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

The Greatest Showman

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Musicals have been few and far between lately. They’re risky, hit or miss with audiences. You’re either a fan or you’re not. There were only two this year. Beauty and the Beast, released in early 2017 was a huge hit. Then Christmas Day, perfect timing might I add, The Greatest Showman hit theaters to close out 2017. If I had to describe it in two words it would hands down be “feel good.” It has it all: it’s a true story for you history buffs and has amazing music and an even better cast. It’ll strike an emotional cord even with the skeptical musical h8ters. It may be corny, but mindless entertainment is good to balance out the other content we consume. That’s exactly what you’ll find in The Greatest Showman, now available to rent.

History remembers P.T. Barnum in many ways – “take the bad with the good” just about sums up one of the greatest showmen of all time. Coming from humble beginnings, Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman (Logan), wanted to make a name for himself, but he did so in questionable ways. Long story short, at the start of his career, he purchased a black woman by the name of Joice Heth for exhibition. She claimed to be George Washington’s former nurse, oh and a minor detail, apparently 161 years old. Gullible much, Mr. Barnum? But like I said, with the bad comes the good. Writers, Jenny Bicks (Rio 2) and Bill Condon (Chicago) decided to focus on the good. Barnum was an incredible businessman and entrepreneur who saw an opportunity to entertain audiences in ways no one had done before. By only focusing on the good, Bicks and Condon sacrificed character development, which the film seriously lacked. They teased each character’s background, but in the end left the low hanging fruit still dangling. It felt like the right decision with so many characters, but that gamble resulted in shallow writing, putting all the pressure on first time director Michael Gracey.

Gracey never leaves you bored. The majority of the film was created through VFX, the manipulation of imagery outside a live action shot, which is where his expertise lies. The action is not like that of superhero films, but is instead creative and artsy, resulting in dazzling imagery. The most noteworthy quality of the film, aside from the music, is the flawless editing. It’s picture perfect, seamlessly transitioning from a normal, or regular shot, to stunning musical scenes with great choreography, costumes and production design. Gracey worked with music composers John Debney (The Jungle Book) and Joseph Trapanese (Straight Outta Compton) to insert the song and dance at the emotional highs and lows in the script. Who came first, the chicken (script) or the egg (music)? The script! Gracey hit his first high note with this modern day musical.

Any film with Jackman, known to be one of the nicest actors in Hollywood, is apparently a blast to work on. What an amazing thing to be known for! His positive and encouraging personality trickles over to the rest of the crew and cast on all of his films. What’s more, he’s no stranger to the musical genre after having killed it in the remake of Les Misérables in 2012. The casting of Zac Efron (High School Musical) and Zendaya (Spider-Man: Homecoming) was extremely smart for two reasons: one, boy do they know how to sing and dance, and two, they appeal to a younger demographic, making The Greatest Showman an all around hit with every age group. As for the rest of the cast, including some well-known faces like Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine) and Rebecca Ferguson (Life), well let’s just say they’ll teach you important lessons – acceptance and to be proud of yourself!

Bottom line: Musical cynics don’t shy away from this one. Like I said it’s great for all ages, kid friendly, and you never know, you may jerk a tear or two, especially you hopeless romantics out there. Dance like no ones watching and sing like no ones listening {to the soundtrack}, The Greatest Showman is a musical high! 

Fifty Shades Freed

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By now, we’re all familiar with the Fifty Shades trilogy, based on the best-selling novels written by E. L. James. If you haven’t read them, someone you know has, or at the very least you’ve seen a woman or two glued to it on your morning commute. It’s been 7 years since the series was published and 3 years since the first film was released. Since then the films have evolved to let’s put it this way…a raunchier level. The story is absurd, unsophisticated and certainly far-fetched. If you put all that past you and don’t take it so seriously, they’re fun and one hell of a guilty pleasure. All you have to do is show up and director James Foley (House of Cards), and actors Dakota Johnson (How to Be Single) and Jamie Dornan (The Fall) will do all the work for you.

Fun fact: the screenwriter, Niall Leonard (Fifty Shades Darker), is married to E. L. James so her precious babies were on a tight leash. Fans of the novels say Leonard uses everything from the source material, a reader's dream. If you’re looking for a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, keep walking. It’s no secret these are poorly written and laugh out loud funny, but E. L. James and Leonard have figured out what women want. For those of us who haven’t read the novels, the first film introduces the couple, the second dives deeper into Mr. Grey’s complicated history and how it affects their relationship. The final installment shows what happens after Mrs. Grey gets her happy ending. Add some drama like a sexy realtor, an obsessive ex, and a boss turned stalker turned murderer and you’ve got yourself a cookie cutter formula.

