Monthly Archives: October 2018
Jonah Hill’s directing debut is a small slice of 90s cinema that’s heavy on sense of time and place, light on plot, but filled with youthful authenticity. We follow a young kid (10? 12?) as he ingratiates himself with a group of older teen skaters. He wants to emulate these cool kids and dedicates himself to being a skateboarder. There are some intra-group conflicts and jealousies that play out as our protagonist becomes part of the gang. He gets exposed to smoking, drinking, and girls at house parties. There is one sequence at a party where a teen girl (15? 16?) takes our young hero into a bedroom to deflower him, and I instantly became anxious and needed to know the ages of the characters onscreen (it’s never verified). Our main character also happens to be one of the more boring people in the film, almost by design. He’s a blank page for the audience to project onto, and he’s trying so hard at such a formative age to emulate the older teens that it makes sense to leave him less defined. Hill hired professional skateboarders and taught them acting, and they act like professional skateboarders. In fairness, they act like recognizable teenagers, and Hill’s natural ear for dialogue rings true for this time of life. The movie takes a few turns into After School Special territory but doesn’t seem to deal with the consequences or resolutions of those dramatic events, which makes the film feel both more realistic and less fulfilling. Our hero takes a lot of injuries, some of them bleeding-head related, but nothing seems to come from them except the growing admiration of his peers. The home life storyline is worrisome and vague. Our protagonist has a physically abusive older brother (Lucas Hedges) who resents him and a single mother (Katherine Waterston) who seems irresponsible in not doing something about her youngest son being gone well into the morning hours. Even our protagonist seems to have penchant for self-harm, something that will presumably lead to problems down the line. In the meantime, mid90s is a pleasant and mostly entertaining, seemingly autobiographical experience. It gets by on enough for a watch.
Nate’s Grade: B
Melissa McCarthy adopts the Oscar bait route of pre-approved credibility, which usually means playing a tragic, self-destructive real-life figure, stripping away any sense of vanity, and working with an up-and-coming indie film director (Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Marielle Heller). The recipe is alive and well in the consistently entertaining, but only for so far, Can You Ever Forgive Me? which traces the life of literary author Lee Israel, a biographer who nobody wants to read, that is, until she starts “discovering” lost letters from the likes of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and other famous authors. In total, Israel forged 400 letters and sold them to private collectors and archivists until the FBI charged her with fraud. Because of the relatively low-stakes nature of her accidental jaunt into criminality, the “how” is less interesting than the budding friendship formed between Israel and a malcontent bawdy barfly/partner in crime (Richard E. Grant). Their rapport is wonderful and they truly seem to be having a ball with their ill-gotten gains, yet they still maintain a vulnerability even to the very end. In many ways this film does for McCarthy and her standard barrage of caustic, anti-social characters what Punch-Drunk Love did for the Adam Sandler introverted goofball sad-sack barely concealing his explosive rage. It’s a grounded deconstruction on that familiar movie archetype we’ve seen from a popular comic actor. There are some interesting aspects about Israel’s lonely life, like a timid female bookshop owner who circles around a potential romance with Israel, but it’s really a two-hander of a movie between Grant and McCarthy. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a slight character-driven drama with comedic elements, but McCarthy shows that she has the acting chops to play multi-faceted characters in any genre if given the right opportunity.
Nate’s Grade: B
It’s been 40 years since the original Halloween changed the horror industry. That is no overstatement. The low-budget 1978 movie by John Carpenter was a box-office sensation and ushered in a decade-plus of bloody slasher cinema. It’s even been 20 years since Halloween: H20, which was a 20-years-later sequel bringing original scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis back into the mix. It’s now been another full H20 of time since that film, which makes me feel old, personally. Rob Zombie revived the franchise in 2007 with a back-story for methodical killing machine Michael Myers that nobody asked for (surprise: his family life was not great). Now an H40 later, director David Gordon Green and actor/writer Danny McBride have revived the franchise by going back to its roots, namely by ignoring all of the seven sequels and bringing back Curtis yet again. The new Halloween 2018 edition is a strange experience for fans. The first half feels like an elusive parody of the franchise, and then the second half drops comedic pretext and becomes much more serious and straightforward. As my pal Ben Bailey said, I can understand people hating this movie or loving it depending upon the half they focus on. This new Halloween ends on a high note but still could have been so much more.
In the decades since the original murders on Halloween, Laurie Strode (Curtis) is living a hermetic life. She’s never fully recovered from the events of her traumatic youth, and so has been preparing intensely for Michael’s eventual return. She rigorously trained her own daughter, Karen (Judy Greer), for self-defense to be a survivalist, locking her in the basement and training her with an array of firearms. Laurie thought she was drilling her daughter to be strong and a survivor, but the state had other interpretations, and so Karen was removed from her mother’s home and grew up resenting her oppressive, paranoid mom who took away her childhood. Karen has forbidden her own daughter, Allyson (Andi Matichak), from interacting with her crazy grandma, but both find ways. Michael Myers breaks loose from a prison transport and is heading back to Haddonfield with a mission to find and kill Laurie. They’re on a collision course H40 years in the making.
Let’s focus on that peculiar first half first. There were several points that made me shake my head and wonder if they were trying to be subtlety tongue-in-cheek or bad on purpose, and because of the pedigree behind the project, I had to give it the benefit of the doubt, but to what end? Why skewer horror tropes in a subtle way that could be construed as simply being bad instead? Why even do it for this franchise and then mostly drop it by the second half? There were several moments where I had to laugh and I wasn’t fully sure it was intended. This was my dilemma watching Halloween 2018 and I’m sure others will have a similar experience, scratching their heads and wondering why the movie is going the route that it is. Take for instance the horror trope of the bad babysitter. We have another situation where a nubile high school girl is going to invite her boyfriend over for some late-night action, nodding to the 1978 original film. Except the kid being babysat sees through everything and calls out his babysitter. He’s a street-smart kid who speaks with the voice of the knowing participant, like when he tells the boyfriend that he will die if he goes upstairs (spoiler alert: this kid is prophetic). There’s a string of kills that feel perfunctory, like the filmmakers have noticed that too much time has passed and have to satiate audience bloodlust to buy them another ten or so minutes of setup and characters. The kills themselves are lackluster. Even the gratuitous nudity is fleeting, confined to a quick flashback relating to young Michael Myers spying on his big sister (one of these days a slasher movie is going to be replete with wall-to-wall male nudity and no boobs just to mess with its target audience). There’s the trope of the ineffective police officer. After finding out Michael Myers is on the loose, an officer bluntly says, “What are we gonna do? Cancel Halloween?” The answer is, yes, you cancel the trick-or-treat activities for the town where this guy is clearly heading and you adequately warn the populace. You ask for assistance from anyone with a cell phone to broadcast the whereabouts of fugitive Michael Myers. The guy is pretty large and easy to spot, plus he’s not that traditionally fast. A citywide digital manhunt might have made for a more interesting movie premise with some genuine cultural commentary.
