“A Star is Born” (2018) Full Film Review

This “ageless and evergreen” movie musical will move your very soul from “the shallow” to the deep. Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is the fourth version of this story, and the strongest of the group. Now, the Streisand version will always have special place in my heart because I’m a lifelong Streisand fan. But other than Streisand herself, the rest of the film is largely forgettable. However, Cooper’s A Star is Born is a mind-blowingly, unapologetic movie musical that delivers a genuine authenticity rarely seen in movie musicals. With all the hype that this film received out of the Venice Film Festival and others during September, there is often the question that IF the film lives up to the hype? The short answer is YES. Fixing some of the plot holes in the Streisand version and providing more comprehensive character development, the screenplay co-written by Cooper harnesses the power of a simple plot with complex characters dealing with the positive and negative affects of stardom on two different people caught in a “bad romance.” With two charismatic performers with outstanding vocals and music plus a gripping story that will have you hooked from the first bar to the last, A Star is Born is an etherial cinematic experience equivalent to that of a shooting star. A star that will shoot its way to the Oscars next year.

Loving the bottle as much as he loves the stage, alt-country rockstar Jackson Maine (Cooper) wonders into a drag bar where he arrives just in time to see the performance of Ally (Gaga). Blown away by her incredible vocals, Maine finds her in the dressing room to introduce himself. Maine is taken back by her street smarts and homespun humility, but sees an undiscovered star. Although Ally has all but given up on her dream, Maine is determined to coax her out onto the stage Determined to provide Ally with the stage she needs to showcase her uncanny ability to create magic with her voice, a magic that has profound, authentic meaning behind it, Maine invites her to join him at a gig. When she refuses the invitation, Maine sends his chauffeur to follow her until she gives in. And gives in, she does. Already smitten with Ally, Maine falls madly in love with her after their voices make incredible music together. Soon, Ally’s career takes off like a shooting star, while Maine deals with his inner demons. Just like careers have ups and downs, so does the relationship between Ally and Jackson Maine.

As a star rises, a comet falls. While the basic plot of this, and the other versions of A Star is Born are similar in nature, this one feels the most cinematic. Cooper’s screenplay takes what the previous versions did well, and then improves where the others did not perform as well. With three previous ones to analyze, Cooper certainly had plenty of source material to pour over. What I appreciate most about this version is the foreshadowing and poetry that provide a rich subtext. One of the most important parts of plot development in a screenplay is the strategic placement and execution of emotional beats. Much in the same way the original songs in the movie drive those emotional beats home, the screenplay follows in suit. Although I will argue that the first half of the movie is stronger than the second half, the story is a powerful one that shies not away from depicting real issues that celebrities, especially in the music industry, face. There is an unapologetic approach to both sides of the stage. The beginning scenes pack a powerful punch. And I was completely sold on Ally’s ability to delicately balance toughness against vulnerability. Jackson Maines character development is gritty and believable. Fortunately, after the 1976 (Streisand) version shifted the focus from Hollywood to the music industry, that shift provided the foundation upon which 2018’s A Star is Born is built. For all this story has going for it, paving the way to a likely Oscar nomination, Cooper is unable to sustain the energy from the first act all the way through the rest of the movie. While the first and third acts are strong (especially the first), the second act lacks the charm and energy of the first but does effectively lead us into the showdown and realization. Whereas the pacing looses footing a little in the middle, there is no mistaking that this is a phenomenal retelling of a classic plot for a new generation, complete with humiliation, redemption, heartbreak, and love.

