Film Review: Halloween (2018)

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Director: David Gordon Green

18 | 1h 46min | Horror , Thriller | 19 October 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆☆

I've not seen every single instalment in the Halloween franchise, but the continuity there looks like it has got pretty tangled over the 40 years since masked serial killer Michael Myers - AKA 'The Shape' - slapped on a cheap Halloween mask and began hunting down youngsters in the sleepy American town of Haddonfield. Director John Carpenter presumably had little idea that his 1978 slasher flick would not only so come to define that genre, but spawn a huge and unwieldy universe that a multitude of directors have tried to grow and reboot. Now it is the turn of David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express, Joe) and screenwriters Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley, and their anniversary-timed effort immediately commanded attention by not only securing Carpenter's involvement as both producer and composer (with Daniel Davies and Cody Carpenter) but by situating this new movie - also called 'Halloween' - as a direct sequel to the first film (maybe this is the first time in Hollywood history that a sequel has had a completely identical name to its predecessor). Selective continuity as a way of keeping franchises as un-killable as Myers remains a key trick in the filmmaker's magic box. Luckily for us, this pretty enjoyable new Halloween turns out to be more treat than trick, with impactful visuals, a game cast, and a moodily kinetic score that reminds us why Carpenter's self-penned scores are so mimicked today.

It is not unprecedented for a franchise to attempt to spring a female character- one relentlessly hunted by whatever antagonist - out of the box of 'victim' and into a more combative, competent role. James Cameron did this with the main female character in Terminator 2, and there is something quite 'Sarah Connor-ish' about the presentation of Halloween's returning heroine here; Laurie Strode, who is once more played by scream queen Jamie Lee Curtis. With the new film's story acknowledging the amount of real time that has passed since the original, Laurie is now a combat-trained grandmother in her 60s still living in Haddonfield, a grey-haired and wiry 'town outcast' figure living alone in an isolated bungalow out in the rural suburbs, a grim fortress surrounded by barbed wire and CCTV, and with an interior loaded with booby traps and weapon racks. As played with clear relish by Curtis, this Laurie is armed to the teeth and ruthlessly single-minded in staying combat-ready, but not, as we learn, because she is paranoid about being killed by Michael Myers, who has been imprisoned in an institute for the criminally insane since the events of the first film. Laurie is sitting in this fort waiting for Michael to come and finish what he started, so she can kill him. She wants him to escape, and believes it will happen. This is an interesting twist on cinematic horror-flick victimisation that separates Laurie from Sarah Connor. Sarah never wanted the Terminators to come back.

Of course, Myers escapes in time for Halloween, when a bus crashes during a prison transfer operation, following which he duly reacquires his mask and heads back to Haddonfield. An introductory sequence to his status in the institute that has held him since 1978 nods towards the suggestion of a supernatural-like aura cloaking the man, as a duo of journalists attempting to interview Myers and get the real story on 'the legendary killer' only provoke any kind of reaction when they reveal they've brought the same mask he wore 40 years ago. Standing with his back to them (and us, as Green continues the tradition of keeping 'The Shape''s face hidden through specific framings and focus) and keeping rigid still, Michael doesn't speak or turn from his spot in the courtyard outside when the mask is removed from the awed journalist's bag, but all around him guard dogs start to howl and snarl, and the other prisoners in the yard become vocally disturbed. It is as if a live wire had started humming when the mask came close to returning to the only man who could ever wear it, as if it was the ring from Lord of the Rings. A bleak open yard bisected into various yellow squares, safe zones where visitors are warned not to step as they mark the lunge distance of the chained inmates, makes for an eerie place to get up to speed with Laurie's nightmare. Michael was never supposed to be possessed of any unearthly power in Carpenter's original film, but his silently implacable nature and ability to drift in and out of our sight as if on rails or as if he was only an inch-thick, made him seem so. Later films in the franchise played with this idea even as Myer's pop culture status grew in the real world, so the institute scene is an unsettling and understandably self-reflexive re-introduction, even if it is a bit silly to think that any journalist would really want to act this way or be allowed to.

