Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born co-starring Lady Gaga is almost as good as it gets, at least for the first fifty minutes or so. Cooper’s hard-drinking, hard living music star Jackson Maine is finishing his set in front of a packed outdoor venue—afterwards he’s downed a bottle of bourbon—still thirsty and restless, he’s looking for a place to have a “few.” He stumbles into a drag bar where he hears Lady Gaga’s Ally (the only non-drag queen performing) let loose with a phenomenal “La Vie En Rose.” Needless to say, Maine is transfixed, and they proceed to have a drink at a cop bar, followed by a tender interlude outside a convenience store—by the end of a very long night—they’re in love, even if they don’t know it yet. Then Maine arranges for Ally to attend that night’s concert, and beckons her to come on stage with him—and of course, a star is born.
A Star is Born has many things going for it in its terrific first half: the authenticity of the milieu, whether onstage, backstage, or in Ally’s home; the sincerity of the acting (and singing); and the observations of fame and celebrity. The scene where Maine and Ally meet in her dressing room, with Maine congenially responding to a particular autograph request while getting acquainted with Ally (along with her taped eyebrows and nose—which he sees as perfection) is beautifully written and performed; this and the following scene in the cop bar show Maine to be somewhat at ease with his celebrity (as opposed to Ally’s outburst when a fan asks for a selfie with Maine). Later at a convenience store, when Maine is taping her bruised hand and applying frozen peas to ease the swelling, and listening to Ally sing her own song. Under Cooper’s assured direction (whose directorial debut this is), these are all intimate, well-played, well-written scenes which firmly establish the couple’s affection and provide the viewer to characters to root for. These two also have their supportive/contentious family units: Maine has an older brother (Sam Elliott) who tries to be a guiding force, while Ally has her father (Andrew Dice Clay) with dreams of fame himself—and the one who pushes Ally to go to that fateful show. The moment where Ally’s “star is born” is the highlight of the film—everything is right, from Maine’s encouragement to Ally’s hesitation, and when the two team on her song, the camera comes in close to capture Maine’s pleasure and Ally’s transformation (including shock, tentativeness, confidence, and finally radiance). It’s simply a perfect scene, the film’s climax—but there is over an hour left.
What remains in this incarnation of A Star is Born is just fine, but it has to follow the downward trajectory of the previous versions: Ally’s star rises while Maine’s descends—a little too abruptly here, given this particular story’s time frame. There’s also the need to explain Maine’s alcoholism—and a tendency to soften his edges a little (while Ally’s edges are notably sharpened). What is also interesting is that once Ally is on the rise, the purity of her voice gives way to the machinations of her new British manager, who insists on dancers, orchestrations, slickness—in essence, turning her into “Lady Gaga.” Clearly, Cooper’s Maine is unhappy, though it’s unclear if the viewer is meant to feel the same way. There are some other neat variations, and the ending still moves you—but Cooper the director does make a slight misstep toward the end which, for me, diminished some of the film’s emotional force. (The feeling was not shared by many audience members, I should add.) Regardless, director Cooper not only does a fine job on all fronts, but he has unveiled a new kind of Gaga—raw, vulnerable, powerful, magnetic. See it for Cooper and Gaga—and those dazzling first “fifty.”
The Old Man and the Gun
The Old Man and the Gun is reportedly Robert Redford’s last film, and if it is, he could not go out on a better note. This engaging film based on the real-life career bank robber (and inveterate prison escape artist) Forrest Tucker casts Redford as the most likable bank robber you’ll ever meet—the kind who makes the tellers feel at ease so that it’s almost an honor being robbed by him. Written and directed by Robert Lowery, the movie has its own rhythms, cued into the score by Daniel Hart; it’s a little leisurely and strangely affecting. Redford is perfection as the robber—he’s playing his age (or thereabouts) and the charm, but also the warmth and a sense of mystery. And for those familiar with Redford’s oeuvre, there are references to earlier films, as well as some traces of irony (as when his reaction when invited to go horse riding). It’s Redford’s movie but the film’s overall appeal also has to do with the sublime Sissy Spacek as Redford’s love interest; her scenes with Redford sparkle with goodnatured rapport and an unforced sense of intimacy. Danny Glover and Tom Waits also share some credit as members of Redford’s “Over-the-Hill Gang,” while Casey Affleck is appealing as the dogged detective who also becomes intrigued by Redford’s robber. It’s probably the most enjoyable film I’ve seen so far this year, and well worth seeing.