A Star is Born

Cast: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Andrew Dice Clay, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott

Director: Bradley Cooper

Writers: Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

“Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die” sings a bearded, gravel-voiced Bradley Cooper at various points in this film. It’s a line that speaks about one of the main conflicts that this movie explores and it also carries a tinge of meta, self-aware irony as he helms what is now the fourth retelling of this classic Hollywood story. Using a time-tested formula that’s been updated for a 21st century audience, A Star is Born is a love story that depicts the fall of an old, embittered music legend and the rise of a young, gifted singer. It’s one of the stories Hollywood loves to tell about itself; about how the spotlight can bring you love, fame, happiness and fulfilment, but it always comes at a price and it can also warp and destroy you. It is at once both a fantasy and a tragedy and it is a fable that gets retold with each generation as our attitudes on fame, addiction and gender change and evolve. This is the kind of movie Cinephiles talk about when they say “they don’t make them like this anymore” and it marks both a strong directorial debut for Bradley Cooper and a cinematic star-making turn for Lady Gaga.

The original 1937 film with Janet Gaynor and Fredric March told this story in the context of Hollywood itself with the former playing an aspiring actress who falls for the latter, an aging movie star in the declining years of his career. The 1954 movie with Judy Garland and James Mason, the most well-known and celebrated of the bunch, reprised the concept but added in a musical component as well. This subsequently led to the movie that this new version borrows most heavily from (at least in concept), the 1971 title that broke away from classic Hollywood and moved into a contemporary rock and pop setting. Barbra Streisand plays an up-and-coming singer and Kris Kristofferson is a washed-up, has-been rock star. This movie was panned on its release and was more or less forgotten about until this new movie brought it back into the public consciousness. In this 21st century rendition the star on his way out is Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper), a country-rock singer whose music feels very much of that 1970s Bruce Springsteen/Neil Young era. That style of music is so much a product of its time that there isn’t really a modern equivalent for Maine (although Cooper does cite Eddie Vedder as a key influence) and it’s one of the markers of the deep gulf that ultimately separates him from his protégé, played by one of the foremost titans of the modern pop era that we live in.

After playing a gig one night, Jackson stumbles his way into a local drag bar for a drink and happens upon Ally (Lady Gaga), whom he watches give a performance of ‘La Vie en Rose’. For the first time in what we can safely assume must be a long time, the boozed-up, drugged-out-of-his mind Jackson has a moment of sobriety. He is struck with awe by Ally’s show stopping number and believes he may have found something in her that he once had himself but has long since lost: an artist “with something to say and a way to say it”. Ally, as we’ve learnt by this point, is a waitress with musical aspirations but who has never once believed that she ever had what it takes to make it. Jackson couldn’t disagree more; he is overwhelmed by Ally’s brilliance and invites her to perform with him, confident that the rest of the world will embrace her as readily as he has. Despite her reservations Ally takes the plunge; she steps out on stage with Maine, sings her heart out, and just like that she’s an overnight sensation. The two start touring together and, for a while at least, everything is perfect. Ally is on the fast lane to the top with her beau’s unwavering support and Jackson is as passionate about his music as he’s ever been. As Sam Elliott, playing Jackson older brother and manager Bobby, says with his signature gruff voice that Cooper emulates in his own performance, “it’s been a long time since he played like that”. The two are on different paths however and before long their day in the sun together comes to an end.

Lady Gaga is no stranger to this acting game (she won a Golden Globe for her role in American Horror Story), but what’s so remarkable about her performance is how much it feels like an acting debut from a breakthrough talent. Despite being one of the biggest, most iconic superstars in the music world today, Gaga comes across as this unknown ingénue with a hidden gift for singing being discovered for the very first time. Her performance isn’t just a surprise; it’s a revelation. It shouldn’t be because one thing the preceding movies have always been good at is casting extraordinarily talented women at the absolute top of their fields as the female lead and there is no doubt whatsoever that Lady Gaga is a peer to Janet Gaynor, Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Yet she brings such raw passion and spontaneous energy to her singing, especially early on when it’s just her and a microphone, that it truly is astonishing to learn just how much natural talent this star really has. When she steps onstage to sing ‘Shallow’ in front of an audience for the first time, it genuinely feels like she’s been taken completely off guard by how great she sounds and how much the crowd adores her, as if she hasn’t ever stood on such a stage and received such an ovation a thousandfold.

