(On Cable TV, June 2019) There are a couple of levels on which the 2018 version of A Star is Born can be appreciated. Perhaps the least interesting one is to take it at face value without any knowledge of its lineage or production history: As a story in which an aging rock star discovers a promising young talent and nurtures her to stardom while his own career fades. The music is exceptional, the chemistry between the two leads is off-the-chart, the plot moves efficiently between the set-pieces and it wraps up on an elegiac note that consciously brands the film as high drama. It’s enjoyable and perhaps even a bit rare in an environment that doesn’t give much of a chance to mid-budget romantic dramas. But, of course, 2018’s A Star is Born is not merely just any romantic drama—it’s the fourth (or fifth) version of a traditional Hollywood story played and replayed every twenty years since the mid 1930s, unexplainably skipping over the 1990s. Compared to previous versions (and I’ve seen all of them, including the two versions from the 1930s), this 2018 version is closest to the 1976 one, taking inspiration in rock and pop music rather than Hollywood—expanding the 1954 version’s idea to take on musical aspects to broaden the story’s appeal proves correct once more, and the male lead’s characterization owes a lot to Kris Kristofferson’s performance. The female lead is something a bit new—more organic to the story than Streisand was in her own pet project, but more likable than Garland in 1954. I think it’s probably my favourite version of the story, currently running slightly above the 1934 and the 1976 version. (Not being a Garland fan, I’m lukewarm about the 1954 one.) Much of this liking has to do with the strengths of both leads—previous versions have often short-thrifted the male lead in favour of the female upstart, but this version is more even-handed, and heightens the ending tragedy by making it feel inevitable. And that, in turn brings us to the third level of appreciation for 2018’s A Star is Born—one informed by a torrent of contextual material about the making of the film and its lineage. You can quite admire writer-producer-director-star Bradley Cooper’s decision to pause a highly successful acting career for two years in order to put together the project, learning musical chops along the way to deliver an incredibly convincing performance as an aging rocker on the decline. Or you can talk about Stefani “Lady Gaga” Germanotta’s quasi-revelatory performance as a skilled dramatic actress in addition to her undeniable vocal musical talents. (I say quasi-revelatory because even casual Gaga fans have long known that there was quite a bit of depth beyond the pop-star image.) You can also talk about the real-life chemistry of the two leads, the way Sam Shepard’s growl was integrated in the plot, or the integration of new technology in an old story—in short, there are levels of meta-textuality here that would be worth discussing even if the film itself wasn’t any good. Fortunately, this take on A Star is Born is actually quite decent, and defies expectations by one-upping several of its predecessors.
(On TV, January 2019) Some movies are more infamous than famous, and to the extent that anyone even thinks about All About Steve, it’s usually to remind everyone else that it was a terrible film. (I don’t like the Razzies, but All About Steve is notable in that it led to Sandra Bullock winning a Razzie for the worst actress of the year, and picking it up herself … the day before winning a Best Actress Academy Oscar for The Blind Side, which is not necessarily a better movie.) With a reputation like that, it’s normal to approach the film with an “it can’t be that bad” presumption. All About Steve, however, is honestly that bad, although it can often camouflage its awfulness by humour. Even the premise is strange, what with a socially awkward girl obsessively pursuing a dreamboat of a romantic prospect, turning psychotic behaviour into rom-com antics. The problems, I suspect, go straight to Bullock as the producer of the film. There are plenty of hints that the script, as originally written, was far wackier than what eventually landed on the screen. There are enough zany hijinks and eccentric characters left over on the sides of the plot to make a reasonable hypothesis that when Bullock became the film’s producer and cast herself in the lead role, the main character re rewritten to fit their lead actors, and that neither Bullock nor Bradley Cooper wanted to strike out too far in absurdity. The result is a film that doesn’t know how to approach its own material. Bullock in the lead role is too conventionally sympathetic and cannot allow herself to completely become the nerdy obsessive protagonist in her full glory—she has to be fit to be played by Sandra Bullock’s persona, and that works to the film’s detriment as it holds back what could have been a far funnier film. Another actress may have been able to play a brainy outcast, but Bullock has to get her star moments. Much of the same also goes for Bradley Cooper, asked to play a relatively straight and featureless male romantic lead in a film geared for something else. This would explain such baffling tonal issues with the rest of the film, including a scene (glorifying Bullock’s character, naturally) mean to be inspiring and heroic, but just coming across as tone-deaf. I suspect that movie-star interference in films is widespread and corrosive, but All About Steve looks like an ideal example of the problem. The problems of All About Steve are all about casting—specifically when the casting of a persona end up weakening the character as originally written … which happens when the star and producer end up being the same person.
