“A Star Is Born” ( 2018)

For me, “ A Star Is Born” (2018) is a fourth remake with the same toxic dose of melodrama as all the others. Why,  Bradley Cooper, why ?  Why not write a new story to show off your singing, guitar and directorial talents?

I’m guessing that Lady Gaga and the fountain flow of economic pay-offs have something to do with the answer. My movie ticket-taker told me she saw your film twice and purchased the sound track. Love at first sight, mentorship, obscurity followed by a shared stage, then acclaim for the neophyte while you, the star, falls~really falls. But, alas, there is no discernible font of innovation here.

Oh,well, before the first screen shot is seen, we hear the fans screaming. In this 2018 version, Cooper is Jackson Maine~ the same Jackson as Fredric Marsh, James Mason, and Kris Kristofferson before him. It is a great contrast to Cooper’s climatic scene where he staggers and crawls up to the Emmy mic and wets himself.

Cooper is very easy on the eyes. The steroid shot in the tush being my favorite. His six-pack side shot does not bemoan his character’s beer drinking, either. He is on beautiful display. Cooper seems to do it all in this film, even fall in love spontaneously. His fourth song, “ Maybe It’s Time To Let The Old Times Die” is how I felt about the Arizona return to his Father’s “gravesite”with its “ hot wind and history”. Editing is not deemed important in “ A Star Is Born” (2018).

But then there is Lady Gaga. ( Stefani Germanatta) As Ally Campana, I like how she labels her dad with “celebrity disease”. Her interplay with her wanna be crooner patriarch is perfect. The family dynamics chemistry better than the romantic. The breakfast scenes better than the bathtub ones. When her dad opines, “It’s all my fault.” She easily rolls her eyes with, “ You don’t have that kind of power, Dad.” She is a mixed bag. Her vulnerability is hit and miss. The same with her uneven acting. I hated her anger scenes, and felt she was stronger in the “triage” role of caretaker. Smashing the hallway memento posters was almost silly, as was her punching the picture taker. Is this what being a modern woman means? Please!

She will be up for an Oscar for best song, but it won’t be for Edith Piaf’s  “ La Vie En Rose”. “ I’ll Never Love Again” showed her real talent.

Sam Elliott is admirable as Bobby, Jackson’s half brother. He makes the most of his scenes without show-boating his tears. My favorite line may be Cooper’s as he is found sleeping in the grass, “in my mind I made it to the door.”

 

 

“Mid 90’s”

Teenagers trying to fit in is never an easy theme for parents, teachers, or any adult that wants to champion selfhood and individual self-awareness. Adults know that friends are key to this passage. Strong families and mentors help buffer the pain of feeling lost in the world.

Jonah Hill’s first foray on the other side of the lens has its moments in this coming of age film: moments not of the typical humor one associates with Hill’s work. “Mid 90’s” is shocking in its sibling anger and remorseful in its depiction of youth in need. From its opening scene of a body being slammed into a wall, this film pulls no punches on drug and alcohol abuse and self-serving sexual experimentation. Too many adolescents see these vices as what it means to be an adult.

One of the best scenes shows our protagonist, Stevie, aka “Sunburn”, walking into his older brother’s room. Forbidden to enter Ian’s domain, Stevie treats it as a shrine. He looks in awe before touching a cap, lifting a shoe, touching a magazine, and almost caressing the neatly arranged clothes in the closet. This is not a typical teen’s room. This eighteen-year-old needs to control the one part of his life that he can. He is incensed at his mother’s  loose ways with men, and bullies the thirteen-year-old Stevie  to the point of pathological abuse.

Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea” ( reviewed Dec.3, 2016   ) and of  “Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri” ( reviewed Jan. 28, 2018 ) continues his forte of playing volatile, grieving, unsound, senior-high youth. His talent for character complexity is in full swing. He can make a hardened bully sympathetic~ quite a feat, here.

The other cast members are equally laudable. Our protagonist , Stevie, is Sammy Suljic. Suljic is rarely off-screen and rarely without his skateboard. He is an observer. His quiet “ wanna-be” traits endear him to the four “homies” of the skateboard shop. Just like when Stevie takes notes of his brother’s album choices, Stevie, now dubbed Sunburn, is a voyeur of sorts. He takes in the crazy conversations of the group and glows at being “water boy” during spontaneous practice sessions behind the shop. He, also, takes crazy risks. Losing a body part does not seem out of context, here.

