Tuesday, October 30, 2018

No Country For Old Men (2007): A Review (Review #1118)

NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN

I remember when I went to see No Country For Old Men with my late friend Fidel Gomez, Jr. The audience was not interested in this tale of greed and human misery.

Two couples walked out, another couple was dead-asleep, and one woman at the end shouted, "I WANT MY MONEY BACK!". Clearly, despite the lavish praise the film received, the audience I was with was displeased.

For myself, I thought No Country For Old Men was boring, pretentious and a nightmare to sit through. Now, at last, I revisit this tale to see if again my views have shifted in the eleven years since it was released.

My views have not changed: No Country For Old Men is a film one can admire, even respect, without actually liking.

West Texas, 1980. A killer just murdered a deputy sheriff thanks to not putting him in a jail cell and having his back to him. This killer then kills a random passerby with a captive bolt pistol and takes his car.

Somewhere else, a hunter comes upon a drug deal gone horribly wrong. There are bodies everywhere, and one of the last survivors begs for 'agua' (water). The hunter tells him he has no water and turns to find someone who left the scene. He comes upon the last man, who is dead, and two million dollars in a satchel.

He takes the money, but in a fateful turn, his conscience gets to him and he goes back to give the man water.

At this point, I have two points of logic. First, a guy killed a cop...IN TEXAS...and no one seems interested in catching a cop killer. Second, why a man who left someone to die by bleeding to death would imagine that man would still be alive to drink water I cannot guess.

As it stands, this man, Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) goes back at night and finds himself found by more drug dealers. He flees and warns his wife Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald) to go to Odessa and her mother.

Eventually, the killer, who is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) is hired to find the money/Moss. Chigurh is relentless, and not even the warnings of Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) who also finds Moss in Mexico recovering from "Sugar's" attempted killing is enough to stop Moss from taking Chigurh on.

Things come to a head in El Paso, where the characters meet for a final confrontation.

All this is watched over and commented on by Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who ultimately retires, as the shocking nature of Chigurh shows this is 'no country for old men'.

Image result for no country for old menI know I am that lonely voice in the West Texas desert when it comes to No Country for Old Men. I know that even some of my readers think the world of the film hold it as a monumental achievement in cinema, a true masterpiece.  That is their right.

It is also my right to call No Country for Old Men a pile of crap, a film I still detest and wouldn't sit through even if I were paid to.

Now, to be fair, I have never embraced the Coen Brothers as much as my brethren. I am not a 'Coen-Head', as I lovingly call their fans. I find them an acquired taste, one that I have not acquired. Take that under consideration as I say why I still do not like No Country for Old Men.

What I have issue with when it comes to the film is how passive everyone is. Right from the get-go where Chigurh kills this random stranger, no one ever seems able to take any kind of stand. Chigurh kills around 15 people in No Country for Old Men, and I say 'around' because some of them were not seen.

Also, one is not certain if in the end he killed Carla Jean, as she refused to "call heads or tails".  However, what I saw in this scene is what I figure the Coens were going for: making statements than having reality. I figure that in many of these circumstances people would not passively, almost meekly, take to being killed.

However, no one ever tries to run or fight back. I know...it's to show how monstrous and menacing Chigurh is, how like some golem he comes after you and won't stop. Fine, have your symbolism. I just didn't accept it.

No matter how hard I tried, and I did try, I could not accept the premise or world of No Country for Old Men.

I could not accept that after catching this killer, the deputy would just keep him behind his back and not put him in a jail cell. I could not accept that a deputy sheriff could be brutally killed in Texas and there would be no wide-ranging manhunt. I could not accept Llewelyn having a moment of guilt. I could not accept that there would be so many killed and only one broken-down old sheriff would take even the most cursory interest. I could not accept Llewelyn or Chigurh surviving so often as they did.

The moments that I'm told were meant to be tense and gripping, such as the "Friendo" scene where Chigurh menaces a convenience store clerk who manages to survive, were instead moments that I found hilarious to being almost spoofs. From the hushed delivery to the dialogue that I'm sure is meant to be clever and incredible but that I found more comic, I simply could not get into this world.

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The curious thing is, I live in this world, as I am from West Texas. I know this world a bit, albeit it was just before my time. As such, I could not see the world I know in the world of No Country for Old Men.

The general passivity of the characters speaks for the performances. I know Bardem is lauded for his merciless, unstoppable human Terminator, but again I found him more hilarious than frightening. It is more than his Prince Valiant hairstyle. Whenever he sounds 'menacing', part of me wanted to say, 'stop growling your lines'.

Apart from Jones I genuinely did not care about these characters, let alone believed them to exist in any world.

I know many will tell me that I don't "get" it, that I miss the symbolism and esoteric meaning by being too literal. I would say, 'No, I'm not missing much if anything'. I can even tell you that the corrido the Mexicans are singing to the bleeding Llewelyn reflects the story.

Translated, it goes 'You wanted to fly without wings, you wanted to touch the sky, you wanted much wealth, you wanted to play with fire'. It describes Llewelyn: someone who wanted the money and now finds himself in a hell of his own making.

I do get it. I can even appreciate what it it going for. That does not mean I have to like it, let alone recommend it.

I have three criteria for measuring the success of a Best Picture winner: is it a good movie, has it stood/will it stand the test of time and would I watch it again. When it comes to No Country for Old Men, my answers are "No, Maybe, Leaning No and Hell to the No".

DECISION: F

2008 Best Picture Winner: Slumdog Millionaire

Monday, October 29, 2018

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. A Review



TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME

There was a time when I was intensely passionate about Twin Peaks. I stuck by the show through so many sinking moments and really idiotic turns until Joan Chen's soul was stuck in a doorknob or some silliness. At that point I gave up.

I then made the ghastly mistake of seeing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me with my mother. I don't think she has yet to forgive me for this. It was not something I expected, even from the sometimes bonkers world of David Lynch. 

It looks like Fire Walk With Me has achieved cult status, and with Twin Peaks: The Return now part of the mythos, this film might be in need of reevaluation.  Having now seen it again, my position has not changed: it's a horrible film.

Sorry, David...still love you and might name a son after you, but Fire Walk With Me is just bad.

The first part involves the FBI murder investigation of Teresa Banks, who is seen floating on the water, wrapped in plastic. FBI Regional Bureau Chief Gordon Cole (Lynch) assigns two agents to the case: Chester 'Chet' Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Keifer Sutherland) to the case. Desmond is not a man to suffer fools, especially the local sheriff who is highly uncooperative. Then, after going to Deputy Cliff Howard's (Rick Aiello) trailer, which is near Teresa's trailer, Chet finds a ring...and disappears.

Related imageThis is tied into the vision that Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) has, one involving yet another Agent, Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie), who is rambling he has been to some supernatural world inhabited by dancing dwarfs and weird old ladies with grandsons.

We quickly see that Jeffries was never there...or was he. We then go dark...

Or rather the screen goes black, to jump a year later to Twin Peaks itself. Here, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is a beautiful homecoming queen, but one with many secrets. She has at least two boyfriends: football star Bobby Riggs (Dana Ashbrook) and sensitive biker James Hurley (James Marshall), keeping the latter a secret from the former. She also has her best friend Donna (Moira Kelly, filling in for Lara Flynn Boyle).

Donna knows that something is amiss with Laura, but she cannot pin it down. Laura uses cocaine in part to self-medicate due to having a mysterious figure named "Bob" (Frank Silva) come into her room and essentially rape her, which she says has been happening since she was 12. "Bob" is some kind of demon, but it may be that "Bob" is her way of disassociating incest committed by her father, Leland (Ray Wise). It is suggested that Laura's mother Sarah (Grace Zabrinski) may be aware of what is going on.

