Freddie Ready

In many ways, Bohemian Rhapsody could be your standard bio-pic. It starts late in the subject’s life, then flashes back to the beginning. For the next two-plus hours we see why the subject was worthy of the biography, until we complete the circle at the film’s starting point. Two examples of exceptional bio-pics that use this formula – each completely different in feel – are Yankee Doodle Dandy and Lawrence of Arabia. Both James Cagney and Peter O’Toole were nominated for Best Actor Oscars for their respective roles, though only Cagney won. And there are plenty lesser examples, some which hardly rise above the level of a lesser TV movie. Bohemian Rhapsody could have suffered that fate, but for two things: the operatic majesty of Queen’s music, and a positively stunning embodiment of Freddie Mercury by Rami Malek. If there’s any justice, he’ll also follow Cagney and O’Toole to an Oscar nomination.

The frame for the story is the huge Live-Aid rock concert that filled Wembley Stadium in London (along with John F. Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia) on Saturday, July 13, 1985. Growing out of Bob Geldorf’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” all-star recording to raise funds to alleviate a horrific famine in Ethiopia, Live Aid featured a who’s who of the rock world at that time. Acts performing included U2, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Madonna, Led Zepplin, and Phil Collins performed early at Wembley, then jumped on the Concorde, flew to the States, and performed at the Philadelphia venue. Around the world, the concert was watched by an estimated 1.9 billion people. Each performer got a twenty minute set, and the set voted best of all the performances was the one by Queen.

And it almost didn’t happen.

Bohemian begins with the camera giving Freddie’s view, leaving his London mansion (and his many cats), traveling to Wembley, and walking to the entrance of the stage, before the movie sweeps back fifteen years to when Freddie was still Farrokh Bulsara. He’d been born on the island of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania) into a Parsi family: Indians from the Bombay region who practiced the Zoroastrian religion.  Farrokh was educated at a boarding school in Mumbai (where he began calling himself Freddie), but in the mid-1960s the family had to flee Zanzibar because of a revolution against its Arab rulers by native Africans. The conflict led to thousands of deaths. Freddie’s family settled in London, a much safer location, though Freddie felt the prejudices that simmered in England. He’d often be called “Paki,” short for Muslim Pakistanis, which was an extra insult through ignorance of his heritage. The movie correctly shows Freddie at his early job as a Heathrow Airport baggage handler, though it ignores his early work with short-lived bands. The script by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour) compresses the story in a few ways – more on that later.

Soon Freddie has two meetings that change his life. The first is with Brian May and Roger Taylor (Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy, respectively) who had a band at that time called Smile, a small joke since Taylor was studying to be a dentist. (The group could also have been called “Star” since May was studying astrophysics. He’d eventually get his degree following his career with Queen and worked with NASA on a project; He has an asteroid named after him.) After a gig, Smile’s lead singer tells May and Taylor he’s going to a different band. Freddie finds May and Taylor in the venue’s parking lot, and when he discovers what’s happened he offers to be their singer. May and Taylor push him away – understandably – until Freddie does one of their songs a capella. Both May and Taylor were producers for Bohemian, so it might have happened that way. After the addition of bassist John Deacon (Joe Mazello), the band is rechristened Queen by Freddie, who also designed Queen’s logo.

The second meeting gives the film its heart. Freddie was still an unknown when he met the love of his life, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton). Malek and Boynton play their scenes together with a heartbreaking innocence, even as their complicated relationship leads to their separation after Freddie discovers his homosexuality. While Mary wasn’t involved in making Bohemian, the surviving band members helped Boynton with her portrayal so that it rings true.

Malek’s performance takes up the majority of the oxygen. With such a huge central character, the rest of the cast makes their presence felt through subtle and nuanced acting. Outside of the band, Aidan Gillen stands out as John Reid, the producer who helped guide Queen from unknowns to superstar status, and there’s a delightful performance by Tom Hollander as Jim Beach, the group’s lawyer and later manager.

There’s no way they can match Malek, of course. As Freddie on stage, or performing for others around him, Malek has Freddie’s strut and outrageous self-confidence nailed. Yet he also handles the needy, sad, and lonely Freddie who has trouble functioning when not performing.

