TV REVIEW: The Coen Bros’ ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – The Coen Brothers have taken Netflix for a ride with their anthology production ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’. It’s a western ‘Tales of the Unexpected’ in which they have dusted off some mostly hoary old story ideas and spent a lot of money on a great cast and crew and wonderful locations. Sadly, only one of the yarns reaches the level expected from the Coens and the others probably would never have seen the light of day without the streaming service’s desperate need for big names. 

No doubt the Coens were happy to take all that money for old rope and what seems most evident in the six short films that make up the production is that everyone appears to have had a great time. The opening sequence, which gives the film its title, is the only one worth seeing as it displays the brothers’ wit and whimsy and taste for fantasy and offbeat violence. Tim Blake Nelson (above) plays Buster, a singing cowboy who narrates his own fable and is gradually revealed to be a fatalistic psychotic killer who seeks only the next gunfight. It’s wickedly funny.

That cannot be said of the five other predictable yarns introduced by the flickering pages of an old book of western stories. James Franco plays a hapless bank robber in one sequence, Liam Neeson is a frontier impresario who reconsiders his meal ticket in another, and Tom Waits (above) is a resourceful miner in the fourth. The fifth is a longer piece about a young woman (Zoe Kazan, with Bill Heck below) facing peril on a wagon train and the last is about a stagecoach ride to nowhere on a theme treated more brilliantly in the Monty Python sketch in which ‘to serve salmon with botulism at a dinner party is social death’.

All the actors are just fine, Blake Nelson especially, and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel and production designer Jess Gonchor make the most of the splendid locations in Sioux County and Scotts Bluff County, Nebraska, and near Albuquerque, New Mexico. Carter Burwell’s music ups the IQ of the lesser sequences with his usual flare.

All the stories dwell on mostly forlorn hopes but the biting wit of the first story is sadly missing from the others. If the Coens want to find terrific source material for a truly colourful and accurate depiction of the Old West, they should look no further than the great Texas writer Larry McMurtry’s wonderful collection, ‘The Berrybender Narratives’. Now they are ballads worth singing about.

Screened in London; Streamed on Netflix: Nov. 9; Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Liam Neeson, James Franco, Zoe Kazan, Clancy Brown, Brendan Gleeson, Stephen Root, Tom Waits, Tyne Daly, Saul Rubinek, Bill Heck, Jiji Hise, Grainger Hines; Directors, writers, editors: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen; Director of photography: Bruno Delbonnel; Production designer: Jess Gonchor; Music: Carter Burwell; Costume designer: Mary Zophres; Producers: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle; Production: Annapurna Pictures, Annapurna Television, Mike Zoss Productions; running time 131 minutes.

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FILM REVIEW: Billy Wilder’s ‘Some Like It Hot’

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – Billy Wilder’s 1959 comedy ‘Some Like It Hot’, which is running in selected theatres in the United Kingdom ahead of its 60th anniversary, is the funniest comedy you’ll see this year, or any year. Restored in 4K by MGM, Park Circus and the Criterion Collection, its black-and-white cinematography is stunning.

Acclaimed in many polls as the greatest film comedy of all time, it remains a masterpiece with clever plotting, terrific dialogue, wonderful slapstick, good music and extraordinary performances. If you don’t know, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon play journeyman musicians who witness a mob killing in Chicago and to save their own skins dress in drag as Josephine and Daphne to join an all-female jazz band, with voluptuous and vulnerable Marilyn Monroe as the band’s singer, on a three-week gig in Florida. Hilarity ensues.

Scripted by the director and I.A.L. Diamond from a story suggested by veteran screenwriters Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, it covers a lot of ground very smartly with a forward-looking attitude to social mores, sex, and cross-dressing. Marilyn Monroe is unutterably gorgeous and sympathetic with unerring comic timing no matter how long it took Wilder to get her to nail a scene. Curtis does a very funny impression of Cary Grant and Lemmon (below with Joe E. Brown) is simply hilarious. It remains a crime that he didn’t win the Academy Award that year against the wooden Charlton Heston in ‘Ben-Hur’.