But Halloween really gets into its stride when Myers gets into his. Myers is a creature of movement, a human shark. Once free and roaming in search of Laurie, Green shows Myers has lost none of his killer instinct via several invigorating long take sequences where a steadicam tracks 'The Shape' from behind as, re-masked and back in his boilersuit outfit, he strides unnoticed through the Halloween crowds of Haddonfield, gliding into various garages and houses to murder his way through the inhabitants until his shopping list of items that he needs to find Laurie is complete (item one being, of course, a huge knife). Tipping the hat to modern sensibilities, the kills are far more gory than the 1978 version, but generally each is stylishly done though the gruesomeness is not lingered on too long. Playing Myers, actors James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle have the necessary height and give the sense of solid bulk, but as with Carpenter, what Green understands is that it is as much framing and editing as the mask and knife that makes 'The Shape' so potent a figure. Though I would argue Halloween never gets scary, Green works up several visually inventive sequences that nod to Carpenter's flair, in which slivers of darkness or sharp-angled corners allow Myers to glide spookily in and out of sight. One scene featuring a motion-triggered light in an empty yard, with a drunk high schooler terrorised by the sight of Myers closing the gap between them in between every moment of tripped illumination, is particularly memorable and generated a good jump scare or two. Appropriately for a killer named 'The Shape', Myers is often seen by POV characters only through door cracks or the shards of broken windows. There are some very atmospherically lit locations to savour too, from pumpkin-decked streets where the candlelights within each cast weird dances of light on the porches, to spooky forest roads in fog lit only by car headlights.

Green's film can be enjoyed as a competent slasher as well as a warmly familiar homage (needless to say, the film is laced with callbacks), but those wanting more might enjoy the meta sprinkles on top of the cake, particularly where the idea of the final girl, which the original did so much to enshrine, is given a little bit of a prodding. There is a sense of acknowledgment in the screenplay that this is a new decade which demands a few new chords slipped into an old tune. Symbolic of this, as Laurie and her female family members (Judy Greer plays her daughter Karen, and Andi Matichak granddaughter Alysson) finally face the final showdown with Myers out in the woods, is one well-known reveal shot from Carpenter's original being mimicked, but with a twist. This time it is Laurie who vanishes unexpectedly from Myers's sight when he looks over a balcony to the spot where he expected to see her lying. The predator-prey dynamic is destabilised on this particular all-Hallow's eve, and Green's film musters up yet a few more pleasing surprises after this little beat. Though Halloween 2018, inevitably, does not feel revolutionary because of its indebtedness to the original and does not dive as deep into its characters as it could have, it does things that feel satisfying and right. That will more than do for me as I look for something to watch on future All Hallows Eve's.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Mandy

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Director: Panos Cosmatos

18 | 2h 1min | Action , Horror , Thriller | 12 October 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆☆

As much as I enjoyed Beyond the Black Rainbow director Panos Cosmatos’s new exercise in a perverse and very self-aware mashup of Giallo, horror novel and metal album cover art, Hellraiser and the photography of Gregory Crewdson (amongst many, many other things), his surreal and blood-drenched ‘midnight movie’ Mandy represents the problems of promising audiences something along the lines of ‘the most unhinged Nicholas Cage performance of all time’. Cage at this point in his career is veering between straight to video crud and the occasional eyebrow-raising indie film, and his ‘unique’ acting approach (to me Cage, perhaps better than anyone, is great at using his entire face to express a person at war with himself) has earned him legions of fans and turned him into a never-ending meme factory Given all that, Cage’s presence in Cosmatos’s latest film, combined with the director’s singularly weird vision, has already set fans up for a treat unlike any other. We are promised all kinds of Cage-specific insanity; the gurning, the eye-bulging deliveries of overblown dialogue, and deliverance of justice with a vicious-looking axe to some demon scum. That is a lot to deliver on. But the film only lives up to about 80% of the promise whereas I wanted 150%.

That is not to say that Cage doesn’t deliver some ‘classic Cage’ moments in Mandy, which range from taking on a seedy-looking cultist in a chainsaw duel, to breaking the neck of an LSD-mutated armoured biker in a cabin living room and then juicing himself up with coke snorted off the shards of the broken TV screen. Given the kind of audience this film is going to attract, expect plenty of whopping and ‘fuck yeahs!’ to ring around the auditorium. Cage plays American lumberjack Red Miller, who comes off initially as one of the many sad-sack types Cage has played before in both straight and comic turns; a shaggy plaid-wearing and soft-spoken dude with a doe-eyed look we know will slowly give way to the wide-eyed, gawping madman as things spiral out of control. It is 1983, some ornate chapter text tells us in a slow credit sequence of a timber yard set to King Crimson’s gorgeous song Starless, and Red is living with his lover who the film takes its title from - Mandy- in a mountain-cabin idyll that features an ‘all windows’ transparent aesthetic that gives you the sense that an artist designed it. Maybe Mandy was that artist, as we see her painting and sketching quite often before the shit hits the fan. Mandy and Red seems like the proverbial chalk and cheese as a couple; he seems content with a beer and a TV dinner after a shift, Mandy in contrast is into books about horror mythology and rocks faded Motley Crue tees, and seems to drift rather than walk. Andrea Riseborough makes Mandy a memorably unearthly character: pale skin, huge eyes, and an air of being on another radio wave to everyone else.  

