A Star is Born (Bradley Cooper, 2018)

An old rock star (Bradley Cooper) tilts his hat down before walking out on stage. It’s hazy, the stagelights are blinding but all we can see clearly in the tracking shot is Jackson Maine’s hunched back. He’s crushed with the weight of something we’re not familiar with yet. Before going on stage to tell his story for the sea of listeners he hesitates, takes a step backstage and downs a drink, illuminating the reason for the weight he carries in his slouched shoulders. He’s a cliche of rock stardom, writing his own swan-song, completely comfortable with the slow poison of his suicide solution. He’s ashamed of it, refusing to make eye-contact with others and performing without looking at the crowd, instead opting for the brotherhood of an interlocking guitar solo. A fretboard won’t judge, and you can’t shove alcohol down your throat in the middle of a guitar solo. A guitar only ever asks to be played and Jackson Maine can at least answer that prayer, even if he’s already given up the ghost of his own life. A song is only a respite from his problems. When the crowd goes home and talks about how amazing Jackson Maine was that evening, he sits alone, letting a dwindling bottle of alcohol become his new audience, but that’s soon gone as well. He has to chase a new muse, but on this night, he finds more than alcohol.  

Ally (Lady Gaga) is not a rock star. She blends into the surroundings at her job, forced to wear a uniform that betrays star power. Bathe yourself in the waters of conformity if you want to disappear. She’s a singer, but right now she’s a waitress. No amount of talent keeps her from the uncaring world of 8 hour shifts that denigrate employees to meddle around in trash before they get off work. When Ally leaves her job, to get to the gay bar she’s set to perform in that night she hums Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”. It’s a nice homage to the woman who made the 1954 version of this story shine, but it has added context when sung by someone wishing for a falling star. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is an anthem of dream chasers and when Ally walks up the back-alley street and the title card fades in like prophecy “A STAR IS BORN”.  

A Star is Born is a familiar story told four separate times, before Bradley Cooper’s instalment, over different generations of American filmmaking. Legendary director George Cukor made the only two exemplary versions before the newest one was released. Cukor’s earliest, What Price Hollywood? (1932), laid the groundwork for everyone who would follow. In these movies, one star fades out, as another fades in, a dissolve made into narrative. The most well-known example of this story comes with Cukor’s 1954 adaptation, which loosely reimagined What Price Hollywood?, but took the romantic angle from William A. Wellman’s, A Star is Born. Featuring greatest of all time calibre performances from both Judy Garland and James Mason the 1954 version is a tough act to follow. Cukor’s second verse of this story is the classic epic Hollywood tragedy with a lightning in a bottle moment from its stars and director, all of whom are at the very peak of their talents. It’s near impossible to top, but in A Star is Born (2018) Bradley Cooper comes close by insulating the romantic angle in a bubble which amplifies the tragedy that comes in fracturing a perfect world self-made between two people. But first Jackson needs a drink.  

As if by fate Jackson stumbles into a gay bar. Quite the feat considering he is neither gay, nor plays the kind of music that’s celebrated in establishments such as the one he’s just walked into. He’s even greeted at the door with a “you sure you’re in the right place?”, but any bar is home if it has alcohol when you’re looking to get plastered. Jackson’s need to get drunk lets him become comfortable quickly among the queens, but he quickly gets sidetracked when he hears this girl sing. Nearly everyone has been lip-syncing or performing karaoke all night, but she’s different. The otherwise loud bar dips into a stone cold silence before she begins to wrap herself in the sensuality of her performance of “La Vie En Rose”. The girl that’s singing is Ally.  

