REVIEW: Bradley Cooper’s ‘A Star Is Born’

Released October 5, 2018; Directed by Bradley Cooper; Distributed by Warner Bros.; Runtime 2h 16m; Rated R


When purchasing the tickets for this movie, an older, grizzled man cut the ticket and made an offhand remark about the film. “A Star Is Born,” he said dryly. “Fourth time they’ve made this one. Theater six, to your left.”

Normally, I’m inclined to ignore the dismissive language of the jaded, but what he said stayed with me as I took my seat in the center of the theater. Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is a remake, but it’s been promoted as a kind of re-imagining. Rather than focus on the glamorous toxicity of fame, this film offers a raw, intimate portrayal of art and success. In many ways, it’s exactly that, but it’s beholden to the same tropes and clichés as is common in the typical rise-to-fame narrative. Point being: You’ve seen this before. Only, Cooper and Gaga are so damn good that it doesn’t matter if you’ve seen a million tortured musicians take a million amber-lit stages, baring their souls in a million different ways.


I’ll refrain from summarizing much of the plot. It’s a simple premise. Gaga’s Ally is an aspiring musician who has all but given up on success, while Cooper’s Jack is an aging Country-Rock star who’s resorted to boozing his way through his old hits to make a living. After a chance encounter at a bar, they grow enamored with one another and develop a working relationship on stage. Ally’s star rises, while Jack’s begins to fade as his substance abuse worsens.

While its premise is simple, and beholden to all of the archetypical rich-man-meets-woman narrative beats you’ve come to expect, this iteration of the classic narrative succeeds where others have fallen by the wayside. How? An insistence on unflinching intimacy and emotional honesty between the two leads.

Cooper and Gaga both give complex, varied performances here. Gaga is especially vulnerable early on, shedding much of the audience’s preconceptions about her status as a world-renowned musician. As Ally, she’s stripped down, sometimes literally, to reveal the depth of her earnest ambitions and love for Jack. We are never, as an audience, lead to believe that the love these characters share for one another is in any way imbalanced or unfair. If one character suffers, they both suffer. And there is suffering.

Cooper has lowered his voice here, lightened only by his scenes opposite the inimitable Sam Elliot. His pitch is raspy, aged, and his face is leathery – tarnished by his time in the limelight. His diminishing health walks hand-in-hand with his diminishing returns as an artist. Although Ally gives Jack a much-needed shot in the arm, the film is smart to subvert the typical woman-as-muse trope in favor of a far more honest, and visceral, portrayal of the nature of addiction. Jack is heavily flawed, and though Ally is certainly a force for good in his life, she isn’t there to save him. Nor can she.


The film is strongest when focusing primarily on the relationship between Jack and Ally, mainly due to the superlative performances of Gaga and Cooper, but also due to Cooper’s startling proficiency behind the camera. We are treated to close-up after close-up, wavering dialogue and all the “uh” and “um”s that indicate strong, believable conversation. The script has its fair share of platitudinal idioms – the type of fortune-cookie vaguery that belies many inspirational narratives – but it delivers them earnestly through the mouths of two characters that the audience trusts have each other’s best interests at heart.

The narrative needs that trust, and builds it diligently and intelligently in the film’s first half, but at times struggles to maintain focus on it as the film progresses toward its conclusion.

That isn’t to say that Cooper doesn’t know what he’s doing as a director. The smartest move he made was keeping Gaga dead-center throughout so many of the film’s more intense emotional moments. It cannot be understated how well she performs in this role.

Unfortunately, at around the mid-point, when the narrative capitalizes on an hour’s worth of anticipation by having Ally perform her first duet with Jack on-stage, the film’s carefully cultivated lacquer of authenticity begins to fade.


Following that goose-bumps inducing performance, the film becomes a juggling act between its disparate themes. Cooper seems to manage this by giving each individual element of his film equal screen-time, but all that manages to do is distend the second act into something more akin to a biopic, rather than the down-to-earth fairy tale of the film’s first hour.

One thought kept creeping into my head as addiction and toxic-fame began to take center stage. The balance between what constitutes whimsical coincidence and insightful commentary just isn’t there. Some moments are reminiscent of Scorsese’s claustrophobic portrayals of spousal conflict – raw and uncompromising – while others require a suspension of disbelief simply beyond what should be required of the audience. Considering the lengths the film goes to in order to place this film in reality – our reality – it struggles to maintain it.

