Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Green Book

Director: Peter Farrelly
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimiter D. Marinov, Mike Hatton, Iqbal Theba, Sebastian Maniscalco, Von Lewis
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

If you're going to make a film set in the past or present that in any way touches on the issue of racism, it's best to prepare yourself. Make sure you have all your bases covered, do your homework, insure there aren't any inaccuracies and brace for the inevitable backlash. What the backlash will be or why it exists may as well be anyone's guess, but when you tackle a topic as sensitive as this and it's based on a true story, at least some controversy is inevitable. Peter Farrelly found this out the hard way upon signing on to co-write and direct Green Book, a film detailing the bond that develops between a renowned African-American  pianist and an Italian bouncer when the latter serves as the musician's driver and bodyguard for his 1962 Deep South concert tour.

Covering a shameful part of U.S. history while keeping a relatively light tone in the face of its deadly serious subject matter was enough to raise eyebrows in a year that saw Black Panther and BlackKklansman nominated for Best Picture. That it was made by the director of Dumb and Dumber  and drew comparisons to Driving Miss Daisy would seem to be the final straw, until it actually won the top prize on Oscar night, defeating films considered more progressive and a better indication of where we're culturally headed. If rumors are true, Farrelly's picture turns back the clock to when Hollywood was only capable of telling the stories of black people through white characters, and a show of support is akin to a vote for the establishment.

Of course, none of these aforementioned points have anything to do with the movie Green Book. and when you actually sit down to watch it, that all turns into background noise. It's not that the controversy should be casually dismissed, but rather it becomes a major distraction when trying to form even the most subjective opinions on the film. That it's inspired this much debate is a credit to the picture, but eventually you reach a place where even that needs to be shelved in order to examine what's directly in front of you. Some may wonder what all the fuss was about, as the most noteworthy thing about it just might be how competently made and inoffensive it is.

Frank "Tony Lip" Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) is a New York City bouncer working at the Copacabana when he gets word that the nightclub is temporarily closing for renovations and he'll need to find a paying job for the next couple of months in order to continue providing for his wife, Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and their young kids. So when a call goes out looking for a driver, Tony arrives for an interview above Carnegie Hall to meet a man referred to as "Doc." The doc in question is African American pianist, Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), who's looking for a driver and bodyguard for his eight-week concert tour through the Midwest and Deep South.

Hailing from what seem like entirely different worlds, the refined, cultured musician hires the tough talking Italian from the Bronx, with the record label supplying Tony with a copy of the Green Book, a guide specifically detailing all the motels, restaurants and gas stations that will serve African Americans. They clash almost immediately as the awkwardness of the foul-mouthed, bigoted Tony cheuffering a highly educated black man through the Deep South in the '60's is matched only by their wildly differing dispositions. But as the trip progresses, they start to find a common ground, as Tony is impressed by Don's talent as a musician while simultaneously being appalled at the treatment he receives by the racist white audiences he performs for.

If plenty of comparisons have already been made to a reverse Driving Miss Daisy in terms of both plot and tone, the road trip aspect of the story actually comes closer to recalling Planes, Trains and Automobiles, minus the two former means of transportation. There are many moments and extended sequences that tackle the racism Don faces at nearly every stop, but a lot of the picture frequently consists of scenes of them arguing and offending each another, like a bickering odd couple of sorts. It's here where the script does actually resemble a more traditional Farrelly project, even if no one would ever think to confuse it with a conventional comedy.

That those scenes co-exist alongside more unnerving ones involving racism in which Don is bailed out of potentially volatile situations by Tony have lead to complaints about this being the latest example of Hollywood's "white guilt," or perceived inability to tell stories about African American characters unless it's filtered through the heroics of some kind of white savior. But that doesn't seem fair in this case since this is one of those rare cinematic interpretations of "true events" (co-written by Tony Vallelonga's son Nick) that gets most of its facts right, to the point that it was even approved by the two protagonists before their recent passings. And despite recent complaints from Don Shirley's family that their relationship to him was misrepresented or accusations that Don's homosexuality is brushed under the rug, neither of those issues seem particularly relevant to the film or what it's about. Especially the former, which isn't even really addressed enough to warrant such a negative reaction.

