Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Maestro **1/2

Directed by Bradley Cooper

Written by Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer

Starring: Bradley Cooper (Leonard Bernstein); Carey Mulligan (Felicia Bernstein); Maya Hawke (Jamie Bernstein)

Legendary conductor, composer, and educator Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) led a fascinating life. As a champion of the arts, he left an indelible mark on 20th Century culture. Bradley Cooper's biopic is mostly focused on Bernstein's marriage to Felicia and his daughter Jamie. While the period flavor is well executed, especially in the first 45 minutes which were shot in crisp B&W, the muddled second half (in glossy color) loses direction. 

Before watching Maestro, I watched the 1998 PBS American Masters documentary Leonard Bernstein: Reaching for the Note, which focused more on his artistic accomplishments, while not ignoring his complicated personal life. The documentary also explored his commitment to Israel and his Jewish identity, featuring interviews with his family and collaborators. 

Cooper plays Bernstein as an artistic dynamo, charming everyone with his enthusiasm and brilliance. Infused with jazz and big band music of the era, his music brimmed with post-war confidence. His marriage to Felicia brought some stability, but his many affairs with men and women, he was openly bisexual within his social circle, made for a tumultuous private life. Much of the second half deals with Felicia's struggle with cancer, in a major tonal shift from the chipper first half. Mulligan is often reduced to playing the put upon wife with an undeserved tragic ending. 

Maestro ends on a disappointing note, leaving the viewer uncertain as to why Bernstein, who was such a towering figure, was so highly celebrated.  Barely any time is given to his collaborations on West Side Story and Candide, nor his involvement in politics. Bernstein's popular TV series Concerts for Young People, which brought music appreciation to a new generation, is also ignored. The famous evening when the Bernstein's hosted the Black Panthers at their luxury apartment, leading to backlash from the New York media and the famous hit piece "Radical Chic" written by Tom Wolfe who skewered the event for New York Magazine. Nor is the harassment he endured from the FBI ever explored. 

Cooper's script seemed more interested in telling more of an old-fashioned Hollywood tearjerker (with modern twists) similar to his 2018 remake of A Star is Born. Bernstein led a fascinating life and unfortunately Maestro left way too much out. 

Monday, January 22, 2024

I.S.S. ***

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Written by Nick Shafir

Starring: Ariana Debose (Dr. Kira Foster); Chris Messina (Gordon Barrett); Joh Gallagher Jr. (Christian Campbell); Maria Mashkova (Weronica Vetrov); Costa Ronin (Nicholai Pulov); Pilou Asbaek (Alexy Pulov)

The Space Race began as an existential competition between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. but evolved into a means of cooperation between both countries. The Apollo-Soyuz Mission in 1975 symbolized d├ętente, as a mutual respect developed between the competing Space Programs. Space serving as a means to take the edge of the Cold War would also be reflected in films like Marooned and 2010: The Year We Made Contact.

I.S.S. flips the premise in an ominous story reflecting the current international situation of the 2020s. The story begins with Dr. Kira Foster joining the Russian and American crews on the International Space Station.  As the newest crew member, she's introduced to the cramped quarters and strenuous living conditions by the American commander played by Chris Messina, who informs her learning how to sleep in zero gravity "sucks." 

In time Kira adjusts to the social dynamics between the crew which are comradery with occasional tensions, such as when a joke is taken the wrong way by the Russians. They also decide to never discuss politics to avoid arguments, especially regarding the War in Ukraine. Then without warning, they begin to witness a catastrophe playing out on the surface of the Earth that leads to the central conflict of the film.

I.S.S. is a warning of how conflicts can imperil personal relationships, leading people to abandon their humanity (or maybe find their humanity). Although the grim premise of the film detracts from the narrative going on at the space station, it does speak to the fraught state of world politics.

The cast and direction were both excellent, achieving an intimate realism that achieves the illusion of being aboard the space station. There are suspenseful sequences that recall Gravity, and even some resonant symbolic moments. A somber Sci-Fi movie to open the year, it certainly the reflects the mood going into 2024.