A Star is Born

A Star is Born

By: Kevin Jordan

Loose strings.

Immediately after watching A Star is Born, I felt satisfied.  For the past two months, I have been sitting through movies that range from tolerable to ghastly.  Recently, I was asked if I had seen any good movies lately, and my brain took a nap.  Christopher Robin was pretty good, but that was two months ago and was (obviously) forgettable.  Shit movies like The Meg and The Predator made me yearn for something, anything, that did not make me want to perform a self-lobotomy to try to forget such awful films.  Enter a remake, of a remake, of a remake, of the 1937 original A Star is Born.

Ordinarily, a film that is the fourth iteration of itself deserves to be summarily ignored and dismissed on principle, yet each iteration proves itself worthy.  The original won an Oscar and was nominated for seven.  The 1954 remake was nominated for six Oscars.  The 1976 version was nominated for four Oscars and won one.  I may need to amend my remake rules (especially the one about winning Oscars), but that is for another time.  The latest incarnation of A Star is Born will almost assuredly follow in its predecessor’s nomination footsteps.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a famous musician with a bit of drinking problem.  After completing a show and drinking every last drop of alcohol in his limo, he directs his driver to stop at a random bar because he has a bit of a drinking problem.  After staggering up to the bar and being recognized by Ramon (Anthony Ramos), Ramon insists that Jackson listen to the next singing act.  Enter Ally (Lady Gaga), belting out a French song and blowing Jackson’s blitzed mind.  Jackson is instantly enamored with Ally’s talent and talks her into hanging out with him for the rest of the night.  Eventually, they end up in a grocery store parking lot where Ally sings an original song she thought up on the spot and Jackson tells her she is a songwriter.  This is your classic meet-cute where girl sings French song and alcoholic famous guy invites girl to a parking lot at three in the morning.  I promise it works though.

Adorable.

Jackson invites her to his next show and eventually convinces her to join him on stage to sing the parking lot song.  This is the start of her career and we get to follow along as she encounters exactly no difficulties or speed bumps to become the star musician she always wanted to be.  There is a catch though.  Jackson has a bit of a drinking problem.  As she is rising to the top, he is falling to the floor, in some cases, quite literally.  Since they are dating and in love, she has to deal with him being a barely functioning drunk who is very good at saying the right things to her.  That kind of counts as difficulty, but she deals with it the same way Jackson’s brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), dealt with it for decades.  By excusing it, enabling it, making empty threats, and otherwise not actually doing anything about it.

Eventually, this leads to a climax that ranks among one of the most awkward and difficult-to-watch scenes featuring an alcoholic this side of a Supreme Court nominee Senate hearing.  At this point, she finally deals with him, we get a third-act reckoning, and the film ends with a scene that is fairly predictable if you were paying attention.  Credit goes to this film for bringing a certain element back around, but it turns out it was just about the only thing they tied up at the end.

Like I said, I was satisfied at the conclusion of the film.  The film has great acting from Gaga and Cooper and an excellent soundtrack featuring some songs that I guarantee you will be humming on your drive home from the theater.  Since the soundtrack was not available the day I screened the film, I spent the car ride home discussing the shortcomings of the writing with my wife.  This is a good time to remind you that my wife has a film degree and so much smarter than me about movies.

Is that song stuck in your head too?!!

One weakness in the writing is that the first half of the film is extremely well-done and filled with all kinds of setups, while the second half is a bit of a slog where none of those setups are brought back to bare.  Many a line is spent discussing how Ally’s looks, particularly her nose, are not visually conducive to being a famous rock star.  Even her dad (Andrew Dice Clay) notes that if she was not quite so ugly, people would notice her talent (and he says it in way that is dickish to her instead of defensive of her).  After weeks of touring with Jackson, she scores a deal with a manager and I thought for sure he was going to recommend she get a nose job.  Instead, he recommends she get blond hair.  Another example of missed opportunity is Ally’s defiance.  Early in the film, she punches a cop, yet, for the rest of the movie, no further cops (or anyone) were harmed in the making of this film and she acquiesces to pretty much anything and everything (including aforementioned hair color change) with zero argument.  Example number three is a line from Jackson very early in their relationship where she asks if he has been drinking and he says no, that he has not even thought about drinking.  Of course, he has a bit of a drinking problem so he might have still been really drunk when he said that because he is drunk again very soon thereafter.