Go big or go home. This time Foley went bigger than big. He doesn’t waste any time, jumping right in, leaving little to the imagination. He gets up close and personal in every sex scene of which there are plenty. This one went from 0 to 100 with more nudity than the others. Just like the novels, this won’t be an Oscar nominated film. Foley’s transitions are choppy, forced and rushed. It’s as though he felt pressed for time. However, the music is SO good and matches the vibe perfectly thanks to music composer Danny Elfman (Spider-Man). Foley tugs on our emotions, taking us down memory lane with a montage of the most memorable moments from the series. It’s okay to giggle, blush, and smile from ear to ear hopeless romantics. It’s a heartthrob, sure to spike your adrenaline

Speaking of heartthrobs, Mr. and Mrs. Grey, Dornan and Johnson respectively, were on fire. Dornan must be eating his wheaties every morning and pumpin’ some serious iron because the man looks very, and I mean VERY, good. Johnson isn’t too shabby herself, looking stunning per usual. Their chemistry is better than ever, each scene wilder than the one before it. Rumor has it they don’t get along in real life. Could’ve fooled me! Best friends or not, these can’t be easy to film. They’ve both reached their climax, and now it’s time to move on. TBD on what roles they land next. Films like these have tendencies to pigeon hole you…

Bottom line: If you're embarrassed to admit that you’ve read the books or seen the films, let it go. Get on board, become series faithful, and grab your friends for a girl’s night out. Aren’t you in the least bit curious how it ends? Parting is such sweet sorrow :(

Phantom Thread

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When arguably the best actor to date prematurely decides to retire, it’s a big deal. Audiences have come to love and deeply respect 60 yr-old Daniel Day-Lewis (There Will Be Blood), but for him his retirement is long overdue. And while he likely will not bring home the gold for his performance in Phantom Thread, written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), he’s going out with a bang.

Anderson became a director to watch after his 1997 film, Boogie Nights, about a young porn star. Overtime his films have become more and more intangible, taking on a life of their own, as stand alone pieces of art. Phantom Thread is the perfect example. Day-Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a famous dressmaker in the 1950s, known to be meticulous workwise, but fickle in his personal life. He meets Alma, played by Vicky Krieps (Hanna), his latest muse, who turns his world upside down. The film is not based on a true story. There was no house of Woodcock, but the great Cristóbal Balenciaga loosely inspired Anderson’s story. Let’s assume for a second Anderson’s films have a subject (a dressmaker) a theme (misogyny), and a message (how to overcome the power struggle between men and women). Anderson doesn’t think in those terms as a writer/director. He only cares about what his films are, the rest is unimportant, hence the elusive and frustrating nature of his films.

At the start, the film is whimsical. The imagery is as detailed as the dresses themselves, coming through the screen clear as day, as though you yourself are stitching the fabric. The soothing, classical score pairs beautifully with the imagery. That is until an indescribable shift occurs, a sort of jaggedness that interrupts this fanciful world with Day-Lewis’s abrasive, uncomfortable and extremely harsh presence. Anderson piggybacks between these two feelings, until the latter overwhelms you to a point of no return.

Day-Lewis is the only actor to ever win three Best Actor Oscars. It’s no secret he is a method actor, becoming his characters in every sense. In the case of this character, dressmaker Reynolds, he worked closely with the costume designer Mark Bridges (The Artist) in preparation for the film, as well as throughout, to stay in character. While studying fashion, he learned to cut, drape and sew, at one point recreating a Balenciaga dress as practice. There’s a reason why he’s known as the best method actor ever. Reynolds is supposed to be extremely controlling and obsessive compulsive with little nuances you’ll become accustomed to like his obsession with every snap, crackle, and pop in a room. These characteristics take on a life of their own resulting in erratic behavior that is terrifying to watch, and will definitely cause some spikes in adrenaline. Day-Lewis’s eyes and emotions feel so real, making it hard to imagine he is anything but, in real life. Anderson’s close up shots during these moments create a subtle claustrophobic feeling when interacting with his wife, Krieps. Talk about a timely depiction of a hopelessly romantic woman put down by a powerful man who could be violent at any moment. Round and round Anderson’s story went, contributing to the confusion of what his end game. This remains an unsolved mystery in yet another one of his films.

Bottom line: Day-Lewis will be sorely missed – a departure that leaves a void in Hollywood, hopefully to be filled one day. Phantom Thread is a must-see not only to witness Anderson’s genius, but to also say goodbye to a true artist.

The Shape of Water

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There’s someone out there for everyone, even you hopeless romantics. I can imagine you’ve heard this many times. Personally, I believe it to be true – love comes in all forms, shapes, and sizes. Beautifully crafted, as all love should be, The Shape of Water takes this idea and runs with it. The story of an unlikely relationship between a mute janitor, played by Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky), and an amphibious creature (no previous credits), is Guillermo Del Toro’s (Pans Labyrinth) latest stunning success that may or may not tickle your fancy.

