A Star is Born (2018)

Star.jpgDirector: Bradley Cooper

Screenwriters: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, and Will Fetters

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, and Dave Chappelle

Let me first get this out of the way for all of you scientists out there. This is not a movie about huge clouds of dust and gas collapsing under their own gravity until the particles are so densely compacted that they fuse into a celestial body and…a star is born. This deceptively titled film is about a popular Americana singer falling in love with young unknown songstress, and her subsequent rise to fame as a pop star.

A Star is Born stars Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine, a massively popular musical act who is over the peak of his fame. His fans are fervent, but his shows are routine, his hearing is going, and let’s just say he has a bit of a drinking problem. After one of his shows (and a bottle of whiskey), Jackson slinks into an underground bar in search of further libations. To his surprise, it’s a drag bar and the singers there are star-struck by his presence. While the bar caters mostly to drag singers, Ally (Lady Gaga), a former waitress at the bar is permitted to sing there since her voice is so incredible. During a remarkable rendition of “La Vie en Rose,” Jackson is hooked by her talent, look, and style leading him to want to meet her. After a romantic night of stories and songs, Jackson is inspired and he invites her to perform with him, catapulting her from an unknown club songstress to a mainstream sensation.

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A Star is Born is an example of a subsection of film where execution, talent, and polish supersede familiar and uninspired storylines. Films like Avatar, Flight, and Straight Outta Compton come to mind in that you know precisely where every beat is, but the journey through the familiar territory is worth the predictability. The rise and fall of a superstar and the spiral downward is a time-told tale, so time-told in fact that this exact story has hit the big screen three times before, once in 1937 with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, once in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason, and perhaps most famously in 1976 with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. This time however, in the capable hands of first-time director Bradley Cooper, the story remains the same, but new life is breathed into it thanks to some vibrant direction and incredible on-screen talent and chemistry. Cooper does attempt a few curve balls in here to try to liven the story up a bit, but to no real effect. Cooper is a true student of film, however, and his first directorial effort being a remake of a classic is an ideal choice. His choices are deliberate, and the film is full of examples of film theory ranging between classic Hollywood and a modern approach. As an actor, Cooper adopts a twangy gravelly grumble reminiscent of Clint Eastwood that I did find a bit distracting. While A Star is Born is an impressive outing full of passion, Cooper has a masterpiece in him, but this is not quite that.

Lady Gaga is also impressive on screen. As I mentioned earlier, her “La Vie en Rose” number is one for the history books full of glamour, charisma, and charm. Her acting is still a little on the green side, but when she’s on the stage, which is often, she’s excellent and many of the songs that come out of this film are quite good including, “Shallow” and “Always Remember Us This Way.” Many of the musical scenes were famously filmed at Coachella and other music festivals where Cooper and Lady Gaga would do a set in character in order to capture the true enchantment of live music, and these scenes do pop. They also contrast so nicely with the inevitable corporate packaging that Ally is later made to suffer. One interesting point to be made is that Lady Gaga is literally the only woman acting is this film, Brandie Carlile is there for a moment (as herself), but there are no other women! Characters’ mothers are all dead, no sisters, no female friends, and in the early bar scene where Jackson discovers Ally, all the women are men (in drag). The film is also directed and written by only men. Not to say that there’s anything necessarily erroneous about this, but I feel some of the “been-there-done-that” of the film’s story may be the result of such a non-diverse cast and crew.

A Star is Born is a good movie with an excellent first-directional effort by Cooper, and an exceptional use of talent. There is a lot to appreciate about the film, and with the added layer of the music, the film rises above traditional fare. B+

A Star is Born is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 16 minutes.

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Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta ComptonDirector: F. Gary Gray

Screenwriters: Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff

Cast: O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Neil Brown Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Paul Giamatti

When one considers the characteristics of the “movie musical,” things like big, grand orchestrated song and dance numbers and big set pieces often spring to mind. Conversely, crack houses, the L.A. riots, and hip hop music are not usually the first things associated with the genre. Nonetheless, the genre of musical cinema, in its simplest terms, explores characters who engage with music in a way that reveals something about them. And it is within these terms that I suggest the new biopic Straight Outta Compton, about hip-hop group N.W.A., is most certainly a movie musical!

Now Straight Outta Compton may not have big song and dance numbers or big set pieces, but the film is most certainly big. Its ambitions are big, its cast is big, its running time is big, and currently sitting at number one for its third week in a row – its box office is big. The film opens with a tense drug deal gone wrong where Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) narrowly escapes an unsatisfied customer and the LAPD. Director F. Gary Gray then takes us on a quick tour of the city of Compton via introductions of the other four soon-to-be members of N.W.A. including Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) and Andre “Dr. Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins). Compton has its nails dug into each of these boys one way or another, but if there’s one thing the streets have taught them, it’s that their stories are worth telling. What follows is a fairly conventional rise to and fall from fame story, complete with corrupt managers like Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), struggles with the excess that come from success, and acts of retribution by those who have been wronged.

The element that makes this film rise above the conventional is, of course, the music. Like any good musical, the songs play a role as big as any character. The evolution of the group’s most famous anthems are well documented and the group’s cause against the corrupt and downright racist establishment that they have been victimized by is “expressed” with great care. I found myself engrossed in the way this film presented the record business. Many films have depicted the rise of the music artist and the corporate paradox between the money and the art, but Straight Outta Compton shows how unique that process is for Rap and Hip-Hop, especially for a group that was such a trailblazer. It is in this facet that Straight Outta Compton is most impressive. Also, keep an eye out for “cameos” from some of the other key players on the scene as street rap started taking off.

On the other hand, the genre of street rap is admittedly not very “woman friendly” and the same can be said about this film. Female characters are few, far between, shallow, and flat (in the character development sense). Recently, Dr. Dre made a public apology to the women he has hurt, and while much of his misogyny is rather glossed over in the film, the tone is undeniably present with what little dealings with women the film displays. This is not a new criticism when it comes to the latest blockbusters (see my San Andreas review or any Transformers film for more evidence), but a desensitization is emerging. Maybe it’s not a film like Straight Outta Compton’s job to start swinging the pendulum the other way, but that doesn’t excuse the gauche factual omissions that consequently rebrand these men as complete saints.

Still, Straight Outta Compton is successful mostly due to its confidence, which its principle subjects have in spades. The cast captures the spirit of these “boyz in the hood” to an almost eerie degree, and there are some great decisions made in the way that the music is featured. Ice Cube said, “Speak a little truth and people lose their minds.” While we may not be dealing with the whole truth here, Straight Outta Compton does give you a little truth, so go crazy! B+

Straight Outta Compton is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 27 minutes.