It would be tempting to view this stripped-down, unfiltered version of Gaga as her true, authentic self, free from the artifice of make-up, costumes and techno-pop stylisation, but not only is that not true (she wouldn’t be Lady Gaga without the Lady Gaga-ness of it all), the movie itself doesn’t appear to think so either. Or it’s at least willing to entertain the idea that Jackson Maine’s country-rock singer-songwriter style isn’t the only valid form of honest musical expression. As Ally becomes more famous and successful, so does her image and style change. She signs up with a big-time music studio who proceed to mould her into a musical icon more recognisably Gaga. Her hair is dyed orange, she learns to dance and she has stylised publicity photos taken of her so that everyone can see her face on billboards. She also appears on Saturday Night Live to sing a song containing the lyrics “Why’d you come around me with an ass like that?” This is the moment where we’re supposed to understand that Ally has sold out, singing a garbage, studio-commissioned song without any shred of artistry or feeling behind it. Or that’s at least how the film frames it as we watch the scene from Jackson’s point of view far away in the sidelines in stark contrast to the close-up, intimate shots we got of Ally and Jackson earlier on during their performances together.

From Ally’s perspective, the corporate side of her success is simply part of the job and she doesn’t see it as any kind of force that compels her to compromise on her art. Unlike Jackson she doesn’t believe that art and celebrity are mutually exclusive. Jackson for his part is more contemptuous about his fame, preferring to simply leave his celebrity at the door of whatever bar happens to be open and drink himself into a stupor without anybody bothering him. Even he isn’t above that desire for recognition that fame often brings though as we see when he’s pissed off about having to play back-up to a couple of younger singers at the Grammys. The movie never quite makes its mind up about which side it agrees with (and that ambivalence makes for a somewhat confused second half) but it nevertheless respects its two leads enough that it’s able to show where they’re both coming from. When the movie does look down on the artificiality of Ally’s pop music, that may have less to do with how the movie sees her success than it does with how Jackson sees it and his inability to understand the kind of artist she’s grown into (but even then his appreciation of her talent is never in doubt). On some level the film is aware that Jackson’s vision of artistic integrity is a fantasy.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy about Jackson Maine is how early on he realises that the prodigy he has discovered is going to eclipse him someday and that at some point he’s going to end up standing in her way or dragging her down with him. This is because of his crippling alcoholism and substance abuse which are as much the result of a difficult upbringing as they are the trappings and pressures of stardom. The film is at its weakest when it tries to explain too much and there’s a confrontation between Jackson and Bobby that could’ve packed a greater punch had the movie been more willing to leave certain things unsaid. What Cooper does do incredibly well is taking what on paper appears to be nothing more than a pathetic, irredeemable drunk and giving him a soul. For all of Jackson’s moments of weakness, shamefulness and even cruelty, there is an undeniable sense of decency about the man. He has genuine affection for those he cares about, Ally above all, and Cooper makes it clear that nothing pains him more than to inflict his demons onto others. His performance is large but it’s also a grounded, natural one in the Jeff Bridges Crazy Heart way that never attempts to run away with the film. He and Lady Gaga work in perfect harmony with one another and their chemistry is electrifying.

