‘Venom’ is a Mixed Bag But Never Boring

Venom movie poster

My feelings about “Venom” are decidedly mixed. On one hand, I came out of it thinking a better movie could have been made out of this material. On the other, I cannot deny I found what ended up onscreen to be very entertaining. There are times where I wanted filmmakers to realize how less is more and how silence can be golden, but you don’t go into a comic book movie like this expecting a Terrence Malick film, and its tagline of “the world has enough superheroes” serves as a way to make it stand out among others of its genre. With this one, we can expect a little more nastiness than usual, albeit of the PG-13 variety.

The character of Eddie Brock and his alter ego of Venom has been begging for a proper cinematic treatment ever since he made his debut in the highly disappointing “Spider-Man 3.” In that ill-fated sequel, Venom was introduced almost as an afterthought to where it seemed like the bosses at Sony and Columbia Pictures forced Sam Raimi to add the character into a movie which was already overflowing with them. Well, this time Venom gets his own movie which feels long overdue, and he is played by the great Tom Hardy who has played his share of larger than life characters to where he is right at home with this one.

“Venom” starts off like the average “Predator” movie does, with a spacecraft of some kind crashing down violently on planet Earth and introducing a foreign organism, in this case a symbiote, which will soon wreak havoc on humanity. This, however, doesn’t stop Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a brilliant inventor, from experimenting on them with the help of desperate human subjects who just want a place to sleep and food to eat.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist who is infinitely determined to get to the truth no matter what the cost. Eddie has a nice apartment in the great city of San Francisco and a loving girlfriend in district attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, who looks lovelier in each movie she appears in), but all of this disappears when he goes after Carlton in an effort to expose his corruption. But with greed taking precedence over ethics, Carlton succeeds in ruining Eddie’s life and gets him fired from his job, and Anne breaks up with him upon learning he got into her email which contained confidential information. It makes you want to smack Eddie for not realizing he could have clicked on the “mark as unread” button to cover his tracks.

“Venom” then moves to several months later where Eddie is now living by himself and lamenting his present state where, when someone asks if he is Eddie Brock, he responds he used to be, a cliché which has been used one too many times. However, he gets a chance to be an investigative reporter again when the ethical and concerned Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) informs him of the experiments Carlton is doing with the alien symbiotes. But when Dora sneaks Eddie into the Life Foundation which Carlton oversees, he ends up getting infected by a symbiote and inherits superpowers no mere mortal can easily handle.

It takes a bit for “Venom” to get things going as the filmmakers are not quick to see Eddie get infected by a symbiote. Once he does get infected, it provides Hardy with an interesting acting challenge as he has to play someone inhabited by another personality. Steve Martin did this to perfection in “All of Me,” and it is never as easy as it looks. As Eddie struggles to maintain some semblance of sanity while Venom seeks to dominate his body and soul, Hardy illustrates this uneasy balance with believability and a good dose of humor. Seeing him dive into a lobster tank in a restaurant just to bring down his temperature is a gas, let alone watching him eat constantly and not look like he’s gaining weight.

I was also surprised at how good Hardy’s American accent is here. The trailers for “Venom,” which did not do this movie many favors, made Hardy’s accent sound bizarre and out of place, so it’s a relief to see him pull it off without any hitches. In addition, the actor provides a perfectly ominous voice for Venom which comes close to equaling the one he gave Bane, and it is fun to watch Hardy essentially talk to himself as he races through the streets of San Francisco and reaching heights Steve McQueen never did in “Bullitt.”

The story reflects present day events as we have watched the most ethical of reporters get hammered by certain people who have made the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts” unforgivably popular. Fake news may just be smoke, but for some it is thick enough to hide behind. It’s also interesting to see Riz Ahmed play his villainous character of Carlton Drake as if he were a variation on Elon Musk. Ahmed portrays Carlton not so much as an evil mastermind, but instead as someone whose ambition cannot be reigned in, and it gets to where all sense of morality is lost to him as he convinces himself he is the one to save humanity from certain destruction.

