Near perfection in ‘A Star Is Born’
A Star Is Born (Rated C)
Cast: Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, Sam Elliott, Dave Chappelle
The fourth time’s the charm!
Hollywood’s apparently unwritten rule that “A Star Is Born” be revisited every couple decades or so can finally be done away with, as what should now be considered the definitive version of this tragic tale has arrived.
This newest one is without a doubt the best of all, and one of the best movies so far this year. Better than the Janet Gaynor/Fredric March 1937 original – arguably the best of all previous versions – and far superior to the full musical version with Judy Garland and James Mason in 1954, and especially the 1976 Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson drama.
Like the latter, however, the 2018 version moves the focus away from the movie industry to the music industry. The character names have again all been changed, but the same basic storyline remains – the fleeting nature of fame and fortune.
Seasoned musician Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) discovers and falls in love with struggling artist Ally (Lady Gaga). She has just about given up on her dream to make it big as a singer until Jackson coaxes her into the spotlight. But even as Ally’s career takes off, the personal side of their relationship is breaking down, as Jackson fights an ongoing battle with his own internal demons.
Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga have been stars for years now, but with “A Star Is Born”, both are shining brighter than ever before, with career defining and redefining performances. This is perhaps even more true for Cooper, as he is also the writer (along with Oscar-winning screenwriter Eric Roth for “Forrest Gump”, and Will Fetters), and the director, in his shockingly-effective Clint Eastwood-esque debut. From the music to the onscreen portrayals, “A Star is Born” is a powerfully spellbinding experience from beginning to end.
Cooper and Gaga equally share the spotlight, but at different times, as the film seems to fall into three acts.
Initially, your eyes will be transfixed on Gaga. She is a revelation! We’ve always known about the multiple-Grammy winner’s incredible voice and astounding musical talent. And we knew she had it in her to act; that’s essentially what Stefani Germanotta has been doing ever since her debut album was released 10 years ago. She’s been playing this character “Lady Gaga” – this oddball always trying to get our attention, wearing meat and space age costumes. Would you have noticed her had she been herself? Would Stefani Germanotta have been a household name without all the Gaga-ness?
That’s exactly what this film is about. The shallowness and fickleness of the music industry – a head-on examination of the nonsense.
Gaga’s Ally is multi-layered: strong and brave, but still so vulnerable. Add that performance to her singing and writing many of the songs on the amazing soundtrack, and this is stuff of which Oscars are made.
In the second act, though, as Ally’s star rises, Gaga almost disappears, as Director Cooper shifts the focus to his own character Jackson, and then directs himself to an unforgettable performance. It becomes a truly uncomfortable look at a fading star. It’s likely Cooper’s best performance to date.
The third act reverts to Gaga, as she’s left to deal with more heartache.
As if it weren’t enough to be blessed with these two stars, the entire supporting cast is superb, including Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott and, of all people, veteran comedian Andrew “Dice” Clay, who is top-notch as Ally’s dad.
There’s lots of award talk already with this new “A Star is Born”. This story has been good to all the actors in these roles. Gaynor and Garland were both nominated for Best Actress Academy Awards for their versions, as were their co-stars March and Mason nominated for Best Actor. None of them won, though. And while Streisand and Kristofferson weren’t nominated for Oscars, they both won Golden Globes. Streisand did, however, win an Oscar and a Grammy for Best Original Song for “Evergreen”.
We’ll soon see what this award season holds in store for this fantastic new chapter.
And while I’m mostly opposed to remaking or revisiting or rehashing classics, this is a rare example of one reboot that actually improves on the source material. But please Hollywood: this doesn’t mean we need to see a wave of these – well certainly no more than we’ve already been forced to endure.
After all, it took four tries to reach near-perfection.
Venom (Rated C)
Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate
It’s not easy being a comic book-based superhero movie these days.
No longer are people prepared to accept that most will be regrettable, and that there’d be only once-in-a-blue-moon masterpieces like “The Dark Night”.
After a consistent stream of really well-done motion pictures like “Logan”, “Guardians of the Galaxy”, “Deadpool” and especially “Black Panther” (and some would say “Wonder Woman”), the bar has been raised of late, and many are expecting life-changing experiences with every single release (which still averages at least one new one each month, it seems).
What’s a regular average Joe comic book-based superhero movie with less lofty ambitions to do in such an environment?
Well, one option: be like the new film “Venom”, which appears to be quite fine going its own way, blazing its own trail. This sort-of/kind-of in-the-Spider-Man-universe tale almost seems to relish the thought of not being on anyone’s “Best of 2018” list. Only the biggest nerds (and I say that with love) will be having philosophical discussions about it. And I bet it’s just fine with that.
Journalist Eddie Brock is trying to take down Carlton Drake, the notorious and brilliant founder of the Life Foundation. While investigating one of Drake’s experiments, Eddie’s body merges with the alien Venom – leaving him with superhuman strength and power. Twisted, dark and fueled by rage, Venom tries to control the new and dangerous abilities that Eddie finds so intoxicating.
Yeah – it’s not “Black Panther”. It’s not even “Avengers: Infinity War”.
And it’s not supposed to be! It’s far more whimsical, falling somewhere between “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Deadpool”, but nowhere near as confused in tone as the trying-far-too-hard-to-be-funny “Thor: Ragnarok”. Possibly the closest comparison would be the utterly forgettable “Ant-Man and the Wasp” – except that “Venom” actually has some bite to it.
Oscar-nominee Tom Hardy as Eddie/Venom is the best thing about the film. The “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “The Revenant” star responds about the way one would expect a person to behave if he were invaded by an alien. As a very unusual anti-hero, Hardy doesn’t appear to be taking himself or the role too seriously. And that feels right.
On the other hand, someone must have instructed the fantastic multiple-Oscar nominee Michelle Williams to act as if she’s a much less-talented actress playing a character in a superhero comic book movie. It’s odd seeing her in this light. But it is still very much in keeping with the way love-interests are portrayed in these movies. And Williams does a pretty good job of masking her amazing thespian skills.
The villain, played by Emmy winner Riz Ahmed (HBO’s “The Night Of”) is your typical bad guy: very one-dimensional – none of the complex layers we’ve seen with the baddies in “Black Panther” and “Infinity War”. And again, that’s fine!
This is all about Hardy and Eddie/Venom, in what becomes the most unlikely buddy action-comedy. What if Riggs and Murtaugh had to share one body in “Lethal Weapon”, and one was an alien with superpowers?
This lighter approach will likely disappoint the comic book fanboys, who often take this stuff way too seriously. But “Venom” is reasonably fun, and clearly not burdened with the weight of the expectations of the whole film industry and an entire race like “Black Panther”.
Don’t leave the theater before the final credits come to a stop (as usual with films of this genre), and don’t go into the theater expecting something Shakespearean or Oscar-worthy, and you too will see something you can enjoy.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.