(On Cable TV, October 2018) I you want to hear me at my cantankerous best, just get me started on the hyperbolization of language and (in parallel) the tendency of ironic catchphrases to get normalized to clichés. Never mind my person crusade to teach everyone the deadly origins of the expression “drinking the Kool-Aid”: one of my current bugaboos is how perfectly good middle-ground descriptive words have been perverted into value judgments. “Mediocre” means “ordinary,” but most people now take it to mean “bad.” “Exemplary” means that something is a perfect example of something, and not necessarily among the best. So when I say that Failure to Launch is an exemplary mid-2000s romantic comedy featuring Matthew McConaughey (not as small a sample size as you’d think), then I’m just saying that it’s representative, not a superior example of the form. The plot is the kind of high-concept contrived nonsense that was a staple at the time, this time about a relationship specialist (Sarah Jessica Parker) who can be hired to boost the self-esteem of young men staying at their parent’s house long after they’ve overstayed their welcome. It’s not prostitution, insists Failure to Launch in the rare moments when it actually cares about the implications of its premise, except that parents do hire her to send their boys away from home. The plot built upon that premise is executed by-the-numbers, but as with many examples of the genre the charm of the film lies in the execution, the subplots and the supporting characters. The charm of the leads is considerable (there’s a reason why McConaughey found a niche in romantic comedies for so long—he nearly overpowers the material), and there is a lot of fun to find in the more interesting romantic B-story featuring Zooey Deschanel and the film’s obsession about animal bites. Bradley Cooper and a pre-hair implant Steve Carell show up in minor roles. There’s a funny subplot about a mockingbird. Despite its familiarity, Failure to Launch is not a difficult film to watch: it’s not exceptional, but it’s well-made enough to be entertaining.
(Video on Demand, January 2016) The world of food has been so tremendously vulgarized to the masses in the last decade that Burnt arrives not as a celebration but a bit of a side dish. As the story of a brash three-star chef who comes back to haute cuisine after some time in the trenches atoning for past mistakes, Burnt has the framework of an incisive look in the life of a professional chef … but doesn’t make all that much of it. Bradley Cooper’s usual mix of cockiness and charisma serves him well as the protagonist, while some of the supporting players (Omar Sy, Sienna Miller, Daniel Bruhl) do just as well. Many of the film’s details, scenes and quips also work, but there’s a maddening sense that Burnt is not going as far as it could have. Nor does it avoid a familiar narrative arc culminating in the protagonist hitting rock bottom. Similarities to Chef, as different as the films (and subject matter) can be, are inevitable and not to Burnt’s advantage. Whereas Chef made viewers warm, happy and hungry, Burnt leaves cold, annoyed and full. It’s not exactly a bad or unpleasant movie, but it suffers from too many other points of comparison, too many familiar elements and too little risk-taking.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) In many mays, American Sniper was a genuine phenomenon in contemporary American cinema. It’s one of the very, very few purely-realistic film to have been a box-office hit, without being a sequel or part of a franchise or incorporating speculative elements. It’s also, even more remarkably, a box-office hit that made most of its money in the United States, reversing the usual domestic/foreign box-office ratio for blockbusters. The reasons for both of those oddities quickly becomes obvious when watching the film, which is a conflicted paean to a fallen warrior. An exchange about sheep, wolves and sheepdogs early on clearly establishes that this is a film aimed at the sheepdogs (or, more cynically, at the sheep thinking they’re sheepdogs), and as such does seem to align with typically conservative values in the culture war that currently dominates American discourse. American Sniper, directed by old-school legend Clint Eastwood, was one of the few mainstream films to comfort conservatives in their values without necessarily annoying liberals who could appreciate the film’s portrayal of a veteran having trouble coping with the aftermath of his tours. That the film is reasonably good helps in ensuring its success. There are certainly plenty of issues with the result, though: Eastwood directs action sequences competently but not exceptionally; protagonist Chris Kyle is portrayed without many of the less-pleasant rough spots that more independent profiles of the man have outlined; the film seems to shy away from the last moments (and drama) of Kyle’s life. But American Sniper worst reasonably well, provides Bradley Cooper with a terrific role, brings together a lot of issues that have preoccupied Americans for the past decade, and provides a fascinating glimpse into the self-righteous militaristic streak of American culture. Any irresistible intention to argue about the film’s merit are part of its added appeal.
