'Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool' review: Annette Bening shines in this flawed Gloria Grahame biopic
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‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ review: Annette Bening shines in this flawed Gloria Grahame biopic

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Annette Bening and Jamie Bell

Annette Bening is captivating in the role of former Hollywood starlet Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which follows the Oscar-winning actress in her later years as she develops a relationship with Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), an aspiring actor from England who falls head over heels for the fading star the moment he lays his eyes on her in the North London guesthouse where they are both lodging.

Based on the memoir of the same name by Turner, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which first premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year, is as stunning as it is romantic, though, beyond the wonderful performances by Bening and Bell, whose chemistry sparks the moment they begin to interact with each other, there isn’t much here that we haven’t seen before—the film just feels too basic and too generic.

Perhaps its Matt Greenhalgh’s script or Paul McGuigan’s direction, but there’s something about Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool that causes the first hour or so of the film to feel unbearably boring, making it difficult to feel invested or even care about its rather predictable story that ends with inevitable tragedy. It feels as if the actors are doing most of the work in this film, and they do the best they can with what they have available.

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That being said, the film is still magnificent from a visual standpoint. Ula Pontikos’ magical cinematography, which utilizes lighting and color so effectively, is wonderful to soak in, while editor Nick Emerson flawlessly takes us back and forth between flashbacks and the present with such efficiency. And, oddly enough, despite the unauthentic look of the rear-projection used to transport Bening and Bell to cities such as New York City and Malibu, it makes Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool feel like one of the old Hollywood movies the real Grahame would’ve starred in back in the day.

By the time the film is over and the end title track, “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,” written and performed by the great Elvis Costello, begins to play, you’ll probably wish that Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool had more to offer than just powerhouse performances and nice filmmaking techniques rather than a typical, by-the-books premise; especially one about someone as interesting and eccentric as Grahame.

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‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ review: Ron Howard delivers a solidly entertaining galactic heist movie

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Solo: A Star Wars Story
LUCASFILM LTD.

Despite the loss of original co-directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller due to so-called “creative differences,” rumors of Lucasfilm ushering in an emergency acting coach to help star Alden Ehrenreich “more convincingly channel [Harrison] Ford’s swashbuckling effect” in the original Star Wars trilogy, and numerous other reports of a big-budget Hollywood production gone-to-hell, Solo: A Star Wars Story turned out pretty well, for the most part.

Indeed, Solo begins just like any other installment in this long-running intergalactic franchise with a static blue text that reads, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” followed by an ellipsis with an extra dot on the end, of course. However, similarly to 2016’s stand-alone Star Wars hit Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the movie is not introduced by John Williams rousing, iconic theme song, nor are we given a traditional opening crawl.

When we first meet young Han (Ehrenreich), it’s on his home planet of Corellia, where he and his companion Qi’Ra (Emilia Clarke) are like a futuristic Bonnie and Clyde, doing odd jobs for a notorious gang headed up by the reptilian-looking crime boss Lady Proxima (voiced by Linda Hunt). Little does Proxima and her gang know, though, that Han and Qi’Ra have hatched a plan to leave Coriella once and for all.

Oh, and little do Han and Qi’Ra know that their plan to escape Coriella would run amok, leading Han to a dangerous life of an Imperial mudtrooper and, Qi’Ra, well, we don’t really know how she ends up where she does. But Han’s decision to fight for the Empire ultimately pays off as it leads him not only to his two-centuries-old Wookiee pal Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), but also a little gang of career criminals comprised of Beckett (Woody Harrelson), Val (Thandie Newton), and Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau) that will unexpectedly allow him to cross paths with Qi’Ra once again.

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While it would’ve been exciting to see what sort of fun, comedic flare Lord and Miller would’ve brought to the table with Solo, veteran director Ron Howard, who reportedly re-shot 70% of what the two previous directors had already done, works with Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan’s script just fine. Perhaps Howard plays things just a little too safe, not bringing anything particularly new or exciting to this stand-alone story, but he handles the material just fine.

Ehrenreich is genuinely outstanding as the title character, flawlessly bringing young Han to life in a way that is his own, and yet he somehow still manages to stay true to Ford’s iconic scoundrel we all know and love from the original trilogy. Harrelson’s Beckett is also wonderful, bringing a certain sense of charm, wit, humor, and excitement with him wherever he goes. Clarke is great too, and by the third act, you’ll constantly be questioning Qi’Ra’s true intentions.

But it’s Donald Glover’s smooth, charismatic Lando Calrissian that really stands out in Solo, and it’s a shame that he isn’t provided with more screen time than he gets. When Lando is on screen, though, it’s a real treat, especially when he’s with his co-pilot, L3-37 (voiced by Pheobe Waller-Bridge), a self-made droid assembled from astromech and protocol parts. Their chemistry is impeccable and always delightful to watch—maybe even more so than Han and Chewie’s.

There’s also a lot to admire about Solo from a visual perspective, whether it’s Bradford Young’s gorgeous lighting and cinematography, Neil Lamont’s outstanding production design, Dave Crossman and Glyn Dillon’s stylish costumes, especially when it comes to Lando and his many colorful capes. Even if you can’t get invested in the story, there’s no denying that Solo is one hell of a dazzling, visual feast.

Fans will undoubtedly be divided when it comes to Solo: A Star Wars Story, much like they were when Disney released Rian Johnson’s sequel Star Wars: The Last Jedi last December, and it’s easy to see why. Solo just isn’t a movie for everyone, and that’s OK. But there’s certainly enough space-based heist shenanigans and fan service to please, at the very least, even the most casual of Star Wars fans.

