THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS

the ballad of buster scruggs

by Alan Yudman

Six short movies all set in the Old West, but really THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is about so much more.

This is a Whitman’s Sampler of Coen Brothers movies with stylistic nods to some of their previous films. The quirky characters, the slightly “off” situations that comment on society as a whole. They are all present in this film.

I don’t know how to review this other than to review each film on its own.

The movie begins with the eponymous title of the entire collection. Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) is first seen riding across the West while singing a cowboy song and explaining his life philosophy to the camera. We come to know he is not really a singer, but an infamous gunslinger. He has a bunch of aliases.. one he is partial to is the San Saba Songbird. But he pulls out a wanted poster that describes him as “The Misanthrope”, which is probably closer to the truth. Buster is an amiable, always smiling character but is deadly with a gun and you figure he’ll always come out on top. But happy endings aren’t the Coen Brothers. Nelson owns the duality of Buster’s character… the goofy singer and the amoral killer. He inhabits both without humanity, but with likability. His brutality is tempered by a sense of humor that mirrors that of FARGO or BARTON FINK.

Next up is NEAR ALGODONES which features James Franco as a bank robber who is thwarted by a teller (Stephen Root) carrying a rifle and armored with various sized pots and pans. This is the shortest of the 6 films and seemed the most easily dismissed. But there is still something going on. There is irony, humor and an acknowledgment of beauty even as death arrives that gives the story heart.

THE MEAL TICKET follows. I found this to be the darkest of the 6 movies. Liam Neeson is an Impresario who carts the limbless Artist (Harry Melling from Harry Potter) through towns around the west. Neeson sets up their mobile stage and the Artist recites Shakespeare, passages from the Constitution and the Gettysburg Address and more, to increasingly smaller audiences. Neeson comes across another act— a chicken that can do math.. The Calculating Capon.. and makes a brutal calculation of his own. Cheaper to carry a chicken around that a human being. So he buys the chicken and gets rid of the Artist. The dialog is spare. Neeson only has a few lines so most of his acting is body language and facial expressions. It is the best thing I have seen him do in years. It is great that he is challenging himself by breaking out of his aging action hero mold. The grim math of Neeson’s predicament seems to weigh on him, but he sees it as the only path.

ALL GOLD CANYON is the most cinematic of the 6. This one features the perfectly cast Tom Waits as a prospector digging in an idyllic canyon— searching for gold. He digs test holes in search of “Mr. Pocket”, the vein of gold that will make him rich. He finds it, and just at that point he is shot in the back by a claim jumper. You fear he’s dead, but he surprises his attacker and winds up on top and walks off with his treasure. This is a visually stunning film. The John Ford-like cinematography, the saturation of color even in he flecks of gold are spectacular. But it’s not just gorgeous. Waits is amazing. He is basically having a conversation with himself or the amorphous Mr. Pocket. And it is impossible to not feel it all in your gut. The film is bookended by shots of animals and fish scurrying away at Waits arrival, then returning when he leaves. Throughout, Waits sings the traditional “Mother Machree”.. it’s haunting beauty the perfect companion for this beautiful film.

Next is the longest film, THE GIRL WHO GOT RATTLED. If you liked the Coens take on TRUE GRIT, then you will love this. Zoe Kazan is Alice Longabaugh who seems to have been dragged on a manifest destiny quest to Oregon by her brother. But he dies of cholera and she is left to fend for herself. She and one of the cowboys who are guiding the wagon train she is traveling in come to an understanding when she realizes she has no money to pay the hand that is handling her wagon. Billy Knapp (the incredible Bill Heck) proposes marriage as a solution and she accepts. But she wanders off searching for her brother’s dog, President Pierce. The older cowboy, Mr. Arthur, leading the train goes after her and before they return to the wagons, they are set upon by Indians. Mr. Arthur tells her that if all looks lost to take her own life. This film goes from optimistic to tragic.. all the while mirroring the tone and language play of True Grit. This felt like the most fully realized of all the stories.