In these movies it is vital to deliver the “star-making” moment and Bradley Cooper’s version of this story arguably creates an entire film around this idea in the overwhelming awe Jackson has for Ally throughout. The moment where this is crystalized is Ally’s performance of “La Vie En Rose” which suits Gaga’s mid-range vocal abilities to perfection. Gaga, to her credit, completely controls the moment, making the song not just a performance of vocal ability but of how she moves her body. She manages to travel the floor and encompass nearly every square foot of the bar before she ends up in front of Jackson Maine. Bradley Cooper uses a close-up on Gaga to stand-in for Jackson’s own point of view reaction to making eye contact with Ally for the first time. This is not just a star making scene, but the moment where two people fall in love. His decision in form here foreshadows how the rest of their relationship would be shot. The moment they lock eyes and Ally’s face completely overwhelms the frame, while being lit in a deep scarlet red with just enough sea green to make the image lush, we know his love for her is real. It insulates the two in a bubble almost immediately and the tracking shot we saw earlier of Jackson, in its formal conceit, to create a stoic singular figure, falls away and shows this man willing to open up his world for another person. The camera makes space for her, and Jackson does too. Jackson’s blurry vision and failure to make eye contact goes away with Ally. He focuses on her. His eyes light up and show life for the first time and he’s pulled out of the sea and back onto land when in her presence. Jackson Maine looks at Ally in awe, not only for her talent, but for love.   

Jackson meets Ally backstage and immediately there is something between the two characters. It’s a crowded room full of queens, but their eyes seem to follow each other. Even with everyone surrounding them they’re framed like the only two people in the world. Jackson is interrupted occasionally to sign a pair of fake breasts or take a picture with a starstruck fan, but his attention to her never wavers. Jackson is acting, as if in a focused trance, after Ally’s performance and Ally, not completely realizing it just yet, because, she too is somewhat starstruck, has been captivated by him the entire time. Despite her obvious interest Ally keeps a shield up. Folks in the music industry have always burned her in one way or another and she’s worried Jackson may be the same, but that changes later that evening when the two of them find their way into a cop bar. After another fan insists on getting a picture with Jackson, this time rudely, Ally punches him in the face, because he’s invading the space she and Jack have created for themselves that evening. Jack’s impressed, and Ally laughs it off, not knowing what got into her.

They travel to a grocery store at his insistence and he cares for her swollen hand, using diy medical techniques, like using duct tape and peas to keep her piano hand from further injury. Jackson and Ally sit in the grocery store parking lot and in a low-angle wide image they’re the only two in frame. The entire world is theirs in that moment. Everything belongs to them, and they can be as comfortable and vulnerable with one another as possible. They talk about childhood troubles, songwriting and cheetos. Ally is wearing Jack’s leather jacket so she doesn’t get cold, and after hearing about Jack’s childhood issues she writes a song on the spot that would become the grand centerpiece of the film, “Shallow”. The entire sequence in the grocery store and the parking lot drifts. The images take their time and these two characters slip into one another in that way people do when they’re having a perfect conversation. Everything is smooth and easy and trapped in time. Minor on the surface, but the sort of evening you’ll remember for the rest of your life. It’s the beauty of falling in love in the single image of Jackson and Ally’s warm isolation from the rest of the world. Their intimacy spreads beyond the scene, and outwards, like all the best love stories. In the back of our mind we know how this story ends, because we’ve seen this story before, but in this moment, everything is perfect, and you forget that this won’t last forever.  

Following that parking lot scene Cooper does a lot formally to emphasize the shelter these two have in one another with grace-notes involving human touch. There are obvious ones like Ally applying makeup to Jackson’s face in a bubble bath while he holds her, and others that are subtle like Jackson running an index finger up Ally’s calf while they ride a motorcycle. All of this is to say that their relationship is sexy and tactile in nature, but it also goes to sure up how Cooper articulates his shot selection to keep a tone of the two of them against the world. Jackson is in love with Ally, because she’s a greatt artist, a better one than he is, and Cooper acknowledges this in just how much of the movie he spends staring at Ally in awe of her abilities, but also because she’s the first person he’s let into his world in ages. Despite all of this Jackson still drinks, even to Ally’s protests. Love isn’t enough and the bubble between the two of them fractures when Ally’s career begins to take off after her concert appearances with Jackson go viral. There’s a short scene between Jackson and Ally after she moves in with him where Jack thanks her for giving him a home. She asks him to clarify and he said “this place never felt much like one before you were here”. That home might as well be Jack’s life, and the tragedy of the movie is the perfect world they made with one another, by nature of their own relationship, slipped through their fingers before they even knew it was gone. Ally’s world expands with her stardom, but Jackson was comfortable where he was at in his life. Jack’s friend, George (Dave Chappelle), likens his life to a ship being at sea, “You set sail, you’re out there for a long time, chasing something, but you dock into port, and you find you kind of like it here. Years go by, and you forgot why you set sail in the first place, but you don’t mind, because you’re comfortable.”  