A lot of Fire Walk With Me is muddled, to be polite.

Laura finds herself unwillingly immersed in the supernatural world but willingly immersed in prostitution and drugs. Her 'pimp', Jacques (Walter Olkewitz) has her come to his bar, where Donna has followed her. Laura takes her to The Black Lodge, which I think is across the Canadian border, and Laura indulges in evil until she sees Donna being led into darkness too. She rescues Donna but cannot rescue herself.

Leland, apparently possessed by "Bob", is shocked to find her in a cabin with men and he takes both Laura and Ronette Pulanski (Phoebe Augustine) into the woods, where despite the best efforts of a one-armed man who is also connected to the supernatural world, Laura is killed.

At the end though, Laura finds herself in that otherworldly world, and she releases her pain when her Guardian Angel and Cooper come to comfort her.

Image result for twin peaks fire walk with meFrankly, I feel I have not given Fire Walk With Me justice in terms of plot synopsis, but I put that down to the fact that it is very hard to make much sense of it. If it makes little sense to someone who has seen Twin Peaks, I can imagine how someone who had never seen the show would find essentially all of it incomprehensible.

Perhaps this is why Fire Walk With Me fails. Lynch appears to have little to no interest in inviting strangers into this peculiar Lynchian world. This is particularly true if you think on the first third of the film.

You get a long segment with Agent Desmond, then not only does he disappear but we never learn what happens to him. In fact, the other FBI agents seem more concerned about Banks' murder than their fellow agent. For a casual moviegoer, this seems almost a bait-and-switch. For a more knowledgeable viewer, it still leaves one wondering whatever happened to Desmond.

This is especially true given how well Chris Isaak was in the film. I actually would follow a case where he and the more literal and somewhat naive Stanley were involved. I think the Isaak section was the best probably because it was the closest the film got to a more conventional film while still having those Lynchian touches. It was eccentric, while the rest of Fire Walk With Me was just baffling and even deranged.

Opaque is the order of the day in Fire Walk With Me. After being treated to a bizarre 'dance' from a woman named Lil that was meant as code for Desmond, we are told about 'the Blue Rose' she was wearing but the film was not about to even tell us what that was about. It never brought it up again. We got Jeffries thrown in there without rhyme or reason, and I won't even go into the weirdness of the little boy in a suit and mask hopping around.

It's hard to judge performances given how one didn't know what one was supposed to see. For myself, I go back to Isaak, someone who really should be given more acting roles. I think he's a great singer, and I think he's proven himself a most competent and compelling actor, so his lack of fame is puzzling to me.

Image result for twin peaks fire walk with me
Kelly made Donna an innocent and caring person, about the only sane person in a totally insane world. It's a credit to this similarly underused actress that she did a good job in the role, though one wonders how Boyle would have done. MacLachlan keeps to that eccentric Agent Cooper even if his role is limited.

Wise was in a difficult position as Leland. One is never quite sure if he was actually demon-possessed or was a willing and knowing agent to his raping of his daughter. The film seems to want it both ways: one point he essentially forces Sarah to 'finish the milk' (which is probably drugged). At another point he is seen split with Bob, almost unconsciously unaware of things. Wise plays him as both malevolent and slightly comically crazed.

Lee, I think, is a good actress, but again I genuinely wondered what she was doing. Like Leland, Laura Palmer seemed split: sometimes gleefully indulgent in her orgies, sometimes almost a little girl. Sometimes she'd be equally unaware that her father was naked on top of her, sometimes she was fully aware. A case could be made that she disassociated the abuse via "Bob", but Fire Walk With Me is dead-set on bringing in supernatural elements that suggest Bob is real.

As a side note, I felt great discomfort in the killing of Laura Palmer, even if it was not graphic. Killing and torturing women, particularly if it is their father, just seems so awful.

It's pretty crazy in Twin Peaks.



If there is anything to recommend in Fire Walk With Me, it's in the technical aspects. Longtime Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti created a fantastic score, from moody mournful music to frighteningly decadent in the "Pink Room" section. Ron Garcia's cinematography enhances the terrifying nature of this sequence in all its mad glory.

Singer Julee Cruise, who has also worked with Lynch, sings a song written by Badalamenti with lyrics by Lynch. Questions in a World of Blue is a beautiful, haunting number that should have been nominated for Original Song.

Cruise's ethereal voice adds to Questions in a World of Blue's beauty.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me really is for that hardcore Twin Peaks fan who feels the need to see everything connected with the series. It is for me distasteful and nonsensical.

It does have a great soundtrack though...



DECISION: D-

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Titanic (1943): A Review (Review #1116)

Image result for titanic 1943TITANIC (1943)

In the myriad of films, television and stage productions revolving around the Titanic sinking, none has been as notorious as the 1943 film version. The reason for this is simple: Titanic was made as Nazi propaganda, finding new life as Soviet propaganda after the war. Heavily censored even by its Nazi makers, it is now available in its original version.

Titanic is overt in both its propaganda and dramatics, at times comically so. It's also wildly and comically historically inaccurate. However, as a piece of film history, it is a most interesting experience, with some surprisingly strong moments.

The greedy 'Sir Bruce Ismay' (E. F. Furbringer) has seen the White Star Line stock plummet, and he and his equally greedy stock-owners scheme to take advantage of the falling shares to make a quick killing once the price goes back up. As part of that scheme, Sir Bruce will push Captain Smith (Otto Wernicke) to keep Titanic steaming at full speed in order to make its landing in New York a day early. By doing that, the ship will win the Blue Ribbon...and the worth of their shares will go up.

'Sir Bruce' sails on the Titanic with his 'fiancee'/mistress Gloria (Kirsten Heiberg). Also aboard is wealthy financier John Jacob Astor (Karl Shonbock) and his alluring wife, Lady Astor (Charlotte Thiele). Also aboard is mysterious Baltic noblewoman Sigrid Olinsky (Sybille Schmitz), along with some Germans.

There's manicurist Hedy (Monika Burg), who strikes up a romance with Franz Gruber (Hermann Brix), first violinist of the Titanic orchestra. There are some Germans in steerage, among them the alluring Marcia (Jolly Bohnert), who teases and tantalizes two friends/brothers (Titanic never seems to establish what exactly these two men were to each other).

Image result for titanic 1943Then there's First Officer Petersen (Hans Nielsen), the only German officer aboard. It might be strange to see a German officer aboard a British civilian vessel, but he is a last-minute substitute for an ill English officer.

Why a German had to fill in for an Englishman the film really does not spend time on.

Petersen is the only person aboard who takes his job seriously. He is also the only man brave enough to stand up to the capitalist Sir Bruce in his selfish and greedy efforts to thwart good seamanship. Smith easily gives in to Ismay's efforts to make Titanic go faster, and he also deliberately ignores ice warnings, something that appalls Petersen.

Petersen, however, has an ounce of humanity with regards Madam Olinsky, with whom Titanic suggests there was a past relationship. Being German, of course he isn't going to show overt romantic or sexual desires, but there appears talk of 'Cairo'.

Anyway, Titanic sails on. The elite British dance long into the night in their finery, and even steerage gets entertained via a danse erotique from Marcia, which causes two men to break out into fighting. Then, despite Petersen's repeated warnings, the ship strikes an iceberg.

Ismay being Ismay shows he's not just a coward but still obsessed with money. He attempts to bribe Petersen into letting him get into a lifeboat, but the noble German won't budge an inch. Ismay and Astor, right up to the end, continue wheeling and dealing, oblivious to the dying going on about them.

