Wan's (“Furious 7”) take on the character, but per the first trailer for the film this solo outing is more in line with “Wonder Woman” than anything else they've produced which makes sense, but here's to hoping Jason Momoa has the charisma if not the zeitgeist his super friend had leading into the release of his movie. Premieres: 12/21
4. If Beale Street Could Talk
James Baldwin’s 1974 novel is a love story set in Harlem in the early 1970's and follows Fonny (Stephan James) and Tish (KiKi Layne). Fonny and Tish are in love with this beauty providing some layer of protection from the harsh reality of their family lives as well as the outside world. That is, until Fonny is falsely accused of rape. This follow-up to Best Picture-winner “Moonlight” and sophomore effort from Barry Jenkins is sure to make waves this fall given it is the first time any Baldwin work has been adapted into an English-language film; something that Jenkins has acknowledged was difficult. The film's first trailer features stunning imagery via cinematographer James Laxton that is largely effective as it is clear Jenkins is going for the emotional gut-punch to reel you in as his characters look directly into the camera, the expressions on their faces conveying a multitude of thoughts and feelings while their lips quiver as if on the edge of letting it all come out, with the camera cutting to black just before they have a chance to do so. Needless to say, my anticipation for this new work from Jenkins is obviously through the roof. Premieres: 11/30
3. First Man
Damien Chazelle follows up his Best Directing win for “La La Land” with a film based on James R. Hansen's book that chronicles the story of NASA’s mission to land a man on the moon, focusing on Neil Armstrong between the years of 1961 and 1969. Re-teaming with Ryan Gosling who fills the role of Armstrong along with Emmy-winning “The Crown” actress Claire Foy playing Armstrong’s wife, Janet the remainder of the cast is filled out with the likes of Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Patrick Fugit, Ciaran Hinds, Ethan Embry, Shea Whigham, Corey Stoll, and Pablo Schreiber with Chazelle is working from an adapted screenplay by Oscar-winning “Spotlight” and “The Post” co-writer Josh Singer. So, it's not hard to see why “First Man” is one of the more anticipated features of the fall and a likely front-runner for many of this year's biggest awards if the film turns out to be as good as any one of its credentials would suggest. Like Hansen's book the film is said to be a visceral, first-person account that explores the sacrifices and cost of one of the most dangerous missions in history which, given we all know what happens, feels like the way to go. I can't wait. Premieres: 10/12
The latest from director Steve McQueen (“12 Years a Slave”) and follow-up to his Best Picture-winner is major. Elizabeth Debicki, Daniel Kaluuya, Colin Farrell, Robert Duvall, Jon Bernthal, Michelle Rodriguez, Carrie Coon, André Holland, Jacki Weaver, Viola Davis and Liam Neeson make-up what might be the best and biggest cast of the year in a story based on the 1983 ITV series of the same name. The screenplay was written by McQueen and “Gone Girl” and “Sharp Objects” scribe Gillian Flynn which only adds more reason to be excited about the movie to a movie that already has plenty of reasons to be excited about it. What might be most interesting about the film though, is that while this certainly looks like an epic crime drama it isn't necessarily another heavy drama by way of McQueen's previous features. The film chronicles four widows, including Davis, Rodriguez, Debicki and Cynthia Erivo, of four deceased armed robbers who were killed in a failed heist attempt and whose wives must step up to finish the job and settle their husband's debts. Premieres: 11/16
1. A Star is Born
If you looked at my Top 10 of 2017 article, then you'll know I'm a big Lady Gaga fan and so it goes without saying that I'm fairly excited to see her big screen debut in a feature especially when that feature is the third remake of the 1937 film of the same name. “A Star is Born” was first re-made in 1954 starring Judy Garland and James Mason and then again in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. This latest incarnation of the story deals in a country star helping a young singer find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral. This will not only mark Gaga's AKA Stefani Germanotta's feature debut in a starring role though, but it will also serve as her co-star, Bradley Cooper's, directorial debut. The screenplay has been reformatted for what I'm presuming is a modern day if not just a slightly different take on the material. If Cooper's particular brand of passion and commitment bleed into his filmmaking as much as it typically does his performance work I can only imagine the heights this one might reach. Premieres: 10/5
by Philip Price
I was born in 1987 or the same year the original “Predator” was released. One might think this means something more or that it's led to some long-standing connection I feel with that John McTiernan movie, but it doesn't and hasn't. I say this more to point out I was too far behind to now have any nostalgic or appropriated affection for that movie. In fact, I've only seen “Predator” once before in preparation for the 2010 re-boot, “Predators,” and while the Arnold Schwarzenegger flick certainly makes for an enjoyable enough action movie it certainly didn't hit me the same way in 2010 as it likely did those who were in their late-teens to early-20s in 1987. For me, it was fine, goofy fun and very much a product of the time in which it was made. And while 2018's “The Predator” will rank miles below that original for those who adore it and place it on this pedestal of action perfection, which I admittedly can't dispute given the credentials of my birth, “The Predator” is also perfectly OK. There is a lot going on and it wants to do more than its hour and forty-seven minute runtime dares to contain, but at the heart of the issues with the film is the fact the movie itself doesn't seem to know what its heart really wants. Does this mean there is nothing beating within the core of this movie? Does it mean there's no pulse? Not necessarily. There is so much going on that it kind of creates the illusion of this pounding sense of energy and tension, but energy doesn't always equal an understanding or coherence. There are numerous players playing different games, following several different arcs, but none of them thread together to form a satisfying whole despite countless efforts to present a facade that it does in fact do so. “The Predator” puts on that it knows what it is but taking in the execution presented it seems the movie only has ideas of what it wants to be. Writer/director Shane Black knows he wants to make a bloody, irreverent, and fun action movie but for one reason or another everything Black throws at the audience feels like both disparate and sometimes desperate attempts to play to what the masses want never landing a single of the many things as well as he's proven he could have.
