Thursday, October 18, 2018

First Man and The Old Man & the Gun

                                           A First and (alas) A Last

                                                           Reviews by Ken Burke


 I indicated in my last posting I might only be able to review 1 film per week for the next month or so, but I was able to see 2 of them recently so here’s more than originally intended this time around.
                 
                                   First Man (Damien Chezelle)
                
Executive Summary” (no spoilers): As we’re once again in “based on a true story” territory I can’t see what could be a spoiler, given it’s common knowledge Neil Armstrong and his astronaut team were able to successfully accomplish history’s first landing on our moon in 1969 so I’m not going to designate any of the review below in my typical spoiler fashion (although I’ll still state my standard explanation of how that works, just for the record) because the only thing you might not know about this historic event is how conflicted the astronauts and their families were about that dangerous enterprise, but such inner-turmoil serves as background context for the more overt events of this film so there’s nothing really to hide from you there either).  Essentially, this is how NASA pushed itself into completely unknown territory in the 1960s by inventing technology, making bold steps toward conquering the substantial challenges of space travel—losing a few lives in the process—with the quest culminating in the July 1969 landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin as the first humans to walk upon our distant lunar surface.  There’s plenty of tension along the way in this extremely well made, engrossing film, as well as a grand sense of personal accomplishment as success of these missions depended not only on following carefully-worked-out-protocols but also responding spontaneously to unforeseen dangers that could easily have aborted even more of these missions in similar tragic manners than those which actually occurred, horrible in their happenings but relatively few given the numbers of U.S. space flights successfully accomplished before Apollo 11 ever blasted off from Florida.  Despite the occasional-roller-coaster-aspects of spaceships in peril, though, most of what happens in the flow of First Man is of inner-contemplative-nature, cautiously-brave-men dreaming of conquering the stars while realizing death is just one unanticipated crisis away.  Marvelously acted by Ryan Gosling as Armstrong, Claire Foy as his wife, and the entire cast, this film merits your attention, easily found in thousands of theaters.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)


If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: Despite idealistic pronouncements by President John Kennedy, the U.S.A. space program was notably behind the efforts of the Soviet Union in the early 1960s so NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) heads found it imperative to realize JFK’s goals of landing a man (no women in the astronaut corps in those days, but they would come later) on the moon, safely returning him (and his crew) to Earth. This story traces the true exploits of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) to become that historical moonwalker, beginning with footage in 1961 of him as a jet pilot challenging the upper reaches of Earth’s atmosphere, barely able to keep his X-15 plane (and himself) intact before landing safely (what's shown in the photo above's from a different, not-so-celebrated-result) on the Mojave Desert (with plenty of point-of-view bouncing closeup shots from inside his cockpit, making it clear to us both the danger he faced and the disruptive-reality of such a traumatic event, further enhancing our admiration for his piloting skills when he’s able to tame such a technological-bucking-bronco).  While there are a lot of important dates (and significant individuals) in the U.S. space program of that era noted throughout the next 2/3 or so of First Man’s 141 minutes, what really matters is what’s happening inside the mind of Armstrong as he simultaneously grieves the loss of his 2-year-old-daughter, Karen (Lucy Stafford), to a brain tumor and asserts his willingness to be part of a mission to accomplish the first-ever-moon-landing within a few short years, requiring Neil to move his family—wife Janet (Claire Foy), son Rick (Gavin Warren)—to Houston where he undergoes rigorous trials designed to determine his ability to withstand both the physical and psychological rigors of space travel (burdens further accentuated throughout the film by the horrors of test pilots killed in trial runs, the terrifying deaths of the Apollo 1 astronauts on the launching pad due to a freak fire in their capsule bringing collective sorrow to these close-knit-space-program-families, living near each other as well near Houston).  Armstrong had faced his own crisis when his Gemini 8 capsule almost crashed upon atmospheric re-entry after a successful test of a docking mission with another spacecraft, requiring him to take difficult manual control of his ship even in opposition to instructions from his ground-based Mission Control.

(Full disclosure: This photo's from the actual Apollo 17 mission [1972 , the last one], but I use it to show how
well Chazelle's captured the reality of moon landings in his film because this could easily be from First Man.)
 Neil’s chosen to lead the Apollo 11 mission (then survives an almost-fatal-crash testing the lunar-landing-vehicle), this introverted man faces the dual challenge of being publicly optimistic ("pleased") theoretical science will support him, privately terrified it could all go wrong.  He pulls back from Jan, facing her anger before blasting off, forced to admit to his sons (Luke Winters now as Rick, younger Mark [Connor Blodgett]) he might not return from this dangerous endeavor. Just as we’d been rocked around in claustrophobic-inner-capsule POV shots in other danger scenes, we also get plenty of that just above the moon’s surface, further emphasized by fuel running low even as anticipated landing areas prove to be unusable fields of large boulders.  Finally, a flat enough spot occurs, with Neil and (more outgoing) fellow astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin (Corey Stoll) able to say “The Eagle has landed,” then Neil cautiously descends the Lunar Module’s ladder onto the moon July 20, 1969 with a camera broadcasting his historic words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”*  We then get a bit of lunar exploration by Armstrong and Aldrin, including a wide shot of one of them standing by the American flag (even more controversial, I’m afraid, than the grumbling over no shot of them actually planting that flag is the “justification” naysayers of this historic event can now make about how there was never a moon landing at all [just a staged film to drum up support for a space program not as successful nor triumphant as claimed to be], given how even more convincing this footage looks [admittedly, not shot on the moon] than the grainy 1969 visuals).  After Neil drops Karen’s little bracelet into a crater, followed by a successful return to Earth, the 3 crew members (Michael Collins [Lukas Haas] orbited the moon while the others descended; they then linked up with his module for the long trip home) stayed in quarantine for a month in case they picked up any microscopic intruders.  Jan visits, but she and Neil are separated by a large glass wall (seemingly with no telephone contact, which we’d expect to see even in an ordinary jail-visit-scene of another context [yet related to this story]).  She comes in, still looking angry (probably because of the strained manner in which Neil left for the moon trip), although they seem to emotionally connect, “touching” hands on each side of the restrictive glass.

*The intention was supposedly "A small step for a man ..." but that preposition didn’t transmit so this odd statement lives on, repeated in First Man with no attempt to clean up this presumed error.