Through Mahershala Ali's performance, we recognize that this a story as much about identity as race, with Don having earned the respect of white society as a musician of considerable talent, worthy of playing their parties if only so they can feel more cultured and refined. But the second that playing ends, it's clear he hasn't earned that respect from them as a human being because of the color of his skin. He can't eat at the restaurants where he performs or use their bathrooms, and he also feels like an outsider at the predominantly black "Green Book" motels at which he stays since his station in life differs so drastically from theirs.

Everything from Ali's posture, to how succinctly he speaks each word is not only meant to reflect an individual with impeccable class and intelligence, but someone repressed and hurt enough to use it as an armor to deflect the prejudice he encounters. Playing Don as outwardly cool and composed, Ali just barely lets us see through the cracks to the suffering, which makes it all the more difficult to watch. Tony has no identity crisis, as he's unapologetically himself in the most blunt, abrasive way possible, often to his own detriment.

Tony's bigotry comes mostly from ignorance, but even he has to draw the line when he sees how disrespected his boss is, accurately assessing that if Don is permitted to perform in these establishments, it's insane that he's forbidden to sit and eat there. Transforming himself by adding more than a few extra pounds and a Bronx accent, Mortensen's portrayal of Tony is definitely one of his more entertaining turns if only because we've never seen  the actor, who's known for darker, more intense roles, tackle anything so over-the-top before. He becomes the perfect foil for the more subdued Ali, who feels more like the film's true lead, regardless of how they were categorized during awards season.

That most were ready to tear this effort to shreds sight unseen doesn't mean it isn't still a fairly predictable, crowd-pleasing picture that recalls a simpler time in Hollywood when no one was afraid to rock anyone's boat when handling potentially delicate material. Farrelly doesn't take risks or push any buttons in delivering a satisfying, heartwarming story that confronts racism, sometimes powerfully. And while most of that power comes from the performances, the one thing that's been lost in the conversation is the film's actual quality, which will ultimately have the final say in determining how well or poorly Green Book will age. Even if the reaction it's garnered may build the best argument yet for the Best Picture Oscar as a snapshot of the year in which it was released. For better or worse.  

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Creed II

Director: Steven Caple Jr.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Dolph Lundgren, Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu, Phylicia Rashad, Wood Harris, Andre Ward, Brigitte Nielsen, Milo Ventimiglia, Russell Hornsby
Running Time: 130 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)
When Ryan Coogler's Creed was released in 2015, it was just the shot of adrenaline the ailing Rocky franchise needed, yielding results even better than anyone expected. Just the very idea to center the film around Apollo Creed's son and have him trained by his late father's friend and foe Rocky Balboa was inspired. Casting Michael B. Jordan as the lead opposite Sylvester Stallone was ingenious. It presented all these new, exciting possibilities, and more amazingly, followed through on them, erasing memories of the inferior sequels that brought shame and even occasional embarrassment to the series. More importantly, Creed didn't feel like a Rocky film, and yet in many ways when it mattered most, it did, reconnecting us to what we loved most about these movies and bringing a sense of renewed purpose to Stallone's role. His Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and the deflated looks of disappointment we saw in that room when he lost, stands as proof.

The justifiable acclaim only solidified the inevitability of sequels, and with that would always come the risk that the franchise could settle back into its predictable rhythm. So when Coogler bowed out of this to make a little movie with Jordan called Black Panther, it seemed our worst suspicions that the series would host a revolving door of directors lacking a distinct vision, were about to be confirmed. But with the foundation already laid, Steven Caple Jr.'s Creed II successfully picks up where we left off, and while it does follow a familar formula and lacks some of the previous film's freshness and energy, it's a worthy successor.

In again drawing heavily from the Rocky legacy (this time Rocky IV) to jumpstart a new story, it's at least one worth telling, featuring a villainous return fans of the franchise can legitimately claim they've waited decades for. Despite good reason for concern moving forward, this one works because the personal nature of the story and a continued emphasis on the relationship between the main characters that's been carried over from the first entry.

Three years after his loss to "Pretty" Ricky Conlan, Adonis Creed (Jordan) has amassed enough victories to earn a shot at the WBC World Heavyweight Championship, which he wins from Danny "Stuntman" Wheeler. On top of the boxing world and a major star, Adonis proposes to girlfriend Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) who agrees to marry him while suggesting they move out to the West Coast  to start their new lives together. Hesitant to leave his hometown of Philadelphia, as well his trainer and mentor Rocky Balboa (Stallone), Adonis has a ferocious new challenger looking for a shot in Viktor Drago (Florian "Big Nasty" Munteanu).

