A Super “Star”

A Star is Born is now on its 5th iteration when you count George Cukor’s 1932 version What Price Hollywood? The others have all taken the name of the 1937 Janet Gaynor/Frederic March film, directed by William Wellman. The setting of the story has changed, from straight Hollywood drama for the first two, to Cinemascope Hollywood musical for the 1954 version, again directed by Cukor, that served as a comeback vehicle for Judy Garland. Barbra Streisand’s 1976 version moved it to a straight music world story, which suited her well. For the new Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga version, nods are paid in the screenplay credits to the middle three films, including to William Wellman and Moss Hart (who wrote the Garland version), even though they’ve been dead for 43 and 57 years respectively. Jon Peters, who produced Streisand’s version, also gets producer’s credit here (he’s happily still alive at 73 to enjoy it). However, even with its long pedigree, Cooper, along with his writing partner Will Fetters and the estimable Eric Roth (Forest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) have managed to blend the past into a beautiful, compelling, and fresh version of the story.

Cooper demonstrates his Renaissance man skills by acting, directing, co-screenwriting, producing, composing many of the songs, and then singing them with a skill that could make him a recording star in his own right. His embodiment of country-rocker Jackson Maine has a deep whiskey rasp and a self-destructive relationship with booze and pills, partially motivated by progressing deafness. (His name is a nod to the Frederic March and James Mason versions of the character, Norman Maine.) Yet he’s also open and vulnerable, making you root for him.

While Lady Gaga’s stage shows are cinematic in design, she’s been honing a straight acting cred as part of Ryan Murphy’s stable of players for “American Horror Story.” (Her very first acting credit on IMDb was as “Girl in Pool” on a 2001 episode of “The Sopranos.”) She strips away the glamor of the Gaga persona, including dying her hair back to her original medium brown color, and in the role of Ally gives a bare, beautiful performance.

One weakness of the ’76 version was that the music scenes felt small, with extras filling up confined venues for the concert scenes. Bradley captures the feel of an actual concert by filming at major festivals in between acts. In a perfect bit of symmetry, one of the acts who gave them time was Kris Kristofferson, who starred with Streisand in the ’76 version. It helps, too, that Cooper’s backup band in the movie is a real band: Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, led by Willie Nelson’s son. Lukas co-wrote much of the music (with Cooper and Gaga) and it has a gravitas to its sound that you don’t normally get in a film.

Cooper has assembled a strong supporting cast. Chief among them is Sam Elliott as Bobby, Maine’s older brother, a performer in his own right who never broke through like his sibling. There’s also a surprising turn by Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s loving and supportive father, Lorenzo. In a nod to his first major role on the series “Alias,” Cooper has Greg Grunberg and Ron Rifkin in small but meaningful roles.

This is a star-making turn for Gaga, but it’s also a major coming out for Cooper as a force behind the camera. It’s clear that he used his time working with David O. Russell and Clint Eastwood as master classes in filmmaking. One example is at the end of the movie, when you expect a big emotional cathartic moment, he instead makes it intimate and devastating. It’s a bold choice you wouldn’t expect from a first-time director, but Cooper pulls it off.

I’ll be surprised if A Star Is Born doesn’t pull in a slew of nominations during the upcoming awards season. Best of all, it deserves them.


Short Takes: Peppermint & White Boy Rick

Peppermint: I’d caught the trailer for this movie on YouTube a couple of months ago and was waiting anxiously for it to arrive. Having watched Jennifer Garner kick butt in “Alias” I was delighted at the prospect that she’d return to the action genre. The finished product, though, left much to be desired – mostly, originality.

The script is pretty much a bastard child of Sicario and Death Wish. Garner’s Riley North suffers a devastating loss when her husband and daughter are killed in a drive-by shooting. Riley’s seriously wounded, but she’s able to identify the three gang members in the car (somehow, since she was far away, and the shooting took place at night). The men’s lawyer tries to bribe her. Why is never explained, since the fix is in with the judge and prosecutor. After the case is thrown out, Riley disappears for five years, traveling the world to develop “a very particular set of skills.”

