erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2018 posts

Monday November 19, 2018

Movie Review: Last Letter (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Last Letter” (Chinese title: “你好 之华” or “Hello, Zhihua”) is a quiet, contemplative, post-longing movie that nevertheless relies upon one gigantic suspension of disbelief. Maybe two.

The movie begins in stoic sadness, with the funeral of Zhilan, a suicide, whose distraught teenaged daughter, Mumu (Deng Enxi), asks to take her mother’s ashes home. Aunt Zhihua (Zhou Xun, our star), nods. But where’s home? Since the father is out of the picture, Mumu and her younger brother, Chenchen (Hu Changlin), now live at Grandma’s. Except Chenchen wants to go to the city with his aunt and uncle, where the wi-fi is better. So a temporary swap is made: Zhihua’s daughter, Saran (Zhang Zifeng of “Aftershock” and “Detective Chinatown”), keeps Mumu company at Grandma’s, while Chenchen goes where the wi-fi is better. As they’re out the door, in the mailbox, Mumu finds an invitation for her mother to attend her 30th high school reunion. Zhihua smiles and promises to take care of it.

That’s the seeming nothing comment that will propel the rest of the movie.

没有手机
Last Letter movie reviewAt the reunion, everyone mistakes Zhihua for her sister, and she doesn’t correct them. Later, she’ll tell her husband there wasn’t time. He: “It’s just one sentence.” Initially we think Zhihua is just too polite, but there’s more at work.

She leaves the reunion early but is followed out by Yin Chuan (Qin Hao), a struggling novelist scraping by in Shanghai. He talks to her, asks her out for tea, she begs off saying she’s got a long busride home. There, both Chenchen and her husband, Wentou (Du Jiang), are sitting in the living room looking at their cell phones. (I like that bit.) She goes to shower, her phone remains behind, and she soon receives a text from Yin Chuan proclaiming his love. Wentou sees it and he’s not happy. Even after Zhihua explains about the mistaken identity, he’s not happy. He winds up breaking her cell phone in anger.

In the days that follow, he continues to take it out on her in a passive-aggressive manner. He presents her with a new cell: a string phone with an Apple logo on the cups. (Chenchen, with all the tech in the world at his fingertips, is genuinely amazed at how it works—another good bit.) Wentou also brings home two big dogs; then he lets his mother stay with them. Zhihua feels like she’s being tortured. She says so much in letters she writes to Yin Chuan. Physical letters. She no longer has a phone, she’s worried about Wentou snooping on her computer, so she resorts to this pre-internet way of communication. It’s charming and fits the movie’s pace, which is leisurely and contemplative.

But there’s more to Zhihua's letter-writing than merely avoiding a digital footprint; there’s a backstory.

Back in middle school, the young Zhihua (also played by Zhang Zifeng of “Aftershock,” etc.) had a crush on Yin Chuan, who had a crush on her older sister, Zhilan (also played by Deng Enxi). Classic love triangle. Yin Chuan even writes letters to Zhilan but Zhihua doesn’t pass them on. She’s trying to win him for herself. Eventually she does pass them on, even as she declares her love for Yin Chuan; but it's not reciprocated. In not correcting the mistaken impression at the high school reunion, she was, in effect, doing what she always wanted to do: replace her more beautiful older sister.

But there’s backstory even Zhihua doesn’t know. Yin Chuan wound up helping Zhilan with her commencement speech (she was class valedictorian), and at university they became friends and possibly lovers. He lost her to—or she left him for—Zhang Chao (Hu Ge), with whom she started a family. But he was a bad drunk, a bad husband, a bad man. He beat her. Eventually he left. Meanwhile Yin Chuan wrote a novel about and named after the love of his life: “Zhilan.” He didn’t have her but he had that. And eventually she had that. We find out that later in life she clung to it, and to the old letters he wrote her, and the love he had for her. Mumu is the one who tells the adult Yin Chuan all of this. She also tells him her mother would’ve been better off with him.

