If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk (KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King) – From the director of Academy Award winning Best Picture La La Land, WHOOPS, Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk lingers.  Stylistically, this appears to be writer/director Barry Jenkins intent.  Telling the story of the love affair between two young African Americans, Beale Street depicts what Jenkins calls “black love” and the possibility that it can be snatched away in a heartbeat.  Why?  It’s a cultural and sociological truth that the criminal justice system in America is often biased against African Americans.


Jenkins drops us into a New York neighborhood where Tish (KiKi Layne in her first film) and Fonny (Stephan James) are getting engaged. They are in that stage of love where they are just gaga for each other.  While they have known each other since they were toddlers, they only recently realized that they aren’t kids anymore and that their attraction is no longer platonic.


From their first sexual encounter through the rental of their first apartment, the relationship is deep, abiding and innocent.  Through flashbacks and flash-forwards, we find out that Fonny is in prison awaiting his trial for rape.  And in the first visit to prison that we see, Tish tells Fonny that she is pregnant.  It is at this point that Jenkins, a master story-telling, slows the pace down … almost agonizingly … and lets us delve deeply into the characters.  As the audience, we know that Fonny cannot be guilty.  He is both too good – almost angelic – and too committed to Tish.  Yet here he is in jail for a crime he could not have committed.


In addition to the couple, we meet both of their families. Her parents, played by Golden Globe nominee Regina King (Marcee from Jerry McGuire) and Colman Domingo (Ralph Abernathy in Selma), are supportive.  His father, played by Michael Beach (who played Deval Patrick in Patriots Day), welcomes the news.  But his mother, played perfectly bitchy by Aunjanue Ellis (Miranda from Quantico), never liked Tish and curses the new baby in a scene that feels both uncomfortable and sickening.


The rest of the film is a long day’s journey into plight.  Tish has to endure a tough pregnancy with the help of her mother, who goes to Puerto Rico to convince the woman who accused Fonny of rape to recant. Fonny puts on good face as he rots in jail as his trial is postponed yet wants to put on a brave front for Tish.  The two dads turn to crime to get enough money to pay for the defense.


While the story has deep social relevance, at its heart it is an enduring love story.  This is where the film works.  It is wonderfully photographed with dark tones.  Its soundtrack is surprising, haunting, and full of atonal bass.  And the ensemble acting is superb.  If only Jenkins had allowed the music, photography and acting to carry the story.


Where it doesn’t work is in the pacing.  Jenkins seems so intent on advancing his movie-making technique (as evident in Moonlight) that he seems lost in stylistics.  The lingering camera shots, designed to make us look deep into the faces of the characters, diminishes his own script, which is an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel by the same name.  The film is just slow, almost ponderous.


An Oscar nomination or two is inevitable.  But this film is not a breakthrough like Moonlight even if the story is more complex and the budget much larger. It is not as good as Fences, the film it most resembles as an adaptation of renowned black artists’ work.  But it is worth seeing on a day when you are wide awake and with a caffeinated beverage at your side.

Bathtubs Over Broadway

Bathtubs Over Broadway (Steve Young, David Letterman, Chita Rivera, Florence Henderson, Martin Short) – How often do you get to cackle at a documentary?  Steve Young wrote jokes for David Letterman as one of the staff writers for The Late Show.  An odd duck, Young was the writer behind some of Letterman’s most far-out gags.  By all accounts, he was the most enigmatic of the writers.  He just saw comedy and, presumably, life differently than most humans … and most comedy writers.


One of the regular Letterman bits that he helmed, Dave’s Record Collection, involved finding seemingly stupid songs and albums.  For example, he unearthed the 1968 William Shatner album, The Transformed Man, that included a version of Mr. Tambourine Man (go ahead, Google it).


Little did he know that this assignment would lead him to a lifelong obsession.  Looking for nutty songs and albums led him to unearth a form of musical theater that few people ever heard of: the “Industrial” musical.  Unbeknownst to most of us, many of the nation’s largest corporations commissioned corporate musicals for use at their major sales meetings or celebrations.  With budgets that often dwarfed Broadway shows, these musicals served as a breeding ground for young talent and as moonlighting assignments for both established and budding songwriters.


