Charlie’s Cinematic Odyssey: Stars are born.

A Star Is Born

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A Star is Born is the forth remake of the 1937 film, which was remade in the 50s with Judy Garland and James Mason and then remade in the 70s with Barbara Steisand. This version stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as the two starcrossed lovers who are also good at music featuring original performances. It was also directed by Bradley Cooper, so apart from acting, I guess he’s a good singer and a good director. What a talented bastard he is.

Bradley Cooper plays Jack a kind of Springsteen esque country rock superstar with a drinking problem. After a show, he gets his driver to drop him off at a bar where he witnesses a performance of La Vie En Rose by Ally (Lady Gaga) and is instantly spell bounded by her. After getting to know one another, he invites her to his next show to sing one of her own songs in front of millions people. Overnight this catapults her into the limelight to become the next big thing in popular music. A star is born you might say. So what starts off as a whirlwind romance where nothing can possi-blay go wrong, Ally’s talent outgrows Jack and  is soon courted by the corporate machine to make sub par club bangers as he can only watch on with horror and dive deeper into alcoholism and who knows what God-else..

As it goes, A Star Is Born is your typical romance, your typical big screen love story with all the familiar beats but it’s done extremely well. It’s definitely helped by the music and the performances that really do connect with the drama and what is actually happening in the movie to its characters. When the characters are singing, they are effectively talking honest truths at each other and it just ties everything together in such a way that compliments the romance and sentimentality.

Everyone knows that Lady Gaga can sing but she’s also a really good actress. There are element’s of Ally’s ascent to stardom that probably echo Gaga’s own career, a mousey singer/songwriter who was told she’d never make it, only to make it. Similarly everyone knows Cooper can act but he too is also a pretty good performer. It’s not a raging alcoholic performance, it’s a a lot more understated and ultimately tragic. As director, Cooper has a good eye for these big on stage performances juxtaposing them with the mundanity of the day after the big show. All the while it is the intimate chemistry between Cooper and Gaga that makes the love story work.

It’s been a while since I ‘ve seen a romance this good, I think. By the end, there were a lot of people crying.

All each of the songs from the original soundtrack have millions of hits on spotify, but at least it earns it. Looking at you Bohemian Rhapsody…

First Man

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From the start of the movie, First Man is rattling and juddering, retelling the events of NASA’s mission to the Moon. A mission forged in fire and the deaths of so many astronauts with the kind of technology that seems so antiquated by today’s standards. Yet it gives you so much pause for thought, with all our technological prowess today, it’s strange that we’ve never once gone back to the moon in any meaningful fashion.

It’s directed by Damien Chazelle, who after making Whiplash and La La Land, any movie he makes becomes a must-see in my book.

First Man tells the story of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) and his involvement in the Apollo 11 moon landings. It begins with Armstrong piloting an air craft in the upper stratosphere between the boundaries of heaven and earth. It comes back down to earth, Neil Armstrong and his wife Janey (Claire Foy) have a young family, but after losing his two-year-old daughter to a rare form of cancer, Armstrong throws himself into his work, taking the opportunity to join NASA and their space exploration program. He moves to Florida where he lives with the other men working in the space program, their families all bond as the human cost of the space exploration rises and rises within a turbulent political climate. All the while Armstrong’s gaze is fixed skyward to the Moon. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.

As an actor, Gosling has the habit of doing a lot with very little, a man of few words and long hard stares. The same is true here, as he plays Neil Armstrong, but it’s a very layered and complex depiction of the man that both looks up to him as a hero of space exploration, a man of great intelligence and resolve, but also shows him to be a difficult character warts and all. The destination is the moon, but in many ways Gosling’s depiction of Armstrong is a man who is already on the moon and waiting for everyone else to catch up.

The movie makes a point of showing Armstrong’s emotional withdrawl from his family after the loss of their daughter. Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife carries more of the emotional burden, doing that Pacino thing with her eyes, in which she seems to be able to change the shape of them to deliver whatever mood is demanded of the scene. Like Interstellar, together they convey the emotional rope that extends the great distances of space travel. Committing oneself to the mercy of experimental technology and mathematics to undergoe the longest journey anyone has ever travelled.

Then, of course, you get to the Moon. The whole film has been leading up to it, shaking violently towards it, and these scenes to not disappoint especially in IMAX. It feels as if the Apollo 11 moon landings are deeply entrenched into the popular conscience. In the early 2000s a small Australian movie called The Dish, did – what I believe (according to my mum) – was a fantastic job at capturing that time and place in which the whole world was watching. It’s this earthbound sense of people gathering around the TV to watch grainy footage of Armstrong stepping down from the lunar landing to say those famous words. First Man brings it truly out of this world, it’s such a simple but beautiful retrofitting of that moment, that roots it completely to the Moon and Armstrong. There’s a little bit of poetic license here that ties a bow in Armstrong’s personal journey that I do think is earned, which ultimately elevates what could have been a fairly standard biopic of the planet’s greatest heroes into something much greater and much more deserving of commendation. An amazing tribute to the late Neil Armstrong and mankind’s mission to explore the stars.