Olinsky finds her courage and begins saving people, while two steerage passengers, John and Anne, are separated after seeing steerage descend into chaos. Petersen, seeing this noble woman put others ahead of herself, gives her his coat and puts her aboard a lifeboat.  He continues in his duties until the end, when he is rescued by Olinsky's lifeboat.

At the Court of Inquiry, Anne finds John, who is awoken from his shell-shock. To Petersen's immense anger, Sir Bruce (who had survived the disaster) is acquitted of all responsibility.  Titanic ends with this postscript: "The deaths of 1500 people remains unatoned for, an eternal condemnation of England's quest for profit".

Image result for titanic 1943
Like I said, Titanic is anything but subtle.

It is pretty much impossible to divorce Titanic the film from its origins. As such, one who knows its history and purpose is hard-pressed to see the film as anything other than Nazi propaganda. However, I will do my best to examine it as a film alone.

Doing so, I see that Titanic is in many ways a laughable production. Some of the acting is so over-the-top it borders on spoof.  The subplot of Anne and John is illogical only in that one does not get to know them, and Lieselott Klinger's performance as Anne is so overly-dramatic it's hard not to laugh at her theatrics. The other performances were not much better. I cut some slack to Nielsen and Schmitz in that their characters were not very dimensional. I have to admit Furbringer played evil quite well.

There are other subplots, such as Marcia and the 'Cuban thief' Mendoz (Werner Scharf) that similarly just seem to be there to be there. The film does not justify their existence.

However, Mendoz and one of the men who fought for Marcia's affections are trapped in the informal jail cell as Titanic sinks, with the other man running about the ship in order to save his friend/brother. Is that a call-out from one Titanic to another that I see?

Titanic's only really good story is that between Hedy and Franz in that they seem to be genuinely nice people who fall quickly in love. If Titanic had had any interest in being about the lives lost aboard the doomed ship, a greater focus on these two would have been the route to follow.

Titanic, however, was not interest in such things. Otherwise, it would have also given Petersen and Olinsky's personal story more attention. It might have made Petersen into a more human character too, but now I digress.

Image result for titanic 1943Titanic, instead, was about one thing: the greed of the British versus the nobility of the German. "Money is the only value I believe in," Astor comments to his own wife, but he got off easy. It is the villain "Sir Bruce" who gets the worst of it (though one has never sympathized with Ismay); he not only bargains with Astor over money as the ship sinks but also turns to Olisky despite having his 'mistress' next to him.

Titanic was also disinterested in historical accuracy. J. Bruce Ismay was never knighted, let alone knighted before the ship sailed. Lady Astor was not some grande dame but 19-years-old who was five months pregnant when Titanic sank and she was left a widow. There was no grand ball as the ship struck the iceberg, let alone after. There was no 'military-style' band playing as the ship sank.

Those are the bits I can recall, but Titanic it should always be remembered was not about history but about an agenda.

However, there is a good element in Titanic: the growing chaos aboard. The scenes where the passengers, steerage and elite, have to fend for themselves after Captain Smith says "Every man for himself" have moments of genuine panic. One can see why Goebbels banned Titanic shortly after its completion, for the sequences of terrified passengers fighting to stay alive would evoke the realities of Allied bombings.

As a side note, was I wrong in thinking at the scene where men and women/children are separated in steerage that Germans would be quite efficient at such separating them by this point?

There is also a wonderful POV shot of Olinsky looking up at Petersen as her lifeboat starts its descent.  The director(s) Herbert Selpin (who "committed suicide" before the film was completed) and Werner Klingler (who completed the film) even managed to sneak in a touch of humor. During Marcia's danse erotique, even the old man who serves as a father-figure seems aroused.

Finally, there is a genuine moment of pathos in Titanic. One of the telegraph operators, knowing he is doomed, releases his beloved pet bird as we hear the band play Nearer, My God to Thee. It's the rare moment of humanity the film offers.

Titanic is an interesting film from a historic viewpoint on how state-sponsored cinema was used as a tool for the State. It found new life as a state-sponsored tool with its anti-capitalist message in East Germany and other Soviet bloc states. As a film, Titanic is at times overly dramatic with not much in terms of character development, shirking some potential stories in order to pass its message. However, the scenes of panic among the passengers holds up pretty well.

Tainted by its association with evil, Titanic is at least not overtly propaganistic. It's not a film I would recommend for entertainment, let alone accuracy, but as one for showing the power of cinema to sway an audience.

DECISION: C-

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: A Review


SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW

There has been some revisionist history when it comes to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The film is being held by some as a forgotten piece of cinema history, a movie that was a harbinger for the effects-driven blockbusters of today.

I remember seeing Sky Captain with my late friend, Fidel Gomez, Jr., with me being the more enthusiastic of the two. Fidel was rather cold to the film before we went in. Afterwards, we left with a sense of immense disappointment (and Fidel with a small sense of triumph).

Now, nearly 15 years after its debut, and with Sky Captain receiving belated reevaluations, I figured it was about time for me to revisit the film.

My views have softened a touch, but not enough to recommend it despite the film's best efforts.

In an alternate 1939, a spate of scientists have disappeared. This story comes to Chronicle reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow). She gets a tip from the last scientist about a nefarious being named 'Totenkopf', some kind of mad scientist bent on doing evil. It is eleven minutes into Sky Captain that giant robots attack New York City, and only 'Sky Captain' aka Joe Sullivan (Jude Law) can stop the onslaught.

Joe and Polly have a past, but right now that has to take a metaphorical and sometimes literal back seat against this menace. An attack on Sky Captain's base leads to the disappearance of plucky sidekick Dex (Giovanni Ribisi), but not before he leaves a clue for 'Cap' and Polly.

Image result for sky captain and the world of tomorrowNow they gallivant the world to find Dex and stop Totenkopf from whatever he plans to do. They go to Tibet, where they barely survive some of Totenkopf's minions and Polly loses her roll of film. That leaves her with only two shots left on her camera.

For reasons known only to the filmmakers, this is meant as a running gag.

They manage to get to Totenkopf's lair with help from "Franky" Cook (Angeline Jolie), a British air-naval officer who seems a rival for Joe's affections. We then find Dex, some of the missing scientists, and Totenkopf's evil scheme: to send a rocket as an ark where he intends to 'begin' again.

That rocket, however, will also destroy the world. Oh, and Totenkopf himself (Sir Laurence Olivier) has been dead for over twenty years.  Joe, with help from Polly, must stop this mad plan and fight against "The Mysterious Woman" (Bai Ling), a menacing figure who has been thwarting their plans.

One almost feels awful bashing writer/director Kerry Conran. This was not just his feature film debut, but a true passion project, beginning as a short film and with a mix of hard work and a little luck, expanded into this homage to movie serials and pulp comic books.

Conran perhaps should be given credit for indeed seeing 'the world of tomorrow', one where computer-generated imagery and reliance on technology to create fantastical worlds would eventually become standard.

The love and affection Conran has for early action/adventure stories and thrilling serials in the Flash Gordon/Buck Rogers style is evident throughout Sky Captain, from the names of the characters (Sky Captain, Polly Perkins, Dex) to their manner of being (daring-do action hero, intrepid reporter/femme fatale, plucky sidekick).

Related image
However, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow may be a textbook case of loving something so much you end up killing the thing you love. Conran, in retrospect, might have been the worst person to have made the film. It is not a lack of talent or ambition that set him on a course for catastrophe. It is too much passion and affection to where he could not divorce himself from actual filmmaking.

