A Star Is Born (2018)

A Star Is Born

The surprising thing about the new A Star Is Born is how fresh it feels. It is a thrice-told tale, but this version does not scream: “retread.” The film’s stars and (especially) its music energize the storytelling and make A Star Is Born truly satisfying.

Even moviegoers who have zero familiarity with the previous iterations of this plot can guess early on where it’s going. Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a big rock star with booze and pill addictions. Ally (Lady Gaga) is a food service employee who sings for kicks in the gay bar where Maine just happens to stop in for a drink.

He gives her a leg up into the music biz and, as they fall in love, their careers move in separate directions: one up, one down.

If you had doubts that Lady Gaga could handle the female lead, well, those doubts were mistaken. She has two killer musical numbers that bookend the film and several other songs in the film, including duets with Cooper. And… her acting beyond the music is solid. This film marks the birth of her movie stardom.

Cooper is an Oscar-winning actor but his musical chops are also impressive. He wears many hats here: he directed the film and is one of three credited screenwriters. His speaking voice in the film is deeper than in his prior films. It accurately sounds like that of a man who has been a lifelong boozer.

Daddy issues play a role in this A Star Is Born. Maine’s dad—also a heavy drinker—died when Jackson was 13. His older brother Bobby (Sam Elliott) helped raise him, got him into performing and still works to keep the younger brother in line. Their relationship is not just brotherly but also a bit father/son.

Ally’s dad Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay) points out that talent alone is not enough to be successful in showbiz, that looks matter. He says this to soften her disappointment as her musical aspirations stall. But when Maine offers her the chance to join him on tour, her dad encourages to go for it.

Along with the inspired casting of Clay, director Cooper brings Dave Chappelle to the role of Maine’s old chum who rescues him after a binge.

Sometimes the early positive buzz on a movie, often fueled by those who attend the late summer film festivals, fizzles when the movie finally appears on local screens. A Star Is Born (2018) lives up to the buzz. Strong box office is a sure bet. And this may become one that gets repeat viewings.

 

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Joy

David O. Russell’s best films are the ones that touch you emotionally, like Joy does. It is not always easy to cheer for a movie character, but Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) inspires audience hopes and dreams. She is an empowered woman.

The characters who populate Joy’s world add life and humanity to Joy. Her father Rudy (Robert DeNiro) moves in with Joy when his second wife dumps him. Joy puts him in her basement where he has to share digs with Joy’s ex-husband Tony (Edgar Ramirez). Her mother (Virginia Madsen) spends most of each day perched in her bed watching soap operas. Grandma Mimi (Diane Ladd) is the film’s narrator.

Rudy finds a new girlfriend, Trudy (Isabella Rossellini). When Joy mops up spilled wine on her Trudy’s boat, she gets glass shards in her hands. This leads the clever Joy to make her own mop that she can wring out without touching it. Soon, she is making the “Miracle Mops” in dad’s garage and selling them wherever she can.

Trudy, a widow whose husband left money behind, helps Joy fund her company so she can make the mops. Joy’s big break comes when the fledgling QVC channel agrees to sell the mops. QVC honcho Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) tells Joy to prepare to deliver 50-thousand mops. But the segment is a mop flop.

She convinces Walker to let her do the segments herself. A friend conspires to call in and tout the product. Sales skyrocket.

But more trouble awaits as suppliers try to take advantage of her. And a man who claims to have registered a similar product wants royalties for each sale. Joy faces the challenges head on and emerges triumphant.

The only thing about the story that’s baffling is Joy’s lack of romance as she takes care of business. Her ex is in the picture, but as a friend, not a lover.

Jennifer Lawrence is at her best in portraying this woman who accomplishes what she needs to get done, while others around her seem to be going through the motions of life. At the young age of 25, J-Law is more convincing as a mature woman in Joy than she is as a young warrior in the Hunger Games films.

