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.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 2 – STRANGEST HOMESCHOOLING FAMILY… EVER

Every homeschooling family is unique. Some raise farm animals. Some attend symphony concerts. Some are heavily into sports. And one —– saves the galaxy. And most important to the homeschool family is — the father. I’ve said this before in other blogs, but I am happy to have the opportunity to say it again: A father (or father figure) in a family is irreplaceable and essential to a child’s development unless you want that child SERIOUSLY screwed up. No movie of recent history exemplifies this point more than the most recent Guardians of the Galaxy installment. I get that some families must persevere without a father – BUT given the vital role a father has in the home it is imperative that fatherless homes finds a wholesome father figure role model – brother, grandfather, priest, friend. Someone who can be turned to for counsel and, when needs be, protection.

While Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is one of the most entertaining movies I have seen in a long time, there are serious underlying themes.

Please understand that the analysis below of the rather sobering themes explored in Guardians is not meant to imply that this is not a fun, funny, uplifting romp of a movie. I know the expression “feel good film” is more overused than “blockbuster” but you really WILL feel good when you come out. The movie is comedic, warm, and friendly, though a BIT too mature for the under 13 crowd. The violence is extensive but cartoonish and richly deserved by the recipients. No one takes themselves too seriously and tongue is planted firmly in cheek. I mean, how can you miss it when one of the characters is named EGO.

BEYOND HERE BE MASSIVE SPOILERS!!!!!!!!!!! FOR BOTH GUARDIANS!!!

I hate giving spoilers, so if you haven’t seen either of the Guardians movies wait to read this blog. But in order to do justice to the analysis of Guardians I have to get into spoiler-detail territory. If you continue – well, you’ve been warned. In addition, some of my comments rely on some short hand which only those who have seen the films will fully get.

On the homeschooling issue – it would have been easy to justify placing Baby Groot (YES! Still voiced by Vin Diesel) in some kind of protective custody environment. The hazards routinely taken by Baby Groot’s family of risk taking super hero parent/sibling models would have given the willies to the Flying Wallendas. Instead they work together to provide for the needs of Baby Groot, to nurture, protect and teach him all the while carrying on with killing scary critters and taking on fleets of homicidal bad guys. No one will watch your child the way you do. Your child is safer with you in a hazardous situation than they are with paid strangers in a “safe” environment.

And integral to the successful homeschooling home, ideally, is the father.

The importance of a good father in the healthy upbringing of a child is featured in this Guardians sequel both for daughters as well as sons. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is “kidnapped” (and I’ll explain the quotes shortly) by Yondu (Michael Rooker) instead of returned to Peter’s appropriately named father, Ego, as Yondu had been paid to do. And so Peter was raised without his biological father. Ego, (Kurt Russell) presents himself to Peter, first, as a loving father, happily and finally reunited with the son he was denied by Yondu. In fact Ego has deliberately “seeded” himself both physically into the various planets he has visited as well as bred with many species across the galaxy in order to come up with the perfect child with which he can eliminate all life forms other than himself. He justifies this because he, himself, as far as he could tell, just “popped” into existence and has been traveling around, aimlessly, for millions of years – much like V-Ger in the first Star Trek movie, gaining a lot of knowledge but, it seems, very little wisdom. And with almost limitless power but without the guidance of a good father, Ego has become the embodiment of his name.

After thousands, or perhaps even millions, of attempts, Peter is Ego’s first progeny who is able to share Ego’s abilities. The others were killed in the trial process or murdered and discarded – we are never made clear on this creepy point. And – to make Ego even more evil – in order to stay true to his own perverted course, to sever all ties to anything which might distract him, he murders Peter’s mother by deliberately placing the tumor in her brain that kills her.

So – this heartless, selfish, sensualist alien playboys himself around the universe, wooing women in order to bed them, impregnating them, then abandons them and abuses the children. If this sounds more familiar than it should it’s because it is the repetitious refrain of almost every domestic abuse scenario in pretty much every single daily paper we read. While the story in Guardians is glamored up with a lot of extremely fun sci fi, that is exactly what happens. Boyfriend (not husband, mind you), impregnates a woman then returns, if at all, only to abuse the child and batter then kill the mother. While Ego doesn’t beat Peter’s mother, I would say that infesting her with a brain tumor definitely qualifies as battery.

It is interesting that the character of Ego is played by Kurt Russell, an actor who made his name as a child actor portraying family friendly, father supported characters. In all his cinematic years he seems to know how to demonstrate the need for a good father by showing us one with no fatherly attributes.   

