A Star is Born

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Bradley Cooper.  Starring Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, and Anthony Ramos.

Sometimes there’s a film, and it’s the film for its time and place. It fits right in with the zeitgeist and has enough going for it that nearly everyone becomes swept up with it, celebrating its great achievements. A Star is Born may be that film. It certainly wants to be that film, and in nearly every scene it bends over backwards in its attempts to do so.

The fourth cinematic incarnation of a talented ingenue discovered by a famous artist has a lot to commend it. The song performances are amazing, the acting intense and emotional, the drama engaging and tragic with direction that mirrors each scene’s emotions precisely.

I could never escape the feeling that it was one giant collage of Oscar clips, with each scene edited for maximum impact in a twelve second clip at the ninety-first Academy Awards.

That style of storytelling works surprisingly well for the first act, in which veteran country music singer Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) stumbles upon Ally (Lady Gaga) performing in a nightclub. Impressed by her talent, he flirts with her and spends the night talking to her, culminating in him inviting her to perform in his next show. She says no, so he has his driver stalk her the following day until she changes her mind and quits her job for a one-night performance.

If Jack’s behavior seems creepy, the film wants us to know it’s okay, firstly because she playfully calls him out on it, secondly because he doesn’t hide that he’s an alcoholic, so he’s being honest, and thirdly because Jack is not aggressively sexist like some of the other jerks in the bar. It might be the most pathetic tie-in to the #metoo movement I’ve seen in a recent film, especially considering not a single male character is capable of listening to Ally, other than her friend and coworker Ramon (Anthony Ramos). To be fair, the film portrays most of these scenes from Ally’s perspective, but it wants to have its cake and eat it by portraying Jack’s behavior as a sort of meet cute routine.

The second and third acts follow the predictable beats for a story of a fading, depressed, alcoholic star and a quickly rising sensation, both of whom fall in love with each other. There’s the honeymoon romance, the temporary estrangement, irrational jealousy, and heartbreaking setbacks. There’s a strong supporting turn from Sam Elliott who has a “surprising” relationship to Cooper’s Jack. There’s a light critique of the showbiz industry and the unhealthy side of fame that doesn’t in any way threaten the status quo of the entertainment world.

In other words, it is the perfect level of mildly self-critical to make Academy members feel thoughtful and introspective while simultaneously making them feel proud both of how inclusive they are and of their valuable contributions to the world.

Lady Gaga gives an electrifying performance (especially when she’s singing) in a role that feels like it was meticulously crafted to win an Oscar, and she’s good enough that I won’t even be upset when it probably happens. Her acting and singing chops just about make the film worth watching.

I have never been the biggest Bradley Cooper fan, and while it is blatant that the film is an egotistical passion project for him, I found his Sam Elliott impression enjoyable and one of his better performances. The scene where Elliott tells Jack (Cooper) that “you stole my voice” is unquestionably on the nose, but I honestly didn’t mind.

The biggest problem for me was how hard the film labors in nearly every scene to win the Oscar, knowing that there is a very good chance it may succeed. In addition to the quasi-critiques of unethical producers and the faint connections to #metoo and #timesup, there’s the requisite sad ending to tell us we watched something profound, even though said ending could have easily been avoided with more believable writing. And of course, the entire film is about show business, the Academy’s favorite subject. In short, it’s the Oscariest batiest movie ever.

And you know what? Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and Sam Elliott all clearly have such a great time with their roles, that I kind of ended up having one too, and I almost didn’t even care that this is an emotionally manipulative pile of Oscar bait, which will steal all year-end discussion from the actual best movie musical of 2018.

 

Personal recommendation: B-

Content Advisory: Fleeting nudity, non-graphic sexual encounters, and occasional rough language.                             MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Adults

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BlacKkKlansman

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Spike Lee.  Starring John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Michael Buscemi, Ryan Eggold, and Topher Grace.