Or take for instance the stupid side characters meant to be fodder for the merciless kill count. The movie mysteriously gives these disposable characters little one-minute asides to present a glimpse of another story that we’re just not privy to. There’s the little kid who doesn’t want to go hunting and wants to be accepted by his father as a dancer. Okay, that’s a more interesting conflict than I thought, and then the dad immediately stops at the site of a bus crash with wandering chained inmates and says, “I’m gonna check this out, stay here.” It’s like Green and McBride gave us one page of characters from an indie drama and then had them smash back into idiotic plot devices making the most headache-inducing decisions. Another instance is a pair of cops debating over adult meals and bread. I appreciate the effort to try and flesh out the characters in a way that makes them feel more real, but then they have no larger bearing than being the next in a line of victims. There are other strange reminders that things just aren’t exact with the movie, at least for the first half. It’s this curiously overwrought, off sensation that keeps the audience from fully engaging, being told to possibly laugh with or at the movie.
I also think the film is fundamentally flawed in its approach, namely by elevating Laurie’s granddaughter as a co-lead. Allyson is too removed from the situation to give an interesting perspective, so she becomes any other teenage heroine we’ve seen in scores of slasher cinema likely meant to appeal to a teenage ticket-buying audience. The real conflict and the real story is the relationship between Laurie and her estranged adult daughter. There is so much drama there to unpack and the movie would be far better had the filmmakers eliminated the majority of the extraneous characters and focused on these two women and their decades-long acrimony. Get rid of Allyson’s boyfriend, who gets way too much screen time to simply be jettisoned without resolution (his lone purpose seems to be disposing of her cell phone). Get rid of his friend, a supposed “nice guy” with his own entitlement issues. Get rid of the babysitter friend and her dumb boyfriend. Get rid of the cops. Get rid of the Doctor Loomis prison doctor replacement, nicknamed the “new Loomis.” Get rid of them all, including Allyson. I would have preferred Allyson being murdered in the middle of the second act as a means of raising the stakes and forcing Laurie and Karen together again. This is very much a PTSD film about the long ramifications of trauma and how it affects multiple generations. I would have loved seeing that play out in the interplay between Laurie and the daughter that she pushed away in an attempt to save her life. There is so much palpable drama there that I’m genuinely shocked how little Karen figures in Halloween 2018. It’s such wasted dramatic potential as well as a better focal point for the movie.
It’s the second half, and in particular the third act, that saved the movie for me. The finale is everything fans would want, transforming into a surging siege thriller built around Laurie’s well-armed abode. It’s here where the movie becomes a multi-generational fight to the finish and the Strode women must team up to fight the man responsible for the long lingering trauma that has defined their lives in innumerable ways. It’s a climax that feels elevated by the pull of history, and it’s terrific and terrifically satisfying. Watching Laurie stalk the house in search of Michael Myers, going from room to room and locking them down, is the first actually nervous sequence in the film, benefiting from the investment we have in Laurie as an avenging figure. It’s during this sequence where Curtis (Freaky Friday) and Greer (Jurassic World) remind us what wonderful actors they can be. It made me wish for my more realized version of the two of them and their relationship even more. This is where Green (Stronger) also demonstrates his best sense of geography and escalation. Beforehand there are a few nifty tracking shots, paying homage to the opening of the original, but they’re self-contained, congratulatory moments. It’s the finale that made me realize what this movie should have been from its first frame. Lucky for Halloween 2018 it ends a high note (excluding the cliche post-credit revelation).
The newest Halloween movie has lit up the recent box-office charts and ensures this won’t be the last we see of Michael Myers and potentially old lady Laurie Strode. That’s kind of a shame because Green’s movie serves up a fitting finale for the series that could work as a capper for Laurie as a character and a survivor of trauma. But alas, the ringing of cash registers will be enough to extend the franchise and carry on more blood-letting adventures for the man in the William Shatner mask. Halloween 2018 starts off fairly rocky with a question concerning overall tone and intent. There’s humor that feels grafted on from other parallel reality versions of this story, somehow blurring together into a weird final product. The second half works much better than the first when it stops cracking wise and takes itself seriously enough to realize where the real drama lies, with Laurie facing down her demons and working together with the women of her family for maximum vengeance. Watching three generations of Strode women fighting together is a triumphant conclusion. It’s a shame that it won’t actually exist as a conclusion for that much longer.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Neil Breen is the closest thing we have today to a living Ed Wood, a filmmaker so determined to ell his stories without a clue how to accomplish this feat, routinely finding new and astounding ways to transform the medium of film into an incomprehensible experience that can only be best appreciated through the howls of incredulous laughter. In 2013, Neil Breen came to attention among a certain select audience seeking the pleasures of a so-bad-it’s-good movie, and I count myself chief among this nation. I was fascinated by Fateful Findings and have since sought out Breen’s other films, using them as the main attraction for a gathering of like-minded friends and adult beverages. He may not be the next Tommy Wiseau or produce an accidental masterpiece like The Room (I don’t think an Oscar-nominee will be playing Breen in any biopic, though I pick Eric Roberts). Breen is taking advantage of the pocketbooks of eager midnight movie enthusiasts but he refuses to see his movies in that derisive light. To him, and God bless him, they are legitimate pieces of art and he personally disallows any marketing of them as “midnight” or “cult” movies (I saw portions of his actual contract he sent to our local art house theater playing his newest picture). His latest is Twisted Pair, a “psychological thriller” with double the onscreen Breen. It may not rise to the craptacular heights of Fateful Findings, but Twisted Pair is a worthy and hilarious entry in the ever-expanding yet mordantly redundant Neil Breen cinematic universe.
To explain the premise or story is almost superfluous, like trying to find a logical interpretation in a David Lynch movie or a Jackson Pollack splotchy painting. I’ll try. Cade and Cale Altaire (Breen) are twins who were… abducted by aliens… and given supernatural powers thanks to… A.I. technology? Back on Earth, Cade (or Cale?) has a wife (Sara Meritt) and plant bombs in the buildings of evil corporations, I think. Cale (or Cade?) is addicted to drugs (maybe?), has an addict girlfriend, and abducts corrupt CEOs, politicians, and authority figures and chains them in a murder dungeon where he lectures them and occasionally shoots them casually in the kneecap or shoulder. There’s also a conspiracy about trying to… do nefarious things with a cutting-edge A.I. virtual reality program… that shouldn’t fall into the wrong hands? Cade (or Cale?) must stop these evil forces from doing… evil things… by blowing them up? Also, his wife may be a spy.
If the above sounds like pure insanity straight from the cuckoo source, then you have read it clearly. Twisted Pair doesn’t abide by any traditional standards of film or storytelling.There isn’t so much a plot with a beginning, middle, and end as there are a jumble of scenes that could have been placed in any order whatsoever and lost nothing. With Neil Breen as writer and director, we typically get a lot of visual repetition; whatever info can be imparted in one moment Breen decides to impart in five. On the other side, storylines and characters will be summarily dropped or introduced with little context. Take for instance the villain who, as best I can tell, speaks with a voice modulated tone in real life. It’s not like he’s holding some mask to his mouth or anything that would alter his voice to that super deep register. Apparently he just speaks this way normally, and it’s hard to understand half of what he says, and it’s hilarious. Does this character matter in the scheme of things? Not really. He’s there to be another face to a vaguely defined conspiracy of forces that Breen is determined to thwart. The villainous character just happens to fondle dollar-store costume jewelry as a side bonus.
