Quick Reviews of Recent Views (FEB 2019)

A Star is Born (2018)

There is something missing in this movie, BUT I don’t know what! It could’ve been 15-20 mins shorter. It’s (mostly) predictable, BUT has some nice dialogue and scenes; I esp. liked the first 3rd of it. Lady Gaga did a good job in her movie debut; she has acted before on TV (FYI). Bradley Cooper’s tan makes him look a BIT older and worn out, BUT he’s still got that engaging smile and blue eyes. I was impressed by how well he played the guitar and sang (much better than debacles made by Gerard Butler in Phantom and Russell Crow in Les Mis). I learned that he had help from Willie Nelson’s son (a back-up guitarist in the film). The meet cute scene is quite well done; Jack is impressed w/ Ally’s voice. The parking lot scene was also good; they open up to each other as friends first. And yes, Gaga and Cooper have an easy chemistry (as many others have pointed out)! It’s easy to feel empathy for Ally as she goes from struggling unknown singer/songwriter to Grammy-winning pop star. I loved all the scenes w/ Sam Elliott; I wanted to see a BIT more of him (though the Oscar nom was well-deserved). Unlike the older versions (I’ve seen them all, aside from the Streisand/Kristofferson film), the man gets a FEW more scenes and is more sympathetic. Cooper does a good job for a newbie director.

Cold War (2018)

I don’t understand the love for this Polish film (which got an Oscar nom); it was playing recently at AFI (across the street). The B&W photography is very nice to look at, BUT Roma does it better. The main song which is woven through the story is lovely, and a BIT haunting. There is NOT enough characterization of the leads (an older male composer and a younger female singer). Sorry, that’s a deal-breaker for me (as my regular readers can guess)! Why are these people even in love!? The 88 mins. seems much longer- a bad sign also.

Everybody Knows (2018)

This is a Spanish language film (released earlier this month in the US) which stars Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, BUT was written/directed by Iranian Asghar Farhadi (who won an Oscar previously). Some of you may have seen A Separation or The Salesman, two of his critically-acclaimed films; this movie was actually shot before The Salesman. The scenery is gorgeous, the tone shifts (from joyous to tense), and each supporting character gets their own moment to shine. Cruz and Bardem are married; they have great chemistry together! Even w/ no makeup and mussed up clothes, they look great, and project charisma and star power (BUT in a toned down way). The acting is in the eyes mainly. Even w/ the mystery at the center, you’ll find things common from Farhadi’s other works: extended families, long-held secrets, money pressures, and class issues. My two gal pals and I really liked it!



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Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) starring Rami Malek

Bohemian Rhapsody is a foot-stomping celebration of Queen, their music and their extraordinary lead singer Freddie Mercury. Freddie defied stereotypes and shattered convention to become one of the most beloved entertainers on the planet. The film traces the meteoric rise of the band through their iconic songs and revolutionary sound. They reach unparalleled success, but in an unexpected turn Freddie, surrounded by darker influences, shuns Queen in pursuit of his solo career. Having suffered greatly without the collaboration of Queen, Freddie manages to reunite with his bandmates just in time for Live Aid. While bravely facing a recent AIDS diagnosis, Freddie leads the band in one of the greatest performances in the history of rock music. Queen cements a legacy that continues to inspire outsiders, dreamers and music lovers to this day. -Summary from Twentieth Century Fox

NOTE: This review contains MAJOR spoilers.

This is one of the MUST-SEE movies of 2018 (even if you know VERY little re: this band)! Of course, you’ve heard some of their songs, even if you didn’t grow up listening to (classic) rock. My good friend and I went to see it this past WED at our local (Regal) theater; our audience had folks ranging in age from 20s to 70s. This film succeeds b/c it takes you on a journey w/ the members of the British rock band, Queen, lead by Freddie (Rami Malek- in a star-making role). Before this, I ONLY knew Malek, who is Egyptian-American, from The Pacific (a WWII HBO miniseries produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg). There is an energy that propels this film forward, mainly thanks to Malek and the (iconic) music!

The still baby-faced American actor, Joseph Mazzello (now 35), who plays bass guitarist John Deacon, is best known as the kid from Jurassic Park; he co-starred w/ Malek in The Pacific and they became friends. British actor Gwilym Lee is lead guitarist Brian May. Ben Hardy, an up-and-coming Brit, plays drummer Robert Taylor. Lucy Boynton, also a young Brit, plays Freddie’s girlfriend of 6 yrs turned close friend- Mary Austin. Game of Thrones fans will be pleased to see Aiden Gillen; he plays manager John Reid. Mike Myers (of SNL fame) has a small, yet pivotal, role as the music producer who let Queen get away- Ray Foster. Tom Hollander, a veteran Brit who has worked in both comedy and drama, plays lawyer Jim Beach.

