September 10, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “A Star Is Born” & “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”


A STAR IS BORN (Warners – October 5):  Bradley Cooper, making his directing debut, decided to do the equivalent of a first-time weightlifter starting out with a 400-pound barbell.  It isn’t just that A Star Is Born is one of the most iconic Hollywood classics (this is the fifth version, counting What Price Hollywood?, not to mention the many unofficial ripoffs), or that Cooper stars in the film as well as producing, writing (with Eric Roth and Will Fetters) and directing it, or that he makes his singing debut as the character now named Jackson Maine, a country-rock superstar.  He also gave himself the challenge of placing the movie’s must-be-incandescent lead role (now named Ally), previously entrusted to Constance Bennett, Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, on the shoulders of Lady Gaga, a huge music star in her own right but a relatively inexperienced actress.  Incredibly, almost all of it works.  A Star Is Born is tricky to update, with its antique soapiness and gender-specific point of view, but the screenwriters have built up both the main characters intelligently.  Ally is a stronger figure than in the past, without the self-consciousness of the Streisand version, and Maine has been given a considerable backstory to explain his demons.  More importantly, Lady Gaga is a born movie star, at least in this role, and the essential chemistry between her and Cooper succeeds wildly.  The first half of this Star Is Born could hardly be better, beautifully photographed by Matthew Libatique and compellingly edited by Jay Cassidy, with tasty supporting turns from Andrew Dice Clay (the Clay-naissance continues!) and Sam Elliott as Maine’s manager, who has a more emotionally fraught relationship with his client than in previous versions of the story.  Things get a little more uneven in the second half, when the script has to hit certain required, and sometimes mawkish, Star Is Born beats, and it seems like some connecting tissue of the narrative has been deleted along the way.  (Dave Chappelle plays Maine’s closest friend, but he arrives in the film abruptly for one lengthy sequence, and once gone, is never heard from again.)  Even with those flaws, this is a Star Is Born that has beaten all the odds and can stand with any of its predecessors.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (Fox Searchlight – October 19):  It’s going to be a wild Best Actress race this Oscar year if two of the nominees are Lady Gaga and Melissa McCarthy.  While the pop star’s acting chops seem to have come from nowhere, McCarthy is treading time-honored ground as the comic superstar who’s decided to play serious.  It’s something that everyone from Robin Williams to Goldie Hawn to Jim Carrey to Adam Sandler has attempted, and Williams, for one, got a gold statue out of it.  All that makes McCarthy’s turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me? sound like a gimmick, and that’s unfair, because she gives a genuinely admirable, fully-felt performance in Marielle Heller’s film.  The true story, written for the screen by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, concerns Lee Israel (McCarthy) a biographer who fell on hard times, and who decided to make ends meet by forging letters by 20th century figures like Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, and Lillian Hellman, selling them to overly trusting dealers with the help of her friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant).  That description sounds like a story that might be fun, and the alcoholic, acerbic Israel gets some quips, but Heller (her previous film was Diary Of a Teenage Girl) directs with an emphasis on grim, downbeat reality.  Israel’s forgeries weren’t an escapade:  she sold them for a few hundred dollars each and used the funds mostly to pay for her rent and her booze.  She was a lonely figure who didn’t become more popular as a result of her deceptions.  Without McCarthy, the film would feel very small indeed.  While staying firmly within character, her charisma makes Israel watchable, feisty even in her frustration and pathos.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."