A STAR IS BORN
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chapelle, Andrew Dice Clay
Director: Bradley Cooper
To hear Bradley Cooper’s crooner in A Star Is Born tell it, music is the same story being told over and over again — just 12 notes between each octave, all of them eventually repeating. The magic lies in how they’re expressed. That’s a fitting note to hit in the fourth iteration of a story that’s proven more enduring than most songs written when the first “Star” was born 81 years ago, and it’s key to appreciating Cooper’s arrangement as more than just a cover. William Wellman first brought the story to screen in 1937, then 17 years later Judy Garland led the best-known version of this enduring Hollywood fable. In 1976, Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson tried to prove the third time’s the charm. But now Cooper and Lady Gaga bring theirs to a new contemporary audience. Gaga, already a Golden Globe winner for her work on American Horror Story, is resplendent as a diamond-in-the-rough singer whose booming voice and subtle expressions would make her predecessors proud. All credit to Cooper for ensuring his best, most soulful performance while engaged in double duty behind the camera, but it’s his co-star whose magnetism most draws you into their world — and keeps you there even when the film hits the occasional wrong note. In part that’s because she instantly makes you believe in her Ally as a no-name talent despite already being one of the most successful singers around. Unassuming but obviously special, she speaks at length about how showbusiness power brokers like her voice but not her looks; given the extravagance of the pop star’s usual costumes, it’s almost like you’re seeing her for the first time. Even with everything Gaga’s already done, A Star Is Born feels like a new career celebration for her. Cooper is co-lead but, in much the same way that his Jackson Maine character takes Ally on tour and facilitates her burgeoning superstardom, it often feels like his on-screen goal is to play second fiddle and help us see that, as both an actress and a singer, his co-star is a singular talent.
There are some genuinely powerfully immersive concert sequences (including clips from Cooper's performance at Glastonbury) with the camera just feet from Jackson as he downs a handful of pills with a swig of vodka before picking up his guitar and launching into his set. His own star has begun to fade somewhat — though Jackson’s twangy, country-inflected rock ballads still draw huge crowds — but he isn’t the only one in this constellation. Their duets are even better, feeling far less staged than filmed performances tend to be, with Cooper’s raw approach offering what feels like a behind-the-scenes look at two actual musicians falling in love onstage. An excruciatingly embarrassing drunk who barely manages to stay standing on his better nights, Jackson self-medicates not only for the typical sad-musician reasons but also to distract from the tinitus in his ears that’s never going away and will only get worse as time goes on. One post-gig night he stumbles into a drag bar for a drink and sees Ally deliver a stirring rendition of “La Vie en Rose”, and it isn’t just the booze talking when he tells her she’s beautiful — the man is clearly smitten, and it’s nearly impossible not to share his admiration. Their immediate, highly sensual chemistry proves to be the film’s most compelling element, as well as its most combustible. I especially liked the narrative’s subtle dig at the machinations of sacrificially commercialising the raw beauty and soulful naturality of Ally’s unfettered earlier performances into a crass, synthetic overblown new image with de riguer dance beats and poncey choreography – and the almost inevitable Grammy award for the grotesque manufacture she is moulded into.
Cooper himself manages a fine performance and brings a sense of experiential urgency to the film on this regeneration with the more familiar tale of alcoholism, recovery, and the perils of overnight stardom. The film itself feels like a kind of duet, and suffers when the two aren’t sharing the screen. The picture is less compelling when it expands its focus beyond their central relationship and toward its overarching ideas, some of which can’t help but feel like the plot contrivances they are — not least because most aren’t given the time they need to fully breathe, even with a run of two hours and 15 minutes. The first hour is undoubtedly the best - covering a whirlwind 24 hours during which the two lovers meet, fall in love, and perform on-stage together for the first time, they make for a soaring, borderline transcendent first act that will stay stuck in your head after the credits roll.
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth
Director: Drew Goddard
Bad Times at the El Royale is violent, stylish, cleverly written, the soundtrack is great and it's structured in what you may or may not consider a convoluted manner, with sequences looping back on themselves so we can see certain events play out from multiple perspectives. It's ultimately a hopeful film, and a worthy successor to Goddard's Cabin In The Woods. Much like that 2011 outing, it takes a moment to wrap your head around the game Goddard is playing, to understand how all the pieces fit together. Getting there is exceptionally enjoyable though, and when you do come out the other side you'll realise just how many details will read differently should you manage a second viewing.
Bad Times at The El Royale mostly takes place in a David Lynch-feel motel which straddles the border between California and Nevada. A number of guests arrive, each of them concealing a secret. The motel itself has secrets too, as does the young man working behind the counter. By the end of the film, all will be revealed and only some of these characters will survive – and that's really all you need to know. The cast (Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman and Chris Hemsworth) is individually and collectively outstanding, with relative newcomers Erivo and Pullman turning in starmaking performances. The film juggles a number of different tones - it's deeply disturbing one moment, hilarious the next, then unexpectedly emotional – and the set design is exceptional, so good that you'll possibly walk out of the cinema wishing you could visit an actual El Royale. I suspect however that the average cinemagoer might lose patience with the film's protracted third act, but for people on a discerning wavelength (which I trust is your good self, as you’re reading this review site), Goddard's film will be a breath of fresh air, offering an experience resembling random individuals watching someone else solve a sinister, sexy riddle in real time. Those people are my people and this is a sensational film, well worth your time.