Viktor's been trained and groomed from an early age as a fighting machine by his father, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), who killed Adonis' dad, Apollo Creed, in the ring over thirty years earlier before being defeated by Rocky in Moscow. Disgraced by his home country in the years since that humiliating defeat, Ivan hopes that through Viktor he can earn some measure of redemption, and even possibly some respect from well-off ex-wife Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen). But Adonis' reasons for taking the fight is what worries Rocky, Bianca and his stepmother and Apollo's widow, Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). With the self-imposed pressure of  avenging his father's death, Adonis enters the ring with one thing in mind: revenge. And Viktor smells blood. 

It's probably not a good sign for the protagonist that the "big fight" around which the entire axis of this installment revolves occurs within the first 45 minutes of the picture. The build-up to it is quite impressive as the screenplay makes a legitimate case that Adonis could get killed in the ring just as his father did, only this time at the hands of the younger Drago. It also helps that there's an over thirty year backstory to draw from that comes from one of the more beloved entries in the series. If not neccessarily a great film, Rocky IV is nothing if not memorably entertaining due to the presence of a larger-than-life, almost cartoonish adversary in Ivan Drago, so it makes perfect sense to try to recapture that magic for the first Creed sequel.

As a character, Drago's son, like many of the opponents in adversaries in both franchises is kind of a wet blanket, but at least he's given a purpose through his father's quest for redemption. And similarly to how we were treated to a really compelling "where are they now?" in last year's Karate Kid sequel series, it's great to see Lundgren return to the role that made him. Playing Drago as a bitter, pitiable man living through his adult son, he's still somehow reeeling from the loss dealt to him by Rocky all these years later, and that feels just about right.  But as well developed as the villainous side of the equation is, the movie's bread is still buttered with the internal struggle of Adonis reconciling his father's death and finding out who he is the hard way.

It's not a spoiler to reveal his title defense against Viktor is a disaster that breaks him mentally and physically, challenging not only his will to continue boxing, but the important relationships in his life as well. While his bond with Bianca (Thompson, great again) faces some serious obstacles accompanied by euphoric highs, it's his friendship with Rocky that's most tested. He doesn't want his protege fighting this guy for glaringly obvious reasons, but an added element is that he doesn't believe Adonis' head is in the right place. It'll be up to both of them to get it there. Ironically enough, the movie soars highest when entering familar fomulaic territory, leaning into the franchise tenants of training montages and personal redemption. One advanatge the Creed films undoubtedly have over what came before it is the realism and authenticity of the boxing scenes, which are electrifyingly staged and suprisingly suspenseful, especially considering both fight outcomes in this aren't exactly in doubt.

Against all better judgment, we're hooked, mainly because the dynamic Michael B. Jordan has taken us on a journey with this character, infusing Adonis with a determination, anger and sensitivity that matches, if not surpasses, anything we've previously seen in the Rocky films. When his body and spirit are seemingly shattered, it's Stallone's character who continues to be properly positioned opposite him, playing on all the strengths he brought as a lead, but in a more appropriate supporting role that reminds us how formidable a presence he can be on screen. While not exactly surprises, brief but impactful appearances by Nielsen and Milo Ventimiglia as Rocky's estranged son Robert are seamlessly incorporated, the latter benefitting from being a bigger star now than when he appeared in the forgettable slog that was 2006's Rocky Balboa.

Making his feature directorial debut, Steven Caple Jr. deserves credit for not only avoiding to screw up a good thing, but doing right by these characters and the series, which now seems poised for yet another outing. But any Creed sequel, while completely expected, was still far from a guarantee to work. While no real risks are taken and Caple plays it as safe as possible within the confines of a very predictable formula, that was undeniably the right route to take here. If we get another film that shakes out identically to these first two, then we can start talking about the possibility of audiences tiring of it and re-experiencing the fatigue associated with the Rocky series. Until then it's best to enjoy the ride since Creed II has very little worth complaining about, delivering more than enough to please both casual and diehard fans alike.       

