Monsters and Men(10/8/2018)/The Hate U Give(10/14/2018)

When Donald Trump somehow won the presidency after waging a horrific race baiting campaign a lot of people came out and said “well this sucks, but at least we’ll get some good music and movies out of it.”  That is of course a stupid thing to say given that real people are going to have to suffer in order for you to get your protest art, but, it isn’t exactly untrue that great art can emerge in response to awful situations.  However, movies don’t get made overnight and it can often take a while for filmmakers to respond to what’s in the news, especially if they’re going to respond intelligently.  It took Hollywood damn near five years to put out an Iraq War movie that was worth a damn and it could take just as long to get good overtly anti-Trump cinema.  In fact right now we’re only just starting to see the wave of movies that were made in response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that emerged in the wake of a series of police shootings in 2014.  We saw one of these movies a few months ago in Blindspotting, an indie film that is partly about gentrification and friendship but which was also followed a man trying to process having witnessed a police shooting of an unarmed man.  Now we have another pair of movies tackling this subject matter, one a rather restrained independent movie called Monsters and Men and the other a rather forceful studio movie based on a YA novel called The Hate U Give, and given the rather divergent approaches the two movies take to the subject matter I thought they would be worth looking at side by side.

The Hate You Give follows a high school girl named Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) who lives in fictional “urban” neighborhood of Garden Heights but who attends a private school called Williamson Prep and code switches heavily when moving between the two worlds.  One weekend she finds herself at a party in Garden Heights where she reunites with a childhood friend named Khalil (Algee Smith) and he offers to give her a ride home after a fight breaks out at the party.  On their way they’re pulled over by a cop for suspect reasons, then things go bad and Khalil is shot by the officer after reaching for a hairbrush.  Starr then needs to decide whether to testify at the Grand Jury despite pressure from various parties not to while also navigating how she will continue to move between the two worlds she inhabits.

Monsters and Men also begins with a young man who witnesses the police shoot an unarmed man but it doesn’t end with him.  That young man is Puerto Rican guy in his late teens or early twenties named Manny Ortega (Anthony Ramos), who approaches the site of an arrest that seems to be going wrong outside of a convenience store and pulls out a cell phone to film the encounter.  When that arrest ends in an unarmed black man being killed by the police he needs to decide whether he should stick his neck out to release the video.  Soon after that the movie shifts to another character, an African American cop named Dennis Williams (John David Washington) who wasn’t involved in that shooting but does know that the cop who did the shooting has questionable attitudes and is conflicted about whether to tell that to Internal Affairs.  After he comes to his decision the film shifts again, this time to a black teenager with a promising future in baseball named Zyric (Kelvin Harrison) who knew the victim of that shooting and now wants to get involved in activism despite everyone telling him this could get in the way of his sports career.

Monsters and Men’s “triptych” structure is somewhat reminiscent of some of Robert Bresson’s movies that would go from one story to the next, sometimes with a conceptual device, to explore a shared theme.  This perhaps makes sense given that there are often a lot of different perspectives and responses that can come from events like this.  The two characters who are clearly the most comparable to The Hate You Give’s Starr Carter are clearly the first and the third, the witness to the shooting and especially the one driven to activism by the shooting.  Starr is of course more developed than both of the Monsters and Men characters owing to the fact that she has four times as much screen time as either of them and I suppose you could also compare her to the police character from that movie as well given that both are caught between two worlds.

Starr and Ortega face similar if somewhat different pressures to keep quiet about what they witnessed: Ortega deals with a pair of police who approach him on the street and give him a “what you thought you saw isn’t what you saw” kind of speech, which comes with something of a veild threat implied, Starr on the other hand has some fairly legitimate concerns that she would be looked at differently by her prep school peers, on top of that there’s a somewhat contrived threat to her from the local gang leader who is for some reason worried that she’ll testify that the deceased worked as a drug dealer in his gang despite having personally witnessed almost nothing about the operation and having seemingly little of value to offer them on that topic.  It’s also not exactly clear why Starr’s testimony is so important, the main details of the shooting are all there on the dashboard camera, all she can really offer otherwise are details about how cavalierly Khalil was behaving during the shooting, which isn’t necessarily going to help the case.

The police story in Monsters and Men is almost certainly its best, in part because it gives a perspective on these things we don’t normally get, that of the black cop.  John David Washington, who we just saw playing a much different kind of policeman in Spike Lee’s Blackkklansman, plays a guy who definitely isn’t in denial about the fact that African Americans are treated differently by his fellow cops.  The film opens with a tense scene (the only one in the film that fits outside of its one story at a time structure) of him getting pulled over, most likely without cause, while off duty and he later tells his partner that this was the sixth time it had happened to him that year.  You can also tell that the video of the shooting affects him and that he knew that the cop who did the shooting was a “bad apple” to say the least, but he is still a cop, the “blue wall” matters to him and he does have some sympathy for how officers are likely to act under pressure.  There’s a particularly strong scene in this section where he’s seated at a dinner party with his wife and a pair of black friends and when the friends start talking about the cop who did the shooting in a somewhat careless and insensitive manner the “you don’t know shit about what cops deal with” rhetoric suddenly seems to come out in an almost reflexive manner.