About a week ago on Fox News, Laura Ingraham went off on an unhinged rant lamenting that the country [white America] once knew and loved is being changed for the worse by the non-white demographics who come here illegally and legally, not dissimilar from Dr. Kennebrew Beauregard’s (Alec Baldwin) rant which opens this film. A year ago our president called neo-Nazis “very fine people,” while referring to peaceful black protestors as “sons of bitches.” Active members of the Nazi party are running for republican house seats in multiple states. Sadly, there are Americans who deny the obvious: racism is still a massive problem in America, and it has found a welcome home in the republican party which now controls our country.

Of course, this is not new. Perhaps the president spouting openly racist rhetoric with vigorous support from his base is, but Woodrow Wilson infamously hosted a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation at the White House, and reportedly called it “history written with lightning” when the film was directly responsible for the return of the KKK and the rise of lynchings and baseless arrests of black people. (To be fair to Wilson, those words may have been falsely attributed to him by the book’s author.)

It was civil rights leader James Baldwin who said, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story.” Watching the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro a few years ago, I first became aware of a reality of white dominated entertainment for non-white youth. Baldwin discussed being a black child and watching TV shows or movies in which the white hero with whom the audience is expected to identify must kill the black (or Indian) villains. In watching such shows, Black and American Indian children are therefore expected to root for their own destruction.

Spike Lee knows all of this, and his newest film BlacKkKlansman does as well. The first scene that drills this home is when rookie police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington), the first black man on the Colorado Springs force, goes undercover to infiltrate a speech by former Black Panther leader Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins) to make sure there is no threat of blacks starting a race war against whites. As Ture delivers a passionate address to a floating sea of black faces, the truth of his call for black people to accept themselves as they are and not remake themselves to be like white people inspires not only the crowd of adoring college students but the undercover Stallworth as well.

At that rally Stallworth also meets a young black woman Patrice (Laura Harrier) who maintains the police (or pigs as she calls them) are part of an inherently racist, capitalist system designed to profit off the suppression of black people. As Stallworth and Patrice begin a relationship, Stallworth insists there are good cops who can work within the system to fix it. While the film respects the reasons behind her charges, it also clearly depicts all the good cops can do when they don’t abuse their power.

For his next undercover operation, Stallworth infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan, meeting the local chapter leader by phone, and later grand wizard David Duke (Topher Grace) as well. When they meet face to face, his white partner Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) plays Ron to infiltrate the KKK (or the organization as it members insist on calling it) and prevent attacks against black citizens, threats which are far more serious coming from the KKK than from a big talking member of the Black Panthers, especially when there are racist cops who will defend any white person and over a century of oppression against blacks.

If there’s any flaw in the film, as Alissa Wilkinson notes, it’s that it lets white viewers off too easily. While it is certainly true that any remotely progressive white viewers (read: those who oppose Trump) will not feel guilty even if they have unwittingly supported racism in the past, and the film certainly lacks the savage audience indictment of The Wolf of Wall Street, the hero of the film is Ron Stallworth, and not some fictitious white dude smashing down a “whites only” sign. To be sure, the other three members of Ron’s team are wonderful allies, but the film makes it clear how unfortunately rare such people are.

Last year’s Mudbound did not give white viewers an heroic character to identify with. The best white characters stood on the sidelines helplessly as the black characters suffered horrific injustices, the worst gleefully carried out those injustices, and the vast majority blindly perpetuated a system of abuse. That is probably a more realistic, if bleaker, portrayal of racism in America. Here, the majority of the white cops support Ron, but they also turn a knowing blind eye to the racist cop on the force, and the chief proudly states how he supports J. Edgar Hoover’s targeting of black citizens. Still they mostly manage to come around by the film’s end. It might verge on wish fulfillment, but there are stories of it happening, and it fits naturally into the comic arc of the film.

