A Star Is Born

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There’s always at least one movie that rocks your world each awards season. As I look back on 2018, there were so many amazing movies, but A Star Is Born stood out from the rest as the only Queen’s Knight this year. It was a huge risk to remake this beloved classic with not just one, but three before it, the 1937 film starring Janet Gaynor (The Wife) and Fredric March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), the 1954 film with Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz) and James Mason (Lolita), and last but certainly not least, the Barbra Streisand (Funny Girl) and Kris Kristofferson (Heaven’s Gate) film from 1976. Needless to say, those are tough acts to follow, but that didn’t faze Bradley Cooper (The Hangover). Not only did he accept the challenge to act as the lead, but also decided to take a stab at writing, directing and producing it. OH and singing, playing guitar and writing songs too. Eh what the heck, might as well do it all! Casual. The sheer talent alone makes this a must-see and I haven’t even gotten to Lady Gaga…

There are endless amounts of back-stories (see article links below) behind the making of this film, but there’s one that stands out…Cooper’s pursuit of Lady Gaga. Determined to have her star alongside him, they made a pact: “If you teach me how to act, I’ll teach you how to sing.” Safe to say, they both fulfilled their promises! Gaga is now amongst the most sought after actresses in the industry, earning her first Oscar nomination for this role, and Bradley Cooper is now even dreamier than ever with the voice of an angel and guitar skills of a rock star. Who knew?! Gaga, Cooper, musician Mark Ronson, and team had one goal in mind: sing live. Not a single song is pre-recorded or played back and edited in a studio…that’s what sets this film apart from its predecessors with original music you’ll play on repeat. Each film’s soundtrack has adapted adeptly to the times. This 2018 iteration combines soulful rock and pop music, with a strong message behind it that applies not just to music, but also to life…never loose your voice (no pun intended).

Bottom line: If you’re a fan of the series and have a hard time accepting this one, just remember this isn’t a competition. They are each stand alone films with their own take on a heartbreaking love story, unnecessary to compare. Cooper makes a tribute to all of them in such meaningful special ways, and continues to do so off screen on the red carpet...i.e. Gaga’s blue gown at the Golden Globes. Together they modernized a classic with songs that’ll bring you to tears, banter that’ll make you laugh out loud, and chemistry so palpable you’ll become a hopeless romantic (you’ve been warned). The Scene Queen is cray cray and saw it 4 times, but all it takes is just once to fall in love with A Star Is Born…and Bradley Cooper’s dog, the real MVP of the film!

Fun Fact Articles:

1. https://www.thisisinsider.com/a-star-is-born-cool-facts-2018-10#allys-best-friend-is-played-by-an-original-hamilton-cast-member-15

2. http://collider.com/a-star-is-born-versions-differences-explained/#2018

3. https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2018/10/a-star-is-born-original-lady-gaga-bradley-cooper-easter-eggs

Murder on the Orient Express

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Who done it? I’ll never tell. But here’s the thing, I’m not really sure it’s worth finding out. If you’ve read Agatha Christie’s novel, published way before our time in 1934, you know the outcome. Then there are the majority of us who haven’t read the source material – you’re my main focus. Do not waste your time. What went wrong? Well it was a perfect storm – the directing, screenplay, and most shocking of all, the acting.

While Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie) no doubt is multi-faceted and talented, his directing style has become predictable and forced. There’s a fine line between being ambitious and overly ambitious, Branagh falls into the latter. Directing and acting in your own film works for many, but not in his case. Staring in this as the most complex character distracted him from what should’ve been his main priority, directing. It showed Sir Branagh. He resorted to the obvious techniques used in every other crime, mystery film to create an ominous, mysterious feeling. First and foremost, the lighting with dark hues that glowed with CGI effects made the shots look fake. Next, he panned the camera in several shots slowly from the front of the train to the end with an actor in each window looking scared and concerned. Cheesy much? Let’s not forget the melodramatic music. Less is more…

I can’t speak to Agatha Christie’s classic crime novel, but I can say for sure, he butchered it. Murder mysteries are supposed to be suspenseful with twists and turns around every corner, providing clues that keep you guessing. Don’t hold your breathe, you’ll be waiting a long time if that is what you’re looking for. ‘Twas predictable, not thrilling, and highly anticlimactic. It’s the worst to sit through a film for two hours, only to walk out feeling no sense of closure after the big reveal. Needless to say, this is NOT for adrenaline junkies.

The biggest disappointment of all was the star-studded cast including, but not limited to Branagh, Penélope Cruz (Vanilla Sky), Willem Dafoe (Spider-Man), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean), Michelle Pfeiffer (Scarface), and Josh Gad (Frozen). This film proved that ensemble casts aren’t always the greatest idea. Each one tried to out act the other, resulting in unconvincing, over exaggerated, unimpressive performances – not a good look. The previews say it all with their Zoolander-esk, seductive gone wrong faces look at you through the windows as described above, but hey ya can’t win ‘em all!