The film simply struggles to resolve its plot-threads in its closing act. There’s a poorly-communicated B-Plot involving Sam Elliot’s Bobby, Jack’s brother, as well as a comically over-simplified caricature of the money-hungry Hollywood type in Ally’s manager. Jack’s back story is fleshed out in bite-sized increments and delivered through gruff, farm hand mumbling. The emotional impact that those elements intend to deliver is massive, but being the tropes that they are, eventually offer little. I’d argue that they go so far as to diminish the aforementioned narrative focus on Ally and Jack.


That will be my lasting complaint with this film. Whereas the first hour is enthralling, the latter hour and fifteen simply does too much. There’s a Dave Chappelle cameo that provides literally nothing substantive to the arcs of either character, save for what they do while in his company. The narrative moves so quickly through Ally’s rise to fame that it becomes difficult to discern exactly how much time has passed between her discovery and the accolades she inevitably receives. Time and space mean little in fairy tales, but in a film that attempts to ground itself so thoroughly, it’s frustrating that the film has so little setting to speak of.

Sure, there are sets. There are apartments and tour busses and hotel rooms and many, many stages upon which Cooper and Gaga actually performed live music. Commendable, all of it. But, the film is content to not clearly define when exactly all of this takes place, and for how long a period, preferring instead for the here and now. That’s it. It takes place in the age of smart-phones and Spotify. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. How, then, are moments of titanic personal achievement supposed to resonate with an audience when the context of spent time is lacking? Especially considering the weight of the film’s closing moments.


That isn’t to say that the film isn’t a stellar entertainment. Bradley Cooper has proven himself a competent director and vocalist, and Lady Gaga can act like it’s nobody’s business. That’s on top of her impressive vocal ability. Despite the film addressing too quickly the nature of addiction, fame, creative expression, love, and art; despite its struggle to choose which character’s lens to filter the story through, Ally’s or Jack’s; and despite all the rocky melodrama that bogs down the third act – it’s still a wonderful time at the movies.

What will stick with me, more than anything, is the image of Cooper and Gaga during their first duet, singing a song they wrote the night prior in a convenience store parking lot. When it commits to telling a fairy tale, one with its feet planted firmly on the ground – weighing its character’s aspirations against their circumstances – that’s when it shines very, very brightly.

The songs are catchy, the performances solid, the cinematography adherent to theme, and the emotional core resonant. It may be the best iteration of this old Hollywood story, flaws and all.

Score: 3.75 / 5 – Good film. See in theaters.


Review: Orange is the New Black: Season 6 – Part 4

This is the conclusion of a review in-progress of Netflix’s prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black. This review covers episodes twelve and thirteen.

*Some Spoilers Ahead*

“Double Trouble”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 59m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Clark Johnson


Tensions are coming to a head, and while they are we become acutely aware that this season might not end the way we want it to. Taystee is dealing with a stacked trial, and her lawyer sheds pretense when speaking with a frazzled Caputo: she has a fifty-fifty shot of winning or losing. We’re meant to understand that as a positive note, but the show’s allusions here are clear – the best someone like Taystee (read: black in America) could ever hope for is a coin-toss’s odds.

It doesn’t matter if Caputo has fulfilled his redemption-arc and is slowly yanking Fig along with him. Good intentions don’t change shit.

Elsewhere we have characters trying to take a stand. Vause is risking everything to keep Badison away from Piper – the former wishing to add prison time for the latter. This puts Vause dead smack in the middle of the upcoming block war/kickball match. Vause still has time to serve, and she may be throwing in the towel. That theme becomes apparent now – not that it’s been especially absent – that people are tired of trying so hard and not going anywhere, conceding to the system.

Speaking of, MCC has rebranded itself as PolyCon as a PR move. Fig is unimpressed, but has to submit to the wishes of her superiors and implement a new, laughably malleable inmate ranking system that weighs demerits against their original defense, or…something, I don’t know.

Regardless, a few times around the halfway point of the episode there are some key exchanges about personhood and volition. One CO asks another about the data-entry inmate ranking system, isn’t it hard turning people into numbers? No, he replies, not once you’re used to it. He should be used to it, as the COs have been ranking the inmates the whole season without corporate mandate.

All of the prisoners are numbers, pawns, what have you. Pieces to be moved around a chessboard to progress someone else’s motives – at least that’s what I’m taking from the show at this point. I don’t see Caputo or Fig making a dent against PolyCon/MCC, and I don’t have high hopes for Taystee or any of the other inmates subscribing to Barb and Carol’s war. Things feel too orchestrated, to precarious. Everyone speaking out against it is being locked up in SHU.

