A Star is Born

Great performances, some really wonderful directorial flourishes and a great soundtrack elevate the film, but aren’t able to make it soar. 

The story is a classic. A legendary star on the decline finds and elevates a young ingenue. Her star rises as his collapses. Their love holds them together through it all. 

The film is very smart in the changes it makes to the well known story. Bradley Cooper plays the older star. His career is not on the decline. He is in a steady place. He’s a drug addict and alcoholic, but he’s functioning. She is not a young ingenue. She is older, wiser, world weary herself. She has her own internal life and perspective. He doesn’t make her over in his image and give her stardom. She is a star and he gives her a stage. It’s a nice update to the story. 

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as the two leads are stunning together. The film does a wonderful job crafting and exploring a genuine relationship between these two. It is a relationship that carries the rest of the film. It is the reason this film is as good as it is. If that failed or faltered the movie would have been a waste, but it works throughout. She is natural and steady and brings honest feeling to every moment. He returns the same level of genuine feeling. No one ever rings a false note in the movie performance wise. To watch Gaga play a woman terrified of getting on stage and then making the leap and making the audience believe that she’s never performed before a crowd this size is a genuinely wonderful feat of acting. Cooper is able to show such hurt and truth in his eyes no matter what is happening or how sober his character is. 

One of the best scenes in the entire film though involves Cooper and Sam Elliot. They play brothers. They have hurt and fought each other their whole lives, and Elliot is giving him a ride home. In the driveway Cooper tells him something heartbreaking. Elliot drives away. The camera is in the backseat and as Elliot turns in his seat to back out his face becomes visible. The heartbreak is palpable in his face. The build up to this moment is perfect. The timing is exact. The camera placement and shot is brilliant. It turns the audience into the an eavesdropper. It generates a genuine moment of feeling. It’ll break the heart of anyone who sees it. 

The place where the film falters is in the depiction of fame. After an hour with these characters, the film jumps into montage territory. A huge chunk of the film becomes one big concert and tour montage. So much time is devoted to snippets of songs and what life is like on the road. It is okay, but it doesn’t add much to the relationships or advance the story in a truly effective way. The film just kind of happens for a long time until the story picks up again. 

The other misstep in the film that hampers its greatness is the contrived way it leads to its final tragedy. The film adds a scheming manager character to push the plot to its conclusion. The film didn’t need this. The story has all the elements right there in place. It doesn’t need this additional element to make it happen. 

This paragraph goes into more detail about the scheming manager subplot. It may spoil the movie for some. Skip to the next paragraph to avoid the spoiler… Anyway, the film ends with Cooper’s suicide. His character gets sober, but a scheming manager shows up and tells him he’s going to ruin Gaga’s career if he’s around. He then kills himself. This didn’t need to happen. The film has all the elements in place. His drug addiction, his alcoholism, his embarrassing behavior, the way he’s treated her and hindered her career, the things we’ve seen are compelling enough. The film didn’t need the deus ex machina to get the story to this point. It feels contrived and diminishes the effect of the actual moment and the true tragedy of the story. 

That said, the film has some wonderful stuff. It is a really good film. It deserves to be seen and enjoyed. It is my cup of tea. Grade – B+

Green Book

With two powerhouse performances, this film is a joyful emotional success that is a pleasure to watch again and again. It doesn’t preach nor dictate. It tells the story of these two men and their relationship and lets the emotions flow. The direction offers little beyond getting out of the lead actors’ way as they deliver A+ work. 

The film follows Viggo Mortensen as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga a brutal con artist and bouncer from the Bronx who takes a job driving and protecting Dr. Don Shirley on his concert tour of the south in the early 1960’s. The fastidious and proper Dr. Shirley is black and insists on touring the Deep South. 

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen give two of the best and most effective performances of the year. Mortensen is given top billing, but this movie is a duet. Each performance sings in perfect harmony. They share the screen and share the weight. Mortensen plays Tony Lip a character who could easily just be a big Italian from the Bronx cliche, but Mortensen gives him layers and shading. He feels true and honest in every moment. He has grounded this big lug in truth and soul. The way he looks at his wife and doesn’t look at the black man in his backseat. The way he fishes a cigarette out of pack. The way he shrugs and the way he stares. His every movement is motivated and genuine. He nails every detail. 

Mahershala Ali is the one that breaks the hearts. He has moments in this film that are truly unforgettable. They live on in the heart. He is such a lonely and tragic figure. The real Dr. Shirley was a black man who wanted to play classic piano in a world that expected him to play black music. Ali brings a deep alienation and isolation to Shirley. There is a moment when Dr. Shirley thinks Tony is leaving him. He pleads with Tony with only his eyes, trying to protect his dignity and unwilling to admit that he is afraid. Mahershala is able to communicate so much with that look. The camera lingers on that face, and the editor lets the moment linger. It creates a haunting and heartbreaking image that earns an entire letter grade for the movie. 

