Review: Happy Christmas

Happy Christmas (2014)
Anna Kendrick, Melanie Lynskey, Joe Swanberg, Lena Dunham, Mark Webber. Written and directed by Joe Swanberg.

Happy Christmas is the first film I’ve seen by Joe Swanberg, but this guy gets me, and I want to see more of his work. Starring Anna Kendrick (one of my favorite actresses) and Melanie Lynskey in mostly improvised dialogue, this is a good example of a movie that doesn’t really go anywhere. Yet it goes so many interesting places that I look forward to seeing it several times more.

Kendrick plays Jenny, a twenty-something emotional cripple coming out of what seems to have been a very painful breakup. She moves in temporarily with her brother Jeff (Joe Swanberg) and his wife Kelly (Melanie Lynskey), themselves only recently out of their twenties and only recently new parents. It’s unclear where she’s moving from, but Jenny arrives in a cab from the airport, so she is a new part of this young family’s everyday life.

Jeff and Kelly seem to have a solid grip on the parenting. They’re careful but not stressfully careful, and they seem genuinely to enjoy their new duties as mom and dad. Only Jeff, however, seems to have figured out where fatherhood and his career as a film director fit together. Kelly, a writer who has published one novel, hasn’t worked out any time for her own career.

Jenny is the kind of upsetting force that will bring family issues to the fore. Everyone loves her, including the baby, but she occasionally self-medicates in dangerous ways, dangerous for her and for people around her.

Yet this is not that kind of movie. It’s not about Jenny’s drinking or weed-smoking, or about how emotionally needy and self-destructive she is, just as it is not about a young married couple trying to reconcile the needs of career and the duties of parenthood. Swanberg as director uses these premises instead to let his actors explore their connectedness, especially their compassion for one another at this moment in these lives.

Jeff and Kelly can’t undo their parenthood, but they can express their feelings about this moment, and with sympathetic hearts motivated by (I’m interpreting here) basic goodness, try to reconcile conflicting needs. Whether Jenny makes it happen for them, whether they all make it happen for each other, and whether they’ll continue to do so is irrelevant to this movie, something that may disappoint many viewers who expect cinematic closure. The fact that they are doing it in the moment, and that we can see how it happens, is what matters, and this is what makes Happy Christmas beautiful.

Swanberg is (according to his Wikipedia article) a major figure in the mumblecore school. This film has definite mumblecore filmmaking sensibilities, but it’s quite a bit less lo-fi than most movies I’ve seen in the genre. It still has indie written all over it, but despite its improvised dialogue, it doesn’t feel as messy as those other films while it maintains a kind of DIY vibe I enjoy.

Kendrick is an A-list Hollywood force now. I love that she still has room in her artistic life to do a film like this.

80/100
8/10

Review: Bohemian Rhapsody

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy, Joe Mazzello, Tom Hollander, Mike Meyers, Priya Blackburn. Written by Anthony McCarten. Directed by Bryan Singer.

I had pretty low expectations going into Bohemian Rhapsody. I worried that it would overly prettify Queen’s surviving members’ stories or overly dramatize Freddy Mercury’s sexual preferences and his related death. There was plenty of the former, and not too much of the latter, and since there’s a decent amount of emphasis on the music itself, the movie feels pretty good.

The movie follows the biopic formula, and I suppose that’s a good thing. For those of us unfamiliar with the band’s origins and its musical ambitions, it’s enlightening to see how members of the band worked together to create the sound and feel of their music, how (for example) A Night at the Opera began with the concept of rock and roll performed with the scope, scale, and aspirations of opera, and how the band moved into a farm for the recording sessions.

One recurring theme is that Queen was a band. In one early scene, an interviewer begins a question with, “As the leader of Queen—” only to be cut off quickly and sharply by Mercury, who insists, “I am not the leader of Queen; I am only the lead singer.” Other scenes show individual creative contributions by bassist John Deacon, drummer Roger Taylor, and guitarist Brian May. For a rock and roll geek like me, this is the good stuff, if the content can be believed.