All of which provides a kind of closure for Yin Chuan (who feels he’ll be able to write again), for Zhihua (who still has a muted crush on Yin Chuan), not to mention Mumu (whose mother, after all, chose death over her). Meanwhile, the wi-fi-loving Chenchen is not as shallow as we think. He winds up involved in desperate acts of escape: for a pet bird and for himself.

The last letter of the (English) title is the letter Zhilan wrote to her children, which we see in a drawer in the first act, and which is read in the third—to not much effect. On purpose? Maybe that’s the idea. There are no answers.

你脏鼠
As for the suspensions of disbelief I mentioned in the lede?

The lesser is one of casting. You know the “Public Enemy” casting story? Initially Edward Woods was going to play the lead (Tom Powers), but they decided the second-billed James Cagney (as Matt) had more pizzazz, so they had them switch roles. But the childhood scenes had already been filmed, so the kid who’s a dead ringer for Cagney (Frankie Darro) grows up to be Edward Woods, while the tall slim boy (Frank Coghlan, Jr.) grows up to be the short, squat, pugnacious Cagney. So wrong. 

We get a bit of that here. Zhang Zifeng, who plays both the younger Zhihua and Zhihua’s daughter, is fine but she’s no great beauty. She's the first face in the poster above. But the movie would have us believe she becomes Zhou Xun, one of the most beautiful women in the world. (The third face in the poster.) Indeed, when I first saw Mumu (second-to-last face in the poster), I assumed she was playing Zhou Xun’s daughter since they looked alike. Instead, she’s the niece, as well as a younger version of the older sister. All of which at least makes the mistaken identity at the high school reunion more plausible; but it's still so wrong it takes us out of the picture.

What else takes us out of the picture? This long-standing problem: The movie industry attracts beautiful people who then often want to play ordinary people living ordinary lives. It's the “Michelle Pfeiffer can't get a date” syndrome. Here, too. In “Last Letter,” we have to believe that Zhou Xun—again, one of the most beautiful women in the world—plays second fiddle to her more beautiful older sister. 真的吗?

After the reveals, a few questions remain. Yin Chuan claims he knew it was Zhihua at the reunion. If so, why the text message proclaiming his love? Was he teasing her? Testing her? And if Zhihua went to the reunion to see Yin Chuan, why turn down his offer of tea and conversation?

Another puzzle: “Last Letter” is Japanese writer-director Shunji Iwai’s first Chinese-language film, but he’s already filming a Japanese version, also called “Last Letter,” which will be out next year. I’ve never seen that before. Is it simply a remake? An improvement? Are the two versions a comment on the cultural differences between China and Japan? Or did he just want to take it home? 

I might have to see it. I like the feeling this one left with me. I felt opened slightly, wiser slightly. I carried the movie’s delicate humanity with me as I left the theater.

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Posted at 07:56 AM on Nov 19, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Friday November 09, 2018

Movie Review: Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Queen’s performance at Live Aid, July 13, 1985, before 100,000 people at Wembley Stadium and millions watching worldwide, is often called one of the great live performances in rock history. And not just by its fans. Backstage, Elton John supposedly told the band, “You bastards, you just stole the show.” Dave Grohl, who’s played his share of stadium concerts, and knows a thing or two about how that can distance you from your audience, has said this:

Every band should study Queen at Live Aid. If you really feel like that barrier is gone, you become Freddie Mercury. I consider him the greatest frontman of all time.

Bohemian Rhapsody movie reviewIt wasn’t just the vocals and the strut, it was the interaction with the crowd: the whole DAY-oh! thing. He got them going and moving and a part of it. It’s become legend. 

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” the new biopic of Freddie Mercury, smartly ends with that concert.

Not so smartly? They try to tie up all the loose ends and anticipate the next six years of Freddie’s life before his death of AIDS in 1991 at the age of 45. 