The major skill acquired is the services of the director of Taken, Pierre Morrel. The action is fierce and well-choreographed, so it does draw you in. The weakness is the script by Chad St. John, who’d previously done London Has Fallen. Other than Riley, the characters are flat stereotypes – a ruthless Mexican gang lord (Juan Pablo Raba) who wants to be Al Pacino in Scarface, a disillusioned detective with a drinking problem (John Gallagher Jr.), a dedicated FBI agent (Annie Ilonzeh) who’s been tracking Riley so she can provide the backstory, and so on. Rather than keep the focus as a tight revenge flick, St. John has Riley become a guardian angel to the skid row inhabitants where she hides when she returns to LA. You can also hear echoes of other film plots scattered throughout the movie.

Even with all that, Garner comes close to pulling it off. For her next project, she’ll be doing the series “Camping” on HBO along with David Tennant. But I do hope she’ll take another crack at the action genre, if she can find a better vehicle.

White Boy Rick: This is a big production for a small-time story. The plot’s ripped from the headlines of a thirty-year-old paper, the (roughly) true story of Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) who’d started out helping his hustler father (Matthew McConaughey) sell guns illegally. The FBI uses the threat of arresting his dad to push Rick into helping them investigate the drug trade in Detroit. In the end Rick becomes a major player before he turns eighteen, only to see it all crash down.

The movie has an abundance of fine actors, including Jennifer Jason Leigh as an FBI agent plus Bruce Dern and Piper Laurie as Rick’s grandparents. McConaughey delivers a raw, memorable performance, and newcomer Merritt is a natural in front of the camera. They’re eclipsed, though, by Bel Powley as Rick’s older, addicted sister Dawn who struggles to get clean.

It’s a grim story told against the backdrop of grimy and gritty Detroit. It feels, though, that Rick’s story isn’t large enough to fit the effort that went into the production. Wershe was a street-level hood, and he’s not compelling enough to raise the story to the level of tragedy. Despite the excellent performances, you really don’t want to spend the movie’s running time with these characters.

There is a strange Hollywood connection to the story, though. The movie touches on the corruption of the Detroit police, which later led to indictments against a number of officers. After a 13-year-old boy is mistakenly killed in a hit on a drug dealer, one of Rick’s mentors turns to a cop to help cover up the killing. While the movie uses a different name, both Rick and his supplier, Johnny Curry, named Gil Hill as the officer who helped. Hill was the head of the Detroit Police homicide division, and in 1984, during the time White Boy Rick takes place, Hill was assigned as a technical adviser to Martin Brest when he directed Beverly Hills Cop. Brest ended up casting Hill as Eddie Murphy’s tough boss, Inspector Todd. The FBI investigated Hill in the cover-up, but no charges were ever filed. Hill passed away two years ago.

The Temperature of the Country

Michael Moore’s documentaries can be illuminating, infuriating, and irritating, all at the same time, but they are never boring. He has a way of finding a person or a group who embodies the point he’s trying to make, and then simply films them. He is fond of stunts, like driving a speaker truck around the US Capitol building while reading the complete text of the PATRIOT Act, like he did in Fahrenheit 9/11, or going one-on-one with Charlton Heston in Bowling for Columbine. Still, he’s able to unearth stories that have been ignored by the wider press and tie them into a narrative in a compelling way. His newest feature, Fahrenheit 11/9, is no exception. It also takes no prisoners.

The title was too perfect to pass up. It was in the early hours of the morning of November 9th, 2016, that Donald Trump addressed the supporters who’d assembled at his victory venue (which was one of the smallest on record for a presidential candidate). The mood there in the early evening of the 8th, as the poles closed in the east, was somber, a stark contrast from the party at Hillary Clinton’s location only a few blocks away. The large glassed-in assembly hall made the perfect image of a glass ceiling, ready to be shattered that night. But then the states started going to Trump, and the mood in the two venues flipped.