Occasionally, these extravaganzas were filmed and/or recorded.  Some were turned into albums that were sent to the executives or sales team after the events to mark the occasion.  Most ended up in the scrap heap, long archived corporate records, or in the basements or attics of participants across the country.  Young made it his life’s mission to find the recordings, videos/films, and the people who performed in them.


Bathtubs Over Broadway takes its name from a musical called The Bathrooms Are Coming, a musical written for salesmen (yes, all/almost all were men) of bathroom fixtures like toilets, faucets, and tubs/showers.  Its big ballad was a song called My Bathroom with lyrics that began “My bathroom, my bathroom is a private kind of place.  Very special kind of place.”  Go ahead, Google it.


Bathtubs Over Broadway is the chronicle of his 25-year adventure.  It features interviews with stars like Chita Rivera, Florence Henderson, Susan Stroman and Martin Short, all of whom appeared in these shows on their way up.  His old boss, Dave Letterman, who served as an executive producer of this documentary, also makes an appearance.


There were hundreds of these musicals.  They are a remnant of a bygone era after World War II when corporate America saw almost boundless growth.  From the 1950s through the ‘70s, these shows often featured original music focused on the profits of their corporate sponsors: Coke, J.C. Penney, John Deere, Ford, American Standard (the bathroom people), State Farm, and more.  Some shows just used newly minted, company-related lyrics to well-known songs.


In the film, we meet some of the songwriters who made these musicals.  Some of them also wrote Broadway shows like Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret but most toiled in the anonymity of the Brill Building or commercials.  The money was good and the work steady.  We also meet a couple of the stars of the shows, most of whom never played Broadway but squeaked out a living on the industrial stage and at auto shows.


What fun!  Bathrooms Over Broadway is a slick production by documentary standards with a slam-bang ending and enough raw footage to keep you interested and entertained for 87 minutes.  Look for it in your local art-house or film festival.

The Upside

The Upside (Bryan Cranston, Kevin Hart, Nicole Kidman) – I never saw a Kevin Hart movie before.  I like his stand-up routines, but I have never been drawn to his films.  So I wasn’t sure what to expect from The Upside.  Present controversy aside (his homophobic tweets from 10 years ago and his firing as host of the Oscars), Hart has been a reliable Hollywood star, appealing to a younger generation of moviegoers who enjoy his easy-going style and his comedic persona.


On the other hand, I have seen every Bryan Cranston film.  Since his cameo as Gus Grissom in That Thing You Do, Cranston has tackled both likable and tough roles.  Best known for TV’s Malcolm in the Middle and then the acclaimed Breaking Bad, Cranston has appeared in a slew of films as a character actor until his marvelous portrayal of Dalton Trumbo (in Trumbo) for which he earned an Academy Award nomination.  He is the real deal!


The Upside is a remake of the 2011 French flick, The Intouchables, which was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.  Of course, nobody in the U.S. saw it but that hasn’t stopped critics and other snobs from panning The Upside, not because it is bad but because Hollywood dared to remake a “classic.”  Nonsense!


The Upside is a “Hart-warming,” laugh-out-loud, fun film with tragic undertones.  Like The Big Sick, which managed to find humor in a story about a woman who falls into a coma, The Upside centers on Philip, a rich author who became a quadriplegic during a para-gliding accident.  Cranston plays the author, whose rage is unspoken but palpable.  He feels cheated and cursed, particularly because his wife recently died, too.  His affairs are handled by a female executive, Yvonne, played capably by Nicole Kidman (who is totally wasted as the third banana in this film).  She is professional, doting, and serious.


They are in the process of hiring a personal auxiliary, a carer, to take care of Philip’s personal needs since he fired the last one.  That brings us to Dell (Hart), a street-smart wiseass recently released from prison.  Bitter and rebellious, he looks for work only because it is a condition of his parole.  When he is sent to the Park Avenue apartment building for an interview as a janitor, he inadvertently ends up in the penthouse where the interviews for auxiliary are taking place.  Of course, he doesn’t want a job, just a signature on his papers for his parole officer.  Largely because he is crude, disinterested, and funny, Philip hires him against Yvonne’s objections.  After all, Philip just wants to die and find someone who will honor his “Do Not Resuscitate” Order if he stops breathing, which can easily happen.  Dell seems the perfect person to screw everything up.


