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A Star is Born and Venom Reviews

Hope Madden Hope Madden A Star is Born and Venom ReviewsPhoto still from "A Star is Born," via IMDb.
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There are two huge releases to talk about this week, and it’s been a while since heavyweights like these have hit theaters. That must mean the best season is upon us—the one that oscillates between blockbusters and awards hopefuls. Woot! What we learn this week is that Gaga can act, Cooper can direct, and Tom Hardy’s considerable talent is probably not enough to carry an entire film — Venom is still better than 95 percent of DC’s output.

A Star is Born

by George Wolf

A few weeks ago, for homework, I revisited the three previous versions of A Star Is Born. A friend later asked me which one was best.

I have a different answer now.

Director/co-writer/co-star Bradley Cooper brings a new depth of storytelling to the warhorse, with a greater commitment to character and the blazing star power of Lady Gaga.

Cooper is Jackson Maine, a booze-swilling, pill-popping rock star who wanders into a random bar post-gig and catches Ally (Gaga) belting out “La Vie en Rose.” Jack’s entranced, and begins coaxing Ally to sing her own songs instead of covers. Everyone’s got a talent, he tells her, the real gift is having something to say.

Each previous film version represented its era well, but with the rock music setting and several recognizable homages, it’s clear Cooper has a fondness for the Streisand/Kristofferson take from ’76. His new vision carries a raw authenticity that eclipses them all.

The battered star’s instant infatuation with the young talent has never felt more understandable, the undeniable chemistry between Cooper and Gaga fueling the feeling that in Ally, Jack sees a better version of himself.

Cooper, with a lower-range speaking voice and the musical talent from nearly two years of tutelage, is every bit the weathered rocker on a misplaced search for redemption. Watch him when Jack is not the focus of a scene to see a character become complete.

But then, another outstanding acting performance from Bradley Cooper is not a surprise. His remarkably instinctual directing debut here, though, must now place him among the premier talents in film.

Nearly every scene, from stadium rock concert to intimate conversation, is framed for maximum impact. His camera can be stylish but not showy, with seamless scene transitions fueling a forward momentum that will not let the film drag.

The melodramatic story has been stripped of pretense and buoyed by more layers of humanity, and not just between the two leads. Jack’s brother (Sam Elliot), his boyhood friend (Dave Chappelle) and Ally’s father (Andrew Dice Clay) emerge as important characters despite limited screen time.

And then there’s Gaga.

The voice is, well, it’s a force of nature, and the songs (some co-written with Cooper) are memorable. But if a star already shining can be born, welcome Gaga the movie star. She is electric, taking Ally from wide-eyed stage fright to SNL headliner with both tenderness and ferocity, giving this character the strength and nuance she has never had before.

This film has talent everywhere, but is also has stirring things to say about love and sacrifice, about art and commerce, ambition and fame.

I’ll say this: A Star is Born is among the very best of the year.

Grade: A

Venom

by Hope Madden

We don’t need another superhero. That’s what the Venom trailers told us, and it’s pretty true.

So, what Venom had to offer — an antihero, a Jekyll/Hyde thing starring a brilliant actor who excels with complex, dark roles — felt like a great change of pace.

Tom Hardy was the ideal choice for the dual role of Eddie Brock, semi-doofus reporter, and Venom, flesh-eating alien symbiote. This should have worked, partly because Hardy knows how to mine villains for their humanity, and watching him wrestle with the good vs. evil duality never ceases to be impressive.

What Venom suffers from more than anything is the expectations set by a Marvel release. Don’t be mistaken, were this the DC universe it would be the second best comic book film released since Christopher Nolan cast Hardy as a super villain.

But it is, indeed, Marvel. (If you forget, Stan Lee shows up to remind you.) And for that reason, regardless of the fact that Venom boasts superior acting, FX, story arc, action choreography and writing than anything DC has done this century besides Wonder Woman, its regrettably traditional execution makes it feel a bit stale. Because it is Marvel.

A characteristically committed Hardy elevates scenes, indulging a far more humorous tone than what we’ve seen lately from the versatile actor. Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Four Lions) is a solid choice to play Eddie/Venom’s nemesis. Never campy or over-the-top, Ahmed evokes a type of lifelong genius who cannot be persuaded that his ideas are at odds with the ideals he alleges to support.

Michelle Williams is uncharacteristically flat, and the balance of the cast is mainly forgettable, but the real problem with the film rests on uninspired direction.

Ruben Fleischer showed a flair for action, colorful theatrics and humor with his 2009 breakout Zombieland, but the joy of carnage and camaraderie that infected that flick is sadly missing here.

Zombieland was aided immeasurably by writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose irrepressible irreverence made the Deadpool films such a riot. It’s a tone sorely lacking in this screenplay, penned by a team of four whose output includes a Fifty Shades film, Kangaroo Jack and Fleischer’s abysmal 2013 mob flick, Gangster Squad.

Venom is not a bad movie. It’s fun, competently made entertainment.

And a disappointment.

Grade: C+

Also opening in Columbus:
Fat Buddies (NR)
Heavy Trip (NR)
Hello Mrs. Money (NR)
Inventing Tomorrow (NR)
Monsters and Men (R)
Project Gutenberg (NR)
Shine (R)
The Wild Boys (NR)

Read more from Hope and team at MADDWOLF and listen to her weekly film podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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