Movie Review ~ A Star is Born (2018)


The Facts
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Synopsis: A musician helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay

Director: Bradley Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I can say about this fourth version of A Star is Born it is that you should most definitely believe the hype that has followed the film for the last several months as it has held private screenings and then debuted at the fall festivals. After laboring in development for nearly a decade and going through directors like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg and rumored stars such as Will Smith and Beyoncé, the stars have aligned (literally) and produced a mega-watt 2018 version of this timeless tale of stardom.

I think we can all thank our fair godmothers Eastwood didn’t find his way behind the camera. As much respect as I have for him as a director, his films over the last few years have gotten stodgy and square which is the exact opposite tone of what was needed to bring this story into a new era. Instead we have Eastwood adjacent Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper in the director’s chair and he’s definitely taking a confident page from his American Sniper colleague in moving from the actor period of his career into the actor-director phase.

The last time A Star is Born was seen onscreen was a whopping 42 years ago in Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s ill-advised update which moved the action from Hollywood to the rock-and-roll music scene of the late ‘70s. That version was sunk by a lead actress that wasn’t right for the character, a leading man that wilted in the presence of his co-star, a script that stunk, and a director that couldn’t salvage it. Plain and simple, it was a blight on the 1937 and 1954 versions and while it was the third highest grossing film of 1976 it’s considered by many to be the least enjoyable of the triptych.  It’s no small miracle, then, that Cooper and fellow screenwriters Eric Roth (Forrest Gump and Wolfen) and Will Fetters (The Lucky One) managed to keep the music setting of the 1976 version but brought back the magic and music of the 1954 version along with the tragedy of the 1937 original. Here’s the best cinematic take on the material, a handsome film that runs too long but has such a dynamic duo at its center that audiences will easily forgive sitting in their seats 15 minutes longer than necessary.

Though decades have passed, the story of A Star is Born remains the same: A young upstart is guided to fame by a man whose own career is nearing the end. Aging country singer Jackson Maine (Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook) is a hard-drinker that’s losing his hearing. Though not struggling to stay relevant as previous iterations of this character, he’s in a certain holding pattern in his career where he can see the writing on the wall. Desperate for another drink and not wanting to go back to his hotel, he has his driver drop him at the nearest bar…and it happens to be a drag club that Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing in. Her performance and presence captivate him and they spend a night discussing his life, her plans, and everything in between.

The first hour of A Star is Born is devoted to Jackson and Ally’s burgeoning relationship as he whisks her away from her job and family (dad is played by Andrew Dice Clay, Blue Jasmine) to constantly be by his side. Jackson’s creativity is reenergized by Ally’s talent and by the time he brings her onstage for a duet of the song they co-wrote on the fly the film is positively bursting at the seams to have audiences stand up and cheer. Much like Judy Garland’s performance of The Man that Got Away early on in the 1954 version, the rest of the film can’t quite match that jolt of lightening moment, even though Cooper and Gaga fill the remaining time with memorable music and scenes that highlight the rocky road to fame and the dramatic fall of losing it all.

All pervious takes on A Star is Born have placed the female lead as the heart and soul of the picture but, and this is no slight on Lady Gaga who more than holds her own in the acting department, Cooper walks away with the movie. His greasy hair, grizzled features, and gravely voice instantly give you the entire story of years of rough living and his weary eyes tell of a man with a soul that is winding down. Meeting Ally and falling in love saves him from falling over the edge but is her love and care enough to keep him on steady ground? Cooper digs deep here and by the time the film reaches it’s four-hanky finale with the most startling ending yet, your heart more than aches for him.

As mentioned above, any fears that Lady Gaga wouldn’t be up for the challenge vanish almost the moment she appears onscreen. Though she does her best work while signing (as someone who has attended four of her concerts I can tell you she gives 150% every time and that’s the same here) Cooper coaxes far more nuance out of her than most people will realize. The chemistry between the two is off the charts and you can expect both actors to be showered with awards and/or nominations at the end of the year.

Another person to mention is Sam Elliott (I’ll See You in My Dreams, Grandma) as Cooper’s manager/big brother who has had to play father and sober cab nursemaid to his sibling while foregoing his own dreams and aspirations. Elliott has always been a strong presence in films but he’s given some pretty special scenes here that allow him to stretch further than he’s gone in quite some time. It helps that Cooper matches Elliott’s bottom basement growl; I had no trouble believing these were brothers with a fraught history.

