A STAR IS BORN – MASTERFUL VARIATION ON AN INHERENTLY DISSONANT THEME

SPOILERS!

SHORT TAKE:

Artistic, excellent, and faithful (4th) version of a A Star is Born, a story with a destructive message.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Adults only, let me count the ways: language (I think there is only one adjective they knew and they used it with abandon), sex outside of marriage, excessive drinking, illicit drug use, nakedness, and a bar frequented by those with drastically alternative lifestyles.

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SPOILERS!!!

LONG TAKE:

There is great wisdom in 1 Corinthians 13:11:

"When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. But, when I became a man, I put away the things of a child."

A lot of movies seen in one’s teens and early twenties, seem like a good idea at the time, but do not stand up well under the scrutiny of age and experience.

One of those is Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). When it came out, it seemed like a sci fi fantasy of a man in search of his dream to confirm the existence of extra-terrestrials, who flies off, like Peter Pan, into the stars with them. In fact, the movie is about a man who abandons his wife and children to go off on a lark. Regardless of the circumstances, he is a cad of extra-ordinary proportions. Then Pretty Women (1990), which holds itself out as a modern Cinderella story, actually Disneyfies prostitution, making it look appealing with a prize at the end instead of a body and soul destroying meat grinder (pun intended). Ditto for The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982). It holds itself out as a musical comedy but really sets up a madam and a corrupt politician as the main protagonists. (Haven’t any of these people seen East of Eden? I suspect Kate’s cold, calculating and cruel flesh peddler is a more accurate version of a madam than Dolly Parton’s cutesy songstress Mona.) You get the idea.

The third manifestation of A Star is Born (1976), with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson seemed, in the theater, to a 17 year old, a romantic, tear jerking, self sacrificing love story. I have seen all of versions 1937, 1976, and 2018 and enough of 1954 to realize that that one is just a badly done and unrelatable Judy Garland vehicle. The names change slightly with each movie. All the men have the surname of Maine, and in this one his given name is Jackson. Gaga's character's name this time around is Ally. In truth A Star is Born – all of them – is about of a man who destroys the person he loves … twice …. because he is a self-indulgent, self-pitying, weak and arrogant coward.

Please don’t get me wrong. I loved A Star is Born when I first saw it in theaters right out of high school. And before I launch into my criticisms of the story, let me say that, on one level, I thought this 2018 Bradley Cooper auteur production the best of the litter – a magnificent bit of cinema (the plaudits for which I will get to later) ………. but of an inherently bad story.

IF I HAVE NOT MADE MYSELF CLEAR HERE YET, THERE ARE SPOLIERS AHEAD!!!

The premise presents itself about a man who is a great star (either singer or actor depending upon which decade’s movie you are talking about) with VERY bad habits, on his way down, who gives "THE FIRST BIG" shot at stardom to a promising female artist. When he realizes he cannot (or will not) cease his destructive behaviors, he kills himself, allegedly, to protect his former protégé, now wife from being held back. What is really happening is that an addicted, boorish, self-indulgent loser, who has achieved his dreams, does indeed generously provide a boost to the extremely talented woman of his dreams. BUT instead of doing the TRULY heroic act of changing his own life FOR her, drags her down. When he decides he will not cease his addictions or his self-destructive behavior, this narcissistic, self-absorbed waste of space tries very hard to destroy her again by committing suicide. In all four cases, this second act of destruction almost succeeds. In all four cases, we are left at the end of the movie wondering when, not if, it will be her turn to follow in her husband's footsteps.

A very big deal is made in the movie about saying something with your art. I must wonder what it is that this movie is trying to say: "When you hit rock bottom you should grab a shovel and dig it deeper by killing yourself?"

BUT – having said my piece on this point —–

Putting this massive flaw aside, the movie is still a masterfully done piece of art. I cannot place blame on Mr. Cooper for the ending because that IS the way it has always played out. I suppose I could blame him for expending his efforts on a story with a terrible message, but once having chosen this project he does an excellent job with its composition. This IS the way A Star is Born was written 81 years ago. (The first version was in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, both BARELY out of the silent film era.)

