There was something electric about watching the first Venom film in theaters, discovering its gonzo comic energy in real time as it mutated from a C-grade superhero origin story in its first hour to an A+ slapstick body horror in its second. Tom Hardy singlehandedly elevates that film through stubborn force of will, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 while everything else around him is set to a comfortable 6. His performance is not exactly Nic-Cage-in-Vampire’s-Kiss levels of manic, but it’s not not that either. And so, it’s majorly disappointing that Hardy’s no longer working against the grain in Venom 2: Let there Be Carnage – a movie that knows it’s funny and, thus, isn’t very funny at all. Let’s call it the Tommy Wiseau Effect; the Venom series has already become too self-aware of its “ironic” appeal to still be authentically bizarre. It’s still silly enough to be passably entertaining, but it’s far from the Nic Cagian freak show of the lobster tank days.
Even within the Venom universe, characters refer back in awe to Eddie Brock’s “bizarre outburst at the lobster restaurant” as the stuff of legends. Hardy’s still willing to make himself absolutely disgusting in the sequel, appearing greasy, unshaved, and effectively living in a giant ashtray. However, while the first movie was Eddie Brock’s show, the second film belongs to his wisecracking alter-ego. As a voice in Eddie’s head, Venom provides sarcastic, real-time MST3k commentary on how idiotic & edible the rest of the world appears to him. When they have a lovers’ quarrel and temporarily break up, Eddie becomes just another greasy sad sack roaming the Bay Area, while Venom goes out on the town to Find Himself as a strong, independent symbiote. In the first film, their vaguely romantic psychic bond felt like a refreshingly queer angle on modern superhero filmmaking; the sequel instead reverse-engineers Venom as a natural successor to the Gay Icon Babadook meme, getting him bachelorette-party-drunk at a queer nightclub as a way of breaking free from Eddie. They inevitably reunite to take down throwaway villain-of-the-week Carnage (Woody Harrelson reliving his Mickey & Mallory glory days), and the whole thing tidily wraps up in a spectacularly dull superhero battle we’ve seen thousands of times before. It’s all very muted & self-aware in a way that renders it totally anonymous. The first Venom was compellingly chaotic; the sequel is tragically competent.
I’m a simple man. I still laugh every single time I hear Tom Hardy pronounce “Eddie” in his Venom voice, and Let There Be Carnage provides plenty of his Scooby-Doo line readings for my boneheaded enjoyment. I also appreciate that you can watch this frothy 90-min novelty in half the time it would take to watch Matt Reeves’s upcoming gritty Batman reboot. Still, there’s nothing special or surprising about Let There Be Carnage that wasn’t accomplished to greater effect in the first Venom. Even deliriously overwritten lines referring to “this spinning shit wheel we call Earth” feel like a poor substitute for Venom’s musings about his limbless victims “rolling down the street like a turd in the wind” in the original. There was a brief, blissful moment when only Tom Hardy knew what made Venom fun & funny, the same tension that transformed Capone from a tragically bland nothing of a movie into a riotous good time. Unfortunately, that party’s already over, and this hangover just registers as a low-energy Deadpool for goths.
Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before and we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made Brandon, Britnee, and Hanna watch London Road (2015).
Boomer: London Road is a 2015 film about a serial killer. Technically. It’s also a musical about NIMBYism. And a story about community organization and the horizons of understanding, featuring Olivia Colman playing the most hateable character on her CV.
In late 2006, a series of killings rocked the community of Ipswich, England. Five women, all sex workers, were murdered by a man nicknamed the Ipswich Ripper, later found to be 48-year-old Steve Wright, who had moved into a row house on London Road roughly half a year earlier. All of the women he murdered were known in the area for their line of work, and the area had experienced a huge boom in sex work in recent years due to a variety of socioeconomic factors, including the construction of a new stadium. London Road is not actually about Steve Wright; in fact, he never appears in the film, nor do his victims. Instead, the film focuses on Wright’s neighbors and the way that they dealt with the fallout of the murders and the public scrutiny that it caused to fall upon their small community. Through a series of musical arrangements of actual, verbatim quotes taken from Ipswich locals, journalists, police interviews, and other documentational evidence, Adam Cork and Alecky Blythe crafted a stage musical for London’s Royal National Theatre, where it was staged under the direction of newly hired Artistic Director Rufus Norris. Norris also directed the film version of the musical, released in 2015.
