Skip to main content

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom
(2018)

(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity. 

It's a movie, even shorn of an R rating amid some controversy – it secured a 15 in the UK, for "strong threat, horror, violence" but I can't recall much in the way of "sometimes bloody detail" – that one could scarcely imagine Kevin Feige overseeing, any more than the tone and content of the Deadpools would have appeared present and correct under the auspices of the Mouse House. The chief problem with the movie – besides some evident over-editing leading to occasional incoherence – is that the inspired choices are counterbalanced by some equally noticeable deficient ones.


Director Ruben Fleischer being the top of the list. Disney's employment of journeymen to steer their Marvel ships generally comes out in the wash of a house style, whereby few of them can go too far wrong. Sony has no such rigour or quality control. As such, having spent all their money on their star, and possessed of a serviceable screenplay (credited to Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner, Kelly Marcel and Will Beall), they leapt at the chance of engaging a top-flight director. No, they secured Fleischer. Who debuted with the likeable zomcom Zombieland, but let's not overstate its merits, particularly since his last big screen credit was the bereft Gangster Squad five years back (with a screenplay also from Beall). 


Fleischer’s subsequent diet of TV comedies hardly count as credentials for blockbuster action, and the resultant visuals are accordingly mostly lacklustre. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has done some fine work in his time, not least with Darren Aronofosky, but Venom's has an uninspired, artificial look, complementing a director who doesn't really know how to use the frame effectively. One only has to look at the lumpen motorbike-drone chase, complete with glaring stunt double to recall that work this shoddy hasn't been touted in a major studio movie since, oh, probably Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. At times, I was put in mind of the deadly lack of energy imbued in the majority of John Carpenter's '90s movies.


Additionally, Fleischer appears to have little facility for his actors – not such a problem when all he's doing is letting them eat scenery, admittedly – and even less with CGI, a substantial problem when so much of the movie is relying on exactly that. One keeps seeing Venom compared to a '90s movie – in other words, pre the golden age of comic book adaptations we're currently swimming, or drowning, in depending on your point of view – and there's something to that. Very much so in terms of the quality of the effects. I note the budget is reported at $100m. If so, Sony has been relatively shrewd to keep costs down, and such price tag-consciousness would lend weight to the idea that they were thinking seriously about an R; this comes in between Fox's Deadpool and its sequel. 


The effects quality doesn't matter so much when you’re involved in a scene; when it's about the personality of the CGI creature, it's quite easy to forgive not really being able to buy into them as more than a collection of unconvincing pixels. A bigger issue is when they're pixels on pixels. The climactic fight between CGI Venom and CGI Riot, set against the backdrop of a CGI rocket, is a bigger turn off than the Disney movies' habitual recourse to CGI-predominant finales – in particular, The Incredible Hulk, albeit this is mercifully briefer – because at least the latter are intent on lending an air of verisimilitude. They also don't tend to cut their pictures to ribbons. 


During the early stages of Venom, mostly due to Fleischer's inert staging and lack of facility with the key relationships, the pace could do with picking up a notch (the rushed opening suggesting we'll be hitting the ground running, yet Venom doesn't become Venom until around the halfway mark). Later, things seem to happen randomly and without sufficient motivation; Eddie's dying from the effects of the symbiote, until it isn’t even mentioned again. He resolves to just get along with it, and it with him, in a manner that goes far beyond pat and convenient, such that Venom itself has to draw attention to its arbitrary motive for electing not to take over the world (first it professes that it’s "kind of a loser" on its planet; then, when Eddie doesn't buy this, it announces that it wants to stay on Earth because it likes Eddie, which rather suggests a less cuddly E.T.). 


The Predator a few weeks back also showed evidence of injudicious pruning. Venom isn't quite as badly affected because it retains a stronger personality, mostly thanks to a much stronger lead, but you do wonder what the purported longer cut looks like. I suspect more coherent, but also that the pacing suffers accordingly. Generally, though, the smaller and more contained the sequence, the better Fleischer is able to handle it; the initial attack by Drake's men, as Eddie "Venoms out" proper for the first time, is highly enjoyable. A later SWAT team version on a much grander scale, this time exiting Eddie's old workplace, is less accomplished.


Effects-wise, the Todd McFarlane-proportioned rendering of Venom is faithful to the comics, but can only look distractingly goofy on screen (at least, on an effects budget this size). Something only added to when Eddies complains to his heavy metal-loving neighbour and pulls a face straight out of The Mask. A significant (and scissored?) subplot concerning the Riot symbiote travelling back to the Life Foundation is suggestive of the likes of The Thing or The Hidden – although it’s Venom who gets the scene possessing a dog – but one wonders if the visuals might have been more effective if physical effects augmented by CGI had been used to achieve the creature(s) where possible.


