Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in 'A Star is Born'

Movie reviews: 'A Star is Born' hits all the right notes

Published Friday, October 5, 2018 6:20AM EDT
Updated Wednesday, October 10, 2018 10:54AM EDT

Film critic and pop culture historian Richard Crouse shares his take on three movies opening in cinemas across Canada this weekend: 'A Star is Born' starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, the Sony Marvel Universe supervillain caper 'Venom,' and 'The Sisters Brothers' based on a novel by Canadian-born author Patrick deWitt.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in 'A Star is Born' Bradley Cooper, left, and Lady Gaga in a scene from 'A Star is Born.' (Clay Enos/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

A STAR IS BORN: 4 ½ STARS

"A Star is Born" was originally filmed in 1937 and subsequently remade three times, most famously (until now) as a rock musical starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson in 1976. Bradley Cooper directs and stars in the latest version, one that hits all the right notes.

Cooper plays Jackson Maine, a rock star with magnetism to spare but carrying around a guitar case overflowing with personal problems. Drug addicted and alcoholic, he's a troubled guy who falls for Ally (Lady Gaga) after seeing her perform a tour de force version of "La Vie En Rose" in a bar. It's love at first sight. He's attracted to her talent and charisma; she is wary but interested. Soon they become involved, personally and professionally. As their romance blossoms her star rises meteorically as his fades slowly into the sunset.

It's a familiar story given oxygen by rock solid direction, music with lyrics that forwards the story and two very good, authentic performances. 

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in 'A Star is Born' Bradley Cooper, left, and Lady Gaga in a scene from 'A Star is Born.' (Neal Preston/Warner Bros. via AP)
'A Star is Born' cast at TIFF 'A Star is Born' cast memnbers at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Cooper, all easy charm and weathered smile, digs deep to play a good man undone by his addictions but Lady Gaga equals him. Gaga sheds the theatricality of her pop persona, creating a soulful character that mixes vulnerability and combative independence. Stripped down, she is rawer than we've seen her before in a performance that feels authentic and not a musician playing a musician. It helps that she and Cooper have chemistry to spare—from their mentor and student relationship to their romance—but make no mistake this is a performance that stands alone.

In addition to the romance and music, "A Star is Born" has something to say about art. In a time when the arts are under siege by government cuts and pre-packaged pop culture the film emphatically reminds us, both in practice and in its themes, that artists are here to actually say something. Everything else is just product. "Music is essentially twelve notes between any octave; twelve notes and the octave repeats. It's the same story told over and over. All any artist can offer the world is how they see those twelve notes."

"A Star is Born" could have been product, a glitzy film with a heartthrob and a pop star in the leads but instead resonates with real feelings and heartfelt emotion.

A scene from 'Venom' A scene from 'Venom.' (Sony Pictures via AP)

VENOM: 2 STARS

"Venom," the first film in the brand-spanking-new Sony Marvel Universe, gives us not one but two Tom Hardy performances. In a dual role the Oscar nominee plays Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter with an aw-shucks accent and the title character, an amorphous sentient alien who requires a host, usually human, to bond with for its survival. It's kind of an anti-superhero Jekyll and Hyde situation where Ed and Venom are a hybrid, two beings in one body. 

If you are still reading and processing this, you might enjoy "Venom." If not, you've probably already purchased tickets for "A Star is Born." 

When we first meet Brock he's the host of a popular television show. When he is assigned to interview genius inventor Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), he goes off script, asking some difficult and embarrassing questions. His rogue behaviour costs him everything, his job, his girlfriend (Michelle Williams) and his house. To get revenge he breaks into Drake's facility with an eye toward exposing Drake's evil doings. Instead he ends up merged with the extraterrestrial symbiote Venom, becoming a toothy creature with a tongue that would make Gene Simmons envious. 

Bestowed with superhuman strength and power, he must learn how to manage not only his new gifts but also his rage. "The way I see it we can do what we want," Venom says to his host.  

A scene from 'Venom' A scene from 'Venom.' (Sony Pictures via AP)
Michelle Williams and Tom Hardy in 'Venom' Michelle Williams, left, and Tom Hardy in a scene from 'Venom.' (Frank Masi/Sony Pictures via AP)
Jenny Slate and Riz Ahmed in 'Venom' Jenny Slate, left, and Riz Ahmed in a scene from "Venom." (Jessica Miglio/Sony Pictures via AP)

"Venom's" advertising tagline, "The world has enough Superheroes," refers to the titular character's anti-hero status but could also be a comment on the surplus of comic book characters seen on screens in recent years. So, is Venom one superhero too many? Maybe, depending on your level of fandom. 