There is also a comparable character in The Hate U Give, a police officer played by Common who is actually Starr’s uncle.  He doesn’t play an overly big part in the story but he does have one scene where he sort of plays devil’s advocate and outlines the ways that the ill-fated stop earlier in the film might have given the officer some reason to be scared and that “the world’s complicated.”  It’s not entirely clear whether we’re supposed to think that Starr’s response of “it doesn’t seem very complicated to me” is meant to be a legitimate takedown of what he’s saying or if it’s meant to simply be teenage rage but the subject never comes up again and the movie basically eschews such complications from there on.

The third story in Monsters and Men is probably its weakest. The kid at the center of it is very quiet and a lot of his internal struggles are only communicated through blank stares and I’m not sure the actor is quite able to pull it off.  Starr, by contrast, kind of never stops talking.  The film employs a first person voice-over of the worst kind which narrates pretty much every single thing about her including various things that the audience probably should have been trusted to catch onto.  For example, early on Starr’s voice over feels the need to tell say something along the lines of “when I’m in Williamson I’m a different person than when I’m at home… and I hate myself because of it,” which is something that would otherwise be well communicated to the audience simply by letting them observe her behavior in the two places and connect the dots.  Still, Monsters and Men probably could have given us a little more.  For instance there’s a scene where Zyric is in a locker room and overhears a pair of white kids talking about the news surrounding the shooting and more or less saying that they’d do the same if they were in the cop’s position.  Zyric doesn’t respond to this so much as just kind of give a blank stare for the camera to observe.  In The Hate U Give Starr also has to deal with white kids who quote “blue lives matter” rhetoric in ways that probably more closely resemble the way people talk about these things on Twitter than how they talk about them in high school and Starr responds in rather dramatic fashion and talks in detail about how this makes her feel in voiceover.

The Hate U Give goes too far and Monsters and Men doesn’t go far enough” is sort of a running theme when comparing these two movies if you haven’t already picked up on that.  This even extends to the shooting scenes in the respective films.  The shooting in The Hate U Give will be pretty familiar to anyone who’s been watching the news lately.  It begins with an extended meeting between Starr and Khalil which is pretty much tailor made to make you like him and his friendship with Starr before the two are pulled over by the whitest looking cop you can imagine and Khalil is then pretty much instantly shot after reaching for a hairbrush.  It mostly gets the job done but it’s not exactly the most inventive scene and it is about as prone to be questioned and second guessed as all the real shooting videos with those inclined to do so able to ask if the hairbrush really looked like a gun and if Khalil should have acted the way he did, etc.  Monsters and Men by contrast sidesteps that entirely because it never gives you a clear view of the shooting at all.  Ortega doesn’t see how the encounter begins, if the shooting is onscreen at all it happens super-fast and in the background of the scene and the film also very deliberately never replays the tape even after it’s been released to the public.  I’m not exactly sure why writer/director Reinaldo Marcus Green chose this approach but I’m guessing that he was trying to emphasize that he was making a movie that was more about the ways people of color react to these all of these shootings than about the details of this particular death.

The main difference between the two movies is that Starr is essentially in the world’s most political Disney movie (it’s being released by 20th Century Fox, which isn’t part of the Disney corporation just yet, but you catch my drift) while the stars of Monsters and Men are in a movie for adults that isn’t about to dismiss harsh realities as something that “doesn’t seem very complicated to me.”  Like Starr, Ortega decides to come forward with what he knows but the decision does not work out as well for him and unlike Starr Officer Williams isn’t able to bridge the two worlds he lives in and eventually has to pick a side, and like Starr Zyric finds himself driven to activism but it seems like a much lonelier road for him and it’s heavily implied that he’s putting his dreams of Major League stardom in danger by doing so.  Things for Starr on the other hand do eventually more or less work out for her and she’s rewarded for doing the right thing both by the people around her and by her boost in self-realization and growth.  That ending may or may not be true to life, but even a contrived Hollywood ending like that is an ending and in some ways that preferable to Monsters and Men’s perhaps deliberately frustrating habit of leaving stories just as they start to get interesting and then finally ending abruptly without even the slightest fanfare or unifying strand between the three.  In many ways that movie felt like it needed a fourth story or at least some sort of montage or something that would tie the stories together a little more, instead it just kind of concludes the Zyric story and this time doesn’t move on to another and I don’t think that really worked.