The cinematography is incredibly strong. While not heavily stylized in a particular manner like other filmmakers, who’s direction is part of that filmmaker’s identity, the cinematography in this film incorporated a variety of approaches from wide shots of real concerts to intimate closeups that work seamlessly together in order to provide the film with an outstanding and comprehensive visual appeal. One of the elements of the cinematography that stood out to me the most was just how natural and relaxed the camera movement felt. There were plenty of moments that I forgot the camera was there because it felt that I was present–in those moments–witnessing the plot unfold. While some directors may have felt the need to approach most of this movie as a music video (instead of a musical), Cooper allows the camera to linger in a moment to drive the emotion of that moment home. During the musical performances, there is certainly a music video feel to it, but it never takes you out of the story, at large. From beginning to end, the cinematography flows naturally across the movie.

Cooper and Lady Gaga’s respective performances are incredible. They will certainly wow you from beginning to end. Not surprising after watching the movie last night, Cooper delivers a command performance that is sure to land him a Best Actor nomination. He looks and sounds like an alt-country rockstar. I had no idea that he could sing! At no point does it ever feel like he’s acting. Such power in subtlety. It’s the little things he does that serves as evidence of his commitment to character and never acting like a Jackson Maine type but legitimately becomes Maine with all his problems with addiction to drugs and alcohol. Because the subject of celebrity addictions leading to untimely deaths has been in the news a lot, this was a great opportunity for Cooper to comment on this issue by depicting how tragic it is, and the affects on others.

Whether you are a fan of Lady Gaga or not, there is no doubt that her acting and vocal performance will leave you speechless. Of course, being speechless never stopped me. Without breaking character or forcing her real-world persona and fandom into the diegesis of the film, there is a nod to her status as a queer icon. One of the early scenes in the film features her at a drag show. This scene fits into the story perfectly, and successfully sets up some of the subtext and commentary later on in the film regarding how the music industry (and Hollywood to an extent) package female performers. The character of Ally allows fans of Gaga to explore a different side to her through most of the film. During the second act, there are moments that remind us of what makes Gaga so popular–very similar to her real-world celebrity self–but these moments never detract from the more organic, intimate ones. Although Ally’s quest for stardom does play out a little cliche as it points us back to the real-world Lady Gaga, Ally’s character finds herself back to her true self at the end of the film. As a side note, I love the nods to the the 1976 one by way of Ally talking about how her nose was considered too big by talent scouts. A brilliant nod to Streisand’s trademark nose.

With a very strong start, mediocre middle, and relatively strong recovery, Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is a don’t miss film! If you were worried that the film was not going to live up to the hype of the festivals, no need to worry any longer. From what I have gathered from other critics, members of #FilmTwitter and the #PodernFamily (podcasters), there appears to be an agreement (mostly anyway) that this film is an outstanding work that will be one to watch for this upcoming awards season. Perhaps it won’t be the next Silence of the Lambs and take the Big 5 Oscars, but it will likely still do very well.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Tomb Raider” (2018) review PLUS exploring the “video game movie” problem

Strives to put cinematic storytelling first and video game representation second, but still comes across as tropey and borrows heavily from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade. However, in all fairness, it does provide this generation with a moderately good action-adventure film based on a best-selling video game series. Alicia Vikander’s Lara Croft differs from that of Angelina Jolie’s in that she comes across to audiences as someone who’s impulsive, reckless, and experiencing difficulty in managing her life. Furthermore, she does not excel at everything she is trying to do to survive life and make ends meat. Those qualities give this Lara Croft a level of humanity that allows her to connect more with audiences. Moreover, she is a believable character–she feels real. In fact, that is probably the best element that this reboot has going for it–the realness of the adventure. Not that the film is without exaggerations and fantasy elements; but, the story almost feels like an adventure that could take place under the right circumstances and with the right tools. The realness might have been increased by not feeling like, at times, you were sitting there playing the video game version. Although this initial return to the video game turned motion picture adaptation is frocked with predictable plot beats and turning points, it does show promise for a solid franchise if tweaked. Moving forward, the stories need to be stronger, original, and leave room for SUBTEXT.

