Sunday, October 7, 2018

A Star Is Born (2018): A Review


There are many ways a film can die. It can die because it is a bad film. It can die because of poor advertising. For me, the worst cinema death is 'death by hype', particularly critical hype. Every year I find there's one film that my brethren praise so much, declare it such an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, that it almost goads me into hating it before I see it.

Sometimes the hype is valid. Sometimes it is not. Both times I think it is detrimental to the film itself.

This year, the 'death by hype' film looks to be A Star Is Born, the fourth version of this story of the fading star who helps his protege rise only to be left behind. The reviews for A Star Is Born have gone into virtual hysterics. It will SWEEP the Oscars! It's a landmark in cinema! It's the film to end all films!

Such talk may be from the heart, but from my perspective, A Star Is Born is competent but nowhere near this epic that we will remember long after we leave the theater.

Jackson Maine (co-writer/director/songwriter Bradley Cooper) is a pill-popping lush with growing hearing loss and an intense Daddy Complex. He manages to stumble through a concert but after his latest show, he is in need of a drink.

In the 'any bar will do' school, he goes to the first one he sees, which ends up being a gay/drag bar. There, he sees the only cisgender woman to perform in this drag show, Ally (Stefani Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga). Her rendition of La Vie En Rose wows Jackson, who quickly takes the insecure Ally under his wing.

Image result for a star is bornHe calls her 'beautiful', even with the nose that makes Ally extremely self-conscious. Living with her father Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay), a driver, she seems reluctant to go after her dreams of performing her own material. Jack, however, eventually coaxes her to do a duet on a song she started and he finished, Shallow.

A YouTube video of their joint performance makes her a star virtually overnight. Jack is delighted with his new discovery and eventually they fall in love and marry.

However, things are still hard for Jackson, who cannot give up the booze and the coke. He has issues with his manager/brother Bobby (Sam Elliott), especially after he finds out Bobby sold their father's ranch and that Maine Senior's grave was washed away. Bobby quits, but there are still new dangers.

Ally finds greater help with Rez Gavron (Rafi Gavron), a record producer who gets Ally a contract.

Why Jackson Maine, who is supposed to be this Bob Dylan-like musical legend, couldn't or didn't get Ally a contract himself remains unanswered.

Rez sees Ally as more pop than acoustic and starts slowly changing her image, down to backup dancers and sparkly outfits. Jack isn't happy about that, but he's too lost in his haze of drink and drugs to help Ally. Things explode at the Grammys. The Roy Orbison tribute Jackson was originally meant to headline sees him downgraded to backup in favor of another up-and-comer, then an already bombed-out-of-his mind Jackson crashes Ally's Best New Artist Grammy and humiliates them both.

Sadly, he doesn't end up smacking her as he did in the other versions.

A short stint in rehab seems to help, but Rez warns Jackson he will end up destroying Ally. This seems confirmed to him when she tells Jackson she will cancel the rest of her tour to be with him. Despondent, he hangs himself while she is giving her last concert. Now despondent herself, Ally finds no comfort until Bobby tells her Jackson did this to himself not to her. She returns as Ally Maine, and sings the song Jackson started writing for her, I'll Never Love Again.

Image result for a star is born
I'm this close to calling A Star Is Born a vanity project for Bradley Cooper given that we essentially did not end with Ally but with him. As she sings this tearful number where Jackson declares his love for his protege/muse, Cooper made the decision to have a brief moment where we see him at the piano with her, singing this song, then end with her looking up.

I guess this was made to make the audience cry more, and I report that at the screening I went to, there were many people openly weeping at all this. It's their right to cry at whatever moves them, but the only reaction my eyes had to all this was to roll.

Perhaps I am hampered by the fact that, unlike probably everyone else in the theater, I have seen all four versions of A Star Is Born. As such, I knew this story wasn't strictly speaking, 'original'. Even then, however, one can take a previously-made story and make it unique.

A Star Is Born did not do that, primarily because Cooper and his co-writers Eric Roth and Chris Fetters threw in so much only to not make it important or relevant to the core story. Characters and whole plot points come and go at Cooper's whim.

Jackson's hearing loss came and went whenever the mood struck them. Jackson's Daddy Issues too similarly swept in and out whenever the film needed some kind of drama.

One wonders whether Jackson's apparent Worship of Daddy Dearest was some kind of rationale for his boozing and snorting. It was a way to set up 'conflict' with Bobby, but to me this was really laughable. Let's look at some things here.

Bradley Cooper is 43. Sam Elliott is 74, a 31-year-difference. This is 'explained' by Jackson telling us that the father he so loved was 63 when he was born and that his mother was a mere 18. Leaving apart the rather creepy idea of a 44-year age difference between Father and Mother Maine, the whole aspect of both this wild age difference between the brothers and the Maine Family dynamic seems superfluous to everything.

Why not just make Bobby Jackson's father and be done with it?

Image result for a star is bornThings take a more unintentionally silly turn when they fight over Daddy's ranch/grave. Apparently Bobby himself is a frustrated musician, and at their fight Bobby snaps something about 'then why did you steal my voice?'

I asked myself, 'did he mean metaphorical or literal', for Cooper's mumbled, garbled speaking sounded as if he were trying out his best Sam Elliott impersonation.  I found Cooper to be very actory, deliberately and consciously 'ACTING' as Jackson Maine.

His performance really consisted of him either staring lovingly at Ally or being perpetually disheveled, speaking in a low and at times almost unintelligible growl. There were times I really wished we had subtitles to make sense of what he was saying.

I think highly of Lady Gaga's debut and think she can have a career as an actress. It is hard to not see A Star Is Born as a thinly-veiled version of her own life story: this extremely talented performer initially dismissed due to her unconventional looks and sound only to rise to almost legendary heights. She did a very credible job and should be commended for it.

Other actors were either wildly underused (Elliott or Anthony Ramos as Ally's best friend Ramon) or again irrelevant. Everything with both Dave Chappelle as Jackson's former bandmate/Magical Negro or a surprisingly good Dice Clay as the "I could have been the next Sinatra" dad could have been cut without affecting the story. Gavron's Rez or Greg Grunberg's Phil (who also disappeared less than halfway into A Star Is Born) could have just about everything all these characters did without again impeding the story.

In this type of story, the music is important. It's curious that Shallow is the one getting the biggest push because while the song is not horrible, the only great moment I find in it is Gaga's vocalizing. I think either I'll Always Remember Us This Way (her first real solo number) or the closing I'll Never Love Again are better songs.

For my money, I would nominate I'll Always Remember Us This Way for Best Original Song. Sadly, I expect Shallow to get that nod and maybe win. Either way, while I'm getting ahead of myself, I think 1954's The Man That Got Away and 1976's Evergreen are superior songs.

As a director, Cooper did a competent job, even if he seemed to love hand-held shots too much for my tastes and enjoyed showing himself in many musical moments (not to mention the end). He also could not bring himself to show Jackson in a really awful light (hence no accidental slapping of Ally).

Come to think of it, I genuinely don't see why these two got together. I also don't see why so many push this narrative that this version of A Star Is Born is some turning point in cinema to be studied in film school. A Star Is Born is competent, with some good songs and a good debut for Lady Gaga. Apart from that, I offer one piece of advise from the great Flavor Flav.

Don't Believe The Hype.

Next: A Star Is Born: The Conclusions


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