Friday, November 09, 2018

Film Reviews: 'A Star is Born'

The Real Subject of Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” Is the Star Power of Bradley Cooper

By Richard Brody
October 5, 2018

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The main love story in the new version of “A Star Is Born” is the one between Bradley Cooper the director and Bradley Cooper the actor. Few recent movies come to mind in which filmmakers give themselves as many lingering, emotion-milking closeups. At times, the film plays nearly like a feature-length sample reel sent to the Academy for a Best Actor award. Fortunately, there’s much more to this remake, which is more engaging and affecting over all than it is at its most self-regarding moments. But it’s hard to shake the sense of a shift in Cooper’s version of this classic Hollywood story of a man’s star falling while a woman’s ascends, one that emphasizes the self-punishing, self-sacrificing aspects of the male side of the equation. In its depiction of the musician’s self-scourging for the public’s good, it edges into turf occupied lately by “Whiplash.”

Cooper (who co-wrote the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) plays Jackson Maine, a singer-songwriter-guitar hero who plays hard-edged, country-inflected rock in stage shows of an unadorned, down-home openness. He’s also an alcoholic and drug addict (he abuses prescription medication) who, after a show, empties his last bottle in the back of his limo and has his driver, Phil (Greg Grunberg), deliver him to the first bar they find. It turns out to be a drag bar, where a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga) takes her turn onstage. Where the drag performers do lip-synch numbers, Ally sings; Jackson (who goes by Jack) is captivated.

He takes her to another bar—his kind of bar, a “cop bar”—and, after a fight breaks out and Ally punches a man, gets her to an all-night supermarket for a bag of frozen vegetables to ice her bruised knuckles. After a rapturously romantic chat session in the supermarket’s parking lot, Ally sings, first softly, then beltingly. When, at his next show, Jack pulls her onstage with him, they sing a duet of a song that she wrote. The audience goes mad, the video goes viral, and the movie’s title is realized with a suddenness that’s exemplary of the digital age.

Though the movie is filled with detail and runs more than two hours, it’s a drama in a hurry; it packs its dose of emotion and rushes on, leaving a viewer to feel less stoked than milked. The instant connection shared by Jack and Ally (if she has a last name, it doesn’t register) quickly turns romantic. Jack is seen to be newly happy; he drinks less, hardly at all, and his road manager, Bobby (Sam Elliott), who’s also his older brother, says that he hasn’t played so well in a long time.

But there’s trouble in musical paradise: as Ally goes backstage after a triumphant concert appearance with Jack, a prominent producer named Rez (Rafi Gavron) pulls her aside and tells her that he can help her make her wildest career dreams come true. She says that she has to talk to Jack—but if she does, that conversation isn’t seen. Ally signs (also offscreen) with Rez—there are no lawyers, no negotiations, no contracts, and, above all, nothing about that great taboo, money—and Rez starts making decisions about her career. He puts her face on a minimalist billboard with the sole legend “Ally,” gets her to change her hair color, saddles her with backup dancers and a choreographed stage routine, for which she spends much time rehearsing, and puts her voice in front of slickly produced tracks that, at first, seem to cramp her style.

There’s an artistic manifesto embedded in Cooper’s version of “A Star Is Born,” and Jack both delivers it and embodies it: the cult of the singer-songwriter-instrumentalist. What Ally sings in the drag club is Édith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” and, though Jack is captivated by her voice and presence, he soon asks her whether she writes her own songs. She responds that she lacks confidence to do so. In their parking-lot conversation, Jack art-splains that all that matters is having “something to say” and “saying it so people will want to hear” what one has to say. Then she sings her song for him, the one with which he makes her a star.

