BRIAN VINER: A movie star is born with Lady Gaga’s stunning big screen debut



My own personal history with A Star Is Born is rather intimate. The 1954 version with Judy Garland was my late mother’s favourite film and the 1976 version with Barbra Streisand was the backdrop I apprehensively chose for my first date, ever, aged 14, at the ABC in Southport.

There had earlier been a double date at the pictures with my friend Gary — The Man Who Would Be King. By which I mean the film, not Gary, though he was quite full of himself.

But for A Star Is Born I bravely flew solo, just me and a girl called Susan, as I think most girls were in 1976. For the record, Streisand and Kris Kristofferson had hopped in and out of the sack several times by the time that I dared even to attempt that awkward pretend-stretch, arm-around-the-shoulders thing. So I remember the film all too vividly and wherever she is now, Susan doubtless does, too.

The point is, if you’re of a certain age, you too probably have some history with A Star Is Born.

So it is first and foremost a relief to report that Lady Gaga, in the title role, following the trail blazed by Garland (and actually before her, in the 1937 non-musical original, by Janet Gaynor), is absolutely, scintillatingly, wonderful.

Bradley Cooper is on terrific form, too, as the self-destructive star who is first beguiled by the ingénue, then falls in love with her, then watches in a fug of pride, bewilderment and resentment as her career eclipses his.

Fredric March and James Mason played the role as fading movie stars before it was revived by Kristofferson as a rock star in decline.

Cooper, whose directorial debut this is, also plays him as a rock star, which yields the pleasingly symmetrical quirk of him and Lady Gaga each venturing into the other’s territory, him singing and her acting. Both pull it off, triumphantly.

Cooper is Jackson Maine, whom we first see on stage with his band, fuelled by pills and booze, going through the motions of his act. The audience, watching through the ever-present prism of their iPhones, are appreciative more out of habit than conviction.

Meanwhile, we cut to Gaga, playing a disgruntled waitress we know only as Ally, breaking up with someone over the phone. It’s a corny way to tell us she’s now available for love, and indeed this is a corny tale, but it’s high-class corn from start to finish.

After leaving the gig, Jackson gets his driver to take him to a bar, any bar. He happens on one where, although it’s drag night, Ally has a slot as a singer.

She belts out a version of La Vie En Rose that Edith Piaf herself would have applauded, and Jackson is duly entranced.

Soon they are swapping life stories. ‘A hundred and twenty-seven acres, Navajo and nowhere to go,’ he says of his childhood on a remote pecan farm. Screenwriter Eric Roth doesn’t mind the characters conversing in song lyrics. Smitten, Jackson flies her by private jet to one of his gigs, where she watches from the wings until, without warning, he pulls her up to sing with him. It’s a scene as captivating as it is unlikely.

Naturally, their improbable duet goes viral on YouTube, to the perplexed delight of her Italian-American, blue-collar dad (Andrew Dice Clay) who, reminding me inexorably of Amy Winehouse’s father Mitch, keeps telling everyone that he was quite a crooner himself, back in the day.

And if you’ve seen any previous incarnations of this story, especially the Streisand-Kristofferson version, you know the rough trajectory of what happens next. With the help of an oily British manager (Rafi Gavron) Ally’s career soars, her face shining out from giant billboards, while Jackson’s nose-dives.

At the Grammys, she is feted as the new sensation, while he is humiliatingly stood down even from a Roy Orbison tribute. Further humiliation, on an almost nuclear level, ensues.

Cooper, as director and actor, keeps all this pulsatingly real. There’s lots of effing and blinding, but mainly effing, which is no doubt entirely true to life. There are also bits you don’t remotely believe in. For instance, nobody, including Ally’s manager, refers even obliquely to her extravagant new earning power, which is obviously preposterous.

But none of it matters, because the story is so engaging, and there is genuine, fizzing chemistry between the two leads. Jackson’s character is fleshed out nicely with some health problems (tinnitus) and a complicated relationship with his decent, concerned older brother (Sam Elliott).

But Gaga is the one you can’t take your eyes off.

She shares something of Streisand’s qualities, looking plain one minute, bewitching the next. And there are echoes of Garland the show-stopper in there too.

But this is not a copy-cat performance. This is a dazzlingly original silver-screen debut. An acting star is born.


Johnny English Reborn was the last outing for Rowan Atkinson’s cack-handed secret agent, in 2011, and I for one wouldn’t have minded if he’d been retired to Powers Towers or wherever parody spies go to eke out their days.

But no, here he is in Johnny English Strikes Again, a damp squib of a comedy that not even Atkinson’s well-honed clowning, frowning and gurning act can rescue.