We , also, see Stevie in self-destructive acts. He beats his legs with a wire hair brush, and tightly wraps a cord around his neck. Hill seems to be graphically telling us that these kids are in deep places. Ray, my favorite character, is the most mature. Na-kel Smith plays the philosopher-king here. He is aware of all the homies’ individual demons. He sweetly mentors Sunburn: “You take the hard hits. You know you don’t have to, right?”

The other gang members are as natural and as hurting as any street group. Olan Presnatt is known as “Fuckshit”. He escapes through alcohol and abuse of his ADHD meds. He is funny, dangerous, and good at playing the dozens with cops for hire. “ Fourth Grade” is played by Ryan McLaughlin. His dream of filming movies belies his dirt poor background. If he can’t buy socks, how did he get ahold of that video recorder? His film efforts make a fitting close for this film.

Gio Galicia is Reuben. He is fighting for a place in the pecking order of gang hierarchy. We learn from Ray that Reuben’s mom beats both him and his sister. His jealousy of  Sunburn is hampering their friendship. In the politics of youth relationships, Hill has it right. We remember those little group tussles as in the another of this years’ teen-based films, “Eighth Grade”, ( reviewed Aug. 20, 2018). Hill’s take is  less up-beat, more urban than suburban in tone, but equally as menacing.

While Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter, plays Ian and Stevie’s young mother struggling in the parental arena, her character, Dabney, doesn’t “get it” until the film’s end. Vigilence is not in her DNA. When she asks Stevie’s skateboard buddies if they would like to see him in his hospital room, we hope for the best with her new realization that his skateboarding friends truly care about him. Hill has made us care about all of them, too.

 

“The Old Man And The Gun”

Contentment and pathology are the poles that keep director and writer David Lowery’s film “ The Old Man and the Gun” moving forward. Touted as Robert Redford’s last starring role, this  film gives Redford a chance to rectify his lone sailor mess in “ All Is Lost” (2013). Redford does not do well when he is the only cast member and has no one to smile or crinkle his eyes at but wet fish. He is best at charming repartee, and here Sissy Spacek lends her charm in mirroring his. Jewel ( Spacek) and Forrest ( Redford) have the chemistry that most of the older viewers came to see. Oldsters understand swan songs.  Spacek can twirl a bracelet, and Redford can smile.

The irony is that the early forties demographic are the ones that could learn the most from this film. Much of this is due to the character of John Hunt, captured so beautifully by Casey Affleck. Hunt is a Texas detective who connects small bank robberies in five states in two years time to a group of three old prison buddies dubbed the “ Over-The-Hill Gang”.

Affleck’s character is feeling like no one cares if these robbers are caught. He is dedicated, but under appreciated. He has a loving family, and his two children look up to him as “ catcher of the bad guys”. Vignettes of the children sending messages over the police scanner and using push pins to target the pattern of robberies are warm and insightful. This is how long, painstaking work and family can co-exist. When the Feds decide to take over Hunt’s investigation, Affleck looks tired, but not defeated. Will he learn something from his gentleman outlaw ? Will we discover more than clichés about doing what you love?

The storyline “ The Old Man And The Gun”  is based on is a true story first made public in the pages of the New Yorker. In 2003, David Grann researched and wrote the piece on Forrest Tucker, a seventy-eight-year-old man,  who robbed some umpteen  banks and broke out of numerous jails. San Quentin being one of them.

Though the film is replete with repetitive scenes of calm, well-planned heists, and deli booths of pie and coffee, the back story of women left and children denied is glossed over. Small hauls and good manners don’t cancel out the threat of gunfire. When one teller cries under stress, Tucker sweetly calms her down. His accomplices, played understatedly by Danny Glover and Tim Waits, keep the pacing flowing. They watch, take notes, stand on roof tops and take photos. Armored cars seem to ramp up the gang internal beat.  Then they return to motel rooms and watch black and white cowboy flicks.

