Movie Review: A Star is Born (2018)

Director Bradley Cooper’s unlikely remake of A Star is Born (B) throws in all the tropes of a good melodrama: it’s a Rose of a Love Story packaged within a gritty and naturalistic ‘70s film aesthetic. It’s also a vanity project seemingly stripped of vanity, and Cooper and leading Lady Gaga pull the heartstrings in one of the most spectacular love affairs since Rocky Balboa met Adrian Pennino. He’s a rockabilly musician fighting the demons of addiction; and she’s a moonlighting waitress and his singer/songwriter salvation with a pop music career on an upward trajectory. Their romance and music soar, for the most part; and when all elements are working in precision, it’s amazing to behold (their first duet as well as a stunning finale are alternately indelible and incredible). There’s just too much predictable not-very-good filler stretching the experience into an unnecessary “Oscar qualifying” length (movies with long running times have more pedigree, so they say, and this feels way longer than its 127 minutes!). The on-screen lead lovebirds also co-wrote the stirring music with help from the likes of Diane Warren, Mark Ronson, Lukas Nelson and Jason Isbell. There’s a long stretch of story without a new song that seems to lack oxygen because of it. Overall, the film is a marvelous star vehicle for the pop icon, who de-glams and leaves it all on the screen. I’m not sure a glimpse of Gaga’s lady was fully necessary; nonetheless the musician proves a revelation of an actress in every frame. Cooper is a bit too Sling Blade in his role with a distracting drawl that doesn’t fully match his character, and Sam Elliott is inexplicably cast as his brother (you know, the kind of sibling who is about 40 years older). Cooper’s directorial debut is intentionally messy around the edges; and there are times it feels he has captured the magic of love on screen. It’s far from original, but like a play with a soul-stirring revival, it’s worth seeing for these stars’ fetching takes on the roles.

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Posted in 2018

Movie Review: Searching (2018)

This is the gripping “found movie” for a perpetually plugged-in world. In Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching (B+), the protagonist father portrayed wonderfully by John Cho often contemplates sessions further down the web’s wormhole while resisting the notion to simply shut down. Grounding this mystery thriller, Cho’s desktop pop ups the ante – online, engaged and amplified – and embarks on an emotional arch of triumphant connection over isolation. The propulsive plot about the disappearance of his daughter grants viewers a tense window into his soul and mindset, while the film’s action takes place largely in the virtual environment of computer and surveillance screens. It’s the Who Framed Roger Rabbit of social media tropes: humans mixing with fetching FaceTimes, charming chatbots, brilliant browsers and suspenseful streams. Among the emojified denizens and avatars, you almost suspect a cameo from an animated paperclip! Chaganty’s inventive high-tech hub is ideal for clue reveals stashed in the cache: flashbacks by archived selfie confessionals, public actions by viral video and forensic breadcrumbs dotting the underbelly of the social graph. The realistic interfaces are sturdy supporting performers, as is Debra Messing playing nicely against type as a hard-driving detective. While the film’s procedural formula doesn’t always measure up to its creative format, the #SearchingMovie is well worth discovery.

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Posted in 2018

Movie Review: BlacKkKlansman

Pop cultural and historical provocateur Spike Lee’s brilliant 1970’s-set biopic BlacKkKlansman (A-) is an absorbing and gripping instant classic, the best non-documentary “joint” the filmmaker has made in nearly two decades. The film’s success rides largely on John David Washington and Adam Driver, who play real-life undercover cops who mastermind and manifest a fascinating infiltration of white supremacists. It’s one of those declassified untold stories like Argo that’s stranger than fiction and prescient in historical parallels to events of today. Washington is charismatic and determined in his performance as Ron Stallworth, the first African-American detective to serve in the Colorado Springs Police Department, determined to make a name for himself. Laura Harrier is sensational as a civil rights activist, and Topher Grace is amazing in a career trajectory redefining role as David Duke. The filmmaker is acutely aware of the power of cinema to change perceptions and dots the movie with bygone celluloid images and contemporary references that put his work in a march toward progress in representation. Aside from lensing a few moments that seem superfluous to the central themes, Lee has crafted a tight and taut thriller. He provides powerful point/counterpoint sequences weaving subversive themes and an unexpected premise into great storytelling.