So What? In one sense, First Man succeeds by evoking aspects of previous outer-space-exploration films: to cite a few examples, in The Right Stuff (Philip Kaufman, 1983) we have a skilled pilot (Chuck Yeager [Sam Shepherd]) almost dying because of atmospheric conditions battering his airplane, followed by NASA astronauts bringing great successes for the emerging U.S.A. space program capped by John Glenn (Ed Harris) as the first American to orbit Earth; Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995) presents an almost-fatal-flight-situation which nearly results in the deaths of astronauts just a year after Apollo 11’s triumph; even the fictional Gravity (Alfonso Cuarón 2013; review in our October 9, 2013 posting) is relevant here, where a series of seemingly-impossible-heroic-actions under great duress result in calamity being avoided.  However, unlike the ultimate sense of victory accompanying those films, First Man surrounds its triumphs with a constant sense of impending doom or post-mission-regret, both to emphasize/verify how continually-dangerous these extra-terrestrial-flights were for all the brave men (and, later, women) who endured these technological challenges where everything constantly depended on precise calculations, split-second-timing, clear-headed-thinking when problems arose and to depict Neil Armstrong not as some confident rah-rah-warrior of the skies (as Glenn was shown in The Right Stuff) but as a man haunted by personal tragedy, nagging doubts this perilous mission to the moon could be pulled off as planned, a self-imposed-distancing from his family leading to his departure from Jan being much more tense than you’d expect from a loving couple: a sense of lingering anger from her, trepidation from him in that final shot in the isolation ward where they slowly, hesitantly make minimal contact through the glass wall separating them.  My first reaction to all this was to feel almost as removed from what I was seeing (and expecting to be impacted by, knowing how well-reviewed it is) as Armstrong was from most everything around him, sensing the Gemini 8 near-disaster scene was running on too long, forcing us to slog through this sense of impending-failure as our space program inched its wary way farther out from the known realm of Earth’s atmosphere, delaying for a sense of eternity what would seem to be the film’s intended-focus on the all-important moon landing.  Even when it was all over, I still wasn’t completely as caught up by it as I assumed I should be, even though Nina, my wife and alert-viewing-companion, found herself easily enthralled by it all.

 What finally brought me around to full appreciation of First Man was thinking about a song I’d heard many decades ago, sung by Alan Damron (a first-rate troubadour from Texas) at the Kerrville Folk Festival* sometime in the mid-1970s about how “a man named Armstrong walk[ed] upon the moon.”  I’ll talk more about the specifics of the song in this review’s next section below, but for now I’ll just say its lyrics helped me better understand Chazelle’s approach focusing on the dread, the uncertainty, the inner conflicts lurking in the backstory (and the psyches) of these supposed unflappable heroes who set out on voyages as scary, unpredictable, yet hopeful as those of sailors centuries ago who found our planet to contain its own unknown regions (except, of course, for the people who’d already lived there for millennia).  This film gives a balanced comparison between how astonishing it was for these 3 men to fly a lunar landing module to an historic landing culminating those decades of preparation (along with the deaths of those sacrificed in this process of progression through the previous Mercury, Gemini, Apollo programs) vs. the sense of misplaced priorities from some on Earth who felt all this effort and financing could have been better spent on helping humans right here on this planet rise above their constant generations of poverty, rejection, desperation.  That’s a problem we’ve yet to overcome as a species, trying to best decide how to allocate limited resources when the stakes are so high in both directions (heal the planet we’re on now before it becomes truly unlivable or find a sustainable process for establishing human extraterrestrial colonies to save us from the demise of our current home from human-inflicted-wounds); it’s a difficult decision which we can only hope will find some answer before all alternatives have been exhausted (yes, I have no doubt climate change is real; more so, it's deadly).

*Sadly, Damron died at age 66 in 2005, but you can see him in action here at the 2001 finale of the famous (in central Texas anyway), still ongoing Kerrville Folk Festival (an event begun in 1972, originally produced by Rod Kennedynoted in this video as their 30th anniversary rather than just their 30th festival, but I can attest things are often different in Texas from standard conceptions or measurements), although I’d say Damron’s best remembered for his rendition of the traditional Irish ballad "Nancy Whiskey", a great, easy sing-a-long, even if you’ve never heard it before.  He also managed Kennedy’s folk club, The Chequered Flag, in Austin where sometime in the late 1960s my close friend/musical collaborator/roommate Jerry Graham and I once performed on a Sunday night open mike session, nervous as hell but well-received by the crowd; however, we had to first prove ourselves in a private audition to Damron, who graciously accepted us upon his stage.

Bottom Line Final Comments: Like anyone else who was alive during that summer of 1969, I doubt I’ll ever forget where I was while watching the televised moon landing as Armstrong made his historic descent down that simple-but-crucial-ladder. (For me, it was at the apartment of good friend Mike McMurtry in Austin, first seeing the science-reality of an eons-old-dream-come-true on a small screen, then stepping out onto a balcony that July night, looking up at the moon itself, knowing full well this was a near-unmatched-moment in human history, a sight hopefully always to be remembered—even as sociopolitical unrest rattled our Earth, with the American nation largely united in triumph over the Soviets by our accomplishment on a faraway-orb but so divided back home, a tribalization of opposing values still in conflict today, even to the point of the harsh criticism leveled against this film for not showing American astronauts explicitly planting our flag on this lunar surface, as if we owned it in the same way European explorers claimed ownership of the Americas simply because they saw themselves as superior to the civilizations already entrenched there long before most Europeans even accepted the world as round rather than flat.)  But the embrace of history fades over time, so a somber exploration of what such explorations really offer our conflicted/possibly-doomed species (as long as political decisions keep being made on the premise of fossil-fuel-profits and climate-change as a “hoax”) can turn a reasonably-successful-box-office-debut ($19.1 million domestically [U.S.-Canada, trade alliances notwithstanding] plus $10.4 million internationally) into a distant 3rd place finish behind the continued embrace of a mutant superhero (Venom [2018], [Ruben Fleischer]), which in 2 weeks has racked up $148.7 million domestically, $236.5 million in other markets), making it sadly clear how flamboyance over substance continues to dominate what happens in our local cinemas—which might not be so bad a situation if movies weren’t the primary means by which many members of younger generations learn history, as long as it’s dramatized for maximum audience appeal.  First Man may well be remembered when awards season gets into full swing (critics are quite high on it, with those surveyed at Rotten Tomatoes offering a healthy 88% positive reviews while those at Metacritic come in with a highly-supportive [for them] 84% average score), but its probing into the existential reality of fear of failure haunting the 1960s space program may result in its own fading from future embrace when compared to such celebratory fare to be found in presentations like The Right Stuff.