Yes, I said comic. To quote St. Thomas More, “The devil is a proud spirit who cannot endure to be mocked.” The film mocks the diabolical KKK ruthlessly, as illiterate morons who are baffled and terrified that their “superior genes” are being replaced by educated blacks and Jews. Watching Ron rant about his hatred for anyone who doesn’t have “pure white Aryan blood” in order to trap the local Klan leader is one of the best scenes of the year, as is Ron’s revelation of his real identity to David Duke. At the same time, the film never undermines the danger and threat of the KKK, heightening the tension and the laughs created by their idiocy.

Befitting a comedy, Spike Lee’s broad storytelling is about as far removed from subtle as humanly possible. If the scenes of the KKK chanting “America first!” or saying they want to make America great (read: white) again or a cop explaining to Ron that racists now cloak their racism in economics, immigration, and other policies so more Americans will go along with them, and one day David Duke will endorse his ideal candidate for president are not blatant enough, then the final scenes of footage from last year’s Charlottesville rally followed by the president’s damning “very fine people” remarks cement the parallels Lee wishes to draw between the KKK of the sixties and the current administration.

There’s an inherent power to images and stories. At the film’s climax Lee crosscuts between a Klan meeting and black student rally, contrasting the violent hatred of one with the peaceful nobility of the other. By opening with a clip from Gone with the Wind and later showing scenes from Birth of a Nation, Lee shows how the damning stereotypes from films shaped the way multiple generations thought about black people. He shows how those stereotypes have continued to today, but he also shows how progress has been made before, and since history repeats, how it can hopefully be made again.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Recurring racial epithets, depictions of racially inspired violence, disturbing descriptions of torture, occasional obscenities.                  MPAA rating: R

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

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All That Jazz

Year of Release: 1979      Directed by Bob Fosse.  Starring Roy Scheider, Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, Erzsebet Foldi, Leland Palmer, and Deborah Geffner.

“And they’re dread wrong, I know they are/’Cuz I can play this here guitar/and I won’t quit ‘til I’m a star on Broadway.” I remember in an undergrad pop music class analyzing Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s song On Broadway, from which those lyrics are taken. The one thing I remember from that discussion was the professor pointing out the irony of immediately following that line with an unremarkable guitar solo, which is quickly swallowed up by the band.

Bob Fosse uses On Broadway for the opening number of his quasi-autobiographical masterpiece All That Jazz. Over the course of the song we watch director Joe Gideon (Roy Scheider in a career best performance) run a grueling day of auditions for his next musical as the mass of starstruck wannabes grows smaller and smaller. It could seem like a cynical song to open a cynical movie, but Fosse’s musical is every bit as much a love letter to the glamorous showbiz life as it is a critique.

On the one hand, All That Jazz is in many ways a seedier and more unflinching version of Fellini’s with elaborate song and dance numbers. Joe Gideon is a famous director who is facing a midlife crisis, struggling to finish a film that is well behind schedule and over budget, while simultaneously unable to make up his mind how he wants his next Broadway show to go. In the midst of these work conflicts, he recalls his formative experiences working in showbusiness and looks to the various women in his life for inspiration from the ingénue actress he cast in his latest show so he can sleep with her, to his current girlfriend, his ex-wife, his daughter, and his angelic muse.

If this set up sounds like a version of the “sexist man abuses everyone he knows and gets away with it, because he’s a great misunderstood artist” trope, it is because All That Jazz is a sort of confession for Fosse, who himself was a womanizer who abused drugs and alcohol, the same as Joe Gideon. However, Fosse is not interested in absolving Joe (or by extension himself). Indeed, he focuses more on the pain caused to the women by Joe’s selfishness, and the viewer’s sympathy is always with his resigned ex-wife Audrey (Leland Palmer), his heartbroken daughter Michelle (Erzsebet Foldi) who wishes her dad took better care of himself, or his current girlfriend Kate (Ann Reinking) who quietly accepts the other actresses he decides to sleep with.

In addition to Joe’s mistreatment of women, he also abuses drugs. There’s hardly a scene when he does not have a cigarette between his teeth. His carefully choreographed morning routine involves pills and eyedrops so he can get an inspirational high before putting his nose to the grindstone. However, the passion he throws into his abusive behaviors is an equally strong driving force for his work, which the film makes clear is a vocation for him.