Then again maybe there’s something kind of wise about how Monsters and Men just sort of leaving its characters in a morass of uncertainty about their actions, there’s something truthful about that even if it isn’t necessarily engaging cinema.  The Hate U Give isn’t really interested in such uncertainty, but in some ways that’s what’s going to make it a lot more accessible and will definitely impress a certain audience that will get a lot of enjoyment out of seeing a major motion picture parrot various woke tumbler talking points out loud in direct ways that in my view are frankly kind of corny.  This is a movie that climaxes with its protagonist jumping up on a car in the middle of a soon-to-turn-violent protest and shout something like “this is about Khalil’s life… and it mattered!” to a crowd that suddenly goes silent for her “inspiring” insight.  It’s also a movie that ends with its protagonist stepping in front of a gun in a standoff in order to display her new understanding of Tupac’s “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody (THUG LIFE)” phrase and win over people with love or something.  It’s corny.  But in some ways it’s better at being a corny movie than Monsters and Men is at being an artful movie.  That’s probably why it’s going to make a whole lot of money while Monsters and Men is currently on track to leave theaters without even making a million dollars.  I might not have the same respect for The Hate U Give what Monsters and Men is doing but it comes to life in a way that the other film doesn’t and is probably more successful at hitting its very specific goals.    Blindspotting earlier this year also had its questionable moments but I’d probably take it over both of these, but I certainly hope that there are more #BlackLivesMatter movies to come because I don’t think any of them should be the last word on it.

Monsters and Men: **1/2 out of Five

The Hate U Give: *** out of Five

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First Man(10/11/2018)

Warning: Review describes some of the real life events that could be considered spoilers for the movie.

The 1983 film The Right Stuff is considered to be a classic, one of the best films ever made about the space program and a successful adaptation of Tom Woolfe’s novel of the same name.  It didn’t do great at the box office but critics loved it and it was nominated for eight Oscars and won four of them and its reputation hasn’t really diminished at all since then.  There was, however, one person who was very decidedly not impressed by it and that was a guy named Walter “Wally” Schirra.  Schirra was an astronaut, the ninth person in space and the only person to take part in a Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo mission.  He isn’t a big part of The Right Stuff but he’s in a few scenes and is played by Lance Hendrickson.  As I understand it Schirra’s issue with the movie had less to do with how he personally was portrayed and more to do with a handful of inaccuracies as well as the overall tone of the film which he described as “Animal House in space” and that everyone in the movie came off like cocky bozos.  That seems like quite the exaggeration.  There are certainly moments of levity in Phillip Kaufman’s movie but it’s far from a comedy and while it certainly takes its share of artistic license here and there it’s far from the most inaccurate movie that Hollywood has ever put out.  Of course the space program is not just any subject; it’s a moment in history that that a lot of people was a moment of great inspiration and for some of those people even the smallest bit of irreverence would seem like anathema.  I bring this up because Damien Chazelle’s new movie First Man seems to have been made to impress the Wally Schirra’s of the world, for better or worse.

The film follows the life of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) from his time as an X-15 test pilot up through the moon landing and his immediate return.  It spends no time on his early life or the aftermath of the historic Apollo 11 mission.  Along the way we also meet his wife Janet (Claire Foy), who claims to have married him because of how “stable” he seemed in college but who becomes increasingly troubled by the risks involved in his career as an astronaut.  The film also chronicles how Armstrong would come to impress his boss Deke Slayton (Kyle Chandler) over the course of various tests and training excercises as well as his ill-fated friendship with Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham), Ed White (Jason Clarke), Roger B. Chaffee (Cory Michael Smith), who would die in the Apollo 1 test disaster.

First Man is divided into thirds by three centerpiece sequences: an X-15 test flight, the Gemini 8 mission, and of course the moon landing.  In filming these scenes Damien Chazelle takes a somewhat unconventional approach of keeping as much of the action as possible inside of the cockpits rather than giving the audience any kind of external “money shot” of these aircrafts in action.  This does have the effect of giving you an idea of just how nerve-wracking some of these missions must have been, especially in the case of the first two missions where Armstrong is almost entirely dependent on analog instruments and staticy radio communication.  The film is in many ways a reminder that these space missions were being done before we’d even managed to invent the Atari 2600 and seeing what all this looked like from the perspective of these cramped tank-like cockpits gives you an idea of the courage it took to be an astronaut during this period.  That said, it’s not always easy to understand what’s going on in some of these scenes and people hoping that the film will be an effects spectacle along the lines of something like Gravity will likely be disappointed at what they get.

Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Armstrong could probably be described as “understated.”  The film certainly makes Armstrong into something of a “strong silent type” who never sought glory but accepted it with serious when it was bestowed upon him.  In many ways the film goes with a very traditional narrative of how Armstrong accomplished what he did: he was smart, calm, collected, and extremely hard working.  The film also shows how those same qualities might not have made him the world’s best husband or father.  From the film he certainly feels like the prototypical stoic and distant 1950s father, perhaps even more so than most.  We know that on some level he loves his kids, he certainly mourns the loss of his daughter who died in childhood of cancer, but he reacts to this by pouring himself into his work and we don’t see him so much as play catch with his sons.  He also doesn’t exactly seem to be doing this because he’s passionate about space travel and yearns to land on the moon, or at least he never says so out loud, instead he seems like someone who found something he was good at and diligently went to work every day to the best of his abilities just like Horatio Alger told him to and was rewarded in kind even if he didn’t want that glory.  Maybe all that is true, in fact I don’t doubt it, but it also kind of seems like the kind of company line  you’d expect from a loving family member’s account as they tell stories of their amazing husband/father while adding in just enough human flaws to make it believable.  If you’re looking for some juicy new take on the guy you probably aren’t going to find it here.