Finally is THE MORTAL REMAINS. This one features five people on a stagecoach headed to Fort Morgan. One is a frenchman (Saul Rubinek doing a ridiculous accient), the wife of a preacher (Tyne Daly), a trapper (Chelcie Ross) and two bounty hunters (Jonjo O’Neill and Brendan Gleeson). This one is all metaphor. At first they appear to really be riding toward a Fort, but the play of light outside the coach, the tone of their conversations and one very telling shot of the driver clue you in that all five seem to be headed for the afterlife. It is a great button on the movie, since all 6 deal with the deadly consequences of decisions made or not made.

Some will have issue with the way Indians are portrayed. They have no personality or story. They are merely instruments of brutal death. It’s a problem and tone deaf, but the Coens don’t seem to be concerned with political correctness.

The gimmick of the movie are the flipping pages of a book that the Coens use to transition between each story. Since this is available on Netflix, I suggest pausing when the book pages show up so you can read them. The writing is fantastic.

The whole thing put together is simply fabulous. Each film looks at mortality in a different way and comes to a similar conclusion. Despite our best efforts, death is coming for us. THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS is a feast for the eyes, the soul and the mind. That’s what makes this one of the best Coen Brothers movies.

GREEN BOOK

by Alan Yudman

When politics ignores or repudiates the past, it is the arts that must step up and remind people about the truth of that history. As some continue to believe there is no race problem in the United States, it’s important that movies like GET OUT, BLACKKKLANSMAN, MOONLIGHT, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, LOVING and now GREEN BOOK get made and get seen.

The title GREEN BOOK refers to a book or pamphlet that was kind of a guide for African-Americans traveling through the south in the 1960’s so they could avoid running into problems. In this movie it is something given to Viggo Mortensen’s Tony Lip as he is employed to drive Mahershala Ali’s Dr. Don Shirley on a 2-month concert tour of the south.

Tony is a bruiser. He is bouncer of sorts at the famed Copacabana in New York. Dr. Shirley is a world renowned pianist who decides to take his trio to places where he may not be welcome as a black man. Tony is hired because he is reliable, is “muscle” and— as he describes himself— a good bullshitter.

At first Shirley is all affectation and superiority in his interaction with Tony. He sees him as less. Just as America sees him as less than a full man. Shirley believes he must be teacher and mentor to make sure Tony doesn’t embarrass him on the road.

At the same time, Tony is a bigot. Early in the movie he throws out the glasses of two black workers who are repairing the floor in his apartment. He looks uncomfortable while the two workers are being friendly with his wife. His friends and family call black people “eggplant”. That is his world.

In many ways this is a traditionally told story about race and awakening to how the “other half lives”. Director and co-screenwriter Peter Farrelly (yeah, from SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, etc.) chooses a very familiar way to tell the story. GREEN BOOK is a very straight ahead drama with some comedy mixed in to lighten the mood. But the funny parts don’t get in the way or diminish the story. Both Shirley and Tony are vividly drawn characters at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. Shirley is all interiors. He plays everything close to the vest and chooses to go along to get along, rather than be ripe for confrontation. Tony is just the opposite. Every slight must be acted upon. No comment should be ignored. He challenges everything and everyone if he feels it is necessary, and it usually is.

None of this works without the immense talents of Mortensen and Ali. Mortensen is a shape shifter. He can add or lose weight, or change his look to fit the role he is playing. For this he must have put on 30 pounds to play the well-fed Tony. He also mastered the Bronx accent and speaking Italian. Those would all be simple tricks if he wasn’t so good at inhabiting a character and finding his core. No matter how tough-talking Tony Lip may be, he’s a caring husband and father. Mortensen allows that humanity to push through.

Ali has a similar talent for owning his character’s core. In this case, Shirley displays affected superiority. But down deep he is insecure and troubled by his loneliness and how he must present himself to be accepted by white America.

GREEN BOOK is a story that must be repeated so we all can be reminded of the way things were, and how far we may still have to go.

UPDATE 12/5/18:

I continue to think about GREEN BOOK because something has been scratching at my brain. I liked the movie a lot (that is probably obvious) but I didn’t LOVE it. And I’ve been trying to figure out why. I have landed on this.. it is too easy to root for the right people. Their dark sides are not fully black, but more shades of gray. Their flaws felt minor to me and that made them seem a bit too fictional for a movie based on a true story. Overcoming those flaws felt too easy… too short a trip. That is the fault of the writers, not the actors who are truly remarkable. They take that slightly flawed screenplay and make it sing. So, see GREEN BOOK. It is important to see it to know the history. But as a film it left me wanting a bit more.

