The third remake after the Judy Garland/James Mason and Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson entries, A STAR IS BORN, Academy Award Best Actor nominee Bradley Cooper’s
directorial and screenwriting debut arrives in Toronto for a commercial release right after great hype at both the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals. Having high expectations, I was ultimately disappointed. The film is good but not that good, falling into the trap of the typical failed romantic drama due to personal demons and artistic conflict – predictable storyline of personal conflict and over-staged drama.
The film opens with super singer Jackson Maine (Cooper) performing live at a huge concert. It is an amazingly shot scene complete with a screaming crowd, astounding acoustics and musical performance, setting the stage for more outstanding performances to come. And they thankfully are, whether performed by Jackson or his rising star, Ally (Lady Gaga). But Jackson is clearly on a self destructive course. He arrives at a bar after the opening concert, dropped off by his chauffeur. He ends up in a drag bar (because Lady gag has the hit gay positive song, “Born This Way”) where he is impressed by Ally’s performance of La Vie En Rose. Apparently she is so good, she is the only non drag performer allowed to sing there. Jackson takes her home and this is the beginning of the relationship in which Jackson also grooms Ally to be a star.
The rest is history and the story almost everyone in the movies is aware off. As Ally rises to fame, Jackson downward spirals into losing his. Jackson also suffers from a hearing problem and has a rift with his older brother and manager (Sam Elliot, who is good but mumbles half his dialogue).
Cooper’s film captures the atmosphere of the rich and famous, from the parties, the glare of the spotlight, the attraction of fame as well as the pain that comes with it.
The main trouble is that it can safely be said that the audience has seen all this before -a star’s rise to fame, her lose of identity (clearly mentioned a few times to make its point) and conflict of interest. Cooper’s film attempts to bridge the gap between having a solid relationship and a successful singing career This does not happen. One basically has to give up family life for musical fame. This story is more effectively told in the gut wrenching documentary BAD REPUTATION, about the life and career of girl rock and roller Joan Jett, that coincidentally also opens this week. BAD REPUTATION puts A STAR IS BORN to shame. BAD REPUTATION is the real thing where Jett maintains her identity, ditches family life to launch a successful music career that audiences can root for an identify with. A STAR IS BORN, unfortunately sinks into predictable melodrama at many points.
The film also suffers from having two protagonists Jackson and Ally instead of just concentrating on Ally. Cooper is ok, he has his star charm but it is Lady gaga that makes the movie. She does not look anything like the Lady Gaga everyone is used to seeing and it is her that the audience sees that a real young and rising star is born. Move over Madonna!
Still A STAR IS BORN will be well received by many as a love story that hovers between the shadow of tragedy and the bright light of artists at their peak as observed by many of the teary eyed audience (mainly females) who left the theatre at the promo screening.
The name LIZZIE will sound familiar to many. Even to kids, LIZZIE is a well-repeated nursery rhythm containing more sinister connotations. LIZZIE is also the first name of Lizzie Borden who was accused but acquitted of the vicious hatchet murders of her stepmother and father. The incident occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892.
Why would this dated biography be of interest to today’s audiences? For one, Lizzie is alleged to be a lesbian and the script by Bryce Kass re-imagines Lizzie to be guilty of the heinous crime. Lizzie is also highly abused by the male gender in a time where gay relationships were disallowed. One scene has her uncle grabbing her by the throat threatening her.
The film is bookended with the ghastly murder of a man hacked to death. The guilt falls on the daughter Lizzie which the film sets to prove committed the deed despite her acquittal.
The film goes back 6 months with the arrival of a female at a three story house, obviously owned by a wealthy family. The female is revealed to be Brigitte Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), a single Irish woman, who has come to live with the family and work as a live-in maid. Lizzie, of the film title, is living with her wealthy father (Jamey Sheridan), stepmother (Fiona Shaw) and sister (Kim Dickens). Her father is up to no good, while her stepmother silently enables. Worst still, it seems that her uncle (Denis O’Hare) may end up controlling her inheritance. Socially isolated, with her comings and goings strictly monitored, Lizzie finds solace in her pet pigeons.
Brigitte works hard. The patriarch of the family recognizes Brigitte’s hard work but his visits to her room prove him to be a sex abuser. At the same time, Lizzie and Brigitte start an affair.
