Ahh, autumn – where the colder nights and the array of festival-acclaimed titles finally making their way to cinemas give you the perfect excuse to spend your evenings at the cinema. This year has proved no exception, with the unquestionable event movie of the season being A STAR IS BORN, a film that has been spawning endless memes and think-pieces ever since its trailer arrived this past summer. The fourth version of the tale originated from the 1937 film of the same name, which was then told again in 1954 and 1972’s remakes (alongside a 2013 Bollywood version and unofficial riffs like The Artist). This iteration sees Bradley Cooper make his directorial debut and cast Lady Gaga and himself in the roles previously occupied by Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, Judy Garland and James Mason, and Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.
He’s Jackson Maine, a country-rock singer who can still sell out stadiums but is increasingly dilapidated by his drug and alcohol dependence. She’s Ally, an aspiring singer-songwriter struggling with insecurities from her years spent trying to break into the business. One night, in search of a drink after a show, Jackson stumbles upon the drag bar where Ally works and performs and witnesses her giving a rendition of “La Vie en Rose” that leaves him stunned. The pair spend the night talking, she shares a song with him, and he insists she’s got what it takes to make it and has to perform with him. She maintains otherwise, but eventually ends up on-stage with him a stadium gig where her performance wows the public and turns her into a household name overnight. Jackson and Ally fall in love as her career goes stratospheric, but as Ally’s star begins to eclipse his and she gets caught up in music industry politics, Jackson slips further into self-destruction and eventually realises that he may be holding her back.
For its first forty minutes or so, A Star is Born has all the makings of a modern classic. Cooper directs with a steady hand, an unfussy touch, and a nice eye for detail that makes the film feel grounded and lived-in. He plays out most scenes in long, fluid takes, focused in on faces in shallow focus, giving the piece a free-flowing intimacy and naturalism that surprisingly recalls recent Terrence Malick works. He’s willing to let details and actions speak for themselves and has a good sense for how characterisation can be expressed through the positioning of characters within a space. Every character relationship feels authentic – particularly Ally and her father Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay, brilliantly balancing well-meaning likeability with insufferable boorishness as a could-have-been-a-contender former crooner who wants to support his daughter but remains oblivious to how his obsession with his own glory days might be hurting her) and Jackson and his half-brother and manager Bobby (Sam Elliott, bringing his inimitable gruff gravitas and setting up a wonderfully meta joke about the fact that Cooper often seems to be doing an Elliott impression) – and the live music scenes are marvels of realism and power. Both leads are excellent, Gaga cementing herself as a here-to-stay screen talent with her deeply felt performance here – making Ally’s self-doubt painfully palpable at first, then bringing out applause worthy notes of determination, grit, and soul, and able to project shattering sorrow with her eyes – while Cooper poignantly essays a potent, painfully physical portrayal of brokenness.
With Matthew Libatique’s camera almost always in fluid, handheld motion, and Cooper’s exceptionally adept facial emoting, the film’s first act feels alive with emotion, shot through with love, pain, and exhilaration. However, as it moves into its second half, A Star is Born shifts focus to its detriment and never re-finds that initial energy. What starts as a two-handed character study of two artists at opposite ends of their careers eventually squarely fixates on Cooper’s Maine, his insecurity at his girlfriend’s newfound fame, and how that drives him further into self-annihilation. The film becomes another entry in the canon of the ‘guy-cry’ movie, a story of ennobled male defeat and suffering destined to be one of those few films your film-bro friend admits to crying at. That doesn’t necessarily make A Star is Born a worse film, but it does make it a more familiar and less all-around satisfying one than it could have been. Ally is so thoroughly marginalised to a cypher for Jackson’s angst that, despite Gaga’s excellent performance, she becomes inaccessible and distant to us at the very moment we should be zeroing in on her reactions to her newfound fame. A finale that ought to play as devastating falls unfortunately flat because the film hasn’t earned the investment in Ally required to make it sing. A Star is Born is passionately performed with many glorious high-notes, but you can’t help but wish it was willing to play some newer riffs.
Another familiar story gets told anew in the similarly awards-buzzed FIRST MAN, Whiplash and La La Land director Damien Chazelle’s chronicle of the 1969 moon landing, which (as the title would suggest) focuses on Neil Armstrong (portrayed here by Chazelle’s apparent muse Ryan Gosling). This is a very buttoned-up, restrained film compared to what you might expect based on the grandness of the subject matter and the expressionistic flourishes of Chazelle’s other work. Chazelle and screenwriter Josh Singer (who won an Oscar for the similarly reserved and detail-oriented Spotlight) eschew hero worship and melodrama in favour of procedural nitty-gritty and restrained melancholy. The astronauts here are not presented as heroic or particularly noble, but simply as people doing their jobs, while there are no overt affirmations of patriotism or even of the righteousness of the mission to the moon itself (in this respect, it recalls Kathryn Bigelow’s procedural dramas). Linus Sandgren’s grainy, verite-style cinematography has a gritty texture and suitable fixation on minute details, while the space sequences are bracing in their physicality. Much like Chazelle’s previous two efforts, this is a film about the sacrifices involved in achieving greatness and in many respects, it is his most complex meditation on the subject yet.