I’m not talking about telling the other members of the band he has AIDS in 1985 rather than 1989. I’m not even talking about the rationale for Queen’s late entry into Live Aid. For the movie, Freddie’s nefarious assistant, Paul Prenter (Allen Leech of “Dowtown Abbey”), wasn’t relaying messages to Freddie, keeping him in a bubble, and away from friends and family. This included tearing up a desperate message that Queen was wanted at Live Aid. Except it wasn’t. In truth, the concert’s organizer, Bob Geldof of Boomtown Rats fame (“I Don’t Like Mondays”), didn’t even want them. Queen kept playing venues that were being boycotted by everyone else: Argentina in 1981; Sun City, South Africa in 1984. They were politically toxic. That’s why the late entry. Little Paulie’s machinations had nothing to do with it.

But—again—I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about how the movie presents Freddie’s day, July 13, 1985.

He gets up, feeds his cats, goes out. To Wembley? For the afternoon concert? No. According to the movie, this is the day Freddie finally tracks down Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker), with whom he would spend the rest of his life. In the movie they meet at a raucous party in ... 1980? Freddie’s naughty, Jim gives him a dressing down, Freddie acts the chastened schoolboy and is intrigued. Then he spends five years or whatever tracking Jim down. And he finally does it on this day: July 13, 1985.

And then Freddie goes on to Wembley to make rock history.

Actually, no. Though Freddie and Jim haven’t seen each other in however many years, they’re immediately a couple. Like that. So much so, that Freddie picks this day of all days to then visit his parents, stalwart immigrants, and to introduce Jim as his partner. And he’s not just introducing Jim; he’s coming out to his family. And guess what? They’re immediately accepting of him! Because of course they are. Father hugs son, mother is teary-eyed, son promises mom he’ll blow here a kiss during his performance, and everything is made right on this day, July 13, 1985, just before Freddie heads to Wembley for an afternoon concert to make rock ‘n’ roll history.

In the audience, I kept shaking my head.

Oh, and then the movie implies that no one gave a shit about starving kids in Africa until Queen started playing. Not sure who’s more insulted by that: the other bands at Live Aid, or all of us.

Is this the real life
The tagline for “Bohemian Rhapsody” is: 

FEARLESS
LIVES
FOREVER

Which I misread at first. I read “lives” as a noun rather than a verb—as in “He led a fearless life.” Either way, it doesn’t quite fit. Freddie was fearless in being flamboyant and original. But he was still a gay Parsi kid named Farrokh Bulsara who spent most of his life hiding his heritage and his homosexuality. Apparently he wanted to both stand out and fit in. That’s the wish of most of us, really. That’s where the dilemma is, but the movie makes a muddle of it.

The movie’s a muddle generally. You wait for the great songs (“Killer Queen,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Somebody to Love,” “Crazy Little Thing”), and you thrill at Rami Malek’s dead-on impersonation of Freddie’s unique, strutting stage presence. But in between these moments, we get conflicts that are either cliché or contradictory.

So there’s the fictional record exec (Mike Myers, in a nod to “Wayne’s World”’s Queen scene) who can’t see the point of a six-minute single 10 years after “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Hey Jude” broke the barrier. He gets his. So there’s the nefarious underling who pulls Freddie away from family and friends and toward decadence. (Pull Freddie toward decadence? From what I’ve heard, he leapt.) And they can’t even do this right. When the schemer, Paul, assistant to manager John Reid (Aidan Gillen of “Game of Thrones”/”The Wire”), tells Reid that maybe Freddie should break from the band for a solo career, and then Reid suggests this to Freddie in the back of a limo, Freddie is so incensed by the suggestion that he fires Reid on the spot. So Paul becomes the manager. Then Freddie agrees to do the very thing he fired Reid for even suggesting. Why? How did Paul change his mind?

