(*homocinematically inclined)

Friday, October 19, 2018

Reverend's Reviews: Reaching for the Stars


Despite my love of Lady Gaga, I went into a screening of the latest version of A Star is Born thinking the last thing the world needs is another version of A Star is Born.  This time-honored story of a struggling female artist (an actress in two versions and a singer in the more recent two) who falls under the tutelage of an aging, alcoholic pro was previously told in 1937, 1954 and 1976.  Actually, its been told four times previously if one includes 1932's What Price Hollywood?  Director George Cukor helmed both that earlier film and the 1954, Judy Garland-headlined take on A Star is Born, which is still generally considered the best.

Bradley Cooper makes an impressive feature directorial debut with the new version.  He also plays male lead Jackson (formerly Norman) Maine, the hard-drinking and -drugging rocker who crosses paths with Gaga's singularly-named Ally in a drag bar where she is performing.  Jackson becomes smitten with the budding singer-songwriter and is soon bringing her out on stage during his sets.  Ally's talent is recognized and her popularity grows, ultimately to the troubled Jackson's suicidal chagrin.

In previous iterations, Norman's/Jackson's dire climactic act was seen as a noble way of ensuring the object of his affection's continued success.  Here, however, it remains tragic but also seems dramatically unnecessary and kind of creepy.  There is room for both Ally and Jackson in the YouTube/online era, and God knows bigger psychological messes than Jackson draw audiences today.  In this regard, Cooper's A Star is Born seems somewhat out of touch even as it reveals an impressive intimacy and chemistry between its two stars.

Cooper and Gaga give great, naturalistic performances, as does the normally taciturn Sam Elliott as Jackson's personal assistant/half brother and even Andrew Dice Clay (!) as Ally's encouraging father.  In addition, the original songs penned by Gaga, Cooper and Lukas Nelson (son of Willie) make a tuneful impression, especially likely eventual Oscar nominee "Shallow" (see video, above).  Matthew Libatique's cinematography is frequently in the actor's and viewer's face, in the best possible way.  Earlier, Hollywood-set versions of A Star is Born may ring truer but this latest iteration, though still arguably unnecessary, makes a strong impression nonetheless.

Pilot and astronaut Neil Armstrong literally reached for the stars during the 1960's and subsequently became the first human being to walk on the moon.  Armstrong and his 1969 achievement are the subject of First Man, an outstanding new movie by La La Land's Oscar-winning director Damien Chazelle.

Ryan Gosling stars as Armstrong, with The Crown's Claire Foy playing his first wife, Janet.  I've not been a huge fan of Gosling but this is easily his best, most engaging performance since Crazy, Stupid, Love despite his Oscar nomination for La La Land.  The film presents the tragic death of Armstrong's 2-year old daughter as a source of both grief and inspiration.  It is undeniably touching but a moon-set tribute to his daughter late in the film feels like a gravity-bending stretch.  Foy, employing an authentic-sounding Southern accent, matches Gosling step by step.

Be warned, though: First Man is visceral to the point of potentially inducing motion sickness in sensitive viewers, especially if viewed in its IMAX format.  I am not prone to motion sickness but still had to close my eyes at a few points.  As he previously proved in Whiplash and La La Land, Chazelle is a young maestro of visceral, you-are-there filmmaking.  However, First Man is an even more mature and involving drama.  It is easily one of the most ambitious and best pictures of the year.

She was neither a rocker nor an astronaut, but Joan of Arc made an undeniably memorable impression during — and after — her relatively brief lifetime.  Jeannette, as she was called while a young girl/woman, heard God's voice from an early age and defended France during the Hundred Years' War only to be burned at the stake by the Inquisition.  She was later absolved and ultimately canonized as one of the Catholic Church's most popular saints even to this day.

Acclaimed French filmmaker Bruno Dumont (Humanite, The Life of Jesus) turned to Joan/Jeannette's early years as inspiration for an unusual, 2017 movie musical.  Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc is newly available on home video from KimStim.  Set in 1425, it is an interesting but avant garde and often redundant film complete with dancing, headbanging nuns and even a "chorus" of live sheep.  The songs, written by Igorrr and the cast, are far from memorable but raise such provocative, time-honored questions as "Why does God allow such suffering and perdition?" among human beings.

Lise Leplat Prudhomme gives an impressive juvenile performance as the younger Jeannette, while Jeanne Voisin evokes Alanis Morissette as teenaged Jeanne.  Dumont is apparently now working on a musical sequel about Joan of Arc's adult years.  Jeannette is odd and amateurish in spots but warrants attention, especially from Catholic viewers.

Reverend's Ratings:
A Star is Born: B+
First Man: A-
Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc: C+

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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