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Posted in 2018

Movie Review: Crazy Rich Asians

Best known until now as a director of Step Up sequels, a Justin Bieber concert movie and flop flicks about G.I. Joe and Jem and the Holograms, Jon M. Chu seems an unlikely helmer of one of the first nearly all Asian American ensembles since 1993’s Joy Luck Club and one of the most satisfying romantic comedies since 1990’s Pretty Woman or 1992’s Strictly Ballroom, but here’s his film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians (A-), and it’s bliss. Although not a musical, the film simply sings. Although not entirely a fairy tale, it’s enchanting. Chu’s star is born, a crouching tiger ready to unabashedly entertain, and he draws spectacular chemistry from the luminous Constance Wu and the dashing Henry Golding. She’s a Chinese American professor invited to accompany her humble boyfriend to a wedding in his Singapore homeland where she quickly discovers he’s part of one of the country’s most wealthy families and heir to a fortune. Hilarity and heartbreak are in store abroad. Michelle Yeoh is incredibly fierce portraying the perfectionist matriarch-antagonist as a battle royale unfolds between family duty and the messiness of love. The film is splashy, soapy and sensational; you’ll want to book a trip to the opulent, exotic city it depicts: a place of glistening razzle dazzle dancing and locales, of kaleidoscopic fashion and costumes. The film veers into a few arch moments threatening to tonally derail it, but the committed cast members remain jubilant journeymen. American rapper Awkafina is a hoot as Wu’s sassy sidekick. There are also two popular American songs sung in the film’s native tongue, adding extra glitter and throwback to Chu’s fanciful fantasia. In a year when racial representation on screen has already delivered a stellar superhero film, it’s lovely to have such an enjoyable escapist romcom from the Asian perspective. This is one of the best times I’ve had at the movies this year.

Note: The film opens wide August 15, 2018 after buzz building sneak previews. #CrazyRichAsians #GoldOpen

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Posted in 2018

Movie Review: Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (B+) is so knowing it hurts. The comedian turned writer/director’s darker than expected feature debut is a canny you-are-there coming of age story. It follows a painfully shy middle schooler, magnificently played by Elsie Fisher, who struggles with the everyday challenges of her final days of classes on the precipice of a hopeful metamorphosis before high school arrives. A framing mechanism of the girl’s confident YouTube explainer videos pairs nicely with the awkward foibles of her altogether unremarkable real life. A highlight of her retreat into the social media void is a montage amusingly underscored with Enya’s “Sail Away.”  Josh Hamilton, a Gen X staple, helps make an endearing film even more human as her resilient single father, who delivers an encouraging fireside chat that may move some to tears. The astonishing young Fisher’s raw, un-glamorous turn as the protagonist anchors the film; and even when some of her character’s actions are head scratching, her every move is extraordinarily authentic. Burnham presents an assured filmmaking style with some brilliant point of view shots steeped in incredibly poignant milestones: trying to fit in at a pool party, holding “food court” with older kids, sitting through sex ed class and making small talk on a first date. It’s occasionally comic with an unsettling tone; few profound details evade Burnham’s candid camera. This is one of those low plot, high feel movies. It finds its heart as it finds its way.