As another sign of repetition, Neil Breen obviously bought a package of special effects, and he is determined to get all his money’s worth. Thanks to the alien A.I. (I think), Cade and Cale are gifted with super powers but these only seem to involve jumping. Cade will form a Super Mario Bros.-esque jumping pose, or spread out onto the ground like Spider-Man, and then magically leap fifty feet in the air. It’s a cheesy effect that looked more realistic on the Six-Million Dollar Man in the 1970s, but Breen is going to make sure you become familiar with it again and again. Sometimes the jumping seems more trouble than it’s worth, as Breen’s character could have more easily take a flight of stairs. A similar effects package must have been explosions, so you’ll see the same fiery effect over and over across a variety of surfaces, though never impacting those surfaces or leaving anything resembling debris. You may become ore familiar with this oft-repeated explosion than the faces of your own relatives. There’s also a strange addition where whenever Cade touches a presumably locked door a little light goes on, as if to communicate he is unlocking it. This happens a lot. The last scene of the movie, Cade addresses the camera directly, touches his heart with two fingers that glow, and says without a hint or irony, “I’ll be right here.” He has to know he’s ripping off E.T., right? By the rules clearly established, does this mean he’s unlocking his own heart?
The side storyline with the twin could have been cut entirely (not that there’s much that genuinely serves a larger story). I was expecting more interaction between the two Breens and for each to reflect some sort of dichotomy between good and evil. Nope. The second Breen, Cale, is a vengeful vigilante in a hooded sweatshirt and a gloriously fake beard. He shouts questions like, “Who am I? What am I?” but doesn’t seem that torn up. He kidnaps some corrupt officials and promises to hold them an undetermined period of time, occasionally shooting or beating them. Then the screen starts to have other images of other chained officials superimpose while an eerie soundtrack kicks in, seemingly implying the sheer numbers of Cale’s victims. At no point are we meant to see Cale as a wayward figure succumbed to his darker impulses. In fact, Cale and Cade aren’t that different at all; both of them destroy the apparatus of corruption and take human life. The prisoners have a hilarious moment that feels like an improv run amok as they try and top one another with all the bad things they have been committing. They almost run over each other in their carefree confessions of moral decay. Yet these missing people, presumably important enough to attract the attention of the police and investigators, never impact the larger plot. You would think only naturally that an identical twin kidnapping people would have some direct mistaken identity complications. Either the bad guys come after Cade or the authorities do, thinking he’s the other brother. Nope. Strangely, the brothers only interact in dreams and brief flashbacks.
There’s a distinct reason that Neil Breen’s onscreen characters are always lionized as heroes. It’s filmmaking as therapy session, and as I wrote for my Fateful Findings review: “Assessing the film, it sure comes across like Breen’s attempt to bolster his sense of self. In every scenario, people treat him as a treasured human being, he’s at the center of a diabolical conspiracy, he’s gifted with magic powers that separate him from normal men, all women want to seduce him, and then in the end he’s the one who makes the world a better place by exposing corruption. It sounds like a hero complex to me. Even acts that deserve harsh scrutiny, like his enabling of his wife’s addiction or his blasé attitude about carrying on an affair, are ignored. In this universe, [Breen] is always right, always desired, always respected, and always special.” This may be why even his “twisted pair” is spared any sort of scrutiny for their own bad behavior.
There are numerous sequences that just make you shake your head. My favorites include an interlude with a slow-motion hawk that Breen nuzzles up next to. Seriously, there is a lot of green screen work throughout the film including a Wiseau-style fixation on things that shouldn’t need green screen. Why green screen the exterior of a building? Could Neil Breen not find one building exterior in all of his home state of Nevada? There’s a sequence where a woman materializes and literally turns on another Neil Breen movie, firmly establishing the connected universe theory. This same woman leads a man inside a literally red-lit abode (more on lighting below) and you suspect someone will be killed, either the woman or the mysterious john you never see above the neck. Nothing comes of it. Occasionally we’ll get a wide shot and watch Cade or Cale walking… for thirty seconds, and sometimes a tree will obstruct our view and we’ll wait for him to appear on the other side of the tree…. but instead he’ll be in the tree! Aha, you weren’t suspecting that, were you, complacent audience member? I would estimate a solid 80 percent of the movie’s dialogue is Breen’s voice over stating the obvious or the preposterous. In consecutive lines of voice over he says, “I miss my brother,” and, “I miss what I never knew.” But you knew your brother; we’ve seen footage of you two together.
The relationship with Cade’s wife is baffling. It begins with Cade running into a woman and profusely apologizing and declaring he will make it up with dinner. She is not interested in the slightest but he doesn’t acknowledge her discomfort at all and persists. He then FOLLOWS her home. He then BREAKS INTO her home. He then ATTACKS her and ostensibly tries to rape her while calling her a “bitch.” This awkward moment then transitions into the eventual revelation that it was all one big role-play. What? Neil Breen purposely staged his character attempting rape and made it into a sex game for he and his ever-accommodating wife? That’s so weird and off-putting. I don’t think Neil Breen is the kind of artist to attempt something approaching Elle.
The technical specs are spotty, especially the lighting. There seems to be two prevalent styles of lighting a scene: 1) overblown to hell, casting harsh shadows, and 2) with a small diagonal sliver. This sliver approach happens in numerous scenes and always seems to find the faces of the actors in the scene, or Breen or whoever will use it as a mark, walking into that small sliver of light and exposing their face. It happened so often that my rowdy theatrical audience turned it into a game, loudly cheering whenever a character “met their mark” and was highlighted by that available strand of light. I think this is what Breen thinks makes a professional looking movie or a film noir.
The acting hasn’t gotten any better over time. As I wrote about Breen’s performance in Fateful Findings: “Let’s start with Breen himself, who is fairly listless and deadpan throughout. He raises his voice but rarely does he change how he’s responding. He’s aloof and strikingly self-serious at the same time.” Since there are two Breens, consider this observation even more fitting. The rest of the actors don’t have much to work with. There isn’t a natural performance in the film. Often the delivery is stilted or overemphasized, pausing at weird points or simply raising the volume for effect. At least with previous Breen outings there was another actor or two to single out, usually not in a positive way mind you. With Twisted Pair, it’s all Breen, all the time, for better or worse.