I don’t know how many times Freddie talks up the fans in the back row, the ones who don’t fit in, the freaks who are different—as he was, called “Paki” (for his heritage) and “Bucky” (for his teeth). And yet what are some of their biggest songs? Jock anthems: “We Will Rock You,” “We are the Champions,” “Another One Bites the Dust.” Each has been adopted by some sports team or another. The World Series-winning 1981 LA Dodgers even performed a horrible rendition of “We are the Champions” for posterity. I would’ve loved 10 seconds on that incongruity. Seeing jocks singing it at a futbol match: “These arsholes would’ve beaten me up at St. Pete’s.” Something.

Here’s the biggest question: Where did it all come from? The singing, the talent, the strutting? To the movie, it’s just suddenly there. He’s a shy kid working baggage at Heathrow and admiring a band, Smile, who’ve just lost their lead singer, Tim Staffel; and then he’s onstage and he’s Freddie. In real life, according to Slate, they all knew each other much earlier:

Mercury, who had drifted through other groups as a keyboard player, always wanted to be the band’s lead singer, sometimes shouting, “If I was your singer, I’d show you how it was done,” from the audience and already offering unsolicited advice on image and performance, telling them, according to May, “You’re not dressing right, you’re not addressing the audience properly. There’s always opportunity to connect.” In fact, by the time Staffell quit, May, Taylor, and Mercury (then still Bulsara) were sharing an apartment, so when the vacancy arose, Mercury was the natural person to fill it. 

I love the thought of Freddie shouting from the audience. Would that we could’ve seen it.

Is this just fantasy
Great casting. I’ll give it that. Dead on. Everyone looks the part. 

But “Bohemian Rhapsody” doesn’t live up to its tagline. It’s not fearless. It’s a typical rock biopic. It’s ordinary. It’s what Freddie wasn’t.

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Posted at 01:20 AM on Nov 09, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Thursday November 08, 2018

Movie Review: First Man (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

Shouldn’t it have been more fun?

I love that they make space travel seem hard, and foreign, and existential. It was and is. There’s a moment when they’re closing the metal door on the Apollo 11 capsule, with its metal handle, and I thought, “Someone made that metal handle on that metal door to lock into place, and seal in these men on a four-day flight through space, to the moon, and then back again. Human beings did that. And they did that only 60+ years after we first figured out how to fly in airplanes. My god, what a leap. What a gigantic undertaking. How monumental.”

So shouldn’t the movie have been more monumental?  

First Man reviewThe eight years “First Man” encompasses, from 1961 to 1969, are serious, driven and haunted. Also ultimately triumphant—but triumph in the minor key. Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) does it, NASA does it, but to what end? A few dead friends, a troubled marriage, a month of quarantine, and many people arguing whether we should’ve gone in the first place. We get Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon” before whitey was even on the moon. Seeing the plethora of American flags, and the idiot left arguing against going (because we have so many problems here on earth), made me flash on today’s idiot right protesting the movie because it wasn’t patriotic enough. They wanted the money shot, the planting of the American flag on the moon’s soil. Without it, apparently, they couldn’t get off.

Both Ryan Gosling and Neil Armstrong have been criticized for being too emotionless, so the part seemed well-cast. Plus Gosling has worked with director Damien Chazelle before—in 2016’s award-winning “La La Land.” That movie was like the arthouse version of the musical. This is like the arthouse version of an adventure story. And I guess I wanted more adventure. Or a better story. 

Perspective
As is, the story is a subtle refrain on dealing with grief.

In 1962, Armstrong’s daughter, Karen, dies at the age of 2 from a malignant tumor in her brain stem. Armstrong is clearly devastated but he throws himself into his work. He’s an engineer and a pilot. For NASA? I think so but it’s hard to tell. The movie opens with him test-piloting a plane past the reaches of our atmosphere but having difficulty with re-entry and rocketing up past 140,000 feet before regaining control and landing at Edwards Air Force base. Supposedly this was legendary but it’s not clear why we see it—other than for the perspective it offers: the blue warmth of earth, the cold blackness of space.

