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.

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.

MIDNIGHT SUN – WHOLESOME STORY OF COMMITMENT BETWEEN TWO – LITERALLY – STAR-CROSSED LOVERS

SHORT TAKE:

Midnight Sun is a great first date movie about genuine love through commitment between two lovely young people despite challenges and tragedies.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Appropriate for anyone but younger kids would get bored.

LONG TAKE:

SPOILERS

Midnight Sun is a movie about two star-crossed lovers. A cliched term to be sure but in this case quite literally true. The star in question being our own Sol at the center of our solar system. The story is about a young lady, Katie (Bella Thorne – talented actress and singer) with XP, xeroderma pigmentosum, a rare but real genetic disorder wherein the sufferers are unable to repair DNA damage caused by UV radiation. XP makes even brief sun exposure life threatening from cancer and neurologic cascades. Any variation of XP occurs in only 1 of 250,000 people. The extreme kind necessary to the plot that Katie has is 1 in 1,000,000 and only 40% live beyond 20.

The acting is good. Ms. Thorne as Katie is quite adorable and has an excellent singing voice. Katie lives with her widowed father, Jack. Jack is portrayed by Rob Riggle, the real life American hero who I last saw in 12 StrongRiggle's performance of Jack is a kind, gentle but appropriately protective homeschooling dad. (As Katie walks out the door for the evening to play guitar at the train station in her small home town he playfully reminds her to text him when she gets there and that if she is not home in time he will be going down there and making Youtube history with a Why One Should Not Break Curfew video.)

Her best, and pretty much only regular, friend is the typically teen-emotional and humorously dramatic Morgan (Quinn Shepherd) who hangs out with Katie and works in a local ice cream parlor.

Katie has had a crush on a young man, Charlie, (Patrick Schwarzenegger – you guessed it, the progeny of Dad Arnold and Maria Shriver) that she has watched walk, skate and bike by her house every day for the last 10 years.

The movie deals with the fall out that occurs because of XP to Katie, her Dad and all those who care about her. This sounds like it could be depressing. In fact it's not. It's quite funny and delightfully charming. The young people involved seem very familiar to me. They remind me of our homeschooled kids and their friends. They're open, intelligent, honest, genuinely caring, subject to the normal foibles relating to hormones and impatience with the world to which any normal teenager is subject. These kids are portrayed as creative and wonderful young people with tremendous promise.

Because of Katie's condition and some natural shyness she is homeschooled, and aside from Morgan, lives a quiet sequestered life with her dad, writing music behind heavily tinted windows. The night of her graduation she goes out to play guitar at her favorite train station. Charlie hears her, they meet and the rest of the story is about their relationship.

The love story is certainly a wonderfully acted, well written but traditional tale which has been played out many times: Jenny and Oliver in Love Story, Camille and Armand in Camille, Fantine and Jean Valjean in Les Mis. Many publically viewed real life instances abound: Christopher Reeves' wife stood with and for her husband after he was paralyzed following a devastating fall from a horse, Gene Wilder cared for Gilda Radner through her ovarian cancer as did Pierce Brosnan through his wife's terminal illness.  Diane Cavandish kept her husband alive and thriving for 36 years longer than predicted after he contracted polio. CS Lewis married Joy Gresham knowing she had terminal bone cancer. And I am sure that everyone reading this blog knows of or has personally experienced a private example of this kind of self-giving love. My own mother cared for my father at home through his terminal illness.

Midnight Sun is a cinematic personification of Corinthians Ch 13: "…Love…does not seek its own interests…It bears all things … endures all things." I only wish Midnight Sun had more overtly acknowledged a basis in theology and an acceptance of God's Will. The closest we get is when Jack takes a picture of Charlie and Katie and requests humorously that they leave a little space for the Holy Spirit.

This is a story of real love. There is a moment in the musical 1776 when Abigail Adams reminds her husband, as he is experiencing a rare moment of low confidence, that one of the things she most loved and admired about him was his commitment. Charlie, in Midnight Sun, had lost his swimming scholarship because of an injury and wanted to give up. Katie reminds him to persevere and to re-commit to what he has worked so hard for, for so many years. Charlie, in turn, commits to Katie despite all the obvious obstacles, loves purely for the limited time they have and opens doors for her singing talents she did not think possible.

 

There is no easy resolution to a story of a young girl with a terminal illness. But there is a lot positive to be taken away from an example of commitment to a relationship despite the fears of the unknown – much like a marriage.  Nothing untoward happens, the boy is trustworthy and the father watchfully gives his blessing to their relationship. There is no gratuitous acts of casual sex as in other movies like The Fault in Our Stars where illness is used as an excuse to gratify yourself with someone else. And although these young people in Midnight Sun have but a brief time together, these characters, as written, demonstrate the kind of sacramental commitment one would pray for in any young couple.

 

Every one of the main characters is created as a powerful witness to the altruism in true love. Katie never complains or bemoans her fate. She is, instead grateful for what she has and her main concern is always for the people around her – she worries about her father's future lonliness, Charlie's scholarship and her best friend's budding romance. Jack only wants to see his daughter happy for as much and as long as he can make that happen and to that end never lets her know how devastated he really is but is the rock to which she can cling. Charlie only thinks of ways he can be strong for Katie and bring her comfort. These are good kind people.

 

CS Lewis wrote often of the problem of pain – why do bad things happen and the answer is always – to bring about a greater good. Midnight Sun implies this – that even in the darkness you can bring your own light with you. Katie is the Midnight Sun that radiates joy and inspires love in everyone around her through her gratitude for every day she has and in her genuine love of others.

 

There are no guarantees in life or in love. No one knows the hour or the day that God will call us home. And when we choose to love we step out on a limb in faith. All one can do is to commit to stand by those we love for as long as we are permitted. The script writer of all these lovely characters understands that and presents us with a beautiful example of what committed love should be. Not for gratification. Not for what you can get from the other person, but an altruistic self-giving love that lifts up and encourages the other person to strive for worthy dreams and to accept what God gives you after you have done your best. As Jack explains to Charlie – what you end up with is an understanding that everyday is a gift. I wish Jack had added the two words "from God," but there is nothing in the movie that would deny that truth either.

 

There can be no more stark contrast than between the altruistic "other"-focused genuine LOVE in Midnight Sun and the extreme self-gratification masquerading under the guise of the word "love" in movies like Love, Simon. Movies like Midnight Sun inspire us to aspire – encourage people to be more and stronger and more courageous than they might otherwise think possible for those they truly love: to sacrifice, forgive, accept and be grateful.

 

 For a positive and real/reel example of what young romantic LOVE should be – go see Midnight Sun and avoid the garbage that fakes it.