Down From the Shelf ~ A Star is Born (1976)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A has-been rock star falls in love with a young, up-and-coming songstress.

Stars: Kris Kristofferson, Barbra Streisand, Gary Busey, Marta Heflin, Sally Kirkland, Paul Mazursky

Director: Frank Pierson

Rated: R

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  If you are truly doing your homework before seeing the new A Star is Born in theaters, you’ll  eventually wind up at the doorstep of the 1976 version starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.  That it will be the last movie you see before the new one is both a good and a bad thing.  It’s a good thing because the bar is lowered so far that whatever Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga do in the third remake is bound to be more impressive than what is onscreen here.  It’s a bad thing because, well, you have to sit through a 139-minute vanity project that is a big ole turkey of a film.

I have much respect for the 1937 and 1954 versions of A Star is Born so was looking forward to finally seeing this 1976 update all the way through.  I’ve tried to watch it on several occasions but failed to latch on to the characters or the music in a way that made me want to continue.  Seeing that Streisand had reworked the film and added in material to a special edition that was available for a time on Netflix (it’s no longer there) I decided it would be best to get my A Star is Born marathon going in time to catch that one.  After all, if Streisand wants me to see her version I simply must oblige.

That’s how I came to watch A Star is Born on a Sunday evening after taking in the first two films that afternoon.  I have to say this was by far my least favorite version of the story and the only one out of the three that I wouldn’t entertain seeing again anytime soon.  Streisand added extra footage when she first plays the song Evergreen to Kristofferson and tweaked a few other shots along the way, but from what I saw and read it didn’t alter the general feeling of the film.

There are so many wrong moves and incomprehensible changes screenwriters John Gregory Dunne, Joan Didion, and Frank Pierson (who also directed) made in translating the Hollywood tale to the rock and roll music scene…most are simply unforgivable.  Instead of taking place in Hollywood, the film moves the action to the music scene as a way to tailor the proceedings more to the talents of its two stars.  Though Streisand really wanted Elvis Presley to be her co-star, the aging singer and his manager Colonel Tom Parker wanted too much money/control so the part went to Kristofferson instead. Kristofferson was already an established musician and Streisand had a Best Actress Oscar for Funny Girl and a host of notable screen appearances.  The two had built in fan bases that had proven they would show up whenever and wherever these stars would appear.  On paper, this looked like a perfect way to update the film for the current time and place.

It’s clear from frame one there is going to be trouble.  For starters, the two leads are terribly mismatched and recast as incredibly unsympathetic vainglorious caricatures.  There’s next to no chemistry between Kristofferson and Streisand, even when they are singing together two feet apart it feels like there is a cavernous distance between them.  Sources say that Kristofferson was intimidated by Streisand and her commanding presence and started to shrink onscreen whenever she was present.  That’s pretty clear to see because Streisand takes the air out of every scene she’s in.  You’ve got to be a strong enough actor to stand your ground with her (like Omar Shariff, Ryan O’Neal, and Nick Nolte) or else you get lost in the shuffle and Kristofferson blends into the background most of the time.

As for Streisand herself, this is one of those strange films where she stumbles over her own star presence.  She was too big of a star by that point to truly give herself over to the demands of her role as a singer that was small time who eventually makes it to the big time.  From the first moment we see her she’s already possessing the confidence required to make a name for herself, whereas the previous women who played this role were missing some piece that Kristofferson’s character could supply her with or encourage out of her.  I know this was an era of sustained feminism so getting rid of the notion Streisand’s character needed a man to help her succeed seemed like an easy cut, yet it winds up crippling both characters because you never truly understand why they need each other in the first place.

The screenwriters really stumble with a plot twist early in the third act that wasn’t present in either previous version of the film.  I won’t spoil what it is but it further establishes that these two characters don’t have the same kind of love and respect for one another their predecessors did.  Coming so late in the game, it lessens the impact of the tragic finale…a finale that takes eons to get to.

The first two takes on A Star is Born had a buoyancy to them, even as they were showing a dark underside to the price that comes with being a star.  The approach of this third try feels wallowing and weary, robbing the picture of any momentum or grace.  Though Streisand (The Guilt Trip) would win an Oscar for writing what truly is a lovely ballad (Evergreen) and the film became, shockingly, the third highest grossing movie of the year, it’s largely remembered as a vanity project of Streisand (shepherded by her former hairdresser turned boyfriend Jon Peters).  For an even more scathing take on the production of the film, read director Frank Pierson’s editorial My Battles With Barbra And Jon about the horror he experienced working on it.

