Tag: Sam Elliott

A Star Is Born (2018)

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga excel in A Star is Born, truly one from the heart

Director: Bradley Cooper

Cast: Lady Gaga (Ally Campana), Bradley Cooper (Jackson Maine), Sam Elliott (Bobby Maine), Dave Chappelle (George “Noodles” Stone), Andrew Dice Clay (Lorenzo Campana), Anthony Ramos (Ramon), Rafi Gavron (Rex Gavron), Greg Grunberg (Phil), Ron Rifkin (Carl)

The story of A Star is Born is practically a staple of Hollywood. Bradley Cooper’s film is the fourth version (after 1937, 1954 and 1976) and re-packages the action to the country and western scene. Cooper injects the film with a real seam of emotion and complex, challenging humanity – represented above all by Cooper and Gaga’s searing, heartfelt, beautiful performances.

Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) is a famous country singer, and a self-destructive, if charming, alcoholic. One day, by chance, he stumbles into a bar and overhears a performance by Ally (Lady Gaga), a soulful artist rejected on multiple occasions for a record deal because of her slightly unconventional style and looks. Jackson and Ally form a deep connection and he invites her to perform with him. Their bond grows and Jackson is proud as her career starts to flourish. But this rise is matched by his own increasingly damaging alcoholism and drug addiction which puts his health and their happiness at risk.

A Star is Born brilliantly refocuses the story as a beautiful relationship drama. In previous versions, the man slumps into destructive behaviour due to resentment at the female protégé’s increasing success. Here though, Jackson – despite flashes of jealousy – remains supportive and proud of his wife, and she devoted to him. What Cooper has structured here is a story about the damage of depression and alcohol – and how they can shatter and destroy a person regardless of events in their life.

It also means we get a fresh perspective on an otherwise predictable drama. Having Jackson remain proud and supportive – and increasingly guilt-ridden by the impact his behaviour has on Ally – means we can also remain invested in him. Similarly, it’s hard not to share his feeling that Ally loses something of her beautiful soul as her manager crafts her into a manufactured pop icon. It’s the intrusion of the rest of the world into this couple that puts strain on their relationship, not internal tensions. 

It’s a film in many ways that starts with a happy ending. The early, romantic meetings are beautifully done, the first performance of Shallow (Ally’s song) on stage plays like the fist-pump ending of any number of Cinderella stories. Her protective attraction matched with his old school chivalry in their early relationship is deeply romantic and shows what could be between them. Cooper sprinkles the film with happy endings – you’ll be begging the film to stop at any number of them – and barely a scene goes by that won’t have you choking back tears or watching through your fingers in pained horror at how badly things can go wrong.

It helps that for both leads this was clearly a deeply personal project. Both produce sensational performances. Cooper has talked about his struggles with both alcoholism and depression – and he brings all this deep rooted pain to bear here. Jackson is, in many ways, a wonderful man – caring, supportive and loving – but struggles with demons he can’t control. Cooper’s fragility, his suffering, his gut wrenching guilt and sadness are played beautifully in a performance that truly comes from the heart, and that leaves you wanting to give him a hug.

Lady Gaga is his match in a performance of tender innocence, of gentle humanity and earnestness. Again you sense the story of an unconventional person, with crippling self doubt, more than speaks to her. Gaga’s emotional bravery and commitment here is extraordinary, and you feel again she is showing in this film something very personal and tender to her. The chemistry between the two actors is electric – it’s rare to see two such performances complement each other so perfectly.

These two actors play off each other beautifully, with scenes that are at times hard to watch in their scarring emotional truth. At the same time, the investment of the audience is absolute in this loving relationship. The film also has some excellent performances in the support, not least from Sam Elliott as Jackson’s frustrated, but fundamentally loving, brother.

A Star is Born shocked me. It’s not the film I was expecting, or the story I anticipated. Instead it’s an entertainment industry parable, a love story, a film about the destructive unpredictability of depression and how sometimes love can’t conquer all. With some graceful direction from Cooper and above all his emotional honesty – and the truth of his and Gaga’s performances – this becomes a film that tugs on the heart strings until heart strings break. Beautifully made and wonderful.

Up in the Air (2009)

George Clooney about to head Up in the Air in Reitman’s brilliant bitter-sweet comedy

Director: Jason Reitman

Cast: George Clooney (Ryan Bingham), Anna Kendrick (Natalie Keener), Vera Farmiga (Alex Goran), Jason Bateman (Craig Gregory), Amy Morton (Kara Bingham), Melanie Lynskey (Julie Bingham), Danny McBride (Jim Miller), Zach Galifianakis (Steve), JK Simmons (Bob), Sam Elliott (Marnard Finch), Tamala Jones (Karen Barnes)

One of the worst days in your life can be the day you lose your job. The uncertainty, the insecurity, the sudden feeling of no longer knowing what the future holds – it hurts. Imagine, however, if you were the other side of the equation. What if it was your job to actually tell other people they no longer had a job?