Joy is a feel good movie for grownups. And, after the year that some of us have experienced, this upbeat story is exactly what many of us need. Big thanks to writer/Director David O. Russell and well as to Jennifer Lawrence for Joy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Burnt

The world’s obsession with food and the people who cook creatively has led to the third film in 18 months about a chef seeking acclaim and/or redemption. After last year’s Chef and The Hundred Foot Journey, here comes Burnt.

Liked the 2014 films, Burnt is filled with “food porn,” beautiful images of food that will make you hungry. The story is standard fare about overcoming life challenges, learning to trust others, etc.

Most people, when they hit bottom and then get a new chance, come back humbled and grateful. Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) is not most people.

After a flameout in Paris, the acclaimed chef returns to Europe clean and sober, yes, but still arrogant. He chastises a rookie cook for being humble and even coaches the kid to get an attitude and say, “F.U.” to his cooking rivals.

He manages to line up a restaurant in London and even puts his name on it, Adam Jones at The Langham. He is a talented tyrant who demands perfection. “If it’s not perfect, throw it out” is his guidance.

Complicating his comeback attempt is a debt Jones owes. A pair of thugs hovering in the wings promise serious damage if Jones doesn’t pay off what he owes for all the drugs he consumed in Paris.

Opening night is a disaster. Slowly, things get better. Is it because of Jones’ intimidation of his kitchen staff or despite it?

After the thugs administer the inevitable beating, Jones bravely heads back to the kitchen. Michelin reps are spotted in the dining room. Their food is so bad it gets sent back. Jones has a breakdown.

Helene (Sienna Miller) is a kitchen staffer who provides Jones’ romantic interest. Their chemistry simmers but rarely reaches the boiling point. (Could it be because of her awful haircut?) Emma Thompson plays a London doctor who Jones visits for drug testing. She dispenses motherly advice along with good cheer. Alicia Vikander is a face from Jones’ Paris past who appears at an opportune moment.

Those of us who love dining at great restaurants rarely go behind the scenes into the kitchens except via TV cooking shows. In Burnt, we get to see Adam Jones in his sparkling clean, beautifully equipped kitchen with plenty of staff to make sure his dishes are perfect. As industry personnel know, when a kitchen is humming smoothly, it’s a beautiful thing.

Burnt challenges audiences to root for Bradley Cooper’s character, whose charm is somewhat muted by his raging ego. If you can embrace Adam Jones and his comeback attempt, you’re more likely to enjoy Burnt.

Aloha

Writer/director Cameron Crowe’s movies, whether good or not so good, are always interesting and always have entertaining soundtracks. Aloha his both those marks and turns out to be an enjoyable film with characters who are hard not to like. It may not be as quotable or memorable or funny as some other Crowe films, but Aloha has a number of good things going for it.

Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) is ex-military, now a civilian, returning to Hawaii on a private sector gig. Upon landing he runs into ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams) and finds she’s married with two kids. Gilcrest’s Air Force liaison is Captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone), a hardcore type-A.

Among Gilchrist’s objectives is to work out a deal with local natives to acquire land. He and Ng meet with the native leader. Gilchrist is the tough negotiator but Ng charms the natives with her personality and appreciation of Hawaiian culture.

As Gilchrist and Ng continue a low boil flirtation, Tracy and husband Woody (John Krasinski) invite Gilchrist and Ng over for dinner. Though they are not quite as intense as Rick and Ilsa from Casablanca, in a kitchen conversation, it becomes clear that Tracy and Gilchrist still have strong feelings for one another, even though she’s spoken for.

Other players in Aloha include Bill Murray as rich guy Carson Welch who provides private rocket launches for anyone with money, but with support from the military. Alec Baldwin is General Dixon, Gilcrest’s former commander, who’s on hand to help foster the deal making. It is always encouraging to see a strong younger actor who has great screen presence—Danielle Rose Russell is impressive playing Tracy and Woody’s daughter Grace.