On the most basic level, All That Jazz is a cautionary tale about wasting one’s talent and the dangers of throwing one’s life away on copious sex and drugs. At the same time, it is also more than the story of a super talented director and choreographer who dances and drugs himself to death. A sense of vocation permeates the film, from flashbacks of Joe’s childhood to interactions with his own daughter and Joe’s desire to leave the hospital as soon as he arrives there. All of these scenes show a burning drive to create that no amount of drugs or sex can replace or squelch.

Importantly, the creations are marvelous to behold. For my money, this is the best Fosse choreography ever captured on film. (No argument though with anyone who prefers his film of Cabaret.) A lovely scene of father-daughter bonding when Michelle stays late in the studio one night and dances with her dad shows how Joe has shared his talent and time with his daughter, the two gifts she wants more than anything else. Later she returns that gift with her dad’s girlfriend Kate in a two-woman performance choreographed to Peter Allen’s Everything Old is New Again. Erzsebet Foldi and Ann Reinking (Fosse’s own partner and collaborator for several years) are fabulous dancers, more than doing justice to Fosse’s dance routines.

Life imitates art imitates life. This is true both of the film and its creators and of the creations and characters within the film. The one scene we see edited over and over again from Joe’s upcoming movie is a monologue from a stand-up comic about going through the five stages of grief when one finds out they’re dying, which Joe himself starts enacting as his health begins to worsen. An elaborate striptease in a musical that is going to be a star vehicle for Joe’s ex-wife showcases the brilliant choreography and tremendous talent of Joe (and Fosse) while adding a sexual tension that is present in many aspects of his life. Finally, the way Fosse turns the final scenes into grand production numbers is the zenith of art and life blending.

As someone who works in the performance industry, it is rare to see anyone who lives life quite as recklessly as Joe Gideon. It is not uncommon to know people with substance abuse problems or a history of unhealthy relationships. However, even when an artist’s passions are misspent on destructive choices, that desire to create and partake in the divine creation is an unconquerable force. It’s a force Fosse understood, which is made clear throughout this entire film, especially in the fantasy sequences involving an angel (Jessica Lange) who forces Joe to reflect on his life even as she inspires him.

I suppose it is strange to find inspiration in a destructive tale of excess, but the celebration of beauty and art becomes a form of grace offered to even the most undeserving. While the film is cynical in critiquing the destruction an artist can choose to inflict upon himself and others, it simultaneously is a joyful celebration of the achievements the same artist can do if he applies his talents the way they were meant to be used.

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

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Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Year of Release: 2018      Directed by Ol Parker.  Starring Amanda Seyfried, Lily James, Dominic Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, Julie Walters, Christine Baranski, Andy Garcia, Meryl Streep, and Cher.

 

I admit, I groaned when I first saw the trailers for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, positive that this was a colossally terrible idea. I didn’t think it would be worse than 2008’s Mamma Mia!, mostly because that would almost be a physical impossibility (unless a movie is Elephant or Forrest Gump). However, a sequel to one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen hardly seemed like a good idea, and that was before I finished watching the equally terrible trailer.

Somehow, against all odds, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again avoids most of the mistakes of the original and is a delightful, if silly and contrived, grandiose production.

The fatal flaws of the original film were too numerous to mention, but the three glaring ones were: the sloppy direction, camera use, and blocking; the bad mismatch of plot to song lyrics; and the repetitive monotony of song arrangements. Those are all fixed here.

Director Ol Parker has a much better sense of cinematic pacing than Phyllida Lloyd did in the 2008 film, and he edits each number to showcase the performers at their best. Robert Yeoman’s cinematography makes the Greek island resort look beautiful and naturally follows the performers through their song and dance routines.