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) works for a Human Resources consultancy company who specialises in firing people for companies. Ryan spends his life flying from company to company across America, fires thousands of people a year, and gives motivational speeches promoting his ideology of no relationships with people or possessions. His relationships are on-the-road flirtations, in particular with one of his female counterparts Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga). However, Ryan’s world is facing threat: his company has hired young, ambitious Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), and wants to introduce a video conferencing system to conduct firings remotely. Ryan argues Natalie knows nothing about the ‘human element’ of his job, and she joins him on the road to find out more.

Up in the Air is a marvellous, perfectly formed, small-scale film: thought-provoking, endearing, with plenty of laughs as well as an air of bittersweet sadness. It manages to focus on all its issues and themes equally without short-changing any of them, and leaves you feeling rewarded and rich at its end. There are moments in there that will make you cry, make you laugh but also make you a little angry. Reitman never insults your intelligence though: he presents things as they are and trusts you to make the judgements you want to make. It’s quite simply wonderful, a little masterpiece of cinema. 

It’s also a wonderful film of its time, which very deliberately doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the economic climate so much of its plot focuses on. Reitman used a series of talking heads of real people who really had gone through meetings exactly like this, and their emotional, very real reactions to losing their jobs gives the picture a profound depth. 

Up in the Air doesn’t take the easy route of condemning Ryan’s work. Sure our sympathies are naturally with those losing their jobs, but Ryan isn’t a heartless shark. He genuinely feels he is there to support people: his principal objection to the video conferencing is it removes the human element from an extremely difficult moment in people’s lives. He has platitudes, and smooth professionalism, but also a brilliant understanding of people and he gets so close to appearing that he cares deeply about people’s lives (even if he can’t remember them days later) it’s as near as damn it to counting. Watch the scene where he fires JK Simmons’ character – he’s read Simmons’ CV, gently questions why Simmons is working anyway at a company he hates and encourages him to follow his dream of becoming a chef. Sure it’s about defusing a situation – but to Ryan it’s also about helping a person see possible future steps, if only for a moment.

It’s such a brilliant snapshot of how Ryan can analyse in seconds what might encourage a person to find greater depth in their lives, that you forget for a moment that Ryan prides himself on having nothing. His flat is a facelessly cold place, which looks less welcoming (and cheaper and colder) than the hotel rooms he stays in. He’s never happier than when in a VIP lounge. He proudly lives out of a suitcase perfectly sized to avoid checking bags. His motivational career stresses the aim of getting everything that matters to you in the world into a backpack. He has no friends, he’s a stranger to his family, no fixed abode (he spends over 320 days a year travelling). He shares a few painful minutes with people and then never sees them again. 

This might just be the part Clooney was born to play: his handsome, slightly smug grin, his studied chuckles, his slight air of blankness behind his good looks are perfect for Ryan’s surface, but Clooney’s great gift as an actor is the emotional weight and depth he is able to show beneath this veneer as soon as it is scratched. He’s a marvellous physical actor – watch his growing flirtatious ease with Alex turn into a comfy affection. He understands the psychology of Ryan completely and never judges him: he can see why Ryan does what he does, and why it works for him. His performance gives Ryan the dignity of his convictions, doesn’t present with any inch of satire Ryan’s feeling that his job is partly about helping people. Even the slightest touch of distance from the part would have shattered the film’s delicate equilibrium – Clooney doesn’t do it for a second.

Of course, drama means Ryan is thrown into situations that challenge this way of thinking, not least his relationship with Alex (essentially the female version of himself). Vera Farmiga is outstanding as a woman with a very male outlook on the world. Perhaps because they share so much, their relationship grows from a sexually charged flirtation (a brilliantly shot and edited sequence in a VIP lounge) into one that increasingly becomes more and more tender. The film dangles before us and Ryan the option for a new way of life – but it doesn’t lie to us about the nature of either of these people. The relationship doesn’t develop the way we expect – and in fact it becomes a commentary in its own way on the very same future prospects Ryan spends his life selling the people he fires, that despair is a gateway to future opportunity.