Kudos to Cooper’s commitment to the project. He mastered guitar playing for this role in an 18 month Blitzkrieg, including performing live at a festival, singing his own original songs, on the same stage with Kris Kristofferson, who previously played the same role for which Cooper was training – all while keeping the movie under wraps! AND Cooper is not just the star of the movie, but also was one of the adapting screenwriters, is the director, one of the producers, did all of his own playing and singing and wrote four of the movie’s songs. I admired the way Cooper approached the story. This Star’s incarnation hits all the high notes, the low notes, the musical arcs and has the same finale as all the others.

Lady Gaga, born Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, I was shocked to discover, is quite a talented actress. Not a big fan before hand, I liked "Poker Face" and "Bad Romance," but was not familiar with her videos. I was jaw dropped to see her name in the trailer credits. She, more than a little, resembles a young Barbra Streisand in her manner, looks and singing talent. (She even complains about her nose.) This fits, as Bab’s manager/boyfriend at the time of Streisand's Star was Jon Peters, whose production company made Cooper's Star.

There were a few amazing surprises among the actors, not the least of which was Lady Gaga herself, as already mentioned, who did an incredible job. There is one scene in particular where in she finds herself on stage with Jackson Maine and her subtle and delicate transformation from newbie, frightened singer to confident but still terrified performer whose potential is glimpsed and then blossoms and matures throughout movie is subtle, transformative and deserves recognition. Other stand out performances include Sam Elliott as the REAL hero of the movie who stands by Jackson as long as he can as his manager, confidante, keeper, and older brother.

Andrew Dice Clay made a perplexingly successful career as a stand-up comic by being blunt, vulgar and every –ist you can think of. When you are boycotted by Sinead O'Connor and a regular cast member, Nora Dunn, for a Saturday Night Live appearance, and then from MTV for 18 years for being too offensive, you should consider that perhaps there are some issues with your routine. In A Star is Born he is pleasantly unrecognizable as Ally's gentle and supportive father, who whimsically reminisces about how he could have been a crooner "like Frank Sinatra".

The songs are – in a word – excellent. Catchy and communicative with a readily accessible emotional core, they were all the more surprising in that four of them were written by Bradley Cooper, not heretofore known as a musician.

I was very impressed by some of Mr. Cooper’s directorial decisions. For one thing there is no soundtrack except for the songs being performed or played on the radio or jukebox. There is none of the emotional manipulation, which is almost ubiquitous in other movies’ accompanying score. Don't get me wrong, I love a good soundtrack which often enhances or forewarns the audience in a particular scene. I have often wished I personally had a soundtrack to my life so I would know in advance what was coming.

Mr. Cooper plays his scenes with no such safety net. Some of the movie even feels somewhat documentary. Not in the dry, dusty, awkward way in which we appear as unwanted guests into other people's lives, but as a welcome friend sitting across the table watching the interchange between these two friends, lovers, and musical partners who must inevitably part.

All in all, I enjoyed this incarnation of A Star is Born. I had looked forward to it with a lot of expectation and most were fulfilled. I was sorry they had cut out one particularly appealing scene from the trailer where Jackson tells Ally she is beautiful and her eyebrows rise precipitously in surprise. But in the end I was a little disappointed, but not really surprised. I had hoped against hope, knowing the story, that with this fourth variation on a theme Mr. Cooper would have found a way to make the story more uplifting. It is a faithful telling of the story, but it is unfortunate that the story itself is fatally flawed. So I do not fault Mr. Cooper for the ending.

Just as you are not likely to turn Anna Karenina into a musical comedy, it would be very difficult to alter a classic tragedy without making it unrecognizable. (Although Steve Martin did just that with Roxannecreatively found a way to forge a happy ending with Cyrano de Bergerac but still keeping the essence of the tale intact.)

I just can’t help musing that a truly noble heroic Mr. Maine would have manned up to his own weaknesses, sent his protege on her way, and done something meaningful with the rest of his life: mission work in Africa, volunteer for at-risk kids in inner cities, used his notoriety to become an example of what could happen in Scared Straight programs, done PSA's against drugs and drinking. But alas the Roxanne ending was not to be.

I'll give it this, it is not Singing in The Rain. There is no soft peddling, sanitizing or making light of the music profession. And I suspect this Star is an accurate account of the insides of the industry, where one is lucky to get a guest spot at a bar for drag queens while holding down a job as an unappreciated waiter at a local restaurant. That even if you are lucky enough to "make it," the experience is just as likely to make you an addicted, deaf, jaded wreck as it is to provide you with wealth and power and fame. Star does not paint a pretty picture. What it lacks in virtue it makes up for in honesty. If you can’t be a good example, at least be a horrible warning.