Hi dick. I mean, dad.

The other big weakness is in the characters themselves.  For Jackson, we are never really sure why he drinks so much.  Is it because of his abusive father?  His tinnitus?  Being a rock star in general?  After a particularly nasty drunken confrontation, Ally tells him she will not give him another chance and he quits the booze for a little while.  When he starts drinking again, it is not really clear why.  On several occasions, he tells her (and other people) that the only thing that matters in music is having something to say.  As long as she stays true to herself and remembers that advice, she will succeed.  Yet, when it appears that she has forgotten that advice (by changing her hair, performing with back-up dancers, singing empty songs), he never confronts her about it.  So, we are left back at the beginning of this paragraph.  Is the tinnitus getting worse?  Does he hate the orange hair?  Is he having cold-turkey induced nightmares of his dad singing with backup dancers who all have the Sam Elliott’s mustache?  We need answers, dammit.

For Ally, we never get to see her character really grow or traverse any real story arc.  She seems to really dislike her father, yet everything is cool as soon as she hits the stage.  She seems to be defiant and wanting to succeed on her own terms, yet caves in to her manager’s demands at the drop of a hat.  She threatens to leave Jackson for good if he ever ends up super-duper drunk again, then marries him after he ends up passed out in a friend’s yard.  Halfway through the drive home, it occurred to me that Ally is arguably not the main character of this film, but that Jackson is.  So the film’s title is a bit of stretch even though it and the trailers clearly point to Ally as the main character.

I was serious when I implied this movie was going to garner some Oscar nominations.  The acting, music, and singing are more than good enough to earn some awards.  The first fifty minutes alone are worth it.  Just remember not ride home with any film students.

Rating: Ask for two dollars back for leaving all those strings untied.

War Dogs

By: Kevin Jordan

A case study.

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When it comes to movies, writing is more important than everything else.  Without writing, the stuff in a movie is meaningless.  Costumes are being worn because actors get cold and the movie is supposed to be rated PG-13.  Sets are just piles of wood, nails, and paint that actors run across because a guy with a bullhorn and a headset just gave the go ahead to blow up that car.  Lights are turned on so the actors don’t trip over props while running from the explosion.  In other words, nothing is happening for any reason, and nothing you are seeing has any meaning…without a story.  Writing gives all of that stuff purpose and good writing ties all of it together in ways that make you glad you spent money and time to watch it.  And that’s how we got The Dark Knight.  But without a story or any decent writing, I guess a movie like that must simply meet its release date.  And that’s how we got Suicide Squad.

But, this isn’t about DC movies.  This is about a movie called War DogsWar Dogs is the perfect example of how good writing makes a great movie.  More specifically, it’s a perfect example of how to adapt source material into a screenplay.  One of the biggest complaints by moviegoers about Hollywood book adaptations is that “the book was better.”  In other words, Hollywood often screws up the source material in an adaptation.  While there are countless examples of poor adaptations, there are also numerous examples of superior adaptations, and War Dogs is one of them.

War Dogs is based on a Rolling Stone article titled Arms and the Dudes telling the story of the rise and fall of two twenty-something American men who became international arms dealers and found themselves winning a $300 million defense contract to supply arms to the US military in order to arm the Afghan army.

war dogs boys

If the screenplay writers had adapted the story with no changes, it would have made for a fairly uninteresting movie.  Don’t get me wrong, the article is fascinating and worth the read, but it isn’t worth two hours in a theater.  The two men, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller) are both greedy war-profiteers who have no qualms about the legality of what they are doing.  The US government officials contracting them are well aware of what they are doing and simply don’t care.  They work with several shady arms dealers who are all in it for the same reasons – money.  Do you see the problem here?  Not one character or entity discussed in the article comes off as the hero or even anti-hero in this story.  So, in the movie version, who are you supposed to root for?  After watching such a movie, you’d wonder why they spent $45 million on what amounts to a 60 Minutes segment.