Jackson and Ally get married. Ally makes a pop album.  

Many have criticized the movie’s second-half for failing to give Ally an equal share of the narrative as Jackson, and while I think this is a fair point, I think this is exactly the point of what the film conveys. The camera sticks with Jackson, because he is in stasis, and he struggles with the loss of the world he and Ally had when it was just the two of them, so he drinks more and more. Ally’s story expands, like a star exploding, she’s on SNL, she’s nominated for Grammy’s and she gets giant billboards plastered all over the city adorned with her face. Ally needs more than Jackson, but she doesn’t want to lose Jackson either. The fissuring of their relationship comes at the cost of her expanding career and his inability to cope with the specific circumstances that come with being a woman in the music industry. Jackson wants her to sing, and tell her story, but that’s never enough for a woman. She has to know how to dance, she has to be attractive, and she has to cultivate a self-image, because the industry is functionally different for her than it is for him. He sees this as a tragedy, and while she isn’t entirely comfortable with pop star trappings, she still thinks it’s “fucking awesome” at the end of the day. This isn’t a question of rock music versus pop music in the larger scheme of things, because Ally always mentioned wanting to have “hits” and Jackson obviously never kept up with the world around him and saw how the industry changed since he broke out in the 90s.. Jackson can play rock music to the same crowds as he did in the 90s, because he has a built in audience, but Ally has to create her own image and narrative, and he struggles with that reality. He loses her to the pop machine. He’s selfish to some degree in wanting to keep her where she is, but he’s honest about it, and it does come from a place of love. To watch him struggle with the realities his relationship is now facing is harrowing, because we have the context for how these stories end. It’s like watching someone morph into a corpse in real time, and Cooper, to his credit, plays the downfall with just the right mixture of self-righteousness and vulnerability. Ally never loses her love for Jackson, but she constantly makes comprises for his sake, because she still wants to keep the world they fostered at the beginning of the film alive. She wants him to be on tour with her, and protect him from his own problems even if it comes at the expense of sponsorship, additional tour dates and freedom. She makes these sacrifices because Jack is her person, and she’s willing to do anything for him, even when she knows what’s broken cannot be fixed.

A Star is Born is a movie of love and the sacrifices you have to make when your life becomes entangled with another person. Love is not independent. There is no singular “you” when you’re in a relationship that really counts. You fold yourself into the person you love and become like one single entity. Their problems are yours and there isn’t a worse feeling than failing to solve the problems of the person you love. Ally’s story reduces in the second-half of the film, because she’s away working hard to become the artist she knows she can be, and when she’s home she sacrifices herself to help her troubled husband rise back above water. She is selfless, even to the point of breaking her own heart if it meant he could find peace. She gives everything, even when she knows it’s impossible. Jackson does too. You do that when you’re in love.  

Destination Wedding (Victor Levin, 2018)

