A Star is Born (2018)

Directed by: Bradley Cooper Written by: Eric Roth, Cooper, and Will Fetters

Note: New Zealand has recently issued a content warning to go with this film. I will not name it in the interest of dramatic surprise, however, those who would benefit from such warnings should know to look into it.

A_Star_is_Born                 In my review of the 1937 film version of A Star is Born I commented on a trait that felt a tad too obvious: its datedness. Yet this quality seems like a perfect starting point for understanding how the film’s most recent remake came to be. In the original A Star is Born, protagonist Esther Blodgett dreams of being a Hollywood star, but despite her unmistakable determinedness, there seems to be no basis (ie acting experience) for that dream.

In its attempt to be modern, the latest of the version replaces Esther with Ally (Lady Gaga), who has no hopes of being famous but is very confident in her abilities as a singer and performer (she’s also a songwriter, though she’s less confident about that). While both Esther and Ally’s stars are born through their developing relationships with established stars Norman Maine and Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) respectively, the detail with which the films lay out these paths are very different. Esther takes the more marketable stage name of Vicky Lester, meets and then gets to star in a movie with Norman Maine and somehow becomes Hollywood’s next darling. Ally and Jackson, by contrast have a long conversation in which it becomes clear to Jackson that Ally is his artistic equal. This, along with his feelings for her, inspires him to promote her talents.

Therefore, in its first act, A Star is Born seems like a brilliantly conceived remake. It takes an appealing but simple and dated story, and updates it with realist dialogue and better gender politics. The spirit of the original movie is undoubtedly present, yet Cooper’s version feels like an original tale in its own right.

Unfortunately, as A Star is Born progresses, its commitment to being a remake holds it back a bit. From the get-go it focuses its story around Jackson and Ally, trying to stick to the framework of the story of Esther and Norman. Due to the film’s extended runtime, and the simplicity of the source material, the script ultimately feels over-extended.

An undeniable theme of the original film is emasculation as Norman’s pre-existing problem of alcoholism is exacerbated as he watches Esther succeed while his star fades. The over-extension of the 2018 film seems the result of not knowing how to present such a story in 2018. At times, the film considers emphasizing the other elements of Maine’s depression, partially through the introduction of a hard to remember (though well portrayed) supporting character in Jackson’s brother Bobby (Sam Elliot). A three dimensional portrayal of Maine’s sadness would require a script more like that of Manchester by the Sea, but unfortunately creating such a script would have undermined the degree to which it was indeed a remake of A Star is Born. Personally, I wish the writers had gone in that direction and done more to develop supporting characters and subplots (they had no lack of memorable personas with actors like Elliot and Dave Chapelle in the cast), but its easy to see why such a choice was avoided.

The film did take one interesting path to updating the emasculation subplot. In one scene Jackson and Ally get into a fight over her recording a moderately raunchy pop song. Maine’s anger here can both be said to be a sincere expression of concern that Ally is selling herself short, while also an example of unconscious sexism (modern pop singing being a woman-dominated genre). If this scene had come to define the movie before, the work could be said to have struck a nice balance between depicting a modern, egalitarian relationship while still employing the gendered motifs of the source material. Unfortunately, this scene was largely a standalone artefact, and in fairness to the writer, its hard to image how it could have been extended further.

As A Star is Born (2018) concludes, a version of the classic “I’m Mrs. Norman Maine” line is used. The line is undoubtedly a modernization of the original, but its not exactly feminist either. It also ends up being symptomatic of the ambitions and shortcomings of the whole movie. The 1937 version of A Star is Born is dated in a way that means it cannot compare to the best drama screenplays of this epoch, but it nonetheless holds up as a folk tale of sorts. The 2018 film, is a bit too subtle to be a charming fairy tale, but that unfortunately leaves it in a worst of both worlds camp: it’s too detailed to be a fable, and too simple to be a continually captivating script. On the other hand, Bradley Cooper does make a convincing singer-songwriter, while Lady Gaga is equally memorable in a role that clearly shows off her acting skills rather than simply allowing her to play a part. And both of course get to put in some solid vocal performances. A Star is Born has a lot of good pieces, it’s just a shame it didn’t have more songs, or more subplots, or more anything. I don’t mean to take a crack at Romeo and Juliet but sometimes tragic romance isn’t enough.

