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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Interview: Sam Elliott on “The Hero”

Posted on July 5, 2017 at 2:48 pm

Be sure to read my interview with the wonderful Sam Elliott on his role in “The Hero,” published on rogerebert.com.

In the film, your wife Katharine Ross plays Lee’s ex-wife. Did the two of you discuss what the history of your characters was?

No, that’s way too deep for Katharine or me. ‘Cause none of that stuff shows. I know actors go down that road. I know a lot of actors that I really respect that would go down that road. But I don’t think that’s really important for me. I think what’s important is having the correct words, and being able to commit to those words. And being honest. That to me is what’s most important, being honest.

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Actors Interview

Interview: Writer/Director/Editor Brett Haley on Sam Elliott and “The Hero”

Posted on June 21, 2017 at 10:00 am

Copyright 2017 Northern Lights
Sam Elliott played a small but very significant role in writer/director/editor Brett Haley’s last film, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” starring Blythe Danner. The experience inspired Haley to create a lead role for Elliott, based very loosely on his own experience as an actor who has appeared in many westerns and has an iconic image. I interviewed Elliott about the role, and then I spoke to Haley about how it came about. “We became close on the set of ‘I’ll See You in my Dreams,’ and then we really became friends doing promotion for the film and I just knew that I really wanted to work with Sam. I knew that I just admired him as a person and a friend and also an actor and I just really wanted to give him a performance platform essentially and let him do something that we’ve never seen him do before. Of course, he is playing an actor that is known for roles that Sam in real life is known for, so there’s a weird sort of meta thing happening. But I don’t think he’s doing in this film what he’s done previously in other films. I think he shows a incredibly sensitive and vulnerable and humorous side that will be new to his fans. We wanted Sam to play an actor and so it would be hard to avoid the fact that he would be known for his voice and his western kind of status. So we use that in the film to play against and but then we go much deeper into what it means to be known for only one type of thing.”

Lee, the actor Elliott plays in the film, is neither as successful or as stable as Elliott is in real life. In the film, he is something of a has-been, with an estranged daughter and an ex-wife (played by Elliott’s real-life wife, Katharine Ross). Lee very much wants to be cast in a particular role, and in one of the movie’s highlights we see him prepare for an audition by reading lines with his friend and drug dealer, played by Nick Offerman. “We see him be an amazing actor when he’s rehearsing for the audition,” Haley said, “but the way he behaves in the actual audition and his carelessness with his life shows a lack of discipline and professionalism that I think is part of being a good actor. Auditioning and acting are two very different skills. Being a great actor doesn’t always mean that you’re good at auditioning. Auditioning is a whole separate skill. Even the most amazing actors blow an audition because of the pressure or because something is going on in their life. And being a good professional is a great thing but people like Marlon Brando and Orson Welles who are some of the greatest movie stars and actors ever, you could say that they were not always the most professional but I don’t think that makes them any less of an incredible actor. Being difficult or not having a good work ethic, these are human qualities that I don’t think have anything to do with being an actor. It’s really fun to see that Lee still has some gas in the tank as a performer, even if he does not have the discipline to handle the audition.”

Lee is invited to accept a lifetime achievement award from a group of western fans. He brings a much younger woman named Charlotte (Laura Prepon) and they get high together on the way there. “The event is something that’s meant to be seen as initially as disappointing, certainly not the Oscars or the SAG or the Golden Globes. It’s a small society of people that want to keep the western alive, that still love the western. Because Lee is on drugs, he becomes more open to the love that these people have for him, he accepts it. Having fun with it and not taking it so seriously and just being in the moment allowed him to then embrace the love of his fans and understand that it does mean something in the end to be loved by anyone, to be remembered even if it is for just one movie.”

I asked him about the unusual combination of writing, directing, and editing. “They’re all the same basic idea, shaping the story. You’re writing when you write it and you’re writing when you shoot it and you’re writing when you edit the film. You’re rewriting all the time. You’re always working on honing the story and making the elements work. That’s been part of my process since I was a kid making movies. I’m certainly thinking as I film of how to protect myself in the edit.”

Actors who have worked with Haley have said that they appreciate his flexibility in giving them a chance to try different approaches. “That’s all you’re doing as a director to a large degree is collecting material so you have options. You can’t be too set on getting it just one way. I’ve learned over the years you need to get as many ways as you can because you could be wrong and I like being able to play with it in the edit and have fun with it. I know what I want but I also think my actors will do their best when you let them bring their own interpretation to certain things. But I certainly think that we’re all on the same page before we get on set. That’s a really important distinction, so it’s not like they’re doing the scene in a completely different way that I would initially want. So by getting on the same page and then on set we are able to play and try new things and experiment.”