The real-life May and Taylor served as executive producers; they had approval over the script, director, casting, etc. Thank goodness they got rid of Sasha Baron Cohen! There was an extensive search for the lead; MANY critics thought that Malek was wrong for the role. If you compare photos, Malek doesn’t resemble Freddie much, aside from the strong/square jawline and similar skin tone. However, as we’ve seen in other movies, it’s NOT merely re: looks; it’s about who can inhabit the real-life character. Freddie’s younger sister (who consulted on this film) was even impressed! After seeing the actual Live Aid performance (thanks to YouTube), I can say that Malek has transformed himself (voice, posture, body movements, etc.) The singing in the film is that of Freddie, a Canadian male singer, and Malek’s voice all mixed together.

The chemistry between Malek and Boynton is terrific; they are currently in a relationship off-screen. Freddie and Mary have a strong friendship and deeply love each other, BUT he reveals that he is also attracted to men. We also get to see a few of the men in Freddie’s life, incl. the opportunistic asst. manager, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech- a long way from Downton Abbey), and down-to-earth waiter, Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker). I wasn’t sure at first, BUT there is a brief cameo from singer Adam Lambert (one of the winners of American Idol).

We get to learn re: Freddie’s family (Parsis of Zoroastrian faith expelled from Zanzibar, Tanzania), how the band got together in the early ’70s, the evolution of some (VERY famous) songs, Freddie’s love of cats, and more. Each band member has his own hairstyle, fashion sense, personality, and songs he writes for the various albums. They eventually call themselves “family,” BUT no family is w/o its problems. While the other men marry and have children, Freddie continues w/ his hard-partying lifestyle. Mary gets involved w/ another man. In the early ’80s, Freddie goes off to Germany to work on two solo albums. When the call for Live Aid comes, he doesn’t realize (at first) how important it could be to the band. Freddie knows that he may NOT have much time left, as he is experiencing symptoms related to AIDS.

Show Boat (1951) starring Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner, & Howard Keel

The Cotton Blossom, owned by the Hawks family, is a show boat known for musical entertainment traveling down the Mississippi River. Julie LaVerne (Ava Gardner) and her husband, Steve (Robert Sterling), are the leading actors of the show. After a jealous boat hand calls the local police on Julie (who’s father was white and mother black), they’re forced to leave; interracial marriages were forbidden (in the 1890s). Magnolia (Kathryn Grayson), Captain Andy’s (Joe E. Brown) pretty young daughter, becomes the new attraction; she has a great smile, a good voice, and learned much by watching Julie. Her leading man is Gaylord Ravenal (Howard Keel), a charming/handsome gambler, who is impressed w/ her at first sight. The two fall quickly in love and marry, w/o the approval of her mother, Parthy (Agnes Moorhead).

Nolie soon faces reality; gambling means more to her husband than anything. She confronts him after he gambles away their fortune; he leaves in the middle of the night. Nolie runs into two old friends, Ellie May and Frank (Marge and Gower Champion), who sang and danced on the show boat. They’re going to perform at a nightclub; Nolie tags along. None of them know that Julie is working at the same club; she is backstage and recognizes the song Nolie sings. Julie leaves the club abruptly, angering the manager and owner, b/c she hears that Nolie needs a job.

A few yeard later, Julie meets Gaylord on a gambling boat, and realizes that he’s Nolie’s runaway husband. Julie gives him a piece of her mind, and shows him an ad w/ the captain, Nolie, and his little daughter. Gaylord swears that he never knew he had a child. Julie begs him, if he ever sees her old friend, to never tell how low she has sunk. Gaylord decides to go to Natchez (where the show boat is docked) and seek forgiveness from his family.

I’ve seen this colorful MGM musical (written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II) maybe 3 times. I recall loving the songs (and having the CD); my favorite songs are “Ol’ Man River” and “Life Upon the Wicked Stage.” Looking at it today (on TCM), there are some pretty good performances (esp. from Gardner). The role of Julie (who passes as white) is tragic, though she is beautiful, talented, and loyal (esp. to Steve, who eventually leaves her). She turns to alcohol and her singing suffers. At the end, Julie is left w/ nothing, b/c this society has no place for her.

[1] Ava is, as always, ridiculously and insanely gorgeous. In fact, I would have liked to have seen more of her than I did. It’s a stretch for a white woman to play a bi-racial woman, but she did it with what seemed like such ease. She accompanies so much with a look (which is evident as she watches Gay and Nolie sail off together with Kim — you all know what I’m talking about). 