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A Star is Born (1937)

Directed by: William A. Wellman

Written by: Wellman, Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell 

Note: New Zealand has recently issued a content warning to go with the 2018 remake of the film. I will not name it in the interest of dramatic surprise, however, those who would benefit from such warnings should know to look into it.

A_Star_Is_Born_1937_poster

While the fourth iteration of A Star is Born takes its turn on the big screen, I figured I should see the original picture. The 1937 piece has a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score, but it is undoubtedly an old movie. It opens in a somewhat over the top fairy tale fashion (think The Wizard of Oz without the magic), and doesn’t do much beyond telling its story along the way. Nonetheless, it is an enjoyable work and a telling historical document.

It would be a bit of a truism to call A Star is Born dated, so I say it, not to imply a limit, but simply to note one of the film’s interesting qualities. The titular star is a woman: Esther Blodgett aka Vicky Lester (Janet Gaynor), and from a distance it’s hard to say if the film’s gender politics are subversive or not. One of the film’s central themes is emasculation, as Lester’s star rises above that of established Hollywood icon Norman Maine (Frederic March). Whether audiences at the time were more likely to read this plot as an endorsement of women’s equality, or a tragic tale of a man losing his place (or none of the above) is unclear from the way the plot resolves itself. And perhaps this ambiguity is a good thing, adding tonal richness to a simple plot line.

While the film may be dated in its depiction of gendered relations, perhaps the more interesting way in which it’s dated is in its depiction of celebrity. When Vicky and Norman star alongside each other in the same picture, audiences leave praising Lester and laughing off Maine’s forgettable performances. One of the notable qualities of this scene (and of A Star is Born as a whole) is its expository dialogue: the characters tell you with painful bluntness what they think of Maine. The more important point, however, is the very fact that the audience obsesses with Maine’s perceived inferiority to Lester. While we still live in a world where actors are praised or critiqued for their craft, the weight of that critique is far less substantial than A Star is Born makes it out to be. Adam Sander hasn’t lost his stardom just because most of his roles don’t share the prestige of Punch Drunk Love or The Meyerowitz Stories. And Sandler isn’t even a great comparison here. As far we are lead to believe, Maine’s acting isn’t particularly bad: the audience has simply, with shocking unanimity, declared him Lester’s inferior.

A Star is Born is a satisfying Hollywood story with a pair of replicable and adaptable themes. As such it doesn’t surprise me that it has spawned three re-makes. Are the remakes justified? For now I’ll have to plead ignorance. Part of me wonders, however, whether contemporary stories can match the odd, yet somehow historically believeable melodrama contained in this simple 1930s tale.

The Third Films: Watching Godard and Truffaut Together

1961_Une_femme_est_une_femmeHaving slowly begun the project of watching the canons of new wave icons Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, I’ve inevitably begun to search for parallels in their works. Breathless and The 400 Blows are about as different as you can get, only bearing resemblance today due to their setting and being black and white. The Little Solider and Shoot the Piano Player are also very different films, yet I couldn’t help but notice that they use the similar tactic of employing a pensive, but ideologically-mild protagonist who navigates a world of chaos. The two filmmaker’s third films, however, bear a thematic resemblance that I struggle to see as coincidental.

The two films already have a superficial overlap. A Woman is a Woman was released September 6, 1961 and features a cameo from Shoot the Piano Player star (and Jim and Jules cast member) Marie Dubois. In another scene,Jules and Jim‘s female lead, Jeanne Moreau, plays herself and makes direct reference to the then unreleased Jules and Jim.