“Venom,” however, does get bogged down a bit by needless clichés which I could have done without. As we watch Eddie drink away his sorrows in a lonely bar, someone asks if he is Eddie Brock. His answer of “I used to be” is a piece of dialogue I have heard far too many times. After watching “The Predator” in which Shane Black laid waste to a number of action movies clichés, I came into this one hoping Ruben Fleischer, the director of “Zombieland,” would inject a bit more freshness into these proceedings than he did.

Also, is it just me, or does Scott Haze, who plays evil henchman Roland Treece, look like Billy Corgan? Haze doesn’t get much of a chance to make Roland more than the average bad guy, and I kept waiting for Eddie to tell Roland he liked him better as the lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins. No such luck though.

The movie climaxes in a chaotic fashion with loud noises and explosions, and there are a couple of post-credit scenes which do deserve your attention. One of those scenes promises a follow-up with a character who aims to be as brutal as his name. There’s also a kick ass theme song done by Eminem in which the artist continues to spit out rhymes at lightning speed, although it might have been cooler to see it put at the movie’s beginning instead of being played during the end credits. I also could have done with more of Jenny Slate in the movie. She disappears from it way too soon.

Again, I left “Venom” with mixed feelings as I felt a better version of this material could have been brought to the silver screen. Still, what I did see was never boring, and watching Tom Hardy taking on such an iconic role was alone worth the price of admission. How you feel about the movie may depend on how familiar are with this comic book character. I myself never really read many comic books as a kid, so I am unsure how the most die-hard of fans will react to this finished product. My hope is more of them will get a kick out of it than not, but they can be infinitely critical to no end.

* * * out of * * * *

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‘The Greatest Showman’ Reminds Audiences Hugh Jackman is the Real Deal

The Greatest Showman movie poster

When it comes to singing, I still consider it to the most challenging of all the performing arts. You can be a good singer technically by hitting all the notes just right, but none of it will matter if you don’t put your heart and soul into each of those notes. You can only hide behind technique for so long before the teacher makes you see that you have to be emotionally open and show the audience you are living the song and not just singing it.

I was strongly reminded of this while watching “The Greatest Showman,” the musical drama which stars Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, the infinitely ambitious showman and entrepreneur who created the Barnum & Bailey Circus which ran for over 140 years before shutting down in 2017. Once Jackman sings his first note, it becomes abundantly clear there is no other actor who could inhabit a man who command an audience to where no one could dare take their eyes off him. The scene threatens to be overwhelmed by a rousing musical number, strong choreography and beautiful cinematography, but nothing can upstage the passion Jackman brings to the role as he dominates every filmmaking element to command the stage like no one else can.

For those of you expecting a complex look at P.T. Barnum, you will need to look elsewhere or, better yet, read a book on the man. Director Michael Gracey along with screenwriters Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon are not out to give us a multi-layered portrayal of a man whose success in life was beset by allegations of abuse of his circus animals among other things. Instead, they are more focused on him as a man eager to break out of the shackles of modern life so he can embrace a lifestyle some would say he is undeserving of. At the very least, you have to give the filmmakers credit for not saying this is “based on a true story,” a phrase you all know I abhor with a passion.

We watch as P.T. captures the heart and affection of Charity (Michelle Williams) from a young age even though they come from two different classes of people, P.T. from the poor and Charity from the rich. Nevertheless, their love for one another breaks through barriers, and they marry and bring two beautiful daughters into the world whom they share a powerful love of imagination and possibilities with.

The scene in which we watch P.T. Barnum work in an office and trying not to becoming completely numbed by a redundant work environment resembles the suffocating office Jonathan Pryce was an employee at in Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil,” and from there I was sucked into his quest to escape a life where, as Trent Reznor put it, every day is exactly the same. Of course, his mission in starting an adventurous life is stifled by struggles new beginnings bring about. Barnum ends up buying a museum, but it’s a constant struggle to get anyone to purchase a ticket. Then he employs a number of performers which so-called “normal” people quickly dismiss as freaks of nature. But by giving the public something different, Barnum finally succeeds in making his mark to where nothing he does can be easily ignored.

