Review: A Star is Born (1954)

A Star is Born (1954)
Judy Garland, James Mason. Written by Moss Hart. Directed by George Cukor.

Esther Blodgett is a singer in a band when she meets Norman Maine, a Hollywood star at the very beginning of his career’s decline. Although this 1954 version is my least favorite of the four A Star is Born films, Esther and Norman’s meeting in this one is the best. Norman’s drunk when he wanders onto a stage where Esther and her band are performing. Rather than let Norman be embarrassed, Esther quickly incorporates him into the act, as if he were part of the show.

It’s an immediate display of grace, sensitivity, talent, smarts, and self-assuredness that characterizes Esther throughout the film. If only such economy in development could be employed the rest of the way.

Instead, we get a three-hour marathon that’s alternately engaging and sloggy. Everything we love about younger Judy Garland is right here, as if the film were written about her, and everything some of us (me) hate about 1950s movie musicals and their showtunes is right here as well, in overwrought, boring excess.

Take out most of the songs, and the film would be a pleasant length, but the filmmakers are determined to make it a comeback tour de force for Garland, who’d been out of movies for four years following the end of her time with MGM.

I’m grateful that this movie holds true to the original in one very important aspect of Esther’s career. Although Norman cracks the door open for Esther’s chance in the movies, Esther kicks it down with her talent, charm, and niceness. She’s pretty, but she’s not that pretty, just like the first Esther Blodgett. Some guy who has the hots for her does her a favor, but Esther makes Esther. It’s the best thing about the film.

When Esther’s first major film premieres for the Hollywood VIPs, we’re treated not only to a few minutes, but what feels like practically the entire movie. It’s misery.

Esther’s career is on the rise, while Norman’s is on a self-destructive path downward. It’s just as interesting as the original except that James Mason’s Norman Maine is not nearly as likeable as Fredric March’s and there’s really very little romantic chemistry between Garland and Mason. They’re much better and much more believable as best friends.

Could have been a great movie if not for all those songs!

6/10
61/100

Review: A Star is Born (1937)

A Star Is Born (1937)
Janet Gaynor, Fredric March, Adolphe Menjou, Lionel Stander.  Directed by William A. Wellman.

Esther Blodgett is a North Dakota farm girl with dreams of Hollywood stardom.  The original A Star is Born movie pretty much begins with her family thinking she’s crazy for even entertaining the notion.  Her grandma, however, believes that if you’re willing to risk everything in pursuit of your goals, you have to do it.

Esther relocates to Hollywood, where she discovers the supply of young, aspiring actresses far exceeds the demand.  She’s about to give up when a chance encounter with one of filmdom’s legends, Norman Maine, leads to an audition, a minor supporting role, and the lead in her own film.  Soon, her career is on the rise while Norman’s is on the decline.

The Esther-Norman relationship drives the film, because while Esther may have needed Norman’s little boost to get through the door, she’s not at all dependent or needy in her relationship with Norman or in any other relationship.  Norman clearly needs her far more than she needs him. She just really, really loves him, and he doesn’t quite know how to be loved.

In nearly every way, A Star is Born looks and feels like the popular movies of its time, but with a smart, strong woman taking the lead.  Norman is no tragic hero—he’s not a hero at all—but he’s a man loved by a woman. Could his demise have been reversed by a woman like this, or by anyone?  The film seems to think not, and as Norman travels along his beautiful, downward spiral, Esther goes along with him because someone has to try.

Fredric March as Norman and Janet Gaynor as Esther are a great screen couple, and Gaynor’s performance is especially impressive, the best reason to watch this film more than once.

75/100
7/10

Review: Eighth Grade

Eighth Grade (2018)
Elsie Fisher, Josh Hamilton, Emily Robinson. Written and directed by Bo Burnham.

Kayla is in the last week of eighth grade, where she’s pretty close to invisible and doesn’t seem to have any close friends. Her classmates vote her “Most Quiet,” which bugs Kayla. She doesn’t think of herself as quiet; she doesn’t want to be quiet. She has things to say, but she can’t seem to interest anyone in hearing her.