(Video on Demand, August 2015) Wait, what? Cameron Crowe wrote and directed Aloha? The rather competent filmmaker behind such films as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky somehow ended up putting together this grotesque mishmash of disparate story element forced together? Huh. The frustrating thing about Aloha is that it does feature some very strong elements: Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone are two highly charming performers and it’s maddening to see them struggle with a script that doesn’t serve any substance. There is a provocative idea in trying to match Hawaiian mythology with the hard-edged world of military space technology, except when neither element seem to play off each other. The film’s lackadaisical lack of plot isn’t necessarily a bad thing (in keeping with the setting) except when it flips out ten minutes before the end credits and then suddenly try to cram some artificially-urgent conflict with a deeply dumb resolution (“Let’s blast it with sound! IN SPACE!”) with no built-up stakes at all. It doesn’t help that, as adorable as Emma Stone can be, she is profoundly miscast in a role that should have gone to someone both older and more ethnically representative. (I’m thinking of Tia Carrere, but lesser-known actresses would have been just as good) There are some terrific scenes here and them (Specifically, I’m thinking about a pair of hilarious near-wordless scenes with John Krasinski), but the script goes all over the place with no discipline nor focus –I’m actually astonished that no one suggested a further rewrite to take better advantage of its strengths. It amounts to a frustrating mess –not a bad movie to watch on pure undemanding entertainment value, but one that fails to reach even modest success at delivering what it should have been capable of achieving. Cameron Crowe; what happened to you?
(On Cable TV, January 2015) If I was in a better mood, I would probably have something nicer to say about The Place Beyond the Pines, its savvy use of Ryan Gosling, its unusual generation-hopping timeline, the quality of its images, the profound exploration of the meaning of fatherhood, the unexpectedly dramatic performances by Eva Mendes and Bradley Cooper, and a number of other meaningful factors. It’s a quality film, one that has a lot on its mind, and one that takes time to invest in its characters. But if writer/director Derek Cianfrance seems to be directly inspired by the artistic moviemaking of the seventies, he isn’t particularly interested in snappy storytelling or even base entertainment: The Place beyond the Pines tests everyone’s patience at 140 minutes, wallows in a somber tone and never again reaches the heights of its first act. I may not be in the mood for moody films these days, and that’s not the film’s problem. But it becomes my problem in trying to report on it, as the dominant impression I keep from it is having lost quite a bit of time watching something underwhelming. Not recommended for people with only the patience for light entertainment.
(Video on Demand, March 2014) As a plot-driven moviegoer, I’m always a bit frustrated when contemplating movies such as American Hustle: While I had a pretty good time watching the film, much of this enjoyment was based on getting to know the characters, appreciating the gorgeous re-creation of the late 1970s, humming at the soundtrack and enjoying the costumes. Plot? Well, there’s some kind of bare-bones caper/con action going on, but it’s not particularly heartfelt, nor all that interesting once everything has gone down. This a director/actor’s kind of film, and so the real joy of American Hustle is in seeing David O. Russell having so much fun with Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence that all five of them get Oscar nominations. Much of the acclaim is justified: Russell may not be as interested in telling a story than in letting his actors run with the scenery and the costumes, but American Hustle is filled with feel-good energy, tense dramatic confrontations, steady forward rhythm and plenty of laughs. Christian Bale turns in another performance unlike anything seen from him before, while Bradley Cooper carefully undermines his own all-American good-guy image, Amy Adams brings subtlety to a complicated character and Jennifer Lawrence almost makes us forget that she’s roughly ten years too young to play that particular character. Frankly, American Hustle is so successful in what it gets right that it practically minimizes what it doesn’t get so right. It feels scattered, loose, improvisational and filled with badly-tied loose ends. But at the same time, it’s a fun movie and an invigorating viewing experience. Who cares if the plotting isn’t tight enough: At a time where nearly all major cinema releases are excuses for bigger and shakier special effect sequences, it’s almost a relief when a character-based film comes along and ends up being a massive success.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) As someone who had a mixed reaction to The Hangover and an annoyed one to its nearly photocopied sequel, I’m almost unsurprised to find out that I don’t completely dislike the third installment in “The Wolfpack trilogy”. At the very least, it disposes with the narrative scheme of the first two films and attempts something new. It also brings back Ken Jeong’s unleashed character, a force of chaos that ends up driving much of the entire plot. The result certainly has its moments, as it zigzags from Los Angeles to Tijuana to (much to the characters’ dismay) Las Vegas once again. The comedy certainly is of the hit-and-miss type: some stuff works, some stuff doesn’t and viewers just have to wait for the next gag if one isn’t to their liking. With this series, it doesn’t pay off to be offended, but it actually takes a while (arguably until after the credits) for this third Hangover to get overly graphic. Perhaps the film is mellowing along its characters; perhaps it’s a recognition that you can only go back to the same raunchy source so many times. Much of the film’s success has to go to the actors under Todd Phillips’ direction. Bradley Cooper is still as preposterously charming as ever, while Ed Helms continues to undermine his own straight-laced image. Zach Galifianakis remains annoying, but even that annoyance seems lessened here, largely because his character does get a bit of emotional growth along the way. The Hangover III benefits from a few good comic set-pieces (the best of which taking place atop Caesar’s Palace), and manages to re-use a lot of material from the previous two film, even if only in passing. The result may not be great cinema, but it’s decent comedy and it brings this would-be trilogy to a decent close. It could have been worse, or at least far more similar to the first two films.