The direction is purely objective. In modern cinema when shots and whole movies exist to create a subjective experience of exactly what the characters are going through, the direction here tries to get out of the way and simply capture the moments. It’s a very old fashioned style that doesn’t tell a story so much as seek to get out of its way. This works brilliantly in moments like the one described above, however some moments needed a little extra push. They land fine, but they could have really hit a home run. One such moment is a scene in a bar when Dr. Shirley is being harassed and essentially held hostage. Tony is bargaining with the racists and the scene could have carried a deep intensity and tension, but it was shot in only a couple of medium shots and cuts back and forth to the dialogue. A few directorial flourishes could have made that scene much more gripping while still retaining the tone of the film. 

The story itself is fantastic. The script combines solid dialogue with great moments of visual storytelling. There isn’t enough attention paid in modern film to moments without dialogue. One great one comes early when Tony sees two black workmen drinking lemonade in his kitchen. Once they leave he stares at the glasses they used and after considering the glasses throws them in the trash. It’s a great moment. It tells so much about him. These little moments are peppered throughout the movie and feel very fresh.

Finally, some concern has been raised over the films depiction of race relations. People have criticized it as being over simplified or saccharine. It is not either of those things. It embraces certain cliches sure, but the film genuinely isn’t about curing racism. It is about two men from different lives challenging one another to break free from their self imposed constraints and live life a little bit more freely. It’s about these two men and this particular trip. It works and is absolutely my cup of tea. – A-


The too often comedic and fitfully dramatic retelling of the life and times of Vice President Dick Cheney is an explosion of wonderful acting, misguided directing, and fascinating history.

To begin, the acting is uniformly excellent. Lead by the incomparable Christian Bale, the ensemble is a who’s who of character actors devouring their roles. Bale is the best. He brings so much reality, gravitas, and deep inner life to his role as Cheney. There isn’t a second when he falls into mere mimicry or Acting with a capital “A”. Watching him thinking through and observing the others around him is riveting. His dialogue is often minimal, but Bale creates depth with his eyes and his movement. It’s a fantastic performance. Amy Adams is the next essential piece of this puzzle. She is fierce and powerful as a woman with deep desires in a time period when women weren’t allowed to have those desires or ambitions. She is right in step with Bale. A deep true inner life reflected through her eyes and behavior. Steve Carrell as Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as George W Bush are both excellent, but they are show pieces. Adams and Bale are given the most and do the most with what they are given.

The directing and writing is the problem with this film. Adam McKay wrote and directed the film. He is the man behind Anchorman. He has a warped and unique sense of humor. He injected that humor into his financial horror story The Big Short a few years ago. That film found inventive ways to utilize the medium of film to condense huge amounts of technical financial information into easily digestible chunks. He attempts something similar here, but his humor is at war with the material. The story he tells his deadly serious, but his direction insists on going for laughs. This neuters the dramatic impact of a lot of moments. It robs the film of gravitas. It undermines the truth of what we are seeing.

There are two moments that perfectly exemplify his directorial misguidedness… The first involves Adams and Bale in bed. The narrator of the film asks in voice over what must Cheney have been thinking in that moment. He then ponders what it would be like if people spoke in Shakespearean monologues. Bale and Adams then launch into faux Shakespearean speeches about what they are thinking. This is amusing, strange, and gets a laugh. However it doesn’t offer insight into the characters or the story. It’s just a flight of fancy that kind of works. The second moment comes late when Cheney and his team sit down to a fancy dinner. The waiter approaches with the specials. Instead of food he offers them a menu of unethical extremes; water boarding, patriot act surveillance, unlawful rendition, and on and on. They choose all of them. This is clever. It demonstrates the cavalier attitude of the administration with regard to personal rights and freedoms. It’s a really strong metaphor, but it doesn’t stick the landing. The fantasy of it is so jarring and there is no final conclusion or insight drawn from it. It simply ends with the punchline, “we’ll have all of them,” and it moves on. It breaks the verisimilitude of the movie and then dives back into the story proper without giving us a reason. You don’t have to break your movie in half in order to make that metaphor work, but he does in order to get the joke.

The history of this time period and the moments in time that made this man who he is and made his rise possible is unbelievably fascinating. It is riveting stuff. That makes it so unfortunate that they have to leave that history behind for the sake of jokes and random asides. What Cheney did to seize as much control as he did is incredible. To dramatize it in a film is a worthy and perhaps the best way to digest that history. Film can offer us insights into the man and create empathy for the situation and the world in which he exists. The best stretches of this film tell the shadowy history of how Cheney viewed the politics around him. With Bale’s excellent performance, and the riveting history those stretches are fantastic filmmaking and great movie going. However the film can’t get out of its own way.

It feels at times like a student film. The director of that film is not confident in his material, so he injects jokes and humor to keep people watching. It’s too bad.

In conclusion, this movie is half great, half okay. A letter grade – B It’s half a cup of tea anyway