Like many young men and women, Kayla spends most of her waking time in front of a screen. A smartphone from which she Snapchats her activity, a MacBook on which she produces YouTube self-help videos for almost no audience. In these videos, she presents herself as socially competent, a positive thinker, an assertive friend. She’s none of these things in real life, and the only person who seems genuinely interested in everything going on with her is the one person she doesn’t want listening: her single-parent father.

Because most of us were eighth-graders millions of years ago, we’re like Kayla’s dad. We see what a bright, interesting, resilient young woman Kayla is. Unlike Kayla, we also see that the young people around her, the popular kids throwing pool parties at their huge homes and the nerdy cousins and the handsome (barely pubescent) jocks all have their own growing pains.

Perhaps they struggle differently, but they struggle as deeply. Kayla doesn’t see that the pool party girl knows her married mom flirts shamelessly with Kayla’s dad, or that the nerdy boy is, by virtue of being the least cool person in the room, perhaps the only person at the party not pretending to be something he’s not, and therefore the one most worthy of her friendship.

Kayla takes a foray or two into the world of grownups (read: high-schoolers) where she sort-of experiences the kind of acceptance she longs for. I don’t know what such excursions were like for anyone else, but I imagine Kayla doesn’t see anything especially unusual.

Which makes Eighth Grade one of the realest looking movies about pre-high-school I’ve ever seen. Performances all around are solid and thoughtful, and the script brilliantly gives grownups (read: people old enough to be Kayla’s parent) one film and young people another, both of them sincere and provocative. This is one of the best movies for younger teens I’ve seen in a very long time.

9/10
92/100

Review: Puzzle

Puzzle (2018)
Kelly Macdonald, Irfan Khan, David Denman. Written by Oren Moverman and Polly Mann. Directed by Marc Turtletaub.

People who know me don’t have to be told I’m predisposed toward liking a movie about a middle-aged homemaker questioning her choices and discovering a love for solving jigsaw puzzles. It’s like this movie was made for me, so take my recommendation with this in mind.

Agnes feels she’s been taken for granted by her family: a hard-working, loving husband who doesn’t seem to need much from her outside meals and companionship, and two adult sons who respect her but don’t know anything about her.

A day after a birthday party thrown for Agnes which she seems to have done all the prepping for and cleaning up after, Agnes takes a few moments for herself, apparently a rare occurrence. One friend has given her a jigsaw puzzle as a birthday gift. She spends the day completing it, and then breaking it apart so she can complete it again.

Dinner is forgotten in these puzzle-solving moments. And when her family expresses annoyance at having been put on the back burner, Agnes begins to resent the role she may have carved out for herself.

She goes to a puzzle shop and buys another.

Soon, she is secretly practicing a few times a week with a new puzzle-solving partner—an independently wealthy inventor, recently single, who watches the news all day because he’s fascinated by the destruction.

I saw Puzzle five days after seeing Juliet, Naked, and they are nice complements for one another. Both movies feature middle-aged women questioning their choices, wondering if it’s not too late for a do-over on some of them. I like them both, but I like Puzzle quite a bit more. Whether it’s because of its puzzles theme, because it’s considerably more anguished, or because it leaves a bit more to the viewer to interpret doesn’t really matter to me; it’s probably all three.

“Why do we love puzzles?” one character asks.

“It’s a way to control the chaos,” says another.

Heck yeah.

9/10
90/100

Review: The Spy Who Dumped Me

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)
Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Gillian Anderson. Written by Susanna Fogel and David Iserson. Directed by Susanna Fogel.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is not the first female buddy-cop flick, but in the summer of 2018, its existence and moderate success feel like a statement. I was happy to see it just to express my support for such a film, and in fact am disappointed in the title, which refers to a male character who’s pretty much not even in the movie. This is a movie about two friends, not a man who dumps a woman.

As a friend movie, it works pretty well. Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon play nicely off each other, and there are moments of very believable affection, not for any of the many men in the picture, but for each friend by the other. That they can develop and portray this relationship in front of this spy-vs-spy backdrop of a plot feels like a statement as well, and although I admire the concept, the execution leaves a bit to be desired.