But it is the fate of her character - in what is a pretty straightforward plot designed to hang a boatload of stylistic colour-saturated flourishes and various homages to pop and niche cultures on it - to die pretty early on at the hands of a ragtag band of Satanic cultists who invade their humble abode with the aid of a mysterious deformed biker gang, The bikers look like extras from Hellraiser and appear backlit with spotlights when posing amongst the ferns surrounding Red and Mandy’s forest cabin, making it hard to see their features clearly; a simple but neat visual trick. The vainglorious cult leader dishes out LSD to his followers and tries to hook Mandy in with both a shot of his product and a very long speech, one of several sequences that end up meandering way past the point the various sonic and visual flashes (scratchy soundtrack distortions, trippy motion blurring tracer effects, and lots of vivid, giallo-type lighting) have hit peak impact. Mandy is never boring to look at or listen to, with late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson giving us a dense and hallucinatory medley of extreme sounds that drawn on black metal, menacing ambient, doom drone, and piercing orchestrations. The production design and cinematography give us chilly bleak canyons through to spooky A-frame churches, usually with some hellish sky roiling overhead. The net affect is to create quite a potent sense of some kind of hell spilling over and puling the real world back down with it, plus the unhinged nature of Red’s braincase. 

But when Cage finally gets on his revenge path, the movie fumbles the pass a tad in terms of the promised payoff by giving us clumsily-constructed fight sequences that are often too dark to make out clearly (though they tend to have a ghoulishly fun pay off), and there are a few too many overlong scenes that add very little to the story or allow Cage to let rip. Yes, I like being kept waiting for my pleasures, but at least ten minutes of this film could’ve been shaved off by trimming the endless beats where Cage just stares out at the audience while waiting for a weird offscreen character to do something. Still, even in those draggy moments, usually something viscerally eye-popping has just flashed by onscreen and you will still be dealing with the afterimage burned onto your retina, and that Jóhannsson score (his last, sadly) will be keeping your bones shaking.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: First Man

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Director: Damien Chazelle 

12A | 2h 21min | Biography , Drama , History | 12 October 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

The directing and star duo of acclaimed movie musical La La Land - Damien Chazelle and Ryan Gosling - swap the vivid streetlights and jazzy showtunes of Hollywood for the cold outer reaches of space, in this muscularly intense, technically slick and serious-minded exploration of the career and private life of NASA astronaut and first man on the moon; Neil Armstrong. Adapted by Spotlight writer Josh Singer from James Hanson’s biography, First Man offers us the standard conservative biopic structure, as we follow the key years in the life of the reserved but accomplished navy-pilot-turned-astronaut as he moves from test piloting volatile rocket-powered aircraft out in the California deserts, to graduating to the risky and hurried NASA space programme and the 1969 Apollo 11 moon mission. Clearly aware of how well-trodden this path to the moon is in cinema history, with Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff exploring with gusto the birth of the first manned space missions and the swagger of the men who signed up, and Ron Howard’s popular Apollo 13 (1994) showcasing a space mission in a blow-by-blow jargon-laced manner, Chazelle instead focuses on impressing on audiences the huge forces involved in such a herculean effort. This movie posits Armstrong as a driven, focused man increasingly who leaves humanity behind even as he gets closer to the surface of the moon. But the force of the emotions driving this internalised man are better illuminated by the raw power of the huge unstable rockets pushing him up there. The Apollo programme was above all an awesome technical/industrial effort, one that ultimately created a rocket with enough launch power to run New York City for an hour; and Chazelle’s film makes you feel that.