WIDOWS

widows

by Alan Yudman

If you are going into WIDOWS thinking it’s a version of the OCEAN’S franchise, you are going to be disappointed. But you also should be pleasantly surprised. While WIDOWS has none of the humorous banter, male bonding or cheeky sexuality of the OCEAN’S movies, it has something much more— stakes and real drama.

The movie begins by cutting back and forth between two scenes— husband and wife, Viola Davis and Liam Neeson waking up in bed and getting ready for the day, and Neeson and his crew pulling off a robbery. Everything goes sideways during the crime and everyone is killed in a shootout with the cops. That’s where the WIDOWS get their name. Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Carrie Coon all lose their husbands (or boyfriends, sometimes it isn’t quite clear, but it’s also not very important). Here’s where the intrigue of the plot really draws you in. There is political intrigue that ties into the heist story. Collin Farrell and Brian Tyree Henry are squaring off in a Chicago Alderman race. The seat was held by Farrell’s dad (Robert Duvall) and his dad before him and so on. Henry is some kind of gangster who has a reputation but no criminal record. His brother (Daniel Kaluuya) is his brutal enforcer. Apparently Neeson’s crew was stealing campaign money from Henry. And that’s where I’m going to stop pulling on that thread so I don’t give too much away.

Henry wants his money back and tells Davis to get it. He doesn’t care how. Sell her stuff, sell herself. Her husband took from him and he wants payback. Then we discover Neeson has left Davis a key to a safe deposit box— inside is a book that is basically a diary of all his crimes past, present and future. She sees a way out. Do Neeson’s next job. Take the money and pay Henry back. So she recruits Debicki and Rodriguez to help her. Eventually they recruit Cynthia Erivo to help them fill out the crew. Again, stopping here. You just have to see it yourself.

Steve McQueen has taken this genre to the next level. The heist is merely a framework for the real story about corrupt politicians, Chicago violence and moving on after tragedy and betrayal. He and co-writer Gillian Flynn chose a slow burn. Things are revealed in painstaking fashion. We learn all we need to know about one situation before we are served the next nugget. It is refreshing to be drawn into a heist movie in this way. Most of the time we know what the motivation is immediately, then the rest of the movie is about the planning and execution. That’s not what is going on here.

McQueen’s direction is stellar. Davis is scared and in pain, and depending on the positioning of the camera and setting of the scene we are either let in or kept at a distance, depending on the demands of the story.

There are strong performances all around. Davis is on the edge and you feel it in the way she runs the crew, yet seems completely untethered at the same time. Debicki and Rodriguez are great, but Debiicki is stellar. Her turn from abused girlfriend/wife to powerful woman is remarkable. Farrell as a corrupt politician trying to escape his father’s corrupt shadow does great work and is it never a pleasure to see Duvall? I think the answer is no. Erivo is also a wonder. And Kaluuya displays a true gift for playing a brutal, menacing villain. SAG should nominate this film for best ensemble. And it probably should win.

The score by Hans Zimmer is perfect and the soundtrack fits every seen (doesn’t hurt that Nina Simone is included). Special kudos to the sound design team also.

There are some backstories that go unexplained and you may wonder what some of those are. But it really does nothing to diminish the intrigue. That is a very minor complaint.

WIDOWS is a great action movie, but it is so much more than that. The story, the acting, the satisfyingly twisty plot all combine to make this film a must see.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME

can you ever forgive me

by Alan Yudman

People, well critics if you consider them people, always seem a bit surprised when an actor known chiefly for comedy takes on a dramatic role and kills it. There is a worn out quote that goes, depending on who you hear it from, “dying is easy, comedy is hard”. Given that Melissa McCarthy is such a wonderful comedic actor, is it any surprise she is so good in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Not to me.

McCarthy’s stock in trade so far has been her over the top physicality. There’s none of that in her straight dramatic portrayal of disgraced author Lee Israel. Israel had some success as a biographer, but as this movie opens she has hit bottom. She has writers block, she isn’t making any money, she has been fired from her copy editing job. It looks beyond grim as she shambles around early 1990’s New York City. Add to that she is the dictionary definition of a misanthrope. She hates people and makes no secret of it. Israel is a totally unsympathetic character. She is “working” on a biography of Fanny Bryce, doing research in a library when she comes across a typed letter, signed by the comedian. She takes it to a rare bookstore and discovers that it is worth hundreds of dollars to collectors. That is the spark that launches her career of forgery and fraud. Israel writes letters from famous dead authors and playwrights like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, signs them and sells them. It is a lucrative scam, until she is found out.

