“I just don’t want to lose the part of me that is, you know, talented.” A Star Is Born (2018)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

I wasn’t certain the world needed another version of A Star Is Born: 1937 – Janet Gaynor and Fredric March; 1954 – Judy Garland and James Mason; 1976 – Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; and now 2018 – Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. And we nearly had a version starring Beyonce and directed by (shudder) Clint Eastwood.

(I’ve always thought they should revisit the Garland musical with Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, but, alas, I think that ship has sailed.)

I was wrong about the need for this latest version. Dead wrong. Director and star Bradley Cooper has made an exceptional film and the perfect version of this timeworn story for our post-millennial malaise.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

For those who’ve seen any or all of the previous versions, the familiar fractured fairy tale story beats remain: male star at his peak meets female unknown; the parabolic trajectories of their respective careers intersect as hers is on the ascent and his is …not so much; he has substance abuse problems; she wins a major award and he embarrasses the crap out of her on live TV; things continue to spiral and tragedy ensues, but like a phoenix from the ashes, she reclaims her destiny in a triumphant final number. Exeunt.

Yet, this version is unlike the others. The simplistic, melodramatic narrative belies a more nuanced approach that jettisons broadly drawn archetypes and he said/she said outright villainy. Rather than mire in toxic masculinity his character Jackson Maine (an homage-in-name-only to James Mason’s “Norman Maine” in the 1954 film), Cooper gives us a man broken by such impulses (as evidenced by his neglectful father), a man whose heart is so shattered that all he knows to do is sing and drink (a lot). But he’s not mean. He’s basically sweet. Lost. And consummately effed up.

Following a concert performance and in pursuit of more liquor, Jackson stumbles into a drag bar, and, rather than act like a macho jackass, settles in and enjoys the show. Lady Gaga’s Ally is an occasional performer there, and her version of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie En Rose” catches Jackson’s eyes and ears.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In all other versions (at least as I recall), the story takes a Svengali-like approach in that the male character remakes the woman into the titular “star.” She is beholden to him, at some level, for her success – or at least he thinks so, and the less-enlightened dudes in the audience might inadvertently sympathize with his plight.

Cooper, working from a script written in collaboration with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, offers a more balanced approach. These two incomplete souls heal each other, with Ally’s spirit and agency bringing much needed light into Jackson’s world and he merely holding open the door through which her natural talent can shine.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

As a result, the dynamic changes greatly in the second and third act, wherein, in other versions, the male character  typically becomes a fiend. Jackson isn’t a fiend. He’s just a mess. That is both refreshing and a tad problematic story-wise. We see Ally transform into a pop diva over which Jackson becomes mildly contemptuous … and she ain’t having any of that. “I don’t want to lose the part of me that is, you know, talented,” she notes. Ally is very much her father’s daughter (Andrew Dice Clay is manopausal magic as her doting meat-head daddy); and she may be a devoted caretaker (to Jackson, to her family), but she is no sucker. The disastrous co-dependence that derails the couples in other versions of the story isn’t as evident (that’s a good thing), but it does tend to take a little steam out of this iteration’s mid-section as we wait for Jackson’s disaffection for the industry (and himself) to lead inevitably to some heartbreaking choices.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those who haven’t seen previous takes on the story, but things don’t end well for Jackson. Cooper stages those moments so delicately, so artistically, so humanely. And when Ally has her final “say” through song, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

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As for the music? That is the third star of this crackerjack film. Written by Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son), Gaga, and Cooper, the songs are a touch Black Keys, a bit Shooter Jennings, and not exactly my cup of tea, but utterly perfect in context. This is the rare movie where the moments that work so well in the trailer work even better in the finished product. You’ve seen the highlights, but you have no idea how impactful they will be in context.

“The Shallow” is most likely to become the “I Will Always Love You” or “My Heart Will Go On” inescapable movie hit of this decade. However, in the film when Ally takes that stage and Gaga’s triumphant, hurricane wail lets loose as the ultimate validation of a female voice that has been ignored and mistreated? Your hair will literally stand on end. Gaga is a fantastic talent – she knows how to break your heart and then turn on a dime and allow you to soar alongside her. That’s a rare gift. Cooper does such a fantastic job staging the thunderous concert footage, you truly feel immersed in the performative aspects of these characters’ lives.

At one point, Sam Elliott – all beautiful silvery Sam-Elliott-trademark-gravitas as Jackson’s older brother (it makes sense in the film) – intones to Ally, “All the artist can tell you is how they see those 12 notes [in an octave]. Jackson loved how you saw those notes and what you had to tell.” At core, this is a film about compassion and about intention and about loving those who love us no matter how broken we/they may be. Jackson sings, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” Indeed, it’s well past time. Well past time.