Adolph Deutsch’s vigorous and witty music comments amusingly on not only Marilyn’s way of walking and the boys’ attempts to appear like women but also the gangster threat from Spats Columbo and his gang and the comic chaos during the finale. Director of photography Charles Lang, who was nominated for the Oscar 18 times and won for ‘A Farewell to Arms’ (1932), captures it all in shimmering chiaroscuro. Much of it was filmed at the splendid Hotel del Coronado in southern California (Richard Rush also shot his wonderful ‘The Stunt Man’ there in 1980) and that adds to the fun.

Harry Wilson, left, George Raft, centre, Mike Mazurki and Pat O’Brien

One of other really pleasing things is the array of fabulous mugs that Wilder cast in the picture including George Raft as Spats Columbo, Nehemiah Persoff as his rival, Little Bonaparte, and Pat O’Brien as the cop on their trail but also much-missed character actors such as Harry Wilson, Mike Mazurki and the irrepressible Joe E. Brown, as millionaire Osgood Fielding III, whose passion for Jack Lemmon’s Daphne will brook no obstacle because, as he says, ‘Nobody’s perfect’. 

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Recalling … giggling over lunch with the great Cleo Laine

By Ray Bennett

LONDON – It was lunchtime at the Hotel Pontchartrain  in Detroit and things were getting a bit silly. Cleo Laine was talking about Kurt Weill and the Berliner Ensemble when someone mentioned Monty Python and soon she was giggling over her Dover Sole. We swapped favourite lines and it took a while before we got back to talking about the reason she was on tour in the United States.

It was one day in January in 1976 and I was at lunch with the singer, her husband jazzman John Dankworth and comedian Jimmy Edwards. Although they were household names in the United Kingdom, they had never met before so I suggested the meeting. Edwards was appearing in the farce ‘Big Bad Mouse’ at the Fisher Theatre with Eric Sykes, who would have joined us but for a bad cold. 

Edwards died in 1988, Dankworth in 2010 and Sykes in 2012. Dame Cleo Laine turns 91 today. She and Dankworth had performed in Detroit several times and they always found time for lunch. That time with Edwards was notable not least because Edwards added a comic touch to proceedings but because Laine was making her long overdue American theatre debut in the Brecht-Weill musical ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’.

The laughter at lunch was a perfect example of the lady’s free-wheeling taste, which allowed her to record an album of Schoenburg songs at the same time as she’s singing a Spike Milligan bit about a man with two many tonsils. She first sang in the U.S. in 1971 and instantly won a cult following. Jazz critic Leonard Feather called her ‘the greatest all-round singer in the world’. She started singing as a child and sang with the Dankworth band until they married in 1958 when she thought it wiser not to continue. 

Dankworth continued as one of Britain’s most successful jazz musicians and composers with many movie scores such as ‘The Knack; ‘Modesty Blaise’ and ‘The Knack’. Cleo went on to great success as a recording artist, not least with the 1976 album ‘Porgy & Bess’ with Ray Charles. She performed internationally and did a lot of work in the theatre including an acclaimed production of ‘Show Boat’. I asked why it had taken her so long to do a musical in the U.S.

‘Things just didn’t fall together,” she said in her deep, expressive voice. ‘I could have come over but doing what? For a long time, the Beatles dominated everything and all that was happening was rock and roll. It was the wrong time for me. I could have come over and done cabaret but if you do that, what do you do next?’ The answer was ‘The Seven Deadly Sins’, which she had performed at the Edinburgh Festival, Sadlers Wells and Leeds. A 40-minute piece, it follows a devilish girl named Anna, portrayed in Detroit by dancer Mary Hinkson, who encounters temptation wherever she goes. Cleo played her conscience. ‘She wants to get out there and have all the fun and I have to tell her to stop,’ said Cleo.

Fortunately, Cleo Laine never stopped having all the fun and she has continued to make records and appear on stage for most of her long life. She starred in ‘A Little Night Music’ and ‘The Merry Widow’, Dankworth’s musical ‘Colette’, on Broadway in ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ and in Los Angeles in ‘Into the Woods’. In England, she and Dankworth ran a non-profit music organisation out of the converted stables at their Buckinghamshire home. ‘We call it the ‘all music’ plan,’ she said. ‘That’s sort of ambitious but it’s what we believe in. I’d hate to be stamped in one mould. I like to do all kinds of music.” 