First Man’s dazzling opening sequence - where we see a pre-NASA Armstrong test a high altitude high speed rocket craft (the X-15) in the early 60s -  is a great showcase for how Chazelle intends to set about demonstrating the awe-inspiring science and machinery that was being put to work in the task of blowing a hole in the possible, so viewers get a feel for the scale of what pilots like Armstrong were being asked to do, and to consider what kind of kind human could not only operate in such an intense scenario but subject themselves to the same danger again and again. Whereas Apollo 13 took a broad view of the mechanics of space flight, jumping from ground control to the interior and exterior of the space craft and ensuring a steady stream of exposition kept audiences oriented, Chazelle instead drops you in with Gosling inside a ferociously claustrophobic cockpit and has DP Linus Sandgren keep the 16mm camera up close, never letting us escape to get our bearings. A fierce soundscape that crashes alarming jangling and creaking noises over the constant deafening roar of the rocket jets means we can barely hear ground control trying to ascertain Armstrong’s status over the radio, and as the ship climbs faster and higher and the image shakes to a frenzied blur, it is easy to imagine the whole vehicle will just blow apart. There is so much headache-inducing shuddering that, when we take Armstrong’s perspective, we can barely see any of the cockpit gauges that we know his life depends on. We hardly see the outside of the jet either; the small cockpit vision ports offering only an alarmingly narrow view of an increasingly darkening sky.

This remains one of the most visceral cinematic experiences I have been exposed to in a long time, and three such harrowing flights are dotted throughout First Man’s plot, each taking Armstrong closer to the lunar surface. Such an inferno of noise and vision cuts sharply to a truly sublime moment of tranquility however, as, reaching 140,000 feet and the edge of space, Armstrong kills the rocket engines and has a few precious seconds to stare transfixed at the Earth below before almost losing control and crashing. The physical risks - and incomparable existential rewards - of strapping yourself to a missile with a cockpit and aiming skyward are made exhilaratingly clear. Those who know their history will know many test pilots never walked away from such missions alive. But as Armstrong admits when quizzed by NASA head honchos later, being up that high, alone, changes your perspective forever. Later on Chazelle will broaden out to IMAX format to show the magnificent desolation of the moon surface, but only having squashed our view down in these preceding acts to help evoke Armstrong’s hunger to escape the boundaries.

Armstrong’s skills as an engineer-pilot mean that he makes it back to the ground safely in that and other test missions, but only to face a problem he finally can’t fix. Neil and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) have to watch their young daughter Katy tragically fade away due to incurable leukaemia, a loss that the screenplay keeps in play as possibly the key motivating factor that propels Armstrong to leap onboard the NASA Gemini and Apollo space programmes when the call for volunteers goes out. “It’s a fresh start”, Janet things aloud to her husband when the call comes in, but maybe Neil is more gripped by the chance to find a metaphysical route out of his grief by riding enough force to defy earth’s gravity and thus feel broken free from the huge gravity well of pain. Maybe he sees touching the moon as the only suitable way of honouring his daughter. Maybe he just has a death wish. As introduced to us by Gosling, Armstrong is not the most talkative guy to start with; a coolly-poised professional with an understated sense of duty to service and country. A product of the Eisenhower stiff-upper lip 50s, Armstrong is the sturdy type who pulls the blinds down in his private office during the wake for his daughter, so his silent tears can remain unseen by anyone else. The next day he is back at test pilot duties, to the bafflement of his pilot buddies. The idea that grief might drive a man to insane levels of risk is not a particularly novel one, but Gosling, the go-to guy for near-silent, steely intensity, sells you on the idea that this man is not only focused like a laser, but also kind of a helpless passenger too. He is being pulled up from earth by the moon itself.

By the time we arrive to the pay-off for all the danger and death - the third act launch of the fabled Apollo 11 and the reveal of the breathtaking 300-foot white spire that is the Saturn V rocket vehicle - Gosling’s eyes are frequently filling the frame in extreme close up, the recurring effect of seeing pinpricks of light in his pupils evoking the moon itself. Gosling’s co-star Claire Foy as Janet suffers in contrast with a limited amount of screen time, as if reflecting how thankless the ‘job’ of an astronaut’s wife sounds in real life. But at least through Foy we get a sense of the terror and frustration of watching a partner be so consumed by a task that seems not only makes you seem humiliatingly small in comparison but seems far more dangerous than promised, even reckless. By the time Neil is sitting down to one last pre-launch dinner where he has promised he will reassure the children he will be coming home, he comes off sounding just like a bland NASA press conference statement. The moon has eclipsed the part of him that was the man Janet fell in love with.