The first half of the movie is so good and well paced that the numerous leaps in time that fill the second half are a bit jarring. Focused on Ally’s rise to fame as a pop music star (hosting Saturday Night Live, being nominated for a Grammy, etc) the film hops around quite a bit and leaves some storytelling elements in the dust. That’s also when Lady Gaga is at her weakest as her musical performances feel a bit restrained and overproduced. Anytime the two leads are alone on screen, however, brings the movie back to solid ground and by the time we reach the end we’re on the edge of our seats even if we already know how it’s going to end.

It’s easy to see why this garnered such hugely positive buzz months before it was released. It’s been finished for some time and waiting for it’s October release date. In the meantime, Cooper isn’t a dummy and wisely showed it to several big names in Hollywood (including Streisand) who have been effusive in their praise of the film. When it rolled out to critics they too were taken by the prestige of the picture and by the time the general public gets their eyes on it this weekend I’m certain even more good notices will come their way. It’s going to go even further with strong word-of-mouth and, I’m guessing, repeat business. I’m already finding time in my schedule to see it again.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Star is Born (2018)

Synopsis: A movie star helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral

Release Date:  October 5, 2018

Thoughts: A third remake of 1937’s A Star is Born has been in the works for a while.  It was long thought Clint Eastwood would direct Beyoncé and Will Smith in the story of a fading rock icon mentoring and falling for a star on the rise but the A-listers couldn’t align their schedules and Eastwood lost interest.  Cut to Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) directing his first feature and snagging Lady Gaga, one of pop music’s most prominent celebrities, to costar alongside him.  It’s a well known secret many people in Hollywood have already seen this  – the notoriously fame-averse Sean Penn says its one of the best films he’s seen and calls Gaga “a miracle.”  While Gaga earned a Golden Globe for her work on American Horror Story: Hotel her acting, well, didn’t quite sing in my book.  After catching this first look at her work here, could Gaga be on the Cher route to Oscar gold?

Movie Review ~ Grandma

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager facing an unplanned pregnancy seeks help from her acerbic grandmother, a woman who is long estranged from her daughter.

Stars: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Sam Elliott, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, Lauren Tom, Elizabeth Peña, Colleen Camp, John Cho, Nat Wolff, Laverne Cox, Sarah Burns, Judy Geeson, Mo Aboul-Zelof

Director: Paul Weitz

Rated: R

Running Length: 79 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Were it not such a competitive year in the Best Actress Oscar race, Lily Tomlin may have become the 13th EGOT.  Winning the grand slam of show business means that you’ve received an Emmy, Grammy, Tony, and Oscar and Tomlin is but an EGT at the present time. Though her performance in Grandma gives the comic actress the kind of star turn chance to shine that comes along rarely for actors/actresses of any age, I fear that it will be overshadowed by performances with more commercial appeal.

Not to say that there isn’t a place for this dark comedy or Tomlin’s performance in end of the year accolades but at a scant 79 minutes the film feels like an extended short film rather than a fully produced three act structured piece.  Writer/director Paul Weitz (Being Flynn) breaks the film into six chapters, seemingly editing around potential commercial breaks as we follow one eventful day for an acerbic septuagenarian and her teenage granddaughter.

A folksy poet still not over the death of her long-time lover a year prior, the film opens on Elle (Tomlin, Admission, another Weitz film) breaking up with her much younger onetime fan-now-girlfriend (Judy Greer, Jurassic World and every other movie in 2015) in a most hurtful way.  She’s barely showered post-breakup when her 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) shows up needing money to pay for an abortion.  Without the available funds to help (she’s long since decided to live off the grid, cutting up her credits cards), she instead offers to track down the money by any means necessary.

That leaves the film open to explore many routes to the same destination.  The careless baby daddy (Nat Woff, Paper Towns) is solicited for money and given a harsh lesson in respecting your elders at the same time while former friends (the late Elisabeth Peña and the overrated Laverne Cox) of Elle’s are asked to make good on debts. Finally, a trip to see a mysterious man (Sam Elliott, I’ll See You in My Dreams) from Elle’s past leads to the film’s most emotionally charged sequence.  By the time we get to meet Sage’s mom and Elle’s estranged daughter (a tightly wound Marcia Gay Harden, Fifty Shades of Grey) we’ve come along on a darkly humorous journey filled with a fair share of emotional truths.