The script ups the angst with the father becoming more abusive towards Lizzie. Lizzie also suffers from fits.
The film benefits from the creation of claustrophobia of the prison of the family home. Lizzie is discouraged from going out and if allowed, must return by midnight. The camera is quick to always show the high walls as if acting like imprisoning barriers. When Lizzie does get to go out, she is attacked by society as the Borden family are cheap and disliked large house renters, still using candle light instead of the new electricity of the times. The audience is made to feel that Lizzie has no way to escape psychically and emotionally. Which drives her towards the act.
Whereas in real life Lizzie was acquitted for the fact that the jury could not imagine a woman performing such a violent act, the film shows otherwise with Lizzie hacking her father to death with repeated blows, and in the nude with blood splattered all over her body. This shows director Macneill over-confident that he has convinced his audience believe that Lizzie is so desperate that she has nothing to lose (she would otherwise lose her inheritance as well as love for Brigitte) but to commit gruesome murder.
Performances are top-notch with Stewart getting away with her Irish accent. But the main star of the film is Noah Greenberg lush cinematography that captures the period atmosphere of the times and the claustrophobic imprisonment of the girls.
UNDER THE TREE is a simple story that unfolds in all its unpredictability and horror. It is trouble for two neighbours, something that many can relate to. The shade from a front yard tree brings tensions to a boil for two families in an Icelandic suburb. The husbands Baldvin (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) and Konrad (Þorsteinn Bachmann) have a small argument over trimming the big tree as Konrad’s wife, Eybjorg (Selma Björnsdóttir) likes to lie in the sun and does not want the shade from the tree. But the wives argue. The tires of a car are slashed followed by rude gnomes ornaments placed in the front of the house. Then when the cat goes missing, all hell breaks lose.
Amidst the arguing, there is a subplot of the son, Atli (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson) losing custody of his daughter after cheating on his wife., Agnes (Lára Jóhanna Jónsdóttir).
Director Sigurdsson knows how to up the angst, as evident at the film’s start, the wife catches the son watching porn. “Is that you in the porn?” she suddenly notices. “Isn’t that Rakel in it with you in the porn?” she asks again before kicking him out of the house and taking custody of their daughter. Again this is an incident that many separated couple go through, fighting for custody. Sigurdsson also keeps certain factors unknown to keep the audience guessing. Did the neighbour really slash the tires? Did the neighbour really put in the gnomes? And where is that darn cat that has disappeared, though the final incident is revealed at the end of the film.
Sigurdsson keeps his film engaging from start to end by making his characters real, reacting and doing things that normal people all over the world might end up doing, when pushed to the limit.
Of all the characters, Inga (Edda Björgvinsdóttir) seems the nastiest. She seems to be director Edda Björgvinsdóttir’s favourite. Inga slings dog shit at Eybjorg, calls her a cow and even calls her son a loser when he cheats on his wife. The wives inch their husbands, who seem more tolerant, on.
Besides the black comedy, the film also contains segments of dramatic tension, like in the ones where Atli abducts his daughter or when he abuses her at her workplace.
The film is shot in the suburbs of the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik. These houses are modern looking, colourful, modest and too close to each other for comfort. Trees and sun are scarce in Iceland so one can understand a neighbour not wanting the shade and the other not wanting his tree touched.
Edda Björgvinsdóttir’s film demonstrates the worst there is in human beings, creating a dark comedy at its blackest. His characters are unforgiving (Agnes cannot forgive Atli for cheating), vindictive (Agnes calls her cheating husband out as a masturbator of sex videos he indulges in, at a community meeting) and cowardly.
The ending comes with a good twist that leaves audiences satisfied that they have seen a really black comedy/drama. The film dominated the Edda Awards (Icelandic equivalent of the Oscars) with seven wins, including best film, director, actor (Steinþór Hróar Steinþórsson), actress (Edda Björgvinsdóttir), supporting actor (Sigurður Sigurjónsson), screenplay and visual effects.
FOXTROT as most people know is the name of a dance, which is performed a third through the film by a bored soldier at his deserted outpost. It is also known in the military to stand for the letter ‘F’ when spelt out as taught in signalling courses to prevent confusion in communication. (Alpha is for ‘A’, Bravo for ‘B’ etc.) In the film it is also the name given to a military operation.