Lara Croft is the fiercely independent daughter of an eccentric adventurer who vanished years earlier. Hoping to solve the mystery of her father’s disappearance, Croft embarks on a perilous journey to his last-known destination — a fabled tomb on a mythical island that might be somewhere off the coast of Japan. The stakes couldn’t be higher as Lara must rely on her sharp mind, blind faith and stubborn spirit to venture into the unknown. (IMDb)

Video games turned motion pictures aren’t anything new. From Super Mario Bros to Mortal Kombat to Resident Evil to this year’s Tomb Raider, there have been many attempts to adapt interactive media (video games) for scripted/narrative cinematic storytelling. Ultimately, it has proven to be nearly impossible to create a successful motion picture from a video game. In short, Hollywood simply cannot seem to crack the code for a movie adaptation of a video game. There has yet to be a video game to film adaptation that has even encroached upon the fresh threshold of Rotten Tomatoes. But why is that? Often, movie adaptations of video games fail because their is more emphasis placed upon video game brand representation than the art of cinematic storytelling. In its defense, 2018’s Tomb Raider shows an effort to overcome that obstacle. Today’s Tomb Raider made a solid effort to spend time worrying about it’s quality as a film, but still fell victim to being too grounded in its interactive media roots. If studios who either own or license a video game intellectual property (IP) can spend time analyzing the source material for purposes of tapping into what makes the story itself work, then perhaps a successful video game movie can be produced.

Not just limited to interactive media –>film adaptations, but anytime there is a well-established franchise, the writers and director struggle to find where the happy medium is in satisfying the core of the fan base and translating the story between two forms of media. As much as modern interactive media has in common with films (referring to the cut scenes), there is still the human component that cannot be translated for the screen because there is no “choose your own adventure;” it’s this disconnect that often contributes to the poorly written plot for the screen. Much in the same way that movies based on comic books struggled for a long time until Iron Man, with the brilliant exceptions of Tim Burton’s Batman (a Barman movie directed by Burton) and Batman Returns (a Tim Burton movie that happens to have Batman characters), interactive media based movies will eventually find the sweet spot. I feel that this sweet spot will be found when writers and directors take the characters from a video game IP and place them in an original cinematic story that skews more towards the focus being on the cinematic storytelling than adhering to brand recognition and the existing story that can be played, and has been played, on the console or computer. Take Burton’s approach to Batman Returns. Create a story that works for the screen that happens to have the characters from the video game.

Movies aren’t the only adaptations of interactive media; themed entertainment has also spent time adapting a game for an entire attraction. According to Theme Park Tourist (2014), popular seasonally operating Paramount’s Kings Island (purchased by Cedar Fair in 2007 and all Paramount property removed) spent $20MIL on a ride that lasted a mere five years. Based on the hit video game and blockbuster action movie Tomb Raider: The Ride was on par with Disney and Universal in respect to story, setting, and special audio/visual effects; however, after Paramount sold off its theme park investments to Cedar Fair, the ride got rebranded as The Crypt, a generic theme, and all direct associations with the movie and game Tomb Raider were removed following the 2007 operating year. Interestingly, the ride attendance continually dropped following the rebranding, and the ride was eventually moved to Kings Dominion in Virginia in 2012. Although there may be other reasons as to why the ride became less popular and eventually moved to another park, it is conceivable to conclude that there is a special relationship between the characters and story of the game and a themed entertainment attraction. Both the attraction and the game have the advantage of the human component–the ability to truly experience the elements of the game. 

Over all, I found the new Tomb Raider to be a fun watch! Certainly don’t feel that my time or money was wasted. I remember playing Tomb Raider on the original Playstation and Playstation II (it was soon after that, that I lost interest in gaming), and as a mild fan, I feel that this film did the characters and story justice. By the end of the movie, it is obvious that MGM’s intention is to attempt to produce a blockbuster franchise. And to the film’s credit, this first installment had a satisfying ending plus it quickly setup the next movie. If you like action-adventure movies or even a fan of the video game series, I feel that you will enjoy Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft: Tomb Raider!