I’m one of those people who hates musicals. In any other form of writing, having characters walk around and declare their feelings is Bad Writing, but if you take those declarations and set them to music, suddenly it’s the highest form of theater? Please. The linguistic contortions that the author of the musical has to go through in order to turn dialogue (or more often, monologue) into a piece of music are painful to me. The only musicals that I do like are those such as 1984’s Top Secret, God Help the Girl, or True Stories, in which the music is either farcical (the former) or composed solely by a single band (the latter two). And now London Road. When I first wrote about it back in 2016, I noted even then that what I hated about the platonic Western ideal of The Musical was the “taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative.” By stripping away that level of perfidy to reality but maintaining the inherent artificiality of the musical as a form of media, London Road becomes something greater than its genre peers.
The performative enormity of the platonic Western stage-to-screen musical is mostly absent here. When making that migration from live performance to film, the change in medium is rarely used to enhance the narrative; sure, you might see a dance sequence shot from above in a way that would be impossible to replicate on stage, but in general the staging of the live performance is all-too-often translated directly to screen with as little change as possible. Consider the film version of The Producers, which changed even the dialogue as little as possible, changing Ulla’s line “Why Bloom go so far stage right?” to “Why Bloom go so far camera right?” The line works in the stage version because the narrative is about staging a musical, so in-jokes for the theatrically-attuned crowd work in context, but in the film, which by definition is designed to reach a larger, broader audience, the (barely) re-worked joke falls completely flat. London Road doesn’t have this problem, either, as it uses the medium of film effectively in telling its story, especially in the smaller moments. One of the most striking moments is so small: after the first community meeting post-verdict has concluded, everyone leaves the hall and the organizer of the meeting starts to slowly stack the chairs from the meeting to be stored away. Even though the film isn’t really about Steve Wright, the viewer still feels some elation and vindication when he’s convicted, but that joy is short-lived, and it doesn’t do the work of healing the community. Things won’t simply fall into place and be fine again; the work is real, and it’s long, and it’s often tedious and unrewarding, and stacking chairs is all of those things in a nutshell. It’s a lovely bit of visual storytelling.
There’s also something genuinely striking about the juxtaposition of the rebuilding of the community and the (often frankly horrible) things said by the people within it. With the final garden competition, things take a turn for the saccharine, like a song from a completely different, less dark musical, but it comes almost immediately on the heels of a quotation from Julie, a London Road resident portrayed by Olivia Colman, in which she empathizes with her neighbors, but not Wright’s victims, who are “better off ten foot under.” While the officially recognized community of London Road gathers to socialize in the hall at St. Jude’s, their cheerful voices carry to the industrial structures that loom large and unmistakably over the neighborhood, literally and metaphorically, where the surviving sex workers talk about their lived experience. “It took all of that for anyone to start helping us,” one woman says, referring to the killings, to which another responds “That’s what’s upsetting,” and then they all join in. “Let’s get those girls off the street,” one of them says, quoting a fairweather crusader, but none of them are. They’re still out there, trying to stay alive and get clean. At the end, the residents of London Road have literally covered the past with a fresh coat of paint, but their NIMBYism remains. Most of the neighborhood starts out with nothing but derision for the prostitutes, but it’s unfocused and unspecified; by the end, one of them looks at a makeshift memorial for the victims and remarks that they’re in Heaven now. In death, some of the same people who condemned them in life have made them saints, although many also still share Julie’s sentiments.
I’m going to be honest, I was surprised on the rewatch how much of the film there still is to go after the verdict has been delivered. That first section is much more interesting to me, in which “everyone is very very nervous,” and then they go through a range of other emotions leading up to and following the trial. That ending is the least interesting part to me, until we see the festivities through the eyes of Vicky (Kate Fleetwood), the sex worker whom we’ve seen the most often, as she makes her way through the crowd. We see two reactions to her passing through: a smiling, friendly little girl who gives her a balloon, and a frowning man who glares at her as she departs. These two interactions give the lie to what Julie and her like-minded neighbors keep using as the go-to blanket excuse for their callousness, that they are concerned for the children; the children aren’t the problem here, the adults are. Just as the film seems to be fading out and away from a triumphant moment for London Road, the last face that we actually see is Vicky’s, as she looks down at a world that’s not her own and releases the balloon, while the audio shifts to the real recordings of the sex workers of Ipswich.
