A Star Is Born

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* * * * 1/2

A star is born. I’ll say she is! The second time Lady Gaga sings in Bradley Cooper’s new take on the classic material is the moment her character, Ally, crosses over from amateur to professional, while Lady Gaga herself becomes a movie star (and, I am betting now, Academy Award Winner) and Bradley Cooper becomes a serious movie director (this is his debut). A whole lot of stars are being born, and it is something to see.

Gaga does everything possible with the moment. Ally is a mess of contradictions, an ocean of emotions, and it’s all there, in close-up, with a crowd, a band, a bustle of backstage action, and Lady Gaga does it, backwards and in heels. I teared up. You do, when you’re seeing a star being born.

Gaga is wonderful throughout this wonderful film. So is Cooper. This is a love story that is completely believable, featuring the kind of chemistry that makes it appear impossible the two leads weren’t actually falling head over heels in love. It is a believable story of an alcoholic life, of the elastic boundaries of enablement and justification; and it is a powerful story of art and the artist. While there are naturally occurring thematic ripples about fame and celebrity, those twin demons are not the headlines here. Cooper gives us an old-fashioned “big” movie (which deserves a big screen with a superior sound system) but a small story, one that sticks close to a small set of characters and their very real, relatable issues. This is not a Star is Born about the perils of fame; this is about the perils of booze and the challenges of love.

Cooper directs the hell out of the movie. He pays beautiful moments of homage to previous versions (wait until you see the title card); he plugs in multitudinous Easter eggs, references and in-jokes that never derail your engagement; and, as a co-scriptwriter, he brilliantly updates the gender terrain: this is not a Svengali story this time around, and Ally has plenty of agency. She makes many choices; one just happens to be to love a troubled man. 

Cooper also, with his co-screenwriters and his editor, makes suburb use of dramatic ellipses. So much of this movie happens off-screen, and always to the dramatic benefit. Cooper trusts us to fill in narrative blanks and emotional ones, so we only need to watch one version of the big argument, one version of the big humiliation, and so on. Likewise, each individual scene is pared to the bone, getting in late and getting out early: the screenwriter’s holy grail.

The casting is also superb. Who knew Andrew Dice Clay had this performance in him (as Ally’s Dad, whose crew of limo-driver cronies could spin off into their own TV series)? Or Dave Chappelle? The biggest impact of all the supporting players, though, is made by Sam Elliot as Cooper’s brother. This rangy, dependable, cowboy of an actor has been memorable in 99 roles, according to IMDB: a fine moment to get an Oscar.

Am I gushing? So I should. This is a movie to gush over, to see again, to buy the soundtrack to, to urge others to see, to dream about. It’s classic material, but not all the versions have been classic. This one is. There are absolutely ways you could find fault with aspects of the film; you could pick apart elements of the plot, or have problems with the specificity of its music and how it relates to the modern market. Or, you could do as I did, which was to fall deeply for its charms, and let yourself get swept away. As another critic noted, “The way to like this film is to love it.” I love it.

Watch it sweep the Oscars, too. I’ll be fine with that.

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Jennifer-Lawrence-Joy-Movie-Poster*** (out of five)

David O. Russell’s latest end-of-year collaboration with Jennifer Lawrence feels like a project that seriously lost its way along the production line. Lawrence plays Joy, a divorced mom of two trying to keep a mad suburban (New Jersey?) household together: her ex-husband lives in the basement; her mother lives (literally) in her upstairs bedroom, addicted to soap opera; and her dad has arrived on the doorstep, hurled out by the women he left her mother for, and needs to move in. Observing all this, and providing (extremely sparse) narration is Joy’s grandma, Mimi.

Mimi is played by Diane Ladd, and that narration, Ladd’s prominent billing, and a major plot development signal that, once upon a time, the relationship between Joy and her was meant to be the dominant one in the film. But along the way Mimi got sidelined, and now barely registers, a ghost on the margins of this frenetic household. A wispy Ladd can’t hope to compete with Robert De Niro as Joy’s dad Rudy, either, but Joy and his relationship is meandering rather than dramatic. Likewise, a competitive, at times toxic relationship between Joy and her half-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm, in a very strange performance) sputters and spurts. The film keeps shifting focus, or, more bluntly, keeps dropping the dramatic ball.

Joy invents a mop and gets involved with the early days of the Home Shopping Network, run by eager beaver Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper, very earnest). This happens halfway through, and for a while the movie picks up, and indeed, in one sequence that’s the equal of anything Russell (and Lawrence) has ever done, it soars. Then, like a clipped eagle, it spasmodically jerks and loses its direction again, ending in a kind of plonking mess.

Nevertheless, Lawrence makes it watchable, and often charming. She’s in every scene and, through sheer force of will and talent, she pulls you through. I feel Russell’s script wasn’t ready, and he relied on Lawrence to do what she’s done – save the movie. That’s a heavy burden and an unfair one. It’s a shame, because with her operating at this calibre, and on such an original idea, the ingredients were ripe for something truly special, rather than meandering, inconsistent and jerky. It’s worth seeing, but it’s not worth awarding.



** (out of five)

It is a truth almost universally acknowledged that a protagonist must be at least somehow likeable in order for an audience to spend a movie following them. It should also, by now, be a truth universally acknowledged that Bradley Cooper is an excellent actor (perhaps his three Oscar nominations in that category can move those who still consider him just a funny guy with a pretty face). To me it is obvious that Cooper likes to stretch himself, take risks, rise to a challenge. Perhaps that’s why he took the role of Adam Jones in Burnt, a character who must be the most unlikeable protagonist seen in a mainstream movie in many years. It is a challenge to sit through his appalling behaviour for the film’s ninety-seven minutes. Cooper is always believable, always compelling, but Adam makes you want to punch him in the face.