Conran had never directed a movie before, and it shows primarily in how the performances were. When the best performance comes from a man who has been dead for 13 years, you know you have major issues.

No one in Sky Captain had any actual personality. Everyone bar none appeared blank and emotionalless. It really is a race to see whom can act the worst, and one is spoiled for choice. Law showed no range as what is meant to be a swashbuckling hero. In Sky Captain, he came across as almost bored. Yes, he was acting to nothing apart from his fellow costars, but whether flirting with Polly or seeing strange new worlds, Law had the same dull expression and tone.

If this is not his worst performance it's awfully close to one.

Paltrow, whose stock has been going down since her Oscar win for Shakespeare in Love, appeared never to decide if Polly was a comic character or some kind of femme fatale. I kept referring to her as a comic femme fatale, as she sometimes appeared to be going for some 'alluring' woman and sometimes more comic overtones. No matter what, however, she only ended up matching Law in the blank manner.

For years afterwards, Fidel and I laughed at Ribisi's 'PLUCKY SIDEKICK', down to his allegedly endearing use of 'Cap' for 'Captain'. He might have been that homage to the 'plucky sidekick', but he was neither. He was as emotionalless as the others, with the only distinct characteristic of chewing gum. It is laughable to think Dex as this wunderkind when he comes across as almost an idiot.

Despite getting top billing (albeit third), Jolie was on screen for a total of nine minutes. I think Ribisi was on screen longer. This was when Jolie was still trotting out her 'British' accent, but I found Franky more hilarious than interesting. To her credit she seemed like the only one trying to make her character vaguely realistic, but when she commands, "ALERT THE AMPHIBIOUS SQUADRON!" I burst out laughing.

Image result for sky captain and the world of tomorrow laurence olivierOne of Sky Captain's great issues is how despite again its best efforts the audience really was not involved in this world. Again, I appreciate what Conran was going for: a throwback to the zippy, thrill-a-minute serials with lots of action, some 'witty banter' and a mad scientist scheme.

However, one feels like one is watching a story that is for 'insiders' only. It's as if the Conrans (Kerry's twin brother Kevin designed the production and costumes*) had a mythology they know but didn't bother telling us about. The story so floated in their heads for so long that they could thrill to it, but they never paused long enough to let us immerse ourselves into that world.

Add to that some wild leaps of logic. We're supposed to believe the robot attack, Polly's easy access to Sky Captain's island, and a return trip to New York could all happen within twenty-four hours.

As I've pointed out, it was eleven minutes between the opening and the robot invasion. That gives us precious little time to inhabit this world, to get to know or care about these characters. Perhaps in retrospect, less daring-do and more discovery of this universe would have done Sky Captain a world of good.

What also would have done Sky Captain a world of good would be to tone down Edward Shearmur's score. Yes, it kept to the spirit of the feel the film was going for, but it also went on endlessly and announced itself at every opportunity. Again, too much of not-such-a good thing.

Visually, one admires the world it created, and at times the film is lovely visually. However, even here sometimes the film would have been wiser to have pulled back. It's as if the film were genuinely more interested in what they could put on the screen than what they ended up putting on the screen.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is meant as a love letter to the movie serials that also inspired people like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. However, despite the technological innovations and pioneering Sky Captain created, the film shows that there genuinely is no substitute for a good script and a strong director to guide the actors.

Computer wizardry can get you only so far.

*The only costumes not designed by Kerry Conran were for Law and Paltrow, whose costumes were designed by Stella McCartney.

DECISION: D-

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Life Itself (2014): A Review



LIFE ITSELF (2014)

There is not one film reviewer/critic who does not hold Roger Ebert as the standard to whom they measure themselves against. On his death in 2013, I wrote my own Remembrance to this giant of film history and criticism. Now, I revisit his life and work with Life Itself, the documentary based on his memoir that chronicled both his life and his ultimately losing battle with cancer. I confess I was also inspired because of the film of the same name.

One wonders what he would have made of Life Itself or whether he would be displeased it shared the same title. Life Itself, the Ebert story, is to its credit not a hagiography, allowing for some of Ebert's more negative aspects to appear. However, one also sees why so many, both high and low, thought so well of this highly intelligent and fierce man.

Life Itself chronicles Ebert's life, starting with his passion for writing and journalism. As a child, he published his own version of a newspaper, and at his hometown university in Urbana, Illinois, he became the university's editor, known for his professionalism, devotion to the craft and his arrogance.

The bright lights of Chicago beckon, where he joins the staff of the Chicago Sun-Times and essentially has the film review thrown at him. He brings his thoroughness and dedication to this section, but still hangs with the other newspapermen, a rowdy crowd with their regular hangout at O'Rourke's Bar. Here, Ebert holds court, a raconteur as well as a nasty drunk.

He's not shy about touting his own greatness, especially after becoming the first film reviewer to win a Pulitzer Prize. He also dabbles in film-making once, where his admiration for schlock director Russ Meyer leads him to write Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.

Related imageIf there is one thing Ebert hated, among many, it was the rival newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune had its own film critic: Gene Siskel. Siskel was different than Ebert in some ways apart from merely physical. Ebert may have written about life 'beyond the valley of the dolls', but Siskel came close to living in that world, palling around with Hugh Hefner and taking dips with topless girls in the infamous Grotto.

Soon, these two forces were brought together for a local public television program, Coming Soon to a Theater Near You, later retitled both Sneak Previews and Siskel and Ebert.

That last aspect perpetually rankled the at times petulant and egotistical Ebert, but he had lost the coin toss, a way they settled many of their issues. There was strong antagonism between them, yet they found themselves as an unlikely pair. It cannot be said they were friendly, let alone friends, until much later in their association. They became as famous as the subjects they covered and their 'thumbs up/thumbs down' reviews gained a strong influence both in Hollywood and among the general public.

Over time, if not a friendship a genuine respect for each other developed, where they could even laugh at the things that used to irritate one about the other. Siskel's daughters even served as flower-girls at Ebert's wedding at 50 to Chaz, a woman he met at AA (Ebert giving up alcohol in 1979).

Siskel, however, kept his own illness a tightly-held secret. When Siskel died in 1999, it affected Ebert's decision to not keep his own health issues secret as Siskel had. As such, his battle with cancer years later was public, including the surgery that cost Ebert his jaw as well as his ability to speak and eat.

Life Itself intercuts Ebert's life with his battle, where the audience is given the realities of the thyroid cancer such as the feeding via suction, with Chaz always at his side. As he got weaker due to his myriad of health issues, his interaction with the film's director, Steve James, became weaker. Ebert simply did not have the energy to conduct the planned series of email interviews.

Life Itself ends with Ebert's death and the tribute he received at the Chicago Theater, mourned by his family, friends, colleagues and fans.

Image result for life itself 2014Life Itself does not shy away from Ebert's illness as was his wish, but it might be jarring to viewers to see Ebert not just in such a feeble position but in his actual appearance. The lost jaw creates an almost ghoulish visage that might startle viewers or make them uncomfortable. The feeding via suction, along with the obvious physical toll it took on Ebert and the stress of living through this may put people off.

However, I find that while perhaps a warning to the physical sight of the ravaged Ebert may be necessary, it enhances to my mind Ebert's personal courage in not hiding the ravages his illness inflicted. He was unafraid and honest, even witty and humorous despite the toll.

We do sense that as his illness progressed, he was weakening to a point that if not a desperation at least an exhaustion had finally set in. He could not answer even the slightest question via email, let alone deeper ones. He simply had run his course.

