Maestro

Posted on December 17, 2023 at 4:30 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language and drug use
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drugs, cigarettes
Violence/ Scariness: Tense emotional confrontations, serious medical problems, sad death
Diversity Issues: Some references to antisemitism and prejudice against LGBTQIA people
Date Released to Theaters: December 15, 2023

Copyright 2023 Netflix
There are moments in “Maestro” that are as stunning and bravura as the works of the brilliant man who is the subject of the film. It is the story of one of the formative figures of 20th century music, composer/conductor/musician/educator Leonard Bernstein. Bradley Cooper co-wrote, directed and stars as Bernstein, whose music provides every note of the score and sometimes commentary on the narrative. Some of his choices work better than others, but every frame of the film reflects his profound immersion in Bernstein’s life and his growing mastery of cinematic storytelling.

It begins with a brilliant introduction to Bernstein as a character and to his story at an early turning point. Bernstein answers the phone. His voice is measured. Someone is ill. He expresses concern. But that means a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the second he gets off the call his ecstatic jubilation bursts from him as he kisses the man in his bed and races down to the theater, still in his robe. Conductor Bruno Walter is ill and Bernstein will conduct that night’s concert. To call it a triumph is an understatement. It was a sensation. And Cooper the director makes us not just see but feel it.

One of Bernstein’s early compositions was the music for what would become the musical and later Gene Kelly film “On the Town.” Cooper makes a very daring choice by having Bernstein and his date and future wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan) attend a rehearsal that becomes something of a dream ballet. The characters interact with the dancers to show us the developing dynamic of their relationship.

In another extraordinary scene, Bernstein and Felicia, now married and middle-aged, are having an argument in their Manhattan apartment. It is staged with a deep understanding of the characters, their deep but sometimes toxic connection, and of how we as the audience take in the setting. Felicia sits by the window, still but furious. Leonard hunches over in a chair, talking quickly, deflecting rather than engaging. Surreally, outside the window, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade is passing by and in the next room the Bernstein children are calling out to their parents to come see Snoopy. Every detail of pacing, composition, and emotion is superb.

And one more unforgettable scene — Cooper re-enacts Bernstein conducting Mahler’s 2nd that does more than copy the physicality of Bernstein’s version as it was filmed; he inhabits it, showing us the passion, the depth of understanding, and the way Bernstein was able to communicate the most delicate nuance to a huge number of musicians and singers.

This movie is not about Bernstein as the musician and composer. There are documentaries and scholarly analyses and archival clips for that. This is about Felicia and how their relationship reflected his conflicts but made possible his achievements.
This is the story of the marriage of two people who loved each other deeply and loved their children. Felicia knew that Leonard was gay or bi-sexual (as indicated by the “On the Town” scene) before they were married and she was confident that her acceptance would make their connected impenetrable in any meaningful way. But it is much harder than she expected. It is not just about who he is physically attracted to. It is that seduction is as core to him as music. Cooper at times, especially in scenes that re-create archival material like the Edward R. Murrow television interview, seems to be replicating Bernstein. But in much of the film, especially those moments when he is thrilled by someone new, we see it is all of one piece with his furious engagement with music, with creative partners, with romantic partners, with his children and his environment — to him, with all of life.

Parents should know that this film has extended mature material including sexual references and situations, very strong language, drinking, constant smoking, tense emotional confrontations, serious illness, and a sad death.

Family discussion: What should Leonard have said to his daughter? What held Leonard and Felicia together? Do you have a favorite of his compositions?

If you like this, try: Bernstein’s music in “Candide,” “On the Town,” and “West Side Story” and his wonderful Young People’s Concerts. And learn more about the years of study that went into this performance.

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Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 3

Posted on May 3, 2023 at 11:56 am

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for some language.
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol, drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Extended sci-fi/action/comic book-style peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 5, 2023
Date Released to DVD: July 31, 2023

Copyright Disney 2023
I guess it makes sense. Not the movie. Not even close. But the form = content notion that “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3,” the third in the series, is, like its characters a mess but a lovable and entertaining mess. By now it feels like it’s our mess. So, even though I couldn’t help imagining what Honest Trailers and Pitch Meeting are going to have so say about the very convoluted to the point of you’ve-got-to-be-kidding last 40 minutes or so and it’s well over two hours run time, I enjoyed it.

We already know something about the history of some of the characters. Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) had an earth mother and an alien father and was taken from earth at age 8 by an intergalactic group of rogues and thieves called The Ravagers. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) were stolen from their families when their planets were annihilated by Thanos and then tortured and mutilated to turn them into assassins. But we don’t know much about Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and the tree-guy voiced by Vin Diesel.