Catherine Johnson, who wrote the original musical and the screenplay for the first film shares writing credit here with Parker and Richard Curtis. Perhaps the input from multiple sources helped with overlaying ABBA songs onto a paper-thin plot, or maybe having two timelines necessitated even simpler plots for which it was easier to find songs that sensibly fit. Whatever the reason, I was never wondering what the song lyrics had to do with the narrative, as I was for much of the first Mamma Mia!

I wrote an unpublished review of the first film. Rereading it now, I see one of my biggest complaints was that every song had the same predictable vocal arrangements, even if those made no sense based on where or when it was being sung. That happens here a tiny bit with “One of Us” as Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her boyfriend Sky (Dominic Cooper) reflect on a phone argument they just had as an invisible chorus joins their expressions of grief. However, with minimal suspension of disbelief, it is not hard to view those additional voices as imagined by the couple to amplify their emotions.

As to the other songs, every scenario seems like a logical place to burst into song, all the characters who are singing make sense, and the performances are all top notch. The rendition of the title song here is one of the best uses of a title song in any movie musical. A cameo from Cher culminates in a fantastic rendition of “Fernando” in which she dances with Andy Garcia resolving a plot twist that’s obvious from a mile away, but the scene is so perfectly executed it doesn’t matter. “Dancing Queen” and “Super Trouper” return as the two big chorus numbers, roughly taking place where an act I and act II finale would occur in a stage musical.

The plot is as goofy and simplistic as would be expected, but the entire cast is having so much fun, and the film’s energy is purely focused on the rousing production numbers that it hardly matters. One shocking announcement that comes within the first fifteen minutes is Sophie’s mother Donna (Meryl Streep) died in the last year, and while it would have been nice to see Streep in more of the movie, she still has a great cameo appearance.

The film cuts smoothly between 1979 and presumably present day (although that timeline doesn’t add up, but who cares) as Sophie plans the grand opening of the Hotel Bella Donna in honor of her mother, and as the young Donna (Lily James) makes a life for herself on the remote island. Donna of course meets and sleeps with Sophie’s three potential fathers, the identity of whom was the subject for the first film. The subsequent heartbreak of her three affairs merges with the present-day narrative in a surprisingly touching way along with the best crosscut Baptism sequence since The Godfather.

Lily James is sympathetic and endearing as the resilient and carefree college-grad Donna, and Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies provide great support and comic relief as her best friends Tanya and Rosie. Christine Baranski and Julie Walters reprise their roles from the first film, playing off Amanda Seyfried in a similar manner to their younger counterparts playing off Lily James.

Jukebox musicals are extremely difficult to pull of successfully, and the only truly great ones are Singin’ in the Rain and All That Jazz. While Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is not quite on that tier, I never thought I would write it’s probably the best one since those two, and if not that, it’s unquestionably the best one since Moulin Rouge.

 

Personal recommendation: A-

Content Advisory: Off-screen promiscuity and discussion thereof.                              MPAA rating: PG-13

Suggested audience: Teens and up with discernment

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Heathers

Year of Release: 1989      Directed by Michael Lehmann.  Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, Shannon Doherty, and Penelope Milford.

A friend once quipped, “There are two rules of humor: 1) nothing is funny; 2) anything can be funny. Both nothing and anything must be taken absolutely literally.” That is not to say that any and all jokes are funny and sensitive subjects are a free for all when it comes to humor. Rather, it is to say that with proper care and diligence, laughter in response to sensitive subjects can be an appropriate means of attacking the powerful and defending the weak.

Heathers is a film that makes jokes about taboo subjects including, but not limited to: teen suicide, date rape, homophobia, body shaming, bullying, eating disorders, narcissistic exploitative teachers, neglectful parents, and school shootings. And in every single one of its jokes, the target is the victimizer/abuser and the way our culture’s unhealthy obsessions with popularity and trying to make sure our team is the winning team perpetuate the oppression and exploitation of the most vulnerable.

Exclusive tribalism is mocked from the first scene when the titular clique of high school mean girls, all named Heather except for their lackey Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), exert their self-claimed superiority over the rest of their high school first through humiliating an overweight girl named Martha and then by forcing the entire school to participate in a lunchtime poll, thought up by the ringleader Heather Chandler (Kim Walker).

