Reviews & More: Cinematic History

Lady Gaga (left) and Bradley Cooper in "A Star is Born"

“A Star is Born”

Janet Gaynor. Judy Garland. Barbra Streisand. And now, Lady Gaga. Talented divas of yesteryear are joined by today’s reigning queen of pop and pomp. Is it a worthy outing? Oh, yes. Who knew what Gaga looked like under all those wigs and paint and feathers? Not beautiful, certainly not ugly or even unattractive. Just… average. But oh, that voice! When she channels Edith Piaf in a perfect recreation of “La Vie en Rose,” the heart stops beating. When she lets go with some of those soaring high notes, when she dives up and down the scale in that rich, mellow, exciting voice, what can we do but sigh with wonder. And she can act? Oh, yes. Ably and confidently directed by, and co-starring with, an equally brilliant Bradley Cooper as a star on the decline, it is a fine film. Kudos go to cinematographer Matthew Libatique for his intensely close, in-your-face camerawork that strips glamour and pretense from performance. And to Sam Elliot, so good as Cooper’s older brother who has been playing backup for too many years. And to Andrew Dice Clay as Gaga’s father, an “if only I had had the breaks” dreamer. If I have any nits to pick it’s that there is too much music and it’s too long. But so what? It’s really good. Go see it.

“First Man”

Back in the 1960s, there was a feverish race to the moon between the United States and Russia. Each spacecraft voyage, each step of the way was must-watch TV for a country enraptured by the breakthroughs in what used to be merely science fiction. We take all this space stuff for granted today, as we do with most of the scientific, psychological and sociological changes in our past; it’s human nature. But it really was a very exciting time, and this re-creation of history is something “First Man” does really well. Slightly less successful—although not by much—is the fact that we’re in the point of view of Neil Armstrong, who would be the man to take that first step, and because Armstrong is one of those men who does not show or discuss feelings, playing him can’t have been easy. Ryan Gosling does well with a difficult task, poker-faced and unemotional but with tiny hints of what’s going on behind the blank eyes. The really standout performance is Claire Foy who makes “the wife” part into a pivotal role, a woman with inner fire, by turns put-upon, excited and exasperated by her husband. Fine history, fine supporting cast, worth an afternoon or evening at the cinema.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

On her Wikipedia page, Lee Israel is called “American Forger.” Oh, how she would have hated that. She was, after all, a writer of some renown; that is, before the forging part of her life. Israel (1939-2014) was not a nice person. She was cutting and rude to everyone but her cat, she drank way too much and she lived alone in a very messy apartment. This film is an adaptation of Israel’s book (the title is ironic: Israel couldn’t care less about forgiveness) and is not a great movie but is anchored by a standout performance by Melissa McCarthy (even though she simply cannot pull off a born-and-bred, tough New York broad) that makes it worthwhile. It is the early 1990s in New York and Israel, deep in the throes of writer’s block and broke, begins creating false documents purported to be from early 20th century literary giants like Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward and William Faulkner. The ruse works well for a while, but eventually, not so much. Richard E. Grant is wonderful as her gay friend who is eventually done in by AIDS, and the script is an intelligent, often amusing one. Not for the moviegoer who requires action and special effects, for sure.