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Front Runner

Director: Jason Reitman
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, Alfred Molina, Sara Paxton, Mamoudou Athie, Kaitlyn Dever, Toby Huss, Molly Ephraim, Steve Zissis, Spencer Garrett, Ari Graynor, Bill Burr, Mike Judge, Kevin Pollack, Mark O' Brien
Running Time: 113 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Does it matter? That's the question at the center of Jason Reitman's The Front Runner, which details Senator Gary Hart's unsuccessful 1988 Presidential bid. At one point not only a lock for the nod, but seemingly the White House, all of Hart's political ambitions came crashing down in the span of merely three weeks. Young, good-looking, charismatic and full of fresh ideas, his campaign was derailed because he had an ex-marital affair. But that wasn't the story. The real story was that it was the first time anyone bothered to care. The media. The public. His colleagues. For the previous 200 years, politicians got free passes in their private lives, which remained just that: private. Hart's timing was terrible, his ascent having arrived on the precipice of a major sea change in our culture that's carried over into today: when news became entertainment.

Hart felt the wrath when character and trustworthiness in our public figures suddenly became an issue and the press realized they could make bank exposing it. In other words, he really stepped in it and the way he reacted, or rather didn't, circles back to that question of whether a public figure's private business should really matter, and whether that matters when he's a politician seeking the highest office in the land. It's a question we're still wrestling with and one Reitman thoroughly examines here with surprising insight and objectivity.

After losing the 1984 Democratic Presidential nomination to Walter Mondale, idealistic, rejuvenated Colorado Senator Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) returns four years later, entering the 1988 race, quickly becoming the front runner to earn the nomination that earlier alluded him. With wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) and daughter Andrea (Kaitlyn Dever) in his corner, Hart seems to be the ideal family values candidate, telling it like it is and promising to put the people and country first. There's only one problem: his marriage. Or more specifically, an affair he's having with a Florida-based model named Donna Shaw (Sara Paxton), whose best friend tips off Miami Herald reporter Tom Fiedler (Steve Zissis) about their secret excursions.

With Washington Post's A.J. Parker (Mamoudou Athie) also cornering Hart about his extracurricular activities in an interview, the senator becomes defensive as ever, lashing out at anyone daring to bring up his personal life. But he's in trouble, and despite loyal supporters like hard-nosed campaign manager (Bill Dixon) and scheduler Irene Kelly (Molly Ephraim) telling him otherwise, Hart stubbornly stays the course, even as the media has a field day exposing his transgressions. Unfortunately, the only course he's now headed on would seem to lead toward political infamy and embarassment rather than the White House.

Reitman's casting of Hugh Jackman as the embattled senator is meant to convey something that perhaps another actor in the role wouldn't. Despite what you may have seen or read about Hart or any of the paralells between him and Jackman as far as their likability, charisma, or ability to hold an audience, they're worlds apart. And if we're going strictly on appearance, they actually look nothing alike. The choice is clearly meant to idealize both Hart himself and his campaign, but it works. It's as if the producers asked themselves which actor would make the senator look ten times better than he actually was, which isn't to say he wasn't a strong candidate in reality. But in Jackman's shoes, he manages to seem even better and more trustworthy. How could you not vote for this guy? And that makes his eventual collapse all the more disappointing and symbolic.

While we expect Jackman would excel at playing a baby-kissing, family-oriented man of the people, what he best captures is Hart's hubris. His complete disbelief that anyone would want to talk about  his personal life instead of the issues or the country. He's also personally offended, demanding that what he does on his own time is off limits without exception. In one sense, his idealism is commendable, but it's also becoming increasingly unrealistic, shading him as an entitled egomaniac. It's the push and pull between the two sides of this man's character, or sometimes lack thereof, that make for such a compelling implosion.  His failure to grasp that nothing is off limits anymore and how that leads to his undoing is what makes the picture engaging, despite an opening half hour that lures us into thinking we're watching a dry political docudrama.

One of the best scenes occur between Jackman and J.K. Simmons' as Hart's campaign manager, who attempts to convince him that, morals and fairness aside, the coverage of the scandal is quickly eating away at everything he and his staffers have been working for. Of course, it falls on deaf ears as Hart continually refuses to acknowledge its existence and plows forward, rewriting his speeches while dismissing the allegations so flippantly that it gives a whole new inflexible meaning to the phrase "staying on topic."

