A Star is Born

The third remake of the original 1937 movie of the same name later made into a 1954 version starring Judy Garland and most recently a 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, A Star is Born is a terrifically well-made movie remarkable for Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut and the breakthrough acting performance of Lady Gaga. The updated story follows hugely successful yet troubled country singer Jackson Maine, played by Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper, who makes a surprising discovery at a drag bar following one of his concerts of a new talented singer named Ally, played by pop superstar Lady Gaga in her dazzling acting debut. Over time, Jackson encourages her to perform her own songs that she has written over the years, despite her misgivings over her appearance, and she becomes a musical star in her own right. As she rapidly rises to fame, the wild Jackson suffering from debilitating substance abuse begins to fall in love with Ally, but he starts to get jealous of her newfound stardom after she signs with a record label with a new cutthroat manager. Jackson’s much older brother and manager Bobby, played by the gravelly voiced Golden Globe nominee Sam Elliott, is especially worried about Jackson and cautions Ally that he can sometimes go out of control. Along his tumultuous journey and her rocketing success, Jackson runs into his old friend played by Dave Chappelle as well as having a tense relationship with Ally’s father played by Andrew Dice Clay. With the help of Ally, he realizes that he must do something to turn his life around and accept Ally’s successful career. Although it is an age-old story of fame and romance, the film is able to set itself apart from its predecessors by presenting a story relevant to today’s culture at the same time providing magnificant firsts, for first-time director Bradley Cooper and first-time actress Lady Gaga. Furthermore, I was particularly struck by the terrific performance of Sam Elliott who provides an heartfelt anchor to the storyline and a veteran quality to the movie. Overall, I found it to be an excellently heartbreaking and enjoyable cinematic experience that incisively explores the complexities of fame and pays great homage to the music industry.

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Juliet, Naked

juliet_naked_xlgBased on the novel of the same name written by acclaimed British author Nick Hornby best known for the novels High Fidelity and About a Boy, which were both made into feature films in 2000 and 2009, respectively, Juliet, Naked is a charming and fairly typical romantic comedy that is elevated by the acting performances that make for genuine chemistry between the protagonists. The plot follows a museum director in a small English seaside town named Annie, played by the talented British actress Rose Byrne known for her role in 2012’s Bridesmaids and 2015’s Neighbors, and her longtime boyfriend Duncan, played by the ever-charming British comedic actor Chris O’Dowd also known for his role in 2012’s Bridesmaids, who is a professor of television at a small college. Clearly unhappy by their unchanging romantic relationship, Annie tires of Duncan’s eccentric behaviors and especially his obsession over a little-known American alternative rock musician from the 90s who has disappeared from the public named Tucker Crowe, played by twice Academy Award-nominated actor Ethan Hawke. As their relationship quickly fades, Annie upsets Duncan by her writing a negative review on the Tucker Crowe fansite run by Duncan about a demo that Duncan receives of Tucker’s only popular album Juliet from 25 years ago. Through happenstance, Annie begins a correspondence with the actual Tucker who is living a rather unglamorous life in the United States and has several estranged children from several different mothers. Like a stereotypical romantic comedy, the two begin to develop much more affectionate feelings towards other, especially after he visits London with his youngest son for the birth of his grandchild and ends up staying with Annie in her quaint seaside town after suffering a setback. Duncan is flabbergasted and angry at Annie for not telling him about her acquaintance with his idol who ends up not being the man that Duncan has been expecting for so many years. Overall, I found it to be a wonderfully charming romantic comedy full of heartfelt and charismatic performances from the three extremely talented lead actors; therefore, I would recommend it to even those who are not particularly keen of romantic comedies but are simply looking for a heartwarming movie.

Hearts Beat Loud

Co-written and directed by Brett Haley best known for 2015’s I’ll See You in My Dreams and 2017’s The Hero both starring Sam Elliott, Hearts Beat Loud is a wonderful independent film that is very heartfelt and musically well-versed with terrific performances from the two lead actors. The plot follows Frank, played by the terrifically lovable Nick Offerman, who is the owner of an independent record store in Brooklyn that is about to close and his relationship with his daughter Sam, played by the radiant newcomer Kiersey Clemons, who is about to head off to college in California. As an aging hipster who has a profound love for music, Frank always had the dream of starting a band, especially with his talented daughter who also loves indie music. One day, Frank and Sam decide to record a rock song together, and Frank uploads the song to Spotify without her permission and soon discovers that the song has become popular online. With the unexpected success, he encourages his reluctant daughter to form a band together and possibly miss her first year of college to produce music and tour. The cast is rounded out by a trio of extremely talented actors: Golden Globe winner Ted Danson plays Frank’s best friend Dave who runs a dive bar, Emmy winner Blythe Danner plays Frank’s mother Marianne who is suffering from a mild case of dementia, and Oscar nominee Toni Collette plays Frank’s landlady Leslie who becomes quite close to Frank. The movie is a sweet depiction of a father-daughter relationship that at times can be tenuous but is overall very loving, with Frank trying to pursue his mutual passion for music with his daughter. It has been difficult for Frank because he has had to raise Sam by himself after the tragic death of his wife and her mother years ago and now must face the painful reality about his failing financial situation. Sam also has to deal with her own issues, including going to college so far away and falling in love with a girl named Rose, played by Sasha Lane. Overall, I found it to be a powerfully heartfelt film about a father-daughter relationship filled with excellent performances and truly beautiful original music; I highly recommend it to anybody looking for a feel-good story or simply loves music.