I didn’t care for the violence, which seems to push past gratuitous and into sadistic, and I mean sadistic toward its audience. People come to horrific ends, almost always men and almost always after establishing some kind of rapport with the main characters. Is this also part of the big statement? If it is, there’s probably more going on here than I thought.

One very memorable scene involves our main characters, Audrey and Morgan (her name is Morgan Freeman, believe it or not), interacting with a couple of younger twenty-something women. Audrey and Morgan, probably in their early to mid thirties, are smart and funny, and they’re in the midst of a life-or-death situation with international spies.

These two younger women are vapid and giggly. Are Audrey and Morgan looking at their former selves, kind of disgusted with what they see but experienced enough to manipulate it? Or are they looking at the idea of young women in movies, nearly completely useless in a genre almost always dominated by men?

There’s something here, but my brain was too bored by the third act to try and put it all together. I don’t think it’s the fault of the actors so much as a general problem with the genre.

Oh yeah, the plot. Audrey is dumped by her boyfriend Drew. She learns from some guy she meets that Drew is a spy. Drew tells Audrey they must travel together to Vienna to turn over a certain item, but Drew is murdered. Morgan convinces Audrey that they need to fly to Vienna and complete the mission, but someone advises them to trust nobody. Violence. Comedy. Female bonding. Possible romance. Women discover they’ve got more in them than they thought. 117 minutes that could have been 93.

6/10
61/100

Review: The Equalizer 2

The Equalizer 2 (2018)
Denzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo. Written by Richard Wenk. Directed by Antoine Fuqua.

I never saw 2014’s The Equalizer, so The Equalizer 2 is completely fresh snow for me, and it’s not bad if you don’t mind your snow a little on the vindictive side.

Robert McCall is a Lyft driver in Massachusetts, where he reads a lot of books and looks after an old man in a retirement home while lecturing some of the local kids on the value of hard work or something kind of Furious-Styles-sounding. He’s something of a neighborhood vigilante, a very violent, fearless vigilante who takes on groups of young men for assaulting the young women in the neighborhood.

Someone close to McCall is murdered, and there (apparently) aren’t very many people close to McCall, so he goes after the people responsible, only he doesn’t know who these people are. At first.

Everything I feel I needed to know about McCall is covered by the fact that he’s reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me right before he destroys a train car full of very bad men. So I kind of like him even if it seems he’s got his fingers in far too many pies. Denzel in badass mode is great if he isn’t allowed to ham it up.

About those pies: the story tries to do twenty things and I would normally be annoyed or distracted or dissatisfied, but I was really just along for the ride.  Yeah, the story is too busy and too involved, but okay.

Alas, the film is directed by Antoine Fuqua, and I haven’t seen all of his movies with Denzel, but I’ve seen Training Day, a film I disliked because Denzel hams it up like an Easter brunch. Thankfully, there are only a couple of offending scenes like this here, but there was a moment where I was half-certain McCall was about to proclaim at the top of his lungs that King Kong ain’t got s*** on him. I tolerated these couple of scenes because I like the rest of this film just fine.

You know what? I’m adding the first film to my Netflix DVD queue. And I’d pay to see another of these. Please, though, can we get a different director?

5/10
50/100

Review: The Happytime Murders

The Happytime Murders (2018)
Melissa McCarthy, Maya Rudolph, Joel McHale, Elizabeth Banks, Bill Barretta, Dorien Davies. Written by Todd Berger. Directed by Brian Henson.

Picture a world like the one in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? but instead of humans and toons, the world is cohabited by humans and puppets with serious discrimination against puppets. This is the world in which The Happytime Murders is set, only instead of some made-up town, we are right in Los Angeles with all its glamour and sleaze.

Mostly sleaze.

And instead of playing pattycake, the characters have all manner of strange methods for pleasing each other, not to mention all manner of bodily fluids spewing everywhere.

Phil Phillips was once the first puppet in the L.A. Police Department, but an error in judgment got him fired, and now he’s a private investigator specializing in wrongs done by humans against puppets. A hard-boiled Philip Marlowe type, Phil is lonely and apparently haunted by demons we don’t discover until we’re knee-deep in the plot. And Silly String.