He talks about perspective when he interviews for NASA’s Gemini program:

I don't know what space exploration will uncover, but I don't think it‘ll be exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it’ll be more the fact that it allows us to see things—that maybe we should have seen a long time ago—but just haven't been able to until now.

To me, that perspective is: It’s just us. Whatever “us vs. them” we have going on down here, in the big picture it’s earth vs. a vast nothing. So don’t fuck it up.

In that interview, Armstrong also talks briefly about grief:

NASA official: I was sorry to hear about your daughter.
Armstrong: I'm sorry, is it a question?
NASA official: What I mean is... Do you think it‘ll have an effect?
Armstrong: I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn’t have some effect.

That’s good. The interview is good. It’s one of my favorite parts of the movie. Which is a little sad when you think about it. A movie shouldn’t hit its high point with a job interview.

During the decade, grief grows. Friends are made, friends die—including Elliot See (Patrick Fugit), Ed White (Jason Clarke) and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham). With each death, Armstrong seemed more enclosed, more driven, until he’s chosen as commander of Apollo 11, the flight that will send a man to the moon and safely back to earth before the end of the decade, fulfilling JFK’s 1961 promise. Did that promise piss off anyone at NASA? Did anyone go, “Wait, what? We have to do what by when? Are you shitting me?” That would be funny if true. But every movie treats the promise with reverence.

At a press conference before the Apollo 11 flight, Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) is joking around, talking about bringing his wife’s jewelry on the flight. Is the conversation a riff on Gus Grissom’s fuck-up during the Mercury program? Loading himself down with coins, etc.? Anyway, Armstrong is asked, in the same jokey manner, what he’d like to bring, and, in that blank-faced sotto-voce way, replies, “More fuel.” Party pooper.

Even so, at that moment, I flashed on his daughter’s bracelet. After her funeral in 1962, Armstrong puts her bracelet into a desk drawer, which he closes with authority, as if to blot it all out. But it's like Chekhov's gun: a bracelet shoved into a drawer in the first act will reappear in the third. As it does. Armstrong has it on the moon. And as Aldrin is bouncing around with joy, Armstrong, forever serious, glances down at the bracelet, and, as if with a sigh, lets it drop into a nearby crater. And we get closure.

And bullshit.

Apparently it’s educated conjecture but it still felt like bullshit to me. Everything else in the movie is so grounded—ironically so, given the topic. It’s the dreary day-to-day. Then this moment. Would Armstrong really do that? On the first flight? When we didn’t really know how much of it was even possible? When all of it was still educated conjecture?

Vinny’s lament
My wife loved “First Man.” My friend Vinny—a fan of the 2007 documentary “In the Shadow of the Moon”—didn’t, and for many of the same reasons I had a problem with it. On Twitter:

  • How did they take an event oriented so strongly around risk, optimism, technology, discovery and imagination, and turn it into a moody grouchfest?
  • Why did they need to turn Aldrin into a bad guy?
  • Why is 30% of the movie about Armstrong’s wife and kids?

Answers in reverse order:

  • Because that’s what Hollywood does. (Cf., the wives and kids in “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff”)
  • I don’t know. (Although I liked this exchange, as the astronauts stare up at one of Apollo’s rockets. Aldrin: “I’m just saying what everyone’s thinking.” [Long pause] Armstrong (quietly): “Maybe you shouldn’t.”)
  • Because that’s what Hollywood does. 

I don't mean Hollywood does “grouchfest.” I’m thinking of the daughter. I’m comparing it to “Contact,” the 1997 film starring Jodie Foster. A monumental, fictitious event—first contact with ETs—is reduced, emotionally, to Foster’s character’s closure with the premature death of her father. Hollywood seems to think we can only understand or root for the monumental by reducing it to the personal.

Even so, I did want more fun. At one point, in the mid-60s, Ed White stops by Neil’s home as he’s doggedly going over all the engineering calculations he needs to know for the next phase, and asks him down to his house for a beer. Neil begs off; then he seems to study himself. Or maybe he studies others’ perceptions of him? But he relents. “I could use a beer,” he says.