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FILM REVIEW: Drew Goddard’s ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’

By Raymond Bennett 

LONDON – A priest, a traveling salesman, and two young women walk separately into a hotel-casino on the California/Nevada border and all hell breaks loose. They aren’t who they seem to be and neither is the exotic joint where they’ve chosen to stay. Written and directed with assurance and tremendous style by Drew Goddard, ‘Bad Times at El Royale’ is a garish noir tale full of surprises, violence and no little humour. It also offers roles that a terrific cast – Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Jon Hamm and Dakota Johnson initially and then Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman and Chris Hemsworth – get their teeth into with very satisfying results.

Goddard’s TV writing credits include ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, ‘Angel’ and ‘Alias’ and ‘Lost’ and he wrote and directed ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ (2012) and scripted ‘World War Z’ (2013) and ‘The Martian’ (2015), for which he earned an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. His yarn is set in 1970 at a typically Sixties neon and glass venue that was once a playground for the Vegas pack but has now fallen on hard times due to losing its gambling licence. Its unique selling point is that the state border runs right through the centre of the place so guests may stay either in California or Nevada. In a brief prologue set 10 years earlier, a man checks in, buries something in one of the rooms and is promptly shot to death.

Now, there’s only one person on duty, a diffident young man named Miles (Pullman) who seems reluctant to check anyone in, especially the crusty priest, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Singer Darlene Sweet (Erivo) and tough cookie Emily (Johnson) are more put off by the garrulous vacuum salesman Laramie Sullivan (Hamm) but they take rooms anyway. It doesn’t take long to discover some of the secrets of the motley crew, not least that the salesman is really an FBI agent and that Emily has kidnapped a younger woman, Rose (Cailee Spaeny) and snuck her into her room where she keeps her tied up. Many more mysteries will unfold and Chris Hemsworth will show up later as a charismatic but menacing cult leader. Several scenes are revisited from a different perspective as the individual motives for being there start to clash with dramatic and increasingly violent results.

Bridges, Hamm and Hemsworth bring their A-game while Erivo (who also shines in the upcoming ‘Widows’) is splendid as both actor and a cappella singer, Johnson impresses with tremendous flair and Pullman peels the onion of his character with great effect. Young Cailee Spaeny hovers as an apparently naive girl who bears watching.

It’s probably longer than it needs to be but production designer Martin Whist’s vivid set is a character in itself and Northern Irish cinematographer Seamus McGarvey – Oscar- and Bafta-nominated for ‘Atonement’ (2007) and ‘Anna Karenina’ (2012) – captures it all luxuriously. There are plenty of songs from the era, both on the jukebox and sung by Erivo, and Michael Giacchino ties it all together with an energetic score that captures the period, enhances the contrivances and should be in for award nominations.

Released: UK, US: Oct. 12 2018 (Twentieth Century Fox); Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman; Director and writer: Drew Goddard; Director of cinematography: Seamus McGarvey; Production designer: Martin Whist; Music: Michael Giacchino; Editor: Lisa Lassek; Costume designer: Danny Glicker; Producers: Drew Goddard, Jeremy Latchem; Executive producer: Mary McLaglen; Production: Twentieth Century Fox; Rating: UK: 15 / US: R; running time: 141 minutes.

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TIFF18 BRIEFS: ‘Roma’, ‘Non-FIction’, ‘Vox Lux’

By Ray Bennett in Toronto

‘Roma’

Oscar-winning director Alfonso Caron (‘Gravity’) offers a warm, moving and engrossing portrait of the neighbourhood in Mexico City, Roma, that he recalls from the turbulent 1970s. He’s also producer, writer and cinematographer and he excels in all three roles to create a memorable film so good that it would be no surprise to see him earn more Academy Awards including best picture. School teacher Yalitza Aparicio, in her first movie role, is unforgettable as a maid who keeps a middle-class family from imploding as she deals with a personal crisis and social upheaval on the streets. It will screen at the London Film Festival on Oct. 13 and open in the U.S. on Dec. 14 before it is streamed on Netflix.