A lot of this has to do with the fact the story is too convoluted. It's trying too hard to bring weight to something that never needed to carry any. That original film succeeded in large part at the time of release due to its simplicity and the pure thrill of actors like Schwarzenegger and Carl Weathers strutting their stuff; there wasn't much to it, but what was there was maximized to full effect. With “The Predator,” Black has attempted to both pay homage and create something more ambitious. “The Predator” wants to feel bigger in both scope and in intelligence, but by going into so much detail concerning who these "predators" really are, what their mission is, and what role they might play in the larger galaxy-essentially lifting the curtain on the titular creatures’ schemes-it by default removes the simplicity that made the original so enjoyable. Now, I don't much remember 1990's “Predator 2” (which I also watched in preparation for the 2010 flick) and I can remember “Predators” being another largely entertaining action thriller if not being completely memorable, but at least that movie kept the kinship with the original intact. In trying to both pay homage and top that original Black has thrown in all the bells and whistles, all the plot twists, and every kind of hilarious, quirky, badass character he could come up with to create what is more or less an overcrowded buffet of different smells and flavors where much of what is on display has gone bad. That isn't to say “The Predator” isn't an entertaining movie and doesn't feature some solid moments, some good moments even, some genuinely funny moments, and some genuine chemistry between the large cast, but you would certainly never call it a good movie. In short, it's a fine enough movie made by talented people that is trying to be intentionally schlocky but isn't smart enough in its execution to pull it off and thus ends up actually being cheap and inferior.
Black, who is known for having appeared in and done punch-ups to the original Predator script, has gone on to have a well-renowned career as a screenwriter penning hits like “Lethal Weapon,” “Last Action Hero” and “Long Kiss Goodnight” and then after the turn of the millennium going on to direct the likes of cult hits such as “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and “The Nice Guys” as well as dipping his toes in the world of Marvel Studios by co-writing and directing “Iron Man 3.” So, while Black has been in the industry for over thirty years this is only the fourth film he's directed (and the third of which that doesn't deal with a huge machine that would have made the movie with or without his voice). What is strange about Black's choice to take on another attempt at re-booting the ‘Predator’ franchise though, was that given his history with the original one would imagine “The Predator” would be something akin to wish fulfillment. And whether it has to do with studio meddling or simply Black's decision on how to approach the franchise the final product results in all the elements coming together in such inadequate fashion that none of it works to the advantage of the story. And so, while the screenplay certainly suffers from being overstuffed and not really settling on a throughline tone what feels weaker on the whole is that of the actual direction. There is a complete lack of any sense of artistry on display. Frankly, the movie is kind of ugly and this is especially true when it comes to the visual effects. First and foremost-and this may be somewhat blasphemous considering there are many who consider the character design of the titular antagonist to be something of an ideal villain-but considering when I was born and the decade I grew up in the Predators themselves have always kind of looked like (and “The Predator” puts a real emphasis on this) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with teeth. I mean, obviously I get it, these creatures are meant to be stealthy, intimidating, scary, super-soldiers, but I'd be lying if I said that every time the practical suit was used that it looked badass in its hearkening back to the original. There are moments where one can easily acknowledge it's a guy in a suit and just have to laugh at how it looks when this poor guy is having to run as fast as he can across a rooftop in this no doubt insanely restrictive costume that has no way of not looking silly. On the other side of the coin, when the movie shows the creature in its "invisible mode" or doing stunts too difficult for the guy in the mask to accomplish the visual effects look cheap and false more often than not-which isn't great when you have a couple of fully-CG predator dogs playing key roles in your movie.