I love this movie, and I think that it would be easy to read it as too forgiving of the residents of London Road with regard to their apathy to the fate of the sex workers in their area. I seem to recall that, when I was first reading reviews of it 5 years ago, a few critics mentioned the excision of at least one additional song from their point of view, and that the stage musical had a more sympathetic approach to them, but I can’t find anything that corroborates that. What do you think, Brandon? Would the inclusion of more from their point of view help the film feel more balanced? Does it seem sufficiently critical of London Road’s NIMBYism, or does it send mixed messages about the hard work of rebuilding a community?
Brandon: The overriding thought that lingered with me after this film concluded was “I hate people.” The residents of London Road are exceedingly Normal in their appearance and their interpersonal politics, and I hated those cruel, hideous beasts with all of my heart. I was initially skeptical of a movie about the lethal dangers of unregulated on-the-street sex work that included so little of the actual workers’ input, but as the film unfolds the intent of its POV choice gradually makes sense. Given that these women’s friends & coworkers were recently murdered for participating in their same trade, it makes sense that they’d be reluctant to speak with the interviewers whose transcripts were adapted to the stage & screen in the first place. Beyond that, this movie is specifically about the standard suburban opinion of that profession & those workers, and the longer the neighborhood busybodies muse on the murders & victims the more vile that opinion sounds. London Road digs deep into the ugliness of humanity at our least empathetic just by letting the most callously judgmental among us speak/sing for themselves; a movie from the workers’ perspective could totally be worthwhile, but it’d be a different film altogether.
This is an impressively odd, daring movie considering that it looks like the Dramatic Reenactment portions of an unaired Britain’s Most Wanted spin-off. I was enraged by the plain-text transcripts of the neighborhood interviewees from start to end. Listening to them deride the Ipswitch Ripper’s victims as “curb crawlers” as if they were some kind of pest infestation quickly chilled my blood in the early scenes. It didn’t get any better when they expressed admiration for the killers’ extermination of those women as if it were a morally righteous act of vigilante justice instead of a deranged actualization of their own culture-wide misogyny. Several residents complain that the police weren’t “doing anything” about the neighborhood’s sex work problem before the murders, then Coleman admits in her final speech that she’d like to shake the killer’s hand in thanks, making it crystal clear exactly what they would’ve liked the police to do. It’s a nauseating sentiment to stew in for a feature-length film, much less one that’s performed in sickly sweet song & dance.
The only residents of London Road I wasn’t furious with were the teenage girls, whose collective nervousness over the mysoginistic murder spree is highlighted in a song where they run through town whispering “It could be anyone; it could be him!” over a soft techno beat. There are very few moments where the actual music in this musical stands out to me, as the film’s exact-transcripts conceit homogenizes all of its sung dialogue to fit the meter of natural speech. The teen girls’ song stands out, though, both because it’s easier to sympathize with their paranoia than it is with their parents’ morally righteous fascism and because the soundtrack shifts to a mall-pop texture to match their POV. What did you think of the music of London Road, Britnee? Were there any songs or musical flourishes that stood out to you despite the soundtrack’s general monotony?
Britnee: The majority of the music in London Road wasn’t very catchy. I adore musicals, and I look forward to getting hooked on their soundtracks. Most of my playlists and mix tapes have a musical number thrown in. I’m that person. When I read the description of London Road, which I didn’t know existed until watching if for Movie of the Month, I was thrilled to find out it was a musical. And not only was it a musical, it was based on an actual crime that occurred in recent years. I was basically putting more excitement on my expectations of the songs and performances than the actual plot. This is not something I’m proud of, but I’m being honest. It turns out that majority of the musical numbers involved the cast singing verbatim lines from actual interviews and reports from the Ipswich murders. I found it fascinating, but was slightly disappointed that only one song stuck with me. That song would be “Everyone is Very, Very Nervous”. I sing along to the cast recording while driving to the office some mornings. It’s made it onto one of my musical playlists because it’s brilliant. The fear of the townsfolk really comes through in the way the lyrics are sung. The tone is so dark and depressing, and I love it so much.