Life Itself has many interviews from current filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog, both of whom Ebert championed. We also see Ava DuVernay, who met him as a little girl and for whom he was encouraging in her early film, I Will Follow

The film does not just shy away from showing us at Ebert's physical worse but also at times at his nastiest and confrontational. Outtakes from Siskel & Ebert show how both of them could be sharp-tongued, insulting, almost hateful towards the other. We can also see that at times Ebert did not take criticism of himself. There was the time Richard Corliss, a fellow film critic, wrote a scathing piece, All Thumbs, disparaging the Siskel & Ebert method. Ebert struck back with his own take, All Stars.

Life Itself is not a hagiography, but it also is not going to delve much into finding much fault with its subject. I found Beyond the Valley of the Dolls a horror, extremely distasteful, but both that film and Ebert's admiration for Meyer were barely if actually touched on. I don't know if it was too late to talk on Ebert's take-down of Ben Lyons, the 'hipper, cuter' (and I would argue, dumber) film critic who eventually took a spot on At the Movies

Whether Ebert, Siskel or any of those following them in At the Movies (such as Richard Roeper) did in fact get too cozy with their subjects is also left pretty much untouched.

However, this does not take away from both the skill and affection Life Itself has both in terms of filmmaking and the subject himself.

Here, I offer my own take on Roger Ebert.

I disagreed with him, sometimes on films, more often on politics.

I also deeply respect him for his enthusiasm, his genuine love of cinema, the wit and fire he brought to his reviews, good and bad.  I share his view that a film should be viewed and remarked on based on what its trying to do.

Roger Ebert was one of the voices that got me into writing about film. You have to love movies to write about them, but you also have to balance emotion with intellect.

We all stand in his great shadow, and Life Itself is a great tribute to one of the leading lights of film reviewers.

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1942-2013

DECISION: B+

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957): A Review



THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI

War Is Madness, Madness Is War...

There is exactly one scene in The Bridge on the River Kwai that features a woman. This actually puts it one woman ahead of the other great David Lean war epic, Lawrence of Arabia, which has no credited females. Like that film, The Bridge on the River Kwai is a war film that has less to do with war itself and more to do with the actions men take that defines their character. The Bridge on the River Kwai is an intelligent war film, one that mixes action with intellect.

Cynical American Navy Commander Shears (William Holden) is living by his wits in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Asia. He is biding his time before making an escape from Camp 16, run by Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). As camp commandants go Saito is no different then others: he's not sadistic but he is not benevolent either.

Into the camp come the newest prisoners of war, a group of British soldiers led by Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guinness). The by-the-book Nicholson is determined to keep the British end up and follow the rules of war no matter what.

Among the rules he will not break is the idea that officers work as slave labor along with enlisted men, a violation of the Geneva Convention. Saito is simultaneously appalled and angered at what he considers nonsense. He insists there are no rules and demands Nicholson and his fellow officers work. Nicholson, as leading commander, equally stubbornly refuses.

Image result for the bridge on the river kwaiSaito has him locked up, with his other officers locked up separately. Shears is mostly amused by this battle between these two ridiculously stubborn men, but he stays out of their own private war. Saito has more pressing concerns.

Tasked with building a railway bridge in a certain time, he finds himself way behind schedule and worse, with the British soldiers deliberately lousing up the task. Saito is at wit's end. He attempts a charm offensive on Nicholson, seeking a compromise that will allow him to save face. Nicholson, as strict as ever despite his weakened condition, stubbornly holds fast.

Eventually, in desperation, Saito finally gives up, using the excuse of the anniversary of a Japanese victory to grant an amnesty. Nicholson seems triumphant, Saito privately humiliated, and Shears takes advantage of the celebrations to make a daring escape.

Saito, however, got more than he bargained for when it came to Nicholson. Ever the proper and thorough British officer, he decides to put himself of building a proper bridge. Nicholson sees the construction project as a way to keep morale up and restore discipline to his troops, but the medical officer Clipton (James Donald) quietly suggests to Nicholson that them building a bridge that actually works might be construed as collaborating with the enemy.

Nicholson scoffs at this idea, insisting he knows best. Even Saito is astonished, perhaps shocked and even a little appalled at Nicholson's behavior and total obsession. Just about everyone thinks that Nicholson has lost his mind: in desperation to finish the bridge on time, he quietly orders his officers to work alongside the others (the very thing he insisted he would not do). The Japanese are astounded to later see Nicholson essentially raid the sick unit to find workers, and more astounded when he manages to lead a few of them into the labor.

Image result for the bridge on the river kwaiMeanwhile, Shears has survived his escape and is recovering with the help of a beautiful nurse, getting ready to return to the States. He therefore is displeased when he meets Major Warden (Jack Hawkins). Shears has valuable intel about this bridge and is pressed to return to the jungle to help them blow it up. Shears attempts to get out of it by telling them he is not really Shears but an impostor masquerading as an officer.

Unfortunately, this hurts rather than helps Shears, as his false identity is not only already known but used as leverage against him. Reluctantly, he returns to the jungle, with Warden and Lieutenant Joyce (Geoffrey Horne), a young Canadian on his first mission. Trekking through the jungle, Shears essentially becomes redundant to the mission and Warden is injured.

Shears is both appalled and angry, not just at being dragged back into the snake pit but in how Warden, like Nicholson, insists on following protocol and procedure during war. Shears does the worst thing for Warden: he keeps him alive.

Finally arriving at the new bridge, they see its success. Unbeknownst to them, Nicholson and Saito have become, if not buddy-buddies, at least equal partners in the building of the bridge. Nicholson in particular takes great pride in 'his' bridge, while Saito can only marvel at the unintended results of British imperialism for Japanese imperialism.

Things come to a climax when the train at long last is getting closer to the bridge on the River Kwai. The mission to blow it up is in danger of faltering, and this pits Warden/Shears/Joyce against Nicholson/Saito. Nicholson spots the charges at Joyce, who has managed to kill Saito, and furiously & frantically attempts to stop him from blowing up the bridge, even calling for help from the Japanese to stop him.

A skirmish erupts as the train gets closer. After Shears is wounded trying desperately to stop Nicholson, they see each other. The sight of an enraged Shears breathing out his last word, a furious, "YOU!" seems to snap Nicholson into the horror of his actions. "What have I done?" he asks himself.

As he attempts to set the charges himself, Warden's missile injures Nicholson. The mad Colonel has enough strength to fall on the charger, blowing up the bridge as the train is passing with Japanese officials and soldiers.

As Clipton, who declined to be on the bridge and watched all this from further off, comes into all this chaos, he can only snap, "Madness! Madness!" at this sorry spectacle.

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The Bridge on the River Kwai, despite its length, never flags or fails to hold your attention. This is because the film is more than an adventure or a war film.

Instead, The Bridge on the River Kwai is about just how insane war itself is, about the men who wage it being unaware of how their actions affect those under them. We see this with Shears, the cynical yet realistic figure who sees that following the rules is not important when it comes to human lives.

We see this in the slowly corroding figure of Colonel Nicholson, brilliantly portrayed by Alec Guinness. Guinness brings almost an innocence to his Colonel, someone we know is not malicious but rather rigid and stubborn to the point of idiocy.

I think many people would see Nicholson as insane, an almost witting collaborator. Some may be tempted to see him as a man of principle done in by his own rigid code.

After seeing The Bridge on the River Kwai again, I think Nicholson was not insane in the clinical sense nor was he, at least in his mind, a collaborator. What he was rather was a man blinded by his own sense of duty, like many leaders well-meaning but so strict and driven by his own ideas that all other considerations were never considered.