At her lowest point she meets Jack Hock (the amazing Richard E. Grant) in a gay bar. The two are fast friends mainly because they are both alcoholic social outcasts. They are drinking buddies, bonded by their social status.. which is none. Eventually she drags Jack into her fraud when she can no longer show her face in these bookstores.

Israel seems to be constantly teetering on the edge of being caught, until she finally is found out. Her motivations are desperation and revenge.. revenge against a society and culture that has disposed of her because of her lack of success and because she is a lesbian. Her belief that she is entitled to more and her complete desperation are the gasoline on the fire that are her crimes.

McCarthy is simply wonderful. Israel’s cynicism is powered by McCarthy’s comedic instincts. Her performance has the timing of a comedy without the jokes. It is a wonderful example of her range and potential as a dramatic actress. The part isn’t really the type that gets the attention of Oscar voters. Maybe it should, because this is an awards caliber performance. There are other fine performances. Jane Curtin as Israel’s agent. Dolly Wells as a shy bookstore owner who has a crush on Israel. But the other shining performance here is Richard E. Grant’s turn as Jack. He’s cheeky and funny. He tries hard to be Lee’s friend but cannot set aside his basest impulses. There have been a lot of good supporting performances this year, but this is the best I have seen thus far.

The script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty was adapted from Israel’s book about this period of her life. It is spare and sharp. It’s witty without being too precious. Great writing. This is director Marielle Heller’s second feather (2015’s THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL was her first). Heller’s best attribute here is that her direction isn’t in the way. It’s not noticeable. She picks the right shots to show Israel’s desperation. It’s subtly great.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME has nothing to apologize for. This is a great movie that should be recognized during awards season.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY

bohemian rhapsody

by Alan Yudman

I walked out of BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY on a high. Like the high you have after seeing a great concert. The performer energized the crowd and you leave feeling giddy and singing the songs. I was enthusiastic and ready to be effusive with praise.

Then after a while I remembered it wasn’t a concert, it was a movie. And that’s when I started jotting down my notes (a peek inside my reviewing process) and realized the film has a few problems.

There is no doubt at all that Bryan Singer captures the energy and glorious weirdness of Freddy Mercury. And that is completely because of a tour de force performance by Rami Malek. He crawls inside Freddy Mercury and disappears into the role. Malek captures not only the flamboyance and the artistic vision, he also gives us the insecurity, doubt and loneliness. Mercury was complicated. His public persona was outrageous and bravura. But in private he was tortured and tormented. Mercury wanted the rock and roll lifestyle, the fame and the fortune. But he came from immigrant parents who just wanted to blend in and do good. He was confused about his own sexuality, loving his longtime friend Mary Austin, but tempted by men. Malek gives it all to the audience. The strutting performer and the insecure man-child are given the same weight. This is a performance that should get Malek an Oscar nomination, if not the gold statue itself. Wouldn’t Freddy have loved that.

The rest of the cast is very good. They found three actors to play Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joe Mazzello) who seemed to be nearly doubles for the other members of Queen. Lucy Boynton captures the conflict and longing Mary must have felt being the love of Freddy’s life. Allen Leech (Tom Branson from Downton Abbey) is wonderful as Paul Prenter, Freddy’s longtime partner and band manager (or assistant manager, it’s not clear) who is a manipulative prick. The always great Tom Hollander and Aidan Gillen play the band’s lawyer and manager (again, not clear).

It really is the acting that elevates BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. The story is compelling, but the telling has several problems. The movie races through the band’s early years until they get to the making of A NIght at the Opera. Then it slows down to show the making of that record and the fight with the record company over the first single’s release. There is a scene where they meet with a record company executive who doesn’t want to release the 6 minute opus, Bohemian Rhapsody, as the first single. That executive is played by Mike Myers, so when he trashes the song it got a bunch of laughs in the theater (because he played Wayne in Wayne’s World which lionizes the song). But it is a stunt and it takes you out of the scene. And Myers’ beard is some weird, glued on-looking mess. Singer decides to use on screen text to tell us where and when we are, but that only points out the time warp jumps through the band’s history.