Moore has a right to say, “I told you so,” because he did. He’d warned in appearances for weeks before the election that Trump could pull it out. Near the beginning he surveys his own interactions with the Trump family and campaign, and reveals some interesting tidbits, such as that Jared Kushner, in his role as owner of the New York Observer, hosted the premier party for Moore’s film Sicko eleven years ago. But other than a survey of Trump’s career, there’s very little Donald in the film – maybe twenty minutes of its 2-hour-plus running time.

What Moore’s more interested in is how we ended up here, and where we will now go. On the “ended up here” side of the equation, he focuses on how Bernie Saunders was treated by the Democratic National Committee, and also on the Flint Water Crisis. For Moore, who was raised in Flint, the poisoning of the city by Michigan governor Rick Snyder was the prototype of Trump’s presidency – a rich businessman/neophyte politician (Snyder made his money with Gateway Computers) wins the governorship by saying he’ll run the state like a business, but instead focuses on cementing his power. With the help of the GOP legislature, he declares emergencies in the majority black communities in the state and appoints crisis managers who superseded locally elected governments to rule in effect as kings in their fiefdoms. Snyder is the target for two stunts by Moore: first he tries to make a citizen’s arrest of Snyder for poisoning Flint, but when that doesn’t work, he finds another way to express his feelings about Snyder’s creation and handling of the crisis. But don’t think this is simply a dump on Republicans. The Democrats, particularly the party leadership, come under intense fire from Moore for their compromising. Obama is hit hard for his shameful response to Flint, which pretty much stuck a dagger in the hearts of the residents.

The best parts of the film, though, are three segments where Moore finds hope for the future: the insurgent campaigns of local activists who’ve been mobilized by the past two years, the students of Stoneman Douglas High who refused to simply let their school become another statistic for gun violence, and the teacher strike in West Virginia that has sent ripples across the nation. Moore interviews Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who defeated one of the highest-ranking democrats in the House through grass roots campaigning. He’s in the room with the organizers of the Stoneman Douglas protests when they learn about a Maine Republican who had insulted Emma Gonzalez, one of their leaders. The students found a person to run against him, only to have him dropped out of the race. The West Virginia strike speaks to the rousing of a group to take on the politicians when they reach the point where they can’t take it anymore. (It’s also interesting to learn the actual origin of the term “redneck,” which is much different that most today would imagine.)

Towards the end Moore looks at how democracies can be lost to totalitarianism, using history as a mirror. But rather than a simple academic discussion, Moore throws in current events that echo the past all too clearly. Regardless of what you may think of Moore politically, he is an effective filmmaker, as Fahrenheit 11/9 proves once again.

Killer Wit

Paul Feig has had a good run this decade, producing and directing Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Spy. His one hiccup was the new version of Ghostbusters. Now he’s brought his off-kilter take to the mystery/suspense genre with A Simple Favor.

Based on a novel by Darcey Bell and adapted by Jessica Sharzer (“American Horror Story”), Favor focuses on Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick), a widowed mom in suburban Connecticut who supplements her dead husband’s insurance with YouTube domestic tutorials on baking and crafts. The movie opens with Stephanie about to demonstrate a recipe, but she veers from her script to update the viewers on her friend Emily Nelson, who’s been missing for five days.

The story then spools back to tell how Stephanie first met Emily (Blake Lively) at the elementary school where their children are in class together. Emily’s entrance pulls out all the stops with her walking through the rain beneath an umbrella, wearing a chic suit, all in slow motion. (Feig and Sharzer also provide a Greek chorus of other parents at strategic points to comment on Stephanie and Emily.) A playdate for the boys turns into a martini session for Stephanie and Emily, and their friendship grows. Even more than the martinis, Emily’s an intoxicating personality for Stephanie, saying things aloud that the button-downed Stephanie would feel guilty even thinking.

