A Star Is Born (R)
Never a Lady Gaga fan entirely, I am now! What a performance she gives, both dramatically and musically in this fourth remake of the classic “rising star, falling sponsor” franchise. The film has previously been made in different eras: 1937, 1954 and 1976. This is probably the best of the four, other than the Judy Garland-James Mason version in 1954. It is certainly the best produced in all areas.
Musically, Lady Gaga as Ally is moving, spectacular and all the adjectives that connote excellence. The surprise is Bradley Cooper as the doomed Jackson Maine. Reportedly, Gaga told him he had to sing the outdoor songs live. He panicked but rehearsed and comes off as a legitimate ballad singer.
Ally admits early on in their love affair that, though she writes constantly, she never sings her own songs. Jack changes that by pulling her on stage and the rocket of her life takes off. Her father is surprised because he has told her she sings well but does not look well. Gaga is a strange lead because she is 1) very short, 2) very voluptuous and 3) has a face that can look gorgeous in one scene and plain in another. By the end, at the height of her career, she is a flaming redhead and looks as spectacular as she is supposed to look.
In a way, this is the story of a murder: Ally’s agent, Ramon (Anthony Ramos), pushes her and tosses Jack’s career (he is a huge star at the beginning). Jack has two problems: he is a drunk and he has tinnitus (a constant ringing in his ears that can be maddening), though he admits it to nobody other than his brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott, who is magnificent in the part).
For those of you who know the other versions of the film, you know that it can’t end happily. In this case, Ramon delivers the news that Jack is just holding Ally back and, recognizing the truth, Jack begins his final descent. He goes into rehab, Ally comes to visit him and tells him: “I wondered if without the booze you would come home.”
Each trip into pills and booze seems to take Jack further away from everybody, so his final act is not difficult to predict. Cooper turns out to be a masterful director in this, his first shot at it. His use of close ups, both of Ally and himself, is effective and always advance the story. His scenes at concert venues are effectively shot and bring the maniacal crowd effects close to the viewer, giving the musical numbers greater urgency. It is predicted that the film, Cooper and Gaga are all headed for Oscars. No argument is going to come from me.
First Man (PG-13)
The challenge with biopics or films based on real events is to make us forget we know how the story turns out. Damien Chazelle does it spectacularly in this film. Using a combination of shot film, historical footage and extreme use of close-ups in almost every scene, Chazelle recreates the early ‘60s into the late ‘60s—the period of the flowering of the American space program.
To cut to the chase, the film is Oscar worthy, yes, as is the performance of Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong and Ryan Gosling as Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. Gosling’s Armstrong is played as he has been described by just about all who knew him: a reclusive, shy professional who truly shunned the limelight. In life, Armstrong succumbed to depression—a condition that lasted until he met his second, much younger wife in 1994, the same year he divorced Janet. How low-key was Armstrong? At a press conference following the moon mission he was asked to describe the mission. “I was pleased,” was all he said.
The film concentrates on the Armstrongs but most of all, and most disturbing to some viewers who don’t like the action too close, it portrays much of what the astronauts must have felt on all their missions: extreme vibrations and noise, mixed with appropriate amounts of terror. It sounded as if cannon were being fired at the bottom of the capsules as they went through their stages and, since the astronauts couldn’t really see their instruments during those periods, Chazelle made sure we couldn’t either.
The problems that the Armstrongs later experienced in their marriage are previewed here: “I married Neil because I wanted a normal life. … All I wanted was stability.” What she got instead was the loss of a daughter to a brain tumor, a moody, incommunicative husband, an inability to enjoy the fame that came their way after the moon landing and an epic role in an American epic story.
This biopic is different from that of “First Man” because, as it is about a French author, not as much is known about her. What is known is that she became France’s most popular woman author, rivaling and surpassing many French male authors. Henry Gauthier-Villars wrote under the name “Willy” and was married to Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, later known only as “Colette.” Down on his luck and a bit of a selfish businessman, Willy persuaded Collette to write novels under his name. They became wildly popular. Yet the secret remained, and Colette got no credit.
After a life of bisexuality and a career as a performer, she rejected Willy and never spoke to him again. She lived with a transsexual, Mathilde de Morny known as “Missy,” for four years but Colette had many adventures, sexual and artistic, in her lifetime. She was married a number of times, but the film sticks to only one—to Willy. Colette complies with Willy’s orders to keep the truth of her authorship from the public. When asked about her role in the popular “Claudine” novels, she responds, “I think I had something to contribute.”
Eventually, Colette insists on writing her own novels under her own name, Claudine is regarded as “dead” and she goes on until the age of 81, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. The film ends with a brief recounting of her fame and the fate of all who were involved with her.
What the film does not get into is her apparently successful marriage to Maurice Goudeket, whom she was married to from 1925 until her death in 1954. Keira Knightley is fantastic in her first featured heavy role as Colette. Her radiant face becomes harder the longer the abuse by Willy continues (he used to lock her in a study, forcing her to write), and she never loses her beauty and bearing.
Another star performance is by “Poldark’s” Eleanor Tomlinson as Colette’s first female lover. The existence and nature of bisexual love is explored only as a matter of the plot—not philosophically. The real message of the film is liberation of the artist from herself. As a fan tells Colette: “You’ve done something important. You’ve invented a type.” In doing so she created a body of work that is not controlled by sexuality but by her talent. This is a film that I wished could be longer. Leave the kids at home for this one but do go yourselves.
Bad Times at the El Royale (R)
What a mess of a film! Starting in a hotel that is obviously destined for a bad ending, we meet character after character doomed for the same. This may be a spoiler alert, but almost every character who appears on screen ends up dead by one means or another, and the ones who are left aren’t much to talk about.
Jon Hamm, allegedly a vacuum dealer salesman, is obviously not; Jeff Bridges, allegedly a priest, is obviously not; and Dakota Johnson allegedly a loving sister to Cailee Spaeny as Ruth is obviously not. After all this is revealed, enter Chris Hemsworth, shirt always open to display his remarkable but by now over-familiar abs, as a something or other to do with a sect that for no apparent reason meets in the El Royale for fun and games with pistols, shotguns and a roulette wheel.
The whole becomes ponderous, confusing, stupid and even tedious. Musical numbers by Cynthia Erivo are meant to accompany action but fail to accompany anything but Erivo’s style and to slow the plot to a standstill. Bad times at the El Royale, indeed!