A Star is Born (2018)

When Lady Gaga’s The Monster Ball concert tour first hit amphitheaters in late 2009, it was hailed as transcending the traditional live music experience. While formally a rock concert, her breakout tour had equal components of underground dance rave (first-pumping fury with pulsating trance beats), experimental avant-garde filmmaking (projected as thought-provoking interludes between sets), and musical theater (complete with a story, characters, and recurring thematic elements). It expanded so far beyond the definition of a typical concert, it grew into a bedazzled, indescribable gem beyond classification.

The same, astoundingly, can be said for A Star is Born. Yes, it is a movie, and within the frame displays raw, adrenaline-fueled concert footage, behind the camera some excellent directorial finesse by first-timer Bradley Cooper, and on the soundtrack is some of the finest music Lady Gaga has ever recorded. This is more than a film triumph, but also a musical breakout (having flown to the top of the album charts and six of the top ten songs on iTunes), and showcases incredibly talented artists working at the top of their crafts.

The editing is both powerful and purposeful: coasting through plot formalities and allowing breathing room so intimate moments can play out organically. The acting is natural and authentic, with uncomfortably long beats as the characters struggle to articulate themselves, or swallow their tongues in the midst of an emotional exchange. The cinematography is inspired, often keeping us medium length from the action but always focused on a character; we are on this road tour with them and see the world through their eyes.

And what a journey it is. It doesn’t take long for rocker Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) to discover Ally (Lady Gaga) as the lone female singer in a drag bar. From then on, she becomes his muse, collaborator, and even eclipses his fame as his star beings to fade. Through all its ups and downs, Cooper and Gaga are equals for the entire ride. It is an exciting meta journey to watch these two work together, as fictional characters, knowing (in real life) how both are stretching their creative chops into new territory: Cooper as a first-time director, and not known for being a singer, and Gaga in her first starring role in a feature film.


Though even more than seeing two exceptionally talented people command the screen (and what happens behind the camera), A Star is Born is an emotionally involving, wonderfully intimate love story. As painful and trying as love can be, this is a film that asks us how much we can put up with, and how far we will go, to defend the honor of those we care for. Two individuals who share one heart are together for the ride, no matter where the road might take them. That’s the challenge, the threat, and the exciting possibility of love. A Star is Born shows us all the bumps in the road, but reminds us how worthwhile the journey still is.

I’m off the deep end
Watch as I dive in
I’ll never meet the ground

Crash through the surface
Where they can’t hurt us
We’re far from the shallow now

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the savviest Marvel fan.

I’ve seen all the movies, and studied each Wikipedia entry numerous times, but I still have trouble keeping track of it all. Who’s romantically linked to who, what sinister backstory the characters emerge from, and last but not least, what exactly the Infinity Stones are.

Even though my passion outweighs my general understanding of what’s going on, I had one hell of a time at Avengers: Infinity War. Experiencing the latest, and undoubtedly most ambitious, Marvel entry in a packed opening-night crowd was the most fun and energetic time I’ve had at the movies in years. I don’t like the idea of “fan service” (which, to me, means a reference for its own sake) but the Russo brothers deliver spectacular moment after spectacular moment, featuring our favorite characters doing what they do best, but all in service of the plot – Thor brandishing his new-and-improved weapon, Black Panther leading the Wakandan army, Doctor Strange melting our minds, to name a few – constantly infusing the audience with high-voltage doses of adrenaline.

The first 80% or so of the film is an absolute blast. The events of the most recent Marvel films (Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 specifically) seamlessly brought worlds together for this epic collaboration. From where the stories have been heading, it does make sense that the spacey world-building existing in parallel with what’s happening on earth, all merge to defeat the Biggest interdimensional Bad in the MCU: Thanos.

And how Bad he is. Thanos is on a quest to collect the Infinity Stones (tied to unique elements of the universe), load them into his handy glove, and wipe out half of existence. The world’s been in trouble plenty before (at least 18 times prior to this, if I’m counting the movies right!) but Thanos’s end goal, and means to do it, is nothing short of horrifying. I don’t want to spoil too much, but the sequence at the end is as unsettling and dark as anything Marvel, or even Lucasfilm, has ever done.

The film’s climax is as bleak as the beginning of the film is delightful, but the story certainly feels far from over. It’s too soon for one to have inspired the other, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of Luke Skywalker’s words in Star Wars: The Last Jedi: “This is not going to go the way you think.” An endless string of critics and pundits have labeled the “Marvel formula,” and Avengers: Infinity War is a giant, Thanos-sized middle finger to any presupposed template these movies are meant to follow.