I found Barnum’s story as presented here fascinating as he tries to find acceptance in a society which pretty much banished him from the day he was born. Barnum even goes out of his way to entice famous Swedish singer Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to do a series of concerts in America in the hopes that critics who constantly bash his circus act will come to accept him as an upper-class citizen. The question is, will he leave his circus performers and business partners in the dust in the process?

The plot of “The Greatest Showman” is actually quite thin to where the narrative feels more rushed than you might expect in a movie with a running time of 105 minutes. The story of P.T. Barnum is one deserving of a complex and deeply researched screenplay, but the filmmakers here were instead determined to give us a story about a dreamer who defied the odds and led a life of adventure we all hope to live. If you can accept what they were attempting to do here, this movie will prove to be an enjoyable one, and I was willing to accept it for the movie it was trying to be.

The advertisements boast of how “The Greatest Showman” features music by the lyricists of “La La Land,” another movie dedicated to the risks dreamers take. The songs, which include “Come Alive” and “This is Me,” are rousing and will get you into a wonderfully invigorated state as you sit and take in the spectacle. Having said this, this is not the kind of musical which will remain in your mind long after you have watched it. Perhaps my standards for musicals are too high as “South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut” remains the best movie musical Hollywood has released in years (“La La Land” is not far behind).

Aside from Jackman, the other actors acquit themselves nicely. Michelle Williams remains one of the bravest actresses, let alone actors, working today as she never hesitates to lay herself emotionally bare in a scene. Just check out her heartbreaking scene from “Manchester by the Sea” (you’ll know it when it comes up). Williams shares the screen with Jackman to where it should be no surprise she can hold her own with Jackman as their characters’ love is threatened more often than not.

Zac Efron, while I sometimes hoped he would be livelier than he was, certainly has all the right moves as Phillip Carlyle, a playwright who becomes Barnum’s business partner. Zendaya plays Anne Wheeler, an acrobat whom Phillip quickly gains a strong affection for, and she makes her presence in this movie a memorable one. I also have to single out Keala Settle who portrays Lettie Lutz, a bearded lady, as her performance of the song “This is Me” proves to be a real show stopper as we root for her and her fellow freakish performers to come out of the shadows to where no one can ignore or easily dismiss them.

With “The Greatest Showman,” you have a movie musical which has flaws not hard to miss, but I was still enthralled with it even though I am not in a rush to buy the soundtrack. Much of this is due to the actors as there is no denying they put all their heart and soul into their roles. Jackman, who has already has had one heck of a year with his penultimate Wolverine performance in “Logan,” remains a powerful presence whether he is appearing on stage or screen, and even if you have issues with this motion picture, there’s no denying there are few actors like him working right now.

As I walked out of the theater, I was reminded of something Groucho Marx once said:

“I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.”

Does Barnum believe the same before this movie’s end? I leave it to you to find this out.

* * * out of * * * *

 

Manchester By The Sea

manchester-by-the-sea-movie-poster

There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. It’s never easy recovering from grief whether it involves loss of a loved one or dealing with the now inescapable fact that Donald Trump will be the next President of the United States. Watching Casey Affleck’s character in “Manchester by the Sea,” I wonder if he will ever get past the first stage. If he’s lucky, he just might make it to the second. While some are able to get past their grief, others are doomed to be stuck in it for an eternity.

Many movies about grief have been made over the years, but few feel as bitingly honest as “Manchester by the Sea” does. It is the latest work from writer and director Kenneth Lonergan who previously gave us “You Can Count on Me” and “Margaret,” and he really tops himself with this one. While this may, on the surface, seem like a depressing movie, it is one filled a surprising amount of laughter and a wealth of interesting characters whom we watch struggle with the steep hurdles life has thrown at them as well as the snowy weather which chills all those who live in Massachusetts during the winter months.

Affleck plays Lee Chandler who, as the movie starts, works as a janitor and lives in the tiniest of apartments in Quincy, Massachusetts. He is a quiet man and one who is not quick to make friends, especially with those who stare at him for a couple of seconds too long. His face seems as frozen as the snow he constantly shovels off his front porch, so we know the movie will be a journey into discovering how Lee ended up looking so bereft of life.

