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Movie Review: “Venom”

Venom—a longtime foe of Spider-Man, a hulking antihero with enormous fangs and a lashing red tongue—has always been one of my favorite comics characters. Needless to say, I was delighted to see he was getting his own big-budget movie, one that promised a darker take on the character than the much-maligned “Spider-Man 3.”

But alas, this is not a film that does him justice.

Set in San Francisco (a welcome change of setting as superhero movies go), “Venom” opens with investigative reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) finding himself on the wrong side of billionaire tech baron Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). He promptly loses everything—his girlfriend Annie (Michelle Williams), his job, and his home—but acquires something else after an aborted attempt to infiltrate Drake’s ultra-secure stronghold. Enter the Symbiote, a gooey black alien that must bond to a host in order to survive in Earth’s atmosphere. If the host match is the right one (think organ transplantation), symbiosis results: the Symbiote physically enhances its host and opens a line of communication straight to the host’s brain. This does come with some downsides, though. As Eddie promptly learns, he’s eating for two now.

Comics fans will immediately note that this isn’t the canonical take on Venom’s origin story (as it were, “Spider-Man 3” actually got this part right). And this reinterpretation is not, shall we say, a success. Before the magnificent monster makes his full costumed appearance, we’re forced to endure seemingly endless sequences of Eddie struggling to adjust to the Symbiote inside him. But it’s not as if there’s any mystery or terror in what’s happening: we know what’s going to happen (it’s why we bought tickets to the movie in the first place). And there’s not really much alienness to the Symbiote’s infestation: in lieu of the demonic-possession overtones of “Spider-Man 3,” we get scenes that feel like outtakes from “An American Werewolf in Paris.”

All of this eventually culminates in a battle between Venom and “Riot,” another Symbiote who happens to be in the area. Now I’m pretty steeped in comics lore, but I’d never even heard of this guy. (I’m calling him “Budget Carnage” because his powers—which include projecting spinning axe blades from himself—basically mirror those of the far superior scarlet supervillain.) Anyway, Venom and Budget Carnage have a goo-flinging CGI throwdown for plot reasons that are not entirely clear. It’s quite fun to watch if you’re into this stuff (like, uh, me) but virtually incomprehensible to anyone else.

There’s a bigger problem here, though. In our era of extreme polarization, I often think it’s a good thing when mainstream movies avoid overtly political angles. “Venom” is the rare film where the opposite is true: it fails because it’s not political enough.

This is a shame, because the film has a really solid storytelling foundation that could lead things in interesting directions: Drake is a Silicon Valley tycoon obsessed with his own myth, one who believes himself to be humanity’s savior. Brock is the opposite: a ProPublica-style investigative reporter who (at least at the film’s start) truly cares about speaking truth to power. He speaks for the “little guys” pressured to sign their rights away in Drake’s experiments. That’s an intriguing moral conflict from the get-go (sadly, though, we don’t really get a good look at this aspect of Brock’s character).

A more compelling film would depict Drake as a champion of transhumanism—of neo-Cartesian “evolution” beyond the limitations of human flesh and blood. This isn’t farfetched: plenty of tech billionaires have invested heavily in “cryopreservation,” in mind-uploading research, and much else besides. But—uncomfortably—transhumanism promises the ultimate inequality: a select few members of homo sapiens become what Yuval Noah Harari might call homo deus, functionally immortal and unshackled from physical reality.

Venom—the fusion of Brock and the Symbiote—is the antithesis of the transhumanist vision. He is a fundamentally embodied creature: the Symbiote cannot exist or act without its human host. Thus, to be Venom—and to celebrate that fact—is, paradoxically, to embrace a kind of existential humility. Despite his many powers, Venom can never hope to leap into absolute self-transcendence. So, contra Silicon Valley’s thoroughgoing transhumanists, Venom’s character offers a vision of superhumanity but not suprahumanity.