This is where I have my biggest issue. Some of the dialogue, especially in scenes where the band is talking about itself, feel like promo videos for Queen albums. Here’s some made-up dialogue that’s not in the movie, but it could very well have been.

May (to a record label executive): The first single must be “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
Exec: The song is six minutes long! Radio won’t play it!
Deacon: They’ll play it because we’re Queen.
Mercury: They’ll play it because it’s beautiful.
Taylor: And if you don’t like it, we’ll leave right now!
Mercury: And you’ll forever be known as the guy who let Queen get away!

The band takes several such moments to demonstrate how rock and roll it was, how Queen wasn’t just Freddie Mercury and some guys, and how its members always knew what they wanted. The overall feel is horribly manufactured as if to present Queen in its best possible light.

And that’s not rock and roll at all.

My second-biggest issue is the issue I have with most musical biopics. There’s just not enough of the band creating the music, and there’s not enough of the band performing the music, although there’s a good amount of the latter. Not once do we see the band perform a song in its entirety, not even the track whose title is the movie’s. This is a crime. The film does get big points for showing us an enormous chunk of the Live Aid performance, but again: it would have been nice there to experience at least one whole song the way the audience experienced it.

That music, though, is as sweet as ever. If you love Queen, it’s impossible not to leave feeling good.

69/100
7/10

Review: Welcome to Marwen

Welcome to Marwen (2018)
Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Merritt Wever, Janelle Monáe, Eliza González, Gwendoline Christie, Diane Kruger. Written by Caroline Thompson and Robert Zemeckis. Directed by Robert Zemeckis.

It was difficult to ignore the trailer for Welcome to Marwen. It promised Steve Carell in his best, outsider mode, which I’ll sign up for every time. Robert Zemeckis is always a coin toss for me, but he did make several films I like very much (I have not joined the anti-chorus of haters for Forrest Gump ,a movie I still love) so I try to set my sights low before sitting down with my Junior Mints. In some ways my expectations were greatly exceeded. In a few ways they were a bit too high.

Carell plays Mark Hogancamp. We meet him three years removed from a vicious beating that wiped all his memories away. Suffering from extreme PTSD, Mark has learned to deal with his demons by creating a small, WWII-era Belgian town named Marwen. Marwen is populated by a G.I. Joe kind of doll who looks like Mark and is named after Mark, plus a half dozen beautiful women dolls, all counterparts of women in Mark’s real life.

Mark creates and enacts elaborate scenarios with his dolls, posing them for photographs coveted by collectors.

The setup is pretty creepy, but there’s some novelty here that make the premise itself mostly work. Most of the credit goes to Carell’s strong, tortured performance, Zemeckis’s audacity, and sympathetic supporting characters who indulge Mark’s eccentricities while keeping him anchored in the real world.

Yet the movie’s greatest novelty, an uncanny animation that brings Mark’s dolls to life, is its greatest weakness. Midway through the film, I silently begged the film to give us less—much less—Marwen and much more Mark. Alas, Zemeckis hits the accelerator hard, and at least half the film has us seeing the real world through Mark’s make-believe dramatizations, and it goes well past tired, into maddening.

Like most metaphors taken too far, Marwen gets cheesy, forced, and ridiculous. Mark is surrounded by people reaching out to him with genuine, human touch, and while it’s fully understandable that he would retreat further into his pretend world as his real world becomes increasingly stressful (in its most brutal sense), by now we get the picture and would much rather see the story from his real friends’ real perspectives.

The hobby shop clerk who sells Mark his dolls is clearly interested in him, liking him as he is, caring enough about him to deal with his damage. His employer patiently reminds him of his work schedule. His new neighbor, a very pretty woman named Nicol, genuinely wants to be Mark’s friend. What is Mark to them? We never really find out.

