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.

SUPERFLY – MORALLY TOXIC AND OFFENSIVE

 

SHORT TAKE:

Remake of a bad 1972 movie of the same name which lionizes a drug dealer.

WHO SHOULD SEE IT:

NO ONE!

LONG TAKE:

Coined by the French critic Nino Frank in 1946, the dictionary defines a "FILM NOIR" (literally French for "film dark") as: a style or genre of cinematographic film marked by a mood of pessimism, fatalism, and menace. This title applies to such movies as: The Third Man, Chinatown, Scarface, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Sin City, Bladerunner, The Big Sleep, White Heat, and Strangers on a Train. In all of these movies, superior by several factors of ten, there is a cautionary tale in which we expect the protagonist of questionable motive and character to get his comeuppance through repentance, death, prison or some combination.

Not so with Superfly. It is a bewilderment to me why someone thought remaking a particularly bad movie from the 1970's was a good idea. But they did. This year's Superfly is an exact replica of the movie from 1972. The original Super Fly's iconic, though dated, funky, Motown music by Curtis Mayfield was the only thing that could even marginally recommend it and is a certainly better soundtrack than the excessively profane, garish, unnecessarily loud, repetitive technopop nonsense that prevades the 2018 version. Although admittedly, the 2018 version has much higher quality production values and slightly better acting, the story, and a goofy choice for the lead character's hair, remains precisely the same.

SPOILERS

The story, written by Alex Tse and directed by Julien Christian Lutz who, understandably, goes by the pseudonym Director X (I would not want my real name on this piece of trash either), revolves about a young man who goes by the name of Youngblood (so dubbed because he was the youngest of his gang when he was a kid) Priest (because he wears a cocaine spoon in the shape of a cross), also inexplicably known as Superfly (Trevor Jackson). Superfly sports a hairdo, of which he is inordinately proud, which bears a comedic and distracting resemblence to the skull piece worn by Alan Rickman's Alexander Dane in Galaxy Quest.  Superfly is also the leader of one of several cocaine dealer gangs in Atlanta. He plans on one final score to fund his retirement. All the gangs co-exist in relative peace until one day Juju (Kaalan Walker), a member of the Snow Patrol (laughably outfitted in white EVERYTHING), inexplicably becomes jealous of Youngblood's money and women, despite the fact Juju's own boss assures him that he has all the money and women he could possibly ever desire.

When leaving a strip club one night Juju picks a fight then takes a pot shot at Priest, misses and hits a bystander. This starts a chain of events which will ultimately lead, after a labrynthian trail of carnage and graphic sexuality, to Youngblood getting everything he wants. During the course of the movie his best friend, Eddie (Jason Mitchell) gets Freddie (Jacob Ming-Trent), Youngblood's enforcer killed, and the Snow Patrol wiped out. Youngblood ingratiates himself with the corrupt Mayor of Atlanta by plying him with cocaine and his own girlfriend. Youngblood also betrays Scatter (Michael Kenneth Williams), Youngblood's mentor and supplier, by cutting a deal with Scatter's supplier, a Mexican cartel drug lord, (Esai Morales), eventually getting Scatter killed.

Youngblood gets all the parties with whom he has done deals to turn on each other, LOTS of people get killed, after which Youngblood buys a yacht and sets sail in luxury with his surviving girlfriend. Not that any of the "victims" in this travesty have clean hands, but instead of a protagonist, Youngblood is more of a very clever King Rat standing on a pile of corpses, including, but never ever mentioned, his cocaine snorting customers.

In short, we have a drug dealer and thug who has made millions by destroying the lives of untold thousands of other people, who gets away with a lifetime supply of sex and money.

In a previous blog I exposed  Ocean's 8, in which we are supposed to side with a group of career criminals who steal, destroy and sell priceless historic jewelry from a donation-funded museum, in order to fund their own private vanity projects.

Both Superfly and Ocean's 8 ask the audience to applaud the "cleverness" of egotistic, sociopathic criminals, who harm the innocent and whose only "virtue" is that we see the proceedings from their point of view. The appalling parade of immoral, ruthless, selfish activites we are expected to cheer on in both cinematic obscenities is nauseating and offensive. If you are curious about the plot just read the wikipedia.org version of Super Fly from 1972 and you will get a pretty detailed idea of what the 2018 movie is about. Don't bother to watch any of them.

Cast and crew of all three movies should be ashamed of themselves. Keep your children away from these toxic movies.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT – AN ATTEMPT TO ROMANTICIZE A GROTESQUELY NEGLIGENT TEEN MOTHER

My sister, Wynne, reviewed The Florida Project so I didn't, as it turned out, have to endure it. She kindly has written a guest review for us. Here it is: 

The Florida Project 

SHORT TAKE: 

The movie, The Florida Project, follows a six year old girl, Moonee, who lives with her criminally negligent teenaged mother during a summer vacation. Moonee lives at the Magic Castle motel in a run down area near Disneyworld where the beleaguered motel manager tries to keep watch over everyone.  This is a very disturbing movie. 

