Ben is Back (2018)

Ben is Back

Unrefined cinematography occasionally bothers, but hugely anchors its impact on the powerful work of Julia Roberts and Lucas Hedges. Moments of emotional gut punch land better than half-explored social commentary. I teared up on multiple occasions. [B/B-]

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A Private War (2018)

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Multi-faceted exploration of a war journalist’s damaged psyche, anchored by Rosamund Pike in a career-best work. It packs powerful emotional punches that rightfully disturb its audience. [B/B+]

Widows (2018)

WIDOWS

Razor-sharp indictment of America through the clear-eyed lens of Steve McQueen. Terrific cast, especially Viola Davis in one of her best performances. Incendiary, riveting, and necessary viewing. [A-]

Film Review: First Man (2018)

Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Josh Singer
Produced by: Wyck Godfrey, Marty Bowen, Isaac Klausner, Damien Chazelle

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Damien Chazelle does it again.

After Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle goes all out with this space drama-thriller about Neil Armstrong, the first man to land on the moon. Chazelle crafts a cinematic experience filled with visceral immediacy and technical prowess; I could only think of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013) as a film that was able to place the audience right within the experience of the characters.

Grieving the death of his daughter, Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) joins NASA’s Project Gemini. After being beaten by the Soviet Union in every milestone in the ongoing Space Race, NASA is fixed on achieving a feat no one has ever done: land a human being on the moon. After several mishaps in the tests conducted, Armstrong is summoned to command the flight, causing worry for his wife Janet (Claire Foy).

Chazelle is no stranger to orchestrating the different aspects of filmmaking to a maximum, whether be it the sharp editing and abrasive sound mixing of Whiplash or the visual spectacle of La La Land to go with its entrancing music. His work in First Man is no exception. Right from the very first scene, the film immediately grabs attention and never lets go.

Much has been said about its almost-documentary style filmmaking, and it works for the film’s benefit. Cinematography, film editing, sound mixing, sound editing, and musical score, all handled by frequent Chazelle collaborators, come together in creating an unflinching immersion. The result is a film that effectively taps on the senses. It is mindblowing to behold.

The screenplay written by Josh Singer articulates the emotional beats of the narrative with confidence and conciseness. Taking pivotal moments within a decades span of Armstrong’s life is a tough ordeal, and the screenplay manages to pin down these with striking grittiness. This film does not always rely on obvious emotions (which I personally I am into), but the screenplay is a carefully calibrated study of Armstrong.

Ryan Gosling proves himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. He adds another work in the string of potent performances he has delivered within this decade. His interpretation of Neil Armstrong is unlike most of biopic performances. This is a performance that does not rely on easily noticeable tics. Instead, it is all internalized, even painfully at times.

His seemingly impenetrable façade is well-rooted in his character. He sheds tears in two scenes, both almost hidden away from the camera. But this is where his selflessness as an actor shines – he opts for a more emotionally authentic representation of the man than relying on big emotional scenes that amaze.

Claire Foy amazes with her role as Janet, Armstrong’s wife. After two seasons of phenomenal work in the Netflix series The Crown, Foy is long overdue for a film career and she shines in this role. Any fear of Foy being reduced to the longsuffering wife stereotype is immediately shattered once she enters the film.

Her commanding demeanor and determined attitude defines her performance and elevates her work. Janet is not a simple supportive wife who helplessly waits. She rises to the occasion when pushed, and she is to be taken seriously and not mansplained, not even by the brilliant men of NASA. In two striking scenes, Foy claims her place in this man’s world.

Commendable work from Jason Clarke, Kyle Chandler, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, and Olivia Hamilton populate this world of 1960s Space Race. Noteworthy production design, costume design, and visual effects complete the film’s visual panache.

Damien Chazelle reaches new heights, and he is a cinematic force to stay.

Grade: A-

Film Review: A Star is Born (2018)

Directed by: Bradley Cooper
Written by: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters
Produced by: Bill Gerber, Jon Peters, Bradley Cooper, Todd Phillips, Lynette Howell Taylor

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There seems to be an unstoppable hype for this film since the release of its official trailer. Once Warner Bros. scrambled to move its release date from May to September and finally to October, they are obviously positioning this film to be an awards contender. And after months of anticipation, it is finally clear: A Star is Born is an accomplished, even enthralling, debut for Bradley Cooper the director featuring wonderful work from its stars, Cooper himself and Lady Gaga in her first leading role in film.