I’m also not quite sure what I was supposed to make of Claire Foy as Armstrong’s wife.  In essence she’s basically the same long-suffering housewife we’ve seen in many a biopic of great men.  She seems to be somewhat ambivalent about her husband’s role in the space program and the dangers that it involves but she doesn’t really nag him to stop very much and generally spends most of her time watching the kids while Armstrong is out doing his thing.  In many ways she feels like a character that should either have a lot more screen time or a lot less.  If they had decided that this was going to be a movie that was all about these two people’s marriage and that they were going to really find some special new insight into her that would have been one thing but instead the movie just keeps coming back to her seemingly out of some obligation to keep giving the lead actress screen time even if she really isn’t doing anything too out of the ordinary.  That is perhaps the problem with almost all the earthbound scenes in the movie, ultimately Neil Armstrong seems to have been a person who was interesting more for what he did than who he was and as a result long stretches of the movie are frankly kind of dull.

There are certainly highlights that bring things back to life, and they aren’t all the space scenes necessarily, but those are the big ones and even they only go so far.  Even at the end when we finally get to the moon landing that we’ve been waiting for this whole time it proves to be a bit of an anti-climax.  Chazelle certainly renders the sequence well but it’s ultimately rather brief and aside from visual clarity we get a whole lot that we don’t get from the grainy old black and white images.  He doesn’t even dare to get a close-up of Armstrong’s face as he says his famous “one small step for man” line.  The movie just feels so reverent, technical, and humorless, the kind of thing an absolute NASA geek would make without stopping to consider if everyone else was as interested as they were.  That’s why I suspect that Wally Schirras of the world would be into it, but where I stand something looser and more accessible like The Right Stuff will work better for most audiences.

**1/2 out of Five

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 10 – The Watcher in the Woods

Of all the film’s I’m watching for this project The Watcher in the Woods is probably the least famous and is more of a Generation X nostalgia deep cut.  I wanted to do something that would tie into Halloween for October and this is what I came up with as the pickings were a bit slim.  I’d already seen some of the better remembered “kids horror movies like Gremlins and Poltergeist” and didn’t want to go with something that was only well liked ironically like Monster Squad or “unintentionally scary” like Return to Oz.  This is not however a completely unremembered movie, it may have more or less bombed when it first came out but a lot of people watched it on VHS over the course of the 80s and many a Gen Xer remembers having found the movie scary as kids.

The Watcher in the Woods was actually made by Disney during a period in which they were having something of an identity crisis and were trying to make live action films that would bridge their way into the teenage audiences while still being more or less family friendly.  The film was based on a young adult novel from the 70s of the same title by Florence Engel Randall and follows a family that moves into a large British mansion for the summer that’s owned by an old lady played by Bette Davis of all people in one of her final film roles.  This mansion is actually the same house that was used in the filming of Robert Wise’s adaptation of The Haunting and as it turns out the house here is plenty haunted as well, but the specter in question seems to be located in the woods surrounding the mansion instead of the house itself.

These sort of haunting movies tend to follow a pretty standard formula: they fritter away time with small spooky things, then once it’s established that the place is haunted the people investigate and learn the backstory, then they try to ward out the evil somehow or other often with questionable results.  This movie is at least competent at the last two steps but is kind of terrible at the first one, which takes up the most screen time.  The film just does not feel like it was made in an overly professional way, the acting is wooden, the atmosphere lacks menace, and aside from a few strong moments like an early near drowning the camerawork is largely pedestrian outside of a few point of view shots.  It largely has the feel of a made for TV production.  That’s particularly apparent in the first two acts, which take up nearly an hour of its rather short of its rather brief 83 minute runtime.

The film’s final act is in many ways its saving grace.  Once we finally figure out the backstory of what’s going on some of what happened before sort of falls into place and the characters’ scramble to ward off “the watcher.”  This ending is in fact the result of a somewhat interesting set of events.  The film was originally given a New York only preview release (back before wide releases were entirely the norm) where critics and audiences reacted very poorly to the original ending.  Disney actually pulled the prints and reshot the ending before releasing the revised movie the next year.  Normally these kind of panicky reshoots are a bad thing but in this case the suits were probably right.  The alternate endings were available as bonus features on the DVD, they involve a rather poor special effect and are indeed inferior to what they finally went with.  Still, even that final revised ending only goes so far to redeem this rather forgettable movie that probably doesn’t deserve the cult audience it has.

To the Scorecard:

This one’s a pretty easy call, though if I’m being honest this probably didn’t belong in the same weight-class as some of the other films.  Horror films for kids are never easy to make but there are better ways to do it as Amblin would prove in the coming years with movies like Poltergeist.  This one didn’t necessarily work in part because it was trying to just act like an adult horror movie but one that pulled its punches and that just doesn’t work.

