J.J. Abrams channels the Twilight Zone while Hollywood goes Gaga over yet another Star being Born
By Jim Bray
A couple of interesting new titles have premiered on 4K disc this week, one of which is a rehash of an old theme while the other one is also a rehash of an old theme – but with a decidedly weird twist.
Let's start with Overlord, which Paramount sent in 4K. It's a movie that will probably appeal to fans of the Wolfenstein video game franchise and, if that applies to you, you pretty well know where this movie is going.
Overlord starts off like a conventional World War II movie and it probably would've worked just fine if it had stayed that way. But nooooooo! Part way through the film veers directly into the Twilight Zone – a fact acknowledged by Abrams himself in the generous supplements that are on the Blu-ray that accompanies the 4K UHD (HDR) disc.
We start at the beginning of D-Day, with a group of paratroopers riding in a C-47 (the military version of the classic DC-3) on their way to drop in on the Germans in occupied France. It's a terrific opening scene, with great special effects by Industrial Light and Magic, in which about a thousand C-47's pass overhead the thousands of ships that are on their way to assault the beaches of Normandy on that fateful day.
Our heroes' task is to fight their way into a town and take out a radio transmission tower there to cut off German communications so the troops landing on the beaches have an easier time of it. "Easier" of course being relative…
Anyway, during that exciting opening scene our heroes' plane is shot down and the mission becomes nearly as much about survival as it is about destroying the radio tower. Some of the troopers meet up again on the ground and resume their mission, but it doesn't take long for them to discover that there's something not quite right about the French town in which they find themselves.
People there are strange in a very non-Doors-like way, one of the prime examples being the aunt of a French woman (Mathilde Ollivier) who gives them shelter from the Germans. The woman sounds weird and, in the brief glimpse we get of her, looks even weirder and we're left to wonder why.
We aren't left long, however. Soon it becomes apparent that there are some very weird goings on going on in the village, thanks to a secret laboratory in which some very weird and worrisome experiments are being carried out – on the townsfolk (and others).
I won't spoil the story by telling you what's going on there because, if nothing else, Overlord is a pretty fun ride. It's also very graphic in places – unnecessarily so, in my never humble opinion – so make sure you have a pretty strong constitution when you fire up the disc.
Director Julius Avery toes a pretty interesting line (graphic violence and cussing notwithstanding) between making the movie fun and exciting – and serious (there's a lot of pretty rough stuff in this flick!). And while it is at times relentless, (though not, as the review quote on the box says, "unrelentingly tense"), it never really lets you forget that this is, at heart, an old fashioned monster movie. Well, "monsters".
The film looks great – a fact exploited nicely by the 4K presentation, with top notch production design and fantastic (in every way…) special effects. The cast, which also includes Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn's son Wyatt, does an excellent job even though quite a few of the characters are pretty two dimensional.
Speaking of Paramount's 4K UHD disc, the package also comes with the aforementioned 1080p Blu-ray as well as a code for a digital download. The extras are on the Blu-ray, which is usually the case in my experience (and that's fine; I'd rather they use as much storage space as possible for the main feature, to help ensure the best audio and video potential), and the featurettes give you a darn interesting behind the scenes look at the production of this weird but strangely compelling movie.
The 4K picture looks great right from the opening scenes with the C-47's. The Blu-ray itself looks darn fine, too, so the upgrade to 4K isn't as much as I might have hoped for, but it's still a very worthwhile version if you have the equipment to play it.
Working against the look is the fact that the film is very dark overall (a lot of it happens at night and/or indoors), but the Dolby Vision HDR helps here as well, thanks to an enhanced colour palette and depth. So, stuff in the shadows is easier to make out, for example. The 4K HDR also means the gore is more "gore-geous".
The audio is up to snuff as well. It's in Dolby Atmos of course, which is backward compatible (so you can play it on a 5.1 system), and it's really loud and encompassing. The soundstage is full and rich, the bass is just as it should be for a movie with lots of gunfire and explosions. If you have a subwoofer in your audio system (and you should!), you'll be very happy with Overlord's audio. It truly is reference quality.
As mentioned, the extras are very good, too. The overall theme is "The Horrors of War" (a delicious pun considering what's coming) and it's broken down into six sections, each of which deals with a particular aspect of the production. It's very worthwhile stuff if you're into the magic of moviemaking, yet it takes up less than an hour of your time.
Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born remake is a lot more accessible for a mainstream audience, but did we really need yet another remake – especially of a film that's been remade so many times (I count four, at least)?