 

‘Non-Fiction’

Juliette Binoche is a delight among a very pleasing cast of smooth and nuanced French players in Olivier Assayas’s comedy ‘Non-Fiction’, a shrewd and witty roundelay involving a handful of Parisian literary types. She plays a TV actress married to a sophisticated publisher (Guillaume Canet) whose immediate circle includes writers, publicists and entrepreneurs as they grapple with the incursion of the digital world on traditional publishing and their assorted liaisons. (Titled ‘Double Lives’ on IMDb)

‘Vox Lux’

Following ‘Jackie’, Natalie Portman (pictured above) gives another scintillating performance in a not very successful picture. Direct0r and screenwriter Brady Corbet’s tale of a pop superstar named Celeste whose childhood survival of a school shooting scars her for life is a bit of a mess but both Portman and Raffey Cassidy as the young Celeste make the film worth seeing. The grown-up Celeste is a full-on diva and Portman goes to town both on- and off-stage in sequences that are really gripping in-between scenes that barely make sense.

 

Full reviews to follow.

 

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: David Mackenzie’s ‘Outlaw/King’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Chris Pine keeps his Scots burr soft and believable in ‘Outlaw/King’, the saga of Robert the Bruce, the 14th century leader who succeeded where William (Braveheart) Wallace failed in uniting the Scottish clans to fight the English.

It’s a rousing adventure with several battles, a warm love story, and glorious settings filmed across Scotland. The title onscreen is ‘Outlaw/King’ although it’s not shown on posters or promotional material. The distinction is subtle but important as it conveys the point that Robert is not an outlaw king but a man seen by different people in different ways. He is a king and he is an outlaw. 

Scottish director David Mackenzie (‘Hell or High Water’) keeps things relatively plausible with fine contributions from Stephen Dillane as Edward I, Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the mad-as-hell Scottish rebel Douglas, and Florence Pugh as Robert’s at first unwanted but then beloved bride. It’s a big picture that deserves to be seen at cinemas so it’s a very good thing that Netflix has released it to theatres, at least in the U.K., via Curzon Artificial Eye, otherwise it would just be an expensive TV movie.

Wallace makes a brief appearance looking very scruffy compared to Mel Gibson’s depiction and events follow his demise with the Scottish clans typically fighting over patches of land and adherence to various faiths and myths. Pine is every bit the movie star laird of the land and both his vocal delivery and movement allow him to carry the picture with ease. Dillane makes Edward a more subtle and devious character than Patrick McGoohan’s straight-forwardly powerful king in ‘Braveheart’. 

Aaron Taylor-Johnson marauds and rages as Robert’s extremely angry and violent ally James Douglas and Florence Pugh adds another intelligent performance to her growing list of impressive roles (‘Lady Macbeth’, ‘The Little Drummer Girl’). The conflict is let down somewhat by Billy Howle, who makes the future Edward II a bit too weaselly and psychotic; the pace, which takes its time (Update: the film was cut by 20 minutes for release); and some typical historical fudging. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd captures the glorious Scottish scenery lavishly, though, and several composers contribute traditional music that sounds authentic.

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Nov. 9 (Curzon Artificial Eye); Streamed on Netflix from Nov. 9; Cast: Chris Pine, Florence Pugh, Stephen Dillane, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Billy Howle; Director: David Mackenzie; Writers: Bathsheba Doran, David Mackenzie, James Macinnes; Director of photography: Barry Ackroyd; Production designer: Donald Graham Burt; Editor: Jake Roberts; Costume designer: Jane Petrie; Producer: Gillian Berrie; Executive producers: Richard Brown, Steve Golin, Stan Wlodkowski; Production: Sigma Films, Anonymous Content, Clockwork Sessions; Rating: UK: 18 / US: R; running time: 137 minutes at TIFF; 121 minutes on release.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Steve McQueen’s ‘Widows’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Forget the shallow glitz of ‘Ocean’s 8’, the women in Steve McQueen’s full-of-surprises caper movie ‘Widow’ really mean business. The British filmmaker (‘Hunger’, ‘2 Years a Slave’) brings his serious view of the world to an escapist drama and it is all the more entertaining for that.

Oscar-winner Viola Davis (facing in the picture above) steps up to a leading role and she carries the film with aplomb in the role of Veronica, a woman whose life is turned upside down when a heist goes wrong and her husband, a professional thief, is killed along with his henchmen. Also gone is the money they were trying to steal and Veronica becomes the target of attempts by assorted villains to recover it with her life on the line. When she discovers detailed plans made by her late husband for another robbery, she rounds up the other gangster widows to pull it off.

Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki (pictured left) and Cynthia Erivo (with Davis below) play the other women and the foursome become a formidable outfit in the face of obstacles not only from criminals but also crooked cops and politicians. Drawn from a 1983 British miniseries written by Lynda La Plante (‘Prime Suspect’), with a script by Gillian Flynn (‘Gone Girl’) and McQueen, the film is a taut, suspenseful and polished drama steeped in reality with many unexpected twists and turns.

Rodriguez is somewhat underused but Debicki (‘The Night Manager’) adds steel to her seemingly flighty character and Erivo (left), as a very tough cookie, makes another strong impression following her terrific showing in ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’. McQueen has cast some interesting men for them to play against including Liam Neeson as Veronica’s husband, Colin Farrell as a political chancer and Robert Duvall as his bombastic father. With the setting moved to Chicago, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and production designer Adam Stockhausen make full use of the gritty locations and composer Hans Zimmer’s score is lean and sinewy to match. 

Screened at the Toronto International Film Festival; Released: UK: Nov. 6 (Fox) / US: Nov. 16 (Fox). Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Jacki Weaver, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coom, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson; Director: Steve McQueen: Writers: Gillian Flynn, Steve McQueen based on characters created by Lynda La Plante; Director of photography: Sean Bobbit; Production designer: Adam Stockhausen; Music: Hans Zimmer; Editor: Joe Walker; Costume designer: Jenny Eagan; Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan; Executive producers: Daniel Battsek, Rodrigo Cortés, Rose Garnett, Matthew Senreich, Bergen Swanson; Production: Regency Enterprises, See-Saw Films, Film4, New Regency Pictures; Rating: UK: 15 / US: R; running time: 128 minutes.

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TIFF18 BRIEFS: ‘American Woman’, ‘The Front Runner’, ‘Red Joan’, ‘Vita & Virginia’, ‘Destroyer’

By Ray Bennett

‘American Woman’

Sienna Miller (pictured above) is outstanding in Jake Scott’s portrait of a beautiful and reckless but determined working-class woman who must overcome not only her lousy taste in men but the sudden disappearance of her teenaged daughter. Great work, too, by Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul, Amy Madigan, Will Sasso and the boys who play her grandson. Brad Ingelsby’s script is insightful and agile and Adam Wiltzie’s score helps nail the place and time.

‘The Front Runner’

Jason Reitman’s account of how Senator Gary Hart managed to blow his presidential chances in 1988 by his inability to keep his pants on is really a newspaper story as much of the time is spent in the newsrooms of the Miami Herald, the Washington Post and the New York Times. It’s solid story-telling with fine performances by Hugh Jackman as Hart (pictured above), Vera Farmiga as his wife and a large cast. Rob Simonsen’s music helps set the scene.

‘Red Joan’

Sophie Cookson (pictured above) is very impressive as idealistic young physicist Joan Stanley who gets involved with a group of intellectual communists at Cambridge just before World War II and ends up in a plot to share the secrets of the atom bomb with the Soviet Union. The story is told in flashbacks with Judi Dench as the older Joan. Theatre legend Trevor Nunn shows he knows about film too. George Fenton’s score is typically evocative.

‘Vita & Virginia’

The best way to watch Chanya Button’s ‘Vita & Virginia’ would be on a big screen at home with a glass of wine and the sound turned off. Actress Eileen Atkins has adapted her play based on the letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf, part of the early 20th-century Bloomsbury set, who had a volatile but long-lasting relationship. The Times critic said of the play, “If two orchids were to communicate across a perfumed hothouse, they would surely sound a bit like this.” The film suffers from poor lighting, clumsy editing, pretentious prattle and incongruous music. The players and costumes, however, are gorgeous. Gemma Arterton (pictured above right), as Vita, and Elizabeth Debicki, as Virginia, change outfits for every scene and they are equal to every ravishing close-up. 

‘Destroyer’

Grim, dull and clichéd, Karyn Kusama’s crime yarn ‘Destroyer’ smacks of a vanity project for Nicole Kidman (pictured above) who appears first in a state of utter dissipation as a bitter cop who reflects on a violent incident in her past when she was young and vibrant.  It’s all under-belly Los Angeles, drugs and guns, the usual stuff, with an overbearing score.

