Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

 

The Greatest Showman (2017)

“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?”
“Do these smiles look fake?”

One of my favorite recurring SNL characters in recent years was Andy Samberg’s portrayal of Hugh Jackman: The Man with Two Sides. The joke was essentially that Jackman’s public persona was bizarrely bifurcated between his gruff performances as a muscled-out action star and his more delicate, fanciful performances as a man of the stage. 2017 might have been the year when the Two Sides of Hugh Jackman both reached their most absurd extremes. Early in the year, Jackman’s long-running lone wolf/tough guy act as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise got so somber & manly in Logan that the film could easily pass as an adaptation of a late-career Johnny Cash ballad. Jackman then followed that grizzled performance up in December with the silliest, most frothy performance in his entire musical theatre career. Jackman stars in the movie musical biopic The Greatest Showman as an eternally chipper P.T. Barnum, whom the movie posits as the inventor of modern showbusiness. The Greatest Showman is less remarkable for contrasting Logan as an exercise in pure, unembarrassed musical theatre than it is for contrasting it as a disingenuous, 100-minute-long commercial where the product being sold is joy. Just as I cried a solitary, manly tear as Logan toyed with political exploitation & deep-seated daddy issues, I also totally bought into the joyful, bullshit product Jackman peddles in The Greatest Showman. He’s a very talented salesman, no matter which one of his Two Sides is doing the talking.

Calling The Greatest Showman a biopic is a little misleading. I’m not sure Jackman’s portrayal of P.T. Barnum shares much in common with the real-life showman outside a name and an affiliation with the popularization of the traveling circus. The revisionist narrative the film peddles is just as surreally artificial as its nonstop barrage of green-screened backdrops. Barnum begins the film as a working-class upstart whose belief in the American dream (and skills at lying to bank lenders) catapults his family from rags to riches as he unknowingly “invents” modern show business (think Vegas variety show). His “aha!” moment that transforms a failing wax museum packed with dusty curios to a lucrative enterprise of populist entertainment is a decision to exploit the local outcasts & physically disabled as tourist attractions, essentially inventing the profession of “circus freak.” The Greatest Showman often attempts to posit Barnum’s relationship with his disenfranchised employees as tenderly familial, but it’s much more convincing in the stretches where he profits off their labor, yet locks them out of the visibility of the high-society circles they afford him access to. The film’s moral lies somewhere in celebrating your inner (and outer) weirdness instead of desperately wanting to be accepted by the snobbish hegemony, a lesson Barnum supposedly learns several times throughout (by way of gaudy, pop-minded showtunes, of course).

There are dual romance storylines that distract from The Greatest Showman’s Let Your Freak Flag Fly messaging and overall value as a crassly populist spectacle. One involves Barnum repeatedly ignoring his wife (Michelle Williams) and children in his blind pursuit of high society respectability, something that falls a little flat if not only because his wife’s inner desires are left vague & unclear. Early on, Barnum sings passionately about his dream of creating the ultimate form of entertainment, while his wife’s only expressed desire is that he share that dream with her and allow her to tag along. A second, interracial romance among Barnum’s employees (Disney Channel vets Zack Effron & Zendaya) is a little clearer in its place in the story, though it’s ultimately just as inconsequential. Neither romance is nearly as satisfying as the time spent with Barnum’s stable of “freaks,” whose determination to be visible & respected while being themselves is the most convincing thread in the film’s overall sentimentality. I’ll admit that even as crass & silly as this movie is in every single frame, I got a little teary-eyed at the circus performers (especially the bearded lady) singing about how they’re “Not scared to be seen” in the Oscar-nominated tune “This is Me.” The characterizations of the circus performers can be just as insultingly artificial as the romances and the revision of Barnum’s exploitative history and everything else in the film (the bizarre vocal dubbing of the cast’s sole little person is especially egregious), but that’s all part of The Greatest Showman’s tacky sense of proto-Vegas fun. It also does little to distract from the endearing, all-accepting, freaks-are-people-too messaging.