Structurally, the movie is reasonably solid, wasting no time establishing the premise – like The Thing and Predator, it begins with the antagonist heading for Earth in a spaceship – and introducing human foe Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, who needed more to work with if he was going to make the character motivationally interesting; Riot meanwhile, only established properly at a late stage, is only ever a cypher symbiote). Drake's been compared to Elon Musk, wholly, I suspect, because he has his own space craft. Unless Musk has a band of mercenaries going around putting the kibosh on anyone speaking out of turn… which would surely include Musk himself. I also saw no sign of Drake smoking weed.


A significant amount of time – much more than you'd credit, given how luridly larger-than-life the situations become – is spent introducing Eddie (Tom Hardy) and his relationship with Anne (Michelle Williams). Much of this is rather flat, not helped by the difficulty of buying into a hotshot DA being engaged to a stumblebum who sounds like a cross between Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy and Bobcat Goldthwait. Which raises questions about Hardy's choices; that someone with Eddie's comportment would be accepted as a successful investigative journalist and given his own TV show; that someone as beefy as Hardy could convince as a nerd, a nerd who rides around on a Ducatti Scrambler; that Eddie is written smarter than Hardy plays him. And that Hardy seems much more enthused by acting with himself than with Williams (as far as I can discern, the only reason she took the lacklustre role was the opportunity to appear with the actor). Or maybe the romance between Eddie and Venom is the whole point. They stay together at the end, after all. 


And yet, these drawbacks in no way diminish that Hardy, in both his incarnations of Eddie and Venom, is the movie's considerable trump card. Hardy's compared the extremes to Ren and Stimpy, which figures, as he’s clearly relishing the twisted relationship between Eddie and Venom, and taking every opportunity to milk laughs from it. If his Kane in The Dark Knight Rises had been half as much fun as Venom ("Eyes, lungs, pancreas. So many snacks, so little time"), he'd have been a Batman villain all-timer. Hardy doing possessed is good fun too (the scene in a restaurant in pursuit of Venom's particular dietary requirements is worthy of Martin Short). 


Once their rapport is established, the picture hits its version of a stride, and you're left eagerly awaiting their next exchange, and it invariably delivers. I said above that Venom's motivation for joining forces with Eddie is unconvincing; despite that, you're willing to buy it, and that's simply because Hardy's dual performance is so much fun that you believe they're having fun together and so are willing to making excuses for the logic gaps. Simply put, this movie wouldn't work without Hardy. He's the difference between an entertaining movie and a bad one, which makes the prospect of a sequel with a talented director on board, in tune with the potential, tantalising.


Williams is given a few moments to "justify" an actress of her stature taking on this role, but anything following Anne and Eddie's break up tends to be clumsily written and insufficient to establish her as more than the (ex-)girlfriend. The exception is the She-Venom scene, but that's CGI. Indeed, her sympathetic doctor boyfriend (Wayne Pére) probably has more presence as a character.


There's a protagonist arc of sorts, whereby asshole Eddie can't help himself and ruins his and Anne's careers, leading to him adjusting and "growing" as a person(s) by accepting his id – Venom – and so balancing out the passive-aggressive side that got him into so much trouble. But one couldn't kid oneself that there's any thematic depth here, certainly less than there was for Stanley Ipkiss (and that was a comedy). And Eddie's still lying to Anne at the end and having the not-so-little devil on his shoulder assure him he'll get her back (which has all sorts of creepy connotations, that I expect any sequel will expressly sidestep). 


The post-credits scene features Woody Harrelson in a red fright wig as Cletus Kassady, the alter ego of Carnage (offspring of Venom). Quite how this works (if he's bonded, why can't he just escape?) I don’t know, but I'd hoped for something a little more inventive from the Spidey-verse villains gallery than the prospect of two very similar adversaries battling it out (see Hulks and Iron Mans for how this gets boring fast).


No doubt some will – certainly, some have – take issue with the way Venom has been shorn of the integral nature of its Spidey source material in order for Sony to establish its cinematic universe… Which is fair enough. I think it works reasonably well on its own level, although it may become an issue if they wish to reintegrate Spider-Man into the story, once the Disney agreement is over and done with. And while there's no mistaking this for the understandable confidence of Marvel proper, or even the misplaced confidence of DC, or the plodding confidence of Fox, there's enough to see a future in Sony's Spidey-spinoff-verse, as long as they lead with the creative talent. 