If I had one thing to say against the film. I can’t help but feel Buzz Aldrin is short changed here – as a kind of arrogant buffoon next to Armstrong. This movie may be called First Man, but Second Man is a hero too.

Bad Times at the El Dorado.

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Written and directed by Drew Goddard who has had a hand in writing a number of successful films and franchises (Cloverfield, World War Z and the Netflix Daredevil series), perhaps most notably making Cabin in the Woods in 2012 – a movie that effectively took the entire lego castle of the horror genre and threw it on the floor. Bad Times at the El Royale by comparison plays it fairly straight, a period thriller with a noteworthy cast which is even more notable for having a few people from Parks & Recreation turn up.

The film starts with Nick Offerman entering a motel room at the El Royale, where he hides some loot under the floorboards before promptly being murdered to death. 10 years later, a group of usual suspects arrive at the El Royale a once lavish motel divided down the middle by the state borderline between Nevada and California. Cynthia Erivo plays a small-time singer with big time ambition, Jeff Bridges is the fatherly priest, Jon Hamm is a classic American travelling appliances salesman, Dakota Johnson is a hippie chick with attitude. They all arrive at the hotel to meet the hotel’s sole member of staff a nervous kid played by Lewis Pullman. Suffice it to say, nobody gathered in the El Royale is exactly who they say they are and all have hidden agendas that unravel and get entangled with one another – culminating in violence and the arrival of an open shirted Chris Hemsworth as a cult leader who gyrates his hips a lot and I guess is supposed to be the incarnation of some kind of great evil.

It really is a bad time at the El Royale.

This movie feels like something Quentin Tarantino would make, or somebody a Tarantino pretender would make – with a title straight out of pulp fiction, with a story that plays out in chapters with an ensemble of shady characters with hidden agendas within a heavily stylised kitschy setting. You effectively witness events from each character’s perspective which also gives hints of their backstory which is usually tinged with violence and tragedy. Characters get offed unexpectantly and it’s thrills are kept more low-fi and rooted in retro sensibilities. Unfortunately, like more recent Tarantino movies, Bad Times does feel quite indulgent and could probably benefit from more editorial control.  Even in Tarantino’s lesser movies, there are still moments that deliver a cinematic wallop, be it the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, or the dinner scene in Django Unchained but Bad Times can’t help but feel short in change.

The actors are all fine throughout even though each of their characters is a little cliched. Cynthia Erivo is the film’s earnest centre – she doesn’t have much to do, but sing her little heart out and take no shit from the man. Everyone else is essentially projecting a façade that hides a darker truth which I guess was appealing when initially reading the screenplay. Jeff Bridges is doing his affable Jeff Bridges thing, a kindly old dude which is a masque for an ageing bank robber battling with dementia. Jon Hamm is a grinning man from the 60s though secretly working for the government as a spy. Dakota Johnson is a woman scorned with a steely resolve perhaps more so than she showed in any of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie. The one big thing that didn’t work for me particularly well was Chris Hemsworth as the big bad Billy Lee. Had this actually been a Tarantino film, one feels that this villain would actually be portrayed by somebody who could pull off threat and menace that would truly give this climax weight as if we were entering the devil’s lair. Hemsworth kind of just turns up – overly sexualised and trigger happy – and I guess into teenage girls to make him feel more problematic.

Following Mandy, which also had an evil cult leader masquerading as a kind of saintly apparition, Hemsworth just falls a little flat and can’t make the film’s climax feel climatic. It feels like a very cliched performance and I can’t help but feel he took the role because he was friends with the writer/director and maybe it would give him a shot at playing villains.

Bad Times at the El Royale is great to look at, it’s beautifully composed and has a slow burning pace to it which is sort of refreshing in this day and age. There are themes about faith and forgiveness that play between double/hidden personalities. There’s a whole sub plot about a highly prolific but now dead president being filmed doing very bad things in the hotel, which kind of goes nowhere and seems a little bizarre and redundant. It’s mostly a case of style over substance and despite all the talent involved, I didn’t really care for any of the characters. The sum of it’s parts should have resulted in something greater but ultimately I just felt that the film took a whole lot of time to say nothing much at all.

Bohemian Rhapsody

Early on in Bohemian Rhapsody – the band Queen are given a career defining spot on Top of the Pops. As was common for the time, the BBC would never allow the band to actually perform live, instead they would have the band mime along to the single as if they are performing it live. There were lots of reasons why this was the practice, a way to limit the rebellious nature of some performers but more realistically a way to get the band in and out quickly, keeping production costs down. It was a thing that many bands over the years rebelled against in their own way.  Obviously the movie makes it clear that the rock band Queen, think this is wrong and at odds with ye old rock n’ roll spirit,  a sanitised version that should be raw and unflinching. Completely at odds with the mantra of Queen or any jobbing rock band who are in it for the music maaan.

