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"A STAR IS BORN"
(2018) (Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga) (R)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: A seasoned but troubled musician takes a young performer under his wings and eventually marries her, only to have her career eclipse his, all as the music industry changes her image, much to his dismay.
PLOT:
Jackson Maine (BRADLEY COOPER) is a veteran singer-songwriter who can still pack audiences into stadiums to watch him perform his hits, all while his brother-manager, Bobby (SAM ELLIOTT), has to contend with his near constant benders. Another appears to be ready to be unleashed after a concert when Jackson has his driver drop him off at the next available bar that just so happens to be having an open mic night for drag queens. Jackson doesn't mind upon being informed of this by Ramon (ANTHONY RAMOS), but he ends up distracted by the lone woman, Ally (LADY GAGA), who performs "La Vie en Rose" and impresses him with her talent.

He later meets her and learns that she works at a catering company, lives with her chauffeur dad, Lorenzo (ANDREW DICE CLAY), and has never made it in the music biz since everyone likes her voice but not her looks. He's shocked, as he finds her beautiful and two soon become romantically involved. Having brought her onstage during one of his concerts to sing one of her songs, she ends up impressing everyone, including music manager Rez (RAFI GAVRON) who immediately wants to change most everything about her look and aura to make her more marketable.

Jackson objects, but her star is already on an unstoppable rise, all while his has stalled and is likely falling. All of which, along with his constant drinking, worries his longtime friend, Noodles (DAVE CHAPPELLE), who long ago left the industry for a calmer life. As their trajectories head in opposite directions, it's uncertain how that will affect Jackson and Ally's professional and personal relationship.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
If you're a first time director who's a nobody in the movie industry, you usually have no choice but to make your first feature as a small, independent film based on your own original script or some barely known existing work. But if you're a famous performer who wants to get behind the camera for the first time, there are plenty of options. The safe route, obviously, would be to follow a similar course and go small so that expectations are low and any potential failure would be less noteworthy.

But then there's the old saying about go big or go home and if you want to make a splash, you might as well throw a boulder in rather than a pebble. Even with that in mind, however, one can go somewhat safe by remaking an old film, although there's always the risk of not being as good as or better than the predecessor.

For actor Bradley Cooper who's had both commercial and artistic success over his career (with three Oscar acting nominations), he could have chosen pretty much anything he wanted for his debut feature. And so what did he select?

Well, a film that's been made three times before with the first version coming out in 1937 and starring Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, the second arriving in 1954 with Judy Garland and James Mason (where the key vocation was switched from acting to singing), and then probably the most famous version from 1976 featuring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (that ended up grossing -- in today's inflation-adjusted dollars -- nearly $350 million just at the domestic box office).

Those films, of course, all had the title "A Star is Born," and Cooper now throws his hat into the ring with this latest version of it. And not only does he direct, but he also is a co-producer, appears as the lead male actor, co-wrote the screenplay with Will Fetters and Eric Roth and co-wrote many of the songs (that he also sings) with his leading lady, Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta. If that name doesn't ring a bell, she's also known as pop superstar Lady Gaga. So, the questions that remain -- considering all of those many hats he's wearing -- is did Cooper choose wisely and does he manage to pull it off?

The answer is a resounding yes on both counts, and the fact that the basic story has been told before in the previous incarnations and otherwise is pretty much pure formula in terms of the storyline and related character arcs of the leads (rising younger star, fading current star bedeviled by personal demons) makes that all the more remarkable.

Yes, you pretty much know where everything is headed from the get-go, but as they say, it's the journey rather than the destination that's important and Cooper takes us along for an engaging ride. And one filled with solid direction, even better performances from the leads, and a killer soundtrack featuring some incredible new songs.

When we first set eyes on Cooper's Jackson Maine it's in a concert (and if you can see this in a Dolby Atmos theater, do so, but be prepared for quite the sonic experience). He's packed in the fans, but his weathered face shows he's lived quite the life that must have been as rough and rugged as his voice is deep and craggy. Hopping in his limo, he pops some pills, takes a swig from his bottle and wants to be dropped off at the closest bar.

That just so happens to be one where it's drag queen vocal night and he doesn't seem to mind one bit as long as the drinks are as abundant as the fake boobs and wigs. And then out comes Ally all made up to the extreme, but he sees through that and definitely hears her voice as she belts out "La Vie en Rose." He wants to meet her afterward and learns that she's gotten nowhere since people like how she sounds but not how she looks. He does, though, especially with her stripping down her appearance to her natural beauty and he's smitten even more.

These early scenes of them interacting and then him getting her out on the stage with him to perform a song she concocted the night before in a parking lot at night are truly magical. And you, like me, might wish the film would just hold at this point and play out with more of the same for the rest of the 137-minute runtime.

Alas, it doesn't, as that wouldn't really be a movie with much of a dramatic arc. So it then goes through a fairly predictable and formulaic path where she becomes big and ends up having her public persona modified by a manager (Rafi Gavron), all while Jackson's star is obviously starting to set. And his drinking habit ends up troubling not only his manager brother (a good Sam Elliott, playing the sort of character he often does) and a friend from the past (Dave Chappelle, good, but not around for much of the film), but also Ally once they're married.

But even as the story paints by the numbers, Cooper keeps things interesting with his directorial choices, and the performances and music alternate between keeping us engaged and entertained (and emotionally moved). I imagine a lot of end-of-the-season award love is going to come this movie's way, and all of it's certainly warranted and earned. Taking the familiar and making it seem fresh, this latest incarnation of "A Star is Born" shows an actor at the top of his game (in front of and now behind the camera) and a singer who could have a promising acting career should she decide to pursue that. The film rates as a 7.5 out of 10.




Reviewed September 11, 2018 / Posted October 5, 2018


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