This is a resolutely retro vision, even if Cooper fills his remake with contemporary touches. The first version of “A Star Is Born,” starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, about an aspiring actress (not a singer), dates from 1937. The next two were synchronized with the musical worlds of their times, and spaced roughly twenty years apart. The one starring Judy Garland, as a jazz-and-standards singer who finds movie stardom in musicals, and James Mason, is from 1954; the next, with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, set in the world of rock and pop, is from 1976. At that pace, the next remake should have come in the nineteen-nineties, when the big change in the music business was the rise of hip-hop. But Hollywood wasn’t ready to make that movie—and apparently still isn’t.

Instead, Cooper’s “A Star Is Born” has the throwback air of a feature-length “disco sucks” rally, which ends with the grudging and grim resignation to the fact that it’s here to stay. There’s a recurring riff involving Ally’s father (Andrew Dice Clay), a livery driver and formerly aspiring singer whose idol and role model is Frank Sinatra—and who locates the source of Sinatra’s power not in his pipes but in his personality, in taking the stage and becoming Frank Sinatra. That’s exactly the opposite of what Cooper, in the voice of Jackson, is driving at—and, to make sure that nobody misses it, he delivers the riff frequently, in a variety of forms, as when Jack warns Ally, before an appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” “They won’t be listening forever, so just tell them what you want to say.”

In this and other ways, “A Star Is Born” drives home a fantasy version of unfiltered artistic authenticity. Jack has no producer; though he has made some recordings, he doesn’t record in the course of the film, doesn’t discuss it. There are no reporters, no publicity, no interview. Jackson Maine is, in effect, a high-level independent whose relationship to his music and his public is immediate, unmediated—an exposed position that leaves him open to his inspirations, unprotected before his weaknesses and impulses. Jack’s substance-abuse issues are aptly described and presented as a disease, but his willingness and ability to cope with them is viewed as inseparable from his artistic identity and fortunes; so, for that matter, is the impaired hearing and tinnitus from which he suffers. (His unwillingness to take steps to protect his hearing is depicted as a creative decision.)

What Cooper persuasively depicts is the fear factor of stardom—the sense of vulnerability, of a position that’s both powerful and fragile. In a recent profile of him, in the Times, by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Cooper expresses his reticence about being profiled, and his guardedness is a mark of wisdom about the process—an awareness that an unguarded phrase can suddenly become the big story in lieu of the movie itself. His direction of “A Star Is Born” is similarly both expressive and retentive; he displays much emotion, but it’s constricted and context-deprived, cut off from ambiguity, resonance, and presence—he’s giving, but only so much and no more, and only exactly what he wants to give. (For instance, concert scenes are done in looming closeups, and one moment, when the stage is seen from behind and overhead, with the whole band and the crowd, is a liberation of the eye and the mind, but it lasts a mere second or so.)

The film’s emotional shorthand works to Cooper’s onscreen advantage and Lady Gaga’s disadvantage. Her singing is dominant, her performance fascinatingly elusive and full of life—she doesn’t so much deliver a single feeling on cue as command the screen and gradually unfold a complex range of emotions. But Cooper’s impatient direction never gives her the screen time to flourish, and the camera seems to cut away from her just as her moments of performance are beginning.

This, too, is in keeping with what Cooper appears to be saying. His subject is the pursuit of self-expression, the sharing of a space of performance in an inherently collaborative art form with a new and reinvigorating artistic collaborator. There’s a moment in which, in her first flush of success, Ally provokes Jack, calling him “jealous.” But the film is made in such a way as to spare Cooper any fear of jealousy: its vision of self-expression is, above all, the expression of one self.

Bradley Cooper Is Too Handsome to Play a Coke-Snorting Has-Been

By Rex Reed
October 5, 2018

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First things first. Lady Gaga can act. For his first time out of the chute as a director, Bradley Cooper knows where to position the camera. And in spite of the fact that the fifth slog around the track for A Star is Born is not in the same class with—and nowhere near the same monumental motion achievement as—George Cukor’s 1954 masterpiece, written by Moss Hart with a spectacular score by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin and starring Judy Garland and James Mason at the zenith of their careers, this re-hash proves that a threadbare story can still thrill a new generation if treated with style and passion. So it is far from perfect, but the entertainment value is undeniable.

