Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Movie Review: A Star is Born

A Star Is Born **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Bradley Cooper.
Written by: Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters based on the story by William A. Wellman and Robert Carson.
Starring:  Lady Gaga (Ally), Bradley Cooper (Jackson Maine), Sam Elliott (Bobby), Dave Chappelle (Noodles), Anthony Ramos (Ramon), Bonnie Somerville (Sally Cummings), Andrew Dice Clay (Lorenzo), Michael Harney (Wolfe), Willam Belli (Emerald), Rebecca Field (Gail), Rafi Gavron (Rez).
While we can all agree that there are too many remakes today – too many rehashes, and reboots and rip-offs – and that Hollywood would benefit from some fresh ideas, every once in a while, a remake comes along that proves itself – that makes itself worthy. Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born is the fourth film version of this story – where the self-destructive veteran male character who is a superstar, whose fame is fading, meets and falls in love with a brilliant younger woman, and helps propel her to superstardom. There is a simplicity to the story that works – one half crashes as the other soars, etc. Cooper benefits from the fact that has been more than 40 years since the last remake – and over 60 years since the last good version of this exact story. And no, this film does not outdo George Cukor’s 1954 masterpiece – in which Judy Garland delivered her best ever screen performance (really, one of the best performances ever) – and James Mason was no slouch either. But against all odds, Cooper finds new notes here – and even when he doesn’t, he knows precisely how to play them. Yes, the film meanders a little in its second half, but there is a reason why this film has become a huge hit – a rarity for a film that doesn’t involve a superhero these days.
When the film opens, Jackson Maine (Cooper), is an aging rock star who is popping pills and drinking – a lot. He needs another drink, his driver doesn’t have one, so he pulls over to the first bar he sees. It’s a drag bar, but he doesn’t much care – they have alcohol, don’t they? It is here he sees Ally (Lady Gaga) for the first time – she used to be a waitress here, but now the girls just let her come in and perform – and she does a great version of La Vie En Rose, and Jackson is instantly smitten. And gradually, he wears her down as well – perhaps first with an acoustic version of one of his songs she overhears. Talent recognizes talent.
The first half of the movie is pretty much perfect. Yes, you can see the darkness around the edges of the story, you know where this is going to end up (even if you haven’t seen the other versions of this movie) – but watching these two as they fall in love is wonderful. Cooper and Gaga have an easy chemistry with each other, that grows and becomes natural. The high point of the movie, of course, is when he pulls her up on stage to sing The Shallow – which has already become iconic. It deserves it, it really is one of the best movie moments of the year. Here, as in elsewhere in the film, Cooper the director makes the smart decision to let the song play out at full length. When you have Lady Gaga, you let her sing.
The back half of the movie, I don’t think, quite is able to hit the heights of the first half – the decline is never as much fun as the rise. It is also when some of the clichés weigh a little heavier on the film – from Ally’s makeover into a pop star, to her manager, who causes a rift between her and Jackson. But even when the plot mechanics seem a little heavy, as performers Cooper and Gaga are able to keep everything believable. Cooper, in particular, I think does a difficult thing in the film – something I’m not sure James Mason did in the 1954 version, which is to make Jackson a little deeper, a little sympathetic, even as his self-destructive and jealous streak makes him lash out in bad ways. He even tries to get sober – to get better. He also adds in Sam Elliot’s character – as Jackson’s much older brother – who brings a degree of humanity and sympathy to him not seen in prior versions, where he was more of an asshole as the story moves along.
Cynics can pick at, or sneer at, A Star is Born is they want to. There is no denying this is a story we’ve seen before, and you can pick at a few flaws. But this version is so big hearted, and has two such wonderful performances at its core, that it overcomes whatever flaws it has, whatever clichés it mines, and becomes its own thing. You can say it’s a big, old fashioned hunk of cheese if you want to – but dammit, the movie works.

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