A while later, Emily asks Stephanie to pick up her son after school since she’s been called out of town on work and her husband is visiting family in England. Stephanie dutifully does the favor, but the hours turn into days with not a word from Emily. She finally reaches Emily’s husband, Sean (Henry Goulding), who’s been with his sick mother. Sean returns, and together they contact the police. The detective assigned the case (Bashir Salahuddin) intimidates Stephanie, even as she tries to puzzle out what happened to her friend. Could Sean be involved? Or perhaps it has to do with Dennis Nylon (Rupert Friend), the hard-charging New York designer for whom Emily worked. Or could there be some secret in Emily’s past that led to her disappearance.

Feig does a good job with the mystery element that casts a noir shadow throughout the movie. As you learn more about the characters, Feig goes to a much deeper and darker level than he’s plumbed with his comedies. The comedic element, though, fluctuates widely. With Stephanie’s perky determination, Emily’s seductive outrageousness, and a layer of snarkiness that cuddles the film like a blanket, the tone swings from sly and wry to over the top. Kendrick has always been a likeable actress, though with this role she shows a willingness to play against that type. Goulding’s character is less defined than the women, though the appeal he brought to his role in Crazy Rich Asians is still there. There’s a nice appearance late in the film by Jean Smart as a woman who helps Stephanie unravel the mystery.

What ties the movie together and gives it its zing is Lively, who’s building a resumé of excellent work. She was romantically mesmerizing in The Age of Adeline, then handled an almost solo action role in The Shallows. When she’s on the screen you can’t look away, afraid you might miss some crinkle of an eye or ghost of a smile that gives volumes of subtext to Emily’s lines.

Feig gives a tip of the hat (or beret, in this case) to French cinema that has made an art out of the sex-charged thriller for over a half-century. The soundtrack features several numbers recorded by Bridgette Bardot, and the opening credits strike a nice note of irony set to the song “Ca S’Est Arrange” – the French version of the 1960s hit, “Music to Watch Girls By.” Stephanie name-checks the 1955 thriller Diabolique as the twists of the plot make her question what’s actually happening.

A Simple Favor will never be mistaken for a classic like Diabolique, but it’s effective in its own way. Think of it as Gone Girl combined with a whiff of laughing gas.


Movies were a large part of my being a history buff since I was young. Growing up in the 1960s, I watched plenty of films about WWII on television. I enjoyed movies like The Great Escape or The Longest Day, though I particularly cherished the English films about the war, such as The Dambusters and Sink the Bismark! The came across as more realistic, while Hollywood films were more romanticized. To supplement my knowledge, I began reading books about the war, even making it through “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” while in High School. From there my interest expanded to history in general.

That also led to learning about the Holocaust. In the 1970s I found the book, “The House on Garibaldi Street” by the Mossad spymaster Isser Harel, about the discovery and capture of Adolf Eichmann. It was made into a TV movie in 1979, though I never got to see it. Now Operation Finale tells the story on the big screen, with the pulse pounding excitement of a fiction spy thriller. (More on that later.)

Director Chris Weitz is probably best known for his adaptation and direction of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy. Since then he’s mostly been writing and producing, including doing the scripts for the marvelous live-action version of Cinderella as well as the Star Wars prequel Rogue One. Here he focuses on directing, working from a script by first-time screenwriter Matthew Orton.

The film begins with Mossad operator Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac), disguised as a British officer, following a lead on the location of Adolf Eichmann, the SS officer who facilitated the Holocaust. However, the operation goes terribly wrong. Years later, Sylvia Herman (Haley Lu Richardson), a teenager in Argentina, becomes involved with a young man named Klaus Eichmann (Joe Alwyn) who lives with his uncle, Ricardo Klement (Ben Kingsley). Sylvia believes she’s a good Catholic, unaware that her sight-impaired father Lothar (Peter Strauss) is Jewish and survived Dachau before immigrating to Argentina. Hearing the young man’s name, Lothar believes he’s connected to Adolf Eichmann and contacts authorities back in Germany, who in turn alert the Mossad.

Weitz lets the tension build slowly but surely as Isser Harel (Lior Raz) assembles a team that includes Malkin. Also recruited to help is Hannah Eilan (Melanie Laurent), a doctor who’s worked with the Mossad before, to her detriment. The target must be identified and verified, then a team inserted in country to capture and remove Eichmann to Israel for trial. But Eichmann has a network of former Nazis and sympathetic Argentinians who are bound and determined to prevent his leaving the country.