Bottom line: There’s nothing better than a good crime mystery that’s gets your heart rate pumping and your stomach churning. Sadly, you will find no such sensations during Murder on the Orient Express. It’s a quick ride with no climax – you do the math.   

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Classics are classics for a reason, but the technology and capabilities at our fingertips today make it hard to compare one film from the 80s to one from the 2000s, let alone 2017. In other words, try for a second to think of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword as a single entity. It’s a remake yes, but again, not worth comparing to Excalibur as one example. Your preference thereafter is completely up to you.

Think fast! We better get used to this. The new age of film has overpowering CGI and hard core action that is only going to get more advanced from one year to the next. And while King Arthur: Legend of the Sword overdid it a bit, director Guy Ritchie (Snatch) also incorporated quick-witted humor that was complemented well by his charming lead, Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy). Ritchie has a very distinct style, there’s no question about that. His films are flash over substance, taking a lot of patience and concentration to keep up. His trademarks include fast-moving action sequences, and quick cuts, the soundtrack of which maintains the pace. This can either swallow audiences whole or have them say challenge accepted, determined to put all the pieces of the puzzle together. His plots can be predictable overall, but there are unforeseen twists along the way. Ritchie worked with Joby Harold (Awake) to create a screenplay that was just that.

Ritchie’s characters are nothing short of vibrant, therefore carefully selected. Hunnam wanted this role the moment he heard about it. He’s a huuuge fan of Ritchie, but he was written off as just a pretty face. No argument there, Hunnam is spicy, but that’s judging a book by its cover. After a lot of convincing Hunnam got the chance to audition where his passion and energy shined, throwing all of Ritchie’s silly assumptions out the window. Hunnam never tries to be intentionally funny. He’s no comedian, but he’s always in the right place at the right time to effortlessly nail a line with a sarcastic and dry tone making you laugh out loud unexpectedly. Hunnam is oh so talented – he hit this one out of the park and is soon to be a household name.

Bottom line: I’m not going to lie, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword fell flat on its face at the box office, most critics thinking all of the flashy effects took away from the timeless story. I don’t disagree – giant snakes, elephants and well you get the picture, aren’t my thing either. Now that you’ve been warned, if you don't let that ruin the film, you’ll enjoy it more. It’s full of life, gets your adrenaline pumping, and most importantly, it's sheer entertainment. King Arthur isn’t even a real person (although some history buffs argue otherwise) so don’t take this so seriously. If you to decide to take my advice, you’ll enjoy a movie experience unlike any other. That’s a promise!

Beauty and the Beast

The nostalgia is real. Can you remember the first time you saw Beauty and the Beast (1991)? Sitting in the theater you will be transported back in time to that very moment. I remember as my parents popped in the VCR (the good ole’ days), sitting, legs butterfly style, as close as I could get to the TV, eyes peeled, smiling the entire way through. As the credit rolled, I yelled, “again, again!” This time was just as magical as the first, if not more, after all, we’re still kids at heart. Remakes are risky, originals are hard to top, but in this case, Disney continues to kill it, producing yet another must-see for all ages (kid friendly, parents).

Enthusiasts of the original are bent of shape that Disney made some changes. Oh no – call out the National Guard! Don’t worry, all your favorite songs are still there. The whole theater sang along like there was no tomorrow. But wait! They’ve added a few new songs. The beast, played by Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, do it to it, you won’t regret it), sings a new song, Days in the Sun. What’s the problem peeps? Let the beast sing – he’s ghastly (insert English accent) so he deserves it. We’re given more insight into the beast’s past, brilliant character development, and a welcomed addition. Belle, played by Emma Watson (Harry Potter), has a much more in depth storyline as well. All I will say is it’s about her mother, a new character. Disney can’t help itself – always dooming the mothers. What’s up with that? Most importantly, the characters have become more diverse with at least 8 black cast members and wait for it….gay characters too. Hey Alabama Henagar Drive-In Theater owner, shame on you for banning the film because of the newest gay members. It’s called equal opportunity – and it’s about time! Ok, I’m done I promise.

Stevens and Watson were the perfect duo. Being a hopeless romantic, I had stars in my eyes and so did all the ladies for their girl’s night out. Couples take note. The two of them showed their range as actors, singing beautifully and acting like bosses. It was hard to tell what was CGI and what was real. The latest fad is live action remakes, The Jungle Book and Cinderella being the latest. This presented a new challenge for Stevens as the beast. He had to act out individual scenes twice – one from the neck-down and the second with ultraviolet makeup on his face in front of a ton of cameras, the process of which the Beast’s face came alive. This meant that Watson (or Belle) was alone in many of her scenes. It would’ve been so much more fun if teacups, candlesticks and clocks spoke in real life – I’d want to be their guest too!