Meanwhile, Tucker does romance Jewel. They rock on her front porch and ride her few horses. She reminisces about happiness. He thinks of a small proud boy, and we learn a little of his past. Tucker buys her a bracelet ( a jewel for Jewel ) and attempts to take care of her mortgage surreptitiously. Spacek is good at moseying along. She makes listening to water boil prescient.

This is something that the young detective becomes good at too. Who is living the chaser or the chased? When he dances in the dark kitchen with his bone-tired wife, Affleck draws depth . The Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde tropes are here, but it is the quiet “ nick knack paddy whack, give a frog a loan” moments that mean the most. Humor, respect, and craziness outshine “throwing the cuffs on”.

 

“First Man” 2018

Director Damian Chazelle of “Whiplash” 2014 and “ La La Land” 2016 has another winner in this year’s “First Man”. Emotionally satisfying, if a bit long, this retrospective of the NASA ‘s space program highlights Neil Armstrong’s path to becoming the first man to walk on the moon’s powdery surface.

The film begins with Ryan Gosling as Armstrong bouncing  off the atmosphere and through monstrous sound and tremendous vibrations fighting the space capsule and returning to Earth. He is an engineer who knows how to get home. Home plays a big part of this film. Claire Foy, of Queen Victoria fame, plays Neil’s wife, Jan. They lose a toddler daughter to brain cancer, and we grieve with them. They are a couple that use words sparingly. They dance; they touch; they stare into each other’s eyes, and they understand and are committed to their individual goals, be it supportive wife or space adventurer. The early nineteen sixties it is!

The screenplay written by Josh Singer is based on James Hansen’s biography of Armstrong. Hanson is a retired history professor and taught at Auburn University in Alabama. Hanson helped produce the film of America’s most famous astronaut. We hear Neil say little. When asked by a Gemini interviewing-committee-member if the recent death of his daughter would affect his performance, he replied that “ it would be unreasonable to think it would not have some effect.” Later, and not very surprisingly, we see him place his daughter’s bracelet on the moon. Why it doesn’t float away is unclear.

The lunar topography is what we have come to expect, but Armstrong’s thoughtful comment about how its vantage point changes your perspective is well-taken. There is a reverence for creation that I like. Competition with the Russians and the politics of NASA spending seem almost secondary to the thirst to know more about our world.

There are some good cinematic shots of wet shadows on the floor in NASA garage facilities, as well as moon shots. The sound editing is relentless in relaying every creak  and groan and brain-shaking vibration. We experience becoming one with the machine. It is not pleasant. When floating quiet does come, we are relieved.

The back and forth rhythm between the familial and the astronautical is well-paced. When Jan is cut off from hearing her husband’s and the station’s chatter, she balks. She demands to be privy in present time. “ Don’t give me that this is protocal” , she seems to be saying. “  Protocol is for making people think you have things under control.” Neil’s hatch opening, his tethered breathing, his boot imprint, and his panoramic reflections are more respectful than euphoric. We remember neighbor’s thumbprint cookies and his small son’s questions, and his wife’s laugh. The film ends with Neil in quarantine and Jan sitting outside the glass partition. She waits for him to initiate. Non-verbally, he does. We feel he has reached his destination.

This is a film championing, as Walter Cronkite called them, “sailors of the sky”.  Somber in sacrifice and majestic in intent, NASA seems to be asking us not to push “ the abort” button on space exploration.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Colette”

The Belle Époque Era never looked more gorgeous than in this new period piece based on the first marriage of Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette. The interiors are resplendent; the outside nature scenes verdant. And Keira Knightley has never been better. Add a beautiful original score and this is a not-to-be-missed film.

Colette was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948, but many do not know the early story of her first husband, Henri Gautier Villars and how he acquired fame  through ghost writers. His best ghost writer was his young and talented wife, Colette. When she asked for her name to be placed on her Claudine novels, he refused. Like, “The Wife” ( reviewed Sept. 19th, 2018) woman as kingmakers  is the theme of the year, as rightly so given the manosphere times.

Director and co-writer Wash Westmoreland highlights fluid gender and has Colette’s husband, played remarkably by Dominic West, sanction Colette’s lesbian trysts as long as he profits, both physically and financially. He is quite the libertine in frequenting prostitutes and keeping creditors at bay. He sells soap, perfume, fans, and even candy under the Claudine name. “ Since when is scandal  bad thing?”, he coos. When he bends to pick up the post, he inadvertently farts to Colette dismay. “ Intimacy in all its abandon, my dear.” is his response. The writing is good.