Instead we get a heavy-handed metaphor worn thin without any sense of the real struggle Mark goes through to put on his best self. We get rising action rising acting rising action climax oh man that’s how you’re going to get us there?

And now a word about Leslie Mann, whom I adore, who plays Nicol. Mann’s voice has a quality I cannot explain but it hits exactly the right nerve for me in a way rivaled only by Mary Steenburgen. I didn’t know she was in this movie until, so deeply in love with her voice was I after a few scenes, I snuck a peak at the movie’s Wikipedia article and saw that it was her. Here she has a head of deep red hair, which may be why I never recognized her, and her voice is quite a bit higher, but it retains a sweetness that all by itself makes this movie worth it to me. I understand this is a unique position, which is why I’m explaining it here. My rating of the film is going to be crazy biased. Emphasis on crazy.

Last month I gave a greatly flawed plot major make-up points for excellent performances in Green Book. The performances here aren’t quite as good and they have much more to make up for. Leslie Mann’s voice makes up for a lot, but not that much.

55/100
5/10

Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoe Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, and Liev Schreiber. Written by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman. Directed by Bob Perischetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney Rothman.

There’s a lot to spoil about Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, so what I’ll say here will not tell you much about it. Still, I think it’s safe to offer a few thoughts in the interest of convincing you it’s worth checking out.

I kept saying holy moly. Leave your pessimism at the box office and meet Spidey where he is: at the crossroads of multiple universes, animated unlike any concept you have about what a comic book superhero movie looks like.

The story may sound like typical teen-angst fodder but it stands out because of what’s going on as the film tells it: multiculturalism, hyper-surreal visuals, and plenty of humor. I can’t believe the filmmakers get away with some of their bizarre decisions, but they get away with them all because once the movie establishes itself as a story where anything can happen, anything happens.

Audaciously imaginative and one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Kid-friendly. Just go.

8/10
81/100

Review: The Front Runner

The Front Runner (2018)
Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Mamoudou Athie, Kevin Pollack. Written by Matt Bai, Jason Reitman, and Jay Carson. Directed by Jason Reitman.

The Front Runner is Jason Reitman’s film about the candidacy of Gary Hart for the 1988 presidential election. There are a lot of approaches a filmmaker could take for a picture like this. It’s the rise and fall of an intellectual, good-looking senator. It’s the victimization of a young model aspiring to a career in government. It’s the turning point in our national discourse where a politician’s personal life becomes relevant for American voters. Or it’s the moment when American journalists stopped turning a blind eye to politicians’ dalliances and actively reported on them.

Reitman hits that last one, with dramatizations of conversations between publishers, editors, and reporters at the Washington Post and Miami Herald. The decision to pursue a story about Hart’s relationship with his alleged mistress Donna Rice is nothing shy of an identity crisis for everyone involved and for the institution of journalism.

I was confused and annoyed by the director’s decisions in the first half of the film. Some reviewers have called the overlapping dialogue, quick edits, and enormous number of characters Altmanesque, but I’ve never been this confused by an Altman movie. As the film progresses, a few key characters emerge (notably A.J. Parker, a fictional Washington Post reporter played by Mamadou Athie), and the movie becomes a lot less chaotic. I want to see this again to decide if I simply got used to the style or if Reitman deliberately creates an experience that becomes less confusing as the story progresses.

Hugh Jackman is excellent as Hart, and Vera Farmiga, as always, is terrific as well, playing Hart’s wife Lee. I’d never heard of Molly Ephraim, who plays a fictional Hart campaign scheduler and kind of Donna Rice’s handler when things get hot, but she’s an interesting actress in kind of a challenging role.

Although the film has its problems, when it ended I felt I’d come through an amusement park ride, baffling at first but strong and clear at the end, although Reitman seems deliberately to avoid making a statement.  Instead, he presents the moment as important and lets the viewer make the judgment. The film suffers some because of it.