I’m used to walking away from Marvel movies fully energized and pumped up for more, while this left me dejected and almost mournful; though that’s not a bad thing. The exit corridors echoed with quiet murmurs of what comes next, what can be done, and what the future may hold. Love it or hate it, this is an ending that has audiences talking, thinking, theorizing, about what this all means for characters and worlds we’ve known for 10+ years. Nothing is sacred, everything is up for grabs, and the possibilities are infinite.

Joy (2015)

I wouldn’t call Joy the best collaboration between writer/director David O. Russell and actress Jennifer Lawrence; I don’t even know if it’s their second-best. Not to blame them –  it’s no easy feat to follow up the superb Silver Linings Playbook and the pretty-good American Hustle.

Joy is the real-life story of a struggling divorced mother who’s put her dreams on hold. By chance, she has an epiphany on what becomes her big invention, the Miracle Mop, and plunges headfirst into the drama of manufacturing, advertising, and eventually her career legacy – all while balancing her dysfunctional family.

As it tackles such a breadth of topics, Joy as a whole feels uneven. It jumps around, and doesn’t feel quite focused – as if it were a lengthy novel being adapted for film, and the screenwriters couldn’t decide what source material to cut. Of course, as this was based on real-life events, there already was a narrative to chip away from.

In terms of tone, however, its lumpiness makes Joy the more endearing. Real life doesn’t start and end with the work day, and Russell’s integration of both the career and family worlds provide a broader (if unfocused) perspective of all the elements taking a toll on this young woman. Her family feels like a soap opera, running in parallel with the lousy daytime drama her mother watches on TV all day.

Her career, on the other hand, often pivots from nightmare to glorious dream. In a scene that reminded me of American Hustle at its best, QVC exec Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) shows Joy around their sets and what their sales flow is like. It’s the movie’s most sensual moment, as he whispers excitedly through each step of the operation and the climax of a successful sales run.

On the other end of the spectrum, most of the film’s drama comes from her business setbacks: struggling to get investment, not selling product, legal battles with patents and contracts. All the action seems to culminate into one core said conflict, but once it’s resolved the film’s tone, highlighted by cheery music and gliding camera motions, indicates that now all is well. The voice-over narration even points out additional troubles that arise, both in her career and in the family unit, but the bizarrely too-good-to-be-true feel of the finale apparently overrides that.

Should we take her later problems for granted? Was this last one we witnessed “it,” and the rest of them aren’t so bad? Given the incredibly spotty career track she’s had, it’s hard to buy that the story’s over; emotionally, we may have wrapped things up but certainly not on a narrative level.

American Sniper (2014)

It would be easy to make a film turning all soldiers into heroes. That’s why it’s been done so many times in the past. It’s maybe even easier to play the cynic, critiquing the chaos and senselessness before and on the battlefield. It is a difficult, and challenging, task to develop soldiers into flawed heroes. There are men and women who may not always make the best decisions, but who sacrifice so much in the process, sometimes even themselves, and are heroes nonetheless. This is the story of an American Sniper.

This film takes no time to get going. We are immediately plunged into an unknown location, undefined situation, with only the familiar face of Bradley Cooper as our anchor. Less than 10 minutes in, he is faced with a horrifyingly difficult decision as the action pulls back into decades earlier, into Cooper’s real-life character Chris Kyle’s childhood.

It is through these flashback sequences thatdirector Clint Eastwood makes some of his boldest choices, by elevating the macho Texas cowboy persona into something respectable and decent. It’s easy enough, especially for blue state filmmakers, to mock and degrade anyone from the south, and everything about that culture. Chris Kyle, growing up with guns and at first becoming a rodeo cowboy, is the contemporary Texas man. He is presented to us as just that, not some bumbling inbred hillbilly. When his life comes to a possible dead end, he does the patriotic thing and joins the military – without a whit of filmmaker’s cynicism or condescension.

His experiences which follow balance the delicate line of reverence with objectivity. We see firsthand the physical sacrifices made by these soldiers, and the emotional sacrifices left back home. He is not always there for his family, and even when he is physically back home, he’s not truly “there.” Overseas, his skilled combat earns him praise from his peers, but also chastisement from his supervisors, fearing he might be getting carried away.