The debut film from director Michael Gracey, The Greatest Showman was likely a movie-by-committee proposition, very much in the tradition of blatantly commercial movie musicals like Moulin Rouge & Xanadu. It proudly wears that populism on its ruffled sleeve, though, directly calling out potential critics as “prigs & snobs” before they even have a chance to file a negative review. Barnum goes even further by calling the entire profession of entertainment criticism inherently hypocritical, as he becomes morbidly fixated on a “critic who can’t find joy in the theatre.” That insult stuck with me, not because it was especially insightful as a look into the practice of art criticism, but because it made clear exactly what product this obnoxious, crass, overlong, deeply silly advertisement was trying to sell me: joy. I greatly respect The Greatest Showman for the honesty of its populist spectacle & out-in-the-open commitment to artifice. I also believe that, besides maybe Barnum himself, there are few hucksters who could have sold its joy-product more convincingly than Jackman, even if he was outshined by the circus performers’ storyline and could only employ one of his distinct Two Sides in the task.

-Brandon Ledet

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

A lot of the critical dialogue surrounding Manchester by the Sea is about how soul-shatteringly sad the film is. For instance, warning audiences about the emotional heft of the film was actually the basis of Casey Affleck’s entire opening monologue when he recently hosted SNL. That reputation’s not exactly off-base. Manchester by the Sea is a dramatic study of a family in grief over two timelines, a portrait of loss & regret in the most realistic of terms. People get so unbearably sad in this film that their bodies shut down, their eyes go dead, and they can’t fathom a reason why they should live for another minute. The dirty secret about Manchester by the Sea, though, the part that most people aren’t addressing, is that despite its fearless gaze into the suicidal depths of grief & loss, it’s actually really damn funny. The immense pressure the film’s dramatic weight puts on its characters is constantly released by flippant, tough guy humor and you’re a lot more likely to laugh through a majority of the film than you are to cry. Just when you feel like you can easily laugh away the pain, though, the film’s emotional devastation crashes in on you in an insurmountable flood. It’s true to life in that way.

Casey Affleck headlines this small budget weepie as an underpaid handyman who has to step in to handle his brother’s estate after his sudden, but expected death. This responsibility includes caring for his teenage nephew, played by Lucas Hedges, something he’s not at all prepared for due to a past trauma that’s gradually revealed to the audience in flashbacks. What develops is two duelling timelines, both heartbreaking in their circumstances, but made amusing by the quiet, sullen humor of its tough guy protagonists who foolishly believe they’re stronger than their own emotions. Much like with the recent black comedy Joshy, Manchester by the Sea is largely about the way traditional masculinity doesn’t leave room for genuine expressions of emotional pain. Characters cover their feelings with tough-it-out jokes & good-natured ribbing until the arrival of someone actually willing to address the trauma head on, roles filled by the wonderfully talented Michelle Williams & Gretchen Mol, rushes the truth to the surface.

Casey Affleck’s lead performance is going to overshadow a lot of this film’s other details when it comes to its critical reputation. The quiet squeaks in his voice, the dead eyes of PTSD, the sudden bursts of explosive violence: his performance is well-deserving of the attention it’ll attract. This is a movie that’s non-imposing in its visual craft, washing everything in greys & seafoam greens so that the performances & the dialogue are more of the main attraction than the directorial work. Mol, Williams, and Hedges all make excellent use of each moment they’re afforded, but Affleck’s consistent hovering between looking like he might weep or throw a punch at any second is going to steal a lot of their thunder. That’s okay, though. What I was most impressed by in Manchester by the Sea wasn’t at all the heartbreaking drama Affleck skillfully conveys under the falsely calm surface of each scene. Rather, I was most struck by the way the film clashes a take-no-shit Boston bro attitude with devastating moments of emotional fragility to pull out something strikingly funny from the wreckage. The film works really well as a dramatic actors’ showcase, but it’s that act of black comedy alchemy that made it feel special to me.

