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.

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The Newest Tale As Old As Time

When Howard Ashman began the titular song of 1991’s Beauty and the Beast with the line “Tale as old as time…,” it wasn’t an exaggeration. Elements of the story can be found in tales 4000 years old, though the most direct link would be the story of Psyche and Cupid from the 2nd Century AD book “Metamophoses” by Platonicus. The modern form dates from France in the mid-1700s, with “La Belle et la Bête” by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve, though other authors have added their own touches to the story since then. It’s been filmed many times, including Jean Cocteau’s 1946 La Belle et la Bête, and has spawned a couple TV series. The best version, though, has to be Disney’s 1991 animated feature – the first animated movie to receive a Best Picture Oscar nomination. I wrote a full post on it after its re-release in 3D six years ago, and it remains one of my favorite movies of all time. Now I must add an asterisk to that statement. If anything, the new live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is better.

This is the third live action version of a classic Disney animated movie to come to the theaters. Tim Burton started it with his Alice in Wonderland, then Kenneth Branagh did a sparkling non-musical version of Cinderella in 2015. The studio is planning a full slate of adaptations, with the next one to be Mulan next year. (Currently the plan is for it also to be a non-musical.) While I was looking forward to Beauty and the Beast, I admit I had a bit of trepidation as well. The 1991 version brought me to tears in the theater, and I still can’t watch it without choking up at the climax. But the new version isn’t just a hit; it slammed in the center of the bull’s-eye.

Part of it is the casting. I’m now convinced that Emma Watson really is a wizard who’s cast a spell beguiling us. Her singing is just as wonderful as her acting, and her intelligence shines brightly in the character. Luke Evans (Fast and Furious 6, The Hobbit trilogy) manages to make meta-villain Gaston realistic and definitely threatening, while Josh Gad’s version of LeFou is delightful and definitely deeper than the 1991 version. Dan Stevens probably is most known as Matthew Crawley on “Downton Abbey,” though now it will be for his performance as The Beast. Even with the massive makeup, you still see through to the Beast’s soul. The film has an overabundance of riches in its supporting characters. The castle is populated with Ian McKellan, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Stanley Tucci, Audra McDonald, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. A special delight for me was Kevin Kline as Belle’s father, Maurice.

Another benefit comes from the highly-successful Broadway version that expands the story from the 1991 film’s original 84 minutes. (The new version runs 129 minutes; there are a couple of places where the flow of the story slows a bit, but they’re minor hiccups.) Music from the Broadway version has been incorporated, with lyrics by Tim Rice to music by original composer Alan Menken, and the story has been fleshed out in other ways as well.

The adaptation was done by Stephen Chbosky, who wrote “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” which he both adapted for the movie version and directed. Chbosky had also done the adaptation of Rent, so he’s worked in the musical genre before.  He collaborated with Evan Spiliotopoulos who’d done multiple direct-to-video scripts for Disney and was well-acquainted with the studio’s style. Some of the story departs from the 1991 film and instead incorporates pieces from the 18th Century versions, in particular Maurice’s experience in the Beast’s castle, and expands Belle’s background. They also add some wicked quips, including one referencing the permanent winter surrounding the castle which passes without comment in the animated version.

Director Bill Condon, too, has worked with movie adaptations of musicals before, writing the script for Chicago as well as writing and directing Dreamgirls in 2006. He’d also won an Oscar for his 1998 script of Gods and Monsters, which he directed. Condon isn’t constrained by the visuals of the original. He pays tribute to them occasionally, such as during the “Bonjour” sequence as well as Belle’s “I want adventure” reprise, but overall he smartly reimagines the scenes and sets so they work in the live-action realm.

There was a kerfuffle amongst some conservatives when it was announced a character would be openly gay – no points for guessing which one. It truly is a tempest in Mrs. Potts. Nothing in the film is more objectionable than in the classic Warner Brothers cartoons from seventy-five years ago. They were a bit edgier than Disney, but they were funny then and are still funny today. Also, it’s rather ridiculous to be upset about a gay character in a film about a girl and a horned beast falling deeply in love. Beauty and the Beast is all about seeing the heart and not the externals.