I have a strong bias in favor of Reitman, who is probably one of my two favorite working directors, but I didn’t know he directed this until the end credits rolled. I clapped quietly when it was over, then felt kind of thrilled to see that it was Reitman I applauded.

7/10
71/100

Review: Green Book

Green Book (2018)
Mahershala Ali, Viggo Mortensen. Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, and Peter Farrelly. Directed by Peter Farrelly.

The Green Book, I learned early this year, was a directory published in the United States between the 1930 and 1960s, and listed businesses friendly to African Americans. Michael Wilbon, whose parents were from the South, said they didn’t travel home from Chicago without it. I’m disappointed in myself for not being aware of it, but it’s something that kind of hints at why a movie like this still needs to be made in 2018, and it excuses the film’s one major flaw.

Mahershala Ali plays pianist Don Shirley, who embarks on a tour of the Midwest and South with the other musicians in his trio, a white bass player and a white violinist. The record company insists he hire a white driver, someone who can keep trouble away from Shirley on the tour. Viggo Mortensen plays Frank Vallelonga, “Tony Lip” to his friends and associates. He’s pretty much a mob-connected goombah whose work history includes “taking care of problems.”

Much of the plot here is predictable in events and tone. If you’re thinking what I thought when I saw the trailer, that this is kind of a reverse Driving Miss Daisy, you’re not too far off, and this is the flaw. “Pandering,” “condescending,” and “preachy” came to mind as I tried to figure out my feelings midway through the movie, but none of them really hit the mark. Later, I heard someone refer to it as kind of an After School Special, and that’s it. It feels like it exists to teach me a life lesson.

Yet I just admitted I had no idea the Green Book existed, so how can I blame a film for thinking I should know about it? It doesn’t change my feeling that this tone is a huge flaw, but it softens it a bit.

What really redeems the film is the fantastic acting by Ali and Mortensen. Each is completely unrecognizable, painting his character with a fine brush, as compared to the sledgehammer offered by much of the plot. There is one heavy-handed Don Shirley monologue that in a lesser actor’s hands could be groan-inducing, but is instead heartbreaking. Shoot, even someone like Denzel Washington, who is by no means a lesser actor, would likely elicit groans here. Instead, Ali presents a lifetime of vulnerability and alienation in a short minute to his tough-guy companion and it’s an amazing thing to see.

Give some credit to the writers who, in one very tricky moment, turn Frank Vallelonga into the guy the film wants us to believe he is. “The world is a complicated place,” Franks says, and somehow it’s exactly right for Frank, for Don, and for the audience. A moment of gentle grace in a film that often has trouble finding it.

The acting is so superb that it makes the movie quite a bit better than it should be. The National Board of Review named Green Book the best film of the year. I can’t go that far, but it is the rare movie that rises above its script and becomes something special on the strength of its excellent acting.

8/10
80/100

Friday 5: Off Kilter

The flight from Honolulu to JFK was nine and a half hours long.  I am very susceptible to motion sickness (have been my whole life), but after years of bus riding I thought maybe I could handle a plane ride, which is far less jolty than a typical bus ride, so I didn’t take any motion sickness medication, ‘though I kept some on my person just in case.

An hour in, the plane hit some turbulence and although I didn’t have any queasiness, I wimped out and just took the pills.  Better safe than spewing.  There were no incidents.  The medication makes me really dopey, though, which is why I’m trying not to need it.

I had an aisle seat (by request) and immediately told the hipster sitting next to me that he should feel free to get up as often as he wanted, and I would never consider it an inconvenience.  I feel for the window seat people, being all blocked in with nowhere to go.

I was all kinds of prepared with stuff to keep me entertained, but my heart wasn’t into it.  Once all the blessed distractions were through (snack service, beverage service, meal service, another beverage service, each right after the other), I mostly slept the unrestful sleep of the doped-up flier, which for me means about an hour at a time with thirty-minute wakeful breaks during which I stretched, strolled to the restroom, and imagined what everyone in Honolulu was up to.