Returning to the critics’ verdicts, it felt like Venom's fate was sealed before the movie came out; invariably, the best of the genre don't deserve the overwhelming praise lavished on them, while the worst (Justice League) aren't quite the turkeys they're made out to be. On that note, as long as Hardy's still in frame, I’d more than welcome a Venom 2.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

You're waterboarding me.

The Upside (2017)
(SPOILERS) The list of US remakes of foreign-language films really ought to be considered a hiding to nothing, given the ratio of flops to unqualified successes. There’s always that chance, though, of a proven property (elsewhere) hitting the jackpot, and every exec hopes, in the case of French originals, for another The Birdcage, Three Men and a Baby, True Lies or Down and Out in Beverly Hills. Even a Nine Months, Sommersby or Unfaithful will do. Rather than EdTV. Or Sorcerer. Or Eye of the Beholder. Or Brick Mansions. Or Chloe. Or Intersection (Richard Gere is clearly a Francophile). Or Just Visiting. Or The Man with One Red Shoe. Or Mixed Nuts. Or Original Sin. Or Oscar. Or Point of No Return. Or Quick Change. Or Return to Paradise. Or Under Suspicion. Or Wicker Park. Or Father’s Day.

What about the meaningless line of indifference?

The Lion King (2019)
(SPOILERS) And so the Disney “live-action” remake train thunders on regardless (I wonder how long the live-action claim would last if there was a slim hope of a Best Animated Feature Oscar nod?) I know I keep repeating myself, but the early ‘90s Disney animation renaissance didn’t mean very much to me; I found their pictures during that period fine, but none of them blew me away as they did critics and audiences generally. As such, I have scant nostalgia to bring to bear on the prospect of a remake, which I’m sure can work both ways. Aladdin proved to be a lot of fun. Beauty and the Beast entirely tepid. The Lion King, well, it isn’t a badfilm, but it’s wearying its slavish respectfulness towards the original and so diligent in doing it justice, you’d think it was some kind of religious artefact. As a result, it is, ironically, for the most part, dramatically dead in the water.

Would you like Smiley Sauce with that?

American Beauty (1999)
(SPOILERS) As is often the case with the Best Picture Oscar, a backlash against a deemed undeserved reward has grown steadily in the years since American Beauty’s win. The film is now often identified as symptomatic of a strain of cinematic indulgence focussing on the affluent middle classes’ first world problems. Worse, it showcases a problematic protagonist with a Lolita-fixation towards his daughter’s best friend (imagine its chances of getting made, let alone getting near the podium in the #MeToo era). Some have even suggested it “mercifully” represents a world that no longer exists (as a pre-9/11 movie), as if such hyperbole has any bearing other than as gormless clickbait; you’d have to believe its world of carefully manicured caricatures existed in the first place to swallow such a notion. American Beauty must own up to some of these charges, but they don’t prevent it from retaining a flawed allure. It’s a satirical take on Americana that, if it pulls its p…

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his …

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

Kindly behove me no ill behoves!

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)
(SPOILERS) It’s often the case that industry-shaking flops aren’t nearly the travesties they appeared to be before the dust had settled, and so it is with The Bonfire of the Vanities. The adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s ultra-cynical bestseller is still the largely toothless, apologetically broad-brush comedy – I’d hesitate to call it a satire in its reconfigured form – it was when first savaged by critics nearly thirty years ago, but taken for what it is, that is, removed from the long shadow of Wolfe’s novel, it’s actually fairly serviceable star-stuffed affair that doesn’t seem so woefully different to any number of rather blunt-edged comedies of the era.

Is CBS Corporate telling CBS News "Do not air this story"?

The Insider (1999)
(SPOILERS) The Insider was the 1999 Best Picture Oscar nominee that didn’t. Do any business, that is. Which is, more often than not, a major mark against it getting the big prize. It can happen (2009, and there was a string of them from 2014-2016), but aside from brief, self-congratulatory “we care about art first” vibes, it generally does nothing for the ceremony’s profile, or the confidence of the industry that is its bread and butter. The Insider lacked the easy accessibility of the other nominees – supernatural affairs, wafer-thin melodramas or middle-class suburbanite satires. It didn’t even brandish a truly headlines-shattering nail-biter in its conspiracy-related true story, as earlier contenders All the President’s Men and JFK could boast. But none of those black marks prevented The Insider from being the cream of the year’s crop.