Flix Nosh is a personal movie menu, fresh each Friday.
APPETIZER: Reviews of A Star is Born and Pick of the Litter.
A Star is Born
As vapors of serialized show-biz nostalgia rise like incense from the new A Star is Born, here are impious reminders from the queen of take-no-crap criticism, Pauline Kael. On the first Star birth (1937, William Wellman directing Janet Gaynor and Fredric March): “peculiarly masochistic and self-congratulatory.” On the second (1954, George Cukor directing Judy Garland and James Mason): “a terrible, fascinating orgy of self-pity and cynicism and mythmaking.” On the third (1976, Frank Pierson directing Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson): “sentimental without being convincing for an instant (but you can) swoon and weep, and giggle, too.”
All true, yet we rush into the palpitating arms of No. 4, directed by Bradley Cooper to showcase Lady Gaga and himself. La Gaga is not another Esther Blodgett or Vicki Lester or Esther Hoffman, but a pure concentration of workin’ gal named Ally (the crown of her stardom is a Sunset Blvd. billboard, with only her face and “Ally”). She is weirdly naïve about her talent, despite many drag queens gawking blissfully as she slams across her jolting version of Edith Piaf’s “La vie en rose” in a drag club. Country-rock stud Jackson Maine (Cooper) is also awed, and soon charms her into singing at one of his massive concerts. Their love blazes, her shyness shrinks, and Cooper’s ruggedly pleasant singing is swamped by the rising tsunami of Ally’s mega-Gaga voice.
Mostly indebted to Streisand’s version, also to Bette Midler’s The Rose, the movie is formula kitsch but a great podium for Lady Gaga. Nurtured along by Cooper in her dramatic breakout, she is small, girlish but tough, an instinctive feminist. Ally’s street-cred passion is affirmed by Andrew Dice Clay playing her dad (oddly, one of his chums looks like Steve Bannon). Gaga uses her dialog as if shaping lyrics, sifting moods, letting emotions percolate before breaking forth in song. She radiates a beguiling directness, her big eyes taking in the carnival of her rise. The romance is fairly hot but stuck in cliché, in the familiar corn patch of an “ugly duckling” who swans to glory, like Streisand (Funny Girl ) and, briefly, Jennifer Grey (Dirty Dancing).
Meanwhile Cooper (acting, directing, producing, co-writing, but no Orson Welles) sinks in the sudsy quicksand of Jackson’s decline (booze, pills, coke, steroid injections, loss of hearing, broken family). He is no rival to James Mason’s superb Norman Maine in 1954. Mason remains the main Maine man, blessedly without the urination scene that humiliates Jackson on stage. The best male acting this time is by Sam Elliott, who may get a supporting Oscar bid for fiercely playing Jackson’s manager/older brother. The junkiest touch is a viperish British handler, Rez (Rafi Gavron), who takes control of Ally’s image and recordings. The story suffers once she turns to orange hair and Vegasoidal, pop-video crooning.
More than veteran dazzlers Garland and Streisand, Lady Gaga seems ready for this, still hungry, as if she doesn’t guess the predictable ending (Jackson won’t go into the sea at sunset like James Mason, but gets a garage sendoff that features maudlin shots of his dog). This movie is a rebuilt show-biz limo with some busted springs, but the Gaga octane is fired-up to deliver. She does.
Pick of the Litter
Stars are born in Pick of the Litter. In fact, five. They start as puppies at the California kennel of Guide Dogs for the Blind. Soon the three males are named Patriot, Potomac and Phil, the two females Primrose and Poppet, each one a Labrador darling (those names reveal not what William F. Buckley once called “a suicidal urge to alliteration,” but that they all came from the P litter). From total puppiness they move through a multi-stage program, beginning with early socialization at the facility. For about 18 months each lives with a family that provides basic training. Return to the center brings advanced lessons until the best in sure guidance and life-saving protection are chosen (every critter will find a home, with a few females kept for breeding at the center).
From every 800 candidates about 300 become “seeing eye” dogs. This frisky but methodical documentary, directed by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr., has movingly intimate observations of dogs and people, all admirable. When one pooch flunks his last test (the approved jargon is “career-changed”), the downer leads to one of the most joyous encounters since Lassie came home. It’s a bit jarring when a blind woman, nervous about meeting her new companion, talks of their “blind date.” If you tend to tear-up by gazing into dark doggie eyes, this picture can really lube your ducts. The magical touch is that everyone seems just about equally canine and human. Pick is a warm and informative valentine to the beauty of inter-species bonding, a sustained lesson in love.
WINE (Vin Orsonaire de Chateau Welles)
Always deeply experimental, Welles let the bones of audacity show nakedly in his small-budget, Scottish-brogued 1948 movie of Macbeth: “It was not supposed to look like Olivier’s Hamlet (same year). Orson eschewed the polished, classical approach to Shakespeare epitomized by Olivier in favor of the strangeness (of) his Lady from Shanghai. The controversial barbarism of this Macbeth reflected both the severely limited means at his disposal and the determination to view the classic play from a new angle. Orson had never intended it for a mass audience anyway.” (From Barbara Leaming’s Orson Welles. The moody film has since found a fan base.)
ENTRÉE (Starlight Rising)
“Time’s hinge-swing into the 1960s was thrilling and unrepeatable, yet La Dolce Vita has become no relic, no crater of dusty clippings. It has, wrote Robert Hughes, ‘a special place in film history which no Italian painting of the period can conceivably rival, and no Italian movie made in the foreseeable future is likely to equal.” (Hughes, the great art critic who died in 2012, never got to see the film’s worthy heir, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty in 2013. Quote from the Marcello Mastroianni/La Dolce Vita chapter of my book Starlight Rising: Acting Up in Movies, available from Amazon, Nook and Kindle.)
DESSERT (An Image)
A great movie image is more than a still, it’s a distillation.
Orson Welles displays his Big Mac glower in Macbeth (Mercury/Republic Pictures, 1948; director Orson Welles, cinematographer John L. Russell).