That's the movie. The movie could’ve used a beer. 

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Posted at 02:21 AM on Nov 08, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Wednesday November 07, 2018

Movie Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? movie review

WARNING: SPOILERS

As the movie opens, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is sitting at her desk at 3 a.m., editing copy (magazine copy, I guess?), with an adult beverage nearby, when several co-workers complain: “You’re not supposed to eat or drink here.” Her response? “Fuck off.” Unfortunately she says this to her boss, and out she goes. She’s walking home in the early morning light, when, in the background, high atop one of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, we see these words lit up in red: NEW YORKER. 

Yeah, that’s about the size of it, I thought. You’re struggling, you’ve just got knocked down a rung or two on the ladder, and there it is, in the distance, visible but impossibly out of reach. Winking at you.

Or maybe I was reading myself into this too much?

Bottle in front of me
What surprised me is that Israel wasn’t some struggling writer; she was actually successful. She interviewed Katherine Hepburn in 1967 for Esquire (“Last of the Honest-to-God Ladies”). She wrote three biographies. The movie mentions she’d once been on the New York Times bestseller list but not with what. It was her bio of Broadway columnist and ’50s game show regular Dorothy Kilgallen. That seems fun. She seemed drawn to witty women: Kilgallen, Tallulah Bankhead, Fanny Brice. Her downfall, which the movie obscures, was the next book. Her publisher, Macmillan, tapped her for a warts-and-all bio of cosmetics queen Estee Lauder. Lauder supposedly tried to bribe her to drop the project, or at least the warts, but Israel didn’t. So Lauder came out with her own autobiography first. There went the sales. And Israel’s bio was reamed in the press.

The movie, as I said, obscures this. It implies that she’s just generally awful and no one wants to be around her. In this way, it's trying to be like “Tootsie," but without the joy. She’s Michael Dorsey, her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtain), is George Fields, who has to tell her, “No one will hire you.” Michael’s reaction was to become another person: a woman. Lee’s is to become several of them: dead, hard drinking, literary heavyweights such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. What she’d done with her biographies—hiding herself behind her subjects—she does even more expertly here.

It’s 1991 and she lives in a walkup on the upper west side of Manhattan. Her main companion is her cat—and drink. She owes back rent and money to the vet. She doesn’t even realize how much she’s let herself go.

Despite a resounding lack of interest, she’s still researching her bio on Fanny Brice when, in the library, tucked into the pages of a book, she finds a letter written by Brice. She steals it, tries to sell it, but is only offered $75. It’s just not witty enough. So Israel adds a P.S. that is. The price skyrockets to $400 and she’s off and running—creating such letters out of whole cloth. 

Her confidante is all this, and eventually her partner in crime after the feds begin to close in, is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). The scenes between the two of them, laughing at the squares at a mid-day dive bar, are fun. My wife has always wanted to have drinks with Richard Grant, so this movie is almost her wish-fulfillment fantasy. 

For me, it just wasn't witty enough. Something was missing. Something specific. 

You know who was originally tapped for the role? Julianne Moore. You know what both Moore and McCarthy have in common? They’re not Jewish. You look at a photo of the real Lee Israel, who published her memoir about all this in 2008, and died in 2014, and it’s like looking at Golda Meir. Taking away the Jewish thing is just taking away too much. Not that I can figure out who to cast in McCarthy’s place. Natalie Portman? Gal Gadot? Is Jenny Slate too young? Michaela Watkins too obscure? You need a character actress for the role and no one in Hollywood, apparently not even indie Hollywood, is going to bankroll a movie about literary fraud starring a character actress who’s Jewish.

Yet that’s exactly the movie I want to see. That's my wish-fulfillment fantasy. 