About that history. Man did they take license with the facts. Rolling Stone fact checks the movie and there’s a bunch of problems. Click the link to see just some. I also found one they didn’t mention. On the band’s first tour of the United States, the movie shows Queen playing Fat Bottomed Girls. I know that was on the 1978 album Jazz, because that’s the first Queen album I ever bought. I was willing to accept they may have played a version of the song before 1975. But checking Wikipedia Fat Bottomed Girls wasn’t performed until after Jazz was released. That took me out of the movie too.

Singer and screenwriter Anthony McCarten do a great job weaving the themes of the music in with the story. They also seem to get the band dynamic right.. the love, the tension, the arguing. I heard before seeing it that Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis was “straight-washed”. I don’t think that’s the case. It’s dealt with, but it’s not really the focus of the movie. Though you see how his behavior lead to what you know will be his eventual diagnosis. The movie builds to Queen’s historic performance at 1985’s Live Aid concert at Wembley Stadium. I saw it then and I’ve seen it on YouTube since. Malek nails it. It is note for note perfect.

If you are looking for a historical telling of Queen, well this isn’t that movie. This is more of a biopic about Freddy Mercury and using the band as a framework to tell his compelling and tragic story. For that, the music, and Malek’s groundbreaking performance BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is worth every dollar you pay to see it.

THE OATH

the oath

by Alan Yudman

If America’s current politics are driving you crazy and social media is driving you crazier, then THE OATH may be the perfect movie for you. Ike Barinholtz has crafted a funny and crazy commentary on America in 2018 (actually, maybe 2015-2018).

Barinholtz plays Chris, who is basically a human Twitter feed. The movie opens with Chris and his wife Kai (the amazing Tiffany Haddish) watching as a White House spokesman talks to the Press Corps about something called “The Patriot’s Oath”. It is apparently a sort of pledge of patriotism all Americans are being encouraged to sign before Black Friday the following year. Cut to Thanksgiving week as the deadline approaches and you immediately see how things have devolved. Chris has grown a patchy beard and the news is getting bleak. Chris rants and raves about how rights are being infringed upon, how the Government has become a bunch of brown shirted Nazis and that he’ll never ever sign the Oath.

This is all set against Thanksgiving with Chris’s family. His parents (Nora Dunn and Chris Ellis) his brother Pat and his girlfriend Abbie (Jon Barinholtz and Meredith Hagner) and his sister Alice (Carrie Brownsteing) and her family. Chris promises not to talk politics, but that doesn’t last long. His brother and Abbie (who is the subject of a very funny running gag) are conservatives. His parents seem disinterested and his sister is liberal like him. The arguments spiral out of control on Thanksgiving day and Chris winds up eating and sleeping in his car.

But that is when things really get crazy. Two agents (John Cho and Billy Magnussen) from the Citizens Protection Unit (CPU) show up to question Chris. He is defiant and the situation escalates beyond all control or reason. People are beaten, shot, tied up and well you get the general idea.

Barinholtz uses these extreme and funny situations to comment on the state of our politics and how obsessed people are with social media. It also is easy to see how those co-dependent situations could drive a situation beyond the extreme. You watch it and think, “this couldn’t happen”, but somewhere in the back of your head you are also thinking, “well, I guess it could happen”. That is what makes it effective and hilarious. The movie made me think about what I am doing on social media and whether it is at all healthy for America or Americans.

The cast is brilliant and funny. Barinholtz choices as a director a nuanced and hit every mark. If you spend your days raging at Facebook and Twitter, THE OATH may be just what you need to drag you back to sanity.

FIRST MAN

first man

by Alan Yudman

It is so hard to like a movie that features a character like Neil Armstrong. He’s not the stereotype of the other Gemini astronauts. He wasn’t a cowboy. He was quite the opposite. So it makes his character in FIRST MAN difficult to root for.

FIRST MAN tracks Armstrong’s life from right before he was selected for the Gemini program until he lands on the moon. That’s a space of 8 years. He saw lots of death that obviously shaped his personality. No loss was more deeply felt or more important to this story that the death of his young daughter, Karen. A seemingly introspective, emotionally controlled man seemed to turn further inward.