war dogs scene stealer

Rather than bore you with an overly long night-time news segment, the writers took the characters, the bones of the story, and a couple of fun details (David was a masseuse prior to running guns) and turned it into something worthy of a theater.  To start with, they made David the hero and improved his motivation.  He also gets a pregnant wife, Iz (the gorgeous and scene stealing Ana de Armas), and is forced to work for Efraim because he is failing to earn enough money to support his family.  In contrast, the writers bring Efraim as-is because being a sleazy, greedy, shitbag of a friend makes him the perfect villain.  Now we have two well-defined characters whose roles are clear throughout the film.

war dogs punch in face

Then, they embellish a couple of the contract stories and align them in a way that perfectly escalates the stakes and the tension as the movie approaches its climax.  The best way to describe it is as a movie that plays out much like Two for the Money or 21.  Our hero is brought into the lucrative business, finds early success which leads to more success, which leads to the ‘big one,’ which leads to the inevitable crash, which leads to a satisfying end.  In addition, the US government doesn’t come off nearly as shady because the movie needs it to be the uncorrupt lawman (if only this wasn’t an embellishment *sigh*).

There were a few more tweaks, but that’s the meat of the movie and I’m not sure they could have adapted the story any better.  On top of that, they nailed the casting.  Hill was every bit the villain they needed him to be and you’ll want to punch Efraim as much as David does.  Teller also proved that he can actually act when given a decent character and we can now forgive him for his abysmal Mr. Fantastic.  As I mentioned earlier, de Armas manages to upstage Teller in their scenes together, especially when she calls him out for being a liar late in the movie.  And then there’s the gorgeous and scene-chewing Bradley Cooper (playing arms dealer Henry Girard), every bit as engaging as we’ve come to expect from him.  Even in his relatively few scenes, it’s hard to believe he’s not actually a slimy, dangerous arms dealer brought into this movie to make it more real.  And that, my friends, is how you write a movie worth watching that is based on literary source material.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back and go read that article.

American Sniper

By: Kevin Jordan

If only this movie were as interesting as its preview.

American Sniper

When you were in school, you probably asked the following question at least once a week – “why are we learning this?”  That’s the way I felt after watching American Sniper, a movie that managed to make sniping and war sound like a lesson as given by Ben Stein in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  While I didn’t actually fall asleep during the movie, I found my mind wandering as much as any bored student in school.

American Sniper is based on the autobiography of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours of duty as a sniper in Iraq after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  Before you get upset that I’m about to give a negative review of this film, know that it has nothing to do with the actual Chris Kyle and everything to do with the movie being just above lousy.  I’m glad there are guys like Kyle that are willing to sacrifice themselves for our country, just like I’m sad there are directors like Clint Eastwood making disappointing movies about those guys.

Since this movie is getting award buzz, you’ve probably seen the previews more than once and you were just as interested in seeing this movie as I.  The preview shows Chris (Bradley Cooper) in the back of a Humvee, talking to his pregnant wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), on a satellite phone when Chris’s team comes under enemy fire.  Chris drops the phone and Taya drops to her knees as she listens to the battle, fearing the worst.  It’s a very engaging scene because you immediately are concerned for Chris and Taya.  Unfortunately, the preview is more tense and engaging than nearly the rest of the entire film and whatever relationship those two had in real life is barely displayed in the film.

The biggest problem with the movie is it never commits to any narrative and by the end of the film you won’t know what the point of the movie was.  That preview scene should have been a crucial part of the story, but it turns out to be one of a string of anecdotes from Chris’ life.  That preview scene would have nicely fit a number of possible narratives:

  • Chris and Taya’s relationship and the strain his deployments put on it.
  • A rival sniper trying to take out Chris and collect a bounty.
  • The hunt for the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
  • The hunt for al-Zarqawi’s enforcer, “The Butcher.”
  • The point of the war and its effect on our soldiers.
  • Chris helping wounded vets or those with PTSD cope with rejoining American society.

Any one of those had the potential to be a really compelling movie, but Eastwood and writer Jason Hall seemed bent on sticking to a clinical accounting of Chris’ stories while not exploring any of those narratives so you never feel like anything was at stake during the movie.  Of course, it’s hard to be too surprised by Eastwood considering he’s the same guy that lectured an empty chair at the Republican National Convention just a couple of years ago.