This is a “based on a true story” film, and Orton has taken liberties with the story to up the stakes for the team. Overall, though, he’s mostly stayed true to the facts, including the mental fencing match between Malkin and Eichmann as Malkin seeks to get the former SS officer to agree in writing to travel to Israel for trial. In the hands of consummate actors like Isaac and Kingsley, the scenes are as thrilling as a duel with actual swords. If you’d like to know more about the true story verses the Hollywood version, please click here, though of course this involves spoilers.

The supporting roles are impeccably cast. There’s a wonderful turn by Greta Scacchi as Eichmann’s wife, Vera. Kudos also to production designer David Brisbin, art directors Marcela Bazzano, Kendelle Elliott, and Rick Willoughby, and set decorator Florencia Martin. They do impeccable work recreating 1960s Buenos Aries. It helped that they filmed on location, but it’s still not easy to get all the details right for a world 50 years in the past.

With the rise recently in Nazi sympathizers and admirers like the tiki-torch carriers in Charlottesville, it’s more important than ever to remember what was done in the name of racial purity 70 plus years ago. As George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” These days that feels like a prophecy coming true.

Wonderful, Rich Movie

Slowly but surely, Hollywood is learning that audiences want to see good films that touch on other cultures. The box office powerhouse Fast & Furious series has made billions, performing strongly around the world with its diverse cast. This past spring, Black Panther roared past a billion on its own with its Africa-centered story and cast. Now we have Crazy Rich Asians, based on the bestselling book by Kevin Kwan.

With a beloved book, there are major risks. The expectation is that the book will always be better than the movie – that’s pretty much a given – but when the screenwriters and directors are dedicated to making the best movie possible, it can come close to matching the source. Two recent and totally different movies that illustrate that are The Help and Gone Girl, though probably the best example is Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The good news here is screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim have done a stellar job with the adaptation, and director Jon M. Chu has put it on the screen with glorious visuals.

After a short but effective prologue, we meet Rachel Chu (Constance Wu), an economics professor who uses poker to illustrate her lesson. She meets up with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) at a bar in New York City. Nick is scheduled to head to his family home in Singapore for his best friend’s wedding, and he asks Rachel to accompany him so she can meet his family. However, Nick and Rachel have been spotted by a couple of women who know his family, and in a delightfully executed scene the couple’s picture zips around the world through social media and winds up on the phone of Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), before they leave the bar.

Rachel is from humble beginnings, having been raised by her single mother, Kerry (Kheng Hua Tan), who worked hard to become a successful real estate agent. She doesn’t realize Nick’s wealth until they arrive at the airport and Nick receives first-class treatment, including private sleeping quarters for the flight half-way around the world. As they travel Nick explains about his family, though it can hardly prepare Rachel for culture shock of stepping into the top level of Singapore society. Rachel does have one ace in the hole with her schoolmate Peik Lin Goh (the effervescent and delightful Awkwafina) who knows that world, even though her nouveau riche family is several levels below the Youngs.

Wu has mostly worked on television, including for the past few years on the hit “Fresh off the Boat,” but she fills the larger screen beautifully as Rachel. She’s well-matched with Golding who’s charming and understate in the role of Nick. Yeoh, of course, is Asian cinema royalty and can communicate paragraphs without the tick of a muscle on her face. It’s hard to think of anyone else in the role of Eleanor. The rest of the cast sparkles, though a standout is Gemma Chan as Nick’s sister Astrid, a fashion icon who also has a warm, loving heart. Chan will be filling movie screens for the next few months with the main role in the adaptation of Martin Amis’ London Fields, performing with Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie in Mary, Queen of Scots, then entering the Marvel Universe in the highly-anticipated Captain Marvel.