I look forward to Mr. Cooper's next project. I hope it involves some singing because he is quite good. I also look forward to seeing Lady Gaga act again. The relationship between the two was electric and portrayed with a natural chemistry. All of the elements were beautifully crafted and fit like an intricately harmonious chord. I just hope Bradley Cooper finds a more noble project to lend his considerable talents to in the future.

READY PLAYER ONE – A GEEKATHON – WHEREIN ONE DYSTOPIAN SOCIETY IS REPLACED WITH ANOTHER

SHORT TAKE:

Forget HAVING Easter eggs in it – Ready Player One really IS one big Easter egg of visual and auditory memorabilia set against a virtual reality treasure hunt but leaves one wondering who the real bad guy is.

LONG TAKE:

The premise to Ready Player One follows Wade (Tye Sheridan – the new Scott Sommers/Cyclops), a participant in a global virtual reality treasure hunt with the prize of ownership of the virtual world Oasis and virtually (pun intended) unlimited wealth and power. Not only is he competing against all the other Gunters (Easter Egg Hunters), but finds himself up against an "evil" competitor company IOI, run by Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn who was both the doomed sinister scientist in Rogue One and delightful as King George VI in Darkest Hour), which produces the virtual reality equipment used in the Oasis and will stop at nothing in either the virtual world or the real one to win the prize.

If you thought the Collector in Guardians of the Galaxy had an abundance of references to other movies, wait – because the Collector's Showroom compared to Ready Player One is like comparing a birthday candle to a blowtorch.

I supposed it did all start with the 1979 Atari game Adventure. A departing employee placed his name in a video game, like the signature on a painting, which only appeared when a certain spot was hit. Atari management decided it was a good marketing ploy and started planning similar little "treasures" which eventually came to be known as "Easter eggs".

As time went on the same ploy began to be used in movies. Like product placement, subtle and not so subtle references to other movies started turning up in odd places. Pixar is famous for having the Pizza Truck from Toy Story in all of their movies – as an advertisement or a toy or some other clever way to implant the image. The same for the ball in the first animated Pixar lamp short, and the voice of  John Ratzenberger in EVERY Pixar movie – Hamm in Toy Story, the Flea circus manager in A Bug’s Life, a construction worker in Up, a crab in Finding Dory.  "Easter Eggs" all. And they can be both obvious and obscure in other movies. Stan Lee appears in all the Marvel movies with a cameo and one liner. Harry Dean Stanton from the doomed Nostromo in the original Alien movie portrays a security guard in The Avengers and asks a transformed Banner who just landed/crushed a building as the Hulk, if he is an "alien".

Easter eggs can manifest in a variety of ways – a musical theme or song, a toy, a picture or photo, the appearance of an entire character as a cameo. And I do not think it is a coincidence that the vast majority of movie Easter eggs occur in sci fi and animated movies because THAT is where the geeks are! And the geek world of video games is where they were birthed.

So, as a fellow geek, it is without fear of revealing any significant spoilers that I can safely say Ready Player One is pretty much one BIG Easter egg, or more accurately a Conga-line of familiar images, a plethora of homages, a virtual EXPLOSION of Easter eggs – and just in time for Easter.

If you took a snapshot pretty much anywhere in the virtual reality, Oasis, created by Ready Player One you could probably count 15 Easter eggs in any given random shot. I went with my sister, my mother-in-law, my son-in-law and my oldest daughter and each of us caught images or characters or houses or landscapes or music themes that others of us did not. And I feel certain that even if we pooled our collective observations there were dozens in every shot that none of us saw.

The homages in Ready Player One is an overload of nostalgia, almost an assault on the senses of little treasures: from Freddy Kreuger to the house out of the Wizard of Oz to the Charm of Making from John Boorman’s Excalibur to the Star Fleet insignia from Star Trek.