The cast couldn’t have been better to add to this fun, feel good, laugh out loud and at times, tear jerker film. Seriously though, I had a 30-something year old women next to me balling her eyes out when the beast died. I just wanted to give her a bear hug and say it’s going to be okay, you know the story ;) It has some big names, including, but not limited to Luke Evans (Dracula), Josh Gad (Frozen), who was absolutely hysterical, Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda), Ewan McGregor (Trainspotting), Ian McKellen (The Lord of the Rings), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games) and last, but certainly not least, my favorite, Emma Thompson (Sense and Sensibility). Director, Bill Condon (Dreamgirls), and writers, Stephen Chbosky (Rent) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (Hercules), did it up big.

Bottom line: Mesmerizing, dreamy and all around remarkable – Beauty and the Beast is one you won’t want to miss. It’s tale as old as time, a timeless classic!

 

 

Kong: Skull Island

More often than not an original film that has been remade many times over is typically the winner winner, chicken dinner. King Kong (1933) blew everyone’s socks off and continues to do so, even after so many years. The original version’s brilliant subject matter and groundbreaking cinematic effects, all without the use of computers might I add, made it an instant classic. It established a well-known formula – a villain, a heroin that gets wrapped up into a love triangle, allowing a hero to emerge. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, proving true with 7 remakes thus far. Kong: Skull Island (2017), the 7th, took a leap to differentiate itself by tweaking the plot, and adding more glitz and glam (shocker), making it a success as a whole.

Rather than taking Kong out of his natural habitat and bringing him to human civilization, this latest version stays on the island. Another key difference is the violence. There is no shortage of blood, guts and gore with a heavy body count, often times shown in frightening ways for all you adrenaline junkies. Even so, Kong still gets his 15 minutes of fame. Lastly, much to my surprise, there’s a limited focus on romance, unlike many of its predecessors.

We’re talking about a giant ape that fights fictional creatures and falls in love with women, so please excuse the deep observations here. Writers, Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Max Borenstein (Godzilla) and Derek Connolly (Jurassic World), made this story relevant to today’s political landscape. It’s no secret – America tends to reject anything that is foreign to them, making enemies of those that shouldn’t be in the slightest, Kong in this instance. It depicts what was going on at the time when the film is set (the early 1970s), showing subtle comparisons to what we are experiencing today. Nice touch!

The cast is nothing special. Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction) has sadly become type casted as the man in charge, calling the shots, whose lines are oh so painfully cliché. John C. Reiley (Chicago) cranked out the laugh out loud moments, but what would really have gotten audiences going was if Jackson said “I HAVE HAD IT WITH THIS MOTHERFU**ING APE (snakes) IN THIS MOTHERFU**ING JUNGLE (plane).” Classic, crying shame…missed opportunity. Then there’s Brie Larson (Room) and Tom Hiddleston (Thor), both quality actors – you both can do better than this, much better.

Bottom Line: It might be time to lay the original to rest as nothing will ever compare. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts’s (The Kings of Summer) updated version sprinkled some spice, took a chance, but will be just another notch on this 84 year old franchise’s belt. 

Fences

Fences is originally a 1983 play by American playwright August Wilson, set in the 1950s that explores race relations. Denzel Washington (Training Day) and Viola Davis (How to Get Away with Murder) starred in the 2010 remake. Then Washington decided to take the play to the big screen. He directs the film version and plays a garbage man from Pittsburg, married to Rose, played by Davis, who plays the perfect housewife, obedient to her husband and his every need. Oh how times have changed!

The film adaption, also written by Wilson, doesn’t translate well to film. Plays involve limited sets. Directors like Washington are thus restricted. He filmed in the small square foot radius of their home in Pittsburg. With a 10-person cast (smallest credits list right!) and basically one location, you’ll feel like you’re in a jam-packed elevator. It doesn’t stop there; he zooms in on each character’s face during their long monologues. Claustrophobic anyone? Washington is fully aware the story is hard to digest – not exactly butterflies and roses if ya catch my drift. And although his technique is invasive and even uncomfortable at times, it helps you really see the characters for who they truly are.

The story itself isn’t all that captivating, instead quite generic. Its both Washington and Davis’s performances that do the trick. Listening to a character preach about all the injustices he feels the world has bestowed upon him can get quite redundant. Washington however made it gripping and tragic. Chatty Cathy that one! His ability to evolve his character so greatly without the script demanding it was impressive. His character was always aggressive, relentless and chauvinistic at heart, but as the film progressed he became incoherent and arguably psychotic. He was batshit crazy (no pun intended as he’s a baseball player) and talked himself in circles. He looked the part – not well kept, disheveled and haggard. Denzel may put another statue on his shelf for this role, but he’s up against some stiff competition, the same goes for Viola. One monologue from her and you’re sold, but really, did we ever need convincing? Every performance of hers is influential and inspiring; she will undoubtedly go down in the history books as one of the best actors in Hollywood.