Next follows the merry mix-ups, which usually turn me off.  But there are incredibly funny scenes.  Moving Philip to his wheelchair without securing him is hysterical.  Teaching Dell to remove and insert a catheter is side-splitting.  And there is a shower scene that is hilarious.


As funny as this is, there is a much deeper meaning to the film.  Dell finds purpose and so does Philip through the unconventional relationship that is “based on a true story.”  But to make it clear, it is the interaction of the two characters … and most importantly, the two actors … that makes The Upside work.


Yes, it is very predictable.  And indeed, the real events couldn’t have played out in real life the  way they do on film.  And for sure, the original film is excellent and didn’t need a redux.  But I am sure glad they did.


The Upside is harmless with two excellent performances and a story that is compelling and meaningful.  These days, what more do you need to make it through an evening?

On the Basis of Sex

On the Basis of Sex (Felicity Jones, Armie Hammer, Justin Theroux, Sam Waterston) – The superb documentary RBG tells the life story of Ruth Bader Ginsburg beautifully.  The “inspired by a true story” version, On the Basis of Sex, pales in comparison.  If you can’t get enough of the Notorious RBG, you will definitely want to see this film. But if you expect to see anything new or to dig deep into the psyche of the revered Supreme Court Associate Justice, you will be disappointed.


Director Mimi Leder, whose credits skew heavily to TV, uses a heavy hand in introducing us to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (whose real first name is Joan and whose nickname is Kiki, pronounced “kicky”).  The film starts on Ruth’s first day at Harvard Law School.  Immediately, we the audience realize that we are not going to see the younger Ruth, her undergraduate days at Cornell, or her love affair with Marty.


Instead, Leder’s sledgehammer shows the almost military-style march of the hundreds of men into Harvard’s hallowed halls along with the nine women, including Ruth.  It doesn’t take long for Ruth to distinguish herself despite being insulted by Dean Griswold (with whom she would later wage battle in the courts), ignored by professors, and attending classes for herself and for Marty when he gets testicular cancer.


Marty and Ruth are portrayed not only as the ideal couple but almost infallible people.  This is especially true of Marty, who seems to have no flaws whatsoever.  He dotes on her, their daughter, Jane, and is an extraordinarily affable and articulate second year law student.  Ruth is brilliant, beautiful, prolific, indefatigable and awfully serious.  Marty boosts her up when she’s feeling down, which seems to occur mostly when she is underestimated.


The plot follows Ruth and Marty from law school through their first major case together, a discrimination suit against the federal government for denying caregiver benefits to a single man who takes care of his ailing mother.  As portrayed, it is Marty who identifies the case but Ruth who is the expert in sex discrimination.  Because no law firm in New York would hire her despite her superb academic credentials (first in her class, law review at both Harvard and Columbia where she transferred when Marty took a job as a tax attorney in New York City), she gets a job as a professor at Rutgers Law School.  She is convinced that this case will set new precedent and begin to unravel the scores of federal laws that discriminate against women. With the initial grudging support of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ginsburgs take the case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals.  That is the scope of the film – a few years in the life of Ruth and Marty. Disappointing for sure but not unprecedented in biopics.  Leder simply runs out of time to tell us more.  She almost begs us to see the documentary with the end titles.


To this point, I haven’t talked about the actors.  Felicity Jones is just fine as RBG.  Her contrived Brooklyn accent is inconsistent across the film, which is annoying but not disqualifying.  Her diminutive stature, especially standing next to Armie Hammer as Marty, matches our observation about this icon.  But this also plays to my pet peeve: American characters portrayed by Brits or Australians.  Were there really no excellent American actresses in the 26-35 age group who could have played Ruth?


Hammer is just fine as Marty.  Coming off his exceptional performance in Call Me by Your Name, he is likable and perfect in every way.  The always exceptional Sam Waterston is perfectly hateful as Erwin Griswold.  Maybe this guy was a one-dimensional jerk or maybe Leder and screenwriter Daniel Stiepleman (RBG’s real-life nephew) took the easy road in portraying him this way.  Only Justin Theroux as ACLU Legal Director Mel Wulf stands out.