LONG TAKE: 

Halley (Bria Vinaite – newcomer who director, Sean Baker, found in real life on an Instagram selling marijuana related merchandise), Moonee's mother, is a horrible person and six year old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is one step behind her. Halley is a single mom who is lazy, does not have a legal job, has a terrible potty mouth, takes advantage of her only friends – Ashley (Mela Murder) and Bobby (Willem Dafoe), steals, and does not supervise her daughter's activities. Halley is a disgusting piece of humanity. 

Moonee is the leader of a small group of friends.  During the course of the movie these young children: spit on cars and people, burn down an abandoned building, curse and make obscene gestures, are rude and tell lies to get money for ice cream.  Moonee loses two friends over the course of the movie when their friends' parents realize what she is leading them to do. 

Moonee loses her friend, Dicky, after the spitting incident and Scooty, Ashley's son, after Ashley realizes her son and the other members of the "gang" started a fire at an abandoned condominium.  Moonee keeps one friend, Jancey. 

Reviewers characterized Halley as a mother struggling to support her daughter and describes Halley as poor and unfortunate. Far from the embattled single mom heroically trying to carve out a life for her daughter that they imply, Halley is an irresponsible, criminally negligent teenager.

Halley does not have a job doing legal activities but still manages to afford cigarettes and weed.  Instead of choosing a respectable job, like her friend Ashley who works as a waitress, Halley turns to prostitution.  Not only does Halley prostitute herself, but makes little effort to protect Moonee from her activities. Halley sends Moonee to take a bath while Halley "entertains" clients in the next room.  Now, you could argue, Halley did not want to leave Moonee alone while she "works", but Moonee runs the streets without supervision all day while Halley  lays in bed watching TV, listening to music and reading magazines. 

Halley does terrible things to people if they disagree with her. Halley gets her friend, Ashley, to steal food for her from the restaurant where Ashley works. But when Ashley does not want to steal food for Halley any more or give Halley rent money and confronts Halley about being a prostitute, Halley beats the snot out of Ashley.  

Haley gets angry with Bobby, the motel manager, and she … 

{Ed note: OK – GOTTA GIVE MY FIRST DISGUST WARNING HERE – but to provide the full expose of how demented this poor excuse for a mother is, it is fair to include this – but if you do not want to read it just be aware it's disgusting and skip down to where I mark that it is "SAFE NOW": 

…reaches into her panties and removes a used sanitary napkin and slaps it on the glass door.  Charming, and we are supposed to feel sorry for her terrible life.} 

SAFE NOW 

The movie throws in a few (what are supposed to be) warm and fuzzy mother-daughter moments: playing out in the rain, giving her daughter a ride in a STOLEN grocery cart, stealing and selling stolen items together, hitch hiking, making obscene gestures at people together, taking bikini selfies…… 

Dafoe's Bobby, the manager of the motel, is a kind, likable character.  He tries to keep the peace between the residents and the tourists.  Bobby keeps the place clean and repairs what's broken when needed. (Though what is truly broken in Halley he finds there is nothing he can do.)  He even watches out for the kids living there.  For example, he finds a strange middle age man hanging around the motel playground watching the little girls.  Bobby confronts the intruder, gets his name from the intruder's driver's license, threatens to call the police and tells him never to return. 

Eventually and predictably, the Florida Department of Children and Families show up with the police to remove Moonee and put her in foster care.  The case workers are shown to be somewhat incompetent.  Moonee escapes and runs to her friend, Jancey. The closing scene shows them running together to Disneyworld. You never know whether it was Ashley or Bobby who called DCF or if it was just in the natural course of events that Moonee's precarious situation came to their attention. 

When the credits roll you are left thinking: "WHAT?! Did I miss something??"  The ending is very abrupt and does not tell us what happens to Halley or Moonee.  It is left up to the audience's imagination.  After investing time and sitting through this emotionally gut wrenching movie, it is disappointing to not have a conclusion. An interview with the director reveals this was deliberate. Rather than coming up with a proper conclusion, the director/writer, Baker, decided to leave it up to the audience. Quoted from an interview Baker had with Ashley Lee for the Hollywood Reporter: "It's left up to interpretation but it's not supposed to be literal, it's supposed to be a moment in which we're putting the audience in the headspace of a child." However, Baker ignores the fact that this is a very disturbed child. The result is a very unsatisfying "resolution" to this already difficult to watch movie.

 

Obviously the director has an eye for finding new and underused talent.  Halley, played by Bria Vinaite, had never done anything in movies before but was very convincing as the self-destructive mother. Brooklynn Prince, as Moonee, is brand new also, but does well portraying the virtually abandoned child.  The ever brilliant but not often enough seen Willem Dafoe gives a strong quiet performance as the eye in this storm.  The three main characters give very convincing character portrayals of the troubled and those left to clean up behind them. Mr. Baker brought out the best in all three for this undeserving story. Perhaps Mr. Baker will put his talents to better use next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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