A Star is Born(10/6/2018)

There are not many movies that weren’t already literary adaptations that can be said to have been remade three times.  The Invasion of the Body Snatchers is one, King Kong is another (sort of), and now it looks like after eighty years A Star is Born has joined the club and is perhaps the least likely member: it can’t serve as a convenient metaphor for various political climates like Invasion and it doesn’t serve as a barometer of special effects progress like Kong but it does have the benefit of being a sort of fable woven into the entertainment industry, Hollywood’s original sin story if you will.  It’s a story that shows both the positive and negative sides of celebrity, the joy of getting recognition and the fame and fortune this brings you but it also shows how that kind of attention can break someone, about how the public can be fickle and how the attention and pampering can lead to substance abuse and self-destruction.

The original 1937 A Star is Born with Janet Gaynor and Frederic March is the least flashy take on the story but it is to my mind clearly the best of the first three versions, in part because it simply had the weight of originality behind it.  It was one of the first really major movies to have Hollywood take a hard look at itself in the mirror and question the glitz and glamour of the industry.  The 1954 remake with Judy Garland and James Mason is to my mind rather over-rated; it changes almost nothing from the original film and adds very little except to give it a larger budget and add a bunch of not overly memorable musical sequences.  The 1976 version with Kris Kristofferson and Barbra Streisand did change things, it moved the story from the film industry to the music industry and was also the first adaptation to have to deal with more modern gender norms, but not all of its changes really worked.  That movie’s biggest problem is that by 1976 the industry self-reflection of the original film was less a revelation and more of a cliché, especially in the context of the music industry.  It wasn’t exactly a shocker that musical tastes changed with the times or that rock stars were sometimes prone to addiction, and on top of that the music in that movie did not age particularly well.  That last movie is not particularly well remembered, which is probably a big part of why we didn’t get another remake on the usual twenty year interval and are not just getting the fourth version with Bradly Cooper and Lady Gaga which seems to actually be following the cues of that last version by being set in the music industry but is looking to do it right this time.

In broad strokes this is still very much the same A Star is Born story that David O. Selznick produced back in 1937.  The aging male star this time around is Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a rock veteran that maybe isn’t at the height of his fame but is certainly still able to draw arena sized crowds to play to despite being a raging alcoholic who’s just barely managed by his much older half-brother Bobby (Sam Elliott).  The young ingénue this time around goes by the name Ally (Lady Gaga) and as the movie starts she is working as a waitress while playing some gigs at various bars including a drag bar that she is invited to perform at despite being a cis female.  One day Maine drunkenly stumbles into that drag bar looking for a drink and lays eyes on Ally while she’s performing a cover of “La Vie en rose” and is instantly smitten by both her and her talent.  The next day he invites her to one of his concerts and surprises her by inviting her on stage to sing a composition she’d told him about the night before with him.  Video of that moment goes viral and, well, you know what the title of the movie is.

The first obstacle in trying to adapt A Star is Born in 2018 is that the romance at the center of that first movie is one that’s fairly rooted in dated patterns of courtship in which younger women marry older men seemingly on the spur of the moment as a sort of business transaction.  If you go back and do the math there actually isn’t as big of an age gap between the actors in the previous adaptations as you might think, but they certainly read as having a pretty big gap between them.  Watching the movies you certainly would not have thought that Kris Kristofferson was only six years older than Barbra Streisand or that Frederic March was only nine years older than Janet Gaynor.  By contrast Bradly Cooper being a full eleven years older than Lady Gaga is one of the wider age gaps in the history of this cinematic tradition but it certainly doesn’t feel that way.  Lady Gaga actually had hit songs on the radio before Bradley Cooper had his breakout role in The Hangover so they seem to be very much of the same pop culture generation.  This plays out a bit awkwardly on screen as Gaga is most definitely playing someone a lot younger than her actual age of thirty two and Cooper seems to be playing someone older than his actual forty three years both in terms of performance and musical genre.

Cooper’s place in popular music in particular is rather curious.  At one point it’s mentioned that he started his career around 1994 and broke big around 2004, meaning he would largely be a creature of the late 90s and yet the music he plays doesn’t sound anything like the sound of popular music in the late 90s and early 2000s.  He walks around in cowboy hats and speaks in an unnaturally deep voice, both suggesting a sort of country music milieu but the music he plays is heavy on electronic guitars and essentially boils down to a sort of Allman Brothers style Southern rock, but who playing that genre of music during that era would be a gigantic star today to the point where they would be instantly recognized walking into a bar?  There were a couple of people playing music like that back then like The Black Crows or maybe even Kings of Leon but they were never really that level of mainstream.  Truthfully very few rock bands of any kind were really that level of mainstream except for shitty bands like Nickleback and Maroon 5 of bands from very different milieus like Green Day.  The idea of this guy having been in the Hot 100 at the same time as 50 Cent and Usher is kind laughable, the character is so clearly meant to be like someone who got big in the 70s or something that he feels a bit out of place in a film set in 2018.  Of course this all may very well have been deliberate.  A big part of the problem with the 1976 version was that the music in it was so tied in with the sound of the era (very Jackson Brown and Linda Ronstadt) that it dated itself very quickly, so maybe going for a bit of a “timeless” sound was more important than lining up the pop music timeline.