 OK, enough yapping about what’s ultimately the enduring impact of First Man vs. how it may be hard to handle for those who want to see Neil Armstrong as a warrior out of ages-old-tradition personifying American imperialism into a vastly-removed-realm from Earth, so let’s bring this to a close.  As alluded to above, this review’s Musical Metaphor—my standard device for wrapping up whatever’s gone before in a review—is “Armstrong,” a song by John Stewart (replaced Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio, performed with Nick Reynolds and Bob Shane under that heading 1961-1967 [which means I saw him in Las Vegas in 1964 at one of the only shows I could get in at age 16 while traveling through there with my parents]; he also wrote “Daydream Believer” for the Monkees in 1967) from 1969 in response to the historic lunar landing, then re-recorded by him (for his 1973 Cannons in the Rain album) so what I have here for you is a combo of those versions at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U-LkWM16atk (illustrated by just a photo of an astronaut on the moon, presumably Neil but could be Buzz [one of them had to take this shot]; however, if you’d prefer just Stewart’s 1969 original here it is, along with another single photo of one of those first moonwalkers and the "essential" American flag [which may help calm down those—such as President Trump—upset First Man didn’t emphasize the actual planting of this flag, as if claiming Earth’s only celestial-satellite for the U.S.A., although such jingoism clearly isn’t what this film’s all about]). The song notes problems/struggles all around the world while also acknowledging the grandeur of the moon landing, giving some hope such an accomplishment might find resonance in overcoming Earthly troubles as well, reflective to me of the thoughtful aspects of First Man, even as I’ve read this song—like the current film—was criticized for not being “patriotic” enough, as if we can never get beyond the thinking of “zero-sum games” where there must be winners and losers instead of events just being able to celebrate triumphs as global expressions of humanity’s progress, hampered as it may be by countless other areas where progress struggles to merely exist.
                 
                      The Old Man & the Gun (David Lowery)
                 
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Here too we have a narrative based in fact, but there are reasonable places in the review just below to save you from spoilers because the events of bank-robber/escape-artist Forrest Tucker aren’t nearly as well known as Neil Armstrong’s walk upon the moon so I’ll offer appropriate warnings to preserve the pleasant surprises of this odd-but-intriguing-story of a man who loved to commit crimes just for the pure pleasure of it, often following up his heists with clever ways of escaping from jail allowing him to continue his outlaw-life unencumbered by such annoyances as prison sentences.  This specific slice of his somewhat-fictionalized biography takes place mostly in and around Dallas, TX in 1981 as this sophisticated criminal balances blatant-but-successful bank holdups with a budding romance as he becomes attracted to a local widow who has no idea he’s serious about how he earns his comfortable living.  Add in a local cop who’s determined to bust Tucker and his “Over-The-Hill-Gang” out of pure spite and you have something in the vein of Bonnie and Clyde without all that violence.  Despite supportive reviews this movie’s not playing widely just yet (or maybe ever), but I do encourage you to find it if you can, both for its whimsical nature and for Robert Redford's announced acting finale.

Here’s the trailer:


       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.
               
What Happens: As with the film above, this one’s based in fact, although it defines itself as “This story is mostly true,” about a guy who delighted in pulling off simple-but-effective-robberies, then achieving unforeseen escapes from confinement in response to the various times he was caught in the act.  While I can’t say how much liberty has been taken with the truth here, what we learn about Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) is he’s a man of advanced years living in Ft. Worth, TX across the street from a cemetery (although he treats this as another of the jokes about his freewheeling life, unlike when I lived next to a huge graveyard in Queens, NYC in the early ‘70s which gave me a sense of dread—appropriate, considering how my job there, along with my first marriage, played out).  Tucker delights in robbing banks, done in a lighthearted, respectful way as in this movie’s first scene in 1981 where (sporting a fake moustache and his constant dark blue suit) he simply strolls into his chosen location, shows a teller his pistol so she quickly fills his briefcase with cash, races out to avoid the pursuing cops (sometimes he works with his long-time-buddies Teddy Green [Danny Glover] and Waller [Tom Waits], but they mostly get a couple of strong scenes apiece, not all that crucial to the overall narrative).  Following this most-current-robbery, Tucker’s speeding along I-35 (seemingly in Dallas, rather than heading south for Austin [my choice, but that relates to my life post-NYC, which we’ll discuss another time]) when he sees a woman with a nonfunctioning pickup truck so he stops to help, although neither knows much about cars.  Soon, he and she, Jewel (Sissy Spacek), adjourn to a diner where he learns she’s a widow with a nearby-horse-ranch plus an open attitude toward this charming guy she’s just met although she doesn’t buy his story he’s a traveling salesman.  Oddly enough, he admits his “career” is bank-robbery, which he explains in detail how to be successful at, although she assumes he’s kidding which he encourages lest she break off their budding friendship immediately.  From here, much of the movie continues in a familiar pattern with Tucker robbing banks (sometimes assisted by Teddy and Waller when the venue’s more challenging), courting Jewel, then finally intersecting with our other main character, Dallas police Detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck)—with his Black wife, Maureen (Tika Sumpter), 2 mixed-race-kids (having lived in Dallas in 1981 I can testify how bold that situation would have been back then)—who’s mortified he was in one of Tucker’s banks with his young son but had no idea there was a robbery happening until Tucker was long gone, vanished into the rain.

 Due to some razzing about the incident from his colleagues, Hunt determines to catch this suave, charming thief (and his accomplices, collectively now referred to by Hunt and the news media as the Over-The-Hill-Gang) whose exploits are now seen to form a pattern across several states all the way to California, with TV interviews of Hunt’s intentions bringing in the FBI, essentially telling Hunt to take a hike (to which he responds he will … until he breaks the case—although he’s taunted by Tucker’s latest heist when the old man leaves a note on a $100 bill for him)⇒Actually, Hunt does discover Tucker’s identity but it’s purely by chance because he gets a letter from the robber’s estranged daughter, Dorothy (Elisabeth Moss), in San Francisco, telling the cop descriptions of this thief sound like her dad, whom she feels should be locked up because of the disrupted childhood she suffered due to him (although her mother continued to love this rogue until her death).  By this point, things are getting serious between Forrest and Jewel (he’s even looking into quietly paying off the mortgage on her ranch), but as they’re eating in that favorite diner one night Tucker notices Hunt’s also in the place so he confronts his adversary in the restroom, each laying down mutual challenges.  After Tucker drops Jewel off back at her home he returns to his place only to find Teddy already there with a bunch of cops ready to pounce so he drives away frantically, finally commanders another car from a frightened woman to race back to Jewel’s ranch where he starts to ride away on one of her horses but stops when he sees a fleet of cops racing up to her house.  Seemingly having given himself up to spare her any problems about him, he serves his assigned time (not escaping as he normally did, even from San Quentin), until she happily picks him up upon release.  They stay together for awhile (he tells about his 16 previous escapes, which we see brief bits of in a series of flashbacks), but the criminal calling’s too strong in him so he leaves her house one day saying he’ll return soon, calls Hunt to imply he’ll be back in action, followed by closing graphics telling us he robbed 4 banks in 1 day before being captured again, smiling all the way.⇐