Frontal lobotomy
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” written by both Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and directed by Marielle Heller, isn’t bad. It’s just ... too much the dead end. It’s too drab. It should’ve been livelier. More pretensions should’ve been popped. The dead end, by the way, isn’t just Israel’s world but what the literary world had become by then: overwhelmed by other media; relegated to the margins, and to airless bookshops. Israel’s a woman out of time but doesn’t seem to realize it. Or the movie doesn’t.

I did like her swipes at Nora Ephron, with whom she shared an agent. The movie seems to join in on the tweaking by presenting us with Ephronesque images of Manhattan, and Ephronesque standards on the soundtrack, to accompany this very unromantic story.

Israel’s crimes are mostly victimless. Or the victims are snooty, tight-assed book dealers, so we don’t care. But the victims are also literary heavyweights and history. So we should.

There’s a good scene near the end when Israel sees one of her faux Dorothy Parker letters being sold in the window of a bookshop. It’s now up to $1900. She asks the bookseller how they know the letter is authentic, and he says it comes with a letter of authenticity. She asks if this letter of authenticity has a letter of authenticity, then drops a few hints indicating that the letter is indeed a fraud—hers. The bookseller is scandalized. He goes to the window, looks at the letter, is about to walk away with it. But nah. It’s $1900. Back it goes. Back into history.

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Posted at 01:02 AM on Nov 07, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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Wednesday October 24, 2018

Movie Review: A Star is Born (2018)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Wouldn’t it have been better without that final confrontation between Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) and Rez (Rafi Gavron), his wife’s idiot Brit manager?

Imagine it. On stage at the Grammys, Maine, falling down drunk, literally pissing in his pants, embarrasses himself and his wife, Ally (Lady Gaga), recipient of Best New Artist. He goes into rehab, seems to come out OK, seems to be doing OK, when, with Ally on tour, we watch in horror as he quietly hangs himself. All of us would wonder why. Which is the exactly question most suicides leave us with. Why?

A Star is Born movie reviewInstead, we know exactly why. Rez tells Jackson that he ruined Ally’s big moment and he’s ruining her career and she’s better off without him. And Jackson takes all this in and has nowhere to go with it. Away? What away? Into the bottle? That’s what started the problems in the first place. There’s no place to go except that place. So he goes there.

Afterwards, Jackson’s way older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), tells Ally that she can’t blame herself for the suicide; it’s not her fault. “You know whose fault it is?” he asks, and before he can give his answer (Jackson’s), every person in the audience is thinking this: “Yeah! Her fucking manager!”

So by extension her. She’s the idiot who brought him onto the scene in the first place.

Maybe it’s time
I guess I liked “A Star is Born” or I wouldn’t care so much about this aspect of it. And I did like it. I felt improbably sad afterward. I felt a void in me. I wanted to cry but couldn’t.

That said, the movie lost itself for me when Rez showed up. I immediately didn’t trust him, but Ally did, she dropped everything for him, and said, basically, “Sure, I’ll have background dancers. Sure, I’ll be Beyoncé #32 amid a Destiny’s Child #89.” The first song she sings for Jackson is “Shallow,” and includes the line, “We’re far from the shallow now.” But given the opportunity, she ran right back to the shallow.

Is that the point? Is that the tragedy? The honesty and truth that he fell in love with goes away, and it’s replaced by something manufactured? And is that ultimately why he kills himself?

Most of you know the story. It’s been made four times now but this was the first time I’d ever seen it. Guess I got some catching up to do.

I knew it, of course. He’s famous, plucks her from obscurity; and as she rises, he falls.

Was it always drink? It is here. Mostly. Jackson Maine is a country-rock star who plays stadium tours before 20,000 screaming fans. He’s recognized everywhere he goes. He’s even recognized in drag bars despite the fact that his music isn’t exactly theirs. That’s where he shows up one night just looking for a drink. He’s immediately befriended by Ramon (Anthony Ramos, John Laurens in the original “Hamilton”), whose friend, Ally, is about to perform. She sings. All the other performers are men in drag who lip synch, but they like having her around. She’s their Bette. That night she sings Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose” and for a moment, as she lays on the bar, Jackson stares at her the way we all want to be stared at one day: with pure love.