That said, this is a good remake and it's a good story. For those readers who never saw the Kristofferson/Streisand or Mason/Garland or March/Gaynor versions, the story follows a boozy and drugged up fading musician (Cooper, in this version) who meets a younger singer who knocks off his socks. In this version, it's Allie (Lady Gaga), who steals his heart and his ear. And, eventually, his career.
Jackson Maine (Cooper, who also directed and co-wrote and contributed to the songs) is so impressed by Allie's voice and her song writing that he not only falls in love with her but he also starts her on the road to stardom (otherwise you'd have to change the name of the movie, after all). And as she grows in stature, he continues his demise into a boozy and druggy haze.
It's predictable – it isn't as if this story hasn't been told before – but Cooper and his screenwriting partners (Eric Roth and Will Fetters) bring it into today's media atmosphere, so there's a drag queen club in it of course – though they don't really beat you over the head with PC crap. Still, if you've seen any of the other versions you know pretty much how it's going to unfold and how it's going to end.
That means it's the performances and the music that are the real hooks here, and fortunately Cooper et al have come through very well. I'd never seen Cooper before (I'd only heard him as the voice of Rocket from Guardians of the Galaxy) but he does a fine job. Watching the supplements (which are light on substance but heavy on the cast/crew being a mutual admiration society), I learned that Cooper took singing and playing lessons for the film and I have to admit that between his efforts and some great shooting and editing, it really did look as if he were playing.
The real revelation to me was Lady Gaga. Not having been dead for the past decade, I'd heard of her often, but never heard her music. Heck, the closest I've come to her before this was hating her vicariously because she was lucky enough to be driven around Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the two-seater before the 100th running of the Indy 500 (which I also attended but didn't get to ride around the track…).
She can really sing! I have no idea how close the Star is Born soundtrack is to her usual fare, but some of the songs here – many of which she had a hand in – are really great! And she has great pipes to perform them. She's so good I'm thinking of actually listening to some of her other stuff, though I must also be honest enough to admit it probably won't happen.
In the end, I enjoyed this A Star is Born a lot more than I'd expected to, and recommend it for a look.
I wonder, though, why this subject was chosen for yet another reboot. And if they were going to reboot it, why didn't they reboot it like Hollowwood seems to reboot so many things these days? I mean, how about a gender bending version in which a clapped-out old Diva (gee, maybe we could get Barbra or Cher) finds a young up and coming MALE singer to mentor.
Or how about a homosexual version, where an aging rocker (George Michael is dead, but maybe Elton John or Little Richard might be available…) finds a young homosexual stud to mentor (I imagine Jussie Smollet won't be available to play that part for a while, though).
Maybe they wanted to make a mainstream movie – or make money – instead of making a statement…
I'm glad they went the route they did because rather than making news, they made a decent film that features an excellent score and some terrific songs. And it made scads of money. Is there a lesson here?
The Blu-ray looks and sounds as good as it should, too. Apparently shot digitally, A Star Is Born isn't as razor sharp as I'd hope the 4K version would be, but it's still quite fine. Black levels are very good, helping make the picture nearly as "pop off the screen compelling" as the best Blu-rays (though this is definitely not the best of Blu-rays).
The audio in a musical is of paramount (er, Warner Bros.) importance and fortunately, the Star is Born's Dolby Atmos track (backward compatible to Dolby TrueHD) is up to the task. You notice it right off the bat, with a concert scene in which Cooper's Maine is performing. The low frequencies sound terrific, but so does the whole sonic shebang. There's good use of surround, too, especially of course during the concert footage. The rest of the time the audio is pretty standard and straightforward, but it still offers great fidelity.
Extras include a "making of" documentary that, as I noted above, is more promo than info – a "mutual admiration society circle jerk" of cast/crew. But there's some pretty neat musical stuff, too, including music videos, jam sessions (and "rarities") and you can access the film's musical numbers directly, which is cool.
Which of these two films did I enjoy the most? Tough call. I had a wonderful time being creeped out by Overlord, but I also enjoyed watching Allie's star being born. But while the former is a guilty pleasure, the latter features some great songs (I'm a sucker for a good musical) and – this may or may not be important to you – it's a movie I could watch with my dear and gentle wife (who would have left Overlord about five minutes in). And Lady Gaga is outstanding.
I guess that means A Star is Born wins. I hadn't expected that.
Copyright 2019 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.