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‘Love, Simon’ review: Nick Robinson shines in this heartwarming gay coming-of-age tale

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Love, Simon GLSEN
20TH CENTURY FOX

Though it might be riddled with all of the familiar high school movie clichés that you’ve come to know and expect, Greg Berlanti’s lovingly crafted gay coming-of-age tale Love, Simon is easily one of the best films of the year, and its message about love, family, and acceptance is bound to make your heart soar.

Based on Becky Albertalli’s best-selling 2012 novel Simon vs The Homo Sapien’s Agenda, Nick Robinson flawlessly plays seventeen-year-old and not openly gay high school senior Simon Spier, whose life is seemingly perfect in almost every way possible: he has a family that he actually likes, including his parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and little sister (Talitha Bateman), lives in a nice Atlanta suburb, and enjoys the company of Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and Abby (Alexandra Shipp), who make up his tight-knit group of friends.

But when one of Simon’s classmates comes out via an anonymous letter posted to the Creekwood High School blog under the name Blue, things start to change for better and for worse. Shortly after reading the anonymous letter, Simon begins exchanging emails with Blue, while also hiding his identity by setting up a fake Gmail account. “I’m just like you,” Simon writes in his initial email to his new pen pal.

The secret email flirtation that ensues is adorably cute and helps Simon muster up the courage he may need to finally come out to his family and friends. Well, that is until the messages end up in the hands of Simon’s obnoxious, overly confident classmate Martin (Logan Miller), who screenshots the email exchange after Simon forgets to log out of his Gmail account on one of the computers in the school library. Why? Because Martin believes that with Simon’s help, he could get a date with Abby. If Simon doesn’t help, though, Martin promises to leak the emails to the entire school.

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While screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker veer away considerably from the source material, their script is so incredibly sharp and witty, despite the occasional cheesy line or two, and Berlanti, a gay man himself, handles the film with plenty of love, care, and affection, much like Simon’s parents when they finally learn his secret. “These last few years, it’s almost like I could feel you holding your breath,” Garner’s character says during a heartwrenching monologue that could rival that of Michael Stuhlbarg’s in Call Me by Your Name. “You get to exhale now, Simon.”

There’s a lot to be said about the rest of the supporting cast, too, including Tony Hale, who plays the lively vice-principal Mr. Worth, Natasha Rothwell, who plays the hilarious drama teacher Ms. Albright, and Clark Moore, who, while stealing nearly every single scene that he is in, plays Simon’s out-and-proud classmate Ethan.

Love, Simon may not break any new ground for queer cinema, especially in the age of Moonlight, BPM (Beats Per Minute), and Call Me by Your Name, but it sure is a treat to have production companies and major distributors like Fox 2000 and 20th Century Fox throw a reasonable amount of money behind a gay coming-of-age movie and make it easily accessible by releasing it in thousands of theaters around the world next month—especially one of such outstanding quality. The world could really use more films like Love, Simon.

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‘Annihilation’ review: Alex Garland’s latest effort is destined to be a new sci-fi classic

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Annihilation
PARAMOUNT PICTURES

It’s truly a shame that international audiences will not get the chance to experience Alex Garland’s moody, cerebral sci-fi thriller Annihilation on the big screen, the way it is meant to be seen. Then again, though, after reading about all of the drama that was happening behind the scenes of this movie, and then actually getting the chance to watch it, it’s easy to understand why Paramount decided to let Netflix handle the film’s distribution overseas.

Annihilation is loosely based on the first book in the acclaimed best-selling Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. If you’re expecting a faithful adaptation, you’re likely going to walk out of the film feeling rather disappointed, among other things, though there are many aspects of the book still intact in Garland’s script.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor and former soldier who’s still grieving the presumed death of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared on a secret mission a year ago. Well, that it is until he returns home again, but something about him just isn’t right. He shows little emotion to his wife that he hasn’t seen in months, and the things he’s saying just aren’t very making very much sense. And then there’s a little blood. And then he says he isn’t feeling very well. And then there’s a lot of blood.

Soon enough, Lena and Kane find themselves somewhere along the Gulf Coast where a meteor strike has produced a sinister and mysterious phenomenon that is expanding rapidly, mutating both the landscape and creatures within it. They call it the Shimmer, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold. Lena is determined to find out what’s on the other side of the phenomenon, as is Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is planning to lead an expedition of female scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) into the Shimmer after several other expeditions, primarily military men, failed to return, with the exception of Kane, of course.

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Much like Ex Machina, Annihilation is filled with plenty of disturbing imagery. From the blood spewing out of the mouth of Kane, to a man’s stomach slowly being cut open to reveal his intestines, Annihilation is not always a fun movie to watch. From the moment the film begins, there’s this certain sense of unease, a nightmarish feel that sticks with you, even long after the film has ended.

There’s one sequence in particular that I can’t seem to get out of my head. Not because it was grim or grotesque, but rather visually spectacular, and even mesmerizing to a certain degree, thanks in part to Rob Hardy’s gorgeous cinematography, Andrew Whitehurst’s visual effects, and, most of all, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s pounding, pulsing synthy score. It’s too bad we didn’t get to hear more of that weird little melody from the trailer throughout the film, but when it does show up, it’s a real spooky treat.

Annihilation leaves you with a lot to unpack once it’s over and it’s unfortunate that I have such little time to even write this review, as I’m still digesting much of the film and need a little more time to piece together a few, key aspects of it in mind. That’s a good thing, though. Garland isn’t a filmmaker that spoon-feeds you anything—his movies are meant to be thought-provoking. And, while it’s not nearly as polished and structured as much as his previous effort, there’s no denying that Garland has crafted an ambitious, new sci-fi classic with Annihilation.

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