London Road didn’t really hold my attention from beginning to end. At times, sitting through some of the duller scenes felt like a chore. I have the same problem with a few other plays that got turned into films. The simplicity of a single stage production being performed live just hits me in a different way than watching it as a film. One of the last plays that I saw live was Come From Away, which is also based on true events. It follows the true story of a plane that had an emergency landing in a small Canadian town during the September 11th attacks. I thought about it multiple times while watching London Road, and I can’t help but think that the stage play version of London Road would be just as fabulous. It’s unique and gives a different perspective on what we expect from true-crime dramas, but I would just prefer to see it on stage than on screen.
Hanna, did you think that London Road worked as a film or do you think it’s better suited as a stage production?
Hanna: I think London Road definitely worked as a film, but (and I’m just guessing) the stage production might be better equipped to exaggerate the seclusion/exclusion of the little row house community, and would have forced a little bit of focus that the film lacked. Musicals and stage productions usually have static prop placement for each location, so every setting in the story (“The Market”, “The Apartments”, “The Town Hall”) looks exactly the same every time it’s used. You get the sense that the residents of London Road inhabit a small community in the movie, but I would love to see all of the residents stuffed into the same claustrophobic sets, pacing around and wringing their hands together. You could also use that limited space to emphasize the exile of the sex workers, by keeping them squeezed around the periphery of the staged Community settings (although I think the film does this pretty well, especially in the final scene).
This is a small detail in favor of the film, but I liked that the actual road could be fully represented in the film in a way that wouldn’t really be possible on a stage. The long shots of nothing but the cold road, or of people wandering up and down the road, made me think about those intrinsically neutral public spaces that become battlegrounds for a community’s identity, especially in terms of who should/should not be allowed to exist there. London Road is first shared derisively between the row home residents and the workers; then shrouded by police tape and Steven Wright’s murders; and, finally, fully reclaimed by the residents (including men who paid the workers for sex) and their overwhelming flower arrangements. The battle for London Road reminded me of the deterrents cities install in public spaces, like bars on park benches or fences installed around old encampments sites; the focus is on restricting access to that public space, physically and socially, as opposed to expanding the definition of the community. I’m not sure if that aspect of the story would have been as salient to me in the stage production.
Hanna: I went into London Road absolutely stone cold, and I wouldn’t recommend that approach in retrospect. I was VERY confused when the singing began, and I was convinced that the shifty axe-wielding neighbor was the real murderer for the majority of the film (even after Steven Wright is convicted), not realizing that London Road is less a whodunit and more of a community reckoning. I think I might get more out of it on a second watch. I also want to thank Boomer for introducing me to the term NIMBY, which is a term I feel like I’ve been looking for my whole life.
Britnee: I was concerned about London Road being a distasteful film, considering how recent it came out after the actual Ipswich murders and the fact that it’s a musical. It didn’t really go that route as it was more focused on the members of the community than the sensationalism of the murders, but I wondered what the family members of the victims thought of the play and the film. Especially since the play came out less than five years after the murders. It turns out the mother of Tania Nicol (one of the victims) did speak out against the tragedy being made into a production while she was still grieving the death of her daughter. I wasn’t able to find out much about the thoughts of the other victims’ family members, but I think this is definitely something important to consider.
Brandon: We can’t let this conversation go by without acknowledging how absurd it is that Tom Hardy is featured so prominently this movie’s marketing. He’s only in the film for a brief cameo (as a scruffy, super-sus cab driver who’s a little too into true-crime), but you’d think based on the posters and publicity stills that he was competing with Colman for the lead. I guess that sly act of false-advertising does add a little intrigue as to whether he’s a suspect (especially as an addition to the “It could be anyone!” pool of possibilities), but mostly it’s just amusingly pragmatic. A genuine, certified movie star wanted to lend his star-power to a stage drama he admired, and the producers milked that for all that it was worth. Smart.
Boomer: I’m realizing that, for someone who frontloaded their part of the conversation with discussion of how he felt about musicals, I didn’t note which songs on here I really liked. The number one has to be “It Could Be Him,” as I love its frenetic pacing and undercurrent of discomfort in spite of its catchy nature. “Everyone Is Very Very Nervous” is also a lot of fun, as it starts small and builds to a neat crescendo (it’s also the song that was most heavily featured in the trailer, which makes it the default London Road main theme in my mind). But for my money, the song that you’d never hear in a standard musical (give or take the occasional iconoclastic production) is “Cellular Material.”