What may be the movie’s biggest benefit is to introduce a new generation to the Queen repertoire. A large section of the film is dedicated to the production of the album “A Night At The Opera” with its quintessential track Bohemian Rhapsody. It also details the reaction of EMI when faced with a six-minute operatic rock song that Freddie wants to release as a single. Ray Foster, their main man at the label, dismisses it because “No teens will drive around beating their heads to Bohemian Rhapsody.” The kicker is that under heavy makeup, the actor doing the role is Wayne himself, Mike Myers. But sitting through the movie you are struck by how wonderful the other songs are, and how well they’ve stood up after thirty or forty years.

The production faced several challenges. Director Bryan Singer departed before the film was finished after being called out with multiple sexual assault allegations. Actor and director Dexter Fletcher was brought in to finish the film, though Singer’s name remains on the credits. There was also negative press about how Freddie’s sexuality was portrayed, and that his AIDS diagnosis was moved to before the Live Aid concert when it actually happened two years later. But with the construction of the film, it would have been even worse to simply leave the AIDS diagnosis to a card at the end. It adds urgency to the climatic performance at Wembley.

What you’re faced with, beneath the stage performer, is Freddie Mercury’s humanity.
There were several times I teared up watching the film. Those tears are the best review I could give Bohemian Rhapsody.

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The Window That Needs to be Looked Through

The movie The Hate U Give, based on the bestselling book by Angie Thomas, begins with “The Talk.” It’s not one that any white family would have, but it’s a requirement for blacks – I assume other ethnic groups likely have their own version. In the movie, parents “Mav” and Lisa Carter (Russell Hornsby and Regina Hall) tell their pre-teen children how they must behave when they’re in a car pulled over by a policeman. It’s not if they’ll be pulled over – it’s when; it’s a given in their world. Mav owns the neighborhood grocery store, his wife is a nurse, but they know the unwritten offenses: driving while black, walking while black, fill-in-the-blank while black. The parents are aware a simple confrontation could easily rob them of one or both of their children.

A few years later, Starr Carter (Amandla Steinberg) gives a voiceover introduction to her world, beginning with her neighborhood. Unemployment is high, and the only jobs readily available are working for King (Anthony Mackie), the neighborhood gang lord and drug distributor. The high school is a horror to be avoided. But despite that, it’s a close-knit neighborhood that watches out for each other and revolves around the local barbecue house, the barber shop, and Mav’s grocery store. Lisa has insisted Starr and her brothers Seven (Lamar Johnson) and Sekani (TJ Wright) attend a private school, just as she did. As Starr puts it, at school she’s Starr Version 2, who never gives her white schoolmates any reason to think of her as “ghetto” even though the white kids constantly use black slang and listen to rap music. In the space of a few minutes, the audience is given a primer on economic inequality, white privilege, and cultural appropriation.

Starr has close friends at school like Hailey (Sabrina Carpenter), and a boyfriend, Chris (KJ Apa), who wants their relationship to go deeper. But on the weekends, she gets to be Version 1, at home in her neighborhood among people she’s known all her life, free to be black. Starr’s brought to a house party, and while there she reconnects with one of her closest childhood friends, Khalil (Algee Smith). Along with another friend who died in childhood, they were hooked on Harry Potter and used to pretend to be the three main characters of the books, Harry, Ron, and Hermoine. When an altercation at the party turns violent, the people scatter, and Khalil gets Starr to his car so he can drive her home.

Then Starr’s world is shattered when a traffic stop turns deadly – just as it has in real life for Sandra Bland, Philandro Castile, and too many others. She is the only witness to what takes place, but rather than ask what happened the detectives investigating the incident immediately start to turn the spotlight from the officer involved to Khalil. Starr’s saved from the interrogation by her uncle Carlos (Common), who is a police officer.

The Hate U Give revolves around Starr’s coming to grips with what happened, and the hard realization that fate has thrust her into being Khalil’s advocate. At the same time, you see how the events on the street that night are like a rock tossed into the pool of the city’s society, reaching beyond the neighborhood, disrupting every inch with its waves. The title is a quote from rapper Tupac Shakur that forms the acronym THUG LIFE: “The hate u give little infants f**ks everyone.” Hate breeds hate, particularly when it’s felt from the cradle on.