In this chapter, we go back to Rocket’s origin story. Like Thanos’ adopted daughters and Wolverine and I’m sure lots of other fictional characters, he was operated on by a megalomaniacal villain trying to “perfect” the world. He is The High Evolutionary, played by Chukwudi Iwuji. He has already created worlds and destroyed them for not living up to his exacting standards of perfection. One of his worlds we saw briefly in the last GothG movie, with Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha, leader of a world of spectacularly beautiful golden-hued creatures. In this film, he threatens to destroy that world unless Ayesha’s son, Warlock (Will Poulter), brings him Rocket. While the High Evolutionary is obsessed with the “improvements” he inflicts, somehow Rocket has gifts of intellect that the High Evolutionary did not create for him and he wants to understand and either copy that or destroy it.

The High Evolutionary’s experiments on Rocket and other animals were mechanical, replacing body parts with metal, so that they look Like the mutilated toys in Syd’s room in the first “Toy Story.” But it is in the adjoining cages that he finds his first family, led by the warm-hearted otter named Lylla. Rocket, using that exceptional capacity for engineering we have observed in the earlier films, manages to escape (including piloting a ship even though he has never even seen one before, much less been exposed to outer space or really anything outside of his prison).

This time, then, the Guardians are not saving the galaxy. At the beginning of the film they seem happily settled in Knowwhere with Cosmo the Soviet wonder dog, Mantis, the anntena-ed empath (Pom Klementieff), and former Ravager Kraglin (Sean Gunn). They have opened a bar. But the one doing all the drinking is Peter, who is still trying to drown his grief over the loss of Gamora. Nothing can get him to stop until Rocket is attacked. He is gravely injured and in order to save him the Guardians will need to retrieve a code to unlock a mechanism that prevents the necessary surgery and just 48 hours to do it. The Ravagers also get involved, and they now include a different version of Gamora brought back from the past who has no memory of her relationship with Peter.

There’s a hint of “Mission Impossible.” They’re even told that if they are caught, they will not be acknowledged as acting on behalf of the ruling body. And there’s a Zune vintage music player retrieved at the end of Vol 2 to follow the mix-tapes from the first two movies with some new songs for the soundtrack.

As noted, it does get messy. The group of misfit toys go off in different directions and it is hard to keep track of who is doing what where. A increasing problem with the Marvel movies is the way they keep using the stakes The High Evolutionary and Warlock have powers of near god-like magnitude. What can the Guardians do? It gets muddled. The High Evolutionary can do just about anything including creating and destroying worlds, but somehow cannot fight back from an attack with claws. There is a significant element to the story about the essential value of living beings who might not be considered “higher” life forms….until that is undermined later on. I said it was messy. As Peter said in the first one, “Something good, something bad? Bit of both.”

NOTE: Stay through the credits for two extra scenes

Parents should know that this film has extended peril and comic book/action-style violence with sometimes graphic and disturbing images. Characters are injured and killed. The film includes strong language, drinking and drunkenness.

Family discussion: Why is having a name so important? What does the name High Evolutionary mean and what does he think it means to be “perfect?” Why was the distinction about “higher forms” significant?

If you like this, try: the other “Guardians” movies

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A Star is Born

Posted on October 3, 2018 at 5:52 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for language throughout, some sexuality/nudity and substance abuse
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol and drug abuse
Violence/ Scariness: Some fights, medical issues, suicide
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: October 5, 2018
Date Released to DVD: February 18, 2019
Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers

There are movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” that are periodically remade to reflect changing times. And then there is “A Star is Born,” with its fifth version in just under 90 years, where the difference is in the details of the characters and performances but the theme remains the same. Going back to 1932, with “What Price Hollywood,” and then the Janet Gaynor/Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand versions of this same name, it remains the story of a fading male performer with substance abuse problems who falls in love with a young, talented female, helps her become a star, and then realizes he is in her way.

It is perhaps surprising that this story still carries so much power to move us. It could be corny and dated. After all, stars these days go to rehab and then come out to tell their stories of redemption and healthy habits on the cover of People Magazine. The credit for this latest version’s compelling power goes to its director/co-writer/star, Bradley Cooper, who has told the story with verve, specificity, and conviction, and who wisely selected pop superstar Lady Gaga to play the part of the young singer. Life imitates art for the performer originally as famous for her transgressive videos and wild attire (who can forget the meat dress, now at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame museum?) as for her music. Reportedly, when Cooper met the artist originally known as Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, he wiped the makeup off her face and told her that was how he wanted her to be seen in the film. Her character, Ally, would not be the highly burnished, defiantly confident, even brazen pop performer in grotesque haute couture, but the real girl underneath. That girl is a revelation. The emotions we see on her face as he tries to pull her onstage for the first time, and then her resolve as she steps out from the wings are achingly honest.

Writer/director/co-star Bradley Cooper shows as much evident pride and pleasure in showing her to us as his character, Jackson Maine, does in pulling Ally onstage to introduce her to the audience by making her sing, for the first time, her own songs. His careful attention to every detail is evident in every moment and he has a true musician’s sense of pace and timing. The songs are not just lovely; each of them is meaningful in revealing character and helps to tell the story. The two most recent “Star is Born” movies had their songs nominated for Oscars. One was a winner; the other should have been. This follows in that tradition and I hereby predict that “Shallow” will win this year’s Best Song and that Lady Gaga will be nominated as well.