So What? The Old Man & the Gun makes for a pleasant story, based on the life of an actual career-criminal/prison-escapee, Forrest Silva “Woody” Tucker (1920-2004, so if the guy Redford portrays continued to live off-screen after that final capture noted in the ending-graphics [unclear when he was last caught as we don’t know how long he was in jail following his 1981 arrest] he may have been able to accomplish the 18 times the real guy says he slipped out of custody [along with 12 unsuccessful attempts, not noted in the movie, except maybe that was why he was in long enough for his marriage to deteriorate—along with the reality that he apparently never came back to his family whenever his term for that particular conviction was done, either officially finished or through another planned disappearance]), who was actually married 3 times, had 2 kids, yet none of his wives knew about his criminal acts (he married using fake names) until convictions interrupted the marriages, with his final capture in Florida in 2000 leading to his death while incarcerated (as reported by David Grann in The New Yorker, but most of this article's information isn’t revealed to us in The Old Man …, presumably to not clutter up the storyline of the brief part of Tucker’s life we get to share [for his final Florida robberies he was also more well-armed than the single pistol toted by this movie’s Tucker, probably making him a bit more dangerous along with being charmingly courteous, as depicted by Redford]—you can get more specifics on movie vs. history here)⇒Besides, the whimsical situation of Tucker leaving what could have easily been a satisfying life with Jewel (for many men his age, I’ll easily speculate) because he’s so compelled to rob banks just fits nicely with the  movie's pre-release-announcements this would be Redford’s last acting role so both performer and character go out on a high note here as The Old Man … rolls its final credits.⇐

Bottom Line Final Comments: Critics are solidly behind The Old Man & the Gun also with RT’s positive reviews at 89%, MC’s average score at 79% (high for them as most of what both they and I have reviewed so far this year show their average rarely getting above 80%, even if it remains difficult to figure out how some of those numbers are assigned to the reviews).  However, audiences haven’t been so receptive to Redford’s finale with a domestic gross after 3 weeks in release a measly $1.7 million; playing in only 228 theaters doesn’t help much either, so obviously Fox Searchlight wasn’t expecting a big response, despite the well-established-careers of the major stars. (Admittedly, the only one of this older generation to win an acting Oscar is Spacek [Coal Miner’s Daughter {Michael Apted, 1980—the only press junket I was ever sent to L.A. to cover; an amazing weekend even as Tommy Lee Jones was an intimidating-interviewee as usual, softened by a marvelous concert at a Sunset Strip club where Spacek, Loretta Lynn, and Levon Helm from the cast performed}], yet younger-Oscar-winner-Affleck [Manchester by the Sea {Kenneth Lonergan, 2016; review in our December 8, 2016 posting}] and other more-trendy-inclusions such as Moss or John David Washington as Affleck’s boss, Lt. Kelley, haven’t drawn in the potentially-curious either).  I’ll admit The Old Man … is more genial, casual, relaxed (especially where bank-robbery-plots are concerned) than most of what topped its 15th place showing last weekend, but for those of us with wrinkles to match those of the older stars on screen, this is an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, especially when given substance at the end of how Tucker was able to prove himself one of the greatest escape artists since Harry Houdini.  That may not be enough to entice you into a theater, although I certainly hope you give it a look in some video format someday when you start wondering whatever happened to the charming screen presence of Robert Redford (which is all I have left of him anyway, given I attended 2 years of his Sundance Film Festival without his presence at either one because he was working on something needing to be finished for release both times).

 My Musical Metaphor this time around is Neil Young’s “Old Man” (from his 1972 Harvest album) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=An2a1_Do_fc&frags=pl%2Cwn (a song originally about Young and the elderly caretaker, Luis Avila, of a large ranch Neil had recently bought) because—in a strictly metaphorical sense (work with me on this)it feels like the young Forrest Tucker speaking across the decades to his much-more-aged-self we see in this film, reminding the “old man” that “I’m a lot like you were,” just as we see in that montage of flashbacks near the end of our story how this guy was not only driven to commit crimes throughout his time on Earth but also challenged himself to escape from the penalties of his actions, with such constant disconnection from all aspects of society that he couldn't sustain his marriage or his parenthood (leading to his capture in 1981 due to that disenchanted-daughter) nor even a life he’d clearly tried to settle into with Jewel, causing him to “Live alone in a paradise [of his own compulsions] That makes me think of two [despite his inability to accept that two-ness, leading to] Love lost, such a cost [so he’s more comfortable with circumstances that] Give me things that don’t get lost [mostly his success with bending social mores to his own victories so, ultimately, despite what he thinks he might find in a relationship he has to admit it] Doesn’t mean that much to me To mean that much to you [Sorry, Jewel.  So, as with this posting’s title and explorations, those ultimate loners such as Armstrong and Tucker can say] I’ve been first and last Look at how the time goes past But I’m all alone at last Rolling home to you.”

 I’ll be rolling along as well but do hope to see you again next week (presumably, for both of us) with another dose of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark.  But before I go, this old man’s been hit with a wave of nostalgia due to all this focus on aspects of the ‘60s-‘80s so I’ll offer you one more Metaphor tune, this one in tribute to the departures of Neil Armstrong—died 2012—(along with moon exploration, at least for the time being), Alan Damron, Forrest Tucker, and the end of Robert Redford’s on-screen-career with another Texas troubadour, Michael Martin Murphy, singing "Cherokee Fiddle" (on his 1976 Flowing Free Forever album), about other departures of certain ways of life also about frontier themes (which should include space travel and bank robberies, although the musician in this song gets his money honestly for the nutrition of “good whiskey,” whether named Nancy or Jack [I’ll also testify it “never lets you lose your place,” as I have its companionship moving into early morning hours each week posting these reviews]).  I’m not “gone forever,” though; I'm just putting my keyboard back in its case for awhile.  See you later, buckaroos.
           
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
           
We encourage you to visit the summary of Two Guys reviews for our past posts.*  Overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness beyond our control—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage If you’d like to Like us on Facebook please visit our Facebook page. We appreciate your support whenever and however you can offer it!

*A Google software glitch causes every Two Guys posting prior to August 26, 2016 to have an inaccurate (dead) link to this Summary page; from then forward, though, this link is accurate.

Here’s more information about First Man:

https://www.firstman.com (click the little 3-line-box in the upper left corner for more specific areas within this site)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8u2pyskQKcU (15:19 interview with director Damien Chazelle, actors Ryan Gosling [with a tiny bit from] Claire Foy, and actual Armstrong sons Mark and Rick)



Here’s more information about The Old Man & the Gun:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OMGxdjFVUDc&frags=pl%2Cwn (18:59 interview with director David Lowery and actors Tika Sumpter, Casey Affleck, Danny Glover, Sissy Spacek, Robert Redford [producers Jeremy Steckler, Jim Stern, Julie Goldstein, Anthony Mastromauro are also introduced but aren’t part of the interview session])



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If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of kenburke409@gmail.com(But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website, https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come. 
             