Not all the Easter eggs are quite so obvious. Some are thematic or even in the structure of the premise. The movie can be seen as a homage to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory starting with the trailer's remix of "Pure Imagination". RPO's Halliday (Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies, Wolf Hall, Dunkirk), the co-inventor of the virtual reality world, Oasis,  has a mental candy factory which he plans, posthumously, to leave to the player who completes three challenges and assorted surprise trials which, like Charlie's decision about to whom to give the Unending Gobstopper at the end of Willy Wonka, tests the integrity as well as the video gaming prowess of the players.

There is also a magical whimsicalness and endearing awkwardness to Rylance’s Halliday, much like there is to Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka. Halliday is a kind of combination Bill Gates, Willy Wonka, and Rainman – all products of the 70s and 80s. There's also an evil competing Corporation who is out to get the secrets of Oasis at all cost, much like Slugworth is portrayed as being after the secrets to the Wonka Factory.

Then again, the main characters and their friends play out much like Dorothy and her friends in The Wizard of Oz who have real life counterparts in Kansas. The Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow in Oz are farm hands on a ranch owned by Dorothy's aunt and uncle. In Ready Player One, similarly, Art3mis (not a typo) a fairy like character and Wade’s primary ally (Olivia Cooke), along with a Ninja, and a cyborg all have human counterparts in the real world.

BEYOND HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS – I MEAN REALLY – DON'T SAY I DIDN'T WARN YOU

But seriously – how much spoiler can there be when you know this is a Steven Spielberg movie? Nice kid and his friends go up against an evil corporate Empire. Do you really think Spielberg is going to go Brazil on us? So the kids will win……………….sort of.

BUT

What if I told you about a movie featuring an opium addicted kid who is given the opportunity to win ownership of the Opium syndicate through a series of physical and mental challenges. When he wins, predictably, in the end, he frees the slaves made to work in the field but continues making the opium, thereby perpetuating the creation of voluntary slaves who willingly take his product. You would probably think this was some kind of Chinese film noir. And I'm not sure you would think the lead was much of a hero either – certainly not a role Jackie Chan would want.

Now replace opium with a virtual reality game and you have Ready Player One.

Keep in mind this kind of premise has been dealt with many times before: Logan’s Run – sheltered society where movement to the "next level" at 30 was a cover for the ‘60's Hippie Utopia of killing everyone over 30 (reference Who lyric: "Hope I die before I get old"). Or Total Recall where the ending is debated to this day as to whether Quaid really is on Mars as an operative or has had a psychotic breakdown in a virtual reality machine. Then there was a Night Gallery episode where a woman spent all her free time in a virtual reality with a family she couldn’t have in real life because she spent all her time in a virtual reality machine!!! – which eventually blew up, killing her and leaving her consciousness in the machine with her pretend family (happy ending?????). Then there was Wall-E in which mankind has left Earth a mess to languish in a space cruise ship doing nothing but playing videogames and getting fat. Or Star Trek: The Next Generation’s "The Game" in which the entire crew is hooked/enslaved to a VR game which rewards the pleasure centers of the brain. And Strange Days where people live others people's lives through virtual reality and it goes horribly wrong.

And I can’t help but remember the Simpson’s wisely self-cautionary tale titled Itchy & Scratchy & Marge wherein the only responsible adult in the Simpson family gets violence on the popular children’s program Itchy & Scratchy removed. This results in the now bored kids turning the TV off and going outside. Owlishly they blink in the sunlight, then one by one the children in the neighborhood start playing ball, swinging on the playground equipment and interacting like normal children, all to the tune of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony accompanied by a brilliant visual homage to Disney’s Fantasia’s imagined illustration of the same Symphony.

However, in all of these examples, the mental and emotional blight inherent in a society dominated by a cyber-arm’s length distancing from the real world is forefront. The bad guys are the ones who perpetuate the virtual reality. In Ready Player One it is not the total and continual emersion in a non-real framework that is at faulty, but only the ones who run it.

This philosophy, which dodges the foundational problem and focuses only on the people at the helm of the destructive juggernaut, eerily reminds me of the modern liberal Socialist mentality. Modern liberals contend that Socialism and its Big Brother (pun intended) Communism are not evil but that the problems which arise of: famine, totalitarianism, crushing state run conformity, depression, suicide, collapse of healthy societal and family structures, promiscuity as an escape, abortion as a result, and persecution of religion, all come about, not because the machine is fundamentally evil, but that the wrong person ran it. Modern liberals think that the brutal dictatorship of Stalin’s Russia would have been a Utopia had Nancy Pelosi been allowed to crush people, I mean run the country (into the ground).