Upcoming Movies of the Month May: Britnee presents Trouble in Mind (1985) June: Hanna presents Chicken People (2016) July: Brandon presents Starstruck (1982)
I’m not sure that Josh Trank bounced back from his career-imploding misfire Fant4stic (2015) with a better film, but he’s certainly returning to the scene with a more memorable & entertaining one. Trank’s misshapen Al Capone biopic stands alone in a genre defined only one other film to date: Venom(2018), by which I mean it’s a tragically bland nothing of a movie that Tom Hardy’s bizarro performance transforms into a riotous good time through sheer force of will. Trank wrote, directed, and edited Capone himself, so you think you’d be able to credit some of the film’s entertainment value to his guiding hand. Yet, his dialogue, direction, and editing choices are all so aggressively uninteresting that it’s a miracle any audience could sit through the entire picture without slipping into a coma. Tom Hardy alone is the source of that miracle, and it’s his batshit performance that transforms Capone into something truly remarkable, even if just remarkably laughable.
Capone covers only the final year of the notorious gangster’s life, which he spent under house arrest while left senile by neurosyphilis at the age of 48. Trank attempts to use this syphilitic madness as a device that allows the narrative to surreally drift through time & space as Capone’s mind wanders through his own memories, feeling immense guilt over the violence he commissioned at the height of his Chicago crime boss days. There’s no sense of purpose or immersive atmosphere to these drifts through Capone’s subconscious, though. When the movie’s over you’re left pondering if it had anything to say about violence, guilt, syphilis, Capone, or anything at all. The movie has no discernible reason to exist except in giving Tom Hardy the freedom to run wild in the titular role. Luckily for Trank, Hardy more than makes up for any & all filmmaking deficiencies by turning Capone into a one-man freak show. Against all odds, the film truly is a spectacle.
With none of the film’s stylistic or narrative elements being compelling enough to get in his way, Tom Hardy is given the greenlight to transform Capone into a series of Nic Cagian stunts. His demented vision of the titular gangster is horrifically grotesque. He mumbles incoherently in a garbled growl more appropriate for a talking trash can than a human being. He dresses in old biddy drag, fires pistols at alligators, belts out his showtunes from The Wizard of Oz, and fires a gold-plated Tommy gun at his friends & family while aimlessly wandering the grounds of his mansion in a soiled diaper. Admittedly, all these stunts were written into the screenplay, so it’s not as if Hardy ad-libbed the film’s saving graces. He’s just responsible for making them fun to watch in a bewildering sideshow act kind of way that we normally only allow Nic Cage to perform. It has got to be the most compelling, amusingly outrageous performance you’ll ever see where a main character pisses, shits, and pukes themselves for the entire runtime while staring directly at the audience with grotesquely bloodshot eyes.
I’m embarrassed by how much fun I had with Capone. By most reasonable metrics, it’s a terrible film, one that’s only dragged down by the eye-rolling decisions made by its commanding auteur. Why hire El-P to produce a score if his work is going to be so anonymous that the audience forgets that factoid immediately after seeing his name in the opening credits? Why cast eternally loveable performers like Linda Cardellini & Kyle MaClachlan just so they can sit around watching Tom Hardy do his thing? Why the fuck do you think the world needs a ~spooky~ rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “Blueberry Hill?” Who is any of this for? It ultimately doesn’t matter. All things considered, this is a much more memorable, entertaining, and overly ambitious take on the pathetic-mobster-geezer-regretting-his-evil-deeds story than the infinitely more competent The Irishman, so it really doesn’t matter how it got there. I would watch Tom Hardy shit his pants on an infinite loop if the results were always going to be this fun.
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. Upgradeis 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.
I sometimes complain about missing an essential Dad Gene that would enable me to care about certain traditional macho movie genres: Westerns, submarine thrillers, James Bond entries, etc. I’m not faced with the pressure to watch any other subcategory of these Dad Movies nearly as often as I am with The War Movie. Films about battleground warfare, especially set during WWII or The Vietnam War, tend to put me to sleep. There’s a grim, heroically macho routine to battlefield dramas & thrillers that typically makes them feel indistinguishable from one another, like a sea of uniformed soldiers solemnly marching in unison. Christopher Nolan’s recent war thriller, Dunkirk, broke that spell and made me question my Dad Movie prejudice. Dunkirk feels much more like a personal obsession with the story of a single historical event than yet another echo of the war movie genre trappings that dull down so many of its peers. I’m usually unable to distinguish any particular World War II battlefield picture from the long, uniformed line that marched before it, but Nolan’s auteurist interests in things like time, intense sound design, and muted performances from actors like Tom Hardy & Cillian Murphy make Dunkirk feel like a wholly new, revitalizing take on the genre. Instead of checking my pulse for signs of life at the top of the second act, I found myself holding my breath in anxious anticipation throughout, due largely to Nolan’s technical skills as a craftsman and, in a recent turn starting with Interstellar, personal passion as a storyteller.