Janet watches Neil loses several friends during the Apollo program, including the crew of Apollo 1 who in real-life perished in a fire in their cramped cockpit, a tragedy chillingly recreated here by Chazelle. These additional losses shut Neil down even further, and leaves Jan to scream at Deke Slayton, the astronaut’s flight roster chief, that NASA’s finest seem not too far removed from kids building balsa wood planes. Jan has a point: as although First Man’s narrative takes a necessarily potted view of the various stages that led to the Apollo programme, one thing that the exquisitely authentic technical recreations (Christopher Nolan’s regular collaborator, Nathan Crowley, served as the film’s production designer) and nerve-jangling flight sequences successfully emphasise is the strange juxtaposition of this hugely ambitious goal with the alarmingly analogue technology. NASA might be carrying out a (so far) never-superseded act of mechanical and scientific genius, but alongside shiny capsules and huge booster rockets sit blackboards, chalk and pencils. The lunar landing module training vehicle, which looks about as sturdy as a biplane with a hoover mounted on the underside, nearly kills Neil in a pre-moon test run: his narrow ejector seat escape at low altitude is true to real life. The pre-Apollo Gemini mission, where Neil and his co-pilot have to prove they can dock a rickety and tiny command module craft in orbit with another craft (thus proving a ship can dock and extract a lunar lander for a moon landing) ends up resembling more driving a submarine in a pitch black ocean trench than a quick parking exercise, with Neil having to steer, consult delphic star charts on his lap, and update a worried Houston all at the same time whilst outside the window there is not even a star field to comfort him (or us).

Only two decades before Armstrong stepped off the lunar module ladder onto the moon surface and uttered his immortal message, the US was flying aircraft made of wood and driven by kerosene piston engines.  Chazelle’s film, if it does anything successfully at all, transmits an echo back to us of the original sense of that burst of incredible, reality-ripping force that could only leave those at its apex forever changed. It still seems hard to believe humans rode flaming rockets into the sky, walked on the moon, and got home alive


Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review : Columbus

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Director: Kogonada

12A | 1h 44min | Drama | 5 October 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

I actually caught director Kogonada’s debut feature (he being the same Kogonada well-known to many a film student for his video essays for Criterion) over a year ago at the old Music Box Theatre in Chicago while on vacation. Vacation means taking a break from review writing surely, so my summing up of it will be pretty brief; Kogonada has really crafted an understated and quietly satisfying meditation on how places and constructs - in this case the unique architecture found in the town of Columbus, Indiana (a place I had never even heard of) - can exert a profound and even healing effect on us… if we take the time to look. I like how the director gives the spaces he takes his camera to (take a bow, DP Elisha Christian) time to breathe on screen: this isn't some rushed travelogue. Watching this film, adjusting to its rhythms and letting your eyes find the contours of its interiors and your ears adjust to their acoustics, is like easing down a kind of soothing balm. Stars John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson as two Columbus residents (he’s back temporarily from Korea to sort out his father’s affairs, she’s a soon-to-be college student if she can hold her mother together long enough to feel safe to leave her) who meet by chance and embark on an impromptu architectural tour, make for a curious but affecting double act here, as the time they spend in Columbus helps clear out the debris from their minds and let them start to focus on where their passions should lie. Be prepared to come out of this googling travels costs to Indiana.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: A Star is Born

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Director: Bradley Cooper

15 | 2h 15min | Drama , Music , Romance | 3 October 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★★☆

A star vehicle is reborn in Bradley Cooper’s hugely enjoyable, shamelessly melodramatic, and technically swish take on the decades-old film story. Each generation looks like it will get its own version of A Star Is Born; a seemingly timeless romance/tragedy where the plot sees a young female singer and actress rise far above the fading male star who gives her that first big break. In the 1930s William Wellman directed Janet Gaynor as the young actress on the way up who falls for alcoholic fading idol Fredric March. Judy Garland and James Mason made for a memorable 1954 version under George Cukor’s helmsmanship, whereas Barbra Streisand famously failed to get Elvis to star opposite her in Frank Pierson’s 70s remake (Kris Kristofferson landed the part of the rock star fading out tragically after guiding her to stardom). This time however we have four-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper taking the role of the male rock star headed downhill opposite multiple award-winning, Oscar-nominated music and style icon Lady Gaga playing the young female singer taking an all-or-nothing crack at stardom and professional fulfilment. It turns out to be a winning combination in terms of chemistry and that all-important sense of authenticity, and this helps the film glide over some second half flaws