Anna Kendrick’s Natalie comes at the world of firing from our ruthless modern age – how can we do this faster, quicker and cheaper? Let’s put together a framework for all conversations, let’s do it remotely, let’s use as many buzzwords and platitudes as we can. While Ryan’s work (to him) is all about not forgetting you need to guide an actual human being through without them getting angry or upset, for Anna it’s a simple progression from A to B. Kendrick’s wonderful performance is all about unpeeling these layers. As she finds out first-hand what the job involves, so we discover she is a far more sensitive, “normal” person than we expect, someone who can’t see the logic behind Ryan’s world-view.

And the film asks Ryan to look at the logic of this world view as well. Everything he expresses at the start of the film comes under fire. Change threatens to make him as redundant as the people he fires. His growing closeness to Alex challenge his ideas about commitment (“we fall in love with pricks and are then surprised when they are pricks” Alex comments, something the film explores late on). The impending marriage of his sister – and the realisation of the complete lack of presence he has in his family’s lives – makes him start to think about the strength of his rootless existence.

But the film doesn’t hammer these points home, it juggles them all perfectly within its framework of looking at corporate America today. In a world where people are increasingly becoming faceless numbers on a spreadsheet, is it surprising so many need a faceless man to do the firing for them? Travel has made the world smaller, but also our lives smaller – like Ryan we can be everywhere and nowhere. Up in the Air is a sad and tender film, but one which leaves a kernel of hope somewhere – there are moments that make you think there are opportunities for change and rebirth. Sure it might be pulling the same trick Ryan does, but if so that’s smart – and shows what a good trick it is. Up in the Air is a hell of a movie, and Reitman is one hell of a director.

The Golden Compass (2007)

How did it all go wrong? The disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz

Cast: Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Coulter), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby), Eva Green (Serafina Pekkala), Jim Carter (John Faa), Clare Higgins (Ma Costa), Tom Courtenay (Farder Coram), Derek Jacobi (Magisterial Emissary), Simon McBurney (Fra Pavel), Jack Shepherd (Master of Jordan College), Ian McKellen (Iorek Byrnison), Freddie Highmore (Pantalaimon), Ian McShane (Ragnar Sturlusson), Kathy Bates (Hester), Kristin Scott Thomas (Stelmaria)

After the success of The Lord of the Rings, bookshops were stripped of all epic fantasy novels with a cross-generational appeal by film producers, their mouths watering at the prospect of having another billion-dollar licence to print money. Nearly all of these projects bombed, but I’m not sure any of them bombed harder than this, an attempt to kick-start a trilogy of films based on Philip Pullman’s both loved and controversial His Dark Materials books. What went so completely wrong?

Pullman’s trilogy is set in an alternative-Oxford, where people all have Dæmons, part of their soul that lives outside their body in animal form. It’s a world where the Magisterium, a powerful organisation, suppresses all free thought, in particular all investigation into the mysterious particle dust. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan raised in Jordan College, who saves the life of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is investigating Dust in the North. Leaving the college with the mysterious Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who may or may not be involved in a series of child kidnappings, she eventually finds herself drawn more and more into setting right the problems of her world.

The Golden Compass is a film that pleased no-one. Fans of the book generally hated it. The people who hated the books hated it. The people who hated what they had been told the book was about hated it. Why did the studio decide to make a film in the first place about a book series they seemed to know was controversial from the start? If they didn’t really want to embrace the themes of the books, why bother? Pullman’s books are partly adventure stories, partly intricate world building, partly spiritual discussions – and yes partly atheist tracts with a strong anti-Establishment-church bent (with a more general regard for genuine faith). To put it bluntly, that’s a lot of ideas to try and squeeze into a film – particularly a film well under two hours.

So The Golden Compass is a mess that feels like it’s been put together by committee. It’s been cut to within an inch of its life – scenes jump incredibly swiftly from event to event, often with the barest of clunky explanation voiceover (“We’re going to see Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians”) to tell you what’s going on. Pages and pages of dialogue and character seem to be lost. We are constantly told Lyra is “special” but never shown anything that supports or explains this. An Eva Green-voiced infodump opens the film: clearly the producers were thinking about Peter Jackson’s masterful opening to The Fellowship of the Ring, which skilfully introduces everything. This introduction though is about removing all the mystery and magic of the story as soon as possible by stating it bluntly up-front.