The Lady Gaga character makes more sense emerging in the modern pop landscape, and yeah that’s by design.  I’ve always been a bit agnostic about the musical exploits of the real Lady Gaga.  I certainly wasn’t immune from the catchiness of “Poker Face” or “Just Dance” but I always had a sinking suspicion that her avant-garde music videos and elaborate costumes were all a smokescreen to make what was essentially glorified Brittney Spears music seem more interesting than it really was.  In the last couple of years she’s been moving away from her earlier Madonna inspired pop persona and into more of a rootsy style that would showcase her vocal abilities rather than her presentational flair and it’s been kind of a bumpy road commercially.  Her role in this A Star is Born remake can easily be seen as a furtherance of that career move as a big part of the film is a sort of tug o’ war between the sort of raw vaguely country-ish music she makes with Cooper’s character and her eventual solo career where she’s playing what is arguably sellout pop music (though the film is a bit ambivalent about how bad we’re supposed to consider these tunes) which is kind of a reversal of the direction her own career has taken.

However this is supposed to fit into her wider career it is pretty clear that Lady Gaga is the right choice for the role here.  She does a pretty good job of overcoming the fact that she probably is older than what the part calls for and does feel like an experienced actress rather than a pop singer who was cast after having only done a little bit of TV work.  Her singing is also quite strong, possibly stronger than it’s been on a lot of the pop music that made her famous, and she manages to make the film’s songs work better than they otherwise might have.  Take what is turning out to be the film’s signature song “Shallow,” which features heavily in the film’s advertising.  There’s some kind of suspect songwriting in “Shallow,” it’s diving metaphor doesn’t entirely come together and its chorus consists of the two singers turning the word “shallow” into something like seven syllables to fill a bar, but you’re certainly not thinking about that given the way Gaga belts it out and certainly not in the context of the scenes where the two are together.  I could say that about a lot of the music here, it’s certainly not the kind of music I would generally choose to listen to and there’s a sort of streamlined genre-less feel to a lot of it, but the movie manages to make most of them come alive in their performance and you also pick up on how the lyrics are influenced by the story in a way that real artists might obliquely reference their own lives in the writing.

Bradley Cooper also does a very good job of performing his own songs, a skill I had not necessarily expected from him.  He also does a very good job of acting in the film despite having possibly been miscast by himself.  He is indeed a little too young and for this part and the voice deepening he does is a little odd, but again you don’t necessarily dwell on this while you’re watching the movie.  Cooper also impresses as a director and films the movie with incredible confidence for someone who hasn’t directed before and you can tell he picked up some lessons from working with David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood (who was at one point trying to direct his own version of A Star is Born with Beyonce of all people starring).  He and cinematographer Matthew Libatique make the movie look great and Cooper has a clear knack for capturing shots in ways that looks appropriately iconic and gives the story a sort of bigness it might not otherwise have.  The film also manages to get access to a lot of authentic music industry locations like the Grammy Awards and the Saturday Night Live set and when it wants to reflect modern pop music elements it does it well.

So, it’s a very well-acted and well directed movie with a lot of solid music and interesting insights into stardom, so I must have truly loved the movie, right?  Well, not exactly.  Don’t get me wrong I certainly liked the movie and admired its craft but there are things about it that bug me, most notably the fact that it’s a remake of a remake of a remake.  I’m not inherently anti-remake at all, there have certainly been some great ones over a year but it does make it harder for something to really feel special when it’s the fourth of its kind, especially when it’s a character drama like this rather than King Kong or something.  Watching it I had something of a feeling of an old story going through its motions: you see the courtship, you see the good years, you see the award show breakdown, you see the inevitable conclusion.  It’s all done very well, probably a lot better than its predecessors even, but at the end of the day it’s not really bringing much truly new to the table except for superior execution and that just kind of means it’s never going to blow me away with any kind of true greatness or give me the kind of transcendent movie going experience.  Of course that is very likely something of a “me” problem that other movie-goers who don’t have all these other versions of the movie floating around in their heads are not going to have.

**** out of Five

The Wife(10/1/2018)

You ever have one of those stretches where you feel like every time you go to the movies you see the same trailer over and over again?  I had that recently with the theatrical trailer for The Wife, which seemed to be in front of every independent or foreign film I saw in the last three to four months.  I’m actually not sure if I consider this to be a great trailer or a terrible trailer.  On one hand it’s a remarkably efficient trailer, one that lays out the film’s plot and themes in a very economical way for a two minute piece, on the other hand maybe economically laying out a film’s message isn’t such a good thing if you want people to buy tickets to the full thing.  Indeed, watching the trailer I was in some ways less interested in seeing the movie, not because it didn’t look interesting but because the trailer made me feel like there wasn’t much left to see.  There weren’t any “spoilers” in it exactly but it gave me a pretty good overlay of what the film was like, what its argument and moral was going to be, and I had a pretty good hunch as to where it was going and how it was going to play out.  There was however one much described aspect of the film which the trailer wasn’t going to give me: Glen Close’s performance.  That performance is a big part of why the film is being talked about so in the end I did decide to give the full film my time.