I read a little and did the crossword puzzle in the in-flight magazine.  There’s a guy who constructs a Hawaii-themed crossword puzzle for the one major Hawaii-based carrier.  He’s been doing it for years and his puzzles aren’t very good.  This one was especially lazy.  His theme answers were pretty great but the fill was awful.  I swear he had two forms of the same word in this grid, a huge no-no in the crossword universe.

I’m midway through ten books, but the two that get my focus lately are Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop (yes; I’m still reading it) and Roxanne Elden’s Adequate Yearly Progress.  The latter is written by a former high-school teacher about high-school teachers.  I read a review in the Washington Post (by the Post’s education writer) and was sucked in by the excerpt.  This writer knows teachers, and really nails the heartbreaking absurdity of the job.  I’ve highlighted passages where she describes stuff that just about any teacher will recognize immediately as true.  It’s a lot of passages so far.

I was so dopey that it was hard to focus on the Fitzgerald book, but the Elden novel has short chapters and is a bit easier to read, so I mostly stuck to that.

We landed without incident at JFK, which I found to be pleasant, quiet, fascinating, and not at all what I expected.  I was eager to get the rest of the way to Boston and catch a few Zs.

From here.

 

  1. What actor or actress would you like to see in a film genre he or she has never attempted?
    Did anyone know Kristen Bell could sing before she was in Frozen?  I didn’t.  What an amazing surprise.  It makes me wonder who else out there can sing but hasn’t done it in a movie yet.  I think of the moment Ewan McGregor hit his first notes in Moulin Rouge (a movie I didn’t care much for) and how shocked I was.  I want a moment like that, but of course I can’t think of an actor to name since how do I know who can sing among actors who haven’t sung yet?  So I need to shift gears with this answer and say I would love (love!) to see Jack Black in a straight spy movie.  I think it would be so great to see him as James Bond, actually.  I think he’d be terrific.  People are speaking about Bond as if the ink is already dry on Idris Elba as the next Bond, but somebody please consider Jack Black.  I like the idea of Emily Blunt as Bond as well, and lately I’m hearing some public momentum for Henry Golding (from Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favor) as a possible Bond.  He would look great in the part but I think he’d be kind of dull.
  2. When did you recently see something beautiful in an unexpected place?
    I was wandering around in Boston a few blocks south of Fenway Park, and saw the building the Boston Symphony performs in.  Yeah, it has its own buildings and its own performance space.  When I become a billionaire from writing for a non-profit someday, I’m going to build something similar for the Honolulu Symphony because wow.  Behind an administrative building I saw this mural featuring the likeness of Seiji Ozawa.  It’s kind of cartoonish, but you know.  It’s Seiji Ozawa.  How many orchestra conductors in other cities could be put up on a wall like this where some shmoe from Honolulu might see it and recognize him or her?  I’m sure I have a better answer but I can’t think of one right now.
  3. In what way is someone you really admire flawed?
    The easy way to answer this question for just about anyone, I think, is to talk about parents.  We admire our parents but they’re among the people we know best, so of course we’re aware of their flaws.  I think I’ll stick to shallow waters and talk about Tony Kornheiser for a moment.  His daily podcast is my favorite regular media consumption.  He and his cohosts make me laugh regularly the way nobody else does.  He’s smart and witty and capable, like good newswriters always are, of zeroing in on the real story within the story.  However, he has a way of constructing a narrative (or, more often, a sub-narrative) that’s not exactly accurate, and he never budges from it despite evidence to the contrary, and he’ll go to them like favorite guitar licks in an improv band.  It’s maddening, and it’s judgmental in a way I find disappointing.
  4. In what situation did you recently find yourself utterly out of your element?
    I’m planning to go into detail about this later, as I get my thoughts about my recent trip down into words.  The short version: in our breakout groups, our instructors gave us an assignment and I didn’t understand what it was.  Write ____, they said, and I didn’t know what ____ was!  It was kind of magical and frightening and terrific all at once.  We had two and a half hours to write it, so I went to my room, took a half hour nap, then hit Google to see what the heck I was supposed to do.  Everyone around me seemed to get right to work as soon as the assignment was given.  It was humbling!
  5. What implement do you use in a manner unintended by its designer?
    My version of making my bed each morning is to put my pillows, flat sheet, and blanket in a couple of Rubbermaid tubs, then laying a shower curtain liner over the fitted sheet in case any critters want to play on my bed while I’m out of the house.  I’ve had a recurring problem with rats and I cannot stand the thought that they might be doing things on my sheets when I’m out.  So yeah.  Shower curtain liner is my new bed spread.