Haley said it was “a real treat” to have Ross play the role of the ex-wife. “Katharine is an icon in her own right, an amazing actor and an amazing woman. To have a real life married couple who play exes made it a lot of fun to play with because there’s a lot of history between Sam and Katherine and I think you can see it come across off screen. I think it was a little weird but also fun for them to play a couple with a lot of history and their real life experience informed a lot of the great work that goes on between them.”

Interviewer: As a writer you kept a lot of information away from us, you know I often think that’s the difference between an independent film and a studio film is how much they feel that they have to explain to you and you didn’t give us a lot of information about what happened in that relationship or what happened in a relationship with our we have a general sense of his not being there but how do you decide sort of where to, how much information to give the audience?

He does not overdo the exposition and backstory in his films. “I think about it in terms of how people actually talk to one another in real life. People don’t do monologues about their backstory when they’re seeing their ex-wife or their daughter or ‘let me list all the ways I was terrible to you’ or ‘you remember that time I was bad.’ I know that audience is a really smart and I think they understand what could have caused the rift between them. It’s clear that he was an absent guy, a selfish guy and I think that’s all they need. I think that the more specific you get when it comes to a back story it just becomes sort of a cheat, it’s telling the audience how to feel instead of letting them just simply feel. I always tend to go for the more subtle approach and let the actors’ faces tell the story rather than my words or some kind of exposition do the work.”

Haley was sensitive to avoiding the usual dynamic of a movie relationship between an older man and a younger woman. “I thought it would be interesting to see this character that Laura I think brilliantly plays, be more of the pursuer. He’s not really sure if he can trust her or not you’re not really sure what her intentions are with Lee. I wanted to play with that. I wanted Lee to be weirded out and cautious and just not comfortable with the situation and I thought that was a really fresh take. That’s what Mark Basch and I like to do. We like to take those cliches and we like to turn them into more honest and more appealing circumstances and characters. So it was a challenge to get right but I’m very proud of that relationship and how it comes off. It goes in very surprising places. It’s not as simple as beautiful young woman, old guy ending up together; it’s a lot more than that.”

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The Good Dinosaur

Posted on November 24, 2015 at 5:43 pm

Copyright Disney 2015
Copyright Disney 2015

“The Good Dinosaur” is the good movie. Not the great movie. Not the especially memorable movie. Just the perfectly nice and pleasant movie, much stronger in visual splendor than in storyline.

Delayed for 18 months as Disney replaced the original director and realigned the story, the seams are palpable. And too much of it is much too familiar: a mismatched pair has to find their way home (see “Finding Nemo,” “Toy Story,” etc. etc.), a young animal is devastated by witnessing the death of his father through a natural disaster (see “The Lion King” — the staging is very similar), a boy with no family is cared for and preyed upon in the wilderness by animals (“The Jungle Book”), and it takes place a long, long time ago (see “Ice Age,” “The Land Before Time,” and “The Croods”).

But it is beautiful to look at, and the story is very sweet, a traditional “boy and his dog,” except here the “boy” is the dinosaur and the human is more like a pet. In the world of this film, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs bypassed earth, and so millions of years after the real dinos died off, they are not only still here, but they are thriving. Humans are just beginning to stand erect and have not yet developed language or tamed fire (but have somehow invented very handy leaf-clothes that are woven together so well they always cover the private bits). The dinosaurs can speak and they have learned how to farm, using their snouts to plow the field and building a silo to store grains for the winter. A loving herbivore dino couple (Jeffrey Wright and Frances McDormand) lovingly watch their three eggs hatch as the story begins. The biggest egg produces the smallest dino baby. They name him Arlo (Raymond Ochoa).

While his brother and sister are confident and capable, Arlo is fearful and anxious. His chore is feeding the chickens and they terrify him. His parents explain that each of the children will have a chance to literally make their mark — to add their paw print to the silo to show that they have made a contribution to the family. “You’ve got to earn your mark by doing something big for something bigger than yourself,” the father dinosaur explains.

Arlo’s siblings make their marks. But Arlo cannot seem to get beyond his fears. His father gives him a chance to set a trap for the animal that has been stealing their grain. But when the creature — a little human boy — is caught, Arlo lets him go. The father dinosaur tries to teach Arlo how to handle fear. But, leading Arlo to chase after the boy, a thunderstorm swells the river and Arlo’s father only has time to save his son before he is swept away.