The film is divided into 3 parts, each almost equal in running time. The opening sequence is reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN when a mother faints after hearing the news of her son’s death during WWII. The story begins at the home of Michael Feldman (Lior Ashkenazi) and his wife Dafna (Sarah Adler), where an army detail arrives with the news of their son Jonathan ((Yonatan Shiray). Dafna faints and is sedated. Meanwhile Michael spirals from anguish to anger. He even kicks his poor unsuspecting dog. Nothing new here, the film seems treading on water. The film picks up when he begins to suspect that he has not been told the whole story when the army refuse to let him see the son’s body in the coffin during the military funeral. Not soon after, there is news that the boy is alive. Apparently, there is another Jonathan Feldman and it is this other Jonathan that died. Michael freaks out and demands that his son be returned home right away. Michael and Dafna have an argument, she accusing him of being nasty, he of her being too nice being sedated on drugs.
The film ends on a bright note, with a touch of surrealism. The second section begins with the narrator describing the foxtrot dance followed by a very uplifting and amusing dance sequence. The musical interlude jumps out of the blue and is a fantastic surprise. The audience then learns of Jonathan’s mundane military duties at the check post, identifying everyone that drives through. The soldiers also let a camel through. Writer/director Maoz pulls another trick up his sleeve with a twist in the plot. When a passenger in a car tosses out an empty drink can, the soldiers open fire thinking it to be a grenade. There are been more twists in the plot but they will not be mentioned in the review to prevent to many spoilers. A few of these twists could be reduced for the film to be more effective.
The film works as a very different film audiences have never seen before. FOXTROT is a surrealistic film set in the midst of the israeli/Palestinian conflict, a very unlikely setting, which makes the surrealism work even better. Maoz’s story also shows that fate plays games with people’s lives – and there is nothing one can do about it. Michael and Dafna try to make sense of what is happening. At their best moment, as their daughter, Alma tells them: “You two look beautiful when you are together.” Perhaps, that is the only thing human beings can hang on to, each other in the midst of the quirky hands of fate.
The film won the Silver Lion (Grand Jury Prize) at the 2017 Venice Film Festival. FOXTROT is definitely worth a look.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE is a biographical film based on true events (the closing credits reveal the pictures of the real characters) on the subject of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Returning after a war and adjustment back to civilian life has been dealt time again in films like the well-known THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, but few have dealt specifically with the Iraqi War.
The film opens appropriately with the cause of Sergeant Adam Schumann’s (Miles Teller) trauma. After a bomb goes off and injures fellow soldier Emory (Scott Haze), Adam fireman lift’s him down to safety. Well, almost. He drops him down the stairs resulting in some brain injury.
The film shifts to the return home. The homecoming is shown with the fanfare of waiting family and loved ones. The film centres on three soldiers, all of whom find things are not so smooth sailing. The other two are Solo (Beila Koale) and Will Waller (Joe Cole). Waller has it the worst when he finds himself abandoned by his wife who takes his child and empties his bank account. Waller shoot himself in front of her at the bank she works in. That part seems quite incredible, though it must have happened as in the non-fiction book of the same name written by David Finkel. The rest of the film follows the other two as they adapt to their PTSD.
The script is adapted by Jason Hall who won an Academy Award nomination for his adapted screenplay of AMERICAN SNIPER. When Steven Spielberg pulled out of the director’s reigns, Hall jumps in and makes his directorial debut.
The first time direction is obvious in the way the film unfolds in a safe, standard way predictable with no unexpected punches pulled. The obstacles preventing Solo and Adam from getting their psychiatric care are all there – the long queues; the red tape requiring proof; the waiting time; with the soldiers finally getting their way after some needed shouting and anger outbursts.
Miles Teller in the main role of Adam proves once again his ability to carry a film on his own. With recent rave reviews for his performances in films like WHIPLASH and the recent ONLY THE BRAVE, this film will add to his impressive resume. Of all the actors, comedian Amy Schumer (TRAINWRECK, COMEDY CENTRAL) is totally miscast in the serious role of the dead soldier’s wife, Armanda.