Armstrong was a brilliant test pilot, cool under the most dangerous or difficult of circumstances. That made him very good at his job. It also made him a very difficult co-worker and a very tough man to like. He seemed to be a loving husband and caring father. But his job always seemed to be his number one priority.

That quiet introspection and lack of emotion had to make this movie an immense challenge for Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling. How to make this seemingly unlikeable man a hero? They did it by focusing on how he overcame tragedy after tragedy during this period of his life. The death of his daughter, the Apollo testing accident that claimed the lives of Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee, and the crash of a training jet that killed Elliot See and Charles Bassett. That is a lot of death to deal with. Maybe his training as a Naval aviator helped. But it seemed to be his sheer force of will more than anything else.

That is what makes FIRST MAN so interesting. Gosling does a lot of acting with his face and body, mostly because Armstrong wasn’t a talker. At one point after after Armstrong leaves See and Bassett’s memorial, White goes to see him to talk and Armstrong says bluntly, he didn’t leave the memorial because he wanted to talk. He shuts down White. Just like he shuts down everyone when he is not comfortable talking about feelings. But Gosling shows us how he is feeling. How he is focused. How he has his own way of dealing with all this.

Chazelle makes some interesting choices in how he portrays certain events. If you are expecting big special effects like those in APOLLO 13, you will be disappointed. In fact during the Gemini 8 launch, we never see the outside of the capsule. It all is very claustrophobic as we watch Armstrong and David Scott get slammed around in less than heroic fashion. But again, this is not a movie about the big picture of NASA’s manned missions. It is about one man struggling with grief while trying to make history. The one time you get a sense of awe and wonder is when Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (the remarkable Corey Stoll) approach and land on the Moon. That is when Chazelle allows the spectacle to breathe.

Josh Singer (THE POST, SPOTLIGHT) took James R. Hansen’s book and make a compelling screenplay, while trying to keep the Armstrong family satisfied and in the loop. And, Claire Foy does great work as Janet Armstrong, the wife who seems to mirror her husbands stoic facade.

FIRST MAN would be the kind of movie Oscar voters loved if it was more like APOLLO 13 or THE RIGHT STUFF. Instead it is a gripping drama about a man, his demons and one historic step.

MANDY

mandy

by Alan Yudman

MANDY is the definition of bonkers!

A friend recommended I check it out. It was $6.99 on Amazon Prime so I figured, why not? I’m glad and not glad I watched it.

Here are the basics. Nicolas Cage and Andrea Riseborough live in the Oregon wilderness in the early 1980’s. He’s a logger. She runs a general store-type shop and draws. They seem blissful. Not far away is a religious cult lead by pseudo-Jesus Linus Roache (a role so far from his Law & Order days so as to be nearly unrecognizable). Roache spots Mandy (Riseborough) on the road one day and must have her. So, the cult recruits a bunch of drug-addled, maniacal, blood-thirsty bikers to kidnap Mandy. She is drugged and brought to Roache for her first “encounter”. Things don’t go to plan and she is killed, right in front of Cage who is tied up. They leave Cage to suffer or die or something and take off. Cage escapes, fuels his rage with a bottle of Gin or Vodka and sets off on a blood soaked course of revenge. First he gets a crossbow from Bill Duke (who he is, isn’t fully explained), then fashions at sort of Klingon Bat’leth (great blacksmith “porn” if your into that sort of medieval thing). So you know there’s going to be blood and lots of it. Next stop is the biker gang who first kidnaps him, then he breaks loose (he’s really good at that) and kills everyone. Body parts fly, gallons of blood are spewed all over Cage’s face and he tastes some kind of LSD-type drug that further fuels his mania. Next he visits some guy in the woods who clues him in on where the cult is. Then it’s revenge time!

This all sound outright bananas. And you’re right. It is. But director/screenwriter Panos Cosmatos makes it all work. I’m not saying it’s a great movie, but I couldn’t pull myself away from it. He and cinematographer Benjamin Lieb do great work with colors and framing. Riseborough has these big eyes which they use to great effect. There are several scenes that are just breathtakingly beautiful (that’s before the mayhem begins).