Arlo gets separated from his family, and the only one who can help him is the young human, who crawls on all fours and pants like a puppy. Arlo names him Spot, and together they meet a variety challenges, many involving friendly characters or predators. Highlights include a very funny Styracosaurus whose antler protuberances are occupied by birds and animals (see “Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose.”) But it is very funny to hear him introduce each of them, explaining about one of the birds, “He protects me from having unrealistic goals.” A brief visit to a collection of gophers who get literally blown out of their holes is delightfully choreographed. Sam Elliott provides just the right gravelly bass voice as another dinosaur dad who is less scary than he looks (but even that is too reminiscent of the better shark scene in “Nemo”).

The patched-together quality is most telling in a quasi-dream sequence (see “Footsteps” plaques at your aunt’s house) and an ending that seems to undercut some of what we thought we learned about what makes a family. The visuals are gorgeous, especially the clouds, the landscape, and the play of water and light. But the story is only intermittently as engaging as the background images.

Be sure to get there in time to see the short film before the feature, a heartwarming autobiographical tale about a Hindu father at his morning prayers. As he pays tribute to his deities, his son is on the other side of the room, watching a television show about superheroes. The way they are brought together has more imagination, heart, and inspiration in its brief running time than “The Good Dinosaur” has as a full-length feature.

Parents should know that this film includes extended peril, with some characters injured and killed (and eaten). There is a sad death of parent (who returns in a dream, which may be confusing or disturbing to young children), omnivorous dinosaurs with big teeth, etc., trippy fermented berries, and some potty humor.

Family discussion: How will you make your mark? Who in your family has a scar and what is the story behind it?

If you like this, try: “The Land Before Time,” “Finding Nemo,” and “Inside Out’

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I’ll See You in My Dreams

Posted on May 21, 2015 at 5:55 pm

B+
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sexual material, drug use and brief strong language
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, marijuana
Violence/ Scariness: Some mild peril, sad death
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 22, 2015
Copyright 2015 Bleeker Street
Copyright 2015 Bleeker Street

Blythe Danner gives a performance of exquisite sensitivity in “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” the story of a lonely widow. She plays Carol, a singer-turned teacher who retired 20 years ago after her husband died. Her friends in a nearby retirement community urge her to join them but she prefers to stay in her home, her primary companions her dog and her glass of white wine.

The movie begins by taking us through a day we surmise is just like hundreds of others. She plays cards with friends, she plays golf, she feeds the dog, she sips wine and watches television. She keeps busy and she is not unhappy. She has plans, and she has fun, but she does not have much of a sense of purpose. When a rat invades her home, it is unsettling. She asks her new pool cleaner for help.

His name is Lloyd (Martin Starr), and he is lost in a way that makes her feel able to talk to him.  Her feelings toward him are not maternal or romantic. But he is smart, and funny and self-deprecating and he was willing to help her with the rat.  And he is newly back in town and living with his parents, so he can use a friend, too.  When he tells her about going to do karaoke, she agrees to go with him.

A speed dating event with her friends is a hilarious disaster, but that may make an overture from a handsome stranger named Bill (Sam Elliott) seem more appealing.  Writer/director Brett Haley has a good sense for the way people who have no time for trivialities get to the point with each other, wasting little time on getting-to-know-you trivialities.  Carol’s conversations with Lloyd and Bill are direct without being intrusive, and especially without being judgmental.  When she is with her friends, there are easy exchanges that reflect the kind of connection based on the shared experience of being an older woman.  A scene where they all get high on one friend’s medical marijuana is completely charming.

It is almost beyond belief that this is Danner’s first romantic lead in a film.  She is breathtaking.  Haley wisely just leaves the camera on her beautiful face as she sits with her beloved dog while he slowly stops breathing in the vet’s office.  Her grief is devastating.  Her devotion is deeply moving.  Her performance of “Cry Me a River” in karaoke is also magnificent.  The incandescence she brings to the story of a woman who is still struggling for connection makes this one of the most touching performances of the year.

Parents should know that this movie has strong language, drinking and drugs, sexual references and situations, and a sad death.

Family discussion: What do we learn about Carol from the karaoke scenes? Why did she become friends with Lloyd? How is dating different for older people than for younger people?

If you like this, try: “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and its sequel

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