Keanu. Winona. We tend to refer to them by a singular name, like Madonna, Cher or Prince. It should have been common sense that these icons of Generation-X would play off each other in a romantic comedy or starred alongside one another in a multitude of projects, but Destination Wedding is only the second time these two have shared a screen. Their first collaboration was in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of Dracula (1992), which wasn’t exactly the “of-the-moment” event these two stars needed at the absolute zenith of their careers in terms of popularity and creativity. The two have seen dips and valley’s in their career following Dracula, and luckily Destination Wedding comes at a time when both are on the crest of a new wave in popularity. Both Keanu Reeves and Winona Ryder are as hip today as they’ve been in a very long time, with both experiencing something of a career renaissance. After a long period of sexism induced blacklisting by Hollywood at large Ryder has begun to make the first stabs at a comeback with her role on the very popular Netflix series Stranger Things. Winona Ryder has deserved a large scale comeback for years, and she should have never been pulled out of the public sphere, especially considering there are men who have done much much worse things than shoplifting who continue to make film after film. It’s a shame that it has taken this long for doors to open for her again, but I’m nonetheless happy she’s back. Keanu Reeves by extension has the massively popular action movie series, John Wick, which has not only turned him into an icon for an entirely new generation, but propelled him into the conversation surrounding the greatest action movie stars ever. His stoicism and ragged physicality, built upon a jangled trauma of an unwanted skill and the recurring domino effects of violence of his job as a hit-man in the Wick movies has reinvigorated him. It’s a role only he could play. Enter Destination Wedding, which sees the two stars on a collision course for one another, and the only bullets here are the barbed wire insults they sling at each other until they realize “this is the only person as fucked up as me” and they begrudgingly admit that it’s better to hate together than apart.  

The basic premise of Destination Wedding is a tale as old as time: boy meets girl, boy immediately hates girl, they end up at a wedding together, they cross paths with a mountain lion, and tolerate each other long enough to have sex. This has happened to literally all of us. The boy in this case is Frank (Keanu Reeves) and the girl he hates is Lisa (Winona Ryder). Lisa is going to this wedding because she wants to get closure with her ex-fiance, and Frank? Frank is the estranged brother of the groom. They both hate the groom so they find an initial bonding over the double act of hating each other and hating this other person they know intimately. Nothing says a meet-cute like an expletive leaden brush with jealousy. The framing device that director Victor Levin uses throughout the movie hollows the world out around from Frank and Lisa through predominate medium-wide shots where Lisa and Frank often appear to be standing in a room full of mannequins. This is probably how they view the other guests. The formal decision to keep them separate from everyone and focused entirely on their banter throughout the miserable wedding is a smart one, if not entirely effective. Levin sometimes pushes the camera too far away rendering Keanu and Winona ant-like in the frame, and it makes their chemistry and witty back and forth harder the discern because we can’t see their faces. When Levin’s drops the pretenses of the wide-mannequin rendering shot, the script blossoms in the hands of these two iconic actors.  

The rapid-fire delivery of the dialogue recalls screwball at times. If the camera were more interested in catching the actor’s physicality in motion instead of standing back and letting their verbal skills do all the work it would be appropriate to discuss the film in these terms. Levin doesn’t have the chops or the understanding when to let his formal ideas expand and it holds the film back pretty significantly at times. In the hands of a more seasoned director Destination Wedding would likely be considered among the finer comedies of the decade, instead of merely, being a great exercise in verbal dexterity from two the finest actors of the 1990s. I do not want to short change just how good Reeves and Ryder are however; their pitch perfect, charred, hate-fuelled rants at anything and everything are a constant joy and the sheer annihilative pitch and speed in which the film spews bile almost renders things abstract. It’s akin to being stuck in a punchline whirlpool, and if you enter into this movie with the full intention to get down on the level of Lisa and Frank’s debased sewer spewage bile the film will reward you with a deranged symphony of laughter.  

Halloween (David Gordon Green, 2018)

“I’ve been praying for the day he’s released.” 

These  words are said by Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) after stumbling  across the latest crime scene committed by Michael Myers. In the newest  incarnation of Halloween the film gestures toward a narrative  about trauma and the aftermath of violence, but does so with a  distinctly simplistic, offensive and male idea of survival. The above  phrase stuck out to me while watching the movie like a sore thumb and a  Rosetta stone of sorts on this movie’s understanding of traumatic  events. To put it in the most basic way: I was offended at the notion  that this is what post-traumatic stress disorder looks like in women.  The last thing a trauma victim would want is the release of their  monster into the world to do damage to more people, but this doesn’t  seem to bother Laurie. Probably because those in charge have no idea  what trauma actually feels like.