If you are strapped for time before seeing the new version of A Star is Born, this 1976 version is easily the most skippable of the bunch.  Unlike its older siblings, this one is the most dated and the least enjoyable of the three.

31 Days to Scare ~ Eyes of Laura Mars

eyes_of_laura_mars

The Facts:

Synopsis: A famous fashion photographer develops a disturbing ability to see through the eyes of a killer.

Stars: Faye Dunaway, Tommy Lee Jones, Brad Dourif, Rene Auberjonois, Raul Julia

Director: Irvin Kershner

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Where to Watch: DVD

Review: Deep down inside, somewhere where most of my guilty pleasure movies are filed away, I know that Eyes of Laura Mars isn’t good. It’s a hollow thriller that misses the mark on many levels and doesn’t achieve what it sets out to do. Moreover, it has one of the dumbest endings of all times…so bad that I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if projectionists had just turned off the movie and sent everyone home five minutes before the film concludes. At least you’d leave with a bit of a zing and without your eyes tired from rolling in exasperation.

Yes, Eyes of Laura Mars is a kitschy late ‘70s thriller attempting to have some class. Yet here it is, featured early on in 31 Days to Scare. Why? It’s just so…entertaining. Whether you’re actively engaged in it or far removed, it’s never dull and not the museum piece it could have become. And it has Faye Dunaway (fresh off her Oscar win for Network) turning up her crazy knob long before her famously camp performance in Mommie Dearest.

Laura Mars is a famous fashion photographer known for glamorizing violence to sell product. Her images have galvanized the population and have attracted the ire of one demented psycho. Conveniently, when the killings begin Laura discovers a psychic link between herself and the murder, allowing her to see what the killer sees. When her closest friends and colleagues start getting their eyes plucked out and with a brutal manic gaining on her, she teams up with a cop (Tommy Lee Jones, Hope Springs) to unmask the fiend.

Originally intended as a vehicle for Barbra Streisand (her then-boyfriend produced the film and Streisand contributes an impressive song for the opening and closing credits), Dunaway is actually quite good here even when she’s ferociously overacting. Known for her frustrating method ways, if Dunaway knew the film was shaky she doesn’t show it but instead sinks her fangs in even further. Jones is surprisingly upbeat and even blasts out a few smiles. Brad Dourif (Color of Night), Rene Auberjonois, & Raul Julia (credited as R.J.!) are the various men in Laura’s life who wear their red herring T-shirts with gusto.

Rumor has it George Lucas was so impressed with a rough cut of this film he hired director Irvin Kershner to direct The Empire Strikes Back. Kershner and cinematographer Victor Kemper (National Lampoon’s Vacation) do give the film an elegant, classy sheen but there are enough close-ups of Dunaway’s eyes bugged out and wild to be featured in some sort of mascara ad. Though many of the costumes by Theoni V. Aldredge are stuck in the ‘70s, Dunaway is beautifully decked out in tartan plaids and regal attire but pity the models stuck in dreadful fad clothing, forever on celluloid wearing fancy togas.

Even though there are some interesting sequences, like Dunaway being chased through an abandoned building while seeing through the killer’s eyes as they gain on her, there’s a restraint that starts to sink the film. Low on blood and feeling watered down from a more violent version, someone (the studio, the director, etc) decided to play it safe instead of going for the jugular. The script (from a 10-page treatment by genre legend John Carpenter, Halloween) feels like a dozen people wrote it. There’s zero interest in finding why Laura and the killer have a connection and no real detective work in trying to figure out whodunnit until the third act when half the cast has been sliced and diced.

Watching it again recently (as I do every few years), I was surprised I only just realized the movie is an attempt to Americanize the Italian Giallo film. With its heightened sense of reality, its focus on celebrity and excess, and its embracing of glam-violence Eyes of Laura Mars is a noble but ultimately hopeless attempt to capitalize on the popular films successfully imported from Italy. Had someone like horror maestro Dario Argento or Lucio Fulci taken a crack at this, it may have wound up being a film with more lasting impact and imagery.

And they would have fixed the ending.