It’s easy enough to play the cynic, however. Whether that comes as a real-life politician commenting on the progress of war, or we as an audience member, completely separated from the situation unfolding before us. When lives are on the line and the end in sight is murky at best, the right answer is never crystal clear.

I don’t want to spoil the ending, which came as wholly unexpected but immensely powerful to me. There has been a great deal of criticism around this movie, very little of which I think comes from people who have actually seen it. American Sniper is no propaganda, no mindless patriotic trash. This is a wonderfully composed film, acknowledging one man’s choices while still granting him the respect he deserves. This is compelling, challenging filmmaking at some of its finest.

American Hustle (2013)

Unlike its predecessor Silver Linings PlaybookAmerican Hustle is a slow-cooking picture. It takes a long time to get going, and doesn’t really explain where we’re going, but once we start rolling it becomes a cinematic dream.

The exposition, weirdly, is the film at some of its clunkiest. Maybe it’s the gradual, deliberate pacing or the oddly deafening silence (we don’t get the stellar soundtrack til about halfway through), but something about it feels uninvolving. The con scheme set up by Irving and Sydney (later Edith) doesn’t really make sense, and this disconnect makes it hard to stay interested and engaged with what’s going down.

The intervention of FBI Agent Richie DiMaso, played to perfection by Bradley Cooper (who, in just two films, has become one of my favorite contemporary actors), is the first great curveball thrown at the lead duo. They get caught for their scheme and, in a similarly selfish fashion, he bets the odds in his favor and pushes them to topple greater and greater idols, not for Justice but for his own reputation.

The film is often patchy, alternating between sequences of nap-worthy doldrums and truly fantastic filmmaking. My favorite moments are the soundtrack-heavy ones, such as the disco nightclub scene (one of the best I’ve ever seen) and the montage of arrests at the film’s climax. It’s extraordinary how the glorious 70s soundtrack really raises the impact from watching a dime-a-dozen crime caper to this sublime, awe-inspiring cinematic experience. It’s like watching the greatest music video that was never made.

Other highlights, it goes without saying, are those featuring the unforgettable Jennifer Lawrence.  She plays the classic, genre-perfect crazy New Jersey wife with a bitchy honesty that never feels over-the-top or flamboyant. She exercises such remarkable control yet leaves a lasting screen presence, it’s hard to remember she is in the movie so little compared to the other main characters.

This film’s greatest strength, though, is in its unique brand of messaging.The Wolf of Wall Street (which I actually prefer) does have some line between right and wrong, even if that line is dotted and hard-to-read, American Hustle has no such line at all. Who of any of these characters, is good? Who is wholly unselfish? I love to see this kind of challenging storytelling, where there is no one really doing the right thing, and everyone is working an angle. Hollywood is often too timid to make a movie as cynical as this, and I applaud David O. Russell for having the guts to.

While it has some narrative issues and clunks along at times, it is an often-entertaining movie that delivers some unforgettable movie moments. Love it or hate it, people will be talking about American Hustle for years to come.

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

In a ho-hum year for American cinema, Silver Linings Playbook gleams out of the dull woodwork as a modest film about people with modest ambitions, told at such a painfully honest level that it rises above as the best film of 2012.

The straightforward narrative, of a middle-aged man living with his parents and dealing with bipolar disorder, is enhanced through superb performances and powerful imagery. Bradley Cooper (who I’m usually not a fan of) giving a daring and moving performance as the protagonist, Jennifer Lawrence as the heartbreaking but electrifying heroine, and Robert De Niro as the well-intentioned but pathetic father lead the extraordinary cast in this tragicomedy. All three start off the film recovering from bad places in their lives, and try to build them back up.

Reconstruction proves difficult, emphasized in moments like Cooper’s character moving home, seeing his brother’s picture hanging on the wall while his own has been taken down and is leaning on a table. Lawrence’s character (in one of several memorable monologues) tells of having to constantly give all of herself, only to receive nothing back. While the circumstances the characters face are more extreme than most of us will face in our lifetimes, they hint at positions we have all had to grapple with, in varying degrees of questioning one’s own self-worth.

This film all seems to take place within several square miles. The characters’ dreams are not impossible ones. The biggest ambition seems to be getting a 5 out of 10 at a dance competition, an underwhelming feat that provides one of the film’s biggest laughs. Yet despite the understated attributes in the content of the film, the final product and emotional impact are profound and powerful, giving audiences one of the most rewarding and moving comedies in recent years.