Friday 5: The Game’s Afoot

The employer sent me to a national development writers workshop. You know “development” is edu-speak for “fundraising,” which isn’t exactly what I do, but I work for a fundraising non-profit, and lately they’re asking for more fundraising-related writing. Mostly I write features: this person established this scholarship and look at all the cool things people have done with it! Or this student received this scholarship and look at all the cool things she’s done with it! Also a lot of alumni profiles. It’s fun work, and I enjoy the challenge of telling compelling stories.

This could be a photo of any professional conference, but it’s a photo of the one I attended last week. That’s my computer stuff in the lower right, and two seats over is the one other person from Hawaii, a stewardship director at USF. She’s from Maui but has been living on the continent since college, I’m guessing. She was rather amused when I told her about my adventures in the snow the next night. Hawaii people just find each other, I guess.

Occasionally I get to do stories that lean corporate. This large company is supporting this research with this cool result in mind. A skill I didn’t know I have emerged last year. I can look at a rather sciencey grant proposal and find in the 100+ pages the interesting story. A few emails for quotes and I’ve got a nice feature.

There are other kinds of writing in my field. Special proposals to potential donors, for example, making the case for naming this auditorium after a loved one. Or less specifically targeted pieces for broader pools of potential donors, for donating toward this new building’s construction. Or even broader appeals for annual donations to specific programs such as the law school or the college of language and literature.

I don’t do most of these other kinds of writing, not as a matter of policy, but just because I haven’t been asked. So this workshop was a chance to learn how to do it. There were people like me, writers learning how to be development writers, but most of the people I spoke to were development people learning how to write better.

We had stuff to learn from each other. A fundraiser doesn’t think like a writer, and a writer doesn’t think like a fundraiser, so there’s usually built-in conflict when we have to work together. I learned a lot last week in Boston about how to do what I do more effectively for these people doing important work.

Still processing, but more later.

Friday 5: The Game’s Afoot

  1. Where’s a nice place to take a walk?
    Around here, the Ala Wai Canal isn’t the most picturesque, but it’s a nice long, fairly quiet walk along the edge of Waikiki uninterrupted by traffic lights.  I enjoyed a walk down Newbury Streetin Boston last week, one of those long narrow parks down the middle of a busy street.  There were a lot of cross streets so you had to be careful, but the park itself was nice.
  2. What do your everyday shoes look like nowadays?
    I’m a guy, so I pretty much keep it simple.  I have a pair of shoes that works at the office but also walking down the street, these all-black Sketchers.  They’ve got laces but they’re slip-ons, and they look sorta professional but also kind of sporty.
  3. What separates a good pedicure from a bad one?
    I’ve never had a pedicure, but I’m told by a few guys that they’re nice.  I’m super self-conscious about my feet and have made an effort to be less so.  I need to find a guy-friendly nail salon who’ll be gentle.  I’m super ticklish.
  4. When did you last go for a hike?
    I took some students on the Manoa Falls hike a few years ago for a photography project.  It’s a hike so gentle I’ve once taken kindergartners on it and they handled it with (muddy) ease.  Most of my hiking has been of the urban variety, begininng when I was really into geocaching ten years ago or so.  I haven’t seriously hiked much since the year before I moved to Hilo, but I’m sorta getting the itch again.
  5. What’s a good song with the word “walk” in its title?
    I have more than 50 songs in my iTunes on this computer with “walk” or some form of this word in the title, including the wonderful “I Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash and “Walk On” by U2, but my favorite is Bruce Cockburn’s “One Day I Walk,” which is covered on YouTube by an impressive number of musicians.  The Lovell Sisters (whom I loved!) have performed it live, and Anne Murray has covered it on a recording.One day, I shall be home…