Because they chose not to flesh out any of those narratives, this movie could have been about any American soldier of the past 13 years.  Chris is portrayed as a guy whose entire motivation is to protect America, a guy whose multiple tours have changed him, a guy whose family is breaking down due to his absences, and a guy who has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his tours.  Doesn’t that describe a large population of American soldiers?  Does the fact that he is billed as the most lethal sniper in American history matter at all in this movie considering his missions are almost never loftier than “provide cover for squads clearing houses?”  None of the events depicted truly connect with the events preceding or following, regardless of whether they occur at home or in the field.  The question I found myself continually asking during the way-too-long two-hour-and-twelve-minute running time is “why are we seeing this?”

For comparison, we can look at a couple of other (much better) sniper movies – Sniper (with Tom Berenger and Billy Zane) and Enemy at the Gates (with Jude Law and Ed Harris) – both of which have very defined narratives so you know what’s at stake.  In Sniper, Berenger and Zane are on an assassination mission, but the movie is really about what it takes to be a sniper and kill another person (incidentally, the idea of killing people is definitely not a concern in American Sniper except when it’s a child).  Enemy at the Gates is a much closer comparison as it is based on the tales of the most decorated Soviet sniper of World War II (Vasily Zaitsev), specifically focusing on his months-long duel with a German sniper in Stalingrad during the war.  Enemy at the Gates is the movie American Sniper wanted to be (American Sniper even steals Enemy at the Gates’s opening scene depicting the young sniper hunting with his father), but fails in every way possible.

If I haven’t convinced you of how lazy this storytelling was, consider this example of Eastwood and company falling asleep at the wheel.  Chris is portrayed as having gone through SEAL training prior to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and during that training he tells a drill instructor that he is 30 years old.  At the end of the movie, we are told he is killed in 2013 at the age of 39.  How did Chris manage to age only nine years over a (minimum) twelve year span?  Remember, the writer actually wrote that down in the screenplay.

Despite the fact that the movie is essentially pointless and storyless, Cooper keeps the movie from being a complete waste of time.  There is simply no way anyone envisioned this kind of performance when we saw him playing a douchebag in The Wedding Crashers, and Silver Linings Playbook seemed like more of an anomaly than anything.  He appeared to be destined for a career of fun action romps and dirty comedies, but now we realize we’ve been underestimating him.  I wish I could say the same thing about Sienna Miller, but Taya was so one-dimensional and under-used after her initial meet-cute bar scene with Chris, that Miller never stood a chance.

Before I go, you should know that I have not read the book, nor had I even heard of Chris Kyle prior to seeing this movie.  I have read a few things regarding the authenticity of his stories, but none of that affected my opinion of this movie.  Maybe he was an American hero or maybe he was just another soldier, but either way, this movie didn’t care.

Rating: Ask for six dollars back and for Eastwood to quit lecturing.  …Bueller?

Guardians of the Galaxy

By: Kevin Jordan (Number9)

Nothing can stop Marvel.

Guardians

Back when I wrote about Edge of Tomorrow, I casually commented that one of the most anticipated movies of the summer was Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy and that I had no idea why it was so anticipated.  I’ve read approximately one comic book in my entire life, but I’m aware that they exist and have at least heard of most the titles of most of them.  But, Guardians of the Galaxy?  Up until a couple of years ago, virtually nobody had heard of that one, including me.  I also joked that the only thing revealed in the trailers were the five guardians, a spaceship, a bunch of jokes, and a whole lot of action and I can honestly tell you that all of those things exist in this movie.  My big fear was that the plot was either going to not exist or be a complete mess since the previews didn’t show a peep of it.  Well, to answer your question, yes – I’ve only ever read one comic book.

Last week, after seeing Lucy, my friend opined that Lucy is fine as long as you don’t think about it.  That very well might be the most backhanded compliment one can give to a movie.  Essentially, what that statement means is that the film is a flaming turd disguised by an element or two that makes the film tolerable.  In the case of Lucy, those elements are good action scenes and Scarlett Johansson walking around in a tight, black dress causing half the audience to drool and the other half to edge ever-so-slightly towards bulimia.  But, when you start to think about the plot, the character development, or the various character motivations, you realize you can smell the turd and it’s not pleasant.