The real parallel between Godard and Truffaut’s releases, however, comes in their depiction of romance. A Woman is a Woman is in many ways an aesthetic work. It is Godard’s first venture in color, establishing his signature look. It’s an homage to musical theatre, that also brings in Godard’s typically ambiguous political references. The film’s actual story is simple. Angela (Anna Karina) develops an urge to have a baby. Émile (Jean-Claude Brialy), her live-in-partner, is not ready and tells her to wait until marriage. Émile performs his non-readiness by riding around their apartment on a yellow bike, while Angela repeats that “je veux un enfant.” Eventually, with Émile’s partial endorsement, Angela decides to try flirting with his friend Alfred (Jean Paul-Belmondo). Despite its title, the film’s exact gender politics are unclear. While Angela’s fixation on having a child is not exactly convention breaking, the rigid expectations she is subject to (eg in a scene where she prepares Emile dinner) are undoubtedly criticized.

 Jules and Jim meanwhile is the story of two friends (Oskar Werner and Henri Serre) who’s inseparability leads them to fall Jules_et_jim_affiche.jpgfor the same woman and be ok with it. The film explores the two men’s loyalty and intellectual curiosities, which are then accentuated by the romantically-awkward Jules’s free-living girlfriend, and later wife, Catherine (Jeanne Moureau). I should note that  Jules and Jim had some shortcomings for me. Its first half hour is very fast-paced (even with subtitles), meaning it was hard for me to pick up exactly on some of its finer points. I was subsequently confused when the film did finally slow down and focus on the two men’s relationship with Catherine, a relationship which I did not feel was properly built up, or distinguished from other events early in the film. I am admittedly being harder on Jules and Jim than, A Woman is a Woman. With Godard, I’ve come to accept frustrating-ambiguity as part of the style (or at least a fault one must have to deal with), whereas when Truffaut films are opaque, it feels more accidental and thus more worthy of critique.

Godard films seem to break with realism to force viewers to engage with particular social and political themes. A Woman is a Woman asks questions about the character and necessity of romantic partnership. It does this by prioritizing the development of its message over presenting a more straightforward plot. Jules and Jim, however, comes a bit closer to following a convention story line. Godard’s work calls on viewers to deconstruct the idea of love, whereas Truffaut’s asks us to see the lives of people living with such a deconstruction. Godard’s decision to go to color vs Truffaut’s to stick to black and white is also notable. Godard makes his commentary on free love a stunning image of his era. Truffaut, however, sets his story in the first half of the twentieth century, in a way. Jim and Jules are not products of the free love era. Their relationship is thus depoliticized, allowing viewers to think more about the existing human condition than the transformation of society.

Ultimately I don’t think either film answers its radical questions. A Woman is a Woman is too theatrical to do so, whereas Jules and Jim obscures its exact politics in its search for drama.  Jules and Jim‘s Catherine may represent the consequences of breaking with monogamy, and Jim can’t be said to be a shining example of a lover either, given the awkward presence of his partner, Gilberte, in the film’s background. On the other hand, whileJules and Jim doesn’t cast polyamory in a great light, it nonetheless celebrates the open-minded friendship between the titular men, leading some to have read the film as having gay subtext. With both Godard and Truffaut, it’s hard to know exactly when they are endorsing the ideas of their characters, but when analyzing Jules and Jim that ambiguity is particularly relevant.

Of course, these works do not have to be enjoyed in tandem. A Woman is a Woman can be appreciated for its bright-simplicity, whereas Jules and Jim can captivate viewers with its narrative novelty. Then again, the two films have an undeniable thematic overlap. It’s a theme neither quite knows what to do with, so perhaps they are in fact both appreciated and mystified-over as a new wave pair.

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

Directed by: Spike Jonze Written by: Jonze and Dave Eggers

WherethewildthingsareGiven all the movies that exist, I’m hesitant to say that there’s no film-adaptation out there like Spike Jonze’s take on Where the Wild Things Are, but needless to say, it’s a statement I’m highly tempted to make. Maurice Sendak’s children’s book of the same name is a simple story: a boy misbehaves, gets sent to his room without supper and eventually retreats into an imagined world of threatening-yet-befriendable monsters. Sendak’s tale in itself does not provide enough material for a direct screen adaptation. As such one could imagination this movie to take the form of a clichéd and mediocre kids film, or a movie aimed at older audiences with little resemblance to Sendak’s text. What Jonze did instead was create a work that was true to Sendak’s book, even as it took a lot of creative liberties.