On the Basis of Sex could have been so much more.  It could have been as good a feature film as RBG is a documentary.  But instead, it is a letdown.  Fans of RBG have to see it because it adds to her legacy.  But you will leave wanting more.

Mary Poppins Returns

She’s back.  It is rarely a good idea to re-make a classic.  But Hollywood keeps trying.  Fortunately, the brains behind Mary Poppins Returns decided to give us the next chapter in the Mary Poppins/Banks family story.  It works … really, really well.

Mary Poppins Returns (Emily Blount, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ben Whishaw, Emily Mortimer, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Dick Van Dyke, Colin Firth, Angela Lansbury) – The biggest musical in years, Mary Poppins Returns is a triumph of film, special effects, music, and nostalgia.  Rob Marshall of Chicago and Into the Woods fame, helms a masterpiece that serves as a worthy sequel to the 1964 classic Mary Poppins starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke.


Emily Blount is a perfect Poppins.  With a touch of conceit, a glint of superiority, and an abundance of love, this Mary Poppins floats down on a kite to re-visit the next generation of the Banks family she cared for in the original.  Michael Banks (Ben Whishaw) is a single dad now, having lost his wife a year earlier.  With his sister, Jane (Emily Mortimer, one of my personal favorites), his daffy housekeeper (Julie Walters), and his three kids, he is facing financial trouble in the Depression while trying to keep things afloat.  He is working in a bank but has missed three house payments.  Foreclosure is imminent, and the president of the bank (played by Colin Firth in a rare evil role) wants the home.  Mary Poppins is back to care for the kids and share her unique brand of magic to help the family through the crisis.


Lin-Manuel Miranda, the genius behind Hamilton, plays Jack, the lamplighter who is the son of Burt, the chimney sweep, from the original.  Mary Poppins and Jack have a natural connection in the film but, even better, Miranda and Blount have chemistry on-screen.  Miranda is the light of the film.  Engaging, talented and musically gifted, he transports the audience as surely as his character transports the Banks family on his bicycle.


The music is breezy and exceptional.  Written by the hardest working songster in stage and screen, Mark Shaman (with lyricist Scott Wittman), the soundtrack provides a featured forum for every performer, including the cameo appearances of Meryl Streep (in a lusciously quirky role), Dick Van Dyke (as the sidelined patriarch of the bank) and Angela Lansbury (as the balloon confectioner).  What a treat to see these legendary performers in an instant classic of a film. (Andrews was offered a cameo, too, but she turned it down so as not to distract from what she called “Emily’s movie.”)


Blount and Streep appear together for the third time (The Devil Wears Prada, Into the Woods).  Van Dyke and Lansbury, both 93 years old, can still sing and steal scenes.  With two A-List stars in Miranda and Blount, box office gold is assured.


In our cynical age, Mary Poppins Returns might not reach the iconic stature of the original. But it deserves to.  It is family entertainment that brings a smile to your face and allows us to escape from the daily travails of the world in 2018.  MP2 is a must-see family picture that will have you humming all the way home.


Vice (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell, Tyler Perry) – Adam McKay directed and co-wrote the exceptional and creative film The Big Short.  Many of the techniques he used in that film permeate Vice.  In The Big Short, the focus was on the crisis in the housing market that almost sunk the entire economy.


In Vice, which he directed and wrote, McKay goes after Dick Cheney.  It’s a ruthless attack.  Other than showing him as a dedicated family man, McKay’s Cheney has no redeeming quality.  He understudies then-Congressman Don Rumsfeld as an intern; becomes obsessed with power; ruthlessly works his way up the rungs of power; manipulates “W” into giving him unprecedented power; and leads us into war with Iraq by burying facts and manipulating the system.  Some of this is undoubtedly based on fact.  Like JFK, Oliver Stone’s conspiracy-laden film about the assassination, Vice feels like the writer/director pounded his own political views over its audience with a sledgehammer.


Vice has little redeeming value except for the extraordinary acting of Christian Bale, Sam Rockwell and, to a slightly lesser extent, Amy Adams and Steve Carell.  As Cheney, Bale is beyond excellent.  He has the physical slouch of Cheney down cold.  He has the voice, the underlying shyness, and the condescending glare down perfectly.  Plus, in a way that makes the character dimensional, he portrays the depth of Cheney’s apparent devotion to his wife, Lynn, and his two daughters, Liz and Mary.  Rockwell bears a striking resemblance to “W,” complete with the uncomfortable head-bob, the accent, and the good-old-boy impishness.