The script by Audrey Wells never becomes a polemic. Instead it keeps our attention riveted on Starr and the people around her. It is a human, and a humane, drama that forces the audience to ask the same questions facing Starr, and to answer what we would do if we were faced with a similar situation. For those of us whose privilege has allowed us never to truly face such questions, it is eye-opening. The power of drama is that we can slip inside another person’s skin for a brief period, but if the writer, director, and the actors have done their job well, we can never completely shed that skin again. It becomes a part of us, attached to our soul, and we can never go back to innocent ignorance.

Director George Tillman Jr. lovingly recreates Starr’s neighborhood, even the warts of the dilapidated buildings and the threat of violence, so that we understand the attachment the characters have to this place. It’s a rich tapestry of a movie, with the drama leavened by humor and heart throughout. There are, though, plenty of searing moments as Starr processes the events. In one particular scene, Carlos tries to explain to Starr what happens in an officer’s mind when he makes a traffic stop. It leads to an honest moment that’s devastating for them both.

This is a film filled with Oscar-caliber performances, starting with Steinberg. She’d ripped hearts out as Rue in The Hunger Games and had recently graduated to starring roles in lesser fare like Everything Everything and The Darkest Minds. With The Hate U Give she claims her place as a full-fledge actress of power and depth. Another standout is Russell Hornsby’s performance as Mav, projecting power and honor even in a world designed to bleach it away. If he doesn’t receive a best supporting actor nomination, it will be a crime. Along with the fine cast already mentioned, the film also has Issa Rae in a straight dramatic role as a community activist lawyer.

For many years the novel used in schools to deal with racism has been “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It is a fine novel, and the movie version with Gregory Peck is rightly viewed as a classic. I recently read an article, though, that suggested it’s time to retire the book from the reading list for schools. It’s almost 60-years-old, dealing with a time decades earlier, and its focus is the white perspective on race and racism. While Atticus Finch is a wonderful character, by identifying with him many have been able to rationalize that race relations are no longer as bad as they were in the days when “Mockingbird” is set. The false sense that things are better allowed the Supreme Court to gut the Voting Rights Act with the excuse that the abuses of those bad old days no longer existed. They didn’t recognize that the prejudice was held at bay by the Voting Rights Act, and without it those worse elements have reared their head again. We’ve now slipped back into restrictions that are the children of Jim Crow.

The Hate U Give provides a window to look at the world outside of the comfort zone of many in this country. It would be a worthy successor for “To Kill A Mockingbird” in school curriculum. Some may try to ban it, but then people have tried to ban “Mockingbird” many times. There’s even a scene in the movie that mirrors a classic moment from To Kill A Mockingbird, though it updates it for the world today. In Mockingbird, Gregory Peck’s Atticus sits outside the jail holding Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) and turns away a lynch mob with his words. In Hate, after a violent attack on their home, Mav gets Lisa, Starr, and Sekani to the safety of Uncle Carlos’s house. He then returns to his home and stands guard on the porch. After a moment, Seven joins him. There are no words spoken, for the threat is no longer the obvious kind like the lynch mob. Now the threats permeate society and flare up without warning. All Mav and Seven can do is stand ready.

See this movie.

Gathered Together

Gathering a disparate group of people in a single location has been a common starting point for writers for years. In the mystery genre, Agatha Christie used this effectively multiple times. Sometimes it was simple happenstance that the characters ended up together, as in “Death on the Nile” or “The Mousetrap,” but sometimes the mystery revolved around the “why” of the gathering, as in “Murder on the Orient Express” and “And Then There Were None.” It’s become a bit hackneyed as a device over the years, but now Drew Goddard tries to breathe new life into it with Bad Times at the El Royale. He comes pretty close to accomplishing his goal.

“Bad Times” describes the El Royale to a T. The establishment near Reno straddles the California/Nevada line, and as one character explains it was even mentioned in a song by Rat Packer Dean Martin. But by the later 1960s, the El Royale has fallen into disrepair and disrepute. There’s no longer a gaming license for the Nevada side, its restaurant is now an automat with sandwiches that double as science experiments, and its staff consists of one hapless kid named Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman) who keeps the lights on for the absent ownership.