Adam is the world’s most celebrated chef, newly sober and getting back in the game after a self-imposed exile shucking exactly one million oysters in an oyster shack in New Orleans (a ludicrous dramatic conceit that sets the film’s tone of serious implausibility). His addictions are booze, drugs and sex, and they led him to personal and professional travesty. Now that his penance is complete, Adam seeks out his old colleague Tony (Daniel Brühl), who is Maitre D at the restaurant of his father’s London hotel, and tells him, point-blank, that he’s taking over the place. The road to his redemption is paved from there, but Adam heads along it in a continuing series of terrible behaviours that aren’t funny or clever, simply self-serving and contemptuous.

A love story, with Sienna Miller’s Helene, also a brilliant chef (but nowhere near as brilliant as Adam, who is essentially God to other chefs) is ludicrous, especially after a pivotal scene in which Adam abuses and humiliates her publicly and physically. Helene is a terribly written character, her motivations and actions completely subject to the script’s need to somehow keep our interest in Adam alive. Her behaviour is completely unbelievable.

Steven Knight wrote (my choice for) the best original screenplay of 2013, Locke, and some other fine films and television series including Eastern Promises and Peaky Blinders. But his script here is cookie-cutter and obvious, not to mention supremely formulaic. You can see it all coming a mile away. A lot of the dialogue is very, very “on the nose” (which is a serious disappointment from such a good writer), the characters are stereotypes throughout, and the whole thing feels very passé, especially in the wake of Jon Favreau’s now-beloved Chef (2014). The low point occurs when the film directly steals an iconic moment from Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996).

Yet somehow it’s not a complete disaster. All the actors are deeply committed, and manage to impress even through their one-dimensional character constraints (none more so than Matthew Rhys, playing a rival chef with – surprise! – arrogant, competitive anger issues). There are endless shots of food being prepared – more than any other foodie film I’ve seen – but the basic conflict between the rival chefs, centred on the preparation of food without flame (and instead, in plastic bags and with kitchen machinery that looks like it belongs in a laboratory) is dated, and feels it. Supposedly the script dates back to at least 2007; David Fincher was attached for a couple of years, with Keanu Reeves attached as Adam, before Fincher walked in 2010. Perhaps then it should have been left to wither and die; we’ve seen all this before, and much, much better. Great chefs may be horrible, arrogant, violent, self-centred, pretentious, egomaniacal dickheads, but that doesn’t mean we want to spend an hour and a half with one.

American Sniper

**** (out of five)

Bradley Cooper gives an intricate, psychologically detailed performance as Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in US military history, in this cool, elegant biopic from Clint Eastwood, who was eighty-four when he directed it. Kyle was a slippery character. According to his autobiography, also called American Sniper, he was extremely proud of his lethal prowess, and of his “kill count”, which was officially pegged at 160 but which he claimed was 255. He was also fiercely single-minded in his perception of the Iraq War, which was his main playing field; he saw Iraqis as “animals” and “savages”, and there are those who see Kyle as, essentially, a racist serial killer who managed to get into the right profession at the right time.

The truth to someone like this is always complicated, but there is no doubt that Kyle suffered, to a degree perhaps less than many but to a degree nonetheless, some PTSD upon each of his Stateside returns (he did four tours). Like Jeremy Renner’s character in The Hurt Locker, with which American Sniper shares many similarities, Kyle was – and is shown as – someone who was pretty addicted to the thrill of battle. He was extremely good at his job, enjoyed being good at it (in his book he claimed to have “loved killing”) and lapped up the legendary status he held amongst his fellow soldiers. He was so good his unit gave him a symbol – that of the cartoon character “The Punisher” – and all adopted, stencilling it on their hardware, in an effort to frighten the opposition. It worked: Kyle had a huge bounty placed on his head by the enemy.

The film doesn’t present a racist serial killer, nor an arrogant psychopath, and it probably portrays Kyle as more humble than he was, but as a clinical examination of how a great soldier (and in particular a Navy SEAL) is made, what a sniper does, how the door-to-door searches that made up so much of the Iraq War worked, and of the intricacies of what may be thought of as relatively mild PTSD (but strong enough to be dangerous and debilitating), the film is winning on all counts. Like 2014’s Fury, it is more of a war film than an anti-war film; Kyle is our protagonist, we’re meant to like him, and he takes out Iraqis, and sometimes when he does, we’re kind of meant to cheer. Don’t forget that Eastwood is a deep Republican, and the film has that sensibility – and yet it’s neither insulting nor off-putting, and it’s not racist. It’s a serious story told with steely conviction, and if its politics are a little right of my comfort level, its obvious cinematic benefits are right in my wheelhouse.

Cooper is fantastic. His performance is totally precise. The gradations he and Eastwood have chosen to show – of Kyle’s character, personality and disease – are perfectly graded. We really get a sense of a full man, and if that isn’t exactly the man Chris Kyle was, it’s certainly an indelible movie character. Sienna Miller provides strong support as his wife Taya; beyond her, there are a bunch of dudes playing soldiers, who all do fine, if predictable, work. Which is probably how it is: amongst a lot of guys who are all a little alike, Chris Kyle obviously stood out.