So ultimately where does Twisted Pair fall on the curve of so-bad-it’s-good cinema? It is a hoot, a misguided and poorly executed sci-fi thriller with baffling and repetitious plot turns, characterization, and puzzling decisions at nearly every level of filmmaking. Having digested five Breen movies (and lived to tell the tale) I can attest that there are patterns that emerge in each one of his films. He’s always going to be portrayed as a crusading hero against the corrupt forces out there bewildering the little guy, he’ll have a dash of supernatural elements that will never be adequately explained, his idea of romance is comically chaste and usually involves women face down and topless, and he’ll gift the audience with head-smacking redundancy of scenes, motifs, messages. If you have to skip out to the bathroom at any point, whatever you miss will be covered again. Twisted Pair is mid-range Breen, not quite as high as his crowning achievement, Fateful Findings. It runs out of steam in the final fifteen minutes and even my rowdy midnight-movie crowd sensed the drop-off. The movie is playing one-night-only screenings across the country. If you get a chance, and love the weird world of sincerely made bad movies, then I highly recommend gathering a group of friends and checking out Twisted Pair and doing your best to make sense of it during and after the film.
Nate’s Grade: F
Entertainment Value: A-
Ditching the supernatural threat for something even scarier, Unfriended 2 follows the original film’s found footage-as-computer screen storytelling model but takes a dark dive into the Dark Web of the Internet, a playground for all kinds of shady criminal activities. A group of ethnically diverse friends gathers online to play a cross-country game and run afoul of a very vengeful man who wants his laptop back. Apparently our protagonist, Matias (Colin Woodell), stole it at a lost and found to better work on his sign language reading app to communicate with his deaf girlfriend. It was touches like that where the movie felt far more developed than I was expecting. The movie builds a nice sense of momentum and dread as the friends get further and further into uncovering the Dark Web conspiracy of for-hire snuff films and sex trafficking, and at every point there are moments they could turn away and avoid their doomed fates. The suspense sequences are well thought-out, like where the group has to quickly adopt a façade playing a game while a wifi connection is in play, and as soon as it goes out they breathlessly communicate their next desperate plan of action. There is one great kill and a few nifty twists and turns, especially as things get even more dangerous for our characters. Writer/director Stephen Susco finds ways to keep his film visually engaging and still character-centric in the decision-making, avoiding the escalations from feeling contrived and artificial. I enjoyed myself right up until the end, though the film does become more preposterous as it goes. The Dark Web as a whole is vague enough to be whatever the horror audience needs. The movie doesn’t have much to offer in the way of online culture commentary beyond a pretty standard “be careful what you wish for” warning. The characters aren’t terribly dimensional but they held my interest and contributed in small but meaningful ways. With Unfirended 2, it’s a fitting and palpable story engine for a clever thriller. If you enjoyed the recent indie hit Searching, check out some of the Unfriended films too.
Nate’s Grade: B
It is no disservice when I say that Bad Times at the El Royale joins the ranks of the finest of Tarantino imitators. It’s packed with twists and turns that keep an audience glued to the screen and continually re-evaluating the characters that we thought we knew. Because of that dynamic the movie invites the audience into becoming more involved, dissecting the information available and waiting for the next clue or plot revelation. It turns watching the film into a game and makes the experience that much more active and thrilling.
In the summer of 1969, the El Royale hotel is in for one hell of a night. The old fashioned hotel sits on the border between Nevada and California, allowing its dwindling customer base the opportunity to choose which state they would like to stay in. A group of strangers cozy up for the night including a priest (Jeff Bridges), a chatty vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), a hopeful lounge singer (Cynthia Erivo), a skittish bellhop (Lewis Pullman), and a mysterious woman (Dakota Johnson) who happens to have a hostage in her trunk. As the night progresses and the characters uncover one another’s secrets, sometimes with deadly results, menacing cult leader Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) comes swaggering to the El Royale to reclaim by force what he feels is rightfully his.
There are Act One twists and reveals in El Royale that would have been the Act Threes of other movies. Writer/director Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods, The Martian) has packed his movie full of sinister intrigue as he establishes the hotel, the main characters, and an immediate impression of each in the first 15 minutes. From there, the movie is divided into chapter titles (another Tarantino motif) where we follow different room inhabitants who get 20-minute-vignette spotlights. Once in private, the characters shed their false faces and begin to reveal who they really are, or who we think they might really be, and the movie starts to resemble Tarantino’s own hidden identity parlor game, 2015’s Hateful Eight. The vignettes begin to overlap, ending on cliffhangers and then circling back with a new character as our focal point, re-watching prior scenes but from a different perspective. Goddard’s script is wonderfully clever, layering in questions and answers and a constant desire to upend audience expectations. Even though some segments will repeat, Goddard doesn’t waste time on redundancy. A character will be seen prying loose floorboards searching for something desirable, and we never have to relive the before or after of this moment from that character’s perspective because we’ve been imparted the necessary info and can put the pieces together with the next jump. I appreciated Goddard’s faith in the intelligence of his audience. The pleasure of El Royale is watching it deftly unfold as a fun, funny, startling, appealing mystery.
The characters must also be worthy of our attention, and Goddard does fine work teasing out his colorful cast of criminals and lost souls and deepening most. Everyone has something to hide at the El Royale, and finding out his or her true intentions and motivations is part of the film’s fun. I won’t spoil any of the big surprises or which characters are really putting on a show. Despite all the many plot machinations intertwined, Goddard still finds time for his film to breathe and let the characters talk, opening themselves to one another, sometimes with the assistance of dramatic irony. Jeff Bridges and Cynthia Erivo play the best characters and deliver the best performances. Both of them are haunted by pasts they don’t feel like sharing, both are under some element of disguise to embark on finding their happy ending, and both form a sort of bond throughout the film as kindred spirits, even if they can’t fully trust one another. Bridges has the most complicated back-story but it actually links with a very real and emotional condition: memory loss. His character is (legitimately) going through early dementia and he’s losing full control of his sense of self, occasionally blanking and forgetting who he even is and how he got where he did. For a character pretending to be someone else, there’s a cruel irony to this malady. The seven main characters aren’t all on the same level (some are more plot devices than people) but Goddard knows this, making sure his 142-minute movie spends the most time with the best of them.
The actors given the best characters are also the ones that deliver the best performances, if you can imagine that. Bridges (Hell or High Water) brings a strong sense of pathos to his memory-addled priest trying to assess his life and his choices. He seems genuine in every moment, which is a feat considering his character has his share of secrets like anyone else. Erivo is a Broadway star making her film debut here, and she steals the show with her bruised sense of optimism. She’s the heart of the movie and a proven survivor, especially from a rigged system that protects predatory men. She brings a quiet power to her character as well as a believable vulnerability that makes you care. Hemsworth (Avengers: Infinity War) is all shaggy, scraggly charm as a cult leader who gets off pitting his followers, and captives, against one another. Really he likes to listen to himself speak, and Hemsworth is having a grand ole time with the part. Another actor exhibiting clear joy is Hamm (Baby Driver) who is, if you’ll pardon the pun, hamming it up with great gusto. He does a far majority of the talking for the first twenty minutes. He’s practically bouncing all over the place as an unchecked extrovert, but when alone, Hamm demonstrates an additional layer to his outlandish character. Another strong impression is from Pullman (Strangers: Prey at Night) as the lone employee eager to find absolution for his part in the El Royale’s history of sin as well as his own personal demons. The weakest of the ensemble ends up being Johnson (Fifty Shades Freed) who gets lost in her femme fatale archetype and can’t seem to find her way out again.