(On Cable TV, September 2013) Buzzwords from Silver Linings Playbook’s script read like a bingo card of stuff I don’t particularly care about: mild mental illness, ballroom dancing and rabid sports fandom. So it’s perhaps a relief more than anything else that this dramatic comedy ends up being better than expected. Much of the praise should go to Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, who manage to navigate a tricky path in portraying badly-flawed characters that nonetheless become endearing. Lawrence, in particular, portrays a character far beyond her age, rounding an increasingly multifaceted screen persona. The rest of the film’s success should go to writer/director David O. Russell, who doesn’t specialize in easy movies and here manages to deliver a refreshing blend of independent sensibilities with Hollywood A-list actors. The mixture is tricky and doesn’t always work (Anyone bored with sports fandom will find lengthy stretches of the film almost interminable, although Lawrence does get a laugh out-playing superstitious armchair statisticians.) but Silver Linings Playbook does work more often than it should and that’s enough to qualify it as a success.
(Video on Demand, January 2013) I’m favourably pre-disposed toward films about writing and writers, but even with this added sympathy, there are many ways in which The Words doesn’t quite work as well as it could. The interweaving of stories in which a successful author tells us about a young writer hearing about another young author’s life is intriguing, but the conclusion seems to spring forward at about thirty second’s notice, with a scarcity of details at the upper level. The sudden appearance of the end “directed by” card is a disappointment, as so much of the story seems unfinished. More holes emerge the longer one thinks about the film. I also had a few problems with the putative protagonist of the film, ably played by Bradley Cooper: What kind of idiot calling himself a writer works exclusively for years on a single literary manuscript in New York City? Who is incurious enough not to investigate a literate manuscript from post-War France when so many great writers lived there at the time? Why even call yourself a “writer” when there’s so little hesitation in plagiarizing so thoroughly? Even allowing The Words those premises as given (and adding the improbability of a manuscript remaining undiscovered for decades) and appreciating the careful way in which the film is constructed doesn’t necessarily make the film a success considering its cast. Dennis Quaid and Olivia Wilde’s characters remain half-developed mysteries, unbalancing the film’s core of interest to its first fictional level. Despite the deliberate ambiguity at the very end of the film, The Words seems half-finished, a decent film petering out in a wet whisper of a conclusion. Despite wanting to like the film and everyone involved in it, it ends up being a bit of a dud. A well-made, respectable, often-likable dud, but a dud nonetheless.
(In theaters, June 2011) The platonic ideal of a sequel is to recreate the experience of the first film while bringing something new to it. So it’s not much of a surprise to find out that the screenwriters at work on The Hangover II felt completely justified in stealing the original’s structure almost plot beat per plot beat. It’s certainly familiar, and that may not be ideal: Part of The Hangover’s appeal was the delirious way in which it went left and right, bowing to traditional narrative expectations only late in the third act. Here, the element of surprise is gone, and viewers can feel themselves anticipating what should have been twists. It also lends an unfortunate feeling of laziness to a film that nonetheless went around the world in big-budget style. It could have been worse, mind you: The characters are recognizable without feeling reduced to catch-phrases (although Zach Galifianakis’s always-irritating “Alan” went from slightly-retarded to too-stupid-to-live in-between the two films), the Bangkok location provides plenty of good color, the rhythm of the film is fine, Bradley Cooper makes for a capable anchor, Ken Jeong is just as refreshing in his brief scenes (even though his presence is absurdly contrived) and up to a certain point, setting the film far away makes it feel a little bit less reprehensible that the quasi-local hijinks of frat-boys gone wild in Vegas. Still, the film as a whole doesn’t feel quite as joyful as the first one: the laughs seem to suffer in the face of increased danger and raunchiness. But it’s the feeling of familiarity that brings The Hangover II down, a sense that it’s quite literally going through the same motions as its predecessor.