Comic book heads may complain about the absence of Spider-Man, the symbiote's original host, and other deviations from the canon. But, on the flip side, the body-horror aspect of Venom's metamorphosis coupled with the inherent humour of Eddie and Venom's interactions are brought to vivid life by Hardy's commitment. 

Structurally, for fans, "Venom" offers something different from the Marvel formula. By the time Hardy is flailing around in a restaurant lobster tank there will be no mistaking this for anything that came before it. 

Casual viewers may not be as interested. The first half, the origin story, gloomily drags on leading up to Eddie's transformation. Then it's followed by a series of darkly lit chase scenes as Drake's baddies try and stop Venom.   

Then there are the women. In the "Wonder Woman" world we live in, it's a disappointment that Williams, as Eddie's girlfriend, and Jenny Slate, as a scientist working for Drake's Life Foundation, are underwritten, acting as placeholders more than actual characters. 

"Venom" has its moments, but it's hard to tell whether we're laughing with or at the movie. It feels unintentionally funny, as if all the actors except for Hardy understood they were acting in a generic comic book movie. He's a hoot, the movie isn't.

 

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in "The Sisters Brothers" Joaquin Phoenix, left, and John C. Reilly in a scene from "The Sisters Brothers." (Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures via AP)

THE SISTERS BROTHERS: 3 ½ STARS

Based on a historical novel by Canadian-born author Patrick deWitt, "The Sisters Brothers" is a buddy Western that, for better and for worse, doesn't rely on the clichés associated with buddy flicks or Westerns. 

Set in 1851 Oregon, "The Sisters Brothers" tells parallel stories. First we meet the brothers, Eli (Reilly) and Charlie Sisters (Joaquin Phoenix). They are bounty hunters and all-round thugs for hire, currently working for a mysterious Oregon City mob boss known only as the Commodore (Rutger Hauer in a wordless cameo). "You do realize our father was stark raving mad and his foul blood runs in us," Charlie says to his big bro. "It's why we're good at what we do." Violent and ruthless, wherever they go a heap of sorrow is left behind.

Their latest job is to meet detective John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is to hand off Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed), a chemist-turned-gold-prospector who has developed a formula to make searching for gold a scientific rather than physical procedure. It's a chemical mixture that, when poured in the river, lights up the gold. All you have to do is reach in and pick it up

It's a get-rich-quick scheme and the Commodore desperately wants to get his hands on it. Warm's ultimate goal is much more pure. He has visions of using the gold money to create a new society in Texas that favours nonviolence, education and true democracy. Morris the hunter becomes the hunted when Warm appeals to his better nature. Moved by warm's plea—"The Sisters will cut off my fingers, burn my feet," he says—Morris becomes a business partner. The big question? What will happen if and when the Sisters Brothers catch up with them? 

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly in 'The Sisters Brothers' Joaquin Phoenix, right, and John C. Reilly in a scene from 'The Sisters Brothers.' (Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures via AP)

The four leads play tough guys and cowboys who spend as much time discussing their feelings as they do firing their guns. The brothers have daddy issues—he was a violent alcoholic—while Morris hated his father for any number of sins, both personal and professional. 

Jake Gyllenhaal in 'The Sisters Brothers' Jake Gyllenhaal in 'The Sisters Brothers' (Magali Bragard/Annapurna Pictures via AP)
Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Sisters Brothers' Joaquin Phoenix in a scene from 'The Sisters Brothers.' (Shanna Besson/Annapurna Pictures via AP)

The brothers bicker constantly. Eli, a great lummox who, at first glance seems ill suited for the job at hand and yet never hesitates to shoot an adversary in the head, 

is sensitive and wants to settle down. Charlie, on the other hand, is a wild card, with a hair trigger and a more limited idea as to what the future may or may not bring. 

The conversations range from heartfelt to funny and are the engine that propels the action. There are shoot-outs and horses and all the other tropes of the genre but this story is actually about the guys, not their actions. A John Wayne oater this ain't. Instead it is a movie that explores the masculine bond that lies at the heart of so many Westerns but is never fully explored. 

"The Sisters Brothers" is a story about family, purpose and male bonding made human by a sensitive performance from Reilly (who also produced) and his chemistry with Phoenix. It's a buddy flick and a Western but it's also more than the sum of its parts.