The biggest mess is of course the way the film avoids all reference to Pullman’s religious themes. No reference is made at all to the Magisterium being a church. No reference is made at all to religion or faith. Iorek is clearly being held in a Russian Orthodox painted church – but the building is referred to throughout as an “office”. Derek Jacobi plays one of the principal Cardinal antagonists of the third book – no reference is made to his office. The Magisterium is instead just a “shady organisation” – a controlling gestapo-type organisation, with black uniforms and creepy Albert Speer style buildings. The questions of Dust and original sin – so central to the motivations of the story – are completely unexplained, meaning the child kidnapping and sinister intercission the villains are carrying out makes no sense at all. How on earth they planned to continue not talking about religion in their planned third film is a complete mystery.

This rushing is the problem throughout the film. Stuff just happens really, really quickly for no real reason. Characters pop up to introduce themselves for later films, or to drop clunky exposition. Tom Courtenay explains what an aleitheometer is for us (the film constantly brings up this “Golden Compass” and its future-telling properties, without ever really making them feel important for anything that happens in the film). Eva Green flies in to say she’s a witch and how pleased she is to meet Lyra and promptly flies off. Daniel Craig name checks Dust, gets captured then disappears. Sam Elliott introduces his rabbit Dæmon and shoots a couple of things. None of this gets any chance to grow and develop – and you end up not caring about any of these characters. Nearly every plot event from the first book is kept in – but so rushed you don’t give a toss.

The structure of the film has also been changed from the book, and not for the better. The film (probably thinking about later films) increases the presence of the Magisterium throughout – but without really making their antagonist role clear. Lyra and Iorek’s defeat of Iorek’s usurper Ragnar is moved to before the final defeat of the Gobbler’s ice base – this doesn’t make a lot of sense. If Iorek now commands an army of bears, why doesn’t he bring them along for the final battle? Lyra instead wanders up to the base like an idiot, and the film extends the release of the children from the ice base into a big battle in order to give us a Lord of the Rings style finish. It doesn’t matter that nothing in the film feels like it’s building plotwise or dramatically towards this battle – it’s there you feel, because Lord of the Rings had battles and people loved that, so let’s get one in here. 

In fact the film builds towards nothing, because it has been cut so poorly, and is such a terrible compromised product, that everything the books are building towards has been removed from it. So the entire thing makes no bloody sense. The clash with the church and organised religion doesn’t work because all reference to faith has been cut. There are mutterings about a “war” coming, but no one says what it might be about. There is a loose crusade to save the kidnapped children – but we don’t understand either side of this. The cruelly ironic ending of the book, with Lord Asriel’s real plan revealed, is deleted altogether from the film – because the studio didn’t want a “downer” ending. As a result the film just suddenly ends (after a clunky “We’ll go home one day after this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and after we’ve solved all the problems of the world” speech).

Studio interference reeks off this whole film. It’s been cut to ribbons. Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee were parachuted into the cast in order to make the film feel more like Lord of the Rings. McKellen sounds completely wrong as a mighty armoured bear (original casting Nonso Anozie would have been perfect). Lee chips in a single line in what is painfully obviously an addition from re-shoots. Anything potentially different or interesting is cut out. In fact anything that was unique about Pullman’s original books is cut out: as much is done as possible to make Pullman’s story as identikit and standard as hundreds of other bland fantasy dramas. As if they hadn’t realised the book was potentially really controversial in the more traditional parts of the US market, it seems like the studio only really read the books once the film was shot, suddenly realised they had made a massive mistake, and tried to reduce the danger as much as possible by making the film as bland as they possible could.

Chris Weitz is completely unsuited for directing it – and he actually feels like a hostage the more you read about the film’s turbulent production – but it’s not all bad. Dakota Blue Richards is actually pretty good as Lyra – she’s got a certain magic charisma. The set design is pretty terrific – even if it is a lot more steampunk than I pictured the novel as being. The special effects are pretty goods – the Dæmons are well done, and the puff of gold Dust they turn into when someone dies is striking. Some of the adult casting is pretty good – Kidman is just about perfect, Craig is pretty good, Sam Elliott stands out as Lee Scoresby. There are some neat cameos as well – I would have liked to see Jacobi get to tackle the third book, Eva Green is wasted, Tom Courtenay is pretty good. It just all rushes by so quickly. You don’t get the chance to get to know anyone fully. If the book was a bit episodic, this takes that worst element of it and ramps it up to eleven.

The Golden Compass tanked. It tanked so hard, New Line Cinema didn’t really recover. All plans for future films were scrapped. However, it is important in another way. In presenting such a horrifically neutered, stripped-down version of the story, it persuaded a lot of people that books rich in world building and content like this needed much longer than a traditional film to be brought to life. It helped persuade George RR Martin that TV was the way to go when selling the rights for Game of Thrones. And His Dark Materials will now live again as a 10 part TV series in the near future. For all its many, many failures – we owe it something.