West plays Willy, a soldier friend of Colette’s father. He romances the nineteen-year-old Colette with fawning visits and presents. One gift being a snow globe containing the Eiffel Tower. Later, Willy describes the tower as a gigantic erection that he is rather jealous of….and so it goes. Writers Richard Glatzer, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, and Westmoreland are having fun.

This is a character driven film, and Knightley is a period piece’s dream. She tells Willy that she can read him like the top of an optimologist’s chart. Colette’s mother, Sido ( Fiona Shaw) , played with great nuance after her cruel, step-mother role in the film “Lizzie”, understands her son-in-law, too. “ A mess, a profligate” , Sido ( Colette’s real mother’s name was Adele)  calls him. Willy sells the rights to Colette’s Claudine novels for a mere 5,000 francs, and Colette tells him that he has “killed our child”. We learn from the film’s endnotes that Colette never spoke to Willy again.

Cinematographer Gile Nuttgens does his magic with a cat on an unmade bed, a bejeweled tortoise, velvet sets all in candle glow. Add an original Thomas Ades’ musical score to the lushness and we have a feast of movement interspersed with the silence of writing desks and ink wells. Denise Hough and Eleanor Tomlinson are both deliciously dressed and willing consorts to Colette. I loved it as a feminist coming-of -age story.

“Fahrenheit 11/9”

Michael Moore begins with a smart title and ends with a call to action. “This Girl is on Fire” would be an apt theme song. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a worthy star, and those like her. Those who take no money from special interest groups may be democracy’s last hope.

The boiling point and this retrospective of how America ended up with Donald Trump as President begins with the   snide question: “ Was it all a dream?” and then morphs into snippets of commentators and recognizable politicos overtly saying “ Donald Trump will never be President of the United States”. As many famous faces merely scoff and laugh at the idea, footage of Hillary’s 85% to Trump’s 15% presage a done deal for electing the first woman to the Oval Office.  Michael Moore reminds us of what he warned, “Dismiss him  ( Donald Trump) at your own peril.”

The use of operatic music is effective in re-living the tragedy of Trump’s win. State by state: Ohio, Florida, North Carolina etc… sound the Wagnerian cry. We are reminded that Trump had written no victory speech. His image projected on the Empire State Building is superimposed with a voiceover of  “ How the fuck did this happen?” Smoothly, the next screen shot is of the making of a cast dummy. At the Wax Museum, Donald’s waxen image with orange woven hair morphs into Donald Trump live. Moore is a master at this, both in innuendo and direct assault.

Many points are made, and not much escapes criticism. The media were ecstatic with the “cash cow” of the apprentice presidency. Video sections of Trump bragging about “phoner interviews” and reams of incidences where Trump kept the media waiting are splayed out to damning effect. When the “circus does come to town”, crimes are committed in plain sight, and Donald’s words, “ I sort of get away with things like that.” ring a scary truth. Moore is good at this.

One of the creepier segments of this documentary/diatribe parades a  sequence of twelve to fifteen shots of Donald with his hands on his daughter, Ivanka. Somehow, we think of kneading freshly risen dough.

A segue using the voiceover: “Trump loves strong men.” has Moore introducing us to the Governor of Michigan, Rick Snyder. Snyder, once the CEO of Gateway computer company is a “ privatized” of public services. Moore is in home territory. His scathing depiction of the Flint water crisis is tongue-in-cheek laudatory: “CEO governor  pulls it off~ poisons a city. No terrorist government has accomplished this!”

O’Bama takes his hits, too. We are shown how when President O’Bama came to Flint and drank the water on camera, he minimized the problem. Detroit was used for target practice, and when General Motors’ car parts started to corrode because of Flint river water, the Lake Huron pipeline was diverted to remedy the problem. The residents of Flint were left with the water from the polluted Flint River, but the car parts were saved.

Goldman Sacks and the banking industry was a priority of the O’Bama administration, too. Clinton and Sanders are rebooted, and the electoral college is said to have been written to appease the slave states. Bury it if we wish for a true democracy, states Moore.