The interesting thing about said compliment is it is used almost exclusively by people to sugarcoat their real opinion for a certain audience or because they secretly liked the movie and don’t want to admit they have no idea what a well-written story/screenplay looks like (note: my friend is one of the former).  Personally, I use that statement as a veiled insult directed at people who openly like movies that fit the compliment or the people who actually wrote/made the movie.  In other words, when I say that Lucy is a tolerable action movie if you turn your brain off, I’m saying Luc Besson – and anyone who claims Lucy is more than a big, dumb action flick – is a moron.  I’m not saying you can’t like the film or enjoy it (hell, I enjoyed the shit out of Battleship); I’m just saying don’t make it more than it is.  For me, there aren’t many things funnier than people trying to explain the depth and gravitas of poorly written movies like Maleficent.

The converse to said compliment is that it is possible to make big, action flicks that are both fun and non-dumb, which brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy.  Based on the previews, I fully expected that I would have to turn off my brain to enjoy the film.  If you are in the majority of folks, the only thing you know about the film is that a tree, a raccoon, a green-chick, and two dudes come together on a spaceship to crack jokes and shoot people.  That is not exactly the formula for a well-written movie; in fact, it’s essentially Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, but with intentional comedy.

(Side note: how hard are you trying to match up those characters right now?  There is no way you are sleeping tonight without figuring that out.)

Where Guardians succeeds and so many others fail is that it delivers a very simple, straight-forward plot, focuses a lot on character development while using it to advance the story, and doesn’t use action just for the sake of action.  The entire plot of the film, as you may have guessed, is that the five characters shown in the previews will save the galaxy from something.  In this case, they have to save the galaxy from a villain named Ronan (Lee Pace) who is trying to get his hands on an Infinity Stone, which will give him the power to destroy entire planets.  Simple, right?  The plot advances through various events, bringing the characters together while also telling us more about the characters themselves, including their back stories and motivations for the actions they have taken and the actions they are going to take.  There are a couple of minor, unanswered questions like – who is the collector (Benicio del Toro) and why have we now seen him in two different movies? – but those questions don’t make the plot harder to understand or outright nonsensical.  In the context of the film, the collector is the guy who promised to pay Gamora (Zoe Saldana) a ton of money for the sphere containing the stone and that’s it.  Simple, right?

On top of all that, there are smaller things that make the movie more entertaining than just about any movie this summer.  For one thing, the movie is aware of itself.  Another thing you hear people sometimes say is that a movie took itself too seriously or isn’t aware of itself.  What that usually means is that the mood of the movie does not match the content of the movie.  Not to harp too much on Lucy, but it definitely takes itself too seriously (after the first half, that is) in that it treats its own premise with far too much weight.  The idea that a human gains multiple superpowers through expanded brain capacity by ingesting a large quantity of a drugs sewn into her stomach is absurd and should be treated as such (obviously, this is not how Lucy handled its own premise).  Guardians is a comic book movie in which one of its characters is a genetically engineered, sarcastic raccoon named Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and another is a tree named Groot (Vin Diesel).  The mood you would expect is fun action and comedy dressed in special effects and that’s exactly what you get.  That’s how you know Guardians is aware of itself.

Of course, the movie isn’t without its flaws.  Chris Pratt gives an uneven performance – sometimes he’s really good and sometimes he’s soap opera bad.  There are a bunch of thieves led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) that are superfluous and could easily be lifted from the movie without impacting the story.  There are some really bad performances put forth by Karen Gillan as Nebula – who spends the entire movie screeching – and Pace, who over-delivers nearly every line he utters.  Perhaps the most glaring flaw is best put like this – what the hell is Glenn Close doing in this movie?

The point I’m trying to make is that the movie doesn’t ask you turn off your brain, but also doesn’t ask you to think about anything either.  It’s simply asking you to come along for a fun ride for a couple of hours and enjoy yourself.  I’m not saying Guardians of the Galaxy is the best movie of the summer, but it might just be the most entertaining.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back.  This movie turned out far better than even Marvel could have predicted.