Crowe has handed Cooper a character with a good backstory and an appropriate level of self-disgust. Stone is at her charmingly perkiest as Ng, a woman with loads of drive and ambition. McAdams’ Tracy is happy and but also frightened by the return of her ex. Krasinksi’s Woody is a quiet man who’s not oblivious to what’s happening. I like these characters.

Gilcrest’s interactions with these two women are the heart of the movie but Crowe does a neat job of stitching the private space mission story into the fabric. Aloha’s touching final scene may cause tears.

In the Cameron Crowe oeuvre, Aloha is no Jerry McGuire but it beats the heck out of Vanilla Sky.

American Sniper

American Sniper is a red, white and blue story of a Texas cowboy who serves four tours of duty in Iraq. He is real life Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a man with a deadly aim.

Kyle’s story, unlike those told in Lone Survivor, Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker includes significant amounts of time spent stateside between tours and after his final tour. Wife Taya (Sienna Miller) is supportive and understanding of the fact that he can’t dial things back when he’s at home. Kyle loves his family but keeps feeling the need to go back for more action.

And what action it is! Director Clint Eastwood brings a taste of what combat must be like in the Mideast, where you never know if a civilian has a bomb strapped to his or her body. The engagements Kyle and his crew have with the enemy reveal the peril that troops must constantly be aware of. (Some of the combat scenes were filmed in Morocco.)

Cooper’s not the guy I might’ve cast in this role, but he is excellent here. (Although his Texas accent tends to come and go.) He manages to bring both the hard edge of the warrior and a softer side as a husband and father. Cooper does have good range.

American Sniper enjoyed excellent buzz last year but failed to win significant love from year-end critics awards. Lately, though, buzz has trended up again and the film received 6 Oscar nominations including Best Film and Best Actor.

The Chris Kyle story has a sad ending. But Americans looking for a hero will find one in American Sniper.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guardians Of The Galaxy

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is a big ol’ chunk of sci-fi fantasy fun. Because of its characters, the film resembles a cartoon. But it’s all live action, with some help from computer-generated images. St. Louis native James Gunn directed and co-wrote the script.

Earthling Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) AKA Star-Lord is a child of the 80’s who grooves on music from the 70’s. (Come And Get Your Love by Redbone is the film’s opening theme.) He’s the quasi-leader of this motley crew, similar to Han Solo, but with more flaws and funnier.

Rocket Raccoon is a CGI figure that could pass for real. He’s voiced by Bradley Cooper and has a sardonic smart-ass attitude and several good laugh lines.

Another CGI guy is Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel. Groot—who resembles a big tree—is not particularly graceful but he gets to play a vital role as the 5 guardians try to save the galaxy.

Rounding out the team are Gamora (Zoe Saldana), an alien assassin with bad attitude and Drax (Dave Bautista). You saw Saldana as a blue character in Avatar; here she’s green. Drax is an enormous hulk of a creature with a violent streak.

The film’s plot centers around a mysterious orb that Quill has stolen. Bad guy Ronan (Lee Pace) and his henchmen and women want it back.

The story is not why you want to see GOTG. You want to meet and enjoy these characters, especially Quill. This role appears to be a star-making turn for Chris Pratt. (He also was a key player in another of the year’s better films, The Lego Movie. He voiced lead character Emmet Brickowski.)

Another reason to embrace Guardians of the Galaxy is its cool oldies soundtrack. From Go All The Way by Raspberries to It Takes Two by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Good stuff!

Is GOTG suitable for younger kids? It’s rated PG-13, so this is where moms and dads will have to exercise real parental guidance. Today’s 8 and 10 year olds may have been exposed to more violent images than Millenials born just a few years earlier, so recommending a minimum age is dicey. But the content has huge kid appeal.

Presuming that your age is well into double digits, I have no qualms about recommending Guardians of the Galaxy to everyone. Big fun!