-Brandon Ledet

Certain Women (2016)

EPSON MFP image

threehalfstar

There’s a growing cult following for writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s work that I don’t yet fully understand, as I’ve only seen a couple of her pictures to date. As with the Michelle Williams canine drama Wendy & Lucy, perhaps Reichardt’s most well-known film, the recent release Certain Women didn’t quite hit me with the full, emotionally devastating force it has with some critics. For me, Reichardt’s work has the impact of an encroaching tide, not a crashing tidal wave. I leave her films quietly sad, subtly moved, but not rocked to my core. Certain Women finds Reichardt telling three separate stories in a loosely connected anthology, each vignette beginning & ending on an open, ominous note like the movie equivalent of distant, lightningless thunder. I understand how certain audiences can latch onto this less-is-more approach to storytelling and easily sink into Reichardt’s quiet, but confident filmmaking style, but I can never get past feeling like an appreciative observer, casually peeking into an uncovered windows as I stroll by unchanged, but intrigued.

Honestly, this is the kind of movie I would typically wait to watch until it reached a convenient at-home state of availability. There’s no visual poetry or genre thrill to Certain Women that’s especially enhanced by watching it large, loud, and with a crowd. I mostly turned up at the theater for this title because of the talent promised in the cast. Besides the consistently rewarding Reichardt alum Michelle Williams, Certain Women also boasts featured performances from Kristen Stewart and Laura Dern, two immensely talented & eternally undervalued actors I respect deeply. A great, front & center performance from Dern is always worth cherishing, considering the surprising rarity of her lead roles, but I have to admit Stewart’s inclusion is what really perked my ears in this case. Stewart has a quiet, measured presence in her dramatic roles I imagined would be a perfect fit for Reichardt’s own dedication to discipline & subtlety, an expectation that payed off nicely. Their pairing here makes for an all-too-appropriate director-actor team-up and, although I’ll readily admit I’m a much bigger fan of Stewart’s, I’d love to see them continue to work together on future projects just because their wavelengths are already so in sync.

Williams plays a contractor attempting to secure a delicate businesses deal for precious sandstone building materials she desires for her own home. Dern is a lawyer frustrated with an increasingly unhinged client who won’t accept the finality of a failed workman’s comp claim. Stewart, who is admittedly in the second bill slot in her segment, plays a young lawyer & night class teacher who becomes the unrequited target for flirtation from a lonely horse rancher. Each segment has stray themes and details that make them feel connected in a significant way: a shared character, a clear dichotomy between blue collar workers & their wealthy employers, the way men can undercut a woman’s authority without even noticing, etc. It’s really Reichardt’s understated gaze at desolate Midwestern expanse & small town relationships that makes the film function as a single unit, though. The routine of horses feeding, the dim lighting of strip malls & late night diners, a title credits scroll over a slow moving train; there’s a quiet frustration in Certain Women‘s imagery that links its individual parts together more than any of its overarching narratives strive to.

Kelly Reichardt guides this film with a confident command. As the writer, director, and editor, she holds a godlike control over the production that results in a work unmistakably her own, yet confoundingly light on stylistic flourish. Much like Todd Solondz’s recent anthology-style film Wiener-Dog, Certain Women finds a director delivering exactly what they’re known for, except dissected & presented in isolated pieces, almost like a career retrospective or an artist’s manifesto. A major difference, though, is that Reichardt’s work intentionally avoids grand, sweeping statements, so it’s all too easy to overlook the immensity of what’s covered in the film. Certain Women doesn’t aim for the earnest lyricism of an American Honey. It’s a very different portrait of Nowhere America, one deliberately dulled by an almost absent score & a filter of digital grain.

Personally, I usually look for a little visual poetry and cinematic escapism in my movies. Reichardt’s filmmaking style is a little outside my comfort zone, to put it mildly. I do think she has a great way of framing disciplined & meaningful performances from her actors, though. Williams, Dern, and Stewart all convey an impressive range of humanity here (along with Lily Gladstone, who is devastatingly effective as the horse rancher) without calling attention to themselves in a way a more obnoxious drama would invite. There’s a lot I admire in Reichardt’s work, but it’s the stage & environment she sets for her actors that keeps me coming back for more. I’ve yet to wholly fall in love with one of her films, but the dramatic performances they deliver consistently make the effort worthwhile.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 10: Wendy and Lucy (2008)

EPSON MFP image

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Wendy and Lucy (2008) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 64 of the first edition hardback, Ebert reminisces about his childhood dog Blackie & all of the cinematic dogs he’s fallen in love with over the years. He writes, “Every time I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can’t even think about the movie’s plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me. I have an empty space inside myself that can only be filled by a dog.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The people in [Wendy and Lucy] haven’t dropped out of life; they’ve been dropped by life. It has no real use for them, and not much interest. They’re on hold. At least searching for your lost dog is a consuming passion; it gives Wendy a purpose and the hope of joy at the end. That’s what this movie has to observe, and it’s more than enough.” -from his 2008 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“You can’t get an address without an address. You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.”

