A Star is Born (2018)


A song is born.

(2018) Musical (Warner BrothersBradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Alec Baldwin, Marlon Williams, Brandi Carlile, Ron Rifkin, Barry Shabaka Henley, Michael D. Roberts, Michael J. Harney, Rebecca Field, Derek Kevin Jones, William Belli, Dennis Tong, Joshua Wells, Greg Grunberg, Drena De Niro. Directed by Bradley Cooper

 

Talk about a tale as old as time: big rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) wanders into a bar to get a drink (that it is a drag queen bar is a concession to these woke times) and hears a lovely ingenue named Ally (Gaga) belt out a jaw-dropping version of the Edith Piaf classic “La Vie en Rose.” Turns out that Ally also writes songs. Turns out the songs are really good.

Jackson likes one so much that he decides to perform one at his next concert. Just as icing on the cake, he drags a petrified Ally onstage to duet with him. And guess what? The song goes viral. Suddenly the songwriter-performer, who had just about given up on any shot at a career in the music business, has a career in the music business.

But what goes up must come down. As Ally’s star rises, alcoholism brings Jackson’s career to a standstill. A new manager turns Ally from a rock-oriented singer-songwriter into a pop diva complete with orange hair and a dance troupe. It is no accident – and in many ways, an acid comment on the state of music today – that as Ally grows more successful her music becomes less memorable, and in fact, becomes downright shitty.

This is the fourth version of this tale; it is also Cooper’s first foray into directing. He also co-wrote the screenplay and is one of a gaggle of producers. Word has it he also mopped the floors of the sound stages after shooting was done for the day.

The music here is pretty good, other than the robotic pop that Ally performs in the second half of the film. Cooper and Elliott (as Jackson’s manager and big brother) give outstanding performances, but it is Lady Gaga who will always be remembered for this movie. Already a huge pop diva, she shows that she is capable of being a movie star if she wants to be.

The movie runs a bit too long as we watch Jackson’s decline and Ally’s ascent; those scenes should have been a bit more streamlined. To be honest, I don’t think any version of the film is ever going to hold a candle to the Judy Garland-James Mason version back in 1954 – that’s a true classic. Still, there is a lot to be said for this movie, which was a major Oscar contender at last year’s Oscars (it did win one for Best Music Score). It remains a popular film – most people who saw it liked it or even loved it. I didn’t love it but I certainly did like it.

REASONS TO SEE: Lady Gaga is a true cinematic presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: Way too long, drags in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexuality and brief nudity, and some harrowing alcoholism depictions.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cooper studied Elliott’s voice to come up with Jackson Maine’s voice – before Elliott had been cast.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AMC On Demand, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, HBO Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews, Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Every other A Star is Born
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Venom

Crazy Rich Asians


Love, Singaporean style.

(2018) Romantic Comedy (Warner BrothersConstance Wu, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Sonoya Mizuno, Chris Pang, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng, Remy Hii, Nico Santos, Jing Lusi, Carmen Soo, Pierre Png, Fiona Xie, Victoria Loke, Janice Koh, Amy J. Cheng. Directed by Jon M. Chu

Fairy tales are powerful things. Doesn’t every little girl want to marry the prince and go riding off into the sunset together, preferably in the direction of a beautiful castle? Trust me, men have their fairy tales as well but we won’t get into those here.

Rachel Chu (Wu) is an economics professor at NYU and she’s been dating handsome Nick Young (Golding), a fellow academic, for more than a year. She’s headed to Singapore with him to attend his cousin (and best friend’s) wedding. When they get first class tickets on the airplane, she asks him how wealthy his family is. “We’re comfortable,” he says modestly. Yeah, they’re comfortable in the same way that Bill Gates is comfortable.

Nick’s mom (Yeoh), the imperious matriarch of the family, is none too pleased to see Rachel who even though her son is crazy about her is still nonetheless not even close to the kind of match that she had in mind for her son. Rachel will have to navigate the sometimes-treacherous waters of Nick’s family, aided by her college bestie Peik Lin (Awkwafina), if she is going to keep the man she loves.

America loves its rich folks and that helps the movie out a great deal. The fact that this is a largely Asian-American cast and crew is a big deal, and the movie gives us some insight into Chinese (primarily) culture and customs, and those are some of the more endearing moments of the film.

I can’t say enough about Constance Wu, one of the stars of Fresh Off the Boat. She has tons of charisma and likability; she has a big future ahead of her and not only as a romantic leading lady. She has the kind of presence that Awkwafina (who would break out this year in The Farewell) has, but with a touch more self-assuredness. Golding also has a ton of leading man appeal.