This is only Goddard’s second directing feature and his best directing aspect is that he knows when to linger on the written page. There are several segments that dwell in a certain emotion, elevated by Goddard’s tracking shots to continue the predicated unease. There’s one early moment where the bowels of the El Royale are revealed as hidden viewing areas to secretly record the guests doing their seemingly private illicit good times. The lead character of this vignette walks along the corridor, studying other characters and slowly realizing the implications of what he or she is finding. The scene is given a beautiful and eerie soundtrack thanks to Darlene practicing her singing, belting out “This Old Heart of Mine” like her life depended upon it, the tune taking on a sinister edge as it echoes through the dark hallway along with the tick-tock of the metronome. There’s another terrific singing suspense segment in this very same location, except with a different character spying on Darlene as she and another character work in conjunction to coordinate their movements, timing striking sounds in the room to her claps. Goddard has an adequate eye for visuals but he benefits from the gorgeously conceived and constructed El Royale setting, allowing the quirks of the rundown hotel to serve as another character to his ensemble. I enjoyed little touches, like only the Nevada side having a liquor license and the bright red line that runs down the middle of everything.
And yet there are some lingering doubts that halt me from a full-throated endorsement of El Royale, and I’ve been trying to articulate them better in the days since I watched the film. It frankly doesn’t fully come together by the end in a way that feels suitably climactic. Once Billy Lee enters the third act, the movie stabilizes and we spend time with the remaining characters assembled together to be terrorized by the cult leader. After seeing everyone else’s story in smaller vignettes with some slippery non-linear perspectives, we’ve finally come to our big confrontation and summit with everyone. Except it doesn’t feel as big as the movies needs it to be. Characters will be dispatched swiftly, and instead of it feeling shocking it feels abrupt and contrived, devaluing the character arcs that had been shuffling forward to that point. The deaths feel too ho-hum, and the final confrontation and melee too chaotic and random. The sacrifices feel wasted and sloppy rather than the payoff from some long established setup. It’s here where Goddard cannot hide his narrative trickery anymore and the machinations are exposed. I couldn’t help but feel that the final act was slowly losing the momentum and excitement that had been built carefully over the course of two hours. Billy Lee isn’t quite the force that his whispered presence has been made out to be, no fault to Hemsworth, who impresses me more and more with every new performance. It’s like by the end of his movie Goddard has realized that certain characters were inevitably just more interesting than others and he saves room for them to get a climax and brushes off the rest. Thematically I don’t quite know if it comes together with any sort of final statement about the 1960s, the dichotomy of good and evil, or anything else. It’s a final act that left me a little disappointed and realizing the end wasn’t nearly as fun as the journey.
Bad Times at the El Royale is a movie jam-packed with twists, plot turns, and colorful characters played by great actors who are clearly enjoying themselves, given the room to roam and stretch their muscles as exaggerated and dangerous criminal cohorts. Goddard’s film is impeccably structured up until its final act where it feels like the answers and confrontations cannot match the mysteries and setup that had been laid before. If you’re a fan of the top level of Tarantino imitators, like Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead or Lucky Number Slevin, or enjoy unpacking a good mystery, then check into the El Royale, a hotel where maybe the cockroaches have the best chance at survival.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Oscar-winning filmmaker Damien Chazelle got to be the director of a Best Picture winner for approximately three minutes, which, to be fair, is more than most us will ever experience. La La Land won the top prize at the 2017 Oscars only to have it taken away and given to the smaller indie, Moonlight. Where an Academy of old white people that love to celebrate Old Hollywood decide to award a small million-dollar movie about growing up gay and black in the 80s, where does one go next? For Chazelle, it seems the answer is something even more irresistible to the Academy. First Man is partly a biopic on Neil Armstrong and partly a recreation of the 1960s Space Race. The finished movie is so mercurial, so insulated, so dry that I found a far majority of it be kind of boring.
Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is one of the select pilots training for space. NASA is racing to beat the Russians to the moon, and every new breakthrough is thanks to long hours of hard work. Janet Armstrong (Claire Foy) worries at home, listening to every radio broadcast and wondering if her husband will come back safely.
What First Man does best is make you realize how dangerous every step of the way was to get to the moon. Every leap forward required months of trial-and-error, and sometimes those mistakes cost lives, like the crew of the Apollo 1. The film opens on Armstrong flying above the atmosphere. The emerging curvature of the Earth is beautiful, but the beauty turns to horror quickly as it appears Armstrong’s plane is bouncing off the atmosphere and drifting into orbit. There’s another sequence where he and Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) are above the Earth and planning to dock in space and their capsule spins wildly and if they can’t fix it they’ll black and out and assuredly die. These moments remind the audience about the inherent dangers of the Space Race that we don’t necessarily get in the history books. Looking back, we know the American astronauts succeed in the ultimate mission of landing a man, or an eventual dozen, on the moon, but that foreknowledge produces a false sense of security. Chazelle’s movie reminds us of the enormity of this challenge and the enormity of the dangers. The sound design in this movie is terrific, and Chazelle makes sure you hear every ping, every metal-on-metal scrape, to the point that you fear the whole thing could fall apart at any moment. When Janet furiously dresses down the Mission Control head (Kyle Chandler) that tries to calm her concerns, she accuses them of being boys who think they know what they’re doing. Even after the triumph of the final act, we know what happens two missions later (Apollo 13) to reconfirm just how much we still haven’t perfected when it comes to space travel.
Besides reminding you of the precarious nature of early space travel, let alone the tests leading up to said travel, First Man doesn’t find much to justify its own existence other than as the latest in Oscar bait. It’s not exactly an in-depth look at the heroism and chutzpah of the Space Race like The Right Stuff, and it’s not exactly an examination on the frailty of man and the meticulous problem solving needed to achieve big goals, like Apollo 13. In fact, while watching this movie I would repeatedly think to myself, “Man, I should go home and watch Apollo 13 again.” When you keep thinking about watching a better movie, you have lost your audience, and that happens throughout First Man. There are thrilling, awestruck sequences to be sure, but that only accounts for perhaps a quarter of the lengthy 140-minute running time. The rest is spent at a distance trying to understand a man who comes across as largely impassive. He’s intensely focused but it’s like the movie adopts his very no-frills attitude, and it goes about its business with little thought for letting an audience into its inner world. We’re still only visitors at best here.