The film begins with an aged couple in bed waiting on a phone call, when that call comes the couple hear the news they’ve been waiting for their whole lives: the husband, an acclaimed author named Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce), had been selected as that year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature.  His wife, Joan Castleman (Glenn Close), is thrilled to hear this and the two start jumping up and down on their bed chanting “I won the Nobel! I won the Nobel!”  Soon the two of them are on their way to Stockholm along with their adult son David (Max Irons), who is also an aspiring author, and while on the plane they are approached by a writer/journalist named Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) who has been trying to write a biography of Joe for a while.  Bone has been doing some research into Castleman’s past and has questions about him and his work, which could put a bit of a pall over his Nobel reception and the challenge the seemingly happy marriage between the two Castlemans.

The Wife is something of a rumination on that phrase “behind every great man is a great woman.”  That’s a phrase I’ve always found a little strange.  Are there no great men who were bachelors?  Or great men who were gay?  Or great men with not so great wives who held them back?  And what of the great women?  Were there always great men behind great women or did that phrase only go one way?  Even in the exact situation that the phrase was intended to refer to the phrase always seemed a little condescending, is it suggesting that what makes a woman great is merely their ability to give moral support and the like to the right man?  Isn’t that a little insulting to the great women who achieve greatness from actually doing great things instead of by proxy to great men?  The title character here is certainly regarded as one of those “great women” behind a “great man” and she seems to embrace this role outwardly while clearly questioning it internally.  We get flashbacks to her past in which she met her husband as a writing student and appeared to have a great deal of her own writing skill, but this appears to have been put to the wayside as her husband became an acclaimed novelist.

Those flashback scenes are some of the film’s weakest, in part because they work in a lot of rather unsubtle shorthand to explain how Joan was discouraged because of her gender and also because the actors in these scenes are nowhere near as strong as Close and Pryce, but I still would have liked more of them as that seems to be where the real explanation for the film’s central mystery of “why did this lady let herself become sidelined” lies.  Female authors certainly were facing a great number of disadvantages in the late 50s as they do now but they were hardly unheard of and Mrs. Castleman never even seemed to run into a glass ceiling so much as she never even tries to run at all.  Then there’s her jerk husband, a man who certainly goes through the motions of gratitude while generally behaving like a narcissistic asshole who had multiple affairs while rarely acknowledging her talents.  At one point during an argument he shouts at her something along the lines of “if I’m so awful why did you marry me?”  She doesn’t really have an answer for this and I’m not sure the movie does either.  Close’s character certainly seemed to have “outs” that she didn’t take and she does bear at least some responsibility for her lot in life.

I’m not the biggest fan of a twist the film presents in the third act which places the husband in even lower regard than he was previously.  If we are to deconstruct the idea of the “male genius” I think it’s probably best to at least acknowledge the “genius” part to make things a bit more difficult.  The film tries to sidestep this and ends up simply asking other less interesting questions in the process.  The film is also I think a bit guilty of concentrating all of its energies on a few places, namely its central performances, at the expense of other elements.  I did not like Max Irons as the son of the film’s central couple and found the scenes with the character to be rather poorly written and the actors playing the younger Castlemans during the flashbacks weren’t great either.  Björn Runge also rarely brings the film to life with his visual style and the film rarely rises above the level of average in terms of pure filmmaking.  Close’s performance is pretty damn good though and Pryce is also pretty great and while the screenplay isn’t always great it does still offer some food for thought.  Ultimately I think I was kind of right about the trailer giving the audience most of what they needed from the movie, but it’s still a mostly worthy effort.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 9/21/2018

American Animals (9/13/2018)

This film gained a certain degree of infamy earlier this year because it made some sort of deal with MoviePass so they’d hawk it on their app and they actually have their logo at the front of it.  It’s kind of an odd film to try to launch a career on as it does have a bit of an experimental hook in that it doesn’t call itself a documentary and plays out like a regular feature film for something like two thirds to seventy five percent of its running time but it also includes documentary style talking head interviews with the real people involved in the story it was based on.  That’s a potentially intriguing format but I really don’t know why anyone involved thought this story was of a group of college students coming up with a half-baked heist scheme that goes nowhere was deserving of this much fuss.  There might be something in their about suburban angst and boredom to be found but it doesn’t do much to highlight the relevance of why these idiots did this rather senseless crime.  There also just isn’t a whole lot of material to be found here in general, it feels like it has more the makings of a “Dateline” segment than a feature film and given that the documentary elements feel kind of tacked on as padding and as a means of trying to fool people into thinking it’s a more interesting movie than it really is.