If you haven’t been informed of the film’s timeless story (it has been made four/five times already), here is a quick catch up: Jackson (Cooper), a musician quietly struggling with alcoholism, met Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress working as a singer in a drag bar at night. They get caught up in a whirlwind romance that culminates in Ally’s first performance to a large audience. What follows is Jackson’s career decline while Ally’s is on the rise, challenging the love between them.

Bradley Cooper has crafted an assured directorial debut, giving some of the best first forty minutes of filmmaking this year. Moving with electric and pulsating energy, those minutes showcases the marriage of all filmmaking elements coming together. Those moments are of audio-visual amazement: razor-sharp editing, vivid cinematography, and immersive sound design all come together to capture the blossoming of this relationship. The craftsmanship is impeccable,and it is thrilling to witness. This is also where the writing is at its best: honest moments of romance and drama going so well with the subtle wit.

On a personal note, I cried tears of joy while the climactic musical scene “Shallow” came. Tears came as a result of experiencing a cinematic moment I haven’t witnessed for a long time. It is when the music, narrative, sound, visuals, editing, and emotions all come together and it just enveloped me with chills. Truly a moment of cinematic magic.

As the film progressed, the narrative slowed down but the film maintains its cinematographic gumption. The film editing proved to be more inconsistent, with questionable choices with rhythm and pacing. Not saying it is bad; it is the way for the story to go, but clocking in 135 minutes, there are certainly moments where the editing could be tighter.

Also, the narrative became more imbalanced. We are not talking about less screentime for either the two actors, it is about the focus of their separate storylines. While Cooper’s Jackson has juicy material with deeper struggles on alcoholism and falling out of fame, Gaga’s Ally becomes reduced to the minimally interesting backstage errands and the actual performances.

Bradley Cooper, as an actor, is fantastic in his multi-faceted work as Jackson. Knowing him from great performances in Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, American Sniper, and even Burnt, my senses were quick to notice what he has done to form this character: his body language beaten down by exhaustion, alcoholism, and deafness, the lower pitch of his speaking voice and speech patterns that recalls Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart, and the textured singing voice.

This is nothing like he has ever done before. But right after noticing these, it all becomes second nature and just helped me understand his character. As Jackson reaches the lowest points of his life, Cooper lives up to the challenge and just breaks my heart as he desperately clings to his career, his relationships, and to Ally. This is beautiful work from Cooper.

Lady Gaga has become the biggest question mark of this year so far. Everyone knows she is a great musician with a spellbinding voice, but will her acting chops live up to this film? The answer is a resounding yes. Right from her first scene, she has shed her flashy and strong real-life personality. What is left is a different kind of strong: a woman with a grounded strength, accepting her defeat in life while not letting the fire within her go out. The moment she meets Jackson, she experiences a beautiful self-actualization and she finally gets the break she waited for.

What comes next is perhaps not the best material for her. As previously stated, the focus of her storyline pales in comparison to the emotional heft of Jackson’s. Gaga’s still all good, but the narrative shortchanged her of the material that could let her explore the more delicate nuances of her character. In fact, I would say these are the film’s least interesting parts of the film.

Good thing that when Jackson reaches the lowest of lows, it becomes a dramatic duet between the two. Jackson’s desperate breakdown is well-complimented by Ally’s well-meaning but helpless assurance and the two actors are simply heartbreaking to watch. By the film’s finale, Gaga wraps the story with a powerful rendition of “I’ll Never Love Again” and she is quite stunning. While the writing may not have fully maximized her acting skills, this film just excited me about her future acting career because I believe Gaga has so much to give if given the right role.

It was my instinct to write more about Gaga than Cooper because of my fascination with actresses in general, but make no mistake: they both nail their respective character beats and what is seen on-screen is perhaps one of the best cinematic romances in years. And of course, the soundtrack is a knockout.

The film has its imperfections, but it is very good, and when it is in its peak, it is memorable to witness. The film has proven itself to be worthy of retelling the classic story. The title refers to a star, but in reality, two stars are born: Gaga the Actress and Cooper the Director.

Grade: B+