Baby Driver

Written and directed by Edgar Wright who is best known for 2004’s Shaun of the Dead and 2007’s Hot Fuzz, Baby Driver is a fun and exciting action film that is complemented by high-octane car chases, a terrifically eclectic and energetic soundtrack, and quality acting performances. We first meet the protagonist Baby, played by the baby-faced Ansel Elgort, in the middle of a bank heist in which he is the extremely talented getaway driver in Atlanta. Later, we learn that the young Baby works for the criminal mastermind Doc, played by the always terrific and devious Kevin Spacey, who organizes various armed robberies with different crews but always with Baby as the driver. Baby is very much ready to stop being a criminal and is told by Doc that he only has to participate in one more heist in order to pay off his debt to Doc. Somewhat of a loner whose only true passion is music after developing tinnitus as a child from a car accident that killed both of his parents, he eventually meets a young and beautiful waitress named Debora, played by Lily James of Downton Abbey fame, who works at a diner where he is a regular. His life finally appears to be back on track, and he begins dating Debora and planning a crime-free life. However, things become complicated after Doc threatens Baby to do one more armed robbery, and Baby must work with the wild Buddy, played by Jon Hamm, Buddy’s beautiful wife Darling, and the gung-ho and out-of-control Bats, played by Jamie Foxx. The planned post office heist goes awry after Bats impulsively shoots several police officers and later murders a security guard. At the same time, never really wanting to be part of the criminal underworld in the first place, Baby secretly plans an escape with his love interest Debora in addition to making sure his deaf foster parent is safe. Overall, unlike most big-budget Hollywood action blockbusters, the movie feels more like a nuanced indie that takes a wholly unique spin on the car chase thriller and makes for an exhilarating and satisfying cinematic experience. What really defines the film is the carefully crafted soundtrack with songs that fit perfectly with each and every scene, whether it be action or romantic, and contributes so much so that it feels like a character of its own.

All Eyez on Me

Based on the true story of one of the most famous rappers, All Eyez on Me is a mediocre biopic that tells the story of revolutionary rap star Tupac Shakur through his struggles as a poor black youth living in the projects to his eventual rise to fame. Played by newcomer Demetrius Shipp Jr. who has an uncanny resemblance to the real Tupac, Tupac bounces around public housing in New York, Baltimore, and Oakland with his siblings and single mother who was a prominent member of the Black Panthers. After writing lyrics for himself, he debuts as a nationally recognized rapper in the early 1990’s, especially after signing and releasing his first albums with Interscope Records. Eventually, he joins Death Row Records run by controversial rap mogul Suge Knight who helped kickstart the massively popular group N.W.A. At the time, he is hailed as the next great gangsta rap star and rapidly becomes rich while also becoming the target of rival rappers, particularly the East Coast-based The Notorious B.I.G. Despite his success, he runs into legal trouble several times and is shot on one occasion at least five times before his early death. Tragically, in September 1996 at the age of 25, he is gunned down in the streets of Las Vegas in a car driven by Suge Knight. To this day, his murder remains unsolved. Even after his untimely death, his estate has released at least five posthumous albums, and he has sold over 75 million albums as of 2007, ranking him as the second best-selling rap and hip-hop artist in history. Overall, I found the movie to take an occasionally interesting look at arguably the greatest rap icon, but I came away disappointed in the overly confusing and rushed plot line that did not really delve deep into Tupac’s fascinating life story. Although lacking the high-quality script and powerful acting performances, the movie reminded me of the terrific 2015 film Straight Outta Compton about N.W.A. with its biographical depiction of an equally significant rap group and their rise to fame.

Popstar

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Produced by Judd Apatow, Popstar is surprisingly an often hilarious comedy that can be best described as This Is Spinal Tap for the modern generation. Like This Is Spinal and Christopher Guest films, the movie is a mockumentary following behind the scenes of a world famous popstar. The intent is to parody the music and entertainment industries. The film is the brainchild of comedy trio The Lonely Island whose satirical music videos have been featured as digital shorts on Saturday Night Live. Andy Samberg, the group’s leading member and a Saturday Night Live alumnus, plays a popstar going by the ridiculous stage name Connor4Real. Connor is about to release the second album of his solo career after leaving the pop group formed with his childhood friends known as Style Boyz. Samberg’s over-the-top character is an exaggerated combination of Justin Bieber’s recklessness, Justin Timberlake’s stardom, and Kanye West’s egotism. Giving it a feel of a real documentary, several famous musicians, music producers, and other celebrities discuss Connor’s music career in a very much tongue-in-cheek fashion. There is even a cameo from Justin Timberlake who is mercilessly parodied throughout the film. Through a series of scenes resembling comic sketches, Connor and his entourage are involved in very silly and preposterous antics. The lyrics and dance moves for the songs are incoherently ridiculous, obvious allusions to hyper-sexualized language, twerking, and other aspects of contemporary pop music. The plot also follows a very formulaic story arc: a star rises from obscurity with his childhood bandmates, enjoys fame and success with the band, goes on a solo career with mixed results, and finally redeems himself. Despite my rather low expectations, the movie is a very funny guilty pleasure that successfully employs the mockumentary format to poke fun at the entertainment industry and our preoccupation with fame.

Miles Ahead

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Following the exploits of Miles Davis as he tries to recover a stolen sessions tape, Miles Ahead provides a glimpse into the life of a tortured genius. We meet the legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis in 1979 in the midst of his five-year break from the music, a period marked by heavy drinking and drug abuse. The film is anchored by an exceptional performance from Don Cheadle who portrays Davis as he dives into moments of sheer madness, including several scenes involving gunfire, while being informally interviewed by a Rolling Stone writer played by Ewan McGregor. It is not a typical biopic but rather a mishmash of flashbacks to the relatively sane years when he was at the top of his fame and alternating with his chaotic adventure to reclaim his music. Miles Ahead is a film brimming with energy reflected by Miles Davis’s musical brilliance despite his personal demons and Don Cheadle‚Äôs nuanced depiction of a truly larger-than-life jazz legend.