As for the rehabilitation of the soldiers, it seems too convenient that Adam is recovered after Armanda tells him that her dead husband wanted Adam to continue living, this removing Adam from the guilt he feels. The same kind of convenient removal of guilt occurs in the recent film STRONGER where the bomb victim rehabilitates after one meeting with the guy who helped in during the Boston. marathon bombing. But Hall’s script at least shows the long path towards recovery.
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE is a heavy film with a heavy theme. One might argue that it is a story that needs be told – and that is right.
THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, 1957
Director: Jack Arnold
Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Helene Marshall
Review by Kevin Johnson
A man is exposed to a freak radiation cloud while on vacation, causing him to gradually shrink.
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I was actually rather surprised by The Incredible Shrinking Man, which began typically like the average B-film but dovetailed into a dark yet intrinsic inspirational tale without the classic Hollywood revisioning. It is a film that espouses more novel or short story-like elements than cinematic ones.
Since this is based on Richard Matheson’s novel of the same name, and since he also penned the screenplay, it’s to be expected. But the lack of specific changes to make the film more engaging to audiences, such as happier ending and a satisfying explanation of the shrinking, is rather audacious, especially taking in account the time period. This gives the film a deeper resonance now, but I can’t imagine audiences being too receptive to it back in 1957.
When a happily-married couple is vacationing on a boat by themselves, the husband (a overly-dashing Grant Williams) is exposed to a random radiation cloud, causing him to shrink daily. He and his wife hold out hope that a cure will be found in time, but Williams soon becomes a celebrity freak show, and then, a miniscule prisoner in his own basement.
Williams’s size changes are accomplished by a judicious use of large props, camera angles, and efficient editing. I was rather impressed by the accuracy and details of the oversized household goods, and crafty camera work is a long dead art, replaced by CGI and green-screens. Which is why I was disappointed with the use of projections in some scenes; but, to be fair, they were used for the more complex scenes, such as when Williams battles the spider.
The sets rival that of some modern-day films, most notably Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Both movies exercise a swath of campy elements, but Honey, I Shrunk the Kids mixed its miniscule fear with a childlike wonder; The Incredible Shrinking Man strove for a more overly-serious, overly-dramatic venture into the undersized unknown. It does get rather ridiculous, with Williams narration over his predicament delving into bad epic poetry, and one can’t help but notice how grim he gets within five minutes of his situation. Considering man can go a few weeks without food, did he REALLY need to go through hell-and-high-water to reach a cake? And, really, was the spider THAT much of a threat?
Prior to this, reaching his three-foot stature made him an object of the media, a spectacle for prying eyes and curious voyeurs. His inability to handle such attention is remedied, at least for a while, when he meets the most beautiful midget in the whole world! No, it’s a generic Hollywood pretty face clambering over the same oversized props at our protagonist. Needless to say, it is somewhat uncomfortable watching such an obvious misrepresentation of the life (and physicality) of a small person, but the 50s didn’t care too much in the way of political correctness – except for the Hayes code, which seemed to discourage a budding romantic relationship between Grant and the “midget.” After all, we wouldn’t want to showcase something as evil as sympathetic adultery, now would we?
Shrinking Man works its strongest points as a polemic, at the points where the narrator and leading man discuss the emotional and spiritual toll the incident is taking on him. And, again, it pushes way too much into the over-dramatic, but in a way, it works, especially when he comes to the realization that his shrinking will not stop. After losing his wife, livelihood, and even his identity, he avoids certain madness with a casual, cool, and serene acceptance of his fate, of acknowledging God’s role in all this, in his gradual decent into the atomic, which, in some metaphysical circles, reflect the very nature of the elliptical universe itself. By becoming small, he becomes large. By dwindling into nothing, he becomes part of everything. (The speech at the end spouts it better than I do.)
The Incredible Shrinking Man certainly over-dramatize its story and over-sexualizes its characters; from the swimsuit-clad wife at the beginning, to the attractive circus midget in the middle, and to the Amazonian garb Williams somehow sports when stalking his basement-jungle, the movie does little to present any problems with showcasing perfect bodies. But the technological aspects of the film are well done, and its novelistic readings are impressive. While the latter may be better served in book format, it was still brave to fit such deep, dark overtones in the film. That’s something on which The Incredible Shrinking Man should be commended.