I was in a  Costco about a year ago with my in-laws stocking up on groceries for  the winter season. It was a regular day, and despite the store giving me  anxiety due to the sheer amount of people aisle to aisle and the  occasional unwanted brushing up against other customers I was mentally  holding it together. Going down the freezer aisles, however, was a  disaster, because I saw someone who looked eerily similar to my father,  and I couldn’t breathe. I hyperventilated and shut down. I stood there,  disassociating, until he turned around and I realized it wasn’t actually  my father, but I still had to be taken into the food court to calm  down. I have no concept of whether or not I made a scene or was noticed,  but it felt like a black hole was pouring out of me and pulling me  inward. I was disappearing. I didn’t realize how badly I had shaken  myself up until my fiance gave me the finer details of what happened  later that evening. He was there to calm me down, but I don’t know what  would have transpired if he had not been there. With post-traumatic  stress disorder we do our best to move forward in day to day life. We  try to make a life out of something damaged and we do our best not to  dwell on things that may trigger or send us spiraling into the abyss of  our own memories. This is not typically how post-traumatic stress  disorder is characterized in motion pictures. In movies, it’s an avenue  for revenge, but the last thing we’d ever want to do is to be put into a  position where we could be hurt again. What we want is sanctuary and  peace of mind. Not bloodshed. 

What Halloween suggests  is that the only way to get closure is to kill your abuser and ensnare  your entire life around the past waiting for the perfect moment to take  back what was lost. I would respect Halloween’s understanding of  trauma if it were at all intellectually rigorous or honest in its  intentions toward recognizing images of bodies, power and gender like in  the Female Prisoner Scorpion series,  but it is merely a short-cut for the same boring “strong-female lead”  characterizations we’ve been seeing for the better part of twenty years  now in place of women who feel like actual human beings. Laurie stalks  Michael’s place of hospitalization to keep an eye on him, she stockpiles  fire-arms and lives in constant panic that he’s going to come back. I’m  not going to assert that everyone who experiences PTSD is the same, but  to insist that this, of all things, is a stunning portrait of female  trauma is absurd to me. The real strength that lies with us is the  understanding that we can still live our lives. Laurie Strode doesn’t.  She’s a plot-device waiting to spout a one-liner before blowing her  victimizer’s head off. She’s little more than a frat boy’s idea of a  badass grandmother. Jamie Lee Curtis does her best playing this  character who is obviously fractured and scarred by her past, but you  can only do so much with a script that cares more about the jokes that  are inserted to de-escalate tension than it does the victim’s  themselves, including Strode. 

Even if one were to look  beyond the absolutely abysmal rendering of trauma and pinpoint only  director, David Gordon Green’s chops as a filmmaker you’d come across  with the same tired result of Carpenter copy-cats that have run this  series into the ground sequel after sequel. Rob Zombie being the lone exception.  Green renders all of his slasher showdowns and kills with  over-calculated consideration for the shot above the actual violence or  the humanity of the characters. He can snake his camera through a maze  of trick or treaters in a long tracking shot, but he can’t give anyone  any depth or linger on shots long enough for us to feel the full impact  of the violence. It’s the same tired slasher bullshit. The only person  who comes away from this movie unscathed is John Carpenter who created a  soundtrack to accompany the film, updating his score from the 1978  picture with some consideration for modern sensibilities while still  leaning on his classic synthesizer horror. He’s still the master. His  music is the only thing that gives this movie life, lifting the  otherwise rote filmmaking out of the gutter from time to time. I’d say  John Carpenter deserves better, but I’m sure he’s very happy cashing  checks on movies that only further cement his legacy as someone no one  can equal in a genre of filmmaking he helped create.