Ironically Ego is seeking “meaning” to his life. And cleverly, Peter expresses the thought about Gamora and Yondu that: “Sometimes the thing you want most is right next to you all the time.” The meaning Ego seeks he had found in Quill’s mother and the children he had bred. But he rejected all of them to serve is own enormous —– Ego.

Meanwhile, the sisters Gamora (Zoe Saldana, who also plays Uhura in the Star Trek reboot) and Nebula (Karen Gillian, unrecognizable under all the cybernetics from her stint as Amy Pond in the Matt Smith incarnation of Dr. Who Duke it out both physically and verbally until it is revealed that Nebula’s cyborg implants are the result of her losses to Gamora in fights when they were children. Every time she was defeated by Gamora in the combats set up by their father, Thanos, he would perform grisly replacement surgeries on her – arm, spine, eye – purportedly to make her stronger. Once again, the warped relationship with the father mangles these women physically and emotionally, pitting them against each other in a twisted desire to glorify himself under the guise of “strengthening” them.

Once again, it all comes down to the father.

And if this weren’t enough, both Yondu and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) admit to each other that they were betrayed by THEIR “father figures” – Yondu by his parents who sold him into slavery and Rocket by those who created him only to torture him with genetic engineering. Rocket is another example, like Gamora and Nebula, of parent figures who try to warp their “child” into images of themselves. Yondu is another example of the abandoned child.

In the course of the film it is explained that Yondu did not kidnap Peter but, like a reformed abortionist, could no longer stomach what was happening to the children he was delivering to Ego and decided to take Peter as his own, hide him from Ego and raise him the best way he knew how. Being a pirate that fathering took some unusual turns but it is made clearly evident that Peter was, indeed, the recipient of some solid mentoring and fathering, given the hero he becomes.

As another counter to Ego’s bad father example, Drax nostalgically grieves for the daughter he has lost. And then there is Groot – who steals EVERY-SINGLE-SCENE he is in. Every member of the crew functions in a parental or sibling way. Peter tells him to put on his seat belt before going into combat, Gamora cautions him to get out of the way during a firefight then humors him with a smile and wave. Drax and Rocket carry him on their shoulders, Rocket offers everything he has to the pirates who kidnap them just to ensure Groot’s survival, yet in other scenes Rocket listens carefully while Groot explains the origin of his discomfort with people who wear hats – all during a prison break, then later Rocket warns Groot that they will have to work on Groot’s tendency to use bad language (which we, of course, never hear because all he says are inflected variations of “I am Groot”). Groot’s healthy nurturing is underlined again in one of the post-credit scenes where Peter confronts a surly now-teenaged Groot sulking in his room with a computer game and Peter quips: “Now I know how Yondu felt,” acknowledging both his recognition of Yondu as his real father and the frustration of every parent at some point in the relationship between parent and adolescent child. These guys all demonstrate the importance of “being there” at the opportune moments in a child’s life when they need to be heard or chastized or sheltered or comforted or just held. And these moments are lost when a child is institutionally schooled.

This is the most eccentric homeschooling family since Gomez and Morticia decided that Wednesday and Pugsly weren’t getting the background important to the Aadams’ family traditions. But Groot — well —- blossoms (pun intended) beautifully under the care of the Guardians.

So, basically, what we have with Guardians is a super entertaining action adventure sci fi covering up a yin and yan of parenting and showing an unusual but thriving homeschool family. On the one hand you have the archetypal examples of bad father figures, represented by Ego and Thanos, who use their children instead of love them. On the other you have good parenting of the Guardians, who, ironically, represent almost every example of victims of bad parenting: abandoned, orphaned, abused, neglected, and used as extensions of their parents’ “Egos”, each of our crew has issues but rise above them to do their best to parent — Groot.

Yondu does his best to be a father substitute to Peter and makes the ultimate parental sacrifice of his life. Drax was brutally stripped of his children but becomes a protector to the other Guardians. All the abused children, from Yondu to Rocket, step up to do a better job with Groot, the child with which Fate has entrusted them. And we know Groot is in good hands because of the way they interact with him. One example of this bond is that the crew, despite the fact all Groot ever says is “I am Groot,” understands exactly, often in complex detail, what Groot is saying.

And this is what makes Guardians more than just another fun but forgettable adventure flick. The Guardians of the Galaxy are wonderful examples of how we can each do our own part to save the galaxy – one child at a time.