Wearing her own clothes, driving her own car, and playing a (I think) less emotionally stagnant version of herself, Tomlin breezes through the movie with a tough charm and fragile core that belies her hardened exterior.  While her scenes with Greer lack a certain kind of chemistry, the sparks fly in her interactions with Elliott.  Elliott remains one of our great underrated actors and he’s damn good here as a man burned by Elle in the past for reasons I won’t divulge.  Garner is appropriately defiant as the teenager who knows she can’t care for a baby and Harden takes a character introduced as a sweaty harpy and manages to caress it into something deeper.

Running shorter than a visit with your own grandparents, the movie actually feels longer than it is.  That’s not always a bad thing but there are some unexpected dips in momentum that stymie what could have been a film with a bit more pep.  Still, any chance for Tomlin to get some time as a long overdue leading lady (her first leading role in 27 years!) is fine by me.  She may not make it to full EGOT status, but after great success with her Netflix show and now this, her 2015 was filled with numerous wins.

Movie Review ~ The Good Dinosaur

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An epic journey into the world of dinosaurs where an Apatosaurus named Arlo makes an unlikely human friend.

Stars: Raymond Ochoa, Jeffery Wright, Steve Zahn, AJ Buckley, Anna Paquin, Sam Elliott, Frances McDormand, Marcus Scribner, Jack Bright

Director: Peter Sohn

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s usually never a good sign when a release date for a movie is changed once.  It’s an even worse sign when it changes twice.  Then when you hear that nearly all of the cast was replaced, the director removed from the project, and reshoots were required you can rest assured that when (if?) the movie is actually released you’ll have the critical vultures swarming around looking to feast on the carcass of the wounded cinematic animal.

In this case, the movie in question is Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, finally seeing a release date a full two years after its intended November 2013 opening.  Those expecting a misfire from the studio limping into the holiday movie season will be in for a surprise because for the second time in 2015 Disney/Pixar have a hit on their hands.  For all of its fabled troubles on its way to theaters (including replacing the voices of John Lithgow, Judy Greer, Neil Patrick Harris, and Bill Hader) it’s clear from the final product that whatever tinkering and tailoring was done was necessary and worth the wait.

Featuring what I feel is Pixar’s best animation to date, The Good Dinosaur may lack the overall complex creativity of June’s Inside Out (which ingeniously taught children and adults how to own and celebrate their emotions) but it’s not short on memorable characters and moments.  I went in expecting something along the lines of The Land Before Time but got a lovely family feature that’s generous with humor and heart.

Positing an alternate timeline where the asteroid that ended the reign of the dinosaurs missed the planet completely, The Good Dinosaur takes place in the present…albeit in a present where dinosaurs never went extinct and humans never became the dominant species.  This isn’t a dark vision of what might have been but a thoughtful pondering a future were these great beasts continued to thrive for millions of years, living off the rich bounty of a land uncorrupted by progress.

Poppa Henry (Jeffrey Wright, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2) and Momma Ida (Frances McDormand, Promised Land) are a brontosaurus couple spending their lives farming and plowing the fields.  Opening with the hatching of their three baby dinos, from their first moments we can see what each of their personalities will be like: Buck is the tough one, Libby is the playful one, and Arlo is…well…he still doesn’t quite know where he fits in.  The runt of the litter (arriving in the biggest egg), he’s a bundle of dino nerves that’s scared of everything from a tiny bug that lands on his nose to the raggedy chickens he’s tasked with feeding.

Borrowing a page from the old-fashioned Disney canon, a tragedy occurs for Arlo followed by a separation from his home that sends him on a journey of discovery to find his way back to his family.  Following the river through the gorgeous untouched landscapes of nature, he’s joined by Spot, a human child that acts like a feral dog that Arlo has a score to settle with.  Eventually the two come to need each other as they face the harsh realities of nature and meet a number of wildlife along the way like a cross-eyed Styracosaurus (hilariously voiced by director Peter Sohn), a pack of threatening Pterodactyls, and a family of cowboy T-Rexes (headed by splendid Sam Elliott, I’ll See You In My Dreams) on a cattle drive.

The material is more adult-oriented than previous Pixar films and I appreciated that the film doesn’t make any excuses for the dramatic (and often scary) turns it takes.  Parents should know that it’s PG for a reason, some kids at my screening had a rough go with the beasts and some of the subject matter.  Arlo is constantly threatened with danger whether it be falling off rocks, plunging into water, or fending off a host of creatures that see him and Spot as their next meal.  The supporting players are perhaps the most bizarre creations from Pixar yet, with the Pterodactyls being most troublesome for this critic thanks to their crazed rants and appetite for food of any kind.