OUR POSTINGS PROBABLY LOOK BEST ON THE MOST CURRENT VERSIONS OF MAC OS AND THE SAFARI WEB BROWSER (although Google Chrome usually is decent also); OTHERWISE, BE FOREWARNED THE LAYOUT MAY SEEM MESSY AT TIMES.
           
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 4,363 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:

Thursday, October 11, 2018

A Star Is Born [2018]

                                  Another Movie Star Is Born

                                                         Review by Ken Burke

                                              A Star Is Born (Bradley Cooper)

“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): There might not be any spoilers anyway because what's here is the fourth time around for this narrative concept, with all but the first done as musicals.  Probably the basic idea is well known by now, based on earlier versions starring Janet Gaynor and Frederick March (1937), Judy Garland and James Mason (1954), Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (1976), but if your awareness of this plot (about Hollywood actors in the first 2, rock musicians in the others) has somehow remained a mystery, the essential situation is a famous-but-fading male star comes across a talented-but-unknown younger female, promotes her into her own successful career, marries her, then difficulties arise when his alcoholism and ego make it difficult to accept her ascension as it parallels his decline.  Where it all goes from there should best be left unsaid unless you want to read the extended version of my comments just below, although you’ll find each of the previous renditions of this story, along with the present one, to be well worth your time and interest (most debatable where the Streisand-Kristofferson Star ... is concerned, but it does have devoted fans) with this current remake showcasing many skills of its principals:  You’d expect a solid musical presence from Lady Gaga (you get it), but she proves herself to be just as effective as an actor; Bradley Cooper’s already an established actor (with several Oscar nominations in support of his career), yet he’s also now showing himself to have verifiable musical talent plus this is his directing debut, demonstrating great command there too.  Unless you’re just uninterested in passionate romantic movies, cut with aspects of serious drama, I encourage you to seek out this retelling of A Star Is Born (playing practically everywhere) because it’s truly one of the best of 2018 so far, with strong Oscar potential even without the need for a Best Popular Film category (a now-famously-retracted-idea, along with removing New Coke from concession stands).

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)


If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper)—which sounds as much like a geographic location as it does a person’s name (although I’ll just focus on this character because there’s an aspect of the state of Maine, specially it’s current female senator whose name shall not sully this blog, that I care not to even acknowledge the existence of)—is a famous rock musician (but with a repertoire often on the softer side) whose career may still be solid but whose body’s getting awfully run down with a steady diet of booze and pills.  We meet him briefly in this movie’s first scene playing to a huge crowd of supportive fans; in contrast, the second scene introduces us to Ally (Lady Gaga [real name: Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta])—no last name ever given—who aspires to be a recognized musician but for now is stuck on the wait-staff of an upscale restaurant where she’s constantly belittled by her boss, Bryan (Jacob Schick).  With these foundations in place we finally get the title on screen, then quickly get these 2 together as Jack, leaving his venue in need of more liquid nourishment (something from corn mash preferably), halts his limo at what turns out to be a drag bar where Ally’s a late-night-performer (the only female on stage in the place), belting out “La Vie en Rose” while at times lying on the bar right in front on Jack.  He gets some info on her from her close friend, Ramon (Anthony Ramos), then he’s backstage meeting her, taking her off with him for further imbibing (her place just shut down for the night), but at the next bar he’s hassled enough by a drunk patron wanting a photo that she comes to his defense by slugging the hassler before they both run out.  Next stop's an all-night-grocery where Jack buys frozen peas and bandages to wrap her hand (prevents swelling), becomes enamored of her great-on-the-spot-songwriting-ability—as well as her, in general (having already told her she’s beautiful, in reply to why she never tried to get into the music biz because she was always told her nose is too big, makes her “ugly” [even just looking at her without inserting who this actual actor/singer is makes this proboscis remark preposterous to me—did a previous “born star,” Barbra Streisand, also get told such insanity?—but it does provide the necessary setup why this obviously talented woman’s still a diamond in the rough, ready to be polished up by a quickly-smitten-but-honestly-impressed-Jack]).

 He tries to get her to join him at his next concert, she begs off claiming she needs her job, then tells all this at dawn to her shocked father, Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay)—who runs a local limo service (with SUVs rather than limos, it appeared to me) while regaling his fellow drivers with explanations about why Frank Sinatra had the better ability to captivate an audience even if there were others more talented; he can’t believe his daughter turned down an opportunity to connect with Maine.  Nevertheless, Jack’s driver, Phil (Greg Grunberg), shows up at her home ready to get her to that concert anyway; she refuses, he follows her to work, the nagging boss crosses her again so in an instant she and Ramon jump in the driver’s car to be whisked off on a private jet, quickly find themselves backstage at the concert where to her shock, Jack insists she come on stage because he’s going to sing her song she crooned to him the night before whether she joins in or not.  Reluctantly, she ventures into the spotlights, sounds great, and—for all practical purposes—“a star is born.”  She returns home (after spending the night at Jack’s hotel where he passes out but later revives for sex); Jack comes there as well, encourages her to follow him on the rest of the tour which she does (her previous walk-on’s viral on social media), becoming more active in the show (noted in the above photo of the giant video image magnifying her stage presence).  As her stature (public and private) grows, however, our story starts heading for its preordained disaster as we learn Jack was raised by an alcoholic father who became a drinking buddy for his son but died when the kid was just 13, Jack was then raised by his notably-older-brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott)—son of a different mother—who also had musical aspirations but allowed himself to (begrudgingly) be eclipsed by Jack, tension boils over between the brothers when Jack learns the farm he bought for Bobby (where Dad was buried) has been sold (Bobby counters with the news a flood washed Dad’s body away so the farm now meant nothing to him), but the biggest wrinkle in the storyline comes when hotshot producer Rez (Rafi Gavron) convinces Ally to sign with him, taking her budding career into a Beyoncé direction with dancers, intricate choreography, dyed orange hair, all of which proves successful despite Jack’s disgust even as he continues to support his new love/wandering protégé.