There's never a moment of self-reflection, even when being followed and ambushed outside his D.C. residence, camera in his face while questions are being fired. Yet as unlikable as he is and how little remorse he seems to show, Hart still makes a valid point that if we used this criteria to judge our leaders we wouldn't have had a Martin Luther King or John F. Kennedy, both of whom were serial womanizers in an era where their indiscretions were protected. Why should he be treated any differently? The answer's simple: he's entered a different era.

If Hart has a rough time adjusting to this paradigm shift, the media has just as difficult a time figuring out how to handle it. And it's here where some of the accusations that Reitman didn't dig deep enough or just grazed the surface of the story's implications don't hold water. He takes us inside these newsrooms showing how they struggle and debate the merits of covering this, and how. Some, like Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Alfred Molina), are all in, while trepidatious Post reporter A.J. Parker's guilt at exposing Hart is pitted against his equally strong moral sense of responsibility as a journalist.

In a cast loaded with valuable utility players, few make as strong an impression as Molly Ephraim as the fictional Irene Kelly, a political handler who now must handle the "other woman" in the scandal, Donna Shaw. In doing this, she realizes that aside from the young woman's naivete and poor judgment, she'll be a casualty. The senator will suffer the political fallout but the scandal will follow her wherever she goes after she's dragged through the mud by the media and Hart's team. She's not as strong as Vera Farmiga's more hardened Lee Hart,  putting on a tough public face to shield herself and daughter Andrea from the humiliation her husband's actions caused, only confirming what she suspected of him all along.

At its core, The Front Runner is a process picture, and while it won't anytime soon be confused with the likes of All The President's Men or Zodiac as far as how deep or skillfully it takes us into the newsroom, it makes for an effective snapshot of a little discussed turning point for American politics and in our culture. The true events dramatized in the former film heavily played into what would eventually take down Gary Hart. Post-Watergate, everyone in the press wanted to be crusaders, and found their perfect vehicle with this candidate, who didn't exactly do himself any favors with his actions, regardless of how much luckier his predecessors may have been. It's one thing to apologize, but it's another entirely to apologize for getting caught.

Monday, March 4, 2019

A Star is Born (2018)

Director: Bradley Cooper
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle, Andrew Dice Clay, Anthony Ramos, Rafi Gavron, Greg Grunberg,
Running Time: 135 min.
Rating: R

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Bradley Cooper's A Star is Born is a tale of two movies. The first revolves around a drunk, self-destructive country rock star drowning in his troubled past who finds renewed creative purpose in discovering a new talent. It follows a trajectory not unlike 2009's Crazy Heart, with its lead actor channeling Kris Kristofferson in 1976's A Star is Born. The second is about a waitress and struggling part-time bar singer who suddenly gets her big break and falls in love with famous musician. For a little while, both two stories are beautifully told in lockstep, until they sharply diverge, splitting your allegiance and maddingly asking you to sympathize with a character who hasn't done anything to earn it. Worse yet, it's the wrong one. It's all downhill from there, taking us down a depressing path toward an inevitably doomed conclusion that's more frustrating than tragic.

In adapting material that's been previously brought to the screen multiple times with mixed results, Cooper makes a directorial debut that's unarguably impressive despite certain narrative weaknesses. He isn't blameless, but his direction, and especially his performance, are the least of the film's troubles. It starts strongly before grinding to a halt midway through and becoming the Lady Gaga Show. This isn't a knock on her so much as the character she's asked to play, who will test the patience of anyone who was even slightly on the fence about her casting. Musically, she's an inspired choice, but everything surrounding her just seems off the entire time, especially regarding the relationship at the heart of the film. By the time we get to an ending that doesn't work (and didn't the previous three times this has been made), I was confused as to what exactly I was supposed to think or feel. Alcoholism and drug addiction are diseases, but selling out isn't, as much as you may be tempted to rethink that after watching the "star" of the movie's title.

Famous country singer Jackson Maine (Cooper) prepares for each show by downing a mixture of booze and pills, and is only kept in check by his older half-brother and manager, Bobby (Sam Elliott). After a concert gig in California, Jack stumbles into a drag bar where he sees waitress and songwriter Ally (Gaga) perform. Instantly smitten and entranced by her performance, they're introduced and end up spending the night talking, as she confides in him her aspirations for a music career.