Although there are a few rom-com tropes here, they don’t necessarily get in the way of the enjoyment of this movie. After an over-profusion of the genre over the last 20 years, romantic comedies have fallen somewhat out of favor. With a fresh take on them as this one has and particularly after the kind of success it enjoyed (the highest box office for any romantic comedy in more than a decade), you can bet we’ll be seeing more of them in the near future. If they’re this good, I wouldn’t mind at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Constance Wu is a find. Culturally informative. Escapes most rom-com clichés.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sends some mixed messages about the institution of marriage.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexually suggestive content and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Netflix offered to produce the movie at a substantially larger budget, but producer Kevin Kwan felt that it was important to prove to the studios that Asian-American movies were commercially viable. Netflix ended up producing Always Be My Maybe instead.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft,  Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/7/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Pretty Woman
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A.X.L.

The Meg


Jason Statham smells something fishy.

(2018) Adventure (Warner Brothers) Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis, Winston Chao, Sophia Cai, Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy, Robert Taylor, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jessica McNamee, Masi Oka, Raymond Vinten, Mai Hongmei, Wei Yi, Vithaya Ransringarm, Rob Kipa-Williams, Tawanda Manyimo, Mark Trotter, Jeremy Tan, Sui Fong Ivy Tsui. Directed by Jon Turtletaub

 

Sharks have been a popular movie villain ever since Steven Spielberg brought forth Jaws as quite possibly the perfect summer movie back in 1975. Given Hollywood’s propensity to the maxim “bigger is better,” it was only a matter of time before we got a gigantic prehistoric shark wreaking havoc.

Jonas Taylor (Statham) is a deep-sea rescue specialist who has an encounter with something huge during an unsuccessful rescue of a sub. Essentially laughed out of the business, he retires to Thailand to get drunk and stay drunk – two things it is quite possible to do in Thailand. However, when an experimental submersible in which his ex-wife (McNamee) is a crew member is trapped below the Marianas Trench (don’t ask), he is enticed back, headed to the sleek 2001-esque research station below the ocean bankrolled by tech gazillionaire Morris (Wilson) and headed by Chinese scientists Dr. Zhang (Chao), his comely daughter Suyin (Bingbing) and precocious granddaughter Meiying (Cai), as well as Jonas’ buddy Mac (Curtis). Needless to say the giant creature Jonas saw is real (Nyah! Nyah! Toldja so!) and turns out to be a gigantic prehistoric shark that has been extinct for 200 million years; except it wasn’t, it had just gone from being a shallow water predator to a deep sea diver because…reasons.

Warner Brothers marketed this as a fun, light summer movie which I suppose a film about people getting swallowed whole by a giant shark would have to be. It really doesn’t live up to the trailer though, although Statham really makes an effort to take the movie on his broad shoulders. Sadly, the movie suffers from hoary plot clichés and underwhelming CGI and comes off as a kind of Plan 9 from the South China Sea. It does skirt the so bad it’s good territory.

Despite all its shortcomings, there is something about the movie that is endearing, although it could have used a little more self-awareness – why, oh why didn’t someone say “We’re gonna need a bigger boat”? – and a little less cool gadgetry. For my money, the movie came within one uneaten chunky Asian kid from getting a more respectable score.

REASONS TO SEE: Statham gives it the old college try.
REASONS TO AVOID: Sketchy CGI and a predictable plot.
FAMILY VALUES: There is aquatic violence, some bloody images, peril and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie has been in and out of development since 1996 when Disney (!) first bought the rights to the novel. It has bounced around a variety of studios (New Line, Warner Brothers) and directors (Guillermo del Toro, Jan de Bont) in that time.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews: Metacritic: 46/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jaws III
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Spy Who Dumped Me

Ocean’s 8


Back in black.

(2018) Action Comedy (Warner Brothers) Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Elliott Gould, Helena Bonham Carter, Mindy Kaling, Richard Armitrage, Awkwafina, Rihanna, Dakota Fanning, Sarah Paulson, James Corden, Dana Ivey, Elizabeth Ashley, Marlo Thomas, Charlotte Kirk, Whitney White, Charles Prendergast, Damian Young, Talia Cuomo. Directed by Gary Ross

 

Sure, we need more films with empowered women doing what men do. The Ocean’s trilogy had an A-list all-star cast including George Clooney, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, Bernie Mac and so on and so forth. Why should they have all the fun?

Indeed, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to prove that girls just wanna have fun too but the movie is sorely lacking in the presence of Steven Soderbergh, who wrote snappy dialogue, created a retro mood that recalled the Rat Pack that made the original Ocean’s 11 and let the men loose in Sin City – obviously the cast was having a great time with one another.