Here’s the thing though.

This scene is basically the film on microcosm. A by the numbers rock biopic that is essentially the sanitised though highly inspiration version of the true story that may just convince enough people to actually go to the cinema today but also revive interest in Queen, the music of Queen. The brand of Queen.

Bohemian Rhapsody tells the story of the formation and everlong endurance of Queen. Because it is everlong okay? You might as well never listen to any other band or artist again. Beginning with Freddie Mercury waking up on the morning of Queen’s Live Aid performance, which is being watched by millions of people across the world we get fleeting glances of the man, the legend,  before he dons the white vest and heads onto the stage. The film then goes back in time to when Mercury was just a humble baggage boy at Heathrow Airport called Farrokh Bulsara. It then goes through the motions, showing how he introduces himself to Brian May and Roger Taylor – before being propelled into the limelight as the front man of Queen. He marries a woman but despite remaining great friends with her, is obviously gay. The film goes along trying to convey Mercury’s promiscuity and drink/drug problem as he splits with Queen to go solo, ultimately coming back to Queen to play Live Aid at Wembley Stadium – the performance of which forms the last 20 minutes of the movie and is shot on Imax for your viewing pleasure.

There have been so many biopics about rock stars and musicians that they all mostly fit the same template. Person of considerable talent rises to power, struggles with the seedier side of rock n’ roll life but returns like a phoenix to perform that once in a life time gig that is remembered for all human history. As films go, we have two hours to tell a story to find meaning in something – in this case the life and times of Freddie Mercury – perhaps one of the greatest performers the world has ever known.

How anyone would look to cast an actor as Freddie Mecury seems like an impossible task. Sacha Baron Cohen was in line once upon a time, but left the project after creative differences. Allegedly, his version would go into detail about Mercury’s promiscuity, a vision the surviving members of Queen did not want to commit to. Rami Malek from Mr Robot is fine in the role. In my opinion he lacks the physicality of Freddie Mercury and all the singing is dubbed to Mercury’s real vocals. Which… again… how do you find someone with the chops to be Freddie Mercury… But for the most part he looks the part and comes across as an eccentric pop diva you could both love and hate.

It picks and chooses all the best Queen songs to chart the band’s ascent and Mercury. On the day he is told that he has contracted Aids, Who Wants to Live Forever plays in the background, a song he wouldn’t actually write a year later. Mercury’s sex life is there in the background, but it’s also treated in a kind of bizarre very cliched way. Mercury is on tour in America, phoning home on a payphone at a truckstop to his wife back in London. A burly trucker pulls up and gives Mercury the eye before heading into the toilet. Mercury follows… It just feels the most stereotypical way you could represent homosexual promiscuity. And of course director Brian Singer may or may not be guilty of much much MUCH worse sex crimes.

This all culminates in the band’s 1985 performance at Live Aid, which is treated as the absolute zenith of civilisation and popular culture. They have somebody playing Bob Geldorf of course and the impression is accurate but never once does he say “Give us your fucking money”, presumably because that would push this film to a 15 rather than the 12A sweetspot it currently occupies. Though it presumably would have got a massive laugh from the audience. The performance is impressive and everything and they really committed to replicating every single detail of the band’s performance but the real footage of the show is equally as impressive – you can literally watch on YouTube right now

A Star is Born was much more effective at capturing the big band on stage performances as well as the quiet moments of tragedy and boredom in-between. It actually includes original performances and songs as well that all play into the story and the drama. Quite often in Bohemian Rhapsody, it sounds like a case of “What Queen song can we play here?” Hence when Mercury goes to the doctors to find out that he has contracted Aids, Who Wants to Live Forever plays in the background as he walks sadly in slow motion out of the hospital.  Queen wouldn’t actually write that song until a year later of course, for the movie Highlander.

What else?

Mike Myers has a cameo, as the executive who cut Queen. What a fool! Presumably this is a thank you to Myers for Wayne’s World which got Bohemian Rhapsody back in the charts in the early 90s.

Earlier this year we had Gary Oldman win best actor for his turn as Churchill in Darkest Hour. A film I was very lukewarm to and I think Bohemian Rhapsody falls into the same pitfalls. It is quite obviously  another one of these British prestige biopics that is being groomed for all manner awards. Malek is rumoured to be up for an Oscar nomination for this movie. Good for him. I couldn’t imagine that the same guy who played anti-social hacker in Mr Robot could pull off the legendary charisma and showmanship of Freddy Mercury. I mean he doesn’t 100% get there, but nobody could ever get there. Though Bohemian Rhapsody is testament to Queen and their music, it feels as if the movie was only made to increase record sales and streams, increasing the brand awareness for Queen post Freddy. I think it stands as a fairly banal portrait of the world’s greatest frontman. It feels too sanitised and is doing it’s gosh darnedest to offend as few people as possible.

Bohemian Rhapsody is a highly produced but ultimately heartless cover of real events.

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