The cruelty of humiliating Martha is contrasted with the sadistic glee of the Heathers, which sets up an unremarkable mockery of high school cliques for being exclusive and mean. However, the lunchtime poll is carried out with unapologetic aplomb by the Heathers despite its inherent stupidity, for which any other student would be mocked. This contrast makes it clear that things such as fashionable and the “in crowd” are determined by the whims of whomever can be the bossiest and most snobbish while getting others to envy them.

The first push back Veronica experiences against that poll, “If you received five million dollars, and on the same day aliens said they were going to blow up the planet in three days, what would you do with the money?” comes from obvious cool kid and scoundrel JD (Christian Slater, blatantly channeling Cuckoo’s Nest Jack Nicholson). We know JD is cool because he wears all black, openly tells Veronica how stupid Heather Chandler’s poll question is, and says “Greetings and salutations!” instead of hello. When threatened by the two school bullies, he also pulls a gun and shoots two blanks at them after calling them assholes to their face.

At this point every future plot point has been foreshadowed, and the stage is set for one of the darkest and funniest high school comedies, surpassing the similar high school satires of subsequent decades: Clueless and Mean Girls. One substantial reason that Heathers resonates so much more strongly for me than those other high school comedies is that is not afraid to follow its premise to the morbid conclusion necessitated by the tribalism and obsessive desire for coolness. Indeed, with its blend of horror and comedy, Heathers serves as a sort of link between Brian De Palma’s Carrie and the high school comedies of the ‘90’s and later decades.

Veronica’s trajectory in Heathers follows that of a horror film, albeit one punctuated with many moments of humor. Witnessing JD intimidate the two bullies whom she despises sparks an instant attraction, which leads to an inevitable partnership as Veronica transitions from a Heathers wannabe to a vigilante agent for justice within her high school. The problem is she abandoned her snobbish clique for an even more exclusive and dehumanizing one.

This blend of comedy and horror is perfectly captured in Daniel Waters’ brilliant dialogue, which is mannered enough to be obviously artificial compared to actual teenage talk, and yet is simultaneously pointed and stinging. Lines such as: “Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit has a body count,” and “I use my grand IQ to decide what color lip gloss to wear in the morning and how to hit three keggers before curfew,” expose a broken world while belittling the mentalities that lead to such distortions.

The obsession with coolness and being a member of the right team or club is the primary target of Heathers’ satire. What is most remarkable, however, is not the film’s ruthless critique of that attitude among high schoolers nor how it shows the horrific yet logical conclusions of such selfish worldviews, but that it shows such shallowness also extends to adults as the teachers, parents, and principal respond to the increasing number of tragedies by selfishly using the supposed teen suicides as a platform to push their preconceived notions.

The destructive phoniness on display throughout the entire film is succinctly summarized by the highly stylized opening montage of the three Heathers playing croquet in outfits matching their balls, walking straight through flower beds, and hitting the balls into Veronica’s head instead of croquet hoops. This entire sequence is underscored by “Que será, será,” both a reminder of the childhood innocence which has been lost by the high school preoccupation with cliques and a commentary on the tragic inevitably such mentalities lead to when taken to extremes.

As Veronica, Winona Ryder gives one of her best performances, torn between the desire to be a member of the cool club and wanting to make the world a kinder place for everyone. As that tension leads her down an increasingly horrific road, the film capitalizes on several moments for her to experience actual humanity and compassion, serving as a sharp prick to her guilty conscience. Her delivery of her final line to JD is pitch perfect in its condemnation of their bad choices and as a triumphant rejection of the mentality that caused so many of the film’s tragedies in the first place. “You know what I want? Cool guys like you out of my life.”

 

Personal Recommendation: A+

Content Advisory: Long distance shot of date rape, multiple non-graphic murders, underage promiscuity, drinking, and smoking, recurring foul language. MPAA rating: R

Audience: Teens and up with discernment.

 

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