Nicholson objects to forming an 'escape committee' due to his legal interpretation that in a technical sense they are not actually prisoners-of-war since they were ordered to surrender (and as such, not really 'soldiers' when they were taken). He decides to build 'a proper bridge' to show British efficiency. He even angrily lectures a soldier for not doing his best in order to thwart the Japanese as being 'bad'. All these indicate that Nicholson's insanity (if it can be called that) came from his myopic view.

Image result for the bridge on the river kwaiLean and screenwriters Carl Foreman and Michael Wilson* show Nicholson's descent subtly. His insistence that officers work too is done so offhandedly that it almost goes unnoticed. His raid on the medical wing, however, is chilling, the obsession taking on a form of mania. The fact that a few injured men followed their pretty bonkers commander is a sad commentary on how others can go along with clearly irrational acts if they mistake loyalty for love.

Lean punctuates this moment by repeating the same music used when Nicholson is freed. At that first use, it is meant to be triumphant: that of a man besting his enemy by sheer determination. At that second use, it is more cynical and sarcastic, the triumph now gone.

Lean also shows that for all their differences Nicholson and Saito are two of a kind. Both could have gotten their way if they had bent a little, but instead both insisted on total subjugation. All that misery eventually got them to where both wanted the other to go, making things more muddled. Both at one point call the other colonel 'mad', but in reality, neither could see his own insanity.

Hayakawa was equally strong as Saito, driven by his own sense of honor yet finding his frenemy to be at turns an irritant and a useful idiot. Holden is excellent as Shears, a man who only wants to live and who is unconcerned with the craziness around him except when it drags him into things.

Holden is the everyman in this tragedy, the one who just wants to live through this yet finds that all his efforts are for naught whenever his superiors insist on going into inept choices. His best scene is when they parachute into the jungle. Warden essentially tells him that his services are not needed after all, but Warden seems unperturbed by the fact that this man, having endured so much to get out of the jungle, now finds himself a third wheel to something those same superiors insisted he was indispensable.

In turns wry and bubbling with controlled rage, you see Shears almost ready to kill Warden, while the oblivious Warden notes nothing, or at least pretends not to. Later on, Shears, Warden and Joyce get a listen to Tokyo Rose, who ends her broadcast by saying, "Don't forget, don't volunteer for anything". Even Tokyo Rose seems to be mocking Shears.

The Bridge on the River Kwai has a fantastic moment of transition. Contemplating the situation, Dr. Clipton wonders whether both Saito and Nicholson are insane, then looks up and asks, "Or is it the Sun?"; as we see the Sun, we then shift smoothly to a parched Shears, bringing the other story so well into the first.

The Bridge on the River Kwai is pretty much an anti-war film, showing the idiocy and insanity that accompanies it without short-changing the action. It is an epic that also remains intimate amid the explosions. It is above all else, a grand achievement visually and story-wise.

DECISION: A+

1958 Best Picture: Gigi

*Originally, the novel's author, Pierre Boulle, was credited for the screenplay and was awarded an Oscar for that. However, Foreman and Wilson wrote the screenplay secretly, as they had been blacklisted and were therefore unable to receive screen credit. Curiously, Boulle did not speak English. It was around 27 years later that Foreman and Wilson received belated credit and Oscar recognition for their work.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

First Man: A Review

FIRST MAN

The Moon is a very apt goal for First Man, the biopic of Neil Armstrong. Like the film, the Moon is a beautiful object but very cold and distant, something to admire from afar but something we cannot embrace.

Covering the years 1961 through 1969, we see Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) work. He and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) live through the death of their young child Karen, later on having a second son, and Armstrong's slow and steady work in the NASA program to eventually have a man on the Moon.

Through that, he passes through the various setbacks of the NASA Gemini and Apollo programs ranging from training and various mechanical failures to the Soviets constantly beating them. He also passes through the deaths of his fellow astronauts Edward White (Jason Clarke) and Gus Grissom (Shea Whigham) on Apollo 1. Finally, he passes through the somewhat obnoxious manner of his Apollo 11 teammate Edwin 'Buzz' Aldrin (Cory Stoll) before finally setting foot on the Lunar surface.

There, he quietly pays tribute to Karen and returns home, where Janet sees him while he's in quarantine.

Image result for first manFirst Man makes me think of the axiom 'It's about the Mission, not the Man' for the film does not seem to be interested in delving into who Neil Armstrong is. Rather, as a chronicle of the frustrations and eventual success of the NASA program, First Man is indeed first-rate.

Director Damien Chazelle has simply wonderful moments which are intense and gripping. The opening sequence where we see Armstrong first skimming the Earth's atmosphere in an early test is surprisingly tense even though we should know he is going to survive.

The launches and the final Apollo 11 sequences where the crew is both pushing off from the bonds of Earth and taking those historic leaps for mankind are breathtaking in scope. They are grand without being overwhelming, at times putting the viewer in a 'you-are-there' manner that leaves one almost breathless.

These moments are enhanced by Justin Hurwitz's score. I noted influences from Offenbach's Tales of Hoffmann (specifically the Barcarolle) and Wagner, Hurwitz's music matches the scenes so well. It can be bold, but mostly it is ethereal, sometimes with just a harp.

Chazelle draws heavily from 2001: A Space Odyssey in First Man, particularly in the visuals where we see these lonely spacecrafts floating through the emptiness. In these moments, we see the beauty and power of space.

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Once we're on Earth though, Armstrong remains aloof, distant, almost inhuman in his demeanor. Gosling is the perfect man to play this version of Armstrong. Gosling is the master of the blank, emotional-less stare, an actor who consistently mistakes lack of smiling with deep emotions.

Gosling's Armstrong is a man who is capable of feeling, albeit alone. He must cry for his dead daughter alone. At one point, he storms out of a funeral luncheon and another snaps at another memorial about not wanting to mourn with others.

Neil Armstrong is the NASA Greta Garbo: He Wants To Be Alone.

Therein lies an issue: this Neil Armstrong is unknowable, a shadow floating through this life. He does have moments of humanity, like a scene where he romps with his boys. However, Josh Singer's adaptation of James R. Hansen's biography at times is too blunt with how it paints Armstrong as a man not in touch with human feelings.

During his daughter's illness, he pours over his notes of her various treatments. Singer and Chazelle also structure Neil's final conversation with his boys before going into flight as a de facto press conference. At one point, he asks, "Are there any other questions?", which would have worked save for the fact that we had an earlier scene that was a press conference.

I know they were going for a parallel. I don't think they had to be so obvious about it.

Image result for first manAs a side note, it is interesting that Aldrin came off almost as the villain in First Man. I wondered if his nickname should have been "Buzzkill" given how often he seemed to be a naysayer or worse, an annoyance for the stoic, cold Armstrong to endure.

Foy had one mode: angry. Whether she was angry at the kids, angry at NASA for how they ran things or angry at Armstrong for not addressing the possibility of death, Foy too seemed to make Janet into a morose figure.

Fewer marriages were as dour as the Armstrongs. When the film ends with Neil in quarantine, the two of them separated by glass, it was a perfect metaphor for their lives: him bubbled up away, she within sight but just out of reach.

I figure the metaphor was deliberate, but again to my mind a touch heavy-handed.

First Man is visually impressive but gives us little to nothing about The Man himself. He seems almost incapable of human emotion. I actually would not mind seeing a Buzz Aldrin biopic over this Neil Armstrong biopic.

Buzz may be a bit bonkers, but unlike Neil, he has a personality.

1930-2012

DECISION: B-

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A Star Is Born: The Conclusions

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There are as of now four versions of A Star Is Born: the 1937 original film and three remakes from 1954, 1976 and 2018. Each is a reflection of its time and place. They also have their merits and drawbacks.