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Posted in 2018

Movie Review: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

More dignified than a King Friday XIII proclamation and more vulnerably raw than a question from Daniel Striped Tiger, there’s a new film that eases in like a little red cable car straight into your heart with vast implications worthy of deep contemplation. Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (A) about the life and times of perhaps the greatest communicator to children ever to walk the earth, Fred Rogers, is just the balm moviegoing audiences need in these polarized times. A lifelong Republican and ordained Presbyterian minister who pioneered public television with a slow-burn, puppet-laden, multiethnic broadcast platform speaking to every kid’s intrinsic self-worth makes for a most unlikely subject of multimedia analysis. The film plunges viewers head-first into Mister Roger’s unusual neighborhood with a mission to move adults in a giving and harmonious spirit evocative of the utopia he created that so enchanted a generation of youth. Fueled by interviews with those who knew him best, rare footage and flashbacks and poignant animated vignettes plumbing the subject’s own frightened boyhood, Neville guides us through what made the man, who passed away nearly a decade and a half ago, born for his creative crusade. Breakthroughs with cast members and with children comprise the most lovely moments; expect to ugly cry with utter joy. Cultural milestones from the Vietnam war to racial integration to the 9/11 disaster all shape formative moments of teaching for Rogers, whose full life was a rather unconventional museum-go-round of a sermon for humanity. The film is a sunny, hopeful reminder to maintain our personal honor, civility and song in the face of life’s most arduous challenges. Give this film a speedy delivery into your soul as soon as you can.

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Posted in 2018, Rent It Tonight

Industry News: Fall Movie Preview 2018

From prestigious black and white arthouse movies generating awards talk to bubblegum hued adventures with personality bouncing off multiplex walls, the movies of autumn seek to capture your imagination. We’ve rounded up the most buzzworthy flicks to add to your binge list.

Costume dramas are all the rage as the weather gets cold, so expect Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz to duke it out as couture-clad cousins battling for attention during the 18th century reign of Queen Anne in The Favourite (Nov. 23) and Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie to rule the runway in the drama Mary, Queen of Scots (Dec. 7). Royalty comes in the form of glam rock with Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody (Nov. 2), the story of another Queen, the band.

Music takes center stage as a grungy Bradley Cooper mentors (and also directs) a plain-faced Lady Gaga in A Star is Born (Oct. 5), the latest remake in a catalogue that has starred some women you may have heard of named Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. “Little Monsters” as well as those who couldn’t give a good Gaga about Gaga will likely equally gravitate to this hard-scrabble redemption story, filmed in and around Coachella music festival.  Others who like a spoonful of music with their story will want to fly away with Emily Blunt in the title role of Disney’s Mary Poppins Returns (Dec. 19), bringing whimsy, mischief and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda in tow and picking up where Julie Andrews left her umbrella in 1964.

Fast forward to the ‘70s for horror movie inspiration. Those who like their flicks frightful can enjoy original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis versus her nemesis Michael Myers in a direct sequel to 1978’s Halloween simply titled Halloween (Oct. 9). Suspiria (Nov. 2) is Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s1977 Italian horror film set at a European ballet school, and it’s one grand jeté of grisly death sequences to the next.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (Dec. 14) is also set in the ‘70s and is a semi-biographical take on a middle class family’s life in Mexico City. It’s black and white and the Gravity director’s next bid for Oscar glory. And talk about throwbacks! Michael B. Jordan, fresh off his villainous turn in Black Panther, puts on his boxing gloves and knockout emoting for Creed II (Nov. 21). This time he confronts the son of Ivan Drago, the notorious Russian fighter who gave Rocky a run for his ruble.

Those longing for times of less polarizing politics can enjoy Christian Bale as former Vice President Dick Cheney opposite Tyler Perry as Colin Powell in Adam McKay’s biopic Backseat (Dec. 14), or you can simply swoon to the moon with Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong in the historical drama First Man (Oct. 12). This film reuniting the star with his La La Land director who filmed much of the movie in Georgia.

It’s also a season of strong women taking action as Viola Davis leads an ensemble in Steve McQueen’s Widows (Nov. 2) featuring women attempting a heist after their criminal husbands are killed on a botched job. And Regina King desperately scrambles to prove her fiancé innocent of a crime while carrying their first child in Barry Jenkins’s If Beale Street Could Talk (Nov. 23).

Anguished teens are front and center as Steve Carrell nurtures Timothée Chalamet through opioid addiction recovery in Beautiful Boy (Oct. 12), and Nicole Kidman and Lucas Hedges confront homophobia in religious institutions in Boy Erased (Nov. 2).