** out of Five

Crime+Punishment (9/16/2018)

Policing has become an increasingly hot topic as of late and into that debate comes Crime+Punishment, a documentary which takes a hard look at the practices of the NYPD.  Specifically the film is about a group of twelve New York police officers who are suing the department because they say that they’ve been illegally ordered to fill arrest quotas and have had their careers curtailed in retaliation for their refusal to participate in this practice.  I was expecting the film to be a bit more focused on the quota system as a concept and laying out a case for it along the lines of Ava DuVernay’s 13th but the film ended up being a bit more personal and verite in nature.  The film follows some of the police in question as they explain the situation they were placed in as well as the Serpico angst of being viewed as an outsider within the force.  The film does not include any talking head interviews or “experts” in the movie but it does fill in some of the gaps of that by also following a private investigator who has been working on the case for a while and has collected a lot of stories about how this quota system has effected the communities at hand.  The movie probably could have done a little more to lay out some of the evidence the cops at hand had assembled and I’m not sure that a test case involving someone wrongfully imprisoned at Rikers is as relevant as the filmmakers think it is but for the most part this is pretty impressive both as a work of issue advocacy and as a portrait of the struggles of going up against the system.

**** out of Five

Upgrade (9/18/2018)

Upgrade was a movie produced by Blumhouse Productions which goes against the studio’s usual MO by not really being a horror movie so much as dark science fiction actions film… or maybe it is a horror movie.  It certainly has the violence you’d associate with a horror movie at times and there’s a sort of “Black Mirrror” darkness to the science fiction that one might call horror in a certain way.  Personally I’d be more inclined to simply think of it as a nasty little B-movie about a guy who gets augmented by a computer system that gives him special powers but also seems to increasingly control him.  The scenes where the computer “takes over” and allows him to fight with superhuman senses are really well executed and give the handful of action scenes in the film a unique feel.  I also admired its rendering of certain aspects of the future and the film’s ending, but there are downsides to being what is essentially a B-movie.  In particular I feel like the film kind of cheaped out when it came to casting.  I wouldn’t say there are too many actors here that are “bad” exactly, but the film probably would have benefited from some more familiar faces to lend a little more gravitas to the film and add a little flavor.

***1/2 out of Five

Active Measures (9/20/2018)

Given the absolutely depressing chaos that recent politics has been I can say pretty conclusively that the last thing I generally want to do is see even more of Donald fucking Trump when I’m watching movies.  That having been said, if you like me only have it in you to watch one documentary involving the recent presidency this is the one to watch.  Active Measures is not particularly concerned with Trump’s policies, attitudes, or rhetoric, instead it keeps its focus squarely on his connections to Russia and makes the case from top to bottom that he was essentially planted by Putin as a sort of Manchurian Candidate.  That is of course a seemingly farfetched claim on its surface but the film does a very good job of both establishing how Russia has done this in smaller countries and also about how far back Trump’s ties to Putin and to the Russian mafia goes.  This is all presented in a fairly impersonal “just the facts” style with a lot of archive footage and interviews with a  lot of credible people including Hilary Clinton, John McCain, and the former president of Georgia as well as a murderer’s row of journalists and former intelligence figures.  There’s not a lot here that wasn’t already readily available in various articles and news stories but the film manages to lay these little clues and hints out into an argument that fits together pretty well.  At the end of the day the film is better at finding a whole lot of smoke than it is at conclusively proving a fire, and I’m sure that Trump’s base will just dismiss it as “fake news” but for those of us looking for some explanation of the last two years of madness this gives an answer.

**** out of Five

Ocean’s Eight (9/21/2018)

I’m not sure how widespread the whole “gender flipped reboot” thing is going to end up being, but as franchises to do that to go the Ocean’s series was probably one of the better options, in no small part because it’s a franchise a lot of people like but which isn’t, like, a generation defining touchstone like Ghostbusters.  Additionally the film makes the smart move of existing within the continuity of the original films, making its protagonist the sister of Danny Ocean.  It’s actually been a pretty long time since I last watched Ocean’s Eleven, it’s a movie I consider to be fun and stylish but it isn’t a new classic or anything in my mind and I’m not the biggest fan of either of its sequels.  Given that I would put Ocean’s 8 squarely in the number two slot in a ranking of the series for whatever that’s worth.  The movie does assemble a pretty strong cast, one that maybe doesn’t have quite the star power of the original films but does have fewer weak links.  I also think The Met was well chosen as a location for this gang to be robbing and has that same aura of reality and sophistication that the Las Vegas casinos gave to the original film.  On the downside there are aspects of the heist this time around that I don’t think come together perfectly in the way you want movies like this to, and I’m also not sure it ever quite as the same sense of identity that that first movie had with its overt Rat Pack revivalism.  All in all it’s pretty efficient entertainment, which is more or less what the original film was, but like the original film there are limits to its importance.

*** out of Five