[2] Now for Marge & Gower Champion: who couldn’t love them? Gower is this sort of… fluid-like creature with a stature and grace like Fred Astaire, but instead of Astaire’s “lanky movements” that defined his style, he somehow executes the more athletic, brisk movements that defined Gene Kelly’s style. And Marge has to be just about the cutest little person I have ever seen (great facial expressions!) and one of the most talented dancers… I’ve ever seen grace a screen. “I Could Fall Back on You” and “Life Upon the Wicked Stage” are two of the most outstanding moments in the movie. You’ll love them.

[3] Musically of course, the film is a masterpiece and though my favourite tune is “Make Believe”, I was extremely impressed by the version of Ol Man River sung by the actor William Warfield who must have had one of the most brilliant voices I have ever hear! I confess to never having heard of this gentleman prior to seeing the film and had imagined the singer to be Paul Robeson. 

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Some Trivia Behind the Film

  • The original production of Showboat opened in the Ziegfeld Theater on December 27, 1927 and ran for 572 performances.
  • Even though the character of “Magnolia” is supposed to look up to “Julie” in an older-sister type of relationship, in reality, Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner were born in the same year.
  • The Breen Censorship Office tried to raise an objection against the use of the “miscegenation sequence,” but they were unable to do so because the 1936 film had already used it (setting a precedent).
  • Lena Horne mentions in her biography that she wanted to do the role of Julie badly, but only got as far as performing a single number in the “Clouds” film in the opening “Show Boat” vignette. America was still a segregated nation in 1950; interracial romance was taboo onscreen.

She’s Gotta Have It (2017)

WARNING: This review contains SPOILERS for the Netflix comedy series. 

[1] The soundtrack to this series is amazing! Spike really did his thing with the song selection. Second, the shots and cinematography were great. Spike and his crew really make Brooklyn come alive in this series. 

[2] Nola is getting a steep discount from her godmother to stay in the gentrified neighborhood she grew up in, and she still doesn’t manage to get the rent on time. They constantly talk about her hustle, yet she really isn’t ever truly desperate or truly hustling.

Gentrification is a legitimate issue, and I see the commentary Spike was going for, but it fell quite short. 

[3] The characters remain mostly undeveloped and the story, while it has its high points, is largely pointless and unresolved. 

[4] The infamous American director and producer always stood strong by telling the stories of minorities in all his films. Nola Darling doesn’t like labels and she doesn’t like to be owned…

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

Do you remember the black and white 1986 film of the same title directed by 29 y.o. unknown Spike Lee? I saw it about 10 yrs ago, and wasn’t that impressed; lead actress (Tracy Camilla Johns) looked rather uncomfortable in front of the camera. Lee (who also played Mars Blackmon- to save money on actors) was memorable; he had the catchy phrase: “Please baby, baby, baby, please!” Lee refers to Mars as “the original sneakerhead” (someone who collects, trades, or admires sneakers as a hobby). Critics complained that the film was too much from a man’s POV (which Lee admitted; he was inspired by male friends who dated several women at the same time).

As a more mature man, as well as a husband and father, Lee re-imagined the story of Brooklyn artist Nola Darling (the gorgeous DeWanda Wise, recently seen on Shots Fired and Underground). Lee is aided by a cadre of strong, successful African-American women: his wife Tonya (a producer), his sister Joie (who plays Nola’s supportive mom), Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, as well as other female writers and directors. Wow, this is an impressive group! And I MUST note how well Joie Lee is aging, too. 

The three men in Nola’s life (NOT to be referred to as “boyfriends!”) are played by some fine (and fine looking- LOL) up-and-coming actors, most notably Anthony Ramos (Mars), who was in the original cast of Broadway’s Hamilton. Ramos (who is of Puerto Rican heritage) brings an innocence, sense of fun, and lightheartedness to his part of the story.  Though he still lives w/ his older sis in the projects, Mars has a job fixing bikes at a hipster coffee/bike place. I was also impressed by Lyriq Bent (who plays the slightly older/wealthy/married father- Jamie Overstreet); this actor hails from Canada and is very believable in the heavier/emotional scenes. Without Jamie’s (financial) support, Nola wouldn’t be able to support herself as well as she does. We also get a sense that Jamie is the one that will fall for Nola in the end; he’s in a (now loveless) marriage, but a good role model for his preteen son.  Rounding out the main male leads is Cleo Anthony (biracial, French-speaking, model/photographer Greer Childs). This seems like the man that gets Nola’s lifestyle the best; he is focused more on his career and playing the field, not finding a serious relationship (unlike Mars and Jamie). But wait, there aren’t ONLY men involved w/ Nola!