Then on one singular afternoon a crowd of customers descends on the El Royale. First comes Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), a brash vacuum cleaner salesman in a sports jacket as loud as his personality. Lounge singer Darlene Sweet (Cynthia Erivo) arrives at the same time as an elderly priest, Father Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Last in the door is Emily Summerspring (Dakota Johnson), whose signature on the registrar accurately sums up her feelings for the others – a profane, two-word dismissive that begins F and ends with U. It isn’t long before we learn that almost everyone has a secret, and those secrets soon collide.

Writer/Director/Producer Drew Goddard has been involved in prestige work on both the small and large screen. His first TV gig was writing for the final season of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” where he co-wrote the best episode of that season, “Conversations with Dead People.” He then moved on to “Angel” followed by “Alias” and “Lost.” “Alias” brought him into the orbit of J.J. Abrams, who produced Goddard’s first movie screenplay, the massively successful Cloverfield. He co-wrote (with Joss Whedon) his directorial debut, the meta horror movie The Cabin in the Woods, then adapted the novel World War Z for the screen. He returned to the small screen to create and executive produce the first of Netflix’s Marvel series, “Daredevil.” Now with Bad Times Goddard has brought together all three of his skills.

Goddard uses the room numbers as chapter headings to tell each person’s backstory. He also plays with the time line so we see the same incident from different character perspectives. Just when things seem to be winding down, Goddard gives the movie a shot of adrenalin with the arrival of Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth), a free-spirit hippy cult leader who turns the danger factor up to eleven as he seeks to recover something taken from him.

The plot lines aren’t that original, but this is more an exercise in style rather than substance. In that, Goddard has a secret weapon in Cynthia Erivo. She’s a Tony Award winning actress for the revival of “The Color Purple” on Broadway, and also picked up a Grammy for the cast album, so she’s halfway to EGOT status already. Throughout the movie she sings classics from the 1960s songbook, often a capella, and it’s heavenly to hear her. She also goes toe to toe with Bridges and matches his intensity, not a small trick. (Erivo will be back on the screen in Widows in a couple of weeks, a movie I’m very much looking forward to seeing.)

In the end, though, the lack of substance keeps Bad Times at the El Royale from going beyond an interesting, stylish trifle. It goes down pretty smooth, but it doesn’t give you anything to chew on, and eventually the flavor fades.

The Famous Man No One Knows

When I was a child, my family gathered around the television in July 1969 to watch Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the lunar module on the moon. What had been the stuff of science fiction was now science fact – man had set foot on another celestial body. When Armstrong stepped off the lander’s pad onto the moon’s dusty gray surface, the few inches he traveled was truly a giant leap. He immediately became the most famous man in the world, even as the quiet spoken engineer remained a cypher. Armstrong wasn’t one of the boisterous test pilots of the Mercury days, nor a laconic country boy like Yaeger. Now, 49 years after the moon landing, and six years after Armstrong’s death from complications after bypass surgery, we have a carefully sketched cinematic portrait of the astronaut in First Man.

The movie is based on Armstrong’s authorized biography of the same name, written by James R. Hansen, adapted for the screen by Josh Singer who also did The Post and Spotlight, for which he won an Oscar. Director Damien Chazelle, an Oscar winner for La La Land, also worked with Armstrong’s two sons to get the story right, and this is a movie where it’s more “true” than just “based on a true story.” The main incidents in the film happened as they are portrayed. There is one fictional plot point, but since it’s the emotional climax of the film one can forgive Chazelle and understand why it is there. We, the audience, need that moment.

The movie spans 8 years, beginning during the time Armstrong, played to perfection by Ryan Gosling, is a pilot in the X-15 program to soared to the edge of the atmosphere. (Armstrong had taken his first flight in a Ford Tri-motor when he was 6 and earned his pilot’s license before he could drive. He was 15 when WWII ended, but served in the Air Force during the Korean War, flying 78 missions. Afterwards he joined the flight research organization that eventually became NASA.) In Apollo 13 and other space-themed movies, it’s mentioned that if a spacecraft re-enters the atmosphere at too shallow a trajectory it can bounce off and get thrown back into space. That actually happened to Armstrong in the X-15, but he kept his head and figured out a way to get down. Chazelle shows throughout the movie just how dangerous it was to be part of the space program, and includes a careful reconstruction of the Apollo 1 disaster, the deadliest accident in NASA history until the Challenger explosion.