Bottom line: I know Washington didn’t have ownership over the script, so while his dialogue was frustrating and tiresome, from a strictly objective perspective, Washington and Davis’s performances were spectacular. The film isn’t exactly uplifting so if you’re looking for some holiday cheer, I recommend trying to find that elsewhere.

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven doesn’t quite live up to its name. Even with a stellar cast and compelling plot, the director fell prey to all the cliché moments you find in typical wild wild west films. 

You can’t go wrong casting Denzel Washington (Training Day), you just can’t. Best when he plays a good cop/bad cop role, resulting in badass, stone-cold performances. Washington always dominates the screen, a notable achievement since this time he was surrounded by seasoned colleagues. Then there’s Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy) who has elevated his career to new heights from character-actor (a side piece who you’ll recognize in many films and ask yourself “ugh where is he from again?”) to one of the most well known names in Hollywood. Even in serious roles, Pratt provides laugh out loud moments to lighten the mood, a welcomed talent. Speaking of character actors, Peter Sarsgaard (An Education) is one of the few who always has memorable, standout performances, but hasn’t had his own film just yet. As for the rest of the cast, they were highly compatible, making for a strong acting presence on screen.

Plot wise, the writers, Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Hideo Oguni (The Hidden Fortress), were handed the story on a silver platter – it is a remake after all. A poor, small village in the Midwest (Mexico in the original) left defenseless against a villain, Sarsgaard, who tries to wreak havoc and take their land. To seek vengeance on behalf of her village and her beloved, murdered husband, one of the townswomen, Emma Cullen (played by Haley Bennett, known for her role in The Equalizer), hires the help of the motley crew described above. While formulaic in nature with protagonists (main characters) and antagonists (characters who stand in opposition of the protagonists), its cliché moments and directing were acceptable, but preclude it from being outstanding.

We’ve all seen film sets that reveal where a film is actually shot. Well the director, Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), couldn’t have made it more obvious with one fake western set after another. They featured all the typical parlors, saloons and shops all down the one-way street, making for a disappointing and inauthentic feel. In addition, the action scenes were all alike with some added glitz and glam and fancy visual effects. These could’ve easily been cut down to focus more on the plot itself, which would’ve given way to more character development, a much needed, key component. I understand it’s hard to break away from the mold, but it was a shame the director missed an opportunity to be among the first to do so in his first western directing debut.

Bottom Line: Even if it’s not all that magnificent, but instead rather predictable and cheesy, take it for what it’s worth, which is an entertaining film held together by its eclectic cast. 

Star Trek Beyond

While Star Trek Beyond may not be AS good as its two predecessors, Star Trek (2009) and Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), it is still a worthy installment that successfully honored the classic series. In all fairness, it’s hard to live up to the first film of these remakes as it set the bar high…really high. However, it’s hard to imagine series faithful Star Trek fans, or even non-diehard fans, leaving the theater disappointed. Star Trek Beyond encompasses both the new and the old crews, paying respect to the late Leonard Nimoy, the original Mr. Spock character. This touched on sentimental emotions, a quality its predecessors lacked. Story aside, the film was visually impressive in more ways than one.

Sci-fi films nowadays are largely driven by CGI (computer-generated imagery). Perhaps off-putting for some, let’s try to look at the glass half full. Because the film industry has this technology at their fingertips, we are the lucky ones who get to experience these visually stunning films and take trips to other worlds. Though drawn out, the CGI intensified the film, which will satisfy any adrenaline junkie. Although, these scenes could’ve been condensed, director Justin Lin (Fast & Furious series) executed a great action-packed film.

In addition to the epic CGI, the set design, as well as the costume and makeup design will blow you away. I can’t imagine how many hours this took – they don’t say patience is a virtue for nothing! Take one look at Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), the villain, and you’ll know what I mean, unrecognizable until the very end.

Chris Pine (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), Zachary Quinto (Margin Call), and Karl Urban (best known for Star Trek) were an eclectic trio, each bringing out the best in one another, and contributing to laugh out loud moments. You can’t forget Zoe Saldana (Guardians of the Galaxy), Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) who plays Scotty, John Cho (Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle), and Anton Yelchin (Charlie Bartlett), without which the series wouldn’t be the same. Anton Yelchin passed away in a tragic car accident on June 19th, 2016. He was an amazing actor who will be sorely missed. You won't want to miss one of his last performances as Chekov in Star Trek Beyond!

Bottom Line: Beam em’ up Scotty! Star Trek Beyond is well worth your time and perfect for any occasion, especially a family outing. Kirk out…oh I mean Scene Queen out!