And Red, poor vengeful Red. She almost saw her grandchildren. It’s as if the show is subtly reminding us that hey, these guys are criminals and are still susceptible to their baser instincts – but so is everyone else.

Anyways, the stage is set for the finale. Tensions are very, very high, though the episode doesn’t do much more than advance a good plot. It’s got a pretty interesting ending, though.


“Be Free”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 1h 24m; Created by Jenji KohanDirected by Nick Sandow


All the planning, all the tested loyalties and alliances formed, they all come to this. Though this season hasn’t made the actual kickball match feel particularly threatening, there’s been more than adequate portent. From the jump we see that things aren’t going as planned, a theme coursing through this episode’s feature-length runtime. We have to expect, as the audience, that we aren’t getting what we want. At all. Same deal with our characters.

Turns out Vause isn’t going to school. Turns out that maybe Fig and Caputo aren’t compatible. Turns out Piper isn’t going to get to spend another few months with Vause.

That’s right, she’s being sprung. Due to the aforementioned easily-manipulated inmate-scoring software that PolyCon instituted, and Piper’s ignorance about the drug-economy of the prison, she’s being released. It’s wholly, incredibly convenient. Piper’s smart enough not to question a good thing too vocally, though, as a person with her background tends to behave.

Aleida wants to get her kids back, but that might mean losing Daya. Taystee just wanted justice for Poussey, but it might cost her the rest of her life. Morello just wants a baby, and Nichols just wants an easy ride through the end of her sentence. Barb and Carol? I’ll get to that.

We’re allowed some tender moments between long-running characters at Vause and Piper’s spontaneous prison-wedding, but aren’t allowed to savor it because the kickball match approaches.

Some thoughts on that.

This never felt like the big, burgeoning battle sequence as it was imagined by the inmates of Litchfield. As one of the COs mentions, it’s just kickball. And that may have been the point the whole time. Nichols, when she corners Morello over her shifted alliances, points out that the only reason anyone is doing anything is because of Carol and Barb. The powers that be, manipulating and corralling the lesser-thans into violent opposition.

Though it wears it on its sleeve, this show has some decent subtext.

There’s a big twist regarding Carol and Barb and the show earns it, I think. I was frustrated a few episodes back about a series of flashbacks showing how they killed their younger sister together, about how proficiently manipulative they were together, and I bear no qualms about eating my own words. The flashback was relevant. I was wrong.

Still, this last episode needed thirty extra minutes to tell a full story. Just saying.

Moving on, the major conflicts are put to rest here, but nothing has changed and it’s wonderful. Why? Because that’s the whole point. OITNB has outdone itself with this ending. It feels like the writers, in their dimly-lit windowless room in some office-building in L.A., just sat at a table and never once denied a good idea because it might not market well. They approached a moment of severe tension and had it result in a way that is both unsurprising and well-earned.

They stuck to their guts here. Though our characters may not be in a better place because of it, it makes for much better television. Everyone you might expect to walk away from that prison, does so. Everyone else? Not so lucky. I watched the ending, searching for some consolation, but as with the inmates left in Litchfield, there isn’t much to find.

Again, that’s the point.

Well done.


So that’s it!

Season six is in the books. I wouldn’t brand this a hard reboot, that was season five, this season has been an enthralling return to form for the series. They sat down and thought hard about how to tell a good story using all the tools at their disposal, and it works very well.

There are pacing issues, sure, as well as the normal structural problems present with such a large ensemble cast, but they do this better than most productions.

We get meaningful, impactful arcs for almost every character. Things happen and they mean something this season. Which can’t be said for several of the others. That small actions precipitated larger conflicts, broadly and specifically, feels great and watches better.

Though I will say this: I’m done.

Yes, done. I don’t really want another season of this show. The narrative of season six was so effused with the series’ overarching themes and said so much with them, arguably what it’s been trying to say this whole time. I don’t need anything else. Netflix has already ordered season seven, so I may be ranting at a wall here, but I think they tied everything up nicely.

Taystee didn’t get justice, because it’s so infrequent that black men and women ever do in a system biased against them. Piper gets out no strings attached, and many of the immigrant detainees are sent to ICE-compounds after thinking they were being released. It’s heartbreaking, but an accurately assembled tableau of racial and economic biases and segregation within our criminal justice system. And those powers that be? They stay in power.

They do it all without saying a word, either. Our characters exchange worried glances far more often than they monologue or address these issues through dialogue. That’s what sets this season apart for me. It shows more often that it tells – you can never go wrong there.