Adams, as Lynn Cheney, ages before our eyes as the smart, almost ruthless force behind Dick.  It’s not a particularly flattering portrait either.  Adams, whose five Oscar nominations speak to her immense talent, never quite matches Bale’s ability to lose us in the character.  But she doesn’t take a back seat either in the way so many politicians’ wives seem to be portrayed in film.  Steve Carell has the same issues.  His Donald Rumsfeld is cynical, ruthless, and more one-dimensional than the other characters.  There may have been other choices for the part, but Carell and McKay made The Big Short a hit, and Steve is competent, if unspectacular, here.


If you hate Dick Cheney, you will enjoy the movie.  If you love Dick and Lynn, stay home.  If you want to see one person’s (McKay’s) interpretation of why everything has gone to hell in the last 20 years, this is the movie for you.  They even get a shot in at Trump (referred to as the “Orange Cheeto”) at the end of the movie.


Speaking of that, don’t leave before the “cookie” during the credits.  Maybe it would be a good idea just to go to a different movie before walking into the credits for Vice.

Green Book

Let me be Blunt.  A couple of you were nice enough to point out that I spelled Emily Blunt’s last name wrong in my review of Mary Poppins Return.  Blunt not Blount. Sorry.

To compensate, I give you my review of Green Book, a phenomenal film with exceptional performances by Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali.

Green Book (Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini) – Witness was the first movie in which I remember seeing Viggo Mortensen.  In Crimson Tide, his break-out performance, he played “Weps,” the waffling chief weapons officer.  That led to memorable films like A History of Violence, A Perfect Murder, Eastern Promises, and Captain Fantastic, the latter two of which earned Oscar nominations.  That doesn’t even count his appearances in three Lord of the Rings movies.  Viggo never seems to play it safe and this film is no exception.


In Green Book, Mortensen plays Tony “Lip,” an assistant maître d’ at the Copacabana in New York in the early ‘60s.  He’s a tough guy, which allows him to also be the resident enforcer at the famous club.  In most ways, Tony is a total stereotype, a tough Italian from the neighborhood surrounded by a loving and loud extended family.


When the Copa closes for renovation for two months, Tony needs a job.  He can do some tough guy work for the mob but that isn’t Tony.  A friend sets him up with an interview to be a driver and personal assistant for Dr. Don Shirley (played by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), a black piano virtuoso who lives atop Carnegie Hall and who is about to embark on a concert tour that includes dates in the Deep South.


These two are polar opposites.  Shirley is refined, educated, talented, and persnickety. Tony is crude, uneducated, sloppy, and slovenly.  Setting out from New York for eight weeks, you figure these guys won’t even make it to the first stop in Pittsburgh.  But by the time they reach Louisville, they have learned to co-exist.  Armed with a publication known as the “Green Book,” which specifies hotels in the South where blacks are welcome, the duo experiences the discrimination of the times.  Tony overcomes his own prejudices as does Dr. Shirley but not before the musician is beaten, arrested, and refused service in the very hotels or concert halls in which he is performing.


Mortensen must have put on 30 pounds or more for the role. There is nothing subtle to his performance.  Ali learned to play piano well enough to fool most viewers (Kris Bowers wrote and performed the music).  But beyond the physical performances, the actors deftly managed the verbal interplay and the cultural divide.  The fact that both men learn from each other through their shared experience and forge a totally unlikely friendship makes this film fun and rewarding.


Viggo is a lock for an Oscar nomination.  He may even be a lock to win it.  Ali could be nominated, too.  He has one scene that is extraordinarily riveting.


Green Book is my favorite movie of the year so far.  I hope you love it, too.

Stan & Ollie

To most people, Laurel and Hardy represents slapstick comedy featuring two guys in Bowler hats.  Their story is the subject of a fantastic independent film that should be honored in Oscar season.