Cooper’s script reflects the intensive textual analysis he learned in his studies at the Actors Studio and his direction reflects his deep understanding of the importance of creating a safe space for actors to take risks and be completely vulnerable on screen. His own performance is meticulously considered. We see his struggle, his pain, and his passion for music. But like his character, it is very much in service to Lady Gaga as Ally. Cooper says that the idea for the film came to him when he was backstage at a Metallica concert, where he could see the intimacy of the experience of the musicians working together on stage at the same time he saw the immensity of the crowd caught up in the experience. He creates that for us here, and one of the movie’s best images is the small, private smile we see when Jackson begins his signature song. For a moment, the agony of his world disappears and all that is left is the music and the connection it makes to the audience.

Ally gives him that feeling, too. Helping her pulls him out of himself, at least for a while. But his past and dark thoughts about his future are too much to bear.

Cooper also has some small but lovely tributes to the earlier versions of the story, to James Mason wiping off Judy Garland’s garish make-up and to the bathtub scene with Streisand and Kristofferson. But this is very much a stand-alone, a timeless story of love and loss, and a stunning debut from a director who arrives fully present, utterly committed, and astonishingly in control of a vision that is a work of art and completely heartfelt.

SPOILER ALERT: All of the other versions of this story end with a suicide that is portrayed as tragic but also noble, a sacrifice to make it possible for another person to succeed. I was very concerned going into this film that it would perpetuate this toxic romanticized notion. Cooper finds a way to mitigate that to some extent, but viewers should know that it remains a very troubling issue and is the reason I did not give the film a higher grade.

Parents should know that this film has very strong language, alcohol and drug abuse, some fighting, sexual references and situations, some nudity, and suicide.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Jackson tell Ally the truth about what was happening to him? What will Ally do next? How is this version of the story different from the previous films?

If you like this, try: the earlier versions of the story, with Frederic March and Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and James Mason, and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson

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Bradley Cooper on A Star is Born

Posted on September 27, 2018 at 1:06 pm

Copyright 2018 Warner Brothers
Lady Gaga plays Ally, who becomes a star in what is the 4th or 5th version of this classic story, depending on whether you count “What Price Hollywood.” Lady Gaga herself becomes an instant movie star as already-star Bradley Cooper becomes an instant writing and directing and maybe even singing star in one of the year’s biggest releases.

I wrote about Bradley Cooper, who spoke about the film at the first non-festival screening for The Credits.

An excerpt:

Cooper said the moment that inspired the film was at a Metallica concert. “About seven years ago I was lucky enough to be backstage at a Metallica concert at Yankee Stadium. I had met Lars Ulrich, and I listened to Metallica when I was 14 years old. That’s why the character says, ‘Ride the lightning’ in Silver Linings Playbook. At the concert, I was behind the drum kit, and I could see the sweat on the back of Lars’ neck, and at the same time, I could see the scope of the audience in front of him. It was a beautiful proscenium, and that was the first moment where I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen that on film, the subjective eye that could actually be epic and personal at the same time. And that was the beginning of the idea of how we were going to shoot all of the concert sequences that you just saw. It is all subjective. We never left the stage. But hopefully, you felt the scope of where they were.”

The concert scenes feel authentic because they are. Cooper filmed at real performance spaces, including the largest privately owned music festival in the world, Glastonbury, where they had just eight minutes to shoot before a performance by the star of the last version of A Star is Born, Kris Kristofferson.

Cooper said, “I had the luxury of having worked so often on camera and on stage, so I knew what I needed from a director as an actor in order to feel comfortable enough. As Al Pacino said, ‘We’re just trying to grab a few moments of authenticity.’ It’s important to create a space so that all the actors feel completely safe but also to know that it’s going to be hard. They’re going to have to go to places that scare them. They’re going to know that I’m right there with them. I’m not on the sidelines. It’s going to be okay to fail, but they have to risk. I have no desire for them to sit here and watch something that does not mean anything, that isn’t really personal to them and to me. Everybody wants to express the deepest part of themselves to another human being and feel safe about that. It’s very cathartic and healing.”

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Trailer: Miles Teller and Jonah Hill in “War Dogs”

Posted on March 25, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Based on a true story and from Bradley Cooper’s production company, “War Dogs” follows two friends in their early 20s (Jonah Hill and Miles Teller) living in Miami Beach during the Iraq War who exploit a little-known government initiative that allows small businesses to bid on U.S. Military contracts. Starting small, they begin raking in big money and are living the high life. But the pair gets in over their heads when they land a 300 million dollar deal to arm the Afghan Military—a deal that puts them in business with some very shady people, not the least of which turns out to be the U.S. Government.

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