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 version of A Star is born 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, the work could be said to have struck a nice balance between depicting a modern, egalitarian relationship and also employing the gendered motifs of its source material. Unfortunately, this scene was largely a standalone artefact, and in fairness to the writer, its hard to imagine 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.


Hulk (2003)

Written by: James Schamus, Michael France and John Turman

Directed by Ang Lee

Hulk_movie.jpgTwo of the key motifs in Ang Lee’s 2003 adaptation of Hulk are Frankenstein, and the Star Warsian idea that anger is but a sub-emotion of fear. Superficially perhaps, these ideas do not sound like much: Hulk is green, Frankenstein’s monster is green, “big deal.” However these motifs set up Hulk to be a superhero film like no other.

A common recipe for superhero films is giving their hero(es) sass, arrogance, a pinch of situational comedy and, of course, a healthy does of action scenes. The incredible thing about Hulk is it succeeds as movie not by slightly re-tinkering this formula (à la Deadpool) but by discarding it entirely (granted, Hulk predates the modern Marvel Cinematic Universe). This approach may explain why the film did not do well at the box office. Indeed, the scenes of pre-Hulk adult Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) are a little slow. Nonetheless, Hulk’s uniqueness is ultimately a rewarding experience. With Marvel movies now coming out at a one-after-another rate, its easy to become cynical about superhero movies and feel like if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Hulk, however, truly feels like a standalone idea for a story: one that simply happens to feature a mutated, superpowered individual.

Hulk features five main characters, each with a unique motive and a different relationship to Bruce Banner, a young scientist who becomes the film’s titular hero/monster. The most unequivocal villain is Glenn Talbot (Josh Luas). His lack of complexity, however, is well juxtaposed with his ultimate pettiness as an adversary. He’s a Draco Malfoy-esque bully, and is ultimately subject to a comic-book-homage gag (director Ang Lee occasionally framed the scenes to resemble comic book panels). Yet another adversary is General Thunderbolt Ross (Sam Elliot), a character who can be heartless, but because he acts in the roles of soldier and protective father, he comes across less as evil than as set in his cold ways, adding a level of mystery and tension whenever he speaks.

The film’s third adversary, meanwhile, is its most compelling and confusing. Nick Nolte stars as a janitor whose behaviour at times mirrors the cold protectiveness of the General, at times is purely sinister, at times is radical and at times is purely affectionate. In so far as The Hulk is Frankenstein, Nolte is Victor. His character’s psychology is too all-over-the-place ever to be fully coherent, but in the context of the film it works: perhaps because we are implicitly seeing him through the monster (Hulk)’s eyes, and not through his own.

The main cast is completed by Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly). She is introduced as Bruce Banner’s still-friends-ex-love-interest. In most superhero films, the story would no doubt follow Bruce Banner’s attempt to achieve self-actualization and win her back. The Hulk, however, avoids this predictable path, for a subtler relationship of affection. Betty and Bruce empathize with and act on behalf of one another throughout the movie, despite a constant spectre that their relationship could be further damaged by Banner’s angry side.

Through these five characters The Hulk sets up a series of compelling emotional clashes that I found far preferable to the dearth of action scenes the film omitted. Where the film does use action, it does so to advance its dramatic message. We see The Hulk in action just long enough to see what he can do: enough to show why the General dehumanizes him, and enough to see why pain inevitably claws at his and Betty’s understanding relationship. The film’s action-emotion balance is also, again, at the heart of its themes. Frankenstein is a story of two misfit characters, doctor and monster, who despite being individually sympathetic figures end up pitted against one another. The monster’s story is made specifically tragic because he is largely a victim ,not of his actions, but of how his appearance leads him to be perceived. This is a problem that ultimately pushes him in a more violent direction. This is the story of Hulk a hero who unequivocally does not want to be a hero, as it seems his superpowers can only lead to him being perceived as a super-villain.

Meanwhile, the anger-is-fear motif, also factors into this Frankensteinian story. The emergence of Hulk is a cruel cycle, in which a character terrified of the angry part of himself, is made to feel vulnerable to the world, and as such, lets his anger and self-loathing grow stronger. This motif does come at some costs. When we first see Banner get angry it feels awkwardly sudden (up to this point he is a sad-eyed mild mannered character, who is never described as angry, only “emotionally removed”). This is not to say, the motif was not overall effective, however, the script and or direction should probably have been tinkered to either show Hulk’s anger earlier in the film, or to make it more clear that it’s a sudden consequence of his being mutated.

Thematically, in short, Lee’s Hulk is a good piece: it would translate well as a short story, stripped of all the (already limited) graphic action scenes it boasts. The film, however, is also strong visually, combing simple but colourful, Americana backdrops (in contrast to the generic urbanity of many superhero films), intentionally unrealistic animations of molecular biological reactions and, of course, the comic book panels (which, though sometimes an afterthought, do help nail home the film’s commitment to emphasizing character presence over chaotic action scenes). I realize some viewers and critics felt it lacked “Hulk smashes,” but I can’t help but feel such cravings got in the way of their appreciating the far stronger blow of Bruce Banner’s Frankensteinian pain.