A Star Is Born (2018)

October 24, 2018 by  
Filed under Movies

Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine, a crooning country rock/folk singer, has cold blue eyes like a Colorado sky, and a voice that’s soaked in whiskey and croaks like wood. He’s the half of the focal point in the new remake of “A Star Is Born” and I guess every generation’s going to get one of these. We got one in the 30’s, the 50’s, and the 70’s. Each seem to belong to the period of time they were made in, and stay there. Jackson Maine reminds me a little of Kris Kristofferson but this isn’t a reincarnation of characters. They’re completely new, even if they are familiar. Then again, as Maine says, everything can pretty much be summed up as the same 12 bars repeating over and over until you get to the next octave. And that’s what this is. It’s another octave of the same 12 bars. But, it is worthy of its title, and its star power more than makes up for some of its hokey and predictable scenes.

We’re introduced to Ally (Lady Gaga), a normal, girl-next-door type who works as a waitress at a restaurant. Her and her friend like to go to a drag bar down from where she works so she can sing her songs. She’s the only biological female allowed to sing. When you hear her belt out her songs, you know why. After one of Jackson Maine’s concerts, he has his driver find a local bar due to traffic in the area. And, as he says, he isn’t ready to go home.

Of course this chance encounter allows Jackson to see Ally perform, and he’s immediately taken by her. Happens all the time in real life, I’m sure. The two of them spend the entire evening together, getting to know each other, singing to each other, and then Jackson suddenly wants to whisk her away from her life and take her on tour.

Ally is overwhelmed, and still feels intimidated by that kind of lifestyle. And, you know, they just met. But, she goes home that morning and is greeted by her dad (Andrew Dice Clay) and his track buddies who are betting on races in Japan (haven’t we all been there?). She is sent for later by Jackson, and finally agrees to go. When she’s put on stage impromptu by Jackson’s request to sing a song that they had sung the night they met…she’s an instant star. Blasted all over YouTube, befuddling and sending her dad to the moon and back.

And a Star IS born. Of course, it can’t all be romance and fun. Even though, they do have plenty of that in the film. It’s a journey through a relationship, but the stronger story is told by the music. Both of these two eat up every scene like comfort food, and when they perform, it’s magical. Cooper and Gaga’s powerful performances–while they are polar opposites as far as the kind of energy they bring–are the big reason this movie works. The music is the other. The songs, at least the songs they sing together and the strong songs, are outstanding. The pop stuff that Ally gets mixed up in, is pretty much trash. Still, it is catchy.

She of course is lured into the seedy pop world by a British (aren’t they all?) agent named Rez. Not short for Trent Reznor, by the way.

He dolls her up, changes her attitude to more like Britney Spears than something like…Adele. Which, her musical soul is more like. And that disappoints Jackson, who believes in her as a songwriter and musician. But not as a pop star.

There are moments when it seems like Jackson is jealous of her, and resentful of her fame and awards. But, the script doesn’t allow these subplots to breath much and it winds up hanging out there as an unfinished narrative. Like, OK, he’s jealous of her, but why? Nothing in his character seems to care about awards or even fame sometimes.

Perhaps it’s best put by his own mantra: when you have the means, have something to say. Everyone has their own talent, but not everyone has something to say. And he believes she’s wasting that. It’s believable, but it just isn’t struck with a match to deliver a big bonfire of drama. Instead, his drinking problems are mostly what we see are to blame for his anger and angst.

It affects his relationship with his older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), who is also his manager. Jackson was born late in his father’s life, and his mother died giving birth to him. Obviously these things play a part in Jackson’s diminished persona and his personal life suffers. While Ally is somewhat of a beacon of hope for him, and even gets him sober a few times, he still succumbs to his drunken lifestyle.

Those elements are stronger than the jealousy angle, and hold the film together better. It helps that Sam Elliott’s performance as the dutiful-but-worn-out older brother is right there with Cooper & Gaga’s. In fact, even the Diceman’s performance as Ally’s father Lorenzo is pretty top notch. His buddies are a nice comic relief, too, as this material gets pretty heavy as it goes on.

This is the first and only version of “A Star Is Born” I have seen, so I can’t compare it to the others. I can say that on its own, it works on its level of music and acting.  Cooper’s directing is also very good, making sure to keep our attention focused and leave out any dull moments.