Some high-profile people and puppets are murdered in what appear to be related crimes, so Phil’s former chief of police deputizes Phil and assigns him to his former partner, a human played by Melissa McCarthy.

If this same movie were cast entirely with humans and no other changes, it would probably be a hard NC-17, but you can get away with a lot more when half the characters are puppets (performed by Jim Henson’s Muppets). Members of the creative team clearly asked themselves what puppets were physically capable of as well as what puppets could get away with in a movie, and pushed right up against the line.

So it’s a fun, creative, raunchy-as-heck movie and I appreciated it for these reasons. Phil is a loveable, beat-down character it’s hard not to like, and McCarthy does what she usually does very well: play crass while remaining vulnerably human. It mostly works.

Where it falls short is in its plot. It’s okay that it’s not very twisted or complicated, but it begins to get dreary and barely interesting about two-thirds of the way through, and the resolution feels strangely dark, like those Dirty Harry movies where the bad guys are dead and the good guy is alive, but yuck. You need a shower.

I discovered the day after I saw this film that I laughed a lot harder telling someone else what’s in it than I did actually watching it. It appears to be hilarious in concept and even execution while awkward or grim in performance. Or something like that.

Even now, I think about an octopus and a cow (all those arms; all those teats) and I laugh aloud. I didn’t laugh aloud when it played out in front of me.

Totally worth a free stream but I wouldn’t recommend paying movie theater prices for this.  And keep the kids away!

5/10
55/100

Review: White Boy Rick

White Boy Rick (2018)
Richie Merritt, Matthew McConaughey, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Brian Tyree Henry, Bruce Dern, Piper Laurie. Written by Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller. Directed by Yann Demange.

It’s difficult to know how to feel about what happens to Rick Wershe, Jr. at the end of White Boy Rick, and this makes it difficult to decide how I feel about the movie. Do we care more about justice in the eyes of the law, or justice according to a sense of right and wrong, and how do Rick’s choices stand up to either standard? If the film wants us to take a side, I can’t tell which it is.

This makes me dissatisfied with the film, which is a disappointment because I like and care about this character, and Richie Merritt as White Boy Rick does a nice job playing him. Guided by a sense that life is ripping him off but feeling empowered to do something about it, Rick is suspicious of his father’s optimistic outlook and unsure what to do about a junkie older sister whom he cares very deeply about.

Rick Sr. is a licensed gun dealer who operates outside the law. He’s a smart, principled man who may have made a few mistakes as a younger man but who tries to do right for his family now. As role models go, one could probably find a lot worse in 1980s Detroit. Rick Jr. helps his dad with the business, gaining the friendship and trust of a local drug ring. When he’s offered money by the FBI to inform on some of the neighborhood suppliers, he reluctantly accepts the gig, becoming (according to some of the film’s publicity materials) the youngest FBI informant in history at age 14.

It’s fairly easy to read Rick Sr.’s moral code, but Rick Jr.’s is still being formed. Which of his bad decisions are mere errors in judgment and which are dictated by a slightly skew sense of right and wrong? I’m okay with a movie whose position differs from mine on this, but the movie doesn’t seem to take a position, taking some of the power out of some very good performances.

I’ve heard some critics say the McConaughssance is over, but the evidence here would suggest otherwise. It’s a solid, sympathetic performance from McConaughey, and I also really like Jennifer Jason Leigh as Rick Jr.’s handler, Brian Tyree Henry (Paper Boy in the excellent FX series Atlanta) as a local Detroit police officer, and Taylour Paige as the wife of the leader of Rick Jr.’s drug-dealing friends.

This film came close to being good.

6/10
64/100

Review: The Wife

The Wife (2018)
Glenn Close, Jonathan Pryce, Christian Slater. Written by Jane Anderson. Directed by Björn Runge.

At first I didn’t quite see what the critics were reporting, that Glenn Close’s performance in The Wife was sure to earn her a nomination for a Best Actress Oscar. Close is pretty much always very good, and this role of Joan Castleman didn’t seem to stretch her at all. Sure, there are some pretty fiery moments where Joan and her husband Joe Castleman argue almost to the point of throwing blows or objects, but this stuff is a cakewalk to someone of Close’s talent.