Stan & Ollie (Steve Coogan, John C. Reilly) – In the 1930s, one of the top box office draws was the comedy duo of Laurel and Hardy.  Most people under 50 never heard of this team, whose last motion picture was almost 70 years ago.  But these guys practically invented a genre starting with a series of short films in the days of silent movies and running through what is often called the Golden Age of film.  Before Abbott & Costello, Martin and Lewis (that is Dean and Jerry for you youngsters), and even before Hope and Crosby, Brit Stan Laurel and American Ollie Hardy lit up the screen.


This exceptional film is not a biopic in the sense that it doesn’t tell the whole story of the comic icons.  Instead, it opens in 1937 when Laurel and Hardy are at the top of their game shooting one of their last films for producer Hal Roach (Danny Huston).  Laurel’s contract with the studio is expiring, and he knows that the duo isn’t being paid enough for the revenue coming in.  Hardy, who was signed by Roach when he was an actor and not Stan’s partner, has time left on his contract and he is anything but a boat rocker.  Stan is the businessman, a workaholic, and a comedy writing genius.  He cracks Hardy up.  Ollie is a nice guy who plays golf, bets on the horses, and just wants to be liked.  A confrontation between Laurel and Roach leads to the breaking up of the team, at least for a while.


We flash forward 16 years – to 1953 – and Laurel and Hardy are doing stage shows across Great Britain while planning a comeback movie.  Long forgotten by the post- WWII audiences, the duo seems as obsolete as Vaudeville while TV is budding.


At its heart, Stan & Ollie is a bromance, a love story of two people who can’t live without each other.  In the winter of their careers, they face serious questions about health, relevance, and mortality.


The performances are transformative.  John C. Reilly, who demonstrated his musical talent in Chicago, is over-the-top fantastic as Ollie.  Steve Coogan, who usually plays zany and unhinged, shows his acting chops as Stan in the same way as he did in Philomena.  The resemblance to the comedy team is uncanny.  They have the famous gestures, the facial expressions, the memorable lines, and the interplay down cold.  Both could very well be nominated during awards season.


This film likely won’t hit the independent theaters until early January but, if you can find it, please go see it.  Though Laurel and Hardy were probably favorites of your parents and grandparents, their story is one for all ages.

A Star is Born

A Star Is Born (Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott) —  Eighty-one years ago, A Star Is Born debuted with Janet Gaynor and Frederick March.  Seventeen years later, it was redone with Judy Garland and James Mason.  To most of us, the remake of our adult lives was the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.  And now, as if the world needed a new version, here come Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper.  This may be the best of them.


Who knew that Brad Cooper would turn into a triple threat: actor, director, producer?  Put him in the same class as Robert Redford, Orson Wells, and Clint Eastwood.  Yes, I’m serious.


Cooper has displayed his acting chops, earning three acting Oscar nominations for Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, and American Sniper.  He and Eastwood were among the producers of Sniper, too.  And now, Cooper takes on the extraordinarily difficult task of directing and producing the fourth American version of a cinematic classic.  Like the other giants I mentioned, he also directed himself.


And while he allows Lady Gaga to shine as Ally, the insecure songwriter who becomes a star, Cooper is the heart of this film.  Yes, he’s a pretty boy but he is much more than that.  He is Redford talented. The parallels of these two are obvious.  There was a lot of creative genius behind those smiles.


The joy of A Star Is Born starts with the music.  The score is a little bit country and a bit more rock and roll.  Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a superstar singer/songwriter/rocker who still fills arenas with his home style ballads and raucous guitar riffs.  But he’s a drunk who is suffering from tinnitus.  His life is spiraling down though his fans don’t know it.  One night, he slips into a gay bar in search of a drink where he hears a highly made-up songstress sing an electrifying version of La Vie En Rose.  He is blown away.  Behind that make-up is Ally, who he meets backstage and quickly seduces (well, not so quickly and not without passing out).


He not only falls for her, he falls for her talent … as a singer and a songwriter.  She is thrilled to be in the presence of such a mega-star and is even more astonished that he wants to sing her song.  But when he pulls her onstage to sing it, the reluctant singer/songwriter becomes a star.


But this is not a story with a happy ending.  He is heading down; she is launching.  He can’t handle it; she feels helpless either to help him or to stop her upward trajectory.  The rest of the story is predictable (after all, there are three other version of this film out there) but filled with song, great acting, and human drama.  As good as Cooper and Gaga are (and you can expect Oscar nominations for both), Sam Elliott as Bobby, Cooper’s older brother and road manager, is otherworldly.  Expect an Oscar nomination here, too.