I cannot think of another story that has been remade as often as A Star Is Born that was not based of off literature. Now, with the most recent version upon us, I think we can pause briefly to look back at each of them and come to some conclusions. First, a recap of the four versions, then a ranking of each of them in specific categories.




Esther Blogett (Janet Gaynor), North Dakota farmgirl, comes to Hollywood to follow her dreams of acting, to 'be somebody'. She struggles to find even bit parts and extra work, but a fortuitous encounter with established star Norman Maine (Fredric March) helps launch her into stardom as 'Vicki Lester'. Vicki and Norman fall in love and marry, but his career is going down as hers is rising. Norman crashes her Academy Award speech to demand an award for 'the worst performance of the year'. She decides to give up her career to help her boozing husband, but he kills himself to stop her giving up her career. After contemplating permanent retirement, she returns and introduces herself as "Mrs. Norman Maine".

Running Time: 1 Hour, 51 minutes




Singer Esther Blogett (Judy Garland) is shuffling along in her little career when film superstar Norman Maine (James Mason) crashes her stint at a benefit. The totally bombed-out Norman is close to humiliating himself and her but Esther quickly improvises, making it appear as if all this is all part of the act. Norman hears Esther belt out The Man That Got Away and is convinced she can be a superstar. The lush, however, struggles to remember her after leaving for location filming, forcing Esther to struggle more. Eventually, he helps her become 'Vicki Lester'. They fall in love and marry but Norman still struggles with alcoholism and a fading career. Norman crashes her Academy Award speech to beg for a job. She decides to give up her career to help her boozing husband, but he kills himself to stop her giving up her career. After contemplating permanent retirement, she returns and introduces herself as "Mrs. Norman Maine".

Running Time: 3 Hours, 2 Minutes (Original Release), 2 Hours, 34 Minutes (General Release), 2 Hours, 56 Minutes (Restored Version)




Singer Esther Hoffman (Barbra Streisand) is doing well in her singing career with her group, the unfortunately-named The Oreos, when in stumbles drunk rock god John Norman Howard (Kris Kristofferson). He quickly takes her as both his newest gal-pal and as an extraordinary talent to be mentored. She quickly rises to stardom herself, falls in love and marries John. She seems content to balance a career and a home with John, even dueting with him on Evergreen. However, he just can't let go of the booze and drugs. When Esther wins the Grammy for Best Female Performance, John drunkenly crashes her moment, though I can't remember what his reasoning is or if he ends up whacking her. His career continues to falter and she opts not to go on tour to be with him. John dies listening to her singing in a car crash, though whether it was an accident or deliberate is unclear. After a period of mourning, she returns as Esther Hoffman Howard.

Running Time: 2 Hours, 20 Minutes





Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a country/rock god who is also highly troubled both emotionally and with his addiction to booze and drugs. He stumbles upon Ally (Lady Gaga) at a drag bar and is instantly smitten with her unconventional beauty and talent. Quickly spiriting her into his world, she becomes a sensation after performing a duet with Maine, Shallow, which quickly goes viral. As Ally is molded to pop stardom, Jackson continues loving her and eventually they marry. Her star continues to climb but Jackson is done in more by his boozing than by actually falling to her stardom. When Ally wins the Best New Artist Grammy, he joins her on stage and drunkenly falls over, humiliating himself more than her. A stint in rehab appears to help but despite this Jackson is warned off by Ally's record producer Rez to stay away from her. He hangs himself and a devastated Ally, after taking time to mourn him, returns as Ally Maine.

Running Time: 2 Hours, 15 Minutes.


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Why we didn't get A Star Is Born in the 1990's so as to keep with having a new version every twenty years I cannot say. My only guess is that Lady Gaga, born in 1986, would have been too young to be our ingenue elevated to stardom by her older mentor.

Now that we've covered very briefly each version, we can see how each of them really was shaped by the times in which it is set.

The 1937 version has Esther as more naive, coming to Hollywood with nothing but hope. In 1954, Esther has worked hard to get where she is at, but her ambitions are not actual stardom but just a chance to perform. The 1976 version has Esther in full control, burning with ambition and not one to take things lying down. In 2018, Ally has dreams but her own insecurities hold her back and yet achieving fame the way many do now: by going viral.

Interestingly, the 2018 version seems to be the one that has the Female as the most self-doubting. 1937 charges ahead with no known talent but just with aspirations. 1954 knows she can sing but she isn't burning for a major career. 1976 had much chutzpah but no real entry into the industry.

Each version tailors itself to the talents of its leads. 1937 has Esther as an actress, which Gaynor was as the first woman to win Best Actress for three roles. 1954 is a musical, giving Garland a chance to perform with her powerful voice. 1976 also had musical numbers, but more in a concert style that suited Streisand. 2018 followed closely to 1976, especially since unlike Garland or Streisand, Gaga does not have much acting experience.

Now, I will dive into the deep end so to speak and look at which aspects of all four films I think are the best, ranking them in order and giving some thoughts. 

BEST MALE LEAD


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James Mason (1954)
Fredric March (1937)
Bradley Cooper (2018)
Kris Kristofferson (1976)

It's only by the thinnest of margins that I pick Mason over March for the best male lead (Norman Maine, John Norman Howard, Jackson Maine). Out of the four actors, Mason at 45 was the oldest of the male leads when the film was made (Cooper was 43, March and Kristofferson both a mere 40 even if the latter looked much older and the former much younger). Mason, however, looked older and more worn-down, making it plausible that he had a long career coming to its end before totally falling apart when he meets Esther.

March, while good, came across as doomed not by alcoholism but by changing public tastes. He also seemed less angry and more like a little boy, eager to please his friends and bosses than the self-destructive fading movie star Norman was supposed to be. Even when drunk, March's Maine seemed more clumsy and affable than terrible.

Kristofferson's John just seemed like an ass: self-absorbed and with an appetite for destruction. Cooper seemed determined to be the most sympathetic of the bunch, unwilling to be dark, his adoring looks towards Ally more reflective of a mentor proud of his pupil than a man who is seeing his career fade while his wife is climbing.

Mason, however, was not afraid to show us the unpleasant aspects of Norman Maine. We get this straight at the beginning when he shows up drunk at the benefit he's supposed to be the main attraction for. He is a goofy drunk but also an angry one, at one point belting his long-suffering press agent. Yet, unlike Cooper, who whacks his (much) older brother because he somehow desecrated their father's memory, Mason does horrors to himself and others because he is a barely-functioning alcoholic.

Cooper was apparently dead-set on making Jackson a wounded soul, truly gentle and not in the slightest unpleasant. This is especially true given how much A Star Is Born is more focused on his character than hers. His worship of his Daddy is what drives him more than anything else, adding to that 'wounded but gentle soul' persona Cooper is pushing. The only real time he demeaned Ally was when she made a crack about Daddy Dearest.

Kristofferson was apparently equally dead-set on making John a shallow, self-centered man. March was pleasant and well-meaning. Mason was well-meaning, even charming and certainly protective of Esther but also incapable of helping himself.

All the men commit suicide (except perhaps for Kristofferson, who may have just crashed while listening to a Barbra Streisand 8-track), but Cooper's suicide seemed more as a result of destroying himself than of saving Ally/Esther and her career. March and Mason did want to save Esther in their own way, but Mason's sacrifice seemed more genuine given how much he suffered and how much suffering he knew he inflicted.