(On DVD, June 2011) I’m just as surprised as anyone else that I lasted two years without seeing one of the cultural movie touchstones of 2009, the R-rated comedy that affirmed the dominance of the arrested-male-teenager as the comic archetype of the time. I have little patience with the form and didn’t expect to like The Hangover much, but as it happens there’s quite a bit to like in its cheerfully anarchic approach to plotting, as it uses flashbacks, comic detective work and wild characters in one big pile. Todd Phillips’ directing is assured and neatly guides viewers through a more complex narrative structure than is the norm for comedies. It helps a lot that the characters are interesting in their own right: Bradley Cooper’s natural charisma transforms a borderline-repellent role into something nearly cool, while Ed Helms proves a lot less annoying than I’d initially guessed and Ken Jeong supercharges every single scene he’s in. Small roles for Mike Tyson (not someone I’d hold as a role model) and Jeffrey Tambor also work well, although I still can’t think of Zach Galifianakis as anything but obnoxious (and discover retroactively that he played the same character in Due Date). For all of the icky what-happens-in-Vegas immaturity, there are a few chuckles here and there: it’s hard to begrudge a film as likable as it is foul-mouthed. Alas, I didn’t go completely crazy for the film: Fonder flashbacks to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (curiously unacknowledged) and the far funnier absurdist amnesia masterpiece Dude, Where’s My Car? held me back. But comedy’s notoriously subjective, and it’s not as if I actually disliked The Hangover: I just found it a bit underwhelming, most likely conceived from assumptions that I don’t share.
(In theatres, April 2011) Newsflash : Smart movie about a smart man getting smarter pleases movie reviewer who think he’s smart. Pro-intelligence biases made obvious, here’s what works in Limitless: a clever script that has way too much fun exploring the wish-fulfillment potential of artificially-enhanced intelligence; Neil Burger’s compelling direction; Bradley Cooper’s increasing stature as an actor who can do both charm and intelligence; an ending that’s considerably more upbeat than Alan Glynn’s source novel; and an overall attitude that, yes, more intelligence can actually be beneficial. Even in indulging in such traditional faux-pas as voiceover narration and a flash-forward prologue, the script is witty, darkly amusing and ends on a high note. Visually, Limitless deliberately flourishes along with its characters: the opening credits zoom-in alone is a thing of wonder. There’s no doubt that Limitless could have been better: neither Abbie Cornish nor Robert de Niro have much to do; the main character isn’t as compelling as he should be; the ending is a bit rough (albeit kind of cool); some third-act revelations aren’t surprising and there are at least two really dumb plot holes that even moderately-smart viewers will be able to spot (ie: Always pay off your psychotic bookie first and Always secure your supply chain.) Still, Limitless remains fun to watch and, significantly, marks the second of three decent SF film consecutively shown in theatres as of early April 2001 alongside The Adjustment Bureau and Source Code. Who could complain?
(In theatres, June 2010) Having no particular knowledge or affection for the eighties TV series from which this film is adapted, I can only judge it on how well it performs as an action movie. Fortunately, The A-Team delivers all the expected thrills: Writer/director Joe Carnahan finally gets a decent budget, and the if the result frequently mocks plausibility, it’s good enough to make The A-Team a perfectly acceptable action movie. While a few longer shots would have been helpful in keeping the tension high, Carnahan’s visual style here is heavy on anachronistic back-and-forth between planning and an execution that places a lot more emphasis on speed than grace. It benefits from grand-scale CGI stunts: how else to portray a bunch of shipping containers falling down like matchsticks? By the time the characters are flying a tank via its main cannon, I couldn’t have been happier: Action insanity plus echoes of Grand Theft Auto 3! This intensity, combined with an engaging ensemble cast of characters, does a lot to compensate for a script that never quite seems certain when to start: The A-Team delivers two successive origin stories before we get the sense that the film is truly underway, and even then the entire film seems like a pilot episode for its own sequels. But why complain when Liam Neeson is slumming with cigars and cackling grins? Why nit-pick when Bradley Cooper makes for an irresistible con-man? Finally, what about Jessica Biel, back on the big screen as a competent military investigator? I’m always on the market for an over-the-top action comedy if it’s made with intelligence, speed and charm. The A-Team at least gets good grades on speed and charm, and substitutes kinetic cleverness in lieu of intelligence. I’ll take it. After all, I love it when an action movie comes together.