Jonze’s story has some straightforward resemblances to Sendak’s. The “wild things” look the same as Sendak’s creations, though unfortunately the pink sea monster was omitted. Max, meanwhile, finds the wild things after being sent to his room for his own wild behaviour. His time spent with the wild things is memorable, but though it is more detailed than Sendak’s imagining, it is not in itself a complete story arc. As I watched the movie, however, one particular detail of Sendak’s book rang with me. I grew up with the message that kids of previous generations had it rougher than me: that when they were punished, they were really punished. For such kids, the idea of being sent to bed without supper was supposedly a real possibility. In Sendak’s book, Max suffers such a punishment, and yet, when he returns from the land of the wild things “his supper was still waiting.”

Spike Jonze’s movie is an exploration of anger and wildness. Its characters lash out and get angry at other characters with none exactly sure as to where the line between playfulness and wrong lies. The film opens with Max pelting his sister and his friends with snowballs. Max runs into his “igloo” where he grins blissfully. His sister’s friends subsequently smash his igloo, and as Max looks on devastated his sister indifferently walks away. To Max, this is an injustice. His playfighting should not have led to something that mattered to him being destroyed, and yet it’s completely plausible that this logic did not occur to him and his friends. When Max ventures into the land of the wild things this logic almost exactly reproduces itself. He befriends various monsters including the brooding and particular Carol (James Gandolfini), Alexander the little guy with a sense that he’s being picked on (Paul Dano), the gentle but eccentric and free spirited KW (Lauren Ambrose) ,etc.

As the film progresses Max experiences the anger and anxiety of these characters. Despite being “adults,” the monsters are like children in that their desires and concerns are not always coherent to the outside world. Some of this may be because the monsters simply have unique priorities (like Max uniquely prioritizes his igloo) and some of it may be because the monsters are not saying what is truly on their mind (Max, for instance, is shown to have coherent, mature apocalyptic anxieties, though he never discusses them out loud).

If Where the Wild Things Are (the book) is a fable, its message is that you can be wild and still be loved (your supper will still be waiting). It also teaches one can have bursts of wildness and still love others. Near the end of the book the monsters roared at Max “we’ll eat you up we love you so,” a line that’s repurposed somewhat in the movie. Jonze’s film is undoubtedly an extension of these morals. A question I’m left with, however, is how much it extends them. Should the wild things in Jonze’s movie be interpreted adult-children in the vein of characters like Spongebob Squarepants, or should they be interpreted as adults? And does the impulse to go wild ever die, and how should that influence how we relate to one another?

Oh God! (1977)

Directed by: Carl Reiner Written by: Larry Gelbert

Based on the Novel by Avery Chapman

Oh,_God!_(movie_poster)As a product of the internet age, I’m vaguely aware of a social media account called “God.” It includes a picture of a cartoonish but typical-western-imagining of God and it posts liberal statements. In other words it exists to undermine the Christian right. The idea of God actually being a liberal, socialist, etc. is an appealing one and it can make for good humor. It’s also unfortunately an idea that I feel all too familiar with by now. One of my anxieties about the era we live in is that its an era that kills humor. The internet allows for the rapid proliferation of jokes by amateurs. This saturation of our comic minds leads to humorous tropes becoming unfunny at a worrying pac-

This is the context with which I viewed Oh God! The movie tells the story of Jerry Landers (played by quasi-country musician John Denver), a father of two, grocery store manager and “non-believer” who is invited to have a meeting with God. God (George Burns) is indeed an all powerful creator, however he opts to communicate with his latest prophet, Jerry, with a relatable voice and body. The film thus follows Jerry’s awkward struggle of having to spread the word of God without being dismissed as delusional. The story ultimately pits Jerry against the Evangelical community, as the down-to-earth, non -denominational, vaguely-leftist God Jerry speaks of does not exactly jive with their vision.