Review: A Star is Born (2018)

A Star is Born (2018)
Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay. Written by Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters. Directed by Bradley Cooper.

It was seventeen years between Janet Gaynor and Judy Garland, twenty-two years between Garland and Barbra Streisand, and now forty-two years between Streisand and Lady Gaga as the titular star in A Star is Born. I mention this only because I’m thinking about the disconnect I felt with the music in the 1954 version and about how much I enjoyed the music in this 2018 version. Some stories deserve to be retold in ways that connect to their intended audiences, and maybe this is one.

Some people say once a film has achieved cultural icon status, there’s no point in remaking it, but I’m not one of these people. Art is consumed, but it is also created, and its creation is most often where the magic and beauty are, and if we didn’t all feel this way we would be stuck with one interpretation of Romeo and Juliet and one version of “All Along the Watchtower.” The world would be a poorer place.

Is the world a richer place with this third remake of A Star is Born? It’s too early to tell, but it’s already spawned one hit single (“Shallow”) and Oscar buzz for its stars. Of the four films, it has the best music and possibly the best acting, and if anyone in the cast wins an acting Oscar it will be a first: Gaynor and Fredric March lost to Louise Rainer and Spencer Tracy. Garland and James Mason lost to Grace Kelly and Marlon Brando (The Country Girl and On the Waterfront—they never had a chance!). Neither Streisand nor Kris Kristofferson were nominated for acting awards, but Streisand did win an Oscar for best song.

More important, Gaga and Cooper have something different to say in this telling of the tale. There was a hint of a statement in the 1976 film about rock music and pop, but here it seems to be the central theme. This movie is less about a relationship, less about self-destructive personalities, and more about music and success. This may also be its biggest shortcoming, but the shift in emphasis validates a third remake.

Our falling star is now named Jackson Maine and our rising star is Ally Campana, and their meeting is very much like Esther’s meeting John in 1976. Ally’s singing in a drag show when a drunk Jackson stumbles in. Their connection is nearly immediate, and they get to know each other very quickly. Before they’ve been acquainted 48 hours, Jackson practically forces Ally onstage to perform one of her songs. She’s an immediate hit.

The first half of this movie is better than any half of any of its predecessors. Cooper and Gaga are a joy to watch, crackling with chemistry and sincerity. Cooper adopts a Kristofferson-like look and sound, while Gaga is all kinds of humility and sweetness Streisand couldn’t approach (and possibly only Gaynor equaled). Gaga’s music in real life doesn’t do a thing for me; if it moves me at all it moves me out the door. But here in their early scenes, absent the veneer of a pop show with all its choreography, makeup, costumes, and sheen, we have an actress perhaps less skilled than her opposite but making up for it with utter vulnerability.

Ally on stage is likeable, but her pop music feels fake, and if that weren’t blatant enough a statement, there’s a moment where Jackson offers her a pep talk, saying her audiences will love her if she always effing means what she’s singing.

But as Sam Adams wrote in his critique on Slate, “the further from Jackson’s influence Ally gets, the worse her music becomes.” Cooper’s message may not be as overt as Adams interprets it, but there’s so much in the setup about having a voice, having something to say, and trusting others that he’s definitely on to something.