BEST FEMALE LEAD


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Judy Garland (1954)
Janet Gaynor (1937)
Barbra Streisand (1976)
Lady Gaga (2018)

Judy Garland was a troubled person, a mix of Esther Blogget and Norman Maine. Yet out of the four actresses who have played Esther/Ally, I think Garland is the one we will all remember best long after the dust has settled.

Sorry, Little Monsters.

Unlike the naive but eager Gaynor, the more self-confident Streisand or the more insecure but highly talented Gaga, Garland's Esther was someone who was already working her way to somewhere when she came upon Norman. Her big moment comes when she confesses both her frustration and anger about Norman to their friend the studio boss. Garland's Esther lets out her hurt, her anger and her own recrimination about the situation. She understands that Norman is making an effort but he keeps failing and that she in her own way fails him.

I don't think Streisand or Gaga would ever tell themselves or anyone else that 'they failed too'. They may love their man, but they are not going to share the blame for his descent. Gaynor carries some sense of regret about things, but she at times seems like the others more an observer to Norman's descent into darkness. Garland however, insists in thinking that if only she had something: been more supportive, less successful, more capable of being there for him, Norman would be better.

Perhaps in her mind, Norman would have not sunk so far if he hadn't 'discovered' her. Perhaps this unacknowledged sense of guilt that she somehow is if not the cause then perhaps the end result that so terrifies her.

I think it also helps that out of the four, I think Garland gave the best performance. Her quivering manner whether expressing insecurity or distress elevates her performance. She also displayed a genuine love for Norman that went beyond mentor/protege but between man and woman. Her Esther looks like she would give up her career for her man, something the others save Gaynor did not seem eager or willing to completely do.

Gaynor did not have much self-doubt about herself, Streisand had virtually none, and Gaga gets pushed down only because she is playing a variation of herself.

Gaynor, Garland and Streisand all had long acting careers while Gaga is just starting. As such, she gets demoted by default.


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BEST MALE MELTDOWN

James Mason (1954)
Fredric March (1937)
Kris Kristofferson (1976)
Bradley Cooper (2018)

At a critical point in A Star Is Born, the male character shows just how disheveled he is. Out of the four, I'm giving Mason's version the top recognition.

When March interrupts Vicki's Oscar acceptance speech, he tells them he wants an award for the Worst Performance, essentially calling for a Razzie before there were any Razzies. His speech is very controlled and coherent, especially given he was supposed to be drunk. Kristofferson seemed to crash Esther's speech just as an act of narcissism. Cooper's Jackson did not so much interrupt his wife's speech to berate his colleagues but more just being drunk and looking foolish.

It was closer to when Elizabeth Taylor looked bombed out of her mind presenting at the Golden Globes or Farrah Fawcett appeared incoherent on Late Night with David Letterman than a genuine cry of the heart.

In short, while Kristofferson's Grammy-crashing was shockingly forced and a bad performance, and while Cooper's performance was better overall, I am making him the worst because he refused to be unpleasant. Cooper's 'wounded soul' was more self-destructive but still loving than hurtful towards Vicki/Esther/Ally.

In the awards meltdown, the humiliation and hurt was Vicki's more than Norman, culminating in Norman/John/Jackson accidentally whacking the one person he loves. Instead, in Cooper's version, Jackson just ended up humiliating himself more than hurting her.

Now when it comes to Mason's moment, it is not done out of maliciousness but out of a deep hurt. Unlike March, Mason is there just to plead for a job, essentially a second chance from people he has alienated over the years. Mason is a mess, in equal turns angry and self-pitying.

March was just angry. Kristofferson was narcissistic. Cooper was incoherent. Mason was a man falling apart, and seeing him ultimately whack Vicki made it all the more painful.

BEST DIRECTOR


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George Cukor (1954)
William Wellman (1937)
Bradley Cooper (2018)
Frank Pierson (1976)

Cukor expanded on Wellman's original vision by making Garland's Esther/Vicki actually work for her success.  Success, as the song goes, came so easily to Gaynor. Garland, however, was essentially stranded by the well-meaning but inept Mason. Cukor managed both the grand musical moments, particularly the massive Born in a Trunk number, and those smaller, intimate moments such as when Garland allows herself a mild breakdown. He even manages moments of comedy when Esther comes to the studio and is given the literal runaround.

Wellman was very good at keeping the story going and had the benefit of having the shortest version. Cooper gets points for being a first-time director, even if at times A Star Is Born plays more like The Jackson Maine Story than Ally's Story.  Pierson, perhaps we can cut some slack given Streisand and her partner Jon Peters exercised more control than he wanted them to. However, the resulting 1976 version which was closer to a concert film than a fiction movie rests on his shoulders.

BEST SONG


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The Man That Got Away (1954)
Evergreen (1976)
Shallow (2018)

This perhaps is a bit unfair in that 1937 does not have a song and 2018 has many songs. However, I'm picking the songs most associated with their versions.

It's a pity that Shallow is the one being singled out for award consideration given that I think I'll Always Remember Us This Way is better. Shallow, however, is a good song but I think the best part is really when Gaga vocalizes, showcasing her incredible voice. Curiously, that's the only part of the song I really remember.

Evergreen is a lovely ballad that makes its somewhat oddball lyrics sound logical and even romantic ("Love, soft as an easy chair"). However, for my mind, The Man That Got Away is the song of all songs. It helps that Garland knows how to deliver a song and that The Man That Got Away was written by Ira Gershwin (lyrics) and Harold Arlen (music), two of the finest songwriters of the Twentieth Century.

The Man That Got Away is a torch song, one brimming and bursting with anguish of love lost. Shallow is a ballad with a crescendo, pleasant but to my mind, not only does Shallow not compare to The Man That Got Away but, even if should win Best Original Song, it won't be as well-remembered as Garland's song.

After all, who really remembers Sweet Leilani or In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening (which won Best Original Song) versus They Can't Take That Away From Me or A Kiss To Build a Dream On (which lost to those songs respectively)?

BEST VERSION


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1954
1937
2018
1976

I am genuinely puzzled by why the 2018 version of A Star Is Born is being held up as this monumental piece of cinema equal to or greater than Casablanca, Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai. I find that the 2018 version is the third-best version of this story. As such, why so many of my brethren insist it will sweep the Academy Awards or worse, should win.

Then again, many of the same people who say A Star Is Born is already the de facto winner said the exact same thing about Black Panther, so there's that.

Even in its butchered state, the 1954 version is for me THE version. Its story is richer, with more subtext and smooth foreshadowing, aided by fine musical numbers and definitive performances by Garland and Mason.

The 1937 version is close behind, with strong performances and an engaging story.

2018 is pleasant but to be honest the hysteria many express for it drives me to almost hate it.

1976 is pretty much a vanity project, more about showcasing Streisand's extraordinary voice than in telling a story.

Once things settle down, I think people will still watch the 1954 version over the others. The 2018 version has the advantage of being the one most people know now, which might explain why so many in the theater were openly sobbing at it all. They probably have either never seen the other versions or perhaps even be aware there are other versions.

Those that do know it's a remake might think the 1976 version was the original, not surprising given that 2018 followed that version more than it did 1954 or 1937.

It's just like those people who think Benedict Cumberbatch is the Greatest Sherlock Holmes of All Time. The only other Sherlocks they know, if they know any, are Robert Downey, Jr. or Johnny Lee Miller. They don't know Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett, so they have limited points of comparison.

Same thing with A Star Is Born. If you don't know any other version or maybe just one, it's only logical they'd pick the newest one.

However, for me, the 1954 version of A Star Is Born is the best of them all: a film filled with humor, heartache and among the best performances and songs. Pity they almost destroyed it, but even as is, I think it towers over all the others.