Opal Gilstrap (Ilfenesh Hadera) plays a slightly older woman, who is also an entrepreneur (running a nursery) and single mom (by choice). Nola (who is in her late 20s) looks up to Opal, feels close to her emotionally, and is very attracted to her as a person. As their relationship goes on, we see how Opal has her life together; Nola is a BIT of a mess in many regards. They make a great couple, though ONLY for a short time. The other women in Nola’s life are her close friends: artists’ rep/yuppie Clorinda Bradford (Margot Bingham), cocktail waitress/single mom Shemekka Epps (Chyna Lane). and the redheaded/Afrocentric white woman Rachel (Elise Hudson).

Nola decides to go to therapy w/ Dr. Jamison (Tony winner Heather Headley); this is someone who can be objective re: Nola’s (complicated) life. Not ONLY does Nola juggle lovers, she has several jobs (incl. a dog-walker and part-time art teacher at a junior high school). I esp. liked the scenes w/ the school kids and their no-nonsense/loving principal, Raqueletta Moss (De’Adre Aziza); I used to sub in NYC area. She has to hustle (though some viewers felt NOT too much) b/c she doesn’t want to end up like her high school friend/war vet, Papo (Elvis Nolasco). This man also grew up in Fort Greene, had a LOT of potential, and fought in the Middle East for Uncle Sam. Papo was never the same after he came back; he still creates art, BUT out of trash (which annoys Nola’s gentrifying/new white neighbors). The long-time residents of the block call him “The Mayor” of the neighborhood (this is a call-back to the iconic Ossie Davis’ role in Do The Right Thing).  Nola’s understanding landlady/godmother is played by Pauletta Washington (wife of Denzel); I can’t believe that it took me a few mins to figure that out! 

There are MANY things to admire, such as the color (the hairstyles, costumes, and accessories are really cool), diversity (of black individuals and their experiences), and the tacking of MANY timely issues (hmmm, maybe too much?) Yet, there are also disjointed things, such as the use of hashtags for ep titles (after all, Nola is NOT much of a social media user or internet dater, unlike MANY millennials). This is NOT a show for everyone, BUT I’d recommend it for Spike Lee fans.

White Christmas (1954) starring Bing Crosby & Danny Kaye

My dear partner, when what’s left of you gets around to what’s left to be gotten, what’s left to be gotten won’t be worth getting, whatever it is you’ve got left. -Phil comments (re: Bob’s bachelorhood).

When I figure out what that means I’ll come up with a crushing reply. -Bob says, confused.

Having left the Army following WWII, Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) team up to become a successful song-and-dance act. Phil (playing matchmaker) introduces Bob to the talented/beautiful sisters of an Army buddy, Betty (Rosemary Clooney- aunt of George) and Judy (Vera Ellen) Haynes, who are an up-and-comers in show business. When Betty and Judy travel to a Vermont to perform during the holidays, the men follow (Phil convinces Bob- he saved his life during a bombing raid). The men find their former commander, General Waverly, is the owner of Pine Tree Inn; w/ the lack of snow and guests, he’s losing hope. A series of romantic mix-ups ensue as these performers try to help him out.

It’s cozier, isn’t it? Boy, girl, boy, girl? -Phil asks the Haynes sisters re: his seating plan.

This is a holiday classic (now streaming on Netflix) that my family and I watched almost every year growing up. There is singing (Crosby and Clooney focus on this aspect more), dancing (Kaye and Ellen are more involved in this), fabulous clothes (esp. the gowns chosen for Clooney- IMO), comedy (wordplay, physical humor, Mary Wickes’ as the inn’s housekeeper, etc.) and romance. Irving Berlin composed the music, which is quite memorable. Things get complicated b/c Phil (and later- also Judy) plot to throw Bob and Betty (who are BOTH concerned re: their careers and “slow movers” in romance) together.

Imagine a girl in show business today wanting to settle down and raising a family. It’s so refreshing, isn’t it? -Phil asks Bob, while Betty and Judy look on.

Pushing, pushing. -Bob mumbles into his glass of water.

There is some cool trivia behind this film. According to Clooney, the “midnight snack” scene in which Bob Wallace expounds on his theory of what foods cause what dreams was almost entirely improvised. She said that the men’s “Sisters” performance was not originally in the script. Crosby and Kaye were clowning around on the set, and director (Michael Curtiz) thought it was so funny that he decided to film it. In the scene, Crosby’s laughs are genuine and unscripted, as he was unable to hold a straight face due to Kaye’s comedic dancing. The filmmakers had a better take (where Crosby didn’t laugh), BUT test audiences liked the laughing version better. I noticed this a FEW years ago- one of the background dancers is George Chakiris, who later won the Best Actor in a Supporting Role Oscar for his role as Bernardo in West Side Story (1961). Bob Fosse was one of the choreographers (though he is uncredited).

Below is a video of one of the BEST dance numbers from the film.