Sadly, this heist movie involving the theft of a fabulous Cartier diamond necklace from the equally fabulous Met Gala party annually hosted by Vogue’s Anna Wintour (who cameos as herself, one of a raft of cameos) fails to deliver the goods. As much as the Oceans trilogy felt like all involved were having a great time, this one feels like just another job. The bonding never feels authentic and the chemistry is sorely lacking. Like the distaff version of Ghostbusters back in 2016, the movie feels less of an ensemble and more of a collection of actresses. Don’t get me wrong – some of the sequences here are done with the kind of clever wit that the Oceans films are known for and the movie is entertaining in its own right and it makes some salient points about our celebrity-obsessed culture but it doesn’t hold up to any of its predecessors except maybe the least of the series, Oceans 13.

Part of the problem is that I think the expectations for a distaff version of an established and beloved franchise is that the movie will replicate the feel of the originals and that’s hard enough to do in the first place; throw in that the cast is going to be all-female in a fairly misogynistic society as we have and the movie has two strikes on it before it gets out of the gate. I think that thand their relationships I I think that the biggest mistake that was made here was that short shrift was given to the characters at the expense of a “sisters are doing it for themselves” empowerment narrative and sisters can do it for themselves as Wonder Woman and The Hunger Games have more than proven. It’s a pity that a cast this glittery left me so cold.

REASONS TO SEE: Some of the sequences are marvelous.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks the camaraderie of the first three films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, drug use and sexually suggestive content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although Gould is the only actor from the first trilogy to appear in this film, scenes were filmed with Carl Reiner and Matt Damon but were both left on the cutting room floor.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/12/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bandits
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Bob Fosse: It’s Showtime!

Ready Player One


In the Oasis, you can be anyone – or anything – you like.

(2018) Science Fiction (Warner Brothers) Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, T.J. Miller, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, Hannah John-Kamen, Ralph Ineson, Susan Lynch, Clare Higgins, Laurence Spellman, Perdita Weeks, Joel MacCormack, Kit Connor, Leo Heller, Antoniio Mattera, Ronke Adekolujo. Directed by Steven Spielberg

 

In a world where the economy has gone beyond stagnant and where people have generally lost hope of ever improving their lot, there’s always an escape into an electronic world where one can be whoever they choose to be and play games day and night. Is this America 2018? No, this is the world of 2045 as posited by Ready Player One.

In this dystopian vision people like Wade Wells (Sheridan) live in the Stacks, a kind of mobile home park in which the ready-made homes are stacked one on top of the other into rickety towers, but he spends his life in the Oasis, an artificial environment where most people spend their time. The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday (Rylance) has passed away and is offering his fortune of hundreds of billions to whoever is savvy enough to find three Easter eggs to get three keys to unlock control of the Oasis.

Aiding Wade (whose avatar is Parzival, a kind of anime video game character) is Art3mis (Cooke), a gaming legend, and Wade’s longtime Oasis friend Aich (Waithe). Opposing is the evil CEO of the IOI Corporation Sorrento (Mendelsohn) who wants control of the Oasis for his own. As the real world begins to bleed into the Oasis and vice versa, the stakes grow increasingly higher.

The movie is littered with 80s and 90s pop culture references (as is the soundtrack), far too many to list. That should give the movie a shelf life as compulsive sorts will doubtlessly watch it endlessly to see if they can spot them all. It is truly nirvana for gamers, geeks and nerds particularly those of a certain age who grew up in the 80s with these characters and references.

Sheridan and Cooke are curiously flat here – both have performed far better in other projects – and have little chemistry. Although the visuals are amazing, the plot is a bit predictable even if you haven’t read Ernest Cline’s source novel. It can also be a bit of a visual overload with all the images coming at you. Still, this is one of Spielberg’s most imaginative films this decade and that alone makes this worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: The CGI is absolutely fantastic! For geeks of a certain age, the film may bring a nostalgic tear to the corner of the eye.
REASONS TO STAY: The two leads are less than scintillating.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some videogame-style violence as well as real life violence, partial nudity, some profanity and some bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: John Williams was unavailable to score the film because he was busy working on another Spielberg movie, The Post. This will be only the third Spielberg-directed movie not to feature Williams writing the score.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/26/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Eating Animals

Tomb Raider


Lara Croft takes aim.

(2018) Adventure (MGM/Warner Brothers) Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Daniel Wu, Alexandre Willaume, Tamer Burjaq, Adrian Collins, Keenan Arrison, Andrian Mazive, Milton Schorr, Hannah John-Kamen, Peter Waison, Samuel Mak, Sky Yang, Civic Chung, Josef Altin, Billy Postlethwaite, Roger John Nsengiyumva, Jaime Winstone. Directed by Roar Uthaug

 

The Tomb Raider videogame franchise remains a benchmark in the industry. One of the first to feature a female main character, it was (and is) a rollicking adventure in the vein of Indiana Jones that requires a quick wit as well as fast fingers. Of course, lead character Lara Croft’s notoriously buxom figure didn’t hurt sales either.