 

 

 

 

American Hustle

Director David O. Russell doesn’t really have a repertory company, but all four of his lead actors in American Hustle have worked for him in either 2010’s The Fighter or 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. They all perform at a high level in American Hustle, working from a script that gives each of the four opportunities to shine. On January 16, expect a name or two or three from this ensemble to receive Oscar noms.

The root word of con, as in con man or con game, is confidence. In American Hustle, Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) gains the confidence of marks who believe that he can get them loans for 50K. But first, they have to give him negotiable checks for 5-thousand to get the ball rolling.

After Irving meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party and discovers they share a love of Duke Ellington, they become lovers and partners in crime. Sydney joins him in his con game. She fakes a British accent and implies that she can get money from friends in high places in the UK banking world.

When the con man and woman are caught by the feds, they are enlisted to aid the FBI in scamming politicians. American Hustle is not the story of the Abscam sting, which saw politicians accepting bribes. But true-life events inform much of what happens in AH.

Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is the agent who runs the sting and becomes enamored with Sydney. Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) seems at first to be a shallow, unaware housewife but later is revealed to be more clever than initially revealed.

Carmen Polito (Jeremy Renner with a pompadour Conway Twitty would’ve envied) is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey who wants to help his state get the money to help develop Atlantic City. While setting him up for the sting, Irving finds that he actually likes Carmen—which makes things interesting.

Another Russell alum (who appeared in Silver Linings Playbook), Robert DeNiro, plays a Miami mobster gets involved when a fake Arab sheik is presented as the deep pockets money man. Louis CK has a small role as agent DiMaso’s boss.

American Hustle has all the elements a movie needs to succeed: a compelling story, interesting characters and a clever telling of that story. It’s not the best movie of 2013, but it will show up on numerous top ten lists for the year, as it should.

The Hangover Part III

The Hangover Part III is intermittently funny. But a handful of good laughs and outrageous bits do not make up for a weak story with a less-than-stellar supporting cast.

Zach Galifianakis, Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms and Justin Bartha are the Wolfpack (Alan, Phil, Stu & Doug) whom we have come to know and like from the two previous films. Then there’s Ken Jeong as Mr. Chow, who gets way too much screen time. As with Sriracha sauce, a little bit of Chow adds flavor, but an excessive dose can be hard to swallow.

As the Wolfpack takes Alan to an asylum, the gang is detained by bad guy Marshall, played by John Goodman. Doug is held captive while the other three Wolfpackers are sent to recover the gold stolen from Marshall by Chow.

While we in St. Louis all love John Goodman, he adds little here. Same can be said for Heather Graham, Mike Epps and Jeffrey Tambor.

There is one standout among the supporting crew: Melissa McCarthy. As she did in This is 40, she provides the film’s saving grace moment. In THP3, she plays a pawnshop boss who has a beautifully acted flirtation with Alan. Her dash of Sriracha is just the right amount.

The Hangover was funny, outrageous and cleverly assembled. The Hangover Part II was more outrageous, somewhat funny, but lacking in cleverness. Part III has a “let’s just get it done and collect our paychecks” feeling. It’s not as funny as it should have been. The outrageousness seems perfunctory. And the word “clever” will never ever be used in the same sentence as The Hangover Part III, except for this one.

Why should you see this movie? You’re a big Zach Galifianakis fan. You think Mr. Chow was the funniest thing about the first two Hangovers. You have a thing for Paul Rudd. (Sorry, but Justin Bartha seems like a less smarmy Rudd clone.) You dig Melissa McCarthy and want to see her brief, but memorable, scene with Zach G. You hope The Hangover sequels will continue for years to come.

Why should you skip this movie? It’s not that funny. It’ll be on cable in January. There are better movies on other screens. It’ll make you think less of Bradley Cooper (who was so good in Silver Linings Playbook). You have four unwatched episodes of Doomsday Preppers on your DVR.