They have an evening of it: this bar, this fight, this late-night grocery store, this parking lot. She sings him an early version of “Shallow.” Just getting to know each other and enjoy each other. It’s nice. He invites her to his next gig in the next town, but she’s all no, she has to go to her shitty waitressing job. But the manager is a dick, he says the wrong thing, and so she’s gone, she and Ramon, driven then flown to his next show, where they stand in the wings. Apparently, while she was sleeping, Jackson took her song, arranged it, taught it to his band, and he wants her out there singing it in front of 20,000 people. She resists. And resists. And resists. Then jumps. She’s a hit. It’s a beautiful song and a high point in the movie.

At the same time...

The movie spends a lot of time talking about what makes a star. Ally’s working-class father, Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay, thriving in his second act), is the first to bring it up. I thought he brought it up in the negative for her—why she wasn’t, despite the talent—but he’s really talking about himself. He had the pipes (or said he had the pipes) like Sinatra, but he was never in the same neighborhood as Sinatra. Why? What’s that other thing? The thing he didn’t have?

Whatever it is, it feels like she has it in the drag bar but not on stage before 20,000 screaming fans. She acts like she shouldn’t be there. It’s a real reaction—a woman who thought she would be waiting tables is instead doing this—but it’s not exactly indicative of stardom. And sure, the pipes. Blew me away. But what’s the difference between Ally doing this and Lisa Fischer singing “Gimme Shelter” with the Stones? Fischer can sing rings around Jagger but it’s still the Stones everyone came to see.

But it’s a movie, so suddenly everyone’s talking about her? I guess. Bradley Cooper, as director, never really pulls back. The media is never present here, it’s omnipresent. It’s assumed. We never see a headline, spinning or otherwise. Instead , we get the fans, and the cashiers taking photos, and YouTube clicks. Maybe that’s the way now. Maybe that’s how it feels inside the phenomenon.

So now she’s Jackson’s gal, a regular on the tour, like Patti Scialfa to Springsteen; and that’s when Rez shows up offering her a deal. And she reacts like she’s still back at the restaurant.

To let the old ways die
Break it down a little. What’s the tension and conflict in the first part of the movie? It’s them getting together and her getting on stage.

And in the second part? What’s the conflict? So many things. It’s not clean.

It’s his drinking, sure. It’s also tinnitus. He can’t hear the rhythm anymore. Is it also less Ally’s rise than the way she rises? As Beyoncé #32? As someone who bypasses the true for the shallow? At one point, early on, he has a conversation with her about getting that moment and telling your truth, and instead it feels like she’s telling Beyoncé’s. She’s telling Rez’s truth, which are lies. She does dance numbers with back-up singers, and sings about ... what? I don’t think I caught one line. It’s like they turned Patti Scialfa into Whitney. They actually tried that with Lisa Fischer and it didn’t take. But in this world it takes. Soon, too soon, she’s playing 20,000-seat stadium concerts on her own.

I always thought the main (or Maine) problem in “A Star is Born” is that the man became jealous of the woman’s success. Here, it feels more like, “You’re becoming the opposite of who I thought you were.” I think that’s why he calls her ugly, too. Not physically; it’s what she’s becoming. He’s created a monster. He thought he was giving the world something true but it was another false idol for them to worship. But if this is there—intended or otherwise—the movie never owns up to it.

Again: Does he kill himself not just because of the tinnitus and the drinking and the embarrassment, but because Rez wins? Because more and more, it’s Rez’s world? 

Gaga’s good. Cooper’s great. He should get an Oscar nom just for his gin-soaked voice. I was almost disappointed when Sam Elliott showed up. “Oh, he’s doing Sam.” I thought he was doing Blaze Foley. But then Blaze never played 20,000-seat arenas.

Looking forward to the conversations on this one.

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Posted at 02:20 AM on Oct 24, 2018 in category Movie Reviews - 2018
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