I admittedly don’t know much about Armstrong the man, so I can’t tell if the role was shaped for Gosling’s talents or he just matched perfectly with the man. Armstrong feels like one of the Nicolas Winding Refn roles (Drive) that we’re used to watching Gosling portray. Armstrong feels like somebody ported over a guarded, reserved, mostly silent Refn character into a staid biopic and asked Gosling to communicate a majority of emotion through unblinking stare downs. If there’s one actor you don’t want to challenge to a staring contest, it’s Gosling. Armstrong comes across a very internal man who seems uncomfortable in the spotlight, far less natural than Buzz Aldrin, who the movie unexpectedly positions as kind of a saying-what-we’re-all-thinking jerk. Because Chazelle has decided to keep Armstrong so guarded, it makes the film feel distant, like we’re being told the story second-hand, and that requires Chazelle to fill in the gaps as to the internal motivations and insights for an intensely private man. The answers we’re given seem almost cliché (the death of his young daughter is what drove him into his work, to escape the bounds of his Earthly grief, and to finally say goodbye to her). It’s too convenient as a simple character arc to be fully believed, but that’s all we have to work with because the movie won’t give us much more. It feels more like you are getting the idea of Neil Armstrong the Man rather than a realization. It’s a frustrating experience, watching a biopic and having the filmmakers keep their prized figure behind glass.
As a director, Chazelle is proving to be a remarkably skilled chameleon. First Man is completely different in style and approach to La La Land as it is to Whiplash (still his finest). His chosen approach for First Man is locking to Armstrong’s perspective, so we’re working with a lot of handheld camerawork that orbits our movie star. Chazelle’s cameras emulate a docu-drama aesthetic and there are several moments where the action happens onscreen and the cameras race to frame it, leaving the image blurry for seconds. I’m not sure that was the best decision. It does create a sense of verisimilitude, which heightens the thrilling aspects of the film like the excursions into space travel. However, it does little to heighten the underwhelming domestic drama on the NASA block. The added realism only benefits a small portion of the movie. At times, a camera racing to catch up with the onscreen action would be considered a hindrance. The claustrophobic feelings are heightened from Chazelle’s cramped camerawork, reminding us again of the tightly precarious spaces these men were willingly sliding into, the fragility of the cockpit walls separating them from an unrelenting empty void. When we switch over to the Apollo 11 mission, Chazelle keeps the attention squarely with the three men making the famous lunar landing. There’s a stirring thrill of destiny and the film transitions into an IMAX footage to make the moment that much more immersive and transformative.
First Man is much like the man of its title, reserved, guarded, and with a laser-like focus on its mission at the expense of outside drama. Chazelle is an excellent filmmaker and the craft on this out of this world, from the production design to the thrilling recreations of the dangers of space, bringing together the alarm through a sumptuous combination of editing, sound design, and cinema verite photography. Of course that verite style is also a double-edged sword, providing another layer to distance the audience. This is a pretty guarded movie with few insights into Armstrong the person. We get more Armstrong the pilot and numbers-cruncher, and I wish Chazelle had steered more into whatever version of Armstrong that opened him up to the audience. The family drama stuff is pretty pat and Foy (The Girl in the Spider’s Web) is generally wasted as the supportive and anxious wife. Most of the actors are generally wasted in this movie, with the potential exception of Gosling, who slips into the shoes of an impassive and emotionally restrained protagonist like it’s second nature. First Man might not be a giant leap artistically, and in fact a majority of the film is dull, but the artistic highs are enough to warrant one viewing. From there, you’ll likely conclude that you don’t need to watch Neil Armstrong stare forlornly into the middle distance again. Frankly, I’d rather watch La La Land again, and that’s saying something.
Nate;s Grade: B-
Sony does not have a sterling track record of late when it comes to their superheroes. After the dismal response to 2014’s Amazing Spider-Man 2, Sony reached out to the creative team at the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to better guide their flagship property. A solution was worked out wherein the MCU would essentially make a Spider-Man movie and borrow the character for their own films and Sony would reap the profits, and it worked wonderfully with 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming. Now Sony seems to be falling into a similar trap, getting ahead of themselves with an itch to build a larger superhero universe of properties. Venom is a fan favorite Spider-Man villain, so to give the guy his own movie even without Spider-Man is already a risk. The ensuing Venom solo film is a big gooey mess of a movie that needed to decide whether it was going to be scary, funny, goofy, serious, PG-13 or R-rated, or good or bad.
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative reporter who has relocated from New York to San Francisco. He’s got a cushy job, a loving fiancé (Michelle Williams), and he loses it all thanks to his ego and drive to uncover the secret experiments of a wealthy Elon Musk-esque business magnate, Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Then Eddie discovers the secret of Drake’s lab, an alien symbiotic substance that crashed on Earth. It bonds with Eddie and appears in his head as a guttural voice egging him into bad behavior and the hopeful munching of heads and bodily organs. Eddie must learn to work with his new partner to thwart Drake and another alien symbiote with plans for world domination.
Venom struggles to separate itself from the plethora of superhero films out there and forge an identity of its own, unfortunately without Spider-Man and the larger Marvel world. It’s even in the tagline: “The world has enough superheroes.” If this is the anti-superhero movie it can’t pull that far apart. The set-up was there for something potentially different. Venom could have been the villain instead of merely an anti-hero, with Eddie Brock wrestling with his inner demons in a way that evoked the classic tortured duality of Jekyll and Hyde. I think that approach certainly would have brought out more from director Ruben Fleischer (Zombieland, Gangster Squad). Instead the filmmakers assert that their goo-laden superhero is a bit edgier, a bit looser with the ethics of justifiable homicide when it comes to snacks, and to make it certain they employ a clear-cut villain who has even less compunctions so as to make Venom look better in comparison. This is a pretty lazy anti-hero archetype that follows the superhero formula to the core. If the Venom symbiosis was presenting problems in Eddie’s life, or presented a lethal force that tempted him to the dark side that needed to be tamed or at least withheld, that would be one thing, but it’s the same-old tool for empowerment. Thanks to the Venom alien, Eddie is able to stand up to bad guys he shrunk from before. Thanks to the Venom alien, Eddie is able to be a better reporter and reactive citizen. Hooray. For a movie that advertised there were too many superheroes, they just flatly rolled out another.
The major problem with Venom is that nobody seems to be on the same page as to what kind of movie they are making. Firstly, Tom Hardy seems to think he’s making his own version of Jim Carrey’s The Mask, hamming it up to great comic effect, stuttering and sloshing his way from scene to scene. This movie would be vastly less interesting if it was not for Hardy and his committed performance of borderline Nicolas Cage-style nuttiness. The film became that much more entertaining once Venom and Eddie were bonded and Hardy had to reconcile the back-and-forth in his head and in public. There are moments that I’m almost convinced the movie is asking its audience to laugh at it and Hardy rather than with it, like when he takes a dip into a lobster tank to cool off. It made me think of All of Me but with an alien parasite. The buddy comedy aspect and interaction was a highlight. The movie is better when it either embraces its goofy elements or at least pretends not to be as serious. The serious version of this movie seems to infect most of the supporting players, notably Williams and Ahmed. Poor Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) is another underrated love interest, and in the one scene where she does have agency and power, she immediately gives it back over to Eddie. Ahmed (Rogue One) just looks lost, going from overblown monologue to confusing monologue, making it hard to grasp what his motivations are from scene to scene. Is it space exploration, conquering, or saving the Earth? There’s a part at the end confrontation where Ahmed and Hardy are literally fighting one-on-one and it’s hilariously mismatched. There’s no way a tiny guy like Ahmed would be able to contend with Hardy in a fistfight. That’s the more unbelievable moment yet.