Don't get me wrong I love video games. I’ve played p[lenty of them myself. So I can first-hand appreciate the dangers of the allure.

In Ready Player One there is apparently no other business. And much like in Wall-E ,there doesn’t seem to be anyone under eleven – what you might think a minimum age to negotiate the more complex virtual reality programs. Apparently unless you are old enough to play a video game in Ready Player One you aren’t important enough to exist in this "reality". There are certainly no babies in Ready Player One as they would take up way too much of your time from playing Oasis. There are no churches. There aren't any pets or wildlife…. or even vermin for that matter. No one cooks and pizza is delivered but there is no indication of anyone raising wheat or cows or cooking. The only thing that seems to exist is glass, metal and people playing this virtual reality game. There is no industry shown of ANY kind that does not revolve around the virtual world of Oasis. There are no grocery stores. There are no farms. Soylent Green anyone?

This kind of environment makes more sense in a dystopian reality which you are trying to condemn. And while there is some lip service paid to the idea that video games and virtual reality should not completely supplant reality, it's a bit like telling opium addicts they should go out for a burger a couple of times a week.

I had two opposing problems with the main bad guy, Sorrento. Biff in Back to the Future threatens dangerously but we never actually witness him kill anyone. (Yes, there is some history with the rich Biff and Mad Dog Tannen but one gets changed with history and the other kills people we do not know – not much of an ethical distinction in real life but important when defining a character in a movie). Sorrento and his henchwoman, the main bad guys in Ready Player One, do kill other people – not just their avatars – in the movie. However they are never treated like dangerous villains but more like Biff's comically evil character. But on the other hand – Sorrento at one point zeroes out all the players, throwing everyone on the planet back into the real world – like in Itchy & Scratchy & Marge. As the former Gunters and other VR players walk dazedly around looking at the sun and each other for the first time in who knows how long, the main characters note how "oddly" they are behaving – not glued to their virtual reality world. Wade, the titular good guy, eventually resurrects the Oasis through a bit of cyber legerdemain and the cycle will soon begin again. So I’m left to wonder – who is the REAL bad guy here?

I’m not saying this is a bad movie – it’s really a lot of fun to watch. One could go in with a clipboard and probably get a kick out of just jotting down the visual and auditory references. Some bright bunny ought to market a checklist or Easter Egg BINGO – where you mark off all the ones you see.

But for an upbeat kid-intended movie there is a very dark side to Ready Player One. I couldn’t help but walk out of the theater a little depressed and even disturbed by the fate of the world that had been created. I would have been far more impressed if, at the end, the street rat turned Slumdog Millionaire, who had seen first hand the flaws in sucuumbing to virtual reality addiction, had used his now considerable wealthy and power to start rebuilding the city – perhaps reimbursing the former slaves for their labors, melting down the mountains of rusted and abandoned cars to build actual factories that made real THINGS people could use, was shown with blueprints to build homes to replace the "Stacks" of mobile home parks which blighted the city, founded working farms, funded scholarships.

Instead we are treated to Wade snogging his girlfriend, (not even his wife) cuddled in a chair in a Penthouse apartment who notes with some self-satisfaction that he had turned off the Oasis on Tuesdays and Thursday. This would be a bit like a successful and less violent Scarface assuring us that he established meth rehab clinics for the worst of his addicted customers and doesn’t that make him a hero after all?

IN CONCLUSION:

I have some real mixed feelings about this one. If you go in with the intent to enjoy a cruise-line quantity banquet of nostalgia then this is the movie for you, but be aware you might be left with a very dystopian taste in your mouth after the feast.

WARNING NOTE:

I was a bit disappointed in the language used for what is primarily targeted to a young audience. There is casual use of some mild profanities but more disturbing are some specific uses of blasphemies for which there is really no justification and totally inappropriate for children to be saying. In addition there is some "just covered up" nudity but is a zombie creature and certainly not salacious. In addition there is some mild sexual innuendo. There is also extreme (expected) virtual violence but also some real world lethal force.

This all adds up to an appropriateness age of mid teens and up which is really older than what is being targeted in advertisements.