Of course, some movies will simply be guilty pleasures, like A Simple Favor (Sept. 19) following a small-town blogger (Anna Kendrick) solving the disappearance of her mysterious and rich best friend (Blake Lively).  Ralph Breaks the Internet (Nov. 21) continues Wreck-It Ralph’s pixelated misadventures including encounters with Disney princesses whose frozen fractals add sass to the in-joke filled sequel. And no, it’s not an Entourage subplot, Aquaman (Dec. 21) is a real movie, with hunky Jason Momoa’s salty superhero teaming up with Fast & the Furious filmmakers to part the living seas out of your DC universe. To add some artiness, the ubiquitous Kidman plays his maritime mum. Let the floodgates and movie theatres hasten your arrival.

Posted in Industry News

Movie Review: First Reformed

Both writer/director Paul Schrader and his protagonist protestant minister played by Ethan Hawke are revelations in First Reformed (B+), an engrossing drama about a man marked by a mannered and modulated exterior fighting demons right under the surface. Hawke’s performance as a tormented military chaplain turned reverend of an isolated historic church is some of the best work he has ever done, a slow burn of turmoil not unlike the writer’s subject of Taxi Driver. Schrader subverts expectations with subplots about members of the community who become embroiled in end of days level stakes, and the film will be remembered as iconic in his canon, with spare cinematography and rich subtext. Amanda Seyfried as a faithful congregant and Cedric the Entertainer as a megachurch leader devoted to the success of the affiliated country church are both highly effective in supporting roles. It’s a film of quiet rage and intrigue, a true conversation starter about faith and salvation. The movie’s minor frustrations pale in comparison to its overall thoughtful characterizations, unexpected soul and undercurrent of suspense.

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Posted in 2018, Rent It Tonight

Photo Gallery: Ryan Gosling and Cast of First Man at TIFF

Photo: Charley Galley of Getty Images.

Everyone was swooning over actor Ryan Gosling at DIRECTV House presented by AT&T Monday afternoon at the Toronto International Film Festival. Gosling was rocking a NASA denim jacket to promote his leading role in Damien Chazelle‘s Neil Armstrong biopic film First Man, a major contender in awards season.

Here’s a gallery of pictures from inside the Variety Studio presented by AT&T with Damien Chazelle, Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Kyle Chandler and Josh Singe.

Chazelle and Gosling previously collaborated on what could best be described as “Best Picture runner-up” La La Land, for which Chazelle won Best Director. First Man was filmed in part in Georgia.

Photos for Silver Screen Capture used with permission and credited to Charley Galley of Getty Images.

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Posted in Industry News

Movie Review: The Last Movie Star (2018)

Tinseltown’s swaggering hero Burt Reynolds passed away today, and one of this famously mustached actor’s final movies is Adam Rifkin’s The Last Movie Star (C-), now available on demand after a spring premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. This autumnal Tennessee-set tribute to a faded star – the ornery type who routinely uses words such as schmuck, putz and tuchas – co-opts some of the screen legend’s real-life highs and lows as he commences a requiem for his glory days. Lured to a small-time movie retrospective where organizers plan to fete him with lifetime achievement status, Reynolds’ aging protagonist ends up by happenchance accompanying a miscreant ingenue (Ariel Winter) on an uneven misadventure down memory lane. Reynolds is by far the film’s main attraction, channeling an effectively wry melancholy in increasingly emotive sequences, plus he also gets to confront his younger selves through wizardry of digital insertion into archival footage aboard a boat in Deliverance and passenger-side with “The Bandit.” Winter’s off-kilter acting improves as the film progresses; the same cannot be said about other supporting cast members Clark Duke, Ellar Coltrane or Chevy Chase. Any movie with a Cheerwine bottle as a plot device can’t be all bad, and it’s Reynolds himself who’s bringing forth the fizzy vintage. Rifkin is clearly out of his depth and stumbles intermittently with attempts at broad humor and overreaching melodrama, but his leading man delivers a third act rally. The stuntman turned journeyman actor earns additional credibility and respect in a “life mirrors art” Hollywood ending.

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Posted in 2018

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