Cooper is to be commended on more than his acting though. As the director, co-writer, and the music’s co-composer, it’s clear that A Star is Born was a passion project for Cooper and he gave it his all. He handles the story with utter sincerity and is never afraid to get up close and personal. The concert scenes with Jackson and Ally feel both intense and intimate, putting a spotlight on Ally’s breathtaking talent while still allowing us to appreciate the personal, affective connection they share. This retentive style of filmmaking is not only expressive of the sweeping yet deep romance that they share but also of the simultaneous awesomeness and delicacy of stardom as well. As they stand on the stage together before the blurry images of their adoring fans, we are acutely aware of how human they are even in those moments. While other scenes can sometimes go on longer than they need to and say more than needs to be stated, Cooper is also good at letting the actor’s face do the talking when it’s called for (as actor-turned-directors very often are). His best decision as a director though was casting Lady Gaga.

While the movie is unable to escape the romanticisation of male self-sacrifice for the woman’s good that it inherited from its predecessors, this version of A Star is Born does allow its couple to share their most reciprocal relationship yet. The film is just as interested in Ally’s evolution as an artist as it is in Jackson’s decline and, during the honeymoon years before the heartbreak that is to come, their relationship is built on mutual respect for each other’s talents and ambitions. And, while the theme of male seniority is still there (if somebody tried to make this film with the genders reversed, it would probably end up looking like Sunset Boulevard) Jackson and Ally also find that they make each other better people. He gives her the confidence to overcome her insecurities and she gives him the strength to battle his demons, at least for a while. Whatever shortcomings there are to find in terms of plot and character, it’s Cooper and Gaga who bring it all home with their affectionate, heartfelt performances. It’s the kind of romantic-fantasy movie you don’t see very often these days where they treat the emotions being conjured with such barefaced sincerity that they don’t care if it comes across as corny. This is a movie that wants to tell you a resonant story and that wants to make you feel; on both counts it is a success.



Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott

Director: Ruben Flesicher

Writers: Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel

It is just mindblowing that a movie as ridiculous as Venom exists today, never mind that it was this successful. In an age where superhero movies rule the box office and 90% of them share a certain samey quality (even when they’re good), Ruben Fleischer and Tom Hardy have stormed onto the scene with the force of a bloodthirsty, parasitic alien to deliver a film unlike anything else in Hollywood right now. Part derivative superhero origin story, part David Cronenberg split-personality body horror movie, part human/alien buddy slapstick comedy, and part Darren Aronofsky fever dream; Venom is a volatile clash of several disparate elements concocted by an illiterate mad scientist. Nothing about it should work, and indeed very little of it does, yet it is nonetheless an incredibly fascinating and tremendously entertaining movie. Venom is silly, baffling and almost completely incoherent and the only thing stopping it from being one of the year’s unmissable movies is its unwillingness to fully embrace its own looney tunes compulsions. The film has been edited right down to the barebones and is about 30% tamer, duller and more mediocre than the movie it clearly wants to be.

One of the most remarkable things about this movie is how totally unremarkable the first hour is. Much like Fantastic Four, Venom is one of those films that takes forever to get started. Before Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) gets anywhere near the symbiote, there’s a lot of tedious set-up and painful banality to get through. First there’s the spaceship from the Life Foundation which we see crash somewhere in Malaysia where its black, gooey cargo escapes. Then we meet hotshot reporter Eddie Brock, a San Francisco journalist tasked with interviewing Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the ingenious, trailblazing CEO of the Life Foundation. Eddie finds a scoop while snooping through the emails of his fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) which reveal that Drake is testing some lethal new drug on the city’s homeless population. Eddie confronts the smug scientist, who then proceeds to utterly destroy his life and reputation. Gone are Eddie Brock’s budding career, his beautiful fiancé and his good name. Now he’s nothing more than a loser; a washed up bum languishing in a rundown apartment. And yet there’s still a ways to go before he becomes Venom.