This is all to say there is no real sense of legitimacy to either side of the large effect that is the main character and that certainly detracts from the overall experience. This also extends to the spaceships that get a fair amount of screen time here as many times they look like miniatures against computer painted backdrops. There is a degree to which this seems intentional as one can see where Black is trying to wink and nod at where the franchise began and where it came from and there are other, frequent nods, in the movie-making as Black executes certain moments as if it were '87 and he was making this movie, but while this is fun in individual moments the movie as a whole doesn't play to the style in which these moments are executed well enough for general audiences to know or understand what is being done meaning it just comes off as cheap. The score is also intentionally reminiscent of eighties action movies, but when every time you see young Jacob Tremblay on screen playing this kid with Asperger's and the music automatically swells every time he goes through something stressful or anxiety-inducing one can't help but to feel this false sense of empathy rather than viewing it as cute by virtue of nostalgia. While Black is undoubtedly a talented screenwriter and a capable director if not a well-rounded filmmaker he falters for the first time here in that his movie only feels interested in the character dynamics whereas the massive amounts of action sequences throughout are each so messy and relentlessly edited to the point it's difficult to comprehend how and why certain actions even happen that none of it gels. There are a lot of logic jumps in these action sequences to say the least and as a result it largely feels slapped together and completely haphazard. Where the action comes up short though, the movie luckily thrives on the chemistry between the characters and the scenes where they are able to play off one another and within this franchise world shine the brightest even if this world doesn't construct as good a movie as maybe not the franchise itself would, but certainly the creative force behind it-would suggest.
Speaking of the characters, the story is centered on Boyd Holbrook's Quinn McKenna. Holbrook, who doesn't necessarily have a face that stands out in a crowd, overcame his lack of a distinct look with his performance in the last Wolverine movie as he was able to manifest this memorable character that the audience felt threatened by despite being years younger and not nearly as jaded as the hero of the piece. With expectations in place, I was intrigued as to how the actor might play the flip side of that role. The fact he kind of looks like your run of the mill white dude who fits the bill of effective military personnel works more against the actor here though as the character has plenty of interesting factors, but doesn't do a whole lot with them outside of show how effective his military training has made him in killing people while being surrounded by a heard of other, more interesting people any one of which could have just as easily been the lead. It feels as if Black was really close to making Olivia Munn's Casey Bracket the protagonist as she is something of a co-lead with Holbrook. Bracket is a biologist recruited by Sterling K. Brown's Will Traeger, a federal agent who works and has worked in the field of alien life for some time. In what is one of the few, genuine pleasures “The Predator” offers we have Brown's over-the-top performance as the typically serious actor hams it up in every scene in which he appears and seems to be loving every minute of it. Brown plays this character one would normally expect to be super professional and super by the book as the most irreverent guy in the room that laughs off the fact that even though by nature these creatures aren't technically "predators" that name sounds cooler and so that's what they're going with. It's really fun to watch Brown in this kind of role but having known McKenna's original team came into contact with this alien life form he brings in McKenna for questioning and Bracket to assist in identifying what this predator's original intent might have been as it's acknowledged this isn't the first time they've made contact. As these things go, the "predator" escapes and leaves mountains of bloodshed in its wake. Bracket is one of the few survivors and is dedicated to tracking the alien down for means of study and research while McKenna has been assigned to a unit of misfits that includes Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keegan Michael-Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Nettles (Augusto Aguilera), and Lynch (Alfie Allen) whose issues range from self-destructive behavior to addiction. Worlds collide given McKenna wants to track the alien down and kill it for having killed his friends with the catch being McKenna came into possession of some of the alien's gear upon initial contact and shipped it to his home so as to be able to prove he wasn't losing his mind, but it quickly becomes apparent the creature wants his stuff back and tracks it to McKenna's home where his wife, Emily (Yvonne Strahovski), and son, Rory (Tremblay), reside.
And that's just the basic outline of the plot, so one can see how things might become unnecessarily difficult to follow. This lack of simplicity ultimately detracting from the stronger elements. The camaraderie between McKenna and his gang of misfits and all of the distinct personalities that reside within that and in turn, the friendship they form with Bracket who compliments this rag tag group of guys really well with a different, but not opposite kind of energy is where the movie is at home and if it were to have made these dynamics more of a focal point with brief encounters with the monster sprinkled throughout it might have made it easier to forgive some of the films greater transgressions. It probably would have worked better as a whole. It's in the scenes where these players get to have fun and show off these distinct personalities that play up the outlandishness of the situation that are the most effective; they're the ones that make it feel as if Black actually had a hand in crafting this movie whereas the actions sequences more often than not feel as if they were shot by the second unit without having much input from Black leaving the two biggest pieces of this puzzle to not complement one another in any way. If nothing else though, it's clear Munn's Bracket was meant to be an MIB, so if that crossover doesn't happen “The Predator” will feel like even more of a missed opportunity than it already does.