Dunkirk dramatizes a colossal military disaster where 40,000 French & British heroes & cowards awaited rescue on a beach while surrounded by the German enemy in World War II. With a massive cast & sparse dialogue, Nolan does little to provide character detail for any of these thousands of soldiers, but rather tells their story as a massive unit. Even actors like Murphy, Hardy, Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance, and pop star Harry Styles, who all should individually draw attention through the virtue of their mere presence, are but tiny gears in a larger machine that sounds & functions like clockwork, ticking away until the enemy bombs them out of existence. Nolan fractures this larger narrative through three narrow focus storylines: a two man beachside escape mission that lasts a week, a three man boat ride that lasts a day, and a two man airplane skirmish that lasts an hour. These three narratives barrel towards an inevitable point of convergence: a historical event where private vessels & fishing boats were employed to rescue soldiers from the beach, since all traditional Navy ships were being sunk by the enemy. Although Nolan tells this story through a precise, coldly technical build-up of moment to moment tension, he takes a breath to glorify this triumph of The Dunkirk Spirit in a rare stint of nationalistic pride. When the tiny pleasure yachts roll in to Bring Home the Boys under the German’s noses, Branagh admires their bravery in silence, nearly holding back a single manly tear as if it were Nolan himself watching the waters. It’s possibly the only moment of relief offered in Dunkirk‘s entire runtime, a much needed breather in an otherwise tense, relentless chokehold.
Besides Nolan’s typifying play with the film’s sense of time & a bold decision to never depict the enemy onscreen, Dunkirk also avoids war movie doldrums by echoing the structure of near-plotless obstacle course movies like Gravity or Mad Max: Fury Road. All that really matters is clearing the next hurdle. Whether searching for drinkable water & smokable cigarette butts in city streets or avoiding drowning inside of a ship that is both sinking & on fire, Nolan’s camera follows his soldiers & their civilian saviors as they conquer one obstacle at a time. This makes for an entirely nerve-racking experience from opening to closing credits, an intensity amplified by Hans Zimmer’s sparse, haunting score of ticking clocks & building strings. This score is only softened when the complex sound design is overwhelmed by sudden, deafening air raids that leave all soldiers ducking & praying for survival at irregular intervals. Nolan mirrors the impossible technical feat of rescuing that large of a number of soldiers on a fleet of tiny civilian vessels by staging his own series of aurally terrifying, temporally ambitious, and brutally logical technical feats of filmmaking & narrative craft. The anticipatory feeling of seeing the film on a 70mm print opening night felt more like an Event or an Experience than a typical trip to the movies. It was something akin to a film fest vibe (although with a notably more bro-populated crowd), but it also reminded me of waiting in line for a rollercoaster. Dunkirk is a quick, dizzying trip through pure adrenaline thrills & for-their-own-sake technical marvels. It gives you little time to attach yourself to any one character or narrative in particular, but the complexities of its basic structure & overall effect are so impressive that it never really matters.
The few isolated beats where I wasn’t fully onboard with Nolan’s vision were when he did attempt to stir emotion instead of building tension. That scene where Branagh admires the civilian volunteers’ makeshift rescue efforts while the ticking clocks score gives way to triumphant orchestral strings reminded me so much of the war movies that typically do nothing for my shriveled, cynical heart. Those moments are few & far between, however. Dunkirk mostly mines tension from an increasingly complex series of moment-to-moment tasks spread out over sea, sky, beach, and several converging timelines. To deny the power of the film’s technical feats because of its lacking emotional impact or detailed character development would be asking it to be something entirely different from the story Nolan set out to tell. As someone who has an impossible time focusing on the particulars of battlefield drama in more traditional war stories, I very much appreciate Nolan’s approach here. It’s likely that he personally found much more emotional resonance in the film than most of his audience possibly could, but the experience of watching him reach for that emotion in his tightly controlled, meticulous recreation of wartime chaos is as immediately impressive as it is likely to be unforgettable.