That being said, I must also add that the fawning critical slobber being dumped on this film, while not exactly misguided, is still very much out of synch with reality. One moron in Chicago {Richard Roeper} even calls it “the greatest Star is Born of all time,” which is not only ridiculous but a bald-faced lie.

Switching the love story between a girl on the rise and a star on the decline to the world of rock and roll has been done already, with disastrous results, in the unconvincing 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. As a writer trying a new approach, Bradley Cooper is no Moss Hart, but his screenplay, written with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, has its moments.
As an actor, Cooper is still too handsome and too young to play a hairy, coke-snorting has-been on the road to alcoholic ruin. Even when he’s passed out cold on the side of the road, he looks ready for a closeup. But, as anyone lucky enough to have seen him on Broadway in The Elephant Man already knows, this boy can act. Playing a worn-out rock star named Jackson Maine, he also proves he can play the guitar and scream out a tsunami of acid rock with unexpected volume and hysterical abandon.
As the ingenue with potential he grooms and marries, Lady Gaga makes stars as a singing waitress and ambitious amateur named Ally whom he accidentally discovers singing “La Vie en Rose” in a gay bar that features drag queens. Noisy and somewhat creepy, she works diligently on her way up the ladder of success with Cooper as her mentor, the fading rock legend on his way down.
Cooper the director gives her all the best angles and favors her in almost every scene, while Cooper the actor stays out of the center spot. The music is indescribably horrible; anyone who knows anything about real music—or cares—is advised to return immediately to the lush soundtrack of the Judy Garland version and listen to historic vocal on “The Man That Got Away.” Then you get the true understanding of how an unknown can become a star through sheer supersonic talent.
The high-voltage ghost of Judy Garland haunts every frame and illuminates every shadow in the film, and Lady Gaga seems to know it. In an early scene, she is walking down a dark alley to the street. Out of nowhere, she starts singing a set of lyrics her fan base ignores, considering the scene superfluous and baffling. What they don’t realize is that she’s singing the verse to Judy Garland’s most durable theme song, a little ditty called “Over the Rainbow.”
Updated with orange hair and an appearance on Saturday Night Live, Lady Gaga (is it OK to call her “Miss Gaga”?) achieves the epitome of fame in 2018, which includes three Grammy nominations and a guest appearance with “the ubiquitous Alec Baldwin,” while Cooper plots his own suicide. Despite obvious parallels, the script never achieves the insight, scope, of richness of detail in the Moss Hart script from 1954. Oddly, the best scene in the film is the truthful, long-awaited explosion between the rock star at rock bottom and his long-suffering older brother and manager, played with electrifying appeal by Sam Elliott, and Lady Gaga isn’t even it.
The biggest shock to me is not her voice, but the backbreaking toil that has gone into concealing every trace of her voluminous tattoos by slathering her with tons of body makeup. There’s nary a tattoo, even in her nude scenes. But even if, in my opinion, she’s not a real movie star, it’s nice to watch her performance develop from beginning to end and grow, highlighting a timeless movie with renewed elements of tragedy and love.
This review originally stated that ‘A Star Is Born’ was Lady Gaga’s acting debut, which is not the case. Whether or not Rex liked her in ‘Muppets Most Wanted’ remains unclear.
Lady Gaga Tips the Scales in Bradley Cooper's 'A Star is Born'

By Anthony Lane
October 8th Issue

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In the beginning was George Cukor. In 1932, he made “What Price Hollywood?,” in which Constance Bennett plays a waitress who hungers to be a movie queen. She gets her break, thanks to Max Carey (Lowell Sherman), a decent director and a lousy drunk. Fortune functions like a pair of scales: as she rises, he must fall. The same process affected Janet Gaynor and Fredric March in William Wellman’s “A Star Is Born” (1937), the title that has stuck ever since. Next up was Judy Garland, in 1954, with Cukor back in charge, and James Mason on the alcoholic skids. By now, the fable had become a musical, and so it was again in 1976, when Kris Kristofferson was defeated by Barbra Streisand’s vast voice and the untamable majesty of her perm. Here, in short, is a story that never dies.