 (If you know anything about any previous manifestation of this story nothing I’ll say from here on out is truly a spoiler; however for the benefit of those who don’t yet know where this is going [especially in Google's Unknown Region—see the very end of this posting for audience enumerations] I’ll revert to spoiler alert mode.)  ⇒As Ally’s career continues to soar Jack turns even more actively to booze/drugs even as his hearing loss increases, finally passing out just outside the home of his close friend in Memphis, George “Noodles” Stone (Dave Chappelle), who gives Jack a place to recuperate until Ally tracks him down, whereupon he gives her an “engagement ring” made from a short wire of clipped guitar string, leading to marriage that afternoon (I guess anticipation’s not part of Tennessee culture).  Bobby (now working for Willie Nelson—father of Lukas Nelson, whose actual group, Promise of the Real, acts as Jack’s band in the movie) reconciles with Jack backstage at Saturday Night Live where Ally’s performing on the season finale, but when Jack learns Ally’s been nominated for 3 Grammys he gets belligerent with her, calls her “ugly.”  Later, Jack’s recruited to join in on a Roy Orbison tribute at the Grammy Awards but he shows up almost-wasted (largely in shame about his anger over Ally’s nominations), overpowers the presentation of “Pretty Woman” with screaming guitar licks, comes to join Ally on stage as she’s getting the Best New Artist trophy but passes out.  After a successful stint in rehab (she’s completely supportive) he’s back home but Rez comes to visit, tells him he’s always going to drag her career down (she’s ready to cancel the rest of her current tour in order to spend the summer with him), will probably relapse as well, so while she’s doing what she intends as her final concert for awhile he hangs himself in the garage.  She’s distraught until Bobby convinces her the fault was with Jack, not her, after which she sings a touching torch song at his memorial service.⇐

So What? Given what we've already known of the long history of this story about a fading male superstar whose career is beginning to eclipse just as the younger woman he’s recently fallen in love with finds her star on the rise, Cooper as director (and actor, along with his very effective choice of a leading "Lady") needs to be commended first for not embarrassing himself in his behind-the-camera-debut trying to drain tasty wine from the last drops of a many-decades-ago-opened-bottle, but he goes much further than that in bringing a quality addition to this series of remakes, in some recent opinions possibly the best of the lot (although I’m still partial to the 1954 version with Garland and Mason [directed by George Cukor]—shown just abovebecause the star wattage is so bright in that one it’s difficult to ever top Judy in this role, despite Lady Gaga’s impactful presence  as Ally [not quite her big-screen-debut but certainly her most significant movie role so far, although she did snag a 2016 Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television, in American Horror Story]).   This oft-evolved- 
tragic-plotline seems to have first appeared back in 1937 (yet, there are valid claims its primary concepts were inspired by [plagiarized from?] the events depicted in What Price Hollywood? [Cukor, 1932], although both of these old movies could be using source material from Tinseltown gossip) with that first iteration of A Star Is Born (William Wellman) set in the lore of Hollywood itself with the famed-but-doomed-male as actor Norman Maine (Frederick March) and the aspiring ingénue born in North Dakota as Esther Blodgett (Janet Gaynor) but renamed Vicki Lester by the studio, playing out their complicated encounter in a straight drama, not any version of a musical.  Otherwise, the basic narrative follows what you see on the current screen with the older, established celebrity becoming undone by alcoholism, supporting the budding career of his obscure find before marrying her, then ultimately killing himself so as protect her rise to fame from being sidetracked by her devotion to him, despite his unshaken-addiction-weakness.  This initial introduction to a now-well-resurrected-tale proved popular with audiences and critics alike along with being nominated for 7 Oscars, winning for Wellman and Robert Carson in the Best Writing (Original Story) category (gone through various transformations in identity over the years, now evolved into Best Original Screenplay, the parallel category to Best Adapted Screenplay [which has also emerged, disappeared, re-emerged over the years but was the other screenwriting Oscar option for 1937 releases, where A Star … was also nominated, based on being adapted from that Wellman-Carson story]); it also got a Special Award for W. Howard Greene’s color cinematography, an artform still “in development” (so to speak).  The first remake, in 1954 with Mason and Garland, has the same character names and basic storyline (although Esther/Vicki begins as a small-time nightclub singer before transforming into an actor), was an even bigger hit with critics and theater patrons; however, its 6 Oscar noms yielded no Academy gold (nevertheless, Garland and Mason picked up Golden Globes for their lead
roles).  In 1976 the next revision emerged, same title (directed by Frank Pierson), similar storyline but with the focus shifted to rock concerts (setting us up in general terms for Cooper’s current remake) with Kris Kristofferson as John Norman Howard, a big pop star convincingly succumbing to his own chosen hell of booze and drugs (you almost expect him to break into his well-known-lament,  "Sunday
Morning Coming Down"), making life difficult for his protégée, Esther Hoffman (Barbra Streisand), even as his death by car crash at this end of A Star ... seems (possibly?) to be more accidental than fully suicidal; this one got 4 Oscar noms with “Evergreen” (by Streisand and Paul Williams) as the only winner, for Best Original Song (it also took 5 Golden Globes, for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Streisand and Kristofferson for their lead roles, Best Original Score, Best Original Song), with audience popularity continuing even as critical evaluation dive-bombed (35% positive at Rotten Tomatoes vs. 97% positive for the 1954 Garland-Mason version).

 You can get further comparisons/evaluations on all 4 explorations of A Star Is Born if you like at this site or this one, although here’s a somewhat briefer analysis, depending on how much you want to dig into all of this.*  However, before we completely (well, almost; see the Musical Metaphor in the section below) move on from the past, I’ll also note Esther’s unique in the 1976 version in that she wins a Grammy as did Streisand (scoring Song of the Year for “Evergreen,” to go along with her Oscar) while neither Gaynor nor Garland actually won Oscars for their performances (even though their Esther characters won Best Actress statuettes in their respective movies); however, Gaynor was the first Best Actress Oscar winner, at the inaugural 1929 ceremony for 2 of her 1927 films, 7th Heaven (Frank Borzage) and Sunrise (F.W. Murnau—which also won a Unique and Artistic Picture Oscar, a one-off for that award), and Street Angel (Borzage, 1928), the only time this win was officially given for multiple roles (just as 1929’s first Best Actor Oscar went to Germany’s Emil Jannings for The Way of All Flesh [Victor Fleming, 1927] and The Last Command [Josef von Sternberg, 1928]); of course, Streisand had also won a previous Oscar as Best Actress in Funny Girl (William Wyler, 1968)—tied that year (another first for the category) with Katharine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey), 1 of 4 of those top awards for Hepburn (Morning Glory [Lowell Sherman, 1933], Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner [Stanley Kramer, 1967], On Golden Pond [Mark Rydell, 1981]).  Garland never won a Best Actress Oscar but she was nominated for A Star Is Born along with a later Supporting Actress nom for Judgment at Nuremberg (Kramer, 1961) plus receiving Oscar’s honorary Juvenile Award (given from 1935-1961) back in 1939, recognizing her work in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming) and Babes in Arms (Busby Berkeley); she also later got the 1962 Grammy for Album of the Year, Judy at Carnegie Hall (a favorite of my parents).  Whether Lady Gaga joins her illustrious forebearers in picking up nominations/wins for Oscars/Grammys for this latest … Star turn (Gaynor was a contender, along with Garland) is something we’ll have to wait until 2019 to find out (although she’s previously raked in 6 Grammies, including Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album [with Tony Bennett] for Cheek to Cheek in 2015, Best Pop Vocal Album [The Fame Monster] and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance ["Bad Romance"] in 2011).  Conventional wisdom is Garland’s … Star was a bit of a career revival for her, unlike the others who were still riding high when they embodied Esther/Ally, but clearly this is a massive impact on the big screen for Gaga, likely leading to notable follow-up-movie-roles to parallel her continuing career in the recording arts.