Even without the high-level metaphysics, these ideas could form the backbone of a genuinely engaging story. It stands to reason that Venom’s acts should reflect aspects of Brock’s character, including Brock’s concern for the exploited. So why not conceive of Venom as a bloodthirsty avatar of populist rage? If nothing else, it would add an interesting dimension to the inevitable Spider-Man crossover event. Peter Parker, after all, is a middle-class kid with money problems of his own. Could such a film explore issues of class in the same way that “Black Panther” probed racial dynamics? Maybe.

And one can push these ideas still further. “Venom 2” will almost certainly feature Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), the incarcerated serial killer who becomes the Symbiote-infused supervillain Carnage. Yet Brock—an investigative reporter in San Francisco—almost certainly harbors progressive ideas about justice reform and the rehabilitation of criminals. What happens when he encounters someone genuinely and incorrigibly evil, someone whose very existence seems to call for a retributive view of punishment? These are difficult questions, and yet the premise of “Venom” allows them to be explored in creative and challenging ways.

Will this happen, though? No. And that’s a real shame.

There are plenty of other things I could say about “Venom”—its odd tonal shifts between action and horror and comedy, its inexplicable PG-13 rating, its innumerable plot holes—but that might be overkill (no pun intended). Suffice it to say that this is simply not the movie the character, or audiences, deserved. Save your money and see “A Star Is Born” instead.

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Posted by on October 15, 2018 in Sci-Fi

 

Movie Review: “A Star Is Born”

Some movies succeed by virtue of creative plotting, while others double down on sheer majesty of execution. “A Star Is Born”—Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga’s new musical romantic drama—is the latter sort of film. The third remake of the 1937 original, “Star” soars on the strength of its central leads and the raw energy of the music at its heart.

When late-career rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) discovers insecure waitress Ally (Gaga) singing at a drag bar, he’s immediately captivated. Soon, Ally is singing onstage alongside him, and the accolades begin to pile up. Almost before Ally knows what’s happening, fame and fortune come knocking: a record deal, a tour, and a new public persona are hers for the taking. But the good graces of L.A. exact a nasty price: as Jackson begins to spiral down into alcohol and drug abuse, Ally’s managers push her to reinvent herself as a Katy Perry-esque pop goddess (authenticity is out; sultriness is in).

These aren’t exactly novel story beats, but that’s not the point. What really matters is the style and power of the delivery, and both stars deliver: Cooper and Gaga share real chemistry—the essential core of any movie like this—making their interactions endlessly watchable.

For that matter, Cooper proves himself not only a strong actor, but a highly capable director with a flair for distinctive storytelling. Just to name one example, in an extended early scene, Ally and Jackson duck out of a bar melee and head to a local supermarket after Ally punches a snide commenter. As Jackson tapes a bag of frozen peas to her swelling hand, Ally shares her story, her dreams, and her first tentative attempts at songwriting. It’s a sweet, memorable sequence that likely would’ve been cut from a movie more obsessed with its own mass-market appeal.

But perhaps the most distinctive feature of “Star” is the visceral power of its sonic landscape. Not only are the songs themselves hauntingly memorable—anyone who’s seen the trailers for this film has already glimpsed Gaga’s showstopping performance of “Shallow”—the cinematography complements them in superb fashion. Admirably, Cooper resists the tendency of some music dramas to rely heavily on wide-angle shots of screaming crowds: instead, we’re present right alongside Jackson and Ally, feeling every twang, every rasp, every rippling chord. It’s a relentlessly immersive technique that infuses every song with a sense of real intensity. Suffice it to say that this is a movie that demands to be experienced on the best sound system available. (Also, it’s worth stressing that no matter what you might think of Gaga’s public persona, her voice really is stunning.)

In short, one leaves “Star” feeling like they’ve gone on an emotional odyssey. Yes, it’s a long and sprawling film filled with ups and downs, but somehow this never feels indulgent. Rather, it feels classic—a throwback to an era before films were tailor-made to succeed in Chinese markets, advance some sociopolitical cause, or pander for Oscar attention. (Okay, maybe there’s a bit of that last one. But it’s not overwhelming.) If you liked “La La Land” or its ilk, “Star” is certainly not a film to miss.

 
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Posted by on October 6, 2018 in Contemporary

 
 
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