The particulars of how Eddie is eventually attached to Venom and gets the ball rolling (like a turd in the wind) isn’t really important and the movie would have been better had they cut half of it out. All that matters is that once Eddie and Venom become one, that’s when the magic starts to happen. Venom is a scary, slimy, many-fanged creature who fuses his consciousness with Eddie’s and starts to take control of his life. He operates Eddie’s body like an animated puppet whenever danger strikes, he compels his host to rabidly scrounge for food (preferably a chompable human head) and he speaks to Eddie both from within and outside his head in the form of a ghostly profile, oftentimes just to remind his new friend what a hopeless loser he is. Venom is essentially a warped cross between a superpowered antihero, an unwanted houseguest, a ravenous beast and an off-putting wingman. He doesn’t just protect Eddie when their accidental symbiosis places them both in danger, he also takes an interest in his life and even goes so far as to offer him dating advice. It is a strange, complicated, toxic, homoerotic relationship that they share (Venom and Eddie even kiss in one scene) and it never ceases to be fascinating or enormously entertaining. Venom could have been a supernatural rom-com completely void of fight scenes or an action-based plot and I would have watched it happily.

Tying all the madness together is Tom Hardy who delivers what can only be described as an otherworldly performance. The commitment he brings to this unbelievably unhinged performance is absolute, channelling both the intensity that Health Ledger brought to The Dark Knight and the complete lack of self-awareness that Jesse Eisenberg brought to Batman v. Superman. Whether he’s sweating profusely through night terrors, rummaging voraciously for food in the bin, screaming and flailing around on the floor or frantically climbing into a fancy restaurant’s lobster tank, Hardy brings 100% to every scenario the movie throws at him no matter how silly or random. There were moments when I actually felt concerned for his wellbeing, so convinced was I that he really did have some kind of alien parasite inflicting him all kinds of physical and mental anguish (which with Hardy is not a possibility I’m ready to discount). His is the only performance worthy of note; everybody else plays typically bland, underwritten characters who aren’t given enough material to compliment whatever kind of movie Hardy thought he was in save one scene where Michelle Williams is allowed to let loose for a little while.

Despite the movie’s enjoyability, whether inadvertent or not, there are far too many wasted opportunities holding it back from greatness. While they seem to understand that they struck some kind of comedy gold mine with Hardy’s dual performance, Venom is unprepared to commit itself to a comedic format and keeps things serious and boring for those scenes where he’s not around. Some action scenes such as a night-time motorcycle chase through San Francisco was rife for the kind of creativity and inventiveness that an indestructible shape-shifting alien could easily fulfil, but the movie never takes advantage of it. This scene instead trudges along without any sense of momentum and it is absolutely laughable how often they reuse the same locations throughout. The same goes for the climatic fight where Venom faces off against a bigger, stronger symbiote; a confused, unintelligible skirmish of dark slime shot at night where it’s just as impossible to make out what’s happening as it is to understand what Carlton Drake’s ultimate plan even is. Venom is in the wider scheme of things a mostly dull, self-serious film that would have little to no impressions had it not been for Hardy and the hilariously crazy movie he thinks he’s in. I wish everybody else had been on the same page as him.


A Simple Favour

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells

Director: Paul Feig

Writer: Jessica Sharzer

This movie was advertised with the tagline ‘From the darker side of Paul Feig’ and I’m still struggling to understand what that really means. A director who usually excels at female-centric comedies, Feig has taken more of a noirist turn with A Simple Favour except that it never feels like he ever figured out what this movie really is. Sometimes it’s a chilling, seductive neo-noir in the vein of Gone Girl. Sometimes it’s like a high-budget Lifetime movie with its trashy story and soapy acting. And sometimes it’s a female buddy-comedy with an occasionally twisted sense of humour. The movie is constantly jumping all over the place and I never quite managed to get a grip on it. A Simple Favour is so inscrutable, it’s never made clear where Feig’s comicality ended and his sincerity began. At times it feels like he’s making an honest attempt to draw us into this captivating story with this titillating mystery at its centre, at others it feels like he’s inviting us to laugh at the movie’s convolutedness and melodramatic silliness. The movie is all over the place and, while undoubtedly entertaining, it seldom manages to be compelling.