There’s not much more to Oh God! than that, and it in fact ends (in a relatively well executed) anti-climactic manner. It’s for that reason that I can’t call the film a favorite. As I said: the God-is-a-progressive trope feels all too familiar. I can’t help but wonder, however, how much I would have liked the movie when it first came out. The film’s Evangelical Pastor (Paul Sorvino) is booked to preach at a football game. His character is thus in a way a stand in for a segment of conservative America, one that in the post-Bush era is all too recognizable. In 1977, however, such a character may have seemed more prophetic.

This criticism aside, I was still quite able to enjoy Oh God!, largely because of its cast. John Denver’s voice and gentle features make him an ideal awkward male lead, while Burns’ ordinary yet charming grandpa affect is a good fit for this conception of God. Burns is infectious but never over the top. The result of this approach is that none of his scenes in Oh God! stand out as particularly memorable, yet the overall portrayal is a strong one. Oh God! might not be the best comedy you’ll ever see, but Burns and Denver still make it worthy of recommendation.

What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Written and directed by: Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement

What_We_Do_in_the_Shadows_posterIf you haven’t seen it, you should check out a short (two-season) television series called Flight of the Concords. It’s the tale of two New Zealand folk singers trying to make it in New York. While not over-the-top with its jokes, the show charms through the banter-y dynamic of its stars: shy and clueless musicians Brett and Jemaine; and ambitious-but-even-more clueless manager Murray.

Anyhow, Flight of the Concords writer Taika Waititi and star Jemaine Clement teamed up to repurpose that style of humor and apply it to vampires with What We Do in the Shadows. The film is a “documentary” about a household of four vampires, Viago (Waiti), Vladislav (Clement), Deacon (Jonathan Brugh) and Petyr (Ben Fransham) in the lead up to a local monster convention. This documentary is “filmed” by humans, a fact occasionally played with in fourth-wall breaking fashion.

Our culture inevitably gets confused when it falls in love with “bad guy” archetypes. Can pirates be heroes and still be pirates, for instance? Vampires provide a unique version of this problem due to, well, their diets. The Twilight saga notably worked around this problem by featuring “vegetarian vampire” (which confusingly means they do drink animal blood, just not human blood). What We Do in the Shadows however, does not try to work itself around the awkwardness. Its vampires indeed eat humans (“victims” being the appropriate parlance), and do so in decently grotesque fashion given the movie’s overall adorable tone. At the same time, vampires are former humans themselves and, therefore, do maintain relationships with living society. This means certain humans, such as the camera crew, are safer than others.

Making nice of, but not toning down the dark, is an approach What We Do in the Shadows uses to deal with issues beyond human-eating. The film makes reference to a number of elements of vampire lore, including the idea that the vampires want to drink the blood of virgins. When asked why this is Deacon says “I think it’s because it sounds cool.” With this line, the film acknowledges the problematic gender politics of established lore, but rather than simply avoiding it, it tastefully embraces the awkwardness. The film also deals with the issue of gender through Jackie (Jackie van Beek), Deacon’s servant and an aspiring vampire, who complains about the vampires being a boys’ club. While her presence in the film may not be enough to make up for the lack of a prominent female vampire in the gang, her protests are a key component of the film’s unique banter-landscape.

What We Do in the Shadows is not a high-action film, and there were times watching it where I wondered whether this was a problem. Ultimately however, each of its characters is well enough established (silly as they are) that they remain endearing long after the credits role. Viago is sweet for a vampire, contrasting nicely with the formerly macabre Vladislav. The cast also includes a cocky victim named Nick (Cori Gonzalez-Macuer), a pair of very competent police officers (Karen O’Leary and Mike Minogue) (who now have their own spinoff) and a character named Stu (Stu Rutherford) (I won’t say more except, you WILL love Stu). The film also features a gang of wearwolves (look out for a familiar face amongst them). This scene was no doubt a nod to Twilight, but it remains funny despite its inspiration having faded out of popular culture.