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Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Damsels in distress? I don’t think so … Gravity and Blue Jasmine

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A few months ago, I decided to review a Miley Cyrus CD because I was being ornery about seeing either Captain Phillips or Gravity. Lord, I was an idiot.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved (and still love) Miley’s Bangerz (her delightful MTV Unplugged special last week being vindication of that earlier review) … but I was certainly wrong in my snooty dismissal of both Captain Phillips and Gravity.

Gravity is an art film in theme park ride clothing. The superb director Alfonso Cuaron (who helmed my beloved A Little Princess and Children of Men) gives us a woozy and claustrophobic take on deep space survival like nothing I’ve ever seen. (I caution anyone with a propensity for sea sickness from seeing the IMAX 3D version … unless you come prepared with a case of Dramamine.)

Cuaron takes the sweaty paranoia of Kubrick’s 2001 and ups the ante one-hundredfold. The concept is as absurd as can be: Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are astronauts (!) on opposite ends of the skill spectrum, and, after runaway space debris shreds their shuttle and the Hubble Telescope upon which they are making repairs, they find themselves playing hopscotch across the star-field from American to Russian to Chinese space stations.

Try not to think about the set-up too much and just go with the exquisitely filmed, edited, and paced flow. Honestly, Clooney is the film’s weakest link – sometimes I wonder if his face cramps from holding those endearingly twinkly smug expressions all the time. He basically serves the thankless role of being Sandra Bullock’s “Jiminy Cricket in Space” offering wise counsel, always preternaturally calm despite all hell breaking loose every five minutes.

Bullock is fine as the protagonist Dr. Ryan Stone, having to carry 90% of the film on her own. I have to admit I wonder how much stronger the film might have been with an unknown in her role. I was hyper-conscious of her sheer Bullock-ness the whole time, especially the umpteenth time she squealed “no, no, no, no, no, no, no” in that trademark exasperated “aren’t I a regular joe?” manner she brings to every role.

Regardless, Gravity is an efficiently gripping marvel – a 90-minute Cast Away-in-space – exemplifying in crisp detail  that “if anything can go wrong it will.” Cuaron’s masterwork is a techno allegory on our ability as opportunistic animals to adapt and to evolve and to survive in the face of endless calamity.

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Speaking of endless calamity, Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine also centers on one woman’s quest to thrive in a world hellbent on throwing roadblock upon roadblock in her path. Like some tilt-a-whirl mash-up of Blanche DuBois, Auntie Mame, and Courtney Love, Cate Blanchett in the title role rocks the house in Allen’s latest. She is amazing.

(She is, by all accounts, the Oscar front-runner for Best Actress this year … and rightly so. No one can touch her.)

I have often struggled with Allen’s films – they can feel half-baked, disjointed, and thrown-together. Not Blue Jasmine; like Bullets Over Broadway or Purple Rose of Cairo, Allen has a solid narrative here, trucking along with a surety of purpose and a compelling, tragic inevitability.

One can’t help but wonder if Allen is exorcising some personal familial demons with this one, perhaps serving penance for his well-documented patriarchal wrongs. And given the Mia Farrow camp’s very public reaction/meltdown of late, it becomes exceedingly difficult to separate fact from fiction.

Nonetheless, Blue Jasmine is spectacular filmmaking. Blanchett’s Jasmine is a clenched-jaw Manhattan socialite whose house-of-cards world collapses around her when her philandering, conniving Bernie Madoff-esque husband (a pleasantly subdued Alec Baldwin) commits suicide after being indicted for fraud. Jasmine moves into her sister’s shabby digs in San Francisco to reclaim some semblance of her former life (and her soul). Sally Hawkins is phenomenal as the trashy heart-of-gold sisterly counterpoint to Blanchett’s frayed-nerves pretension.

The film tracks back and forth between Blanchett’s current circumstances and the heartaches in the past that brought her there. Allen and Blanchett make a stellar team, giving us a wry, raw, and visceral treatise on gender politics and social warfare. Jasmine learns the hard way that money (and Xanax and vodka martinis) can’t buy happiness and that revenge (while sometimes essential) brings its own kind of karmic blowback.

Blanchett is a slow-burn supernova, bouncing corrosively off a stellar supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale as a comically emo Stanley Kowalski, Peter Sarsgaard as a twee Kennedy-wannabe, and Andrew Dice Clay (!) as Hawkins’ thuggishly wounded ex. But the movie is at all times Blanchett’s. She walks a phenomenal high-wire act, balancing heartbreak, disappointment, betrayal, arrogance, and abject fear, sometimes in a single line delivery. Hers is a performance for the record books, personifying our era’s raw neuroses, economic desperation, emotional materialism, and chemically induced numbness.

I think I’ll take Blanchett navigating a rotten life over Bullock navigating a collapsing space station any day…though both actors fabulously turn the tired cliche of the “damsel in distress” on its tired, simplistic, reductive noggin.