The story has many shortcomings and logical constraints that exist for sloppy stalling purposes. Take for instance the opening scene where a U.S. space shuttle crashes back to Earth and lands in Malaysia (have the people of Malaysia suffered enough downed aircraft?). One of the four alien symbiotes escapes and latches onto an EMT worker, taking control of her body. We then flash forward six months and Drake’s company is testing the symbiotes and having poor results, losing all but one that bonds with Eddie Brock. Why even have four of these things? Why have two to eventually die off-screen when one would do? But really why have any of this setup? The Bad Guy Symbiote is effectively stranded in Malaysia for six months until it figures out that little white girls are the ticket to slipping past airport security guards (and I guess stupid secret lab guards as well). Why not have the breakaway symbiote be the Venom one? Why even have the means of their arrival crash in Malaysia if they’re all just winding up in San Francisco anyway? The only logical answer is the filmmakers wanted the Big Bad sidelined long enough to set up more plot, but it’s so sloppy. The same can be said about how Eddie eventually ends up face-to-face with his special symbiote. Jenny Slate’s (Gifted) scientist character is to sneak Eddie into the lab, without her supervision of where to specifically go, and for him to… take pictures of the suffering test patients? Why does she need an intermediary to take pictures? Why can’t she do this and then submit them to Eddie? If she fears that the tests are as dangerous, why does she let Eddie stumble around? When the bad guys initially give chase they use flying drones as their killer weapons. I figured they would use these aerial machines to fire at Eddie as he speeds away on his motorcycle, but no, instead they use them as kamikaze bombs. How is that effective? Why do the good people of San Francisco seem to shrug at a series of bombs going off around their city? This is pretty much the definition of modern terrorism. How about when the Venom symbiote goo is separated from Eddie and he’s taken away, and the symbiote has to escape from a hospital and it has a choice of small dog or human being as its escape vehicle… and it chooses the small yappy dog. The movie is littered with these kinds of head-scratchers and leaves the overwhelming impression that much of this story and ensuing production was thrown together in the most haphazard fashion.
The action and special effects are also pretty messy and lackluster. The Venom alien goop just looks like Hardy is constantly dripping black paint. The effects do not look drastically improved from when we first caught glimpse of a big screen Venom in 2007’s Spider-Man 3 (though no candy corn fangs). There’s a lengthy attack sequence between Venom and an entire squad of SWAT officers that takes place in the haze of a teargas cloud. It’s meant to evoke a sense of horror as Venom pops up randomly, except it just makes everything too chaotic to maintain interest. Too many sequences take place at night to obfuscate the special effects work. The final act is the worst part as Venom faces down another symbiotic goo-monster, and it ends up being a clash between a black-skinned goo monster and a grey-skinned goo monster outdoors at night with quick camera edits. Good luck trying to comprehend what is happening on the screen. It’s such a bleh villain as well, just a bigger slightly more evil version of Venom, and its world-dominating plan involve bringing the other symbiotes to Earth, which will take, by my calculations, at least a few decades, at best, of space travel time. It’s one last noisy, dumb moment in a movie filled with loud and dumb moments to pass the time.
I still can’t find a straight answer whether Venom was initially filmed as a PG-13 film or as an R-rated movie and re-edited into a safer, more commercial PG-13 form. In its current incarnation, I don’t think an R-rating would have added much more to it, but that’s because the film doesn’t feel like it was conceived as an R-rated property. That’s a shame considering it features an alien creature that eats people’s heads. There is one scene where Venom eats a mugger’s head and the next scene he reverts back to Eddie Brock, and we see Eddie leave the shop in clear sight. The dead body of his headless victim is curiously missing even though it should be in full view. What happened? Also, what happens to the shop owner who is now witness to this traumatic event? Are the police or insurance agents going to believe her tale about an alien monster biting the head off a man whose body was left in her business? Is anyone going to want to shop there again once word spreads that a guy had his head removed? The Venom movie we get doesn’t earn this scene and it doesn’t get to wave away the scrutiny it invites.
Venom is a mediocre superhero movie that doesn’t know what it wants to be. It says it doesn’t want to be a superhero film, but it falls under the same plot trappings. It seems like it’s a silly comedy, but then it asks you to take it seriously. It seems like a serious action thriller, but then it has a goo-covered anti-hero say, without a hint of irony, that it’s “time to save the world.” Then there’s the painfully on-the-nose post-credits scene meant to bait the audience into interest in future sequels (stop doing this, Hollywood). This is a sloppy movie on all levels. The saving grace is Hardy’s dedicated, ridiculous, tic-heavy performance, which at least smoothed over the rough patches at various points for my enjoyment. Otherwise, the best part of the Venom movie is a three-minute clip for the animated Spider-Man movie Sony is scheduled to release in December. Those delightful three minutes are better than anything else Venom has to offer in its slapdash, goo-filled tonal mishmash. Check out the underrated genre gem Upgrade instead, the superior Venom.
Nate’s Grade: C-
There have been four official renditions of A Star is Born. I say “official” because other storytellers have imitated the famous formula countless times (2011’s Best Picture-winner The Artist is essentially the same tale). The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaymor and Frederick March and was about a Hollywood acting starlet. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was nearly three hours. The 1976 version swapped Hollywood for the music industry, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (a generation asks, that guy from Blade?). Now Bradley Cooper has taken to reviving this old favorite, much like a singer re-imagining a classic song. As a character says in the film, there are only 12 notes within each octave, and it’s up to the individual artists to take those same 12 notes and spin them in meaningful ways; it’s the singer, not the song. Cooper and his company have refashioned A Star is Born for 2018 audiences, and it’s an emotionally satisfying showcase for its booming stars.
Jack (Cooper) is a popular singer-songwriter with a long career of hits stretching back decades. Ally (Lady Gaga a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) is a waitress with big dreams of stardom. She writes her own songs but is afraid to perform them because of her looks. One night Jack stumbles onto her performance in a drag club, and from there he’s smitten. He invites her onstage at one of his concerts and the duo sing Ally’s song she wrote. From there they’re inseparable and Ally’s career explodes. She transitions to a solo pop act thanks to a thinly veiled villainous British manager (Rafi Gavron). Jack’s addictions and maladies seem to be getting worse as the relationship continues and Ally must choose between her blossoming career and being the caretaker for the self-destructive man she loves.
