Lady Gaga proves to be an inspired choice for Bradley Cooper’s remake of A Star is Born, and between them they make what could seem over-familiar feel fresh, vital and heartbreaking, writes Alistair Harkness
A Star is Born (15) *****
Columbus (12A) ****
Johnny English Strikes Again (PG) **
Charisma drips off the screen in A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper’s swoon-worthy remake of an old showbiz parable that’s been a Hollywood staple ever since Janet Gaynor played a young starlet on the make in the 1937 original. Reworked in 1954 with Judy Garland and 1976 with Barbra Streisand, the new film – Cooper’s first as a director – may follow the rough contours of the Streisand version, but it’s so alive with raw heartache and intoxicating performances it feels like a story no one’s ever told before.
That’s partly down to the crazy chemistry generated between Cooper’s alcoholic country rock star Jackson Maine and the film’s inspired choice of co-star: Lady Gaga. Having already dabbled in movies and TV – supporting roles in a couple of trashy Robert Rodriguez films, a Golden Globe-winning appearance in American Horror Story – Gaga delivers a sensational performance here that more than lives up to the film’s titular pronouncement. Cast as Ally, an aspiring singer/songwriter who meets Jackson when he stumbles blind drunk into a drag bar and falls hopelessly and helplessly in love with her, she both plays on the transgressive appeal that’s made her the biggest American pop act since Madonna and subverts it with an empathetic turn of such down-to-earth sincerity it underscores the way true stardom is always umbilically linked to real life regardless of the way it’s packaged.
That comes through most clearly in the film’s perfect first half. From the moment they lay eyes on each other – him propping up the bar; her lying across it, mid performance – they’re goners and it’s pure bliss watching them realise this fact as they stumble around the city, forging the deepest of connections in a haze of booze and bar bust-ups. Impulsively jacking in her waitressing job to join him on tour, she finds her voice on his stage and, thanks to the viral nature of live performance in the age of social media, it’s not long before she’s being courted by an industry that previously liked her sound but not her look.
It hardly needs to be said that as she moves into the spotlight, Jackson – reckoning with alcoholism, drug addiction, tinnitus and familial discord – finds himself retreating to the shadows to lick his wounds and face his own obsolescence. But as clichéd as this all sounds, the only bum note is Rafi Gavron’s turn as the ruthless manager intent on making Ally a global commodity (he’s a blond dye-job away from being Stock English Villain). The initial rush of Jackson and Ally’s relationship may seem to be laying the foundations for another bad romance, but the film’s determination to offset the inherent melodrama of the story with a more lived-in approach extends to the way its protagonists’ mutually assured heartache feels messy and complicated and, above all, human. Cooper reinforces this as a director by using Darren Aronofsky’s regular cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, to shoot the action like a Maysles brothers or DA Pennebaker documentary: hand-held, close-up and so intimate it’s hard not to feel like we’re in the room with the characters, rooting for them even when all hope is lost.
An exquisitely constructed story of love, loss and architecture, Columbus marks the debut feature of enigmatic video essayist Kogonada, who’s built up quite the online following with mini films that deconstruct the way we watch cinema. It’s a trait he’s carried over into this film, which is very much about the art of looking: at buildings, at the world, at ourselves. The film’s eponymous setting is, apparently, a Mecca for architecture enthusiasts who flock to the otherwise nondescript Indiana town to revel in the disproportionately high number of modernist buildings scattered throughout. Most locals don’t pay attention, but one who does is Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a college-age student who is putting her life on hold to take care of her meth-addicted mother. For Casey, these buildings are sanctuaries where she can imagine different lives. The opposite is true for Jin (John Cho), a Korean-born translator newly arrived in town to be with his dying father, an architect more devoted to his career than his family. A chance encounter brings these two lost souls together and the resulting film charts their evolving relationship with such serenity, the restorative effect they have on each other feels contagious.
Every seven or eight years Rowan Atkinson feels the need to dust off his tuxedo for another instalment of his oddly lucrative Bond-spoofing Johnny English franchise. That there’s still interest in the character says something about the enduring appeal of Atkinson’s rubber-faced comedy schtick, especially since he’s been workshopping it – via a series of early 1990s Barclaycard adverts – since playing a bumbling British intelligence officer in Sean Connery’s rogue Thunderball remake Never Say Never Again. Quite what it says about his appeal, though, isn’t exactly clear from Johnny English Strikes Again. Revolving around his incompetent spy coming out of retirement to save the world from a Silicon Valley billionaire, it is, like its two predecessors, another laugh-light collection of pratfalls in which no visual gag is too obvious. As Britain’s vino-quaffing prime minister, Emma Thompson once again proves she can enliven any bit of dross just by showing up, but aside from her and a random joke about the switch for the internet being located in Ayrshire, this is tepid stuff. ■