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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Crazy Rich Asians

Based on the 2013 best-selling novel of the same name written by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians is a terrific romantic comedy that transcends the stereotypes of the genre as a result of its talented diverse all Asian cast and its spectacular setting and visuals. The plot follows the romance between a beautiful young NYU economics professor Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu best known for her role on the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat, and a handsome man from Singapore named Nick Young, played by Malaysian British model and television host Henry Golding. He invites her to join him for a friend’s wedding in Singapore where she will also meet his extensive family. Unbeknownst to Rachel, she quickly discovers that her boyfriend comes from an extremely wealthy Singapore real estate development family. She experiences difficulties relating to the large family that can be quite demanding and snobbish, especially Nick’s intimidating mother Eleanor, played by critically acclaimed Malaysian Chinese actress Michelle Yeoh best known for her role in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Although Nick tries to relieve some of the stress, Rachel as the daughter of a working-class single mother in New York struggles with keeping up appearances and staying with Nick who is pressured to marry one of his own. Over the course of the film, she encounters an eccentric cast of characters, including her hilarious college friend played by comedian Awkwafina, her friend’s ostentatious father played by Ken Jeong best known for his breakout role in The Hangover franchise, Nick’s spoiled cousin played by The Daily Show’s Ronny Chieng, and a truly obnoxious family friend of Nick played by Jimmy O. Yang from HBO’s Silicon Valley. The highly entertaining and often funny as well as several occasionally highly dramatic scenes are set against the beautiful backdrop of the glamorous city of Singapore and the over-the-top wedding festivities that could only be put on by one of the world’s richest families. It is very much a fish out of water story about a whirlwind romance and the complicated family relationships involved with a couple of such different backgrounds. Overall, I found it to be one of the best romantic comedies in years that was filled to the brim with lighthearted and heartwarming moments of laughter and dramatics.

On Chesil Beach

Based on the 2007 novel of the same name written by critically acclaimed British author Ian McEwan who also wrote the novel that was adapted into the Academy Award-winning 2007 film Atonement, On Chesil Beach is a beautifully shot and acted British drama that explores a young couple’s romance and sexuality shortly following their marriage. Set on their wedding night in the summer of 1962 at their honeymoon hotel and the nearby spectacular Chesil Beach located on the southern coast of Dorset, England, the movie follows the love story of Florence, played by Academy Award-nominated actress Saoirse Ronan, and Edward, played by up-and-coming actor Billy Howle. Following a rather slow pace imitating their gradual romance over the years, the story is mostly told through a series of flashbacks to the pivotal moments in their courtship through the past several years. Like Florence, Edward is shown as a young accomplished student who studies at Oxford and has great ambitions in life. Despite overcoming several challenges while dating, including Edward’s mother’s grave mental health, their inexperience with physical intimacy as virgins in their early twenties poses a crucial problem on their honeymoon as they are about to consummate their marriage. They have drawn-out arguments over the course of the night as Florence tries to grapple with her awkward fear of sex even with her true love Edward who is eager for intimacy. As the characters have deeply philosophical dialogue about love and sex, the filmmaker uses evocative cinematography with sweeping shots of the famous beach to convey a tender yet heartbreaking story. Overall, I found it to be a particularly well-made film that felt like a typically British drama complete with outstanding emotional acting performances and a somber story with great heart.

Disobedience

Directed by Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Lelio who just who won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for 2017’s A Fantastic Woman, Disobedience is an emotionally evocative drama exploring the complex intersectionality of love and religion and is anchored by terrific acting performances. The plot follows the return of an ostracized photographer living in New York named Ronit, played by the always brilliant Oscar-winning actress Rachel Weisz, to her strict Orthodox Jewish community in London after the death of her father who was the beloved rabbi and leader. Neither really wanting to be there or being welcomed back by the close-knit religiously conservative community, she must confront the very reasons she was forced to leave the group and grapple with the repercussions. She is shocked to learn that one of her former best friends Dovid, played by Alessandro Nivola in a standout performance, who is the heir apparent to her father, is married to Esti, played by Oscar-nominated actress Rachel McAdams. It is later revealed that Ronit and Esti were engaged in a sexually intimate relationship that was discovered and resulted in Ronit’s banishment. Involved in such an obviously grevious sinful act as homosexuality among the Orthodox, the now liberalized Ronit is never completely recognized by the community and is feared because of her tainted reputation. The somber and repressed Esti tries to hide her affection for Ronit, but, ultimately, she cannot deny her desires and acts out on her sexuality with Ronit despite the high costs, including affecting her husband and his status as the possible lead rabbi. The filmmaker does a remarkable job of showing what life must be like living in an insular Orthodox Jewish or any other conservative religious group and how the traditional rules and norms impact the individual. It vividly portrays the anguish and suffering of the two lead female characters who must deal with their frowned-upon love for one another. Overall, I found it to be a truly exceptional film with top-notch acting performances that brought to life the struggles of living in a extremely conservative community that has heartbreaking results for those involved in forbidden love.