Cage maybe has 3 pages of dialogue in the whole movie, unless you count grunting and screaming as dialogue. His acting is all in his face, and it’s surprisingly good.

Two days after seeing MANDY, I still don’t know what to make of it. The plot is ridiculous and frankly time-worn. I got a definite, “I’ve been here before” vibe. But the visuals and haunting music turn this into something more than your average revenge-slasher movie. And that is all about the insane vision of Cosmatos.

A STAR IS BORN (2018)

a star is born

by Alan Yudman

I’ll start with a confession. I have never seen any of the previous three versions of A STAR IS BORN. So, I’m coming at this with a nearly fresh take. Yeah, I know what the story was before I walked in. Aging music star, battling addiction discovers a vibrant young singer. They fall in love. And it doesn’t end happy. So what about the 2018 version directed and produced by, and starring Bradley Cooper?

First the music is right in my wheelhouse. Alt-country, Americana… whatever you want to call it… is probably my go to sound at this point in my life. The songs were written or co-written by Lady Gaga, Cooper, Mark Ronson, Lukas Nelson (Willie’s son) and Jason Isbell just to name a few. That is quite an all-star list for this type of music. But there are also Lady Gaga pop songs in there, and I gotta tell you I am a fan. Ok, enough for now about the wonderful soundtrack because that isn’t even the best part of this movie. I came for the soundtrack and got so much more.

Cooper stars as Jackson Maine. He’s the drug and pill addicted singer who is also dealing with tinnitus. And he’s not dealing with any of it very well. He walks into a drag bar one night in search of a drink and stumbles across Lady Gaga’s Ally. She’s a waitress with dreams of music industry stardom. And man does she have the chops, which Jackson quickly realizes. After Ally punches a cop in a cop bar, they wind up in a supermarket parking lot where they talk and Ally starts singing a song, seemingly improv’d on the spot. I almost broke down in tears just listening to Lady Gaga sing acapella. He flies her to a gig and nearly drags her onstage for her breakout, YouTube moment. That is the first single from the soundtrack “Shallow” which is immediately a frontrunner for a best song Oscar.

Their love affair grows, her career begins to outshine his and Jackson alternates between drinking into a stupor and battling to stay sober for Ally. His struggle is real and heartbreaking. Meantime, she is off on a shooting star. Saturday Night Live appearances, Grammy nominations and huge tours. And Jackson just keeps screwing up by popping pills and downing booze.

This whole film is just outstanding. Cooper is such a solid actor and he totally pulls off the perpetually drunk, stumbling around gruffness required for Jackson. And he can really sing and play guitar. He’s got chops. The amazing part is that he does this while directing his first movie. So you’d expect some things falling through the cracks. But it just doesn’t happen. This has got to be one of the best first-time directing jobs I’ve ever seen. Sure, other directors first time in charge have been excellent, but not on a stage as big as this or with the stakes this high. I’m more than impressed.

Two of the supporting actors are excellent. The legendary Sam Elliot plays Jackson’s older brother/tour manager and brings an emotional depth I’d never seen from him before. Also outstanding is Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father.

Lady Gaga is a force of nature, she always has been. I first fell for her during an SNL performance where she was in one of her usual Gaga costumes, but sat down at a piano and belted out a song that had my jaw on the floor. Now she is acting and I just don’t know where this comes from. She is outstanding. Granted, this character might not be too far from her own story. But the raw emotion and feeling she brings to the role just carries it to another level. This is THE breakout performance in this film, and maybe of the year. It’s weird calling it a breakout performance for an artist who has been around this long. Fans of her music and performances already know how captivating she can be. But you have never seen Lady Gaga like this.

There is so much to love here. The cinematography by Matthew Libatique is perfect. Every shot is framed to enhance the two stars personas. The adaptation of Moss Hart’s original story by Cooper, Eric Rpth and Will Fetters is just great. Jackson’s backing band is Lukas Nelson and the Promise of the Real. If you haven’t heard their music, search iTunes or Spotify. The movie even has an adorable labradoodle! I mean c’mon!!!

A STAR IS BORN is kind of meta as a title for this movie. Gaga is born (or re-born or maybe Born This Way) as a movie star. Cooper is born as director. And they both have given birth to one of the best movies of 2018.