In Studio 54, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, is a lively and fascinating glimpse of the iconic New York dance club, Studio 54. Steve Rubell founded the club in 1977 with his business partner, Ian Schrager. They co-owned it until 1980 when they went to prison for tax evasion. Tyrnauer charts the rise of Studio 54 including the details of what Rubell, Schrager and their publicity team did to make the club the hottest ticket in town, especially with celebrities. Not everyone was allowed past the velvet ropes at the front entrance, but those who were among the lucky ones had the time of their life and felt free to be themselves. Not surprisingly, there was plenty of drugs, drinking and sex besides the dancing going on there, but that's not what this documentary is fundamentally about. Through archival footage and interviews, Studio 54 shows you what it was like to be inside the club and what made it so iconic. Rubell and Schrager are far from perfect human beings and made poor financial decisions which led them further and further into financial debt. Audiences who are already familiar with the club might find the focus on its downfall to be more interesting than its rise because that's where the doc has the most tension and meatiness that allows for it to avoid becoming a puff piece. At briskly-paced 90 minutes, Studio 54 opens at IFC Center via Zeitgeist Films.
A Crooked Somebody
Michael Vaughn (Rich Sommer) claims to have psychic powers that enable him to communicate with the dead. He's even written a books about it, but his latest one hasn't been selling well. Nathan (Clifton Collins Jr.) kidnaps Michael because he believes that he knows where he buried the body of someone he had killed years ago. However, Michael talks him about of continuing with the kidnapping by persuading him that he can use his psychic powers to help him seek forgiveness from Stacy (Amanda Crew), the daughter of the Nathan's victim, if the victim's buried corpse can be found. He hopes that his newfound fame will boost his career in psychic forensics.
It's no spoiler to state that Michael is merely pretending to be a psychic. His mother (Amy Madigan) and father (Ed Harris) know the truth, but Nathan and the public do not. He even dupes a motel clerk (Randee Heller) that he can communicate with her deceased husband who believes him even though he gets some key details wrong. Perhaps she's too blinded by the fact that she wants to believe Michael. Either way, Michael comes across as an asshole for playing with her emotions and lying to her as well as others, such as Stacy. A televised interview with him and Stacy shows just how unprepared he is when it comes to being questioned about the validity of his psychic powers. Fortunately, Rich Sommer is just the right actor to play Michael. He gives a charismatic performance that makes Michael likable despite his actions. Don't be surprised if you'll find yourself rooting for him even if you might feel guilty about it. He's not a bad person; just a very flawed one who makes poor decisions while going on a slippery slope. It's easy to see why Michael is capable of duping others because he does have a charming personality and a way with words. He'd fit right into the world of politics if he were to become a politician.
The screenplay by Andrew Zilch has just the right amount of satire, drama, comic relief and thrills. It never becomes over-the-top, nor does it become lethargic, pretentious nor schmaltzy. Trevor White keeps the film moving along at an appropriately brisk pace without resorting to using shaky cam or excessively stylish visuals. This is the kind of movie that has enough of a strong story and characters to keep you engaged throughout. Kudos to Zilch for providing the audience with a glimpse of Michael's childhood and the dysfunctional relationship his has with his parents which helps to humanize him and to serve as as a psychological explanation of why he's so fucked up as an adult. Although the screenplay doesn't take any big risks nor does it have any surprises along the way, that's forgivable. Predictability can be forgiven when the characters are convincing, complex and interesting enough to allow for you to forget that the wheels of the screenplay are turning---you might even forget any contrivances or implausibilities which do indeed occur throughout the film. A little suspension of disbelief goes a long way. At a running time of 102 minutes, A Crooked Somebody is a captivating, wickedly funny and provocative satire with a breakthrough performance by Rich Sommer.
A Star is Born
Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a famous rock musician, meets Ally (Lady Gaga), a singer who has yet to become famous, and instantly falls in love with her. The more time they spend together, the more he builds her confidence to become a big star. He introduces her to his much older half-brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), and he meets her father, Lorenzo (Andrew Dice Clay). As Ally's musical career skyrockets, Jackson struggles with alcohol and drug addiction which threatens to derail his career as well as their relationship.
A Star is Born begins on a high note with Jackson singing at a concert before he goes to a bar where Ally mesmerizes him when she sings Edith Piaf's "La Via en Rose." After Jackson and Ally's "meet cute" scene, which includes a bar fight that Jackson saves her from, they briefly get to know each other while chilling outside of a convenience store in the middle of the night. That small, yet powerful scene brims with emotional depth, nuance and naturally-flowing character development while avoiding cheesiness. Unfortunately, those kind of moments are far and few between throughout the rest of the film that becomes increasingly corny, contrived and vapid. You can feel the wheels of the screenplay by Will Fetters, Eric Roth and writer/director Bradley Cooper turning every step of the way. This is the kind of film that desperately wants to milk your tear ducts, but it's too afraid to dig deeper to show much-needed emotional grit and to delve into darker territory. The dialogue sounds too "on the nose" during the last hour and the plot jumps ahead without being unflinching enough.
If you look at the past films that Fetters and Roth had written, perhaps you could see why A Star is Born became so schmaltzy and somewhat hackneyed: Eric Roth had written the overrated and cheesy Forrest Gump and the overwrought, overlong and lethargic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button while Will Fetters wrote the cloying romantic dramas The Best of Me and The Lucky Ones. Neither of those films felt emotionally engrossing nor did they have memorable characters nor enough naturalism. The same can be said for A Star is Born, although at least there are great performances, sound design and cinematography to invigorate the film.
Jackson does have a few scenes where he snorts cocaine, gets drunk and exhibits signs of anger, but the screenplay doesn't manage to get inside his head enough for you to care about him and his emotional battles which are far more interesting than his battles with alcohol and drugs. You never quite get inside Ally's head either, for that matter. Who cares if you get to see her naked? Emotional nakedness is far more intimate and revealing than physical nakedness. Ally and Jackson's chemistry and the mild poignancy comes from Cooper and Gaga's performances, not from the screenplay. Cooper gives a decent, charismatic performance, but it's really Lady Gaga who radiates the most charisma and warmth. Can a love story remain afloat on charisma alone? Not in this case. A Star is Born overstays its welcome at a lengthy running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.