I’m curious to see where this goes. But, and I can’t understate this, season seven should be the show’s final season. Show Piper writing her book, or whatever; make it a prolonged post-series “where they are now” segment. Just don’t counteract the statements made in this season. Please.

Final score: 4/5 – Well above average.

An excellent return to form for the series. It’s found its teeth again and bites hard when it has to. Binge it.


Review: Orange is the New Black: Season 6 – Part 3

This is Part Three of a review in-progress for the sixth season of Netflix’s prison dramedy, Orange is the New Black. This review covers episodes eight through eleven.

*Some Spoilers Ahead*


Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 58m; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Sian Heder


Relationships are changing in Litchfield, and it’s fun to watch. Vause doesn’t want to be a…phone-mule? She wants to keep to herself, while Piper wants to make a difference – it’s good they’ve developed so much over the series. There’s some drama regarding the blocks, Red is getting in over her head with Carol, Nichols gets to artificially inseminate Flores (fucking hilarious), and a whole litany of other shenanigans that might break wide into more substantial plot-threads. Importantly, though, and much to my relief, this episode decides to shift focus away from some of the block-drama back onto Taystee and the riot-trial.

Taystee knows one of the COs, who delivers to her all of her mail. This is fleshed out with a flashback about their time working the overnight drive-thru window together at a burger joint. Prisoner and CO, both from the same walk of life, very obviously went in different directions – both of which were deemed the only course of action by either character.

This is interesting stuff, especially once Taystee does her interview and lambastes the COs for their treatment of the prisoners, which has been observably poor. Here comes some drama, furthering the divide between the guards and prisoners. I like this stuff, why doesn’t it linger on it a little more? Make a point about the nature of this trial in relation to the guards, what are the consequences should they be exposed for their behavior? The show doesn’t really need to spell it out for us, far from it, but tossing characters against one another and playing their differences on their similarities is what has given this series so many memorable moments. These are the things we tune in for.

I can do without the final scene of them literally walking two separate ways at an intersection. It’s not awful, but we get it.

Going forward the show would do wise to keep us invested in this trial. The prison-block drama is juicy and fun, but the politics surrounding the inmates and the officers outside their cell-doors is a foundational pillar to the show.


“Break the String”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 1h; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Nick Sandow


It’s fitting that so much of the season up to this point has been about establishing where our characters’ loyalties lie. Following their incarceration in max, each one of them has had to develop a plan that ensures their own survival within the system. These plans, much to the benefit of the show itself, often run incongruous or in direct opposition to one another. This episode starts a pattern which will hopefully play out to the season’s ending. Cindy, Flaka, Piper, Carol, Barb, Frieda, Caputo, Linda, Fig, Badison, Morello, Mendoza, Ruiz, Daya, Daddy, Aleida, even Suzanne – each of them have an endgame, and a course of action going forward that could potentially bear enormous consequences.

Be it Piper trying to reinstate kickball during recreational hours, or Daddy forcing Barb to OD in order to buy herself some time setting up another drug-racket. Both of these plans have to juggle the intentions of multiple characters. That the show has managed to weave a web of motivation and consequence this tightly is what’s moving everything along at this point, as the tension over the trial has long since devolved into no more than back-pain for Cindy – literally.

But that’s okay, because these are lovely characters and we don’t want them to feel pain anywhere, and the idea that some of our beloveds may inflict damage to one another, rather than do the right thing, is unerring entertainment. What’s more, the show continues to experiment with the tools at its disposal. Flaka and Cindy are fun together, and the budding “romance” between Aleida and a guard is actually illuminating – Aleida has for so long-held a high guard, but her need of others in a moment of genuine weakness is a challenge her character alone would find so difficult overcoming.

Caputo is finally coming around it seems, as his moral objections to MCC might be boiling over. That Fig is there to offer him advice, and further invest in her own vulnerability, feels right. It’s important to offer developments like this six seasons along. But this season is loyalty, respect, and playing the long game: Plans.

This late in the season, well over half-way, the show is dishing out a bit more than we bargained for. It isn’t a problem that it’s so densely plotted, especially when compared to earlier seasons, but I’m worried as to whether or not the show can pull off a resolution to so much with the amount of time it has left. Everyone in Litchfield is committing to their game plan, we just have to wait and see what happens. There’s certainly the potential for a stellar ending here.