*Or, if you’d like to watch a comparison of the 4 versions of this recurring-filmic-narrative along with reading about them, I recommend viewing this 18:08 video (excellently researched and illustrated).

 Of course, you expect Lady Gaga would be impressive as a singer on screen (when she first bursts loose on stage with Jackson after he coaxes her out there, it’s not Hollywood fantasy at all when the crowd roars approval), so the true musical revelation here is probably Cooper who comes across as a viable country-influenced-rocker (in the tradition of The Eagles) who not only croons soulful ballads but also plays a mean lead guitar (or at least seems to, although movie magic often creates plausible realities nonexistent off-screen, so I can't say if it's definitely all him). Yet, as true musicals (filmic structures where song [and dance, where relevant, not here] are used to further the storyline, replacing aspects of dialogue, even as Modern musicals [a subgenre which stories such as this narrative has supported since the 1954 version] push us close to the definitional borderline where the plot could exist almost without the need for music at all, as evidenced by A Star …’s 1937 straight-drama-beginning) properly integrate their singing with scene-enhancement/character-development we see, from director Cooper's perspective in this short anatomy of a scene, how this is all intended to work even when the song’s presented in simply a cappella fashion rather than the full-blown stage presence of Jackson in the first half of this movie (backed by Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real [led by Willie Nelson’s son, seen by Cooper at the 2016 Desert Trip concert backing Neil Young; not sure if it was the first or second weekend of that spectacular gathering—or both—but if it was Oct. 15 my wife, Nina, and I saw them that night too, which you can experience by scrolling down almost to the very end of this posting to relive “Harvest Moon”]) or Ally’s heavily-choreographed-performances in the second half.  There’s already 2019 Grammy-speculation about at least some of the music in this soundtrack (12 of the 21 specific songs on the album [also includes some fragments of scene dialogue] were co-written by Lady Gaga [usually with several others], Cooper co-wrote 3 of them with Nelson [Lukas is also the sole co-writer of 2 of Gaga’s; the 3 of them co-wrote 1 song, “Alibi”]), so, again, time will tell how well any of this holds up when other cinematic and musical contenders come forth to jostle for the awards competitions next year.

Bottom Line Final Comments: I experienced this new version of A Star Is Born as terrifically effective, providing cinematic-transportation into the world it depicts despite emphasizing its inherent-melodramatics (as all the previous versions did), but despite realizing I responded to what I saw from a more emotional than purely aesthetic, critical angles I felt more justified in my reaction when I found out afterward the critical community at large is also highly-supportive for similar reasons (except for one notable local [San Francisco area] guy, who shall go unnamed but needs to re-examine why he thinks Cooper and Gaga have no on-screen-chemistry in this rendition of A Star … [maybe he meant they never shared a high-school chemistry class]) with an extremely-healthy 91% positive responses from those surveyed at Rotten Tomatoes, a relatively-astounding 88% average score at Metacritic (of 2018 releases both they and I have reviewed, the only other ones to hit that level from them are Leave No Trace [Debra Granik; review in our August 9, 2018 posting]—88%and Eighth Grade [Bo Burnham; review in our August 2, 2018 posting]—90%).  Audiences have been supportive as well, with the debut weekend from domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters hauling in $44.3 million (plus another $14.2 from international venues) which is very commendable for any weekend (although it’s been topped 10 times earlier this year* as well as last weekend by Venom [Ruben Fleischer] at $80.2 million).  What may remain in awards’ voters minds into early next year, though, is Cooper’s successful directing debut here, so let’s focus on that a bit.

*Those other toppers are from the Fantasy, Supercop, and Horror genres (all very difficult for a relatively-outdated Musical offering to beat, even with well-loved Lady Gaga [a few in this following tally I didn’t choose to see; no remorse]): Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 3, 2018 posting) $257.7 million, opened April 27-29; Black Panther (Ryan Coogler; review in our February 22, 2018 posting) $242.2 million, opened February 16-18; Incredibles 2 (Brad Bird; review in our June 21, 2018 posting) $182.7 million, opened June 15-17; Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (J.A. Bayon) $148 million, opened June 22-24; Deadpool 2 (David Leitch) $125.5 million, opened May 18-20; Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard; review in our May 31, 2018 posting) $103 million, opened May 25-27; Ant-Man and the Wasp (Peyton Reed; review in our August 2, 2018 posting) $75.8 million, opened July 6-8; Mission: Impossible—Fallout (Christopher McQuarrie; review in our August 2, 2018 posting) $61.2 million, opened July 27-29; The Nun (Ruben Fleischer) $53.8 million, opened September 7-9;The Meg (Jon Turteltaub) $45.4 million, opened August 10-12.

 Cooper’s an established cinematic name based on both his financially-lucrative-series of The Hangover (Todd Phillips 2009, 2011, 2013)—although by the time we got to … Part III both critical and financial support fell off noticeably—plus his voice work for Rocket (the alien raccoon) in all of the Guardians of the Galaxy manifestations thus far (James Gunn 2014; review in our August 7, 2014 posting; Gunn 2017; Avengers: Infinity War [Anthony and Joe Russo—review in our May 3, 2018 posting]) as well as his more-articulated-roles working with more artistically-minded-directors (Silver Linings Playbook [David O. Russell, 2012; review in our December 28, 2012 posting]; American Hustle [Russell, 2013; review in our December 27, 2013 posting]; American Sniper [Clint Eastwood, 2014; review in our January 29, 2015 posting]), all of which earned him Oscar acting nominations.  Despite his impactful presence in A Star Is Born, though, I doubt his role of Jack will bring a repeat, mainly because you can easily see the similarities of this portrayal to that of Kristofferson in the 1976 A Star … as well as Jeff Bridges in Crazy Heart (Scott Cooper, 2009)—a role that did snag a Best Actor Oscar for its star.  Cooper’s best chance for a personal nomination (in addition to a solid shot at Best Picture, sharing his producer role with 4 others) is as director, in that he demonstrates solid command of how to keep both lead characters as acceptable (despite the dismissal of them as uninvolving by one of my regular screening companions, but he admits this type of movie’s not his favorite anyway) even with their flaws (Ally’s are mostly based in self-confidence-issues, but she does get briefly swept up in her sudden fame, allowing herself to be exploited by Rez against her initial protests), how to incorporate music always usefully moving the story along while justifying a viewer’s decision to purchase the soundtrack album due to the quality of the tunes, incorporation of cinematography capturing the open grandeur of some locations vs. the confining interiors of others, effectively allowing us to feel the pain of all these characters (especially minor ones such as Lorenzo and Bobby, both of whom clearly wanted more for their own lives, then hoped to get such through osmosis from their respective daughter and brother).  This is a well-crafted movie balancing energy, sentiment, triumph, defeat in a most effective manner, even while channeling aspect of all its predecessors.  (Clearly I’m not among those  claiming the first half of this 135 min. production resonates better than its second part; for me it continues to build properly throughout, although I’m not as enamored of Ally’s developing-career-tunes as I am of her earlier ones, but that feels intentional to me as indicative of how intentions get sidetracked from “being honest about what you want to say” [Jack’s ongoing advice for Ally] by financial pressures.)