On the ground, Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) were dealing with the most horrible event any parent can face – the terminal illness and death of their two-year-old daughter, Karen (also called Muffie by the family). Armstrong handled the grief by closing himself down, returning to the X-15 program right after Karen died, then becoming an astronaut a few months later. Moving to Houston from California, Armstrong worked with Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler), one of the original Mercury astronauts, along with Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll), who displays a habit of speaking before his brain is engaged. The Armstrongs’ closest friends, though, were Ed White (Jason Clarke) and his wife, Pat (Olivia Hamilton).

Chazelle gives the movie a cinema verité feel by using hand-held cameras for the earthbound scenes and then putting audience in the tight cockpits and capsules during flights. It keeps the story from taking on a heroic Hollywood sheen, instead anchoring it in reality. Gosling gives the best performance of his career, an embodiment that comes from deep inside him. Foy’s raw power as Janet counterweighs Gosling’s surface restraint, and they work off of each other beautifully. Small moments that sparkle like diamonds fill the film, such as when Janet and Neil share a dance to an other-worldly piece of music. (The track is called “Lunar Rhapsody” and features an early electronic instrument called the Theremin; the Armstrongs did own and listen to that piece.)

The supporting cast is filled with excellent actors, including Lukas Haas, Patrick Fugit, Ciaran Hinds, and Brian d’Arcy James. For the soundtrack, Chazelle again worked with Justin Hurwitz, who scored both Whiplash and La La Land. The music is especially important since several scenes have little or no dialogue. Kudos need to go to production designer Nathan Crowley, who’s done all of Christopher Nolan’s films since Insomnia, along with the art direction and set decoration teams. They nail the feel of the mid-60s homes as well as the NASA settings.

Chazelle made his name with two music-centered films, Whiplash and La La Land. First Man is a quantum leap forward for him as a filmmaker. He imbues the movie with the feeling of wonder and awe even as he tells the story in a clear-eyed way that brooks no false hero worship. Armstrong is a complicated, complex character, and Chazelle (and Gosling) let him breathe and be who he was. It’s an incredible story that hasn’t been told before on film. Now it’s been told well, and that is an accomplishment.

Popcorn with a Bite

It’s hard to think of the character Venom without Spider-Man. The webslinger was the first human host of the liquid alien symbiote when he was introduced in 1984, though Spidey soon peeled himself away from Venom. After that breakup, Venom bonded with reporter Eddie Brock and became a big bad for Spider-Man. That included an appearance in Sam Raimi’s horrible Spider-Man 3, with the forgettable Topher Grace as Brock. In the comics, Venom has bonded with quite a few other characters and has even shown up in “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Brock, though, was the primary host, so it’s fitting the character would appear in the new movie, Venom. The best news was that Tom Hardy would play the character(s).

Rather than keep the character in Spider-Man’s New York City, the movie version of Venom moves the setting to San Francisco. Hardy’s Brock is a shuffling, schleppy investigative reporter, though he’s managed to attract lawyer Anne Weyling (Michelle Williams) as his girlfriend. Weyling works for the Life Foundation, which has invested in private space exploration as an answer the growing tenuousness of life on earth. The head of the foundation, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), believes the key to human survival in space is a blending of humans with aliens. One of their vehicles crash lands in Malaysia while returning to Earth with samples of alien lifeforms.

Brock’s assigned a puff piece profile of Drake by his editor, but instead he reads confidential information from Anne’s work and uses it to ambush Drake. The stunt costs both Brock and Anne their jobs, leading Anne to walk away from Brock. Six months later, Anne’s put her life back together and found a new relationship with a doctor. Brock, on the other hand, is living in a dive and hustling what work he can find to keep going. Then a researcher (Jenny Slate) comes to Brock with information about deadly human research undertaken by the Foundation. She gets Brock into the building, where he can find evidence to expose what they’re doing. Instead he becomes the evidence when he’s accidentally introduced to Venom.

Venom’s about as anti a hero as possible, with a preference of chowing down on people when he’s feeling puckish. However, he needs the compatible Brock to survive Earth’s hostile environment. Brock’s pretty far from a hero as himself, but he understands good and evil so he tries to exercise some restraint on Venom. The symbiote relationship goes both ways, since Brock needs Venom to survive the Foundation’s security team that’s gunning for him. Much of the action of Venom takes place at night, a fitting time for this murky, dark story.

