Category Archives: Contemporary

Movie Review: “A Star Is Born”

Some movies succeed by virtue of creative plotting, while others double down on sheer majesty of execution. “A Star Is Born”—Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s new musical romantic drama—is the latter sort of film. The third remake of the 1937 original, “Star” soars on the strength of its central leads and the raw energy of the music at its heart.

When late-career rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) discovers insecure waitress Ally (Gaga) singing at a drag bar, he’s immediately captivated. Soon, Ally is singing onstage alongside him, and the accolades begin to pile up. Almost before Ally knows what’s happening, fame and fortune come knocking: a record deal, a tour, and a new public persona are hers for the taking. But the good graces of L.A. exact a nasty price: as Jackson begins to spiral down into alcohol and drug abuse, Ally’s managers push her to reinvent herself as a Katy Perry-esque pop goddess (authenticity is out; sultriness is in).

These aren’t exactly novel story beats, but that’s not the point. What really matters is the style and power of the delivery, and both stars deliver: Cooper and Gaga share real chemistry—the essential core of any movie like this—making their interactions endlessly watchable.

For that matter, Cooper proves himself not only a strong actor, but a highly capable director with a flair for distinctive storytelling. Just to name one example, in an extended early scene, Ally and Jackson duck out of a bar melee and head to a local supermarket after Ally punches a snide commenter. As Jackson tapes a bag of frozen peas to her swelling hand, Ally shares her story, her dreams, and her first tentative attempts at songwriting. It’s a sweet, memorable sequence that likely would’ve been cut from a movie more obsessed with its own mass-market appeal.

But perhaps the most distinctive feature of “Star” is the visceral power of its sonic landscape. Not only are the songs themselves hauntingly memorable—anyone who’s seen the trailers for this film has already glimpsed Gaga’s showstopping performance of “Shallow”—the cinematography complements them in superb fashion. Admirably, Cooper resists the tendency of some music dramas to rely heavily on wide-angle shots of screaming crowds: instead, we’re present right alongside Jackson and Ally, feeling every twang, every rasp, every rippling chord. It’s a relentlessly immersive technique that infuses every song with a sense of real intensity. Suffice it to say that this is a movie that demands to be experienced on the best sound system available. (Also, it’s worth stressing that no matter what you might think of Gaga’s public persona, her voice really is stunning.)

In short, one leaves “Star” feeling like they’ve gone on an emotional odyssey. Yes, it’s a long and sprawling film filled with ups and downs, but somehow this never feels indulgent. Rather, it feels classic—a throwback to an era before films were tailor-made to succeed in Chinese markets, advance some sociopolitical cause, or pander for Oscar attention. (Okay, maybe there’s a bit of that last one. But it’s not overwhelming.) If you liked “La La Land” or its ilk, “Star” is certainly not a film to miss.

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Posted by on October 6, 2018 in Contemporary


Movie Review: “Assassination Nation”

“Assassination Nation” is a bloody, ugly, stomach-churning, mesmerizing film. It also may be one of the most important ones this year. Despite the way it was marketed, this isn’t a female-fronted knockoff of the “Purge” series: instead, what starts out as a teen comedy quickly mutates into an incendiary social satire about the horrors of cyber-mobbing and the paradoxes of modern life.

As the film opens we meet Lily (Odessa Young), a talented but rebellious senior with some subversive ideas about the culture of her school. It soon becomes clear that Lily’s leading a double life: she’s not only holding down a high school relationship, but flirting heavily online with someone much older. Things quickly escalate when an online hacker starts leaking, drip by drip, the townspeople’s unedited records of online activity onto the public Internet. Lily’s double life is almost immediately exposed—and what’s worse, another student’s testimony identifies her as the original hacker.

Madness follows. Death threats give way to rocks thrown through windows, nooses on streetlights, and knives in dresser drawers. (The movie is even set in Salem, Massachusetts. A little too on-the-nose? Probably.) To defend themselves, Lily and her friends grab their own guns and take to the streets. And as the film hurtles toward its violent end, Lily breaks the fourth wall and delivers a ferocious diatribe against the conflicting demands of 21st-century femininity: “Be an angel. Be a whore.” It’s a hopeless task, so why not lash out?

This is what happens, director Sam Levinson tells us, when achievement-test culture and porn culture converge: young women are driven to “market” themselves in two mutually exclusive ways. The College Admission Brand demands wide-eyed innocent enthusiasm, perfect grades, pages of volunteer work, and the All-American look. The Snapchat Brand demands a level of nudity and self-degradation “hot” enough to compete with the airbrushed output of the San Fernando Valley. Fail the former, and doors to the future slam shut. Fail the latter, and taste the sting of social and sexual rejection. But above all else, the two brands can never overlap.

Certainly to some extent it’s an extension of the age-old tension between “respectable” and “cool”—but modern technological forces have pushed this into overdrive. When the ever-swelling demands of the College Prep World accelerate alongside the ever-more-deviant demands of a porn-addled male population, something has to give.

Such is the raging fire that animates “Assassination Nation”—and it’s fierce indeed. The power of the social critique here, though, extends well beyond dysfunctional gender relations: “Assassination Nation” is a deconstruction of the modern expectation that individuals conform in all respects to the filtered purity of their social media presences.

In a chilling early sequence—eerily reminiscent of the pivotal lynching account in Spike Lee’s recent “BlacKkKlansman”—a jeering crowd of white suburbanites accuses a respected black principal of “pedophilia.” His sin? Having bathtub photos of his young daughter on his personal phone, the contents of which are now strewn across the web.

What are the consequences, Levinson wonders, of a cultural moment in which an individual’s past actions—no matter how private or irrelevant to a given situation—must be dredged up and evaluated against a perpetually evolving consensus of “Good Person” norms? (Would you survive such an inquisition? Would I? Who can really say?) And the lurking, creeping dread inherent in those questions is why “Assassination Nation” works.

If Harmony Korine directed an episode of “Black Mirror” with input from Quentin Tarantino, something like this would probably result. That sort of thing obviously isn’t to everyone’s (or even most people’s) taste. But for those who like their social commentary steeped in striking imagery and pitch-black comedy, “Assassination Nation” is not a movie to miss.

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Posted by on September 26, 2018 in Contemporary

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