Education and gun control are fleshed out as well. The Parkland piece brought tears to my eyes. As did privatized schools and prisons. When information is controlled and all critics are discredited, we have a despot a foot.

Moore tells us that “history is a huge resource for patterns.” Hitler comparisons are made to Trump. Bother were outsiders who trumpeted putting their nations first. Crowds flocked to see them. German athletes who did not sing the National Anthem were punished.  Trump’s rhetoric is used side by side that of the Nazi party’s.

Amid all the liberal points made, is the overriding theme :Our government that we count on for basic protections is being dismantled by corporate interests. We get what we deserve unless we do something about it. “Democracy is only an aspiration in America.” “The America I want to save is the America we have never had.” We must mobilize for freedom, and keep idealism alive. Moore does inspire. The film is equally balanced between pessimism and idealism. The status quo is the enemy as much as “Big Phara” and the NRA. Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9” screams  for action and votes.

 

“Lizzie: The Legend of Lizzie Borden”

No amount of anger can render the kind of violence shown in the film “Lizzie: The Legend of Lizzie Borden” without labeling the perpetrator a psychopath. Twenty whacks in the face with a hatchet done twice and once stark naked is more than even any abused “me,tooer” can conjure. Sorry, screenwriter Bryce Kass has taken the Lizzie Borden story into the modern era with no awareness of nineteenth-century repressive mores.

The nudity is over the top while it does show maniacal planning. Basically, Lizzie’s intellectual prowess slides into mind numbing revenge for tampering with her freedom. Lizzie is not to leave the house unaccompanied, and her inheritance is strictly controlled. In similar Victorian times, Emily Dickinson, remember, had to seek permission from her father to write at night. Victorian women’s  issues, the class divide, and gender repression were all better seen in the 2017 film “ A Quiet Passion” with Cynthia Nixon playing poet Emily. Not that Chloë Sevigny does not do an admirable job, but the motivation is just not extreme enough~and I argue can never be if Lizzie is to be anything but insane.

The film’s pacing is flawed, too. Except for the violence, “Lizzie” is a  painfully slow film. Even the Shakespearean sonnet reading by gaslights and candles does not make up for days going by petting pigeons and picking pears.

Hateful looks make the thirty-two year old Lizzie ( Chloe Sevigny) look like a rebellious teen. The lesbian sex in the pigeon-house and it’s subsequent thrusting against the hay stacks is for a sensationalized motive~ never proven . Yet, the flashback approach and the August 4th, 1882 beginning shot, that has us looking at the back of Lizzie’s fragile neck while we have thoughts of her step-mother’s soon to be severed, is promising. The screenplay just doesn’t deliver.

The film is well cast with Jaime Sheridan in the role of horny, miserly dad. He tells Lizzie that her epileptic seizures set the family up to ridicule. Denis O’Hare is overtly unctuous as the oily uncle, John Morse; and Kristen Stewart as Irish maid and sexual consort to Lizzie and Father dearest is fawn-like in her victimhood.  Actress Fiona Shaw is a long-suffering, though hateful step-mom. I  like how  she delivers her understated line to her husband, “…I am astonished at the endless ways you find to humiliate yourself and this family.” Kim Dickens is a credible older sister, who happens to be away at a friend’s house when the blood is splattered.

Director Craig William MacNeil can’t do much with a script that edges toward slasher/repressed lesbian suspense noir.

We do see Lizzie as whip-smart and sharp-tongued. When a taunting young woman asks why Lizzie’s family keep their house so dark, Lizzie retorts with the query, “ Are you an Edison? You seem  fixated with illumination.” When Lizzie’s father catches the maid, whom he has forced to have sex with him now with Lizzie, he calls his daughter an abomination. Lizzie coolly responds with, “ At last, we are on equal footing.”

But if you are seeing “Lizzie” to better understand her or to fill in the blanks of her history, you are seeing the wrong historical drama. Missives of the threatening sort, all in the same hand, bombard the family. Mr. Borden is not well-liked. He punishes Lizzie by having her pet pigeons served for dinner. Yet, it deference to their wealthy family, the murder trial is a closed affair. One will have to watch the History Channel to get the facts on these  unsolved murders. The psycho-drama in “Lizzie” did not enlighten or work for me.