Monday, October 15, 2018

Movie Reviews: A Star is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, Christopher Robin, Eighth Grade, First Man

A Star is Born (2018) - Bradley Cooper directs, writes, and stars in this third (at least) remake of the 1937 story. He is joined by the captivating and talented Lady Gaga. I assume you know the story, so here be general spoilers.

The original story is about a talented man whose best days are behind him. He is on the way out, but he finds and starts the career of the young woman. They fall in love. He is depressed, not only because he is no longer wanted, and is an alcoholic, but because he can't take the idea of a youngster and a woman besting him. Meanwhile, out of love - or maybe out of what is expected of a woman - she is on the verge of giving up her career because she thinks she can save him if they live a normal life. He overhears this and decides to end his life, either because he has finally reached bottom or so as not to allow her to give up her dreams for him.

This remake downplays the parts that make it seem like it is natural for her to give up her stardom for his sake. He has a drug and alcohol problem. She doesn't consider giving up her career, although she makes an attempt to get him booked on her tour, threatening to not do her tour if he is not allowed to join her. Her manager is a creep who flat out tells him that he is in her way, which leads him to end his life; this is far more sinister than having him overhear a conversation he should not have heard.

This is a pretty good movie, with good original music. Everyone gives a solid performance, and most of the camera work and directing is excellent (I had one or two minor quibbles, nothing major). The leads have good chemistry, and Lady Gaga's singing can blow you away; I suppose some will complain that no one can sing like Barbra Streisand in the second remake from 1976, but that movie wasn't as good as this one.

It is emotionally draining, however, if you have a hard time watching someone resort to suicide (not graphic, but the scene is long) or a woman having to deal with a lover who is an alcoholic and drug addict. Just so you know.

Bohemian Rhapsody - A biopic of Freddie Mercury of Queen, and also the story of Queen, from its founding until Live Aid. The main plot elements are Freddie vs his girlfriend Mary (as he comes to realize he is gay), Freddie vs his manager, Freddy vs some boyfriends and the swinging 80's lifestyle, Freddy vs his family and his traditional background, Freddy vs his contracting AIDS (only superficially covered), and Freddy vs his band-mates.

If you love Queens's music, of course you will love the movie. If you hate Queen's music ... what's wrong with you? Some of their songs, like We Will Rock You and We Are the Champions, seem like they were chiseled out of music itself. On its own merits, Rami Malek does a great job as Freddy, and Lucy Boynton as Mary and Gwilym Lee as Brian May also shine, as does the rest of the cast. The plot is captivating, since Freddy seems equal parts genius arranger and singer, but also self-destructive and helpless. Mary, if you believe the movie, is the one who drags him back into sanity, even while she is kept apart from him due to his sexuality.

As an ending to the movie, Live Aid, while a lovely concert, doesn't really answer all of the questions. If you know the real story, you know that a lot of the early days are skipped over or compressed (they went through a bunch of bass guitarists and their first album was not a great success), Live Aid was a phenomenal triumph, and the story continues to the early 90's. So threads are left dangling.

But it doesn't matter. Good performances and great music, an interesting portrait of a tormented genius. Not the best movie ever made, but worth watching.

Christopher Robin - Ewan McGregor plays a grown up Christopher Robin, famous son of A. A. Milne, who works as an efficiency expert in London and who is tasked with firing a bunch of people unless he can figure out a way to save their jobs. He runs into Pooh Bear who needs Christopher Robin to help him find more honey in the 100 acre woods. CR tries to make sense of this, and they go on several adventures. Everyone learns something by the end of the movie.

The closest analogy here would be Hook (Robin Williams). It's an okay movie, though rather childish and cliche. Kids will probably enjoy it. I got a bit bored.

It's a little odd to see this movie after last' year's Goodbye Christopher Robin, which painted a rather grimmer picture of CR's relationship to his father's stories.

Eighth Grade - A good but intense look at a high school girl (Elsie Fisher) who spends all of her time, and tries to find all of her validation, on social media. Her real life, unfortunately, doesn't conform to her expectations from her virtual one. Not only does she have low self-esteem and low popularity and fall for the wrong boy, she also runs head on into a few moments of real danger and harassment that up the significance of what happens in real life.

Josh Hamilton plays her single father, desperately trying to help and support her while she fights to keep him out. It's not an easy movie to watch, but it's a fairly good one.

First Man - A biopic of Neil Armstrong, and also the story of the mission to land a man on the moon. Unlike Bohemian Rhapsody, in which the focus on one character made the story interesting, I wan't as happy here. Neil has a few problems with his wife and kids, but not really; I'm pretty sure most of the problems were invented by the screenwriters. The conflict with his wife was not believably portrayed. Meanwhile, all the parts about the moon landing were fascinating, but they were not the main focus of the movie.

The movie makes several other mistakes. Instead of a grand story of triumphs and tragedies (i/e, what really happened), the story concentrates solely on a series of tragedies (real ones). I guess that's the screenwriter's way of ratcheting up the tension, but it a) makes the story very narrow and small, making it more like a Marvel movie than a real story, and b) it makes it unrealistic: why would anyone continue with a program that fails so tragically and continuously over and over, killing people each time? Of course, that wasn't the real or entire story. But we don't get to hear the real or entire story.

The worst parts for me were a) the long sequences of shaking cameras that simulated the shaking rockets and flights. One such sequence of reasonable length in a movie is great. This movie does this at least three times, for 20 minutes each time. At some point it moves from being a good simulation to being distracting and unwatchable. Enough already. 2) About sixty percent of the movie is a closeup of someone's face. This is the same mistake used in Jackie. Again: a few face closeups are great but 60% of the screen-time spent on face closeups is not, It's just pretentious, distancing, and annoying. Which is a crying shame, because the cinematography of the other 40% is beautiful.

Aside from all that was bad about the movie, the movie did everything else  well: well acted, well scored, well paced, and an important piece of history. For what its worth, my fellow movie-goers (friends) liked the movie.

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