Pixar is no stranger to tapping into emotions and there are several passages of The Good Dinosaur where you may find tears welling up behind your 3D glasses.  While the 3D isn’t revelatory, it goes well with the impressive vistas and animals that pass you by.  Though I tried my hardest to hold it in, I cried a few times over the course of the film thanks to some developments that I could relate to on a personal level.  It won’t give you the Sally Field Ugly Cry Face that Inside Out and Up did, but don’t be surprised if the tears come when you aren’t expecting it.  I also laughed a lot, especially at some unexpected frivolity in the form of a trippy tangent brought on by Arlo and Spot eating spoiled fruit.

The feature goes nicely with Sanjay’s Super Team, the father-son centered short that precedes it and while most will give the Best Pixar of 2015 edge to Inside Out, there’s a case to be made for The Good Dinosaur too.  It’s perhaps less original in conception but in execution it showcases the absolute best animation that Pixar has created so far.

The Silver Bullet ~ Grandma

grandma

Synopsis: Self-described misanthrope Elle Reid has her protective bubble burst when her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage, shows up needing help.

Release Date: August 21, 2015

Thoughts:  It’s been a good year for Lily Tomlin.  She recently scored another Emmy nomination for her work in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie and while I felt that the Netflix show had some serious problems, Tomlin’s aging hippie helped to make the series more palatable.

Even better news is that advanced buzz on her performance in Grandma has been great…though it does creep me out that some critics have called it a “career-capping performance”…yeesh…she’s not dead yet people!  Directed by Paul Weitz (Admission, Being Flynn) and co-starring Julia Garner (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Judy Greer (Jurassic World), Sam Elliott (I’ll See You in My Dreams) and Marcia Gay Harden (Fifty Shades of Grey) this road-trip dramedy could find Tomlin attending the Oscars in addition to the Emmys.

 

Movie Review ~ Draft Day

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The Facts:

Synopsis: At the NFL Draft, general manager Sonny Weaver has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he trades for the number one pick. He must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice on a life-changing day for a few hundred young men with NFL dreams.

Stars: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Burstyn, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Chadwick Boseman, Sean Combs, Rosanna Arquette, Tom Welling, Sam Elliott

Director: Ivan Reitman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: About ten minutes into Draft Day, I leaned over to my friend and asked with the deepest sincerity “This movie is in English, right?” because I wasn’t totally sure that I hadn’t walked into Kevin Costner’s first foray into a foreign film.

Now I should admit that I’m not the target audience that Draft Day is banking on will buy a ticket as long as it doesn’t interfere with fantasy football. While not a huge sport nut, I know my way around a baseball diamond and basketball court…but football is one sport that I can’t get my noggin around. I’ve never even actually BEEN to a professional football game and my exposure is limited to high school games of my youth and waiting until the commercials come on during the Super Bowl.

What I am, however, is someone that’s seen a lot of sports related movies and even though baseball season has just started (check out my review of A League of Their Own for nostalgia sake) the 2014 football draft is coming up in early May. In that respect, one thing that Draft Day has going for it is good timing.

Another positive is Kevin Costner’s presence – though the actors has made his fair share of films surrounding sports, this is his first foray into football territory and he shows that he’s still in fine form after being mostly absent from high profile films in the last five years. After Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 3 Days to Kill, Costner’s third film of 2014 is probably his best because he’s working on familiar territory…but that’s not saying much since Jack Ryan was a bust and 3 Days to Kill barely made it three weeks in theaters.

Another element that should have been a positive is director Ivan Reitman but instead it appears that the only Reitman to take note of in the directing world is his son Jason (Labor Day) While the elder Reitman was responsible for some mega-successful films (Ghostbusters, Stripes, Kindergarten Cop), his output over the last decade haven’t been touchdowns.

The biggest roadblock Draft Day tries to overcome (and doesn’t) is its own plot which never rises to the occasion of creating tension or the kind of excitement it seems to want to shove down our throats. Though Reitman makes some interesting work with the kind of split screens and fancy edits that would make Brian De Palma consider calling up Nancy Allen for Blow Out 2, the film is phenomenally boring and makes you feel every second of the 24 hour period during which it takes place.