Movie Review ~ The Guilt Trip

guilt_trip

The Facts:

Synopsis: As inventor Andy Brewster is about to embark on the road trip of a lifetime, a quick stop at his mom’s house turns into an unexpected cross-country voyage with her along for the ride.

Stars: Barbra Streisand, Seth Rogen, Kathy Najimy, Colin Hanks, Adam Scott

Director: Anne Fletcher

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: As anyone who has taken a road trip can tell you, the worst part of the trek can be when you’ve run out of things to talk about and are annoyed with your travel mates. You resort to niceties and having polite conversations as a way to distract you from the fact you have hundreds or thousands of miles left in your journey. That’s a great description of The Guilt Trip, the joyless new film starring one Funny Lady and one Stoner Dude.

One of the most frustratingly polite films I’ve ever seen, The Guilt Trip logs a bunch of miles in its cinematic adventure but never gets out of the garage in terms of entertainment. The film reads like a sure-fire winner with the unlikely pairing of Streisand and Rogan as a mother and son who hit the road from New Jersey to California as she accompanies her offspring on a sales pitch trip. This is a film that has an Olympic-sized pool of comedy in front of it but only gets to the end of the diving board before turning around and running away.

Seeming to not want to offend absolutely anyone, it instead winds up being a one way trip to Dullsville courtesy of flat direction from Fletcher (The Proposal) and a wimpy script by Dan Fogelman. I can’t say for sure, but even if the script was written with Streisand in mind it had to have had a major overhaul when she signed up to remove some humor and not sully her pristine and purposeful image. There’s just no other way to explain why the film wouldn’t take advantage of some prime comedic opportunities that it ignores.

Ok…I did laugh a few times. The first was when we meet Streisand, dressed in a typical Jersey jumpsuit with her hair perfectly rumpled she looks every bit the middle aged character we think she should be…until she lifts her hand to touch her hair and reveals those immaculate French manicured nails. The woman reuses water bottles to save the environment but doesn’t have any trouble shelling out bucks to keep her nails nice? Streisand is so overly made up at times that at one point I leaned over to my friend and said “Man, the guy that got to play Streisand is doing a great job.”

Rogan doesn’t fare any better and he looks as uncomfortable in the role as he does in the numerous suits he is poured into. I think Rogan’s pot head persona is nearing the end of its fifteen minutes of fame so it’s possible this was a way to test the waters as a real person…and it’s a failure. His character is such a stubborn doofus that you can’t muster up any kind of sympathy for him. The reasons he asks his mother to go with him on the trip are unclear too…for a time it seems like he asks her along for his own personal benefit but then it changes in a way that makes the audience unclear as to what the purpose was from the start. The final explanation is that there was no real reason for her to come along…aside from the fact that a movie plot depended on it.

Now I can see where the film’s restraint in the comedy department can seem refreshing to those weaned on movies that make jokes at the expense of the defenseless (mothers, old people, fat people, etc) but if the film had any real soul to it I may have gone with it a bit more. It’s plain to see that the movie doesn’t have much going for it aside from its stars whose talents are wasted and a premise that should have been milked for all its worth.

For a movie that takes its stars across the country, it may surprise you to know that neither Streisand nor Rogan left the state due to Streisand’s wish to stay close to home. Scenes of Streisand and Rogan in front of the Grand Canyon look like an effect out of an amusement park photo booth and the endless scenes in cars look like they were filmed in the span of two days. It’s a damn shame that more effort wasn’t put into punching up the script because I’d have watched a movie with Streisand and Rogan stuck in a car if the material was good enough.

So many missed chances and so many laughless minutes…The Guilt Trip is a movie you may find yourself re-writing in your head as the movie is playing out in front of you. With so many far better films playing in theaters now, you’ll be taken a guilt trip of your own making if you see this before pretty much any other film in cinemas now.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Guilt Trip

Synopsis: An inventor and his mom hit the road together so he can sell his latest invention.

Release Date:  December 25, 2012

Thoughts: The script for The Guilt Trip must have been very, very good to lure Babs Streisand back to the big screen.  That or she needed the cash to pay for renovations to her house.  In any event, the trailer for The Guilt Trip looks to be for a film that will be irresistible to women of a certain age and men of a certain persuasion…but could lure a nice audience thanks to its comedy roots and holiday release.