One day, Lee gets word his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has passed away after suffering a heart attack. This forces Lee to drive to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to meet up with family members and relatives he has long since become estranged from, and his reaction to seeing them all seems strangely serene as if he has been preparing for this moment in a way no one else would bother to. But as the movie goes on, we come to see why Lee can never again be comfortable in his hometown as it is filled with memories and ghosts he may never ever put behind him.

Now in many ways this movie sounds like a typical one about someone reflecting on the memory of a friend who is no longer living, but Lonergan never tries to take the easy way out here. He presents us with characters who are ever so real, and their reactions to the tragedies thrown in their faces feels honest as one never responds to something so painful in the way you might expect. Everyone is far from perfect and no one here is easily likable, but the characters grow on you as they attempt to navigate past the wreckage of their lives.

Lonergan’s talent as a writer has never been in doubt, but what astounded me most about “Manchester by the Sea” is how confident his direction is. His cast ends up giving such naturalistic performances to where they inhabit their characters more than play them. I never felt like I was watching a movie, but instead it seemed like I was eavesdropping on people whose lives and problems feel more real than we ever could expect. Pulling something like this off requires major talent, and Lonergan has it in massive supply.

All eyes are on Affleck who gives what is far and away one of the best performances of 2016. His character of Lee Chandler reminded me of William Hurt in “The Accidental Tourist” and Nick Nolte in “Affliction” in that those actors played characters so damaged by horrific tragedies in life to where they could no longer process a wide range of emotions. Affleck has a tricky role here as Lee looks to be experiencing intense grief from start to finish, but at the same time he is constantly running away from circumstances which will cause those emotions to overwhelm him in a way he feels he can never handle. This must have been an exhausting role to play, but it’s no surprise to see Affleck rise to the challenge.

There is not a single weak link to be found in the cast here as each actor, no matter how small their role is, creates a multi-dimensional character worth following. Michelle Williams in particular has a show stopping moment as Lee’s ex-wife, Randi, as she tries to make peace with him after all they have been through. Williams has always been fearless in exploring emotions many of us have tried to numb ourselves to whether we realize it or not and, just like she did in “Blue Valentine,” she digs deep into the tragic nature of her character as Randi appears far more ready to deal with past than Lee is.

I also have to single out Lucas Hedges who gives an honest portrayal of a teenager as Lee’s nephew, Patrick. So many teenagers in movies these days seem designed to appeal to a popular demographic regardless of whether the target audience can relate to them or not. But Hedges gives us one who quickly reminds us of how we juggled a number of girlfriends (if we were lucky to, that is) while dealing with a tragedy no one that young should ever have to deal with. Hedges is a real find as he makes Patrick a far more mature character than his emotionally wounded uncle, and he is as unforgettable as Affleck is in this movie.

In a year which proved to be a mediocre one for motion pictures, “Manchester by the Sea” is easily one of the best for many reasons. If it has any flaws, they are hard to see on the first viewing. But even if you do spot any flaws, they are not enough to take away from how great a movie this is. Lonergan has given us a cinematic masterpiece which demands your attention as it deals with a subject that is never easy to grapple with. While the movie’s ending proves to be understandably ambiguous, he never leaves these characters without a sense of hope for the future.

Watching this movie reminded me of an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” entitled “Pit Bull Sessions” in which Frank Pembleton and Paul Falsone interrogate a man whose pit bulls have been trained for dogfighting have killed his grandfather. This man, who was played by Paul Giamatti by the way, cares for his dogs far more than he does for any member of his family to where he shows little, if any, remorse for what has happened to his grandfather. Falsone is incensed over how the son seems indifferent to what has happened to a member of his family, and it leads to a classic exchange between him and Pembleton.

“That bastard can feel,” Falsone says.

“He can’t, that’s the horror,” Pembleton replies.

Sad but very true.

* * * * out of * * * *