For a “rock musical” drama, it’s first rate. Even with the weaker elements, mostly screenplay-related, the film doesn’t necessarily need a thick plot to keep things moving. Maine and Ally are great to look at, great to listen to, and great to feel a part of.

If you only get the 12 notes, but you hit each one right, it still makes for a worthwhile listen.

My rating: :-)

La La Land

January 24, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

“La La Land” is a musical that begins like any other musical does, but doesn’t end like many I’ve seen. It’s written and directed by Damien Chazelle, who made 2014’s “Whiplash” and co-wrote “10 Cloverfield Lane”. “La La Land” has moments of the delirium of a typical musical, mixed with some realism and cynicism that is usually saved for another genre. It is an interesting concept, and for the most part, it works quite well.

It begins with a musical number that you’d think would set the tone for a very upbeat, silly, and theatrical experience. We’re introduced to our two leads: Mia (Emma Stone), on her way to an audition; and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), who’s driving around learning music. Both are stuck in an endless traffic jam that sets off the song “Another Day of Sun”, boisterous and toe-tapping, but not necessarily memorable musically.

From there, we see that Mia works on the Warner Bros. lot as a barista, one of thousands of hopeful actresses who is always either on her way to work, a party, or an audition. Sebastian is a jazz pianist who is stuck playing simple Christmas tunes at a bar, working for tips and a little money. The two first meet inauspiciously on the highway, with Sebastian and Mia exchanging annoyed glances due to the traffic jam. When she finds herself in the bar that he’s playing, she witnesses him break from his script and start playing a jazz riff that winds up getting him fired. But she’s taken by the moment, even though it’s not shared by him. When they meet again, we’re treated to a much nicer song (“A Lovely Night”), after they run into each other at a party in which Sebastian is now with an 80’s cover pop band.

Of course, they fall in love, each encouraging each other to follow their dreams. Sebastian wants to open his own jazz bar, and Mia finds that she’s at her best if she creates her own role and is prompted by Sebastian to write a one woman show for herself. In Los Angeles, the city of angels, it’s also the city of dreams. While the pair try to make it through together, moving in with each other, some opportunities arise. Sebastian is offered by an old friend (John Legend) to play in his band. They’re more modern, and pop influenced, but still considered “jazz” enough for Sebastian to join. They also pay extremely well. The only other drawback, besides going against Sebastian’s purity roots, is that they’re always on tour or recording a record. For Mia, she stays at home and works on her play, setting up a premiere night that doesn’t go as well as she’d hoped. To make things worse, Sebastian misses it due to an engagement in photo shoots and a music video production.

The strain of the relationship, on top of the pressures of trying to “make it”, cause the two to drift. The third act of the film is predictable, with them going their own way–but the ending is a bit of a surprise, for a musical. This was what I liked most about it. Some of the structure reminded me of the 1981 film “Pennies from Heaven” with Steve Martin, especially how the film concludes.

While the film is a love story, it’s more about the pursuit of one’s goals rather than the pursuit of happiness with another person. After all, that’s Hollywood. Much of your life in tinseltown is spent sacrificing, compromising. Falling in love, but not staying in love. But can Mia and Sebastian break those chains, and make it together? It’s certainly something we want to see happen.

The film’s strength is in its little doses of humor and Gostling and Stone’s performances. The musical numbers are, for the most part, very average. There are a few exceptions–“City of Stars”, the film’s key song, and the catalyst to drawing me in completely; and, “Mia and Sebastian’s Theme”, which is sprinkled throughout the film. Some of the jazz numbers are very well done as well. It has a few stagnant sequences, and can be a bit laborious at a little over two hours of running time; but it’s most enjoyable watching these two actors enjoy their screen time together, singing and dancing (Stone better at the singing and Gosling better at the dancing).

In a time of over saturation with remakes, reboots, sequels, and countless adaptations, it’s also refreshing to see a wholly original work, even if it is sometimes a cliche’d musical. It’s a nice break from the grind of moviegoing these days, and there are definitely moments in the film where you’d like to stay there just a little longer. After all, it is la la land.

My rating: :-)