Ebert was onto something when he mentioned in his review of My Dog Skip that certain movies, particularly movies about dogs, exist outside of critical language. The pathos of a pet owner’s relationship with their dog is strong enough in its sentimentality that a movie doesn’t have to do much to get by on that emotion/nostalgia alone. My Dog Skip skated by in this way as a passably okay movie. It’s not particularly well made or interesting, but its sappy love for canines was sufficient enough on its own to escape any pointed criticism. Shooting the movie down would be like criticizing a birthday card from your grandmother for its lack of literary ambition.

Wend and Lucy has no such tendency to rely on that dog owner sentimentality for easy drama/emotional provocation. A dirt cheap drama starring Michelle Williams years before she was a recognizable name, Wendy and Lucy tells the story of a down-on-her-luck migrant worker traveling to Alaska in hopes of landing a seasonal gig at a cannery. While on her way the titular Wendy finds herself near broke, friendless, and without a vehicle in small town Oregon. Worst yet, her only companion, a dog named Lucy, goes missing. Instead of the broad, overly sentimental strokes My Dog Skip paints with, Wendy and Lucy finds tonal devastation in subtle details. The film’s tendency for narrative understatement threatens to alienate the audience from caring about or fully understanding Wendy’s plight, but the feeling of having lost your dog/your entire world is such a universally recognizable gut punch that her predicament is all too relatable from the outside looking in.

Besides employing the universality of human-dog companionship to clue the audience in on where Wendy is in life, the movie also relies on recognizable hallmarks of an economy in shambles to introduce us to her struggle. She’s plundering pocket change for dog food, sifting through highway litter for recyclable aluminum cans, shoplifting, and relying on word of mouth from train-hopping crusties (including Will Oldham among them of all people), who are dog magnets in case you were unaware, just to scrape by. Wendy is recognizable to the audience because she’s every poor soul who’s been left behind by a cutthroat economy that has no room for them. This is the kind of character for whom $50 could make or break their entire life. Wendy’s background & motivation don’t need to be any more specific for the film’s emotional stakes to land. We know who she is & we’re invested in her success.

A lesser film might’ve crafted some kind of explicit metaphor out of Wendy’s lost dog/lost place in the world, but, again, this is not the same kind of drama as the on-the-nose (er, snout?) emotional manipulation as that of My Dog Skip (or, more recently, White God). Wendy and Lucy’s overbearing sense of dread & imminent danger is more of a tone than a blatant provocation. The vulnerability of Wendy being alone in a strange place, not having a place to sleep, and resorting to the nerve-racking tactic of tying Lucy up when entering places of business (Lucy is a good girl, but that always makes me nervous) all combine to make for a terrifying atmosphere. The stakes are relatively small here compared to a summer blockbuster where a CGI threat from another dimension might crush an entire city, but that small scale specificity only helps the emotional weight feel significant. One of the saddest shots in this film is a dialogueless pan across all the jailed dogs’ cells at a local pound. One of the biggest offenses committed is a character coldly spitting, “If a person can’t afford a dog they shouldn’t have a dog.” I’ll admit that some of the drama here is dependent upon the audience’s sentimental affection for dogs in general (this particularly hit home for me when Wendy refers to Lucy as “Lou”, which was the name of my first pet, a cat), but that sentiment was a starting point, not an end goal. Wendy and Lucy moves in small, calculated stabs at heartbreaking drama that makes that jumping point necessary, but the tenderly sad payoff of the end more than justifies the means.

EPSON MFP image

Roger’s Ranking: (3.5/4, 88%)

threehalfstar

Brandon’s Ranking: (4/5, 80%)

fourstar

Next Lesson: Shiloh (1996)

-Brandon Ledet