Now it’s back. “A Star Is Born” has undergone yet another rebirth, and the midwife is Bradley Cooper. He wrote the film, with Eric Roth and Will Fetters; he directed it; he takes the leading role of Jackson Maine; he sings the tunes and plays guitar; and it’s more than likely that he did the makeup, the animal wrangling, and the on-set catering. If he wasn’t up at 4 a.m. to make scrambled eggs for the crew, I want to know why.

At the start, we see Jackson onstage, in the open air, facing a mighty throng that sways like the sea. In consort with an expert bunch of musicians (played by Neil Young’s backing band, Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real), Jackson gives his devotees the gnarly, hairy, hard-driving sound for which they yearn. His songs are beefed up with old-school earnestness, except when they’re tender with old-school regret. Leaving the premises after the gig, he lowers his head, beneath the brim of his hat, as if in shame. Celebrities tend to seek refuge from their fans, but this guy looks like he’s fleeing himself.

Ducking into his limo, Jackson reaches for a bottle of gin. It’s not enough, though, and he asks his driver to hunt for a late-night bar. Anywhere will do. They find a drag bar, where Jackson settles down and drinks in the entertainment. The high spot is a young woman named Ally (Lady Gaga), who, refusing to be cowed by a mere cliché, belts out “La Vie en Rose.” So far, so camp. Then, at the climax, she lies back, close to Jackson, and slowly turns her face to his. She fills the frame; their eyes meet and greet; boom. Whatever it is, she’s got it. In that vertiginous instant, Jackson falls for her, and we foresee, with a shiver of premonition, that the world will follow suit.

Ideally, Cooper’s film would end after the first hour—after this first night, in fact, that Jackson and Ally spend together. They don’t have sex; they just hang out. She gets into a fight, and he buys frozen peas to soothe her swollen hand. He listens to her sing in a parking lot, then drops her off at home, where she lives with her father (Andrew Dice Clay). All that’s good about the film is in these scenes, with their clash of the coarse and the delicate, and you can sense the scales beginning to tip. Everything hereafter feels hokey by comparison, not least the swiftness of the heroine’s ascent. Like her counterpart in “What Price Hollywood?,” Ally used to wait tables, but within a day or two she has flown on a private jet and made her début in concert, hauled into the spotlight by her adoring superstar beau and fêted on social media. Before long, she has a recording deal and three Grammy nominations, while Jackson’s contribution to the Grammys is a bit part in a Roy Orbison tribute. Worse, and more ignominious, is to come.

“A Star Is Born” is very much a product of our times. Jackson Maine’s problems date back to a wretched childhood, guaranteeing our pity and love, whereas Fredric March and James Mason gave the hero a nasty and dangerous edge. Cooper’s camera crowds the characters, getting in their faces, and the dialogue is determinedly foul with oaths: “If you don’t dig deep into your fucking soul, you won’t have legs.” What? In striving to make the whole thing rough and rooted, Cooper slakes our need for the apparently authentic, and yet the story he tells, with its sudden shock of fame, is little more than a fairy tale. The result is pure Saturday-night moviegoing: it gives you one hell of a wallop, then you wake up on Sunday morning without a scratch. (By contrast, the emotional nakedness of the Judy Garland version, poised within formal compositions, can still reduce me to rubble.) To be fair, what does linger, from this latest effort, is Lady Gaga. Alone among pop royalty, she could walk down the street without being recognized, such is her reliance on costumes and confected personas. Here, early on, in T-shirt and jeans, she could be anyone; hence, of course, the thrill of her blooming into a somebody. A star is born.

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