Finding Your Feet

finding_your_feet_ver2_xlgDirected by Richard Loncraine who is best known for romantic comedies and 2006’s thriller Firewall, Finding Your Feet is the quintessential British romantic comedy revolving around a group of senior citizens looking for joy and love and is brought to life by the highly talented cast. We first meet one of the protagonists Sandra Abbott, played by Oscar-nominated actress Imelda Staunton, after she discovers that her husband of many years has been cheating on her with her best friend. She moves out of her wealthy enclave to go to London and stay with her older sister Bif, played by Celia Imrie best known for 2012’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Unlike Sandra, Bif is very much a free spirit who is happy to live a modest life in a crowded inner-city apartment and has a group of eccentric friends who all take a dance class at the local community center. Eventually, Sandra is convinced to participate in the dance class in order to get over her pending divorce and reconnect to others her age and outside her comfort zone. Through a series of charming scenes marked by typically dry British humor, she meets Bif’s friends and dance classmates, including the down-to-earth and delightful Charlie, played by acclaimed British actor Timothy Spall, the jovial Ted, played by David Hayman, and the flirtatious Jackie, played by comedic actress Joanna Lumley. The romantic part of the movie comes into play as Sandra begins to fall in love with Charlie; at that very moment, Sandra evolves from being preoccupied with wealth and social status to falling for a man who has very little wealth and lives on a river barge in London. Their romance is complicated by unforeseen circumstances, including Sandra’s husband trying to make amends and Charlie’s past love life. Although much of the movie is an innocent feel-good movie, there are some sentimental moments in which life is brought down to earth through the universal aspects of aging, including grief and loss of loved ones. Overall, I found it to be a delightful British film filled with witty innocent humor and a realistic pinch of bittersweet emotions that is elevated by a terrific cast of characters.

Call Me by Your Name

Nominated for the 2018 Oscar for Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay, Call Me by Your Name is a beautifully crafted film flowing with powerful emotions about forbidden love between a teenager and a young graduate student during the summer of 1983 in the Italian countryside. Elio Perlman, played wonderfully by Timothée Chalamet who is nominated for an Oscar for his performance, is a seventeen-year-old Jewish American-Italian who lives in a rural Italian villa during the summers with his Italian mother and American father who is an archaeology professor, played by the always terrific Golden Globe nominee Michael Stuhlbarg. A very bright young man, Elio spends most of his time alone idyllically reading books and transcribing classical music until the arrival of American graduate student Oliver, played by Armie Hammer who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance, who lives with the family for six weeks to help Professor Perlman with his academic work. While in a quasi-romantic relationship with a girl his age named Marzia, Elio is still exploring his love life and embarks on a journey of self-discovery as he becomes closer and closer to the older and handsome Oliver. Initially, the two are rather distant, but, over the course of the slow yet mesmerizing plotline, they begin to fall in love as they leisurely spend time together cycling through the countryside or swimming while engaged in intellectual conversations. Although at first he is somewhat confused by his emotions and homosexual attraction to Oliver, the remarkably mature Elio embraces his romantic and sexual desires by subtly making advances on the carefree and flirtatious Oliver. Through the use of gorgeous cinematography, beautifully subdued music, and immersion in very emotional moments, the acclaimed Italian director Luca Guadagnino expertly portrays an evocative romance, complete with the typical ups and downs experienced by any heterosexual couple. In one of the most poignant scenes, Elio’s compassionate father tries to comfort Elio as he grapples with the heartbreak of the inevitable conclusion to his time with Oliver as Oliver returns home where it would be extremely difficult to continue their amorous relationship. His father displays a complete understanding of Elio’s touching romance with another man and tells him that he too experienced pain over forbidden love. His advice to his son is to cherish the fact that he was lucky enough to share such great joy with Oliver. Overall, I found it to be a truly remarkable movie made possible by stellar acting performances and a heartwarming story with a powerful message about love set against the breathtaking beauty of Italy.

Phantom Thread

Directed by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson who is best known for 1997’s Boogie Nights, 2007’s There Will Be Blood, and 2012’s The Master, Phantom Thread is a beautifully crafted arthouse film with outstanding acting performances, sumptuous cinematography, and a terrific script revolving around a rather unusual and evocative story. Set in 1950s London, the plot follows a famous couture dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock, stupendously played by three-time Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis, who lives a rather lonely and sheltered life obsessed with his work to make the finest dresses for the rich and famous. The only person he really shares his life with is his no-nonsense sister and fashion partner Cyril, played by British actress Lesley Manville, who insulates him from the harsh outside world and very much babies him to satisfy his peculiar habits. While eating at a restaurant near his country home, Reynolds becomes enamored with a beautiful young waitress named Alma, played by a revelation of a star Vicky Krieps, who he insists must go to dinner with him. Over time, she becomes his muse and is invited to live with him and his sister at their London fashion house where they embark on a rather unorthodox romantic relationship. As Alma gets closer and closer to Reynolds and learns more about the high fashion world, Cyril becomes weary of Alma and the disruption that she causes for her needy and obsessive compulsive brother. Throughout the film, the relationship between Alma and Reynolds fluctuates between emotionally and physically intimate and brutally distant as he focuses on his meticulous work making outfits. Underscoring their bizarre romance, the plot veers into unexpected territory with a puzzling ending. Daniel Day-Lewis, like his other equally terrific work over the years, delves deep into his role as evidenced by the realistic great care that his character takes for fashion and believably taking on the neuroses of his character. His mesmerizing performance is greatly enhanced by the talents of Paul Thomas Anderson who creates a beautifully meditative and emotionally delicate story with impressively detailed cinematography, musical scoring, and costuming. Overall, I found it to be a terrific work of art and a perfect ode to the fabulous Daniel Day-Lewis in what may be his last acting role.