According to the THP3 trailer, “this year, it ends.” We can hope. III is definitely enough for this franchise.

The Place Beyond The Pines

Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper have just one scene together in The Place Beyond the Pines, but it’s the pivotal scene of the movie. In a film full of interesting and well-developed characters, theirs are the ones the movie is built around. A film with strong performances from two of our best young actors is one that must be seen.

These two men are both basically good guys who each face moral dilemmas. Gosling plays a guy who rides stunt motorcycles in a carnival. He reluctantly becomes a bank robber. Cooper goes from law school to the police force where he encounters that bank robber.

The story’s good, but the main reason to see The Place Beyond the Pines is to meet all these people. In addition to Gosling’s Luke and Cooper’s Avery, Eva Mendes is Romina, a Latino who bears Luke’s son after a quick hookup. This is a non-glam role for her and she inhabits it well. Ben Mendelsohn plays Robin, a local guy who gives Luke a place to stay. Robin is also the guy who points Luke toward robbing banks.

Poor Ray Liotta. Whenever you see him in a movie, you know something bad is going to go down. He plays a crooked cop. Strong character actor Bruce Greenwood plays the local D.A. The two young actors who play the sons, Dane DeHaan as Luke’s son, Jason, and Emory Cohen as Avery’s son, AJ, also bring good acting chops to the movie.

Avery is conflicted about his being proclaimed a hero cop after his incident with Luke, but eventually he milks it and moves into politics. Suddenly, the movie jumps ahead 15 years to the relationship between the teen sons of the two men. The “third act,” as some have called this part of the movie, reveals more about Avery, as well as the boys. It provides a fitting conclusion to the narrative.

The movie is set in Schenectady, NY. The town name is Mohawk for “place beyond the pines.” According to web postings, the names of the Schenectady streets, banks, TV stations and newspaper are the actual names. The police uniforms are supposedly the exact ones worn by Schenectady cops. The story, though, is pure fiction.

The Place Beyond The Pines is among the year’s best, so far. It’s harder for a March release (April, in St. Louis) to get award nominations than, say, a November release. But good writing, excellent acting and a well-assembled movie should lead to year-end accolades. I recommend it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silver Linings Playbook

“Silver Linings Playbook” has it all: love, laughter, tears, mental illness, football, dancing and gambling. It more than lives up to its advance buzz. The story, the characters and the telling of the story are all compelling. Go see this movie!

Bradley Cooper plays Patrick, a man who’s just spent several months in a mental health treatment center after severely injuring his wife’s lover. For now, he’s staying with his folks. He still loves his wife but can’t see her, due to a restraining order. A friend invites him over for dinner where he meets a young widow, Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence.

Tiffany also has mental health issues. Following her husband’s death, she received therapy and medications. She and Patrick become friends and she asks him to be her partner in a dance competition.

Meanwhile, Patrick’s dad, played by Robert DeNiro, is revealed to have anger issues of his own—he’s been permanently banned from Philadelphia Eagles home games for fighting in the stands. Dad is a guy who’s lost his job and has turned to bookmaking to get by.

The interaction between these characters and others in the film will break your heart one minute and make you laugh out loud the next. David O. Russell wrote the script and directed the movie. He directed 2010’s wonderful “The Fighter,” which was notable for similar family dynamics. (“SLP” is set in suburban Philly, while “The Fighter” was set in Lowell, Massachusetts.)

The resolution of “Silver Linings Playbook” is satisfying for many reasons, which I dare not reveal here. Just go see this movie!

Sadly, a TV spot for the movie reveals one of the film’s key turning points. I hate when that happens. I encourage you to avoid any TV ads or online trailers before you see “SLP.”

“Silver Linings Playbook” is among this year’s best. Expect award nominations for Cooper and Lawrence and maybe DeNiro. Russell should get a nom for best adapted script and, possibly, best director. Best picture? It should make that list, too.