Thank You For Smoking (2006)

Aaron Eckhart does the big spin on Thank You For Smoking

Director: Jason Reitman

Cast: Aaron Eckhart (Nick Naylor), Cameron Bright (Joey Naylor), Katie Holmes (Heather Holloway), Maria Bello (Polly Bailey), David Koechner (Bobby Jay Bliss), William H. Macy (Senator Ortolan Finistirre), Robert Duvall (The Captain), J.K. Simmons (BR), Kim Dickens (Jill Naylor), Rob Lowe (Jeff Megall), Sam Elliott (Lorne Lutch)

Lobbyists: paid smooth talkers, whose goal is to win influence for often unattractive industries. Not a popular profession. Thank You For Smoking follows a few weeks in the life of Nick Naylor (Aaron Eckhart), a lobbyist for the tobacco industry. With senate hearings underway to place a skull-and-crossbones picture on every pack of cigarettes sold, Naylor has a host of pressures to deal with, not least rebuilding a relationship with his young son (Cameron Bright).

Thank You For Smoking is a smart and amusing satire on a pretty simple target. It’s a great showpiece for the skills of Jason Reitman, who directs his sharply written script with wit and verve. Reitman crafts a satire that’s never too heavy-handed, a well-balanced film that’s about morality and freedom of choice, without banging the righteous drum to death. He’s also got a keen eye for the quick and effective gag, meaning the film moves swiftly from punchline to punchline.

It helps a great deal that Aaron Eckhart is terrific in the lead role: handsome, cocky, charming but with a strange vulnerability. Nick Naylor a fascinating character: while he does adjust his views on issues, he is never humbled by events, and there is no “road to Damascus” moment where he denounces his career. He’s totally confident in his skin, who has come to terms with his role and doesn’t care what people think of him. And you’ve got to respect a man so skilled that he gets a 20 year-old dying of cancer from smoking to shake his hand on live television.

Similarly, the film avoids an open condemnation of smoking (it doesn’t even feature a single character smoking). If anything, the real targets for its criticism are anti-smoking campaigners (William H Macy’s sanctimonious senator is skin-crawling and unbelievably smug and petty), and the opportunistic recipients of lobbying. The film makes clear smoking is a bad habit, but also pushes the right we have to choose – if we want to poison ourselves, we should do so! I’m not sure if Reitman is willing to admit an argument like this is partially an abuse of ill-informed free speech, but at least he hopes we are smart enough to make up our own minds. It’s all part of the careful discussion of lobbying – what kind of person can be swayed by a professional counter-argument man?

There are several other terrific performances. Simmons is hilarious as Naylor’s aggressively vocal boss. Rob Lowe offers a brilliant self-parody as a smoothly empty Hollywood super-agent obsessed with Japanese culture. Maria Bello and David Koechner are both sharply witty as Naylor’s fellow lobbyists for alcohol and firearms respectively. The scenes between the three of these “Merchants of Death” (or “The MOD Squad” as they call themselves) offer a sharply funny commentary on the action throughout.

If the film has a problem though, it’s that it never feels like it develops into being much more than a framework for some good jokes. There is a thinly veiled morality tale here, but the film never really feels like it makes a point or a conclusion. Sure there are tonnes of excellent jokes and laugh-out-loud moments, but is it much more than a series of skilled sketches? Eckhart is of course brilliant in each of these, but there is often a sense of watching a series of misconnected events. Characters drop in and swiftly out of the movie. There is no overarching plot, as such.

The film largely dodges any real narrative conclusion. This is of course part of the smartness of its design – it’s not trying to make moral points, or hector us on health – but it also makes the film feel slightly empty, narratively adrift. Little changes for the characters from the start to the end of the story. Of course, the film is not so crude as to make its hero learn “a lesson”, but it also means Naylor is a more difficult character to sustain interest in over a period of time: complete lack of self-doubt does not tend to make great drama.

It’s very funny, smart, well written and acted. However, while brave enough to avoid predictability, it’s also inconsistent enough to not have a real shape. Some moments – in particular the relationship between Naylor and his son – lean heavily on cliché. Some of its more unusual moments – especially a sequence where Naylor is kidnapped by anti-smoking campaigners – fall the wrong side of surreal. But for all that it’s an imperfect film, it is certainly funny enough to justify itself and features a superb performance of alpha-male arrogance from Aaron Eckhart (I’ve asked this elsewhere, but how unlucky is this guy to not be a bigger star?). I guarantee you’ll laugh several times when you watch this – and if nothing else you’ll have a think about lobbying.