A portion of the movie is devoted to Brock’s absurd behavior brought on by Venom, culminating in a scene with Anne and her doctor at a fancy restaurant. It’s familiar territory that date back to Renfrew in the original novel of “Dracula.” For the best comedic version in movies, think of the possessed versions of Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver in Ghostbusters. Here the trope is kind of tired, and thankfully the script abandons it fairly quickly. Where the movie comes alive is the action scenes where Venom shows his powers. Director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland) ratchets up the intensity with tight, fast action that strikes in surprising ways. He also makes good use of the San Francisco setting, especially in a sequence with Brock fleeing on a motorcycle while pursued by several SUVs.

Both Hardy and Williams are almost too good for the movie, since they can communicate depth even in a shallow piece like Venom. They’re a full-course steak dinner caught in a popcorn flick. Likewise, Ahmed, who was outstanding in Nightcrawler and Rogue One, is tamped down to fit the stereotype of an evil genius. They raise the quality of the film even though their roles are pretty much by the numbers.

Overall, the film does work. It’s a bag of popcorn seasoned with some unexpected spices, so it tickles your taste buds in unexpected ways. It could have been much worse – Topher Grace, anyone? – and while it doesn’t rise to the level of recent Marvel fare like Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming, or Thor: Ragnarok, it’s a decent second tier entertainment.

There are two long tags in the credits – one midway through, the other at the end – that are full scenes for upcoming films. One sets up the sequel to Venom – you knew there had to be one – and even introduces the big bad for that film. The other is for the new animated feature out later this year, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

A Super “Star”

A Star is Born is now on its 5th iteration when you count George Cukor’s 1932 version What Price Hollywood? The others have all taken the name of the 1937 Janet Gaynor/Frederic March film, directed by William Wellman. The setting of the story has changed, from straight Hollywood drama for the first two, to Cinemascope Hollywood musical for the 1954 version, again directed by Cukor, that served as a comeback vehicle for Judy Garland. Barbra Streisand’s 1976 version moved it to a straight music world story, which suited her well. For the new Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga version, nods are paid in the screenplay credits to the middle three films, including to William Wellman and Moss Hart (who wrote the Garland version), even though they’ve been dead for 43 and 57 years respectively. Jon Peters, who produced Streisand’s version, also gets producer’s credit here (he’s happily still alive at 73 to enjoy it). However, even with its long pedigree, Cooper, along with his writing partner Will Fetters and the estimable Eric Roth (Forest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have managed to blend the past into a beautiful, compelling, and fresh version of the story.

Cooper demonstrates his Renaissance man skills by acting, directing, co-screenwriting, producing, composing many of the songs, and then singing them with a skill that could make him a recording star in his own right. His embodiment of country-rocker Jackson Maine has a deep whiskey rasp and a self-destructive relationship with booze and pills, partially motivated by progressing deafness. (His name is a nod to the Frederic March and James Mason versions of the character, Norman Maine.) Yet he’s also open and vulnerable, making you root for him.

While Lady Gaga’s stage shows are cinematic in design, she’s been honing a straight acting cred as part of Ryan Murphy’s stable of players for “American Horror Story.” (Her very first acting credit on IMDb was as “Girl in Pool” on a 2001 episode of “The Sopranos.”) She strips away the glamor of the Gaga persona, including dying her hair back to her original medium brown color, and in the role of Ally gives a bare, beautiful performance.

One weakness of the ’76 version was that the music scenes felt small, with extras filling up confined venues for the concert scenes. Bradley captures the feel of an actual concert by filming at major festivals in between acts. In a perfect bit of symmetry, one of the acts who gave them time was Kris Kristofferson, who starred with Streisand in the ’76 version. It helps, too, that Cooper’s backup band in the movie is a real band: Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, led by Willie Nelson’s son. Lukas co-wrote much of the music (with Cooper and Gaga) and it has a gravitas to its sound that you don’t normally get in a film.