Chu has a marvelous touch with the story, maintaining a subtle balance amid the opulence and indulgence. Despite the different culture, these are characters to which anyone can relate, giving the story a universal appeal. That, of course, is one of the strengths of cinema when it’s done well – it takes the audience to worlds that viewers would never experience themselves, yet makes the exotic both understandable and intimately familiar.

Crazy Rich Asians accomplishes that goal beautifully.

A Big Fish Story

Sometimes a potboiler can cook up a tasty stew. Case in point: The Meg, which has been hovering in the top five at the box office since its release at the tail end of this year’s Shark Week a month ago. Ever since Jaws in 1975, sharks have fueled our fears – and filled the seats at the multiplex, most recently with 47 Meters Down and The Shallows. Then you have the Jurassic Park/Jurassic World films that have been box office gold. Why not combine the two with a prehistoric shark that’s larger than a whale?

As often happens, even what seems like a can’t miss story can end up in development hell. The Meg is based on the 1997 novel “Meg” by Steve Alten. From its release, there was talk about making it into a movie. While the novel became a series with seven sequels, the movie production never got moving, despite having name directors like Jan de Bont, Guillermo Del Toro, and Eli Roth attached to the project at different times. Two years ago, Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure) was hired to direct, and then Jason Statham agreed to star. That was enough to finally get the production on track.

Statham has carved out a niche as an international action star, a career no one could have imagined when he was a boy in Derbyshire, England – not even Statham. He first trained in martial arts, but then was introduced to football by future costar Vinnie Jones. Statham also developed a passion for diving, competing in the Commonwealth Games in 1990. His physique eventually led to work as a model, and it was through that that he met a struggling director trying to make his first film. The director was Guy Ritchie, and the film was Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, which also starred Jones. The film was a hit with audiences and critics, and led to the Transporter series, the Expendables movies, and eventually the Fast and the Furious franchise. Along the way, though, Statham also did solid work in films like The Bank Job and the Mark Walberg reimagining of The Italian Job (which was much superior to the Michael Caine original).

Statham stars as Jonas Taylor, an expert deep-sea diver and submersible pilot. The movie opens with him trying to rescue the crew of an incapacitate submarine in the depths of the Marianas Trench. While inside the sub, he sees the hull being crushed in from what looks like an outside attack. He gets as many survivors into the submersible as he can, but when it appears the boat’s about to implode, Taylor detaches the rescue submersible from it even though there are still men on the sub. He’s accused of panicking by Heller (Robert Taylor), a doctor on the sub, which destroys his career.

Fiive years later, the Mana One research vessel is mounting an expedition to explore the bottom of the Marianas Trench. It’s financed by tech billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) and led by Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao), working with his daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing). A submersible is attack on the bottom by a giant squid and then by something else, leaving it incapacitated. Mac (Cliff Curtis), the operations director, tells Zhang and Morris that Taylor is the only one who can mount a rescue. They fly to Taiwan where Taylor’s leading a dissolute life. He’s not interested in helping, but Mac has an ace to play: Celeste (Jessica McNamee), the pilot of the submersible, is Taylor’s ex-wife. Taylor accompanies the Mana One team back to the station, only to discover Heller is the doctor onboard. When he dives to rescue the submersible team, Taylor finally sees what attacked the submersible as well as the sub years earlier – a Megalodon, a 75 foot prehistoric shark.

Screenwriters Dean Georgaris (Paycheck) and brother team of Jon & Erich Hoeber (RED, Battleship) throw out much of the book, and they leaven the story with a decent dose of wit. While it fits the adventure genre, it also pokes fun at it as well. When Morris first sees Taylor, he says to another of the crew, “He looks heroic…but he’s kinda got a negative attitude.” The trailer hinted at the semi-serious tone when it used Bobby Darrin’s “Beyond the Sea” as the soundtrack. It’s about as far away in tone from John Williams’ “Theme from Jaws” as it could be and still be in the water.

Turteltaub and his actors manage to strike just the right balance between adrenalin surges and lightly tickling your funny bone. In a way, The Meg is the perfect movie for the end of the summer. You know it’s about time to get out of the water, but it’s fun to splash around one last time.