Del Toro does it all – directs, writes, and produces. This story was thought up by him, and with a little help from my (oops his) friend, Vanessa Taylor (Divergent), a screenplay way waaay out there was created. It’s nothing new at first glance – a love story. Peel back a few more layers and it’s a love story set in the Cold War era. Peel back another and another and another, and you have a love story between a creature locked up in a secret research facility and a woman whose voice has never been heard. Common thread? Yes, they’re both “different,” outcasts from society who’ve found each other. Tada! Yet it’s a story that’s surprisingly rather underdeveloped. It only scratches the surface of its broader theme, and leaves you with many unanswered questions about the characters themselves.

It’s not the screenplay that did the trick to get Del Toro even more critical acclaim than he already has. It’s his direction. When Del Toro writes he already sees the final product. His brilliant mind comes up with ideas (from god knows where) and thus manipulates them into the most detail oriented films. He's a perfectionist and it's worth it. His films are always visually stunning and thought through down to the very last scratch on the floor. Del Toro, along with Cinematographer Dan Laustsen (Crimson Peak) and Production Designer Paul D. Austerberry (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse), all joined forces to connect every image back to one common subject, water. Don’t be fooled, none of this is in your face, but it’s there, all seamlessly put together by the man we should trust by now to create dazzling films.

It’s hard to relate to these characters – they feel very far from reality, hello one is a monster, but the actors do a good job of expressing themselves enough for the audience to feel for each of them. Hawkins’ actions speak WAY louder than words. The rest of the cast, Richard Jenkins (The Visitor), who will make you laugh out loud at times, Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals), Octavia Spencer (The Help), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Call Me By Your Name), all had strong, stand alone performances. And believe it or not there’s someone behind the very real, almost too real, creature, actor Dough Jones (Hellboy). Round of applause for the makeup department!

Bottom line: The Scene Queen has very tactfully waited until the end to say The Shape of Water in fact did not tickle her fancy, as I was hoping for more. Although I fully understand how and why it has and will for so many (you should see it for sure), but I just can’t get onboard. It’s a feel good, but one that takes a great deal of patience (it’s slow as molasses). The devil is in Del Toro’s details, which may or may not let him bring home some bright and shiny statues this year.  

Call Me By Your Name

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As the most creative credits came to an end, I felt like I had been hit like a ton of bricks. That sensation hasn’t diminished, if anything it’s only gotten stronger. Call Me By Your Name is easily the best movie of the year (Ellen Degeneres said the same, just saying) AND the best movie I’ve ever seen. Whoop there it is. I know The Scene Queen isn’t about me, but selfishly I’m excited to be able to finally answer that question. This film covers all categories: couple’s retreat, feel good, girl’s night out, hopeless romantic, indie, laugh out loud, must-see, Queen’s Knight of all knights, tear jerker, etc. Ok, ok maybe not all, but perhaps that’s because it’s in a league of its own. In this collaborative effort, director Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash), screenwriter James Ivory (A Room With a View), actors Armie Hammer (The Social Network), Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird), and Michael Stuhlbarg (A Serious Man) made a perfect film, based on the novel written by André Aciman.

In a little Northern Italian town, seventeen year old, Elio, develops a bond with visiting graduate student, Oliver, who comes to stay with his family. Over the course of the summer, their bond grows stronger. On the surface it sounds similar to Brokeback Mountain (2005) or Moonlight (2016), both incredible films. However, this film isn't about a gay couple, instead it transcends sexual orientation. It represents first love and the true meaning of love itself. It's relatable and strike a chord with all. 

The production quality is impeccable. The vibrant colors jump off the screen. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, this being his first major motion picture, hones in on the town, the house, the orchards, even the fruits, making you feel as though they too are characters. The focus on the microscopic details in every shot was apparent. The panning shots of the Italian countryside will make you want to pack your bags and jump on a plane. There were no sudden movements, nothing overly dramatic. Guadagnino's first cut was 4 ½ hours, and after careful editing, putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, he created a supremely magical, serene film. 

All the "characters" above play an integral part in making this visually stunning, dynamic, and distinct. Then there's Chalamet, Hammer, and Stuhlbarg. The spark between Chalamet and Hammer is shocking. The actors chose to go to Italy together before the shoot, a decision that clearly built their chemistry, which is nothing shy of enchanting. Guadagnino helped develop this relationship on screen too by choosing to film in chronological order, a brilliant directorial choice and extremely uncommon. But wait until you get to the end when Stuhlbarg, who plays Elio's father, delivers one of the best cinematic monologues. Mic drop. 

Fun fact: Hammer found his dancing scenes to be the hardest part, more than the intimate scenes with Chalamet if you can believe it. You try dancing to no music in front of hundreds of extras, the cast and crew. Hey, at least he was dancing in the moonlight. It was such a fine and natural sight...   