“Chocolate Chip Nookie”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 1h; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Ludovic Littee


This is a good episode, flat-out, but it has some problems. To set the scene, everyone’s plans are underway. Daddy, Daya, and Aleida are smuggling drugs into the prison using the guard/boyfriend and his protein-shake tubs – props for making that relevant – and Barb is finally sober thanks to some time spent with Nicky in the infirmary. Piper’s got C-Block running drills to get ready for kickball, which was reinstated, but Badison’s a control-freak so you know where that’s headed. Caputo and Fig are starting to invest some energy against MCC, Red is cozying up with Carol in the hopes of getting at Frieda, who is still in Florida with Suzanne and Doggett trying not to get murdered. None of that is to mention the continued conflict between Mendoza and the other women of C-Block and Luschek and the cell-phone smuggling business. Shew.

This show’s layers are tangling up very quickly, and with only a handful more episodes left on the roster we need as much screen time reserved for relevant material as possible.


I guess not, because in the middle of all of that interesting shit, we get another glimpse into Carol and Barb’s back story. My question: Why? What do we learn? Nothing of value. I’d rather be following Caputo on his crusade against his former employer, with a reformed Fig backing him up, or the changing politics of the old alliances between characters that are being challenged in max.

What we get in this lengthy set of flashbacks is what Frieda describes as the “Little Debbie Killings.” Barb and Carol, while teenagers, murder their younger sister by locking her in a car and pushing it into a lake. And? They bicker a lot once they’re in prison together. It’s rushed, it’s a severe strain on the suspension of disbelief, and it doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about the warring tribes of Lichfield in the present. Their characterization in Frieda’s flashback was enough. They’re bickering sisters who went to prison and, over their long incarceration, grew to hate each other. What’s to elaborate on?

Consider it this way: All Frieda had to do in a brief conversation with Suzanne was hint at the notoriety of the “Little Debbie Killings” and that Little Debbie was Barb and Carol’s little sister. It should go without saying that only a depraved individual would murder their little sister. Did we need to see it play out? I’d argue that the handful of flashbacks did very little to justify, in any frame of mind, why the two sisters offed their younger sibling. There’s hardly enough time to present anything nuanced about these brand spanking new characters. And with everything else going on, it’s a distraction.

Let’s hope the next episode keeps its focus on the present day, because OITNB‘s recurring plot-device is becoming a hindrance. The show will get better going forward, not by continuously peeking backward.


“Well This Took a Dark Turn”

Released 27 July, 2018; Runtime 1h; Created by Jenji Kohan; Directed by Laura Prepon


Maybe Laura Prepon should spend more time behind the camera, because she delivers a pretty tight episode here. Not a single flashback in sight as we focus on how dangerously all of the old alliances have shifted, and the new dramas that envelope our characters. Every meaningful arc gets some time here. Piper and Badison butt heads, Nichols is trapped between old friends and D-Block’s blood lust, MCC is maneuvering around Caputo’s campaign for the truth, and the riot-trial is officially underway. Those plans, the ones I’ve been yammering on about for the last few reviews, are in action. As they put it in the show – it’s time to go all-in, and I am. I really am.

Leading up to this episode we’ve had a mess of plot-lines entangle, to see them tugging and yanking all over is rewarding. There’s no near-miss with Aleida’s drug-tubs of protein powder, her boyfriend confronts her instantly. We have immediate consequences and action. Everything Piper does to help herself gets her in deeper trouble with Badison, regardless of what she wants, and she finally comes face to face with the realization we’ve all been yearning for over the last few years: The other prisoners fuck with her because of her privilege, because she’s in there with them despite having every opportunity they could only dream of having. That Taystee is the one to offer this revelation makes it all the more sweet.

Side note: It’s really nice to see Burset here, I wish this season would bring back some of our old favorites more frequently. Her situation is sad, but her decision at the end of the episode is in-keeping with the mantra this season has touted from the jump – it’s every woman for herself. She commits to her own survival, as does every other character.

Piper goes all in on her status as kickball captain, Vause goes all-in on a college course, Cindy goes all-in on her testimony, the Litchfield campers go all-in on their allegiances to their new blocks, and the guards go all-in on fixing their fantasy draft dry spell in what is a genuinely surprising way to end the episode.

Nothing distracts from the drama here. There’s levity, sure, but everyone has to make a choice, and those choices get made, galvanizing or undoing their relationships or their security.

Great episode; the kind you clench you jaw and raise your eyebrows at.


Two to go

I’m excited to see where this ends. The upcoming kickball game has some stakes riding on it, that’s for sure. This season has done well to unshackle itself from the sentimental-oozing of earlier episodes. It feels more akin to seasons one and two, where there’s danger behind every sign of relief.

I don’t want to see this kickball crap outshine the trial, however. For as prevalent a role that played in the first half of the season, I want it to finish strong.

We’ll see.