While Reitman’s casting of Costner (Man of Steel) is spot-on, the limited gifts of Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club) creates a problematic situation for the unnecessary romantic subplot. Never mind that Garner looks like she could be Costner’s daughter and is his coworker, she fails to create even friendly chemistry with her co-star and one wonders if she was a last minute replacement or the fifth or sixth choice for the role. I would have loved to see someone closer to Costner’s age in the role, a Catherine Zeta-Jones or a Julianne Moore would have made the character more interesting and on the same level. Garner is usually out of her league, and it’s never more evident than it is here.

I’m not sure if Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) is paying attention to the roles she’s being offered anymore. One of our greatest celebrated actresses, I find her choices concerning and well beneath the quality of the work she’s been involved with for the last four decades. As Costner’s widowed mother, her role was either cut significantly after the fact or there was nothing to do in the first place because she only pops up when it’s convenient.

I’d go into the various other recognizable character actors that fill out the cast as agents, players, disgruntled fans, and members of rival team management but I honestly can’t remember who did what so I’ll give them the same amount of attention the script and director did…none.

Now look, this film may be an absolute delight for those viewers that are devotees to the pigskin and will find tension in the down to the wire deal making that goes on in Draft Day. For this (re)viewer, though, I found the whole film too far out in left field, er, deep in the penalty box, um, over the foul line, ack, over the line of scrimmage to be entertaining or memorable.

Movie Review ~ The Company You Keep

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former Weather Underground activist goes on the run from a journalist who has discovered his identity.

Stars: Shia LaBeouf, Robert Redford, Julie Christie, Richard Jenkins, Susan Sarandon, Stephen Root, Sam Elliott, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Jackie Evancho, Stanley Tucci, Brit Marling, Nick Nolte

Director: Robert Redford

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The first of two movies that Robert Redford starred in in 2013 was this curious little project that Redford also sat comfortably in the director seat for.  Though the film came and went with very little fanfare, I’d expect some collateral buzz to be drummed up for it when Redford is (hopefully) nominated for an Oscar for his career-high work in All is Lost.

Redford has seen more action as a director lately and he seems to be enjoying this part of his career which appears to be having a slow moving but surefooted renaissance.  It’s known that Redford is picky about the material he’ll take on as an actor and perhaps more so with his directing work which makes The Company You Keep all the more puzzling because it’s one of those half-there efforts that no one seems particularly invested in.

Scanning the cast list I get the notion that Redford peppered his film with actors he’s long wanted to work with and vice versa.  Why else would some big name stars drop in for what amounts to glorified cameos in an independent picture?  I kept thinking that actors like Richard Jenkins (White House Down, Jack Reacher) were just stopping by for lunch in Sundance when Redford asked if they could film a quick scene before dessert was served.

When Redford’s activist past is exposed by an opportunistic journalist (Shia LaBeouf, Lawless), he goes on the run and works his way through people from his younger days he’s long forgotten and who would just as soon forget about him.  Even with their brief screen time Oscar winners Susan Sarandon (Jeff, Who Lives at Home, Robot & Frank) and Julie Christie are effective as two fellow radicals that re-enter Redford’s present in two very different ways.  And keep your eyes out for Brit Marling (The East), Stanley Tucci (Jack the Giant Slayer), Nick Nolte (Cape Fear, I Love Trouble), and Terrence Howard (Prisoners) in the aforementioned brief supporting turns.

An overlong film, The Company You Keep winds up feeling like the guest that won’t take the hint to go thanks to several false endings.  While it’s diligently made like most Redford films are, there’s an evident emptiness at the core that doesn’t give the film any lasting weight past the final credits — that’s a shame when you consider the might of the stars Redford has assembled.

I should add it also doesn’t help that Redford has cast LaBeouf who continues to be one of the more overrated yet increasingly disliked actors in Hollywood.  Known for badmouthing his costars and film projects, LaBeouf had an overdue denouement at the end of 2013 when it came out that one of his short films was plagiarized from preexisting work.  It’s hard to take him seriously as a flawed film persona because LaBeouf’s personal persona is so much worse.

That casting aside, there’s admittedly a level of sophisticated maturity that should prove interesting to the more astute viewer.  I absolutely suggest you see Redford’s solemn work in All is Lost before taking this one on (he’ll also appear in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) but if you’re a Redford devotee or a fan of the political dramas/thrillers of the late 70’s you may find something worth your time here.

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