The film presents Armstrong as emotionally closed-off to everyone, even his wife Janet (Claire Foy, impressive in a somewhat underserved part) and their two young sons, in the wake of their infant daughters’ death from cancer, and his single-minded determination to reach the moon is tied to his grief-induced detachment. First Man is not the first film to focus on an intellectually brilliant but emotionally unavailable man, but it is among the few not to view said character as a vehicle for adolescent wish-fulfilment (à la Good Will Hunting) but rather with real insight into the pain caused by such pathology both for the individual themselves and those around them. The film imitates Armstrong’s emotional state in its tone and style, which makes the few moments of emotionalism all the more potent, particularly during the perfectly-pitched, quietly moving finale (Chazelle consistently knows just how to end a film). That Gosling is great at playing an internally tormented professional stoically dedicated to his craft is no great shock, but his work here still counts among his best, a performance of stony devotion barely papering over a raw vulnerability. Claire Foy has a few deeply affecting moments – with the scene where she angrily orders her husband to talk to their sons about the possibility he won’t come home the stand-out – while a variety of dependable character actors, including Kyle Chandler and Corey Stoll (perfectly cast as Buzz Aldrin), round out the cast. Its attempts to chronicle the political context surrounding the moon landing are less assured, but as a study of the mindset involved in a historic achievement, First Man is a minimalist, subtle triumph.
Minimalist and subtle aren’t words anyone will be applying to MANDY. This is partially because Mandy is a film about love: its pain, its joy, and the fundamental difference between its selfless and selfish variants. This is also because it’s a film where Nicolas Cage calls a man with a skull for a face a “vicious snowflake” before hitting him over the head with a pipe. Whether or not you can embrace that duality should tell you everything about whether or not Mandy – the second feature by Beyond the Black Rainbow director Panos Cosmatos – is for you or not. Cage plays Red Miller(!), a lumberjack(!!) who lives in a cabin in the Pacific Northwestern ‘Shadow Mountains’ with his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), a gas station cashier and artist (Cage’s inarticulate awe upon seeing her latest creation is one of the film’s most well-observed moments). Both clearly recovering from past traumas, these two misfits have forged themselves a private Eden where they spend their evenings talking about their favourite planets. Their idyll is disturbed by the arrival of Jeremiah Sand (a brilliantly despicable Linus Roache), a megalomaniacal failed psychedelic-folk musician turned leader of a cult known as the Children of the New Dawn. He becomes obsessed with Mandy after seeing her walking through the woods one day and deploys several of his acolytes to retrieve her for him, aided by a possibly demonic biker gang, the Black Skulls. Flashing into Mandy and Red’s cabin in a dizzying assault of strobes, this coalition of “gnarly psychos” abduct the couple, beginning a horrific sequence of events that set Red on the path of bloody vengeance. From its King Crimson-soundtracked opening titles on, Mandy establishes the hallucinatory logic of a setting that seems to exist solely within the head of its director. It may take place in 1983, but the film’s era seems to be a collision of memories of mid-twentieth-century counter-cultural ephemera. The saturated lighting, which alternates between blissful, cool blues and vivid, bloody reds, and the late Johan Johansson’s doom-laden score, give the film a dreamlike, woozy feel, situating it within an archetypal, symbolic world. Mandy fuses its many and varied influences – from The Evil Dead to H.P Lovecraft to heavy-metal album covers – into a gorgeous Dionysian spectacle of otherworldly sights and sensations, that feels almost like a manic, hyperactive cousin to You Were Never Really Here’s similarly surreal but more melancholic reworking of the revenge thriller.
For much of its first hour, Mandy plays out as essentially a mood piece, centred largely on Riseborough’s excellent, highly interior work (in a description of a horrific childhood incident, she says more with her pauses than some actors could with whole monologue), and it is only after we’ve spent a good amount of time soaking up the atmosphere and watching Cage and Riseborough’s shared bliss that the film takes its turn into grindhouse territory, which grounds the whole affair in surprisingly resonant emotions. Mandy is always aware of its own B-movie artificiality, and naturally wants its audience to gawk at its bizarre interludes (witness a gloriously naff macaroni cheese commercial) and hoot and holler at its gory set-pieces (Cage and a hippie having a chainsaw fight!) and off-beat one-liners, but it never winks at us or plays its emotional underpinnings with anything less than total sincerity. Much like Nicolas Winding Refn’s best work, the film so wholeheartedly believes in its singularly schlocky vision that you can’t help but get swept up in it. It’s also far smarter than a mere pastiche, with a perceptive eye for the insecure psychology of male violence in its portrayal of Roach’s preening, entitled villain (who claims to have “a mainline of pure and utter acceptance” from God), particularly in a glorious scene between him and Riseborough. And at the film’s centre is Cage, at long last in a role that knows what to do with his particular brand of non-naturalism: it’s as if he’s finally at home in Cosmatos’s genre netherworld. The larger-than-life goofiness and outsized emoting that are so easy to write off as risible work perfectly within the film’s heightened context, and by the time he’s pouring spirits on his wounds and screaming in agony, you’re not laughing at him, you’re there screaming with him. He’s off the deep end, watch as he dives in – he’ll never meet the ground.