Cooper has assembled a strong supporting cast. Chief among them is Sam Elliott as Bobby, Maine’s older brother, a performer in his own right who never broke through like his sibling. There’s also a surprising turn by Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s loving and supportive father, Lorenzo. In a nod to his first major role on the series “Alias,” Cooper has Greg Grunberg and Ron Rifkin in small but meaningful roles.

This is a star-making turn for Gaga, but it’s also a major coming out for Cooper as a force behind the camera. It’s clear that he used his time working with David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood as master classes in filmmaking. One example is at the end of the movie, when you expect a big emotional cathartic moment, he instead makes it intimate and devastating. It’s a bold choice you wouldn’t expect from a first-time director, but Cooper pulls it off.

I’ll be surprised if A Star Is Born doesn’t pull in a slew of nominations during the upcoming awards season. Best of all, it deserves them.

Short Takes: Peppermint & White Boy Rick

Peppermint: I’d caught the trailer for this movie on YouTube a couple of months ago and was waiting anxiously for it to arrive. Having watched Jennifer Garner kick butt in “Alias” I was delighted at the prospect that she’d return to the action genre. The finished product, though, left much to be desired – mostly, originality.

The script is pretty much a bastard child of Sicario and Death Wish. Garner’s Riley North suffers a devastating loss when her husband and daughter are killed in a drive-by shooting. Riley’s seriously wounded, but she’s able to identify the three gang members in the car (somehow, since she was far away, and the shooting took place at night). The men’s lawyer tries to bribe her. Why is never explained, since the fix is in with the judge and prosecutor. After the case is thrown out, Riley disappears for five years, traveling the world to develop “a very particular set of skills.”

The major skill acquired is the services of the director of Taken, Pierre Morrel. The action is fierce and well-choreographed, so it does draw you in. The weakness is the script by Chad St. John, who’d previously done London Has Fallen. Other than Riley, the characters are flat stereotypes – a ruthless Mexican gang lord (Juan Pablo Raba) who wants to be Al Pacino in Scarface, a disillusioned detective with a drinking problem (John Gallagher Jr.), a dedicated FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh) who’s been tracking Riley so she can provide the backstory, and so on. Rather than keep the focus as a tight revenge flick, St. John has Riley become a guardian angel to the skid row inhabitants where she hides when she returns to LA. You can also hear echoes of other film plots scattered throughout the movie.

Even with all that, Garner comes close to pulling it off. For her next project, she’ll be doing the series “Camping” on HBO along with David Tennant. But I do hope she’ll take another crack at the action genre, if she can find a better vehicle.

White Boy Rick: This is a big production for a small-time story. The plot’s ripped from the headlines of a thirty-year-old paper, the (roughly) true story of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) who’d started out helping his hustler father (Matthew McConaughey) sell guns illegally. The FBI uses the threat of arresting his dad to push Rick into helping them investigate the drug trade in Detroit. In the end Rick becomes a major player before he turns eighteen, only to see it all crash down.

The movie has an abundance of fine actors, including Jennifer Jason Leigh as an FBI agent plus Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as Rick’s grandparents. McConaughey delivers a raw, memorable performance, and newcomer Merritt is a natural in front of the camera. They’re eclipsed, though, by Bel Powley as Rick’s older, addicted sister Dawn who struggles to get clean.

It’s a grim story told against the backdrop of grimy and gritty Detroit. It feels, though, that Rick’s story isn’t large enough to fit the effort that went into the production. Wershe was a street-level hood, and he’s not compelling enough to raise the story to the level of tragedy. Despite the excellent performances, you really don’t want to spend the movie’s running time with these characters.

There is a strange Hollywood connection to the story, though. The movie touches on the corruption of the Detroit police, which later led to indictments against a number of officers. After a 13-year-old boy is mistakenly killed in a hit on a drug dealer, one of Rick’s mentors turns to a cop to help cover up the killing. While the movie uses a different name, both Rick and his supplier, Johnny Curry, named Gil Hill as the officer who helped. Hill was the head of the Detroit Police homicide division, and in 1984, during the time White Boy Rick takes place, Hill was assigned as a technical adviser to Martin Brest when he directed Beverly Hills Cop. Brest ended up casting Hill as Eddie Murphy’s tough boss, Inspector Todd. The FBI investigated Hill in the cover-up, but no charges were ever filed. Hill passed away two years ago.