Full reviews to come.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Pawel Pawlikowski’s ‘Cold War’ is a masterpiece. It’s the story of two lovers whose struggle to be together evokes the complexities of life in Poland following World War II as the richness, beauty and contradictions of Polish culture clash with the cold, harsh and unforgiving force of Soviet rule.

Filmed in shimmering black-and-white on the boxy 1.37:1 aspect ratio and running just 88 minutes, the film is filled with music and dancing as the story unfolds over several years with economical sequences that plumb the depths of emotion between a laconic pianist, Wiktor played by Tomasz Kot, and a wilful, joyously gifted young singer and dancer, Zula, played by Joanna Kulig. Together, they are unforgettable.

Already on release in the U.K., the film will be released in the U.S. on Dec. 21.

Full review to come.

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TIFF FILM REVIEW: Bradley Cooper’s ‘A Star Is Born’

By Ray Bennett

TORONTO – Enjoyment of Bradley Cooper’s reimagined ‘A Star is Born’ depends almost entirely on having a taste for the singing of Lady Gaga. Her many fans will surely love it. For those less enamoured, probably not. She sings a lot in the film, which is a retelling of a yarn that has always had difficulty drumming up sympathy for its protagonists, one star on the way up, the other on the way down.

Fredric March, in the 1937 original with Janet Gaynor , and James Mason, in the 1954 remake with Judy Garland, were both great actors who could make any role plausible. Kris Kristofferson in the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand and Cooper now with Lady Gaga, not so much. The director and co-star makes it a love story with both characters a motherless child in need of love and protection. He plays a bluesy country-rock superstar named Jackson Maine who manages to play intricate guitar riffs while being five sheets to the wind on gin and pills.

Drunk after a gig, he stumbles into a bar in a nowhere part of town which happens to have the most interesting characters in the film, a group of very polished drag queens, who are soon left behind. One performer in the bar is an actual woman, Lady Gaga as Ally, whose ambitions to be a singer-songwriter, she later explains, have been stymied by a prominent proboscis. When she sings ‘La Vie En Rose’ she captivates the suddenly sober Jackson Maine and he is instantly smitten. The problem is that while the performance should be magical, Lady Gaga powers it out sounding less like Edith Piaf than Ethel Merman.

Nevertheless, it sets Maine and Ally on a course that will lead to her becoming a huge success even as his drinking and drug taking start to take him down. The transitions are abrupt and the romance adolescent as jealousy soon arises with complaints of “Why aren’t I enough for you?” Money is never mentioned and there’s no sign of Maine still having a recording contract, which is odd as he continues to pack stadiums for his gigs. As a result, a glutinous British talent manager and producer named Rex (Ravi Gavin) steps in and immediately begins to style our budding Carole King as a super-styled pop singer along the lines of, say, Lady Gaga. Her veteran lover takes umbrage at this and given his wayward habits, it won’t be long before he does something to ruin things. His ultimate humiliating transgression, however, is laughably lame given the atrocious things that rock stars have gotten away with over the years.

Cooper can be a pretty good actor when Jennifer Lawrence is around but for a dissolute drunk his character looks pretty damned good despite his careless beard, lank hair and growly voice that adds up to a poor imitation of Jeff Bridges. Lady Gaga is pleasant when she’s not singing but when she does it’s as if she were auditioning for Simon Cowell as she cranks her voice up past the X factor to XI. Maine’s numbers are generic country rock and her songs, obviously, are a matter of taste. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique keeps everything nice and shiny and editor Jay Cassidy makes sure the camera never captures Maine’s guitar fretwork. It’s not a terrible film; it’s just not very good.

Released: UK: Oct. 3 / US: Oct. 5 (Warner Bros.); Cast: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper. Sam Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, Rafi Gavron, Anthony Ramos, Dave Chappelle, Ron Rifkin; Director: Bradley Cooper; Director of photography: Matthew Libatique; Production designer: Karen Murphy; Editor: Jay Cassidy; Costumes: Erin Benach; Producers: Bradley Cooper, Bill Gerber, Lynette Howell Taylor, Jon Peters, Todd Phillips; Executive producers: Basil Iwanyk, Sue Kroll, Ninja Kuykendall, Ravi Mehta, Heather Parry, Michael Rapino; Production: Live Nation Productions; Rated: UK: 15 / US: R; running time, 135 minutes

 

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