The saving graces are Kendrick and Lively who almost, almost manage to find the order beneath the chaos and make it work. Kendrick plays Stephanie Smothers, a single mom whose entire existence is devoted towards being pitch perfect. With a skip in her step and a ‘can do’ smile she keeps an immaculate home, volunteers incessantly for school and community activities and systematically maintains a vlog for mothers where she regularly shares her many, many tips and secrets on food, arts and crafts, and homemaking. When her son Miles (Joshua Satine) asks for a play date with classmate Nicky (Ian Ho), Stephanie is introduced to Nicky’s mom, Lively’s beguiling, enigmatic, stylish Emily Nelson. Stephanie soon finds herself in Emily’s sleek, elaborate mansion and is blown away by big city fashion executive’s personality and lifestyle. Emily is everything that Stephanie is not; glamorous, uncouth and sexually confident. She drinks martinis during the day, curses in front of her kid, and keeps a nude painting of herself hanging in the living room for all to see. She’s also married to Sean Townsend (Henry Golding), the dashing author of a bestselling novel that Stephanie once read with her book club, with whom Emily shares an active and spicy sex life.

Despite being polar opposites, the two seem to hit it off. Stephanie is completely enthralled by Emily’s charm and mystique and gets a certain thrill out of the way she is able to so keenly disarm and surprise her. Stephanie soon finds that she can confide in Emily, sharing with her the kinds of intimate thoughts and taboo secrets that her new friend so casually discloses from her own life. On Emily’s part, it’s never made clear whether she actually feels the genuine, reciprocal attachment that Stephanie believes they share or whether she’s more amused by the doe-eyed, sexually naïve woman and keeps her around the way she would a pet. That’s certainly what the other parents at the school, as symbolised by a trio played by Andrew Rannells, Aparna Nancherla and Kelly McCormack (who might really be Siamese triplets, so attached by the hip are they) think, believing that Emily sees Stephanie as nothing more than a free nanny. Emily’s ‘simple favour’ comes into play when she calls Stephanie and asks her to pick Nicky up after school and watch him. Stephanie gamely does so of course, as she has so many times before, only this time she neither sees nor hears from Emily again.

Thus Stephanie stumbles her way into a tangled web of dark memories, secret identities, deceitful deeds, and a little bit of bloodshed and arson to boot. Far from the cool, proficient, hard-boiled, detectives that traditionally helm noir stories (including the female likes of Jane Tennison, Sarah Lund and Jessica Jones), our investigator into the disappearance of the movie’s femme fatale is the jumpy, awkward, hopelessly guileless mommy vlogger who soon learns that she is way out of her depth. The nightmarish, harshly black and white worlds of the postwar film noirs that sometimes get referenced (including one particularly funny gag about Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques) is substituted with a more cartoon-like colourful and plastic setting not unlike Desperate Housewives. Like the suburban comedy-drama of the 2000s, a Simple Favour tries to blend its mystery movie tone and story with the pulpy theatricality of a soap opera and the laugh-out-loud humour of a sitcom (there’s even a scene where Stephanie is caught by the detective trying on one of Emily’s dresses). However the overall result of this collision in tones and styles is a movie that too often feels like it’s at odds with itself.

This is most apparent in the third act where I can’t really go into details because spoilers. Without getting too much into it, there’s a confrontation near the end full of double crosses and sneaky reveals where the characters’ attitudes are in constant flux. One minute they’re treating each other seriously as if in a critical life-or-death situation, the next they’re exchanging quips and laughing along as if the whole thing were an elaborate joke. It’s not that films can’t be dark and funny at the same time, of course they can. It’s that A Simple Favour is so inconsistent in its tone that the progression never feels natural. When a character gets hit by a car in one scene, it happens in such a way that is clearly meant to be framed as comedic but is instead so jarring and cartoonish compared to what had taken place before that I was more bewildered than amused. There are certainly some who will be taken in by the movie’s haphazard style and they’ll have no trouble enjoying the ride all the way through. But for me the intrigue that was conjured by the film’s two captivating leads, the alluring imagery and the swinging French pop soundtrack was let down by this atonal clash.