Cooper took this project over from Clint Eastwood and made it his passion project, learning to sing and play whilst also taking a co-writing credit. His enthusiasm for this material shows, though his greener co-star turns out to be more than comfortable with the camera up close. Bringing the story up to date for the era where Youtube views signal your trajectory and fame comes and goes fast, Cooper makes the male lead this time not an actor but a famous yet increasingly out-of-touch country rock musician named Jackson Maine. With messy long locks and projecting the easy swagger of a Southerner who still has some of that essential boozy charm that helped supplement his raw talent, Cooper also gives Jackson a striking drawl that evokes the unmistakable voice of Sam Elliott. In fact, Elliot (very much this film’s MVP, owning some of the more poignant moments) was sought out to join the cast by Cooper and plays Jackson’s much older half brother Bobby, who also serves as his manager and, in a nice meta touch, we will see call his wayward brother out on appropriating his vocal timbre and singing style. Jackson first appears in this film not on stage however, but slumped sozzled in the back of a limo cruising the locale of his latest gig for a late night watering hole, a result, we soon learn, of an increasingly destructive alcohol addiction supplemented with snorting various crushed pills. He picks a drag bar, simply because it is open.

It is here that Jackson encounters - and swiftly takes under his wing - waitress and struggling singer Ally (Gaga), who proceeds to deliver a zestful late-night take on La Vie en Rose as her drag friends cheer on. Gaga is unsurprisingly no slouch at making this kind of stuff pop off the screen, and Cooper’s and her chemistry is winning and believable. Though the film speeds along much faster than the near three-hour Cukor version, the build-up to Ally’s breakout success is peppered with time for the smaller emotional beats where we see her and Jackson connect; whether it is the pair reminiscing and singing accapella on the pavement outside a 7-Eleven way past midnight during their meet-cute (which is lit and shot so its neon signage and colourful shelves seem like a vibrant foreshadowing of the stadiums Ally will soon be packing out), or Jackson tenderly peeling off Ally’s fake eyebrows in her dressing room. Things reach a well-handled crescendo when Jackson takes things to the next level by dragging Ally on stage to join him at a gig in Arizona weeks later, wanting her to perform the same song he heard her tentatively trial out on him. This ear worm of a number - “Shallow”- is one clear standout song from a roster of tracks that never sink below ‘decent’, and in this sequence the evocative and immersive cinematography, rich production design, and Cooper’s commitment to the technical details of the live music experience (he shot many of the live acts in front of a real audience, even taking his production to Coachella) all align. The icing on the cake is seeing Gaga as Ally slowly shake off that nervousness and own the mic…and the stage. The two go on tour as a duet act and start a passionate relationship in parallel, though Ally senses right away Jackson has plenty of demons.

Of course, planets don’t stay in alignment, and the second act sees Jackson’s alcoholism, tinnitus and drug addiction accelerate his decline, whilst Ally fits largely comfortably into her role as the face of fame 2.0 in the Instagram era.  Here the film stumbles a little, largely because it starts to feel hurried (there are scenes which feel oddly truncated) and the 21st century backdrop isn’t exploited in any novel way. Jackson remains, like the James Mason character, a character ruined by addictions, so a chance to maybe explore a darker side of male success inflated by patriarchy and toxic masculinity - hot topics today - is missed. Jackson is basically a nice guy who isn’t really jealous of Ally’s success, his addictions just make him seem that way, though Cooper nods towards the career-risking and emotionally hurtful behaviour of Mason’s troubled actor with a similar awards ceremony drunken disaster scene that might have you watching through your fingers. I was a tad ambiguous also about the arc of Ally’s success; she goes in a more pop and R’nB oriented direction after British agent Rez (Rafi Gavron) offers her a standalone contract separate from Jackson, but the stereotypically slimy nature of this impresario gives the impression Ally has sold out, a strange shift in the film’s, until that point, equal balance of sympathies. That being said, this direction may simply have been a way of connecting Ally back to the real-life image of the woman playing her. And Gaga, though playing a character who admittedly gets her start thanks to male generosity and arguably even sacrifice, keeps Ally a self-aware and passionate figure, albeit a tragic one who can’t escape the wheel of fame that brushes out the old to replace it with the new. Sometimes stars are crossed and not entwined.

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Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.