What’s more poignant is why the character’s orientation was included. The lyricist of the 1991 movie, Howard Ashman, was openly gay. He could turn a phrase as well as any of the giants of musical theater, such as Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, or Alan Jay Lerner. With his composer partner, Alan Menken, they’d created the musical version of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Following that, Disney had them compose the songs for The Little Mermaid, the movie that established the new age of Disney animated brilliance. Beauty and the Beast was their masterpiece, but strangely enough it almost didn’t happen. The film was originally written as a non-musical. Ashman and Menken were working on what was supposed to be their follow-up – Aladdin – when Disney execs asked them to save Beauty and the Beast as the production was going nowhere. But during that time Ashman was diagnosed as HIV-positive. It progressed to full-blown AIDS, and Ashman died eight months before Beauty and the Beast was released. That film bears the dedication “To our friend Howard, who gave a mermaid her voice and a beast his soul, we will be forever grateful.” The inclusion of a gay character in the live-action remake was a tribute to Ashman.

As most know, Beauty and the Beast demolished the box office records for a March release, racking up over $170 million domestically and passing $300 million worldwide in its first weekend. But for me, its success was me sitting in my seat in the theater with tears streaming down my cheeks at the film’s climax. I knew it was coming, but still I was overwhelmed. I sat in the theater to the end of the credits to give myself time to recover.

When a movie can touch people in the audience with that power, it is truly something beautiful.

Hollywood Carrie’s On

There have always been remakes in Hollywood. Sometimes they work well – the John Houston version of The Maltese Falcon was a remake of an earlier film, and more recently Steven Soderbergh took the Rat Pack’s Ocean’s Eleven and turned it into one of the best heist flicks ever made. Other times the remakes beg the question, “What were they thinking?” Probably the worst is the 1998 remake of Psycho, which not only retold the story but matched the original shot for shot. If they had to put Psycho back in the theaters, they would have been better off simply colorizing the original and releasing that. Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates? That is scary, but for all the wrong reasons.

The newest remake is definitely in the “What were they thinking?” category. The original 1976 Carrie was a milestone in horror movies, which along with The Exorcist moved them from the B-movie category up to the A-list, and garnered Oscar nominations for Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. It was blessed with an excellent supporting cast including Amy Irving, Nancy Allen, and John Travolta in his second movie role. (His first movie role was in a Grade Z movie, “The Devil’s Rain,” which encapsulated in one film all that was wrong with the horror genre at that time.) Carrie was the high-water mark in director Brian DePalma’s career, which turned increasingly self-indulgent and hackneyed afterward (with the exception of The Untouchables). The movie also created a huge buzz about the original novel’s author, Stephen King. Publishing has not been the same since.

I had hopes when I saw the cast that the remake could capture the power of the original. Sissy Spacek was in her mid-twenties when she filmed the original Carrie. For the new movie, one of the hottest teen-aged actresses in the business, Chloe Grace Moretz, was cast as Carrie. Moretz had done horror before as the pre-teen vampire in Let Me In (which was a remake of the Swedish film Let The Right One In, and was just as good as the original), though she showed even better acting chops recently as Isabelle in Hugo. Substituting for Piper Laurie’s Margaret White was Julianne Moore, another excellent actress. Replacing DePalma for the remake was Kimberly Pierce, who guided Hilary Swank to her first Oscar win in Boys Don’t Cry. The remake kept the original screenplay writer, Lawrence D. Cohen, with additions by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who prior to this had mostly done work on television shows such as “Glee” which may have given him bona fides for a movie about high schoolers.

Even with that going for it, it doesn’t work. The original had a lyrical quality in the face of the horror elements. It was also, in its own way, one of the first girl empowerment movies. Carrie blossomed as she realized her power. It gave her the strength to fight back against her psychologically-abusive mother. Sissy Spacek had strong support thanks to Piper Laurie’s flinty religious fanatic. In the remake, Moore is more of a mouse than a monster, without the fanaticism to sharpen the action. For Moretz, Carrie’s powers come across as more of a parlor trick than an empowerment.

The supporting cast is bland. Portia Doubleday’s performance as Chris Hargensen has none of the fire that Nancy Allen brought to the role, and Gabriella Wilde doesn’t communicate the inner decency that Amy Irving did as Sue Snell. About the only upgrade is Ansel Elgort as Tommy. You can see why someone would fall for him much more than William Katt.

Of course, the special effects this time around are far and away better than in the original, thanks to the evolution in the art over the past 40 years. Still, the original was much more effective when it came to the mayhem, which happened with explosive fervor. The split screen process DePalma used worked beautifully to highlight Carrie’s actions. In the new one, Moretz looks like she’s listening to some odd piece of music on her Ipad ear buds rather than consciously murdering the senior class.

While they don’t try to recreate the original’s final “gotcha,” which has now become cliché in horror films, the substitution makes little sense and only serves to underline that this is a lesser version of the story.