Inviting Ally to one of his concerts, Jack urges her to join him on stage to perform a song she's written, and after some initial hesitation, she agrees. With her career now off and running, they enter a romantic relationship together, but as her star rises with a new record deal and an overhauled image, Jack's continues to decline, Wrestling with addictions as he continues his longstanding feud with brother Bobby, a rift also develops in his relationship with Ally. The writing's on the wall: Jack needs to clean up his act, or risk losing everything.

The most rewarding scenes come early when we're still in the discovery stages of the story, both for the characters and audience. Of course, at the center of it is Ally and Jack's performance of the now ubiquitous Oscar-winning pop-power ballad, "Shallow," which is not only a huge, hooky powerhouse single that Gaga and Cooper sing the hell out of, but a more insightful distillation of the story's themes than so much of what follows. Everything from the opening credits leading into that moment when he calls her up to that stage are somewhat magical, and even if there are times when you doubt Jack would take this kind of interest in a drag club singer, Cooper puts it to rest with the sincerity of his performance.

Adopting a gravely voice and perpetually looking as if he awakened from a 10-hour nap, he's a more believable in this role than you'd expect and it's not a coincidence that the first half of the picture, focusing primarily on Jack, is the stronger one. Similarly, Gaga's best scenes as Ally (both onstage and off) come directly opposite Cooper, so it's a good thing nearly all of them are. It's only when Ally's made it that the story loses steam, devolving into a long-running therapy session that actually becomes a real challenge to sit through at times. Some of it stems from the fact that once this unknown waitress is plucked out of obscurity and discovered by Jack, there's no where for her to go but up while he continues his steady decline. And it's here where Gaga's casting, or really the casting of any famous singer, starts to present some problems.

Initially, we shared in Jack's sense of discovery of Ally because we've just never experienced Lady Gaga in such a grounded context before. It's kind of an odd observation, but because of the nature of her persona, she can becomes almost unrecognizable or invisible doing "regular" things like arguing with her dad (really well played by Andrew Dice Clay), being late for work, telling jokes, hanging out in parking lots or getting starstruck. She's great at all of this, but when the moment Ally signs that record deal with this obviously sleazy producer (Rafi Gavron), all bets are off. While you're never quite sure what exactly the movie wants you to think about that decision, it does seem to push Jack as a jealous drunk to be pitied for his out-of-control behavior. It's true, but Ally comes off as such a sellout and "her" music so spectacularly disposable, I'm not sure anyone could blame him.

These developments force Gaga to "play down" as Ally, who may as well now be Britney Spears if not the fact that it's unlikely she'd even deserve a residency in Vegas. And because Ally's transformation falls so squarely in the pop realm, we're jarringly reminded that a pop star is playing her. And of the one thing each incarnation of A Star Is Born has failed to do: Cast or make a rising star. It may seem insignificant, but it's maybe one of two elements that could have really helped since it appears Cooper insists on taking this story in a familiar direction...again.  

At one point a drunk Jack confronts Ally about her choices and we're clearly supposed to resent him and take her side for asserting independence in a male-driven industry. I think. But what should come off as the rantings of an alcoholic madman seem like sane, reasonable concerns directed at a record label puppet oblivious to the fact that she's popular and famous enough to entertain other options or even create some of her own. Sure, it's entirely possible Cooper's more self-aware than we think and there's some kind of meta sub-text going on in the screenplay regarding the pitfalls of fame, but none of it makes the screen. That's not to say there aren't positives to be found in these problematic second and third acts, even if most of them come from Matthew Libatique's cinematography and Cooper and Elliott's performances, which map out a complicated sibling rivalry gripping enough to carry its own film.

That the last twenty minutes feels like a depressingly cruel joke wouldn't be such a problem if the script had something more to say. There's also a scene at the Grammy Awards that's supposed to be dramatic but goes too over-the-top to be taken seriously, instead invoking uncomfortable laughs. While we should at least be grateful Cooper is smart enough not to go anywhere near the ludicrous event that closed the '76 version, it's maybe sadder that this incarnation started as something so much better than its predecessors. Maybe that's the point. Maybe we're supposed to be frustrated at these characters for wrecking each others lives, both of which were filled with so much promise. Unfortunately, the same could also be said for the film in which they appear. This take on A Star is Born does manages to put a fresh spin on a very familiar tale, but not without proving there are many different ways to make the same mistakes.