This time, a dastardly super-villain is cyber-hacking Britain to death, rerouting all the planes in Europe to Luton, and all the trains to Bristol Temple Meads. English and sidekick Bough (Ben Miller) are assigned to the case, leading them inevitably to the French Riviera, where they encounter a Russian femme fatale played by Olga Kurylenko, in a comic reprise of her Bond girl in Quantum Of Solace.

Emma Thompson enjoys herself as the gullible Prime Minister, in thrall to a slimy tech billionaire played by Jake Lacy (think Theresa May making eyes at Elon Musk).

There are also a few decent gags (I smiled at the health and safety briefing English is obliged to undertake when handed his weapons), and a couple of inspired set-pieces.

But a desperately laboured scene in a restaurant, with our hapless agents pretending to be French waiters, is more typical of the whole second-rate enterprise.

 Mercy for a mass murderer 

As well as making the odd Bourne movie, British director Paul Greengrass has crafted an impressive career, writing and directing films based on traumatic real events.

These include United 93, about 9/11, and the TV films Bloody Sunday and The Murder Of Stephen Lawrence.

Now, in a Netflix production receiving a disappointingly limited theatrical release, he has turned his expert eye to the gun-and-bomb slaughter wrought by far-Right fanatic Anders Behring Breivik in Norway on July 22, 2011. It’s as grim and powerful as you’d expect, and astutely tells the story of that day and its aftermath by focusing on one survivor.

So the carnage in which 77 mostly young people died, although evoked with harrowing realism, is all over in the first half hour or so. After that, the film chronicles the tribulations of badly-injured teenager Viljar Hanssen (Jonas Strand Gavli), who must decide whether he will testify at Breivik’s trial. Greengrass tackles the difficulty of this being a story set in Norway but intended for English-language markets, by using Norwegian actors speaking in English. It works well, and compounds the sense that the film is as much a portrait of a country as of a terrorist outrage.

For example, Breivik (Anders Danielsen Lie) is treated with remarkable civility after his crime, and is calmly given medical treatment after cutting his finger on a shattered fragment of a victim’s skull. Some societies would have made him suffer, but Greengrass doesn’t labour the point.

He is not averse to politicising his films, but lets this one speak eloquently for itself.


Venom opened in UK cinemas earlier this week without anything like the kind of hoopla that usually attends a new film based on a Marvel Comics character.

That might be because it’s not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but actually the inaugural product of a complicated deal between Marvel and Sony. Alternatively, it might be because it’s just not much good.

British actors Tom Hardy and Riz Ahmed play American antagonists Eddie Brock and Carlton Drake. The former is an investigative reporter in San Francisco with his own hard-hitting TV show, at least until he is sacked for confronting the latter, a brilliant but dastardly boffin who yearns to achieve physical symbiosis between humans and aliens so that he might colonise outer space. An evil scientist? So far, so hackneyed.

But it’s not a lack of originality that sucks the life out of Venom, more the creeping sense that it’s basically a B-movie in the guise of a blockbuster, bereft of wit, swagger and pizzazz, and with strangely lacklustre special effects.

Hardy does his considerable best as Brock, who picks up a gooey alien parasite which makes him want to eat everything in sight, like a muscular Billy Bunter, and gives him an inner voice which is meant to sound sinister but reminded me unhelpfully of the Sugar Puffs Honey Monster.

The upshot of this is that he is possessed by Venom, a behaviourally challenged superhero, and duly finds an arch-enemy called Riot. Unfortunately, the film, despite a fine cast which also includes a woefully under-used Michelle Williams as Brock’s girlfriend, is anything but a riot.


Blindspotting, also set in northern California, offers a kind of hip-hop hymn to Oakland and its large African-American population. It’s safe to say that director Carolos Lopez Estrada has a target audience very much in mind; more the good folk of Oakland, California, than those of Oakington Bottom, Oxfordshire, for example.

It’s a film that wears its social and political agenda very much on its sleeve; every white person in it is either a racist, an idiot or a hothead, and sometimes all three at once. Of course, there have been infinitely more films that reduce black people to ciphers, but that doesn’t make the caricaturing any less overt.

Still, there’s an appealing originality and energy to Blindspotting, thanks mostly to the strong performances of its leads, Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal, who also wrote the screenplay.

Diggs plays Collin, a young black man who as the film begins is about to embark on a year’s probation after serving a prison term. Casal is his white best friend, Miles, who rather resents the colour of his own skin.

When Collin witnesses a white police officer shooting a black guy in the back, it seems as though the film will have a single storyline. Instead, it becomes a slice-of-life account of the last few days of Collin’s probationary period, and lurches deliberately in tone. One minute it’s a hard-hitting social drama, the next it’s playing for laughs.

There’s even an edge-of-the-seat thriller dimension, with Collin often using rap to express himself. Diggs, who won a Tony award for his performance in the smash-hit rap musical Hamilton, unsurprisingly carries this off with huge aplomb.  


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