After a pair of successful but mediocre movies in the late 90s and early 2000s, the franchise is being rebooted with Swedish actress Alicia Vikander in the lead role. She lives in a beautiful and opulent estate but is a bike courier to pay the bills; that’s because her father (West), a billionaire, disappeared seven years previously and Lara doesn’t want to sign the papers that will give her the inheritance because doing so would be as much as admitting he’s dead, something she steadfastly refuses to believe.

Then she gets wind of a possible location where her father might be and off she goes to find him. It will involve finding the tomb of a cruel Japanese queen, avoiding a terrible curse as well as barbaric corporate sorts who seek to open the tomb and unleash hell on the world. Aided only by a drunken sailor, Lara goes off to save the day but she is not yet the confident adventuress that inhabits the video games. Yes, this is an origin story.

On the surface of it, casting Vikander as Croft is a slam dunk move. She’s truly a wonderful actress, has ballet training and moreover is a fan of the videogame. She bulked up on muscle and performed some of her own stunts for the film but oddly enough, her portrayal of Croft didn’t really connect with me. In fact, I found the whole tone of the film to be flat in an off-putting way. It probably didn’t help that the screening I attended was virtually deserted. There just didn’t seem to be as much chemistry or energy going on in the movie.

Some of the stunts and action set pieces are more than up to snuff. When the movie channels the old serials (which it does do from time to time), it seems to do better. The expository scenes are where the film shows the most problems. Also, some of the CGI is murky and hard to see; I didn’t view this in 3D so I can only imagine how bad it looked in that format.

There are enough thrills and fun for me to give it a mild recommendation but with the caveat that many of the reasons that videogames don’t translate well to movies are present here. Fans of the videogame series probably won’t like this much and fans of adventure films in general probably will agree with them. If you keep your expectations low, this can be a good time however.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the action sequences are quite exciting.
REASONS TO STAY: Vikander doesn’t seem a good fit for the role.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence as well as some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The only two actresses to date to play Lara Croft in the film versions – Angelina Jolie and Vikander – are also both Oscar winners.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 48% positive reviews: Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: King Solomon’s Mine
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Game Night

The 15:17 to Paris


Anthony Sadler muses aboard the 15:17 to Paris.

(2018) True Life Drama (Warner Brothers) Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler, Spencer Stone, Judy Greer, Jenna Fischer, P.J. Byrne, William Jennings, Bryce Gheisar, Paul-Mikel Williams, Thomas Lennon, Jaleel White, Robert Praigo, Tony Hale, Lillian Solange, Ray Corasani, Irene White, Mark Moogalian, Steve Coulter, Seth Meriwether, Heidi Sulzman. Directed by Clint Eastwood

 

True heroism is a pretty rare thing. You never know where it might occur; in a school, or a nightclub – or on a train from Amsterdam to Paris.

But on a hot August day in 2015, the latter is precisely where it occurred. When a terrorist pulled out an automatic rifle and threatened to massacre the travelers aboard the high-speed rail. Director Clint Eastwood, one of the best in Hollywood history, is tackling the events of that day and the three Americans who were involved – boyhood friends from Sacramento, two of whom were in the military. You would think that this would be in Eastwood’s wheelhouse but strangely this is one of his most disappointing movies in decades.

There are a lot of reasons that this movie doesn’t work as well as it might but the biggest is the script of Dorothy Blyskal, based on the book by the three Americans involved. She chooses an odd narrative structure, starting with the beginning of the attack on the train but then going into a series of flashbacks into their boyhood and development into the young men they would become. It makes a bit of a mess of the story and there is a lot of necessary business – too much time sightseeing – that slows down a film that at just over 90 minutes should be zipping by.

Another part of the problem is Eastwood’s decision to cast the heroes as themselves. These young men have a lot of skills but acting is not among them. I’m not blaming them – you get the distinct feeling that these men are experiencing far more nerves in front of the camera than they did facing an armed terrorist – but I don’t think they should have been put into the position that they were. The child actors who play them as youths may be even worse.

The actual terrorist attack is done extremely well and is the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, it takes too long to get there and by the time you do you may have been checking your watch. Now, there are some conservatives who will think that I don’t like the movie because the heroes are Christians who are into guns and the military. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, I appreciate that they are a different brand of hero than we normally get on the silver screen and yes, they are normal Americans – that’s what makes their heroism more exemplary, even though they do have military training. The reason I don’t like the movie is because most of the time it’s boring and that has nothing to do with my political views but on my cinematic experience. The fact that mass audiences haven’t embraced the film is a testament to that.

REASONS TO GO: The story is truly inspiring.
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is stiff and there are too many flashbacks – this might have worked better as a documentary rather than as a narrative feature.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, some bloody images, sexually suggestive material and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first person to tackle the terrorist was actually a Frenchman but he turned down the Legion of Honor and asked to remain anonymous because he feared reprisals from extremists.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/4/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 25% positive reviews. Metacritic: 45/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Trouble is My Business