What We Do in the Shadows may make you afraid to walk the streets of Wellington at night. It may, if you are not in fact intrigued by the novelty of being eaten by one of the film’s charming bloodsuckers. In all seriousness, however, if romance and horror are not your cups of tea, rest assured there’s another kind of vampire movie out there, and it may be the best of them all.

 

Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. (2018)

Directed by: Steve Loveridge

Poster_for_Matangi-Maya-MIA,_June_2018I should preface this by saying I don’t have a great knowledge of M.I.A’s music. Based on a very limited sample, the only one of her songs that’s really to my taste is “Paper Planes,” a track which, with mild crypticness, satirically plays with right-wing stereotypes about immigration. That said, I’m not sure whether my lack of knowledge of M.I.A.’s music was for the better or the worse when I saw this film. Her songs, while present in the movie, are not its guiding force and do not play a role in shaping the film’s trajectory (one might anticipate a documentary about a musician might build up to the release of their most recent defining song). As such, I caution music fans to be prepared for this disappointment.I know all too well the awkward feeling of realizing a concert is over (there are no more encores) and a musician has still left several of their no-doubter classics out of the set.

That disclaimer aside, there are at least two key reasons why M.I.A.’s life is particularly suitable for documentary-production: two key reasons why Matangi/Maya/Mia will likely be remembered as one of this year’s defining documentaries (amongst people who remember such things that is).

The first reason is the film’s Linklater-esque quality. M.I.A. has been documenting her life on a handheld camera since (at least) her early adulthood. This footage makes up a good portion of the documentary. While the film does not discuss M.I.A’s motives for making these clips, it comes across as if a version of this documentary was always in the works. M.I.A. regularly filmed her family members engaged in somewhat serious conversation with her, producing a number of documentary worthy interviews. The existence of this footage also gets at another of the film’s themes: that becoming a star involves a deep confidence and vision. Granted, the documentary shouldn’t get too much credit for this theme, since a big part of M.I.A.’s ascent to stardom comes from her befriending a successful musician and getting hired to produce her music videos (the film makes it unclear how this opportunity manifested itself).

The second reason why M.I.A’s life makes for a good a documentary, is that it provides a strong example of a (racialized woman) celebrity getting panned for expressing political opinions: the old “shut up and sing” trope. The film recalls how M.I.A. was criticized for accusing the Sri Lankan government of genocide, despite her wealth and speaking like “Mick Jagger.” While such critiques can at times be valid, the film shows how they were particularly problematic in M.I.A.’s case. The case against M.I.A.’s activism was manufactured (note a key a scene about truffle fries) without any regard for the substance of her arguments.

Another important incident in the film involves M.I.A. inspiring “public outrage” for flipping the bird on live TV. One would think such an incident would be innocuous, well into the age of South Park, etc.,etc., but the white male professional bowler that a news network invited on air to discuss the incident clearly felt otherwise. The highlighting of this part of M.I.A.’s experience is particularly pertinent in an age of social media bubbles. Having become quite used to my peers excitedly noting the “woke” behaviors of certain celebrities, watching Matangi/Maya/M.I.A. proved an important reminder for me of the state of popular consciousness.

In summation, Matangi/Maya/M.I.A, thrives because of its use of home-archival footage and its exploration of discourse surrounding celebrity activism. Aside from these two defining qualities, the film doesn’t offer much else. That’s not a damning critique: those two qualities are enough to make it an interest work . Nonetheless, there are questions the film leaves unanswered. M.I.A. reportedly had only limited involvement with the making of the film, and given the little bit I know about her, I can’t help but wonder whether she would have been happy with the film’s depiction of her politics, or whether it made her look too much like a single-issue activist. And I also wonder whether the film could have done more to analyze her music (or at very least play more of it). Regardless, I enjoyed this film despite having little previous knowledge of M.I.A.’s artistic output. I can only imagine that those more invested in her as an artist will be even more intrigued.