Bottom line: Call Me By Your Name is winning awards left and right, and the nominations are pouring in. This is just the start. The hype is real so get to the theaters before it’s too late, then buy the book ;) 

 

 

The Big Sick

Nothing I say will do The Big Sick justice. It’s that good! Maybe we too will find love in a hopeless place (if RiRi can, we all can)! Yes I’m single, heeey men DM me…only kidding. Or am I? The story centers around a couple from different cultural backgrounds, causing rifts with their families, making them question whether the relationship is worth pursuing, a sacrifice to say the least. This is happening more nowadays, as millennials start to question the expectations bestowed upon them by their parents. Comedian, actor and writer Kumail Nanjiani (Silicon Valley) plays a Pakistani-American (he is in fact Pakistani btw) and Zoe Kazan (It’s Complicated), who yes you guessed it, is not Pakistani. There you have it – the root of the issue.

Nanjiani’s and Emily V. Gordon’s writing and jokes are bold, charming, and what I liked most of all, NOT crass and dirty (you know who you are, cough Schumer). You know those people who are funny, but are not trying to be? That’s the definition of Nanjiani. He doesn’t take life seriously, not in a lazy, deadbeat kind of way, but in a happy-go-lucky, chill dude kind of way. The jokes packed a punch in the most natural way because he wasn’t trying to force anything. Couple’s who come from different ethnicities or political backgrounds (no politics in this one I promise) have been the focus of many films in the past, but few in a laugh out loud way. The Big Sick is a fresh take on a romantic comedy, something I hope we will see much more of in the future.

Since I can’t seem to shut up about how good the film is you can only imagine what I think about the acting. Kazan was effortlessly adorable. For all you hopeless romantics out there, her romance with Nanjiani is something to be in awe of. If you’re looking for The Notebook, look elsewhere because this is realistic, unlike, hate to break it to you, the dream world that is the latter. Their chemistry will make you smile and feel good from start to finish, and long after. Their parents Holly Hunter (The Incredibles), Ray Romano (Everybody Loves Raymond), Anupam Kher (Silver Linings Playbook) and Zenobia Shroff (Little Zizou) perfectly compliment the couple, each adding their own touch of comedy.

Bottom line: There’s no doubt in my mind this is my next Queen’s Knight – it truly is a must-see. It’s the ideal couple’s retreat for those newly dating or seasoned. And I’ve purposefully waited until the end to tell you the twist: (it doesn’t ruin anything) this is the real-life story of the writers, Nanjiani and Gordon. Now you tell me – doesn’t that give you even greater hope?! 

My Cousin Rachel

Daphne du Maurier, the famous British novelist, is well known for her short stories and original novels, many of which have been adapted into films over the years. Alfred Hitchcock (ya remember that genius) alone adapted three of her works: Rebecca (1940), The Birds (1963) and Jamaica Inn (1939). It begs the question – why didn’t Hitchcock want to make My Cousin Rachel after adapting so many of Du Maurier’s other novels, two of which are arguably his best films. Perhaps it’s because some ideas are better left on paper…

The plot, cast and cinematography all looked enticing in the previews. Turns out, trailers are getting better and better at deceiving us. Let’s start with the plot. Long story short, Philip, played by actor Sam Claflin (Me Before You) seeks revenge on his cousin, played by the beautiful Rachel Weisz (The Mummy), whom he thinks used spells and tricks on his guardian to lure him in, kill him, and thus inherit his estate. It’s Heartbreakers (2001) meets Pride & Prejudice (2005) – murder mystery romance all in one. That sounds pretty compelling right? Not when screenwriter and director, Roger Michell (Notting Hill), convolutes a fairly straightforward story. Not a single scene seamlessly transitioned into the next. Instead the scenes were choppy, which made what little build up there was to the climax, less exciting. The “spooky” music was deliberate and obvious; therefore making it irritating knowing Michell tried to use the music to get us in a somewhat anxious and scared mood. Fail! Boom boom boom, then nothing happened. Yup, nothing happened.

The biggest disappointment of all: the actors. Claflin and Weisz had zero, I mean zero chemistry. Their interactions were awkward and almost comical with random outbursts from both that added nothing to what I would assume was intended to be strong performances. Weisz was definitely creepy, but not in a jarring or haunting manner, instead bizarre. The two of them are solid actors, there’s no question about that, but sadly there was something missing here that did not bring this one home.

Bottom line: The only thing worth going to see this film for is the stunning cinematography of the English countryside, but there are even better films for that, leading me to recommend not to waste your time. When you hear other audience members saying, “what just happened,” followed by a chuckle, you know something went awry. I thought perhaps I was missing something while watching, but clearly not. All I’ll say is there are better choices out there.