This is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, as well as a screenwriter, and he knows that the formula of A Star is Born is universal and requires little tinkering. The real draw will be in the characters and the performances, and that’s where A Star is Born 2018 shines. Cooper’s character is a talented mess and we’re introduced to both aspects early. The film opens with him playing onstage and it’s full of vigor, swagger, and all shot in a long take to keep the electric feeling alive, also highlighting Cooper doing his own strumming. This is a rock star that knows what he’s doing, we immediately sense. Then in the car ride as he desperately looks for a source of alcohol, we see how cavalier he is about his own addictions and self-destruction. He’s also suffering from tinnitus and refuses to wear hearing aids because he feels it will make it harder for him to be in the moment, thus taking away something from the authenticity of his performance. That’s a key word when it comes to Jack. He is obsessed with authenticity and using the spotlight to say something meaningful. This ethos will cause friction in his relationship with Ally as she gets molded into a pre-fabricated pop star with lyrics about butts in jeans. Jack knows deep down that his time in waning, both commercially and physically, and he is driven to make the most of it before the spotlight dissipates. In some ways, Ally is a reclamation project for his career and his person. It’s not manipulative. He genuinely wants to do right by her and give her the opportunities that he thinks she deserves. I never doubted Jack’s fidelity to Ally, especially as we learn piece-by-piece his troubled back-story with a troubled father. Jack has two significant relationships in his life, Ally and his older brother and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliot). He pushes them away while needing to draw them closer and that conflict drives the character more so than his musical legacy.
Cooper the actor does a suitably good job losing himself in the character, alternating charm and warmth and rage and stubbornness. His singing vocals are pretty solid and add to the overall impression of Jack as a character rather than an acting vehicle for a director who wanted to show off. As a director, Cooper follows the instincts of his character and has a very practical, no-frills sense of style, sticking to longer takes and pinning the camera to his performers to get every nuance of emotion across their tear-stricken faces. His camera instincts are on verisimilitude and trust in his actors, and they deliver for him. I liked the little moments that Cooper finds to let his characters stretch and for his film to breathe. The initial courtship between Ally and Jack over the course of one long night sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We can tell early on there’s something special between these two. There’s also some fine moments between Cooper and Elliot (The Hero) expressing the hardships of two hard-headed brothers tired of dealing with the scars of their alcoholic father. It’s a delicate balance so the soapier elements don’t overwhelm the pivotal sense of realism that Cooper is after. The fact that he finds that right balance throughout a 135-minute movie is an accomplishment in and of itself, let alone for a novice director, although the pacing is a bit sluggish at points.
This is rightfully Gaga’s show and she dazzles on stage and on screen. It’s tailor-made to be a showcase for Gaga and her sensational singing, so she’s got many supports from Cooper and company to succeed. Cooper is good but she is unquestionably great. It’s her movie and just as Ally becomes a star so too does Gaga. It’s not just the musical performances too, which are uniformly outstanding while still being able to be done through the lens of her character. Her performance of “La vie en Rose” is slinky, brimming with assurance, and magnetic to watch, giving the audience a sense to what Ally is capable of. You can easily see why Jack would become enchanted with her immediately. Her big moment singing her original song to a stadium of thousands is the highlight of the film. Cooper’s camera stays trained on Ally on the sidelines as she goes through a myriad of emotions, working up the courage to saunter onstage at the right time to belt out her original tune. It’s a thrilling and emotionally rousing moment that feels literally star making. You see her nerves melt away as she lets go and immerses herself in the music. The dramatic moments are just as nicely delivered, though there are the occasional bump or two. Gaga has a feisty sense of self that pushes her to push back, but she can also be achingly vulnerable and lovesick as her character falls head over heels for a troubled man. She’s present in every scene and has a strong rapport with Cooper. I fully expect her to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance and likely one for an original song.
With all that being said, A Star is Born 2018 also strangely relegates Ally’s character. Walking away, I began thinking over the movie and its characterization and I realized that Cooper and his team of screenwriters have given the rising star the least amount of material. She’s got the most screen time and her character arc is evidently clear, the rags-to-riches ascent, the naiveté giving way to hard-won wisdom and heartache. She has big dreams and gets more confident as the film continues and her career comes alive. All of that is clear, but dig deeper and you’ll discover less than you remember. Ally doesn’t even follow the track where as her notoriety increases so does her ego. She’s pretty much the same caring, humble, ambitious human being as a waitress and as a Grammy award-winning musician. I suppose her static status says something about how solidified her own sense of self is even after her dreams come true. She’s not one for the temptations of the recording industry and grater fame and fortune. I don’t think she even has a flaw; perhaps a mild lack of confidence in her performance abilities thanks to shallow male executives that equate physical looks with commercial mass appeal (Gaga herself has spoken about the negative feedback she received for years because of her looks). But a lack of confidence is a pretty weak and easily resolved flaw in a narrative. I think her big character flaw is actually her devotion to her self-destructive relationship with Jack. In order to go into more detail, I’ll be spoiling portions of the movie (if you haven’t seen any of the other versions) so please skip the next paragraph to remain absolutely pure.
Inherent with every rendition of A Star is Born is one performer on the rise and one performer on the decline. This goes with the territory, as does the falling star having some kind of crippling addiction that only gets worse. Cooper is too devoted to bringing a sense of realism to his film to merely add a happy ending. The romantic relationship between Ally and Jack is the heart of this movie but I began questioning whether it was actually a good relationship, not good in a sense of the quality of writing but good in a sense of whether it was ultimately healthy for Ally. He’s an alcoholic, a pill-popper, and he’s pushing himself too hard in a race against his irreversible hearing loss. He’s spiraling and figuratively drowning (literally in the 1954 version) and looking for a lifeline, and that’s Ally. She becomes a primary caregiver for his benders. She’s willing to sacrifice her career for him, and that level of devotion alarms even Jack, pushing him into making a fatal decision in the guise of helping her. That’s right, it’s a movie that portrays suicide not just as a tragedy but also as a misplaced gift (2016’s Lights Out did something similar to resolve its supernatural dilemma). It’s hard to tell what Cooper’s view of this decision is, whether it’s romantic or wrong-headed and cruel. Their relationship is self-destructive and Ally’s insistence on sticking it out, with a man who doesn’t trust his own will power to stay sober, comes across as a questionable asset. Should I not be hoping that she leaves and finds happiness with someone who is healthier for her?
A fun thing I noticed was the ongoing appearance of alums from the TV series Alias. The show aired from 2001-2006 and was some of the best network TV, especially its first two rollicking seasons of spy hijinks. Cooper was a supporting character on that show and he does right to his co-stars by using his own increasing leverage in Hollywood (three Oscar nominations, repeated bankabaility) to give them high-profile work. Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ lucky charm, plays Jack’s understanding and put upon personal driver. Ron Rifkin plays an addiction counselor that offers hard wisdom to Jack. I was hoping that Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner might be around the corner but alas it was not to be.
A Star is Born 2018 is a worthy and emotionally involving addition to the oft-repeated formula. It’s more emotionally grounded, eschewing sensational melodrama for something authentic and resonating after it’s long over. This is a familiar story but it’s been made relevant to a modern audience and given an emotional clarity that is richly affecting. It’s a big Old School sort of movie with big feelings but Cooper maintains a sense of integrity throughout, treating his characters as flesh-and-blood human beings. Gaga is the sensational standout but every actor does good to great work here. I wish the script gave her character more dimension and opportunity to flash even more complex impulses, but I’ll be happy with what I got. A Star is Born 2018 may be the best version yet, and that’s saying something for a story that’s been kicked around since FDR. It’s the singer, not the song, and this movie is sweet music to your ears.
Nate’s Grade: B+