Even though they are 31 years apart in age, they are believable as brothers.  Cooper “stole” his brother’s voice, sounding like the mellifluous actor.  But this isn’t just acting; it is a key plot point. Jack and Bobby had a rough childhood with the younger brother now shining bright with his “hero” in the shadows.  When they have a major confrontation, the film feels like it hits its stride.  Jack turns to Ally for emotional support, and her brand of compassion is both enabling and disarming.  But Jack is his own worst enemy.  His love for Ally is unquestioned but when he moves into denial, he gets ugly.  Ultimately, the guy who rescued her from obscurity starts reinforcing her worst fears — that she is ugly and untalented.


A Star Is Born has lasted four decades because the story is compelling.  In the hands of a talented director and three sterling actors, this remake is stunning.  Beware, it is a “chick flick.”  Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy … With star power galore, wonderful photography, and a tremendous soundtrack, A Star Is Born is a home run at the box office. And it will be prominent, if not dominant, at the Academy Awards.

First Man

First Man (Ryan Gosling, Claire, Foy, Kyle Chandler) — I had such high hopes for this biopic of Neil Armstrong, the “first man” to walk on the moon.  With Director Damien Chazelle (who I called a genius) and Ryan Gosling renewing their La La Land partnership, First Man had all the makings of a landmark movie.  It fails.

I have to premise my generally negative review with the caveat that I did not read the book upon which the film is based, which might be a fatal mistake.  Gosling’s Armstrong comes off as a tortured soul who gets little to no joy out of his job, even after he reached his lifelong goal of stepping on the moon.  Maybe, indeed, Armstrong was a super-serious engineer/pilot whose fate was to carry the burden of his country and his NASA counterparts like a 100-lb. weight on his shoulders.  Branded as distracted by his young daughter’s death, Armstrong appears to be almost unlucky in his early flying days but destined to become Earth’s pioneer to another celestial body.

His wife, Janet (Claire Foy), plays second fiddle to Neil’s job.  She seems more resilient than her husband in overcoming their daughter’s death but hardly acts the part of cheerleader for him.  Rather, she openly worries that his mission will fail and that he will die in space.  Their marriage doesn’t exactly feel loveless but it is a far cry from the ideal relationships portrayed in The Right Stuff in John and Annie Glenn.

Just maybe Neil Armstrong isn’t the humble guy we saw post mission but rather the morose automaton as portrayed by Gosling.  The decision by Chazelle to focus on Armstrong’s human portrait rather than hero of the mission to the moon was an important one.  But it was not all that successful.  In fact, it was so biographical that we hardly get to know any of the other astronauts.  Chazelle seemed to go out of his way not to dive deep into the other astronauts, even Armstrong’s partners Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.  Collins is hardly even a character until near the end of the film, and Aldrin is presented as a one-dimensional unfiltered gadfly.

For those of us who basked in The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, we are left feeling unfulfilled.

To its credit, First Man contains many brilliant special effects, technology, and computer graphics.  Chazelle buckles the audience into the cockpit.  We feel the bumps, the thrills, the views, and the sounds of take-off, flight, landings, and mishaps.  Ah, if he only connected us to the joys and thrills Armstrong must have felt, too.  Amidst the horror of losing a child and subsequently saluting her on the surface of the moon, there had to be a sense of huge accomplishment.

As to the acting, Gosling is true to Chazelle’s vision and, presumably, to the book upon which the movie is based.  Claire Foy is a fine actress but is miscast.  As I often observe, did we really need a British actress to play an American?  Her American accent is not as bad as Emma Thompson’s in Primary Colors but it is close.  Her minimalist part has some good scenes but Foy, a fine actress, just seems wrong for it.  The only stand-out acting performance belongs to Kyle Chandler (best known for TV’s Friday Night Lights) as Deke Slayton, the original Mercury astronaut, who lead the astronaut corps through Gemini and Apollo.  Slayton has been a major character in all of the previously mentioned space movies and remains so here.

Acknowledging the excellent critics’ reviews of First Man on Rotten Tomatoes, my view is to side with the audience ratings of just a little above average.