 Some writers, focusing more on socially-driven-essays than standard evaluative critical reviews, have elaborated on how this current renovation of a long-standing-cultural-artifact focused on ascent/descent-dynamics reflects contemporary gender tensions in our increasingly-fragmented-society, with a male (Owen Gleiberman at Variety) extensively arguing Ally’s success is a metaphor for the decline of male privilege in our culture (by implication, also others that resemble us in the developed world): “The movie is an elegy for the patriarchy, told from a rock ‘n’ roll patriarch’s point of view. As exquisite as Lady Gaga is as Ally, ‘A Star Is Born’ is Jackson Maine’s story. It’s the tale of his tragedy, the story of the end of one man’s pop dynasty that also suggests the end of a way of being […] What’s so threatening to Jackson about Ally’s ascent, into the stratosphere of corporately marketed and synchronized dance pop, is that it represents the death of the place that Jackson comes from: the arena of 'authentic' rock. And that was always a male bastion [… Ally] knows, of course, that there’s room for men and women in the new world. But the place Jackson comes from is a hierarchy, propped up by his boozy entitlement. […] ‘A Star Is Born’ is a great love story, but it’s also the story of a fall: Jackson’s fall, which is really the world’s fall from the garden of male reign.”  In a counter-argument from a female (Libby Hill of the Los Angeles Times), we get the viewpoint this story hasn’t transcended its patriarchal heritage (exemplified in older versions at the final memorial as Esther introduces herself not as Vicky Lester but as “Mrs. Norman Maine”) even in our present #MeToo/Time’s Up era because: “underneath was an undeniable undercurrent of misogyny that was hard to shake. [… Ally] almost always gives in to Jackson’s good, if condescending, insistence that he knows what’s best for her. […] The movie works as musical escapism, but it doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It’s not an examination of the rigors of being a woman in the entertainment industry, no matter how much I wanted it to be. […] And here’s an idea. It’s been more than 80 years since the original version of the film— why has Hollywood yet to flip the gender script? ¶ We can’t see a woman discover and shepherd a young male talent to stardom because, even now, it would seem unrealistic. Women are not the gatekeepers. They do not hold the keys to the kingdom. ¶ ‘A Star Is Born’ is a lovely film that will most likely win plenty of Oscars. But it’s not the movie we need it to be because this isn’t the world we need it to be.” (Say what, Sen. Collins?)

 But, as they debate over how progressively or not this version of A Star Is Born may manifest itself to us, I’ll just take their metaphorical focus into my own realm of the proper place to bring this review to a close (making a clear encouragement for you to see this movie, which is engaging in its use of music; reasonable enough in its depiction of human desires and weaknesses, despite coming clearly from a well-known-generic-structure; emotionally effective, as in the final scene of Ally singing “I’ll Never Love Again”—a song written by Jack to her but never publically performed by him—at his memorial service intercut with footage of him singing it to her in their home after his stint in rehab, finishing with her public rendition but not [in the 21st century] after having introduced herself as “Mrs. Jack Maine,” just simply “Ally Maine” [at least she finally gets a surname]; and possibly [debatably?] serving as at least a minor healing for a culture exasperated by conflicting values about gender roles and actions, with some seeing Jack’s decision as nobly-sacrificing for the ongoing-life his talented wife deserves, others possibly finding it as yet another example of controlling male prerogative) with my own metaphor, a Musical Metaphor at that, my standard means of bringing these observations to closure with insights from the equally-engaging-aural-arts.

 The seemingly-obvious-Metaphor for this version of A Star Is Born is “I’ll Never Love Again” (written by Lady Gaga, Natalie Hemby, Hillary Lindsey, Aaron Raitere; on the soundtrack album; available in aural form only here [as you can also find some other songs from the current A Star … on YouTube, such as "Shallow"written by Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyattthe first onstage-duet with Jack and Ally, presented as a music video with A Star … footage, including the duet; this one or “I’ll Never Love Again” seem to be early contenders for Oscar’s Best Original Song]), but I must go with Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Ira Gershwin) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNDu75gEiIo&frags =pl%2Cwn, from the 1954 movie and its soundtrack album (although I must admit it even further supports Hill’s arguments above about patriarchy, as much as I want to agree with Gleiberman [to the point of recently contributing to Heidi Heitkamp’s Senatorial re-election campaign in support of her brave vote against confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court]) because—feminist hopes for this narrative as valid or not—this story’s always been about the departed man (through his own decision, in hopes it was the best thing for his wife), further enhanced by this being one of Garland’s most exquisite performances (as well as further metaphorical for the life that got away from her, dead much too young at 47 from deteriorated health, accidental overdose of barbiturates, ultimately making her more like Norman than Esther).  In fairness, though, given Garland's song was only nominated for an Oscar but didn’t win, I’ll truly conclude with Streisand’s "Evergreen" (from the 1976 A Star …’s soundtrack album) as it did triumph as Oscar’s Best Original Song along with being more upbeat, more gender-connective and optimistic than the above-cited-offerings, the feeling I’d like to leave you with here (“Two lives that shine as one Morning glory and midnight sun”).

 I’ll also note while there are many interesting films coming into release as we begin to approach that longed-for-awards-season (at least by nominee-hopefuls) I’ve got other competing events to attend over the next month so I may only be able to write 1 review per posting, as I’ve done for these last 3 weeks.  I’ll hope to pick the most interesting possibilities for your consideration, but in case my choices leave you despondent I'll try to parallel your feelings by giving one of the guys from these Star ... movies a chance to shine (but not from any of those soundtracks) by closing with Kristofferson, as alluded to farther above, on behalf of burned-out-stars all over the many galaxies.
        
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
          
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Here’s more information about A Star Is Born:


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISYvmvM7wy8&frags=pl%2Cwn (38:20 interview with director/co-screenwriter [with Eric Roth, Will Fetters]/actor Bradley Cooper, songwriters/performers Lady Gaga, Lukas Nelson, and actors Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott [although it takes about 9 min. to get all the introductions out of the way, followed by Gaga’s brief remarks about Cooper, then at 11:00, after the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival audience screened the movie, they all come back out for the actual Q & A])



Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at https://accounts.google.com/NewAccount if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of kenburke409@gmail.com(But if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website, https://kenburke.academia.edu, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
         
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