Then there’s the last act of the film, where Joan’s barely controlled fury threatens to blow everything in the room to pieces, and it’s an amazing thing to witness. She is certain to be nominated for best actress, and she’s going to be among the favorites to win.

Joe is informed in the first scene that he is this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The movie then alternates between its present day and the early days of the Castlemans’ relationship. This is a movie about Joan’s role in Joe’s literary career, which includes the raising of two children—a well-adjusted adult daughter and a troubled adult son, who accompanies his parents to Stockholm for the awards ceremony.

It’s a pretty good story, but the reason to see it is the acting, which is excellent without being especially pyrotechnic. I was really pleased to see Christian Slater as a wanna-be biographer tailing the Castlemans despite their open dislike of him. Slater brings his slimiest best, all the sneaky, sleazy acting that made him a Gen X icon, minus the rebellious self-righteousness. I won’t be surprised if there’s some supporting actor love for him at Oscar time.

Close’s real-life daughter Annie Stark is a nice discovery as young Joan.

I’m giving it a few extra points for being a literary-themed movie, one of my admitted biases. Worth a look even if it’s not one of yours.

8/10
80/100

Review: Juliet, Naked

Juliet, Naked (2018)
Rose Byrne, Ethan Hawke, Chris O’Dowd, Megan Dodds.  Written by Tamara Jenkins, Jim Taylor, Phil Alden Robinson, and Evgenia Peretz (based on the novel by Nick Hornby).  Directed by Jesse Peretz.

Tucker Carlson released one moderately successful album called Juliet and then disappeared.  Decades later, his fans dedicate their free time to deconstructing the album and speculating on Carlson’s whereabouts in an online forum run by Duncan Thomson, a college lecturer in a small town in England.  Duncan’s live-in girlfriend and the central character in Juliet, Naked is Annie Platt, the curator and director of the town’s museum.

Juliet, Naked is the title of a new release of the classic album, but stripped down to its essential vocals and acoustic guitar, perhaps demo recordings of the songs before they were recorded and mixed for the final product.  It seems to appear out of nowhere, and of course the rabid fanbase is ecstatic.

Annie is less so, and when she expresses her feelings about the album, she sets into motion a weird sequence of events leading to Annie’s serious questioning about her life choices.  She knows exactly how she got to where she is, but is she satisfied? Is it too late for a redo on some of it?

It would be easy to call this film a romance, and there are romantic elements here.  Yet Annie’s relationship with Duncan is only part of her reflection, merely representative of many choices she never pursued or opportunities she let go.  The possibility of a new relationship simply provides the catalyst for this self-evaluation.

What I love most about Juliet, Naked besides Rose Byrne’s excellent performance is how correspondence by email and in text messages with an unexpected friend forces Annie to articulate the specifics of her life and how she feels about them.  Annie deconstructs her relationship, her family, her job, and her small town in what becomes essentially a journal with an audience.

When Annie is finally ready to do or not do something about where she finds herself, it isn’t because some guy walks into her life, or some other guy sees the error of his ways and redeems himself.  She makes her choices because self-examination empowers her.

Ethan Hawke can be an annoying actor.  I find myself demanding he prove his sincerity with every performance, even in those great sequels to Before Sunrise.  Here is a film where he mostly wins me over (despite one suspiciously gratuitous piano performance), one of the best roles I’ve seen him in.  Byrne has what I think of as the Emily Blunt role, which used to be the Minnie Driver role, but she does it in the sweetest, most relatable way that makes me wish she had more starring vehicles.

My only real problem with the movie is the Nick Hornby effect.  I care about Annie and don’t want her mixed up with any of the men in Nick Hornby stories.  Not John Cusack, not Hugh Grant, not Ethan Hawke, and certainly not Nick Hornby. None of these guys can be trusted, and I left the theater confident in Annie’s ability to deal with whatever comes her way, but I don’t want a Nick Hornby to be one of those things.

8/10
83/100