'A Star is Born' is a 5-Star Rock Concert Hidden in a 3-Star Movie
Hollywood is obsessed with A Star is Born. Seriously. By now, you probably know this is the fourth edition of A Star is Born to hit the American cineplex, starting in 1937. Judy Garland did it in 1956. Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson did it in 1976 (currently playing on Netflix). Not to mention Martin Scorcese basically did the same thing in 1977 with Robert De Niro in New York, York. Even the Bollywood industry did a literal translation of it with Aashiqui 2 in 2013, a mega-hit which earned back more than 12 times the production budget at the box office. The concept is a perfect mix of moviegoers obsession with fame and celebrity, combined with Hollywood's favorite myth: that stardom is a zero sum game in which someone must fall for another to rise. A Star is Born allows its celebrities to appear vulnerable and self-critical, while secretly reinforcing their their forbidden fruit appeal. In the years leading up to this latest edition, practically every major movie star was attached at one point or another. Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Tom Cruise. Clint Eastwood was set to direct at one point. In the end, this movie ended up being, as the name might suggest, a star vehicle in the purest sense. Lady Gaga wants to prove she can act, Bradly Cooper wants to prove he can direct. Neither has done it before, and this is their cultural moment to shine. That earnestness has been oozing out during every media availability on the pair's ever-present press tour, and they talk about this precious art they've created in reverential tones. But the movie shines when it plays to its strengths. Bradley Cooper is a world-class actor, and as if we needed to be reminded, Lady Gaga is a generational musical performer (Cooper more than holds his own behind the mic). Seriously, if you're going to watch this movie you have to do so in a movie theater, which rumbles and roars as it literally places you on the stage at a sold-out rock concert. That feeling is exhilarating. Both Cooper and Gaga are both incredibly famous, and the appeal of the movie as a "peek-behind-the-curtain" at the lives of celebrities is undeniable and totally believable. With some perspective, the movie might have been able to maximize this feeling of being swept up into the circus of stardom. One (of the few) things the 1976 version does well is use Streisand as an innocent, wide-eyed audience cipher through the first half of the movie, blown away by this world she finds herself in that looks nothing like her own. That's what the people came to see! Instead, Director Cooper decided to make Gaga's Ally an active fame-seeker, confident in her talent and looking for a big break. Quitting her deadbeat job and joining the craziness of a rock n' roll tour feels less like a passionate impulse and more like a business decision. For massive stars, like Cooper's Jackson Maine at the beginning of the movie, things just happen. Life comes and knocks on your front door. But "regular people," like Ally, normally would need character motivations in order to make the decisions she makes. Except she doesn't. We're supposed to just not question why she's doing what she's doing. Truly, the thin veil that is "Ally" is never enough character to disguise the fact that we're looking at Lady Gaga, a problem that similarly plagued the Streisand version. But I guess it's no surprise that a movie about the uber-famous, created by the uber-famous doesn't capture the lives of us normal people, us plebians, very well. Sam Elliot and Dave Chappelle offer the only semblances of average joe supporting characters to be found, and though they're both magnetic they split all of maybe five minutes of screen time between them. It's when the movie tries to be, ya know, a movie that it really breaks down. Without this connection to the "real world," the emotional drama is the third act is a tough ask. There are some fantastic, exhilarating moments. There are some moments of cringe-worthy, self-serious failure. Put them together, and A Star is Born absolutely worth seeing. You'll have a good time. Really it's a five star rock concert hidden inside a three star movie. But after continually calling its trailer "the best movie of 2018 so far," I can't help but feel a little disappointed.
Note: The day after I published this review, I went back to the theater to see this movie a second time. Free from the massive expectations I had set up from it I liked it so much more. In my mind since, the movie has aged like fine wine, and is now in my top five movies of the year. It is far from a perfect movie, but it hits the highest of highs in some moments, and that can't be ignored.
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010)
If you've never seen any movies directed by Edgar Wright, buckle up. It's going to be a wild ride. This might be my favorite from his catalog, combining all of the comedy of his signature Simon Peck collaborations (Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) with all of the musical synchronicity of last year's Baby Driver. Just like all of those titles, this movie is super energetic, super creative, and doesn't take itself too seriously. It's romantic comedy meets coming-of-age meets video games, and it's proud of its strangeness. Michael Cera fronts a who's who cast of before-they-made-it stars including Brie Larson, Anna Kendrick, Aubrey Plaza and several more "that guy" performers (that guy from "Succession!" that girl from "The Newsroom!"). And most imporantly for a late night Netflix selection, it's just a hell of a lot of fun.