The 50 Best Movies I watched in 2019

2019 felt indescribably long. When I look back on the list of movies that made an impact on me in the last 365 days I am taken aback that some of these weren’t watched in 2018. My sense of time seems to be corroding to some degree, and I’m not sure how I feel about that happening. It’s strange, but living in 2019 was strange. There’s a a ghostly quality to the last few years, as if we’re on a sinking ship, while hoping we can patch one of the biggest holes in 2020. I don’t know how things are going to turn out, but cinema is my one constant, and in 2019 I watched more movies (401 if Letterboxd is to be believed) than I had in the previous four years. When I look at this list the biggest thing that pops out to me is how much I used the Criterion Channel streaming service, which both guided my viewing and gave me the opportunity to explore an under the radar director like Keisuke Kinoshita. Theresa Russell’s movies with Nicolas Roeg made a gigantic impact on me, and I think in Russell I’ve found a new actor to obsess over. I’m unsure if Bad Timing is actually the best movie I watched last year, but putting it anywhere but number one felt wrong, because Russell’s performance so grabbed ahold of my psyche that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the character since. Her turn as Marilyn Monroe in Insignificance created a similar effect. Naoko Yamada’s work with Kyoto Animation was also significant, with K-On! being like a life raft in dangerous waters. I so looked forward to returning to the mundane lives of those teenage protagonists in the Fall of the previous year. Jacques Tourneur, Powell and Pressburger and Amy Holden Jones were also dominant in my viewing patterns. This list is a reflection of everything that burrowed its way into my body and mind in 2019. I greatly admire all of these films. I am sure that 2020 will bring more.

1. Bad Timing (Nicolas Roeg, 1980)
2. K-ON! (Naoko Yamada and Kyoto Animation, 2009-2011)
3. School on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1988)
4. Funeral Parade of Roses (Toshio Matsumoto, 1969)
5. A Canterbury Tale (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1944)
6. A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1936)
7. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945)
8. Insignificance (Nicolas Roeg, 1985)
9. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1943)
10. Anne of the Indies (Jacques Tourneur, 1951)
11. Stars in my Crown (Jacques Tourneur, 1950)
12. The Adolescence of Utena (Kunihiko Ikuhara, 1999)
13. The Slumber Party Massacre and The Slumber Party Massacre II (Amy Holden Jones, 1983 and Deborah Brock, 1987)
14. The Parallax View (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)
15. Blackout (David Lynch, 1993)
16. Somewhere in Dreamland (Dave Fleischer, 1936)
17. Puce Moment (Kenneth Anger, 1949)
18. Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer (Mamoru Oshii, 1984)
19. Asparagus (Suzann Pitt, 1978)
20. Canyon Passage (Jacques Tourneur, 1946
21. Just Another Girl on the I.R.T. (Leslie Harris, 1992)
22. Body Snatchers (Abel Ferrara, 1993)
23. It’s Always Fair Weather (Stanley Donen, 1955)
24. Woman (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)
25. The City of the Living Dead (Lucio Fulci, 1980)
26. No Regrets For Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa, 1946)
27. Career Girls (Mike Leigh, 1997)
28. Death Dream (Bob Clark, 1974)
29. Kuroneko (Kaneto Shindo, 1968)
30. Pale Flower (Masahiro Shinoda, 1964)
31. To Sleep with Anger (Charles Burnett, 1990)
32. Love Letters (Amy Holden Jones, 1983)
33. For All Mankind (Al Reinert, 1989)
34. Gamera 3: The Revenge of Iris (Shusuke Kaneko, 1999)
35. Matango (Ishiro Honda, 1963)
36. The H-Man (Ishiro Honda, 1958)
37. On the Town (Stanley Donen, 1949)
38. Five Easy Pieces (Bob Rafelson, 1970)
39. His Motorbike, Her Island (Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1986)
40. Blacula (William Crain, 1972)
41. Full Contact (Ringo Lam, 1992)
42. Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (Sarah Jacobson, 1996)
43. Girl Pack (Lisa Baumgardner, 1981)
44. The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zamen, 1962)
45. Popeye the Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (Dave Fleischer, 1936)
46. A Silent Voice (Naoko Yamada, 2016)
47. So Dark the Night (Joseph H. Lewis, 1946)
48. Night Nurse (William A. Wellman, 1931)
49. Sister Street Fighter (Kazuhiko Yamaguchi, 1974)
50. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933)