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

 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

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When I found out last year that there were going to be 6 new Star Wars films — not just the new trilogy, but three stand-alone films as well — I was skeptical. As excited as I was about the final trilogy, the in-between films sounded like nothing more than a money grab. But after seeing Rogue One, the second entry in the reboot, I’m pretty sold.

Before watching The Force Awakens last year, I kind of lost myself in fan theories and had fun with the idea of Jar Jar Binks coming back as the ultimate big baddy, but for Rogue One I went in blind. After all, chronologically it happens in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. People who are even slightly familiar with Star Wars know how this plays out, but it turns out there were a few twists and turns I didn’t expect. Rogue One frames the rest of the series in a much darker light. It brings a revived urgency and anxiety to the franchise, which I hope was probably there when Star Wars was first released in 1977. It manages to make the Death Star not just an impractical super weapon and the Empire a floundering bureaucracy that can’t teach its Stormtroopers how to aim. No, the Empire is a real frightening threat. Despite Disney’s CEO insisting that this is not a political movie, there’s quite a bit of war imagery and themes that are being presented in a time when the threat of fascism seems to loom. I mean, the movie itself is about a rebellion. The notion that it’s not political is naive and out of touch. But I guess you should never count on a multimillion dollar mega corporation to stand by the radical media that they inadvertently release

Rogue One follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) of the Rebel Alliance. They form a group of misfit rebels with Andor’s brutally honest droid sidekick K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a blind force warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), his big gun toting conterpart Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and a defecting Imperial shuttle pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Together they work against the Empire to smuggle the plans of the the Death Star to the Alliance. One big problem I had, though, was that the characters are not as developed as they should be. I keep hearing people say that it’s a lack of screen time, but in the case of Jyn I really think that they had ample opportunity to present her as more than just another brunette leading lady with good aim and an uncanny ability to scale vertical surfaces. I also thought that Cassian could have been a much more interesting character. As he is, I don’t really buy the vague romance that he and Jyn are supposed to have by the end of the movie. Though with Star Wars, it’s usually the minor roles that win hearts. Chirrut and Baze are a great pair, and K-2SO is a real pal. I’d like to have had more from Riz Ahmed’s character, instead of shoving him to the background and referring to him as “the shuttle pilot” half the movie, though.

What the movie gets right, it gets really right. The villains are scary. Somehow Rogue One was able to present a fresh introduction to Darth Vader, which is great because this is the first time we’re seeing Vader as Vader, really doing his thing, since Return of the Jedi thirty-three years ago. He is used sparingly and masterfully, and is truly terrifying and cruel. It’s so great to hear James Earl Jones’s voice coming out of that mask again. The gestures were spot on, right down to that iconic Vader finger wag. This is not the “NOOOOO!” moment of the prequels. This is true Vader. Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin also gets resurrected as a total computer recreation. Despite the general mixed response, I found to it be extremely impressive and convincing.

It’s also a pretty movie. It really captures the look and feel of a Star Wars movie. There’s hazy shots of star ships gliding across horizons at sunset and far off planets in the distance. One of the locations in particular really stands out. There’s a moon called Jedha, with a city and a temple that we’re to assume belonged at one point in time to the Jedi. There’s an aerial shot of the landscape featuring a giant, ancient Jedi statue on it’s side in the sand that, nerdily enough, reminded me of The Gates of Argonath, the great statues of kings on the river Anduin in Lord of the Rings. There’s some really cool costumes too: floor length bright red robes in the cities, Chirrut’s semi monk style clothing, and some retro helmets made a comeback.

In the day and age of reboots and series revivals Star Wars has taken the lead for quality. The two newest movies have proven that the old “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude works out and has even redeemed a franchise so nearly killed by its own creator. Rogue One was far from being the nostalgia fueled money grab I expected, and actually left me feeling some complex things.

-Alli Hobbs