The worsening of Ally’s music doesn’t necessarily dictate a worsening of the story, but it is the case here, and the second half is a letdown after such a promising setup. Still, my fondness for the film is salvaged by a decision Cooper the director makes near the end, giving us something none of the earlier movies offered, making 2018’s A Star is Born the best of the four.

7/10
77/100

Friday 5: Not Shaken

It’s been a difficult week, and I am not comfortable sharing the worst of it in a public space like this, but although I was enormously inconvenienced and somewhat stressed, nobody got hurt and nothing important was lost, so I consider myself pretty blessed.  Even in my worst weeks, my life is pretty great.

Saturday when I was out for a long walk, something flew into my eye and stayed there.  It was miserable.  I took myself home and after several attempts to wash it out, just went to bed hoping my eye would discharge the foreign matter while I slept.  It didn’t.

So Sunday morning I took myself to the ER, something I never do.  The last time was more than fifteen years ago when I snapped a ligament in my calf at work and really had no choice.  The doctor said he couldn’t see anything in my eye but I did have an abrasion.  He speculated that something flew into my eye, abraded it, and bounced out, and said it should be fine in a day or two, which turned out to be true.

Until then, I was constantly aware of this discomfort in my eye, and found myself tearing up uncontrollably at times.  It was miserable.

Came home from work early Tuesday because I was feeling physically crappy in the midst of dealing with the other ickiness (the stuff I’m not detailing).  Then my planned vacation day Wednesday (to deal with practical fixes for this ickiness) turned into a stay-in-bed-all-day day because I was still ill.  Finally felt mostly better Wednesday night and never got to finish the business I meant to take care of, so I took a half day of vacation Thursday and still didn’t get it done.

It’s been like that.

I did have a fairly productive half-day at work Thursday, though, so the trend is upward.  I’m hoping to settle matters Friday evening so I can enjoy the weekend, which will include a Halloween party at a HS classmate’s house and hanging out with the folks.

Also have to start preparing for my trip, which is exciting.  I’ve decided not to share details about it until I get back, but I promise I will.

From here.

  1. When are you the straw that stirs the drink?
    I am not nearly the drink-stirrer I once was, especially since I work in a new place and am a low person on the totem pole.  However, I have used my voice to speak up on behalf of our nursing moms.  I’ve been with the foundation for nearly two years, and the space we use for a nursing room could be a lot more hospitable.  I really think we aren’t making this high-enough a priority.
  2. Who has delivered the most stirring rendition of your country’s national anthem?
    There’s a video going around this week of Willie K singing a completely rearranged “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the UH Manoa vs. Nevada football game last weekend, and it’s quite terrific, but my favorite all time is still Huey Lewis and the News, who’ve been singing it at baseball games since the mid-Eighties.  I first saw it to open the All-Star game in San Francisco and couldn’t believe what I was hearing.  It sounded the way I think it should sound at a ballgame.  The one I’m embedding here is from a few years later, 1987, and while it’s not the best of their performances of this song, this video’s got the best audio.
  3. Who or what is stirring in your vicinity?
    The occasional car passing on the street outside.  Nothing else I’m aware of.  My neighbors on both sides and across the street all retire early.  So it’s just me, just the way I like it!
  4. What do you like and dislike in a stir-fry?
    Bean sprouts, broccoli, and tofu are my favorite ingredients, but I also like snow peas and baby bok choi if I can get them.  Celery and carrots are big turn-offs in a stir-fry.  I also prefer a light hoisin sauce over a thick teriyaki sauce, but probably the best is just some olive oil and butter, or maybe some chile oil.
  5. How do you deal with feeling stir-crazy?
    I used to go for long walks, but now I get in Jessica and go for a drive, sometimes just around the neighborhood or all the way to the office and back.  A few times, I’ve driven somewhere, parked the car, and gone for long walks in more interesting places.  I have always loved driving, but now in my second month of car ownership after four years of car non-ownership, I love it even more.  Plus the car is air-conditioned and the crib is not, a huge plus in what has been a very humid season.