Let’s get one thing straight: I do not like musicals. Please don’t break your string of pearls by snatching them too quickly. It’s not a topic worth dwelling upon but, even aside from any logical problems that I have with regards to musicals vis-à-vis people bursting into song and suspension of disbelief, I personally find them to be a relic of a bygone age of theatre. That having been said, however, I recently saw London Road and absolutely loved it.
London Road stars the always amazing Olivia Colman (Peep Show, Hot Fuzz, Broadchurch) and the original London cast from the stage production (as well as a very tiny cameo by Tom Hardy, despite his prominence in the sparse marketing for the film). The plot concerns itself with a real-life series of prostitute murders that occurred in 2006 in the small British town of Ipswich, and the film plays out almost like a documentary, with “talking head” segments scattered throughout. The central gimmick of the production is that all of the dialogue (and songs) are taken from real witness statements and interviews, down to the “errs” and “umms.”
The statements provided begin with the viewpoints of the people of London Road, a street located in an area of Ipswich that saw a large upswing in prostitute activity following nearby construction. Each of them has a different view of the influx of women, ranging from sympathy to scorn and outright derision (one woman even later says that the serial killer who murdered five sex workers may have done the neighborhood a public service). All of them, however, admit to feeling that the street felt less like home after this “invasion” and recalling unpleasant encounters with said women, saying (and singing) that they were discomfited by these outsiders even before the violence began.
We then swing around to hear the story from the point of view of the prostitutes, their struggles and tribulations, including addiction, interaction with the police, and fear of the modern day ripper. They tell a harrowing story about how it took the murder of five women for anyone to care enough to try to get them off the street. “I want to get myself clean, if I could do anything,” one woman sings, while another praises how far she’s come from the days when she would spend hundreds on drugs every day: “all I do is like £15 worth of drugs a day now.” Mixed in is the giddy song of two teenage girls that alternates between thrilled and terrified, and a chorus of people who await the arrival of the killer at the courthouse. A community that has been torn apart by both murders and the discovery that their neighbor was the perpetrator find themselves existentially fraught, but find a way back from the brink.
I really liked the music in this film. Generally, one of the things that I dislike most about your traditional stage or film musical is the taxing way that exposition is forced to fit into the metrics of a song, the natural and idiosyncratic lyricism of plain speech being inelegantly strangled and forced to fit into a rhyme scheme while also carrying the heavy lifting of outlining a narrative. Here, however, the naked emotions present in the admissions that London Road’s residents make and the simple language thereof lend the film a realism that more standard musicals cannot approach. Although the movie wanders into sentimentality at the end, it manages to warm the heart without being too treacly and cloying, a feat which many “uplifting” works can’t manage irrespective of the presence of belabored songs.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest is a difficult film to pin down in terms of quality. The Revenant is at times an intense spectacle of intricately detailed action choreography, but it’s also a meandering slowburner of a film that constantly reminds you that you’re watching Important Art. Its cinematography (provided by master of the form Emmanuel Lubezki) is gut-wrenchingly beautiful, but is often employed for such an empty purpose that it leaves you feeling cold. It aims for High Art severity in its narrative consequence, but the grotesque savagery of its rape & pillage masculinity feels like a well-constructed exploitation pic from a bygone era. I’m tempted to group it in with other arty, all-dressed-up-with-nowhere-to-go slowburners that were impressive but impossible to connect with (for me, anyway) like Only God Forgives & The Tree of Life, but I enjoyed too much of the film to dismiss it that easily. What is clear is that Iñárritu should at the very least be commended for not following up the critical success of Birdman(a film I was less than kind to) with a carbon copy of his most high profile film to date. I appreciate him sticking his neck out there, even if the results were the ultimate mixed bag of soaring successes & cringe-worthy missteps.
Part of what makes The Revenant so frustrating is its daunting 156 min runtime. The film’s opening battles between white men fur trappers & tribes of Native Americans and Leo DiCaprio’s protagonist & a pissed-off mama bear are breathtakingly savage, epically orchestrated orgies of visually striking violence. At the other end of the film, a concluding knife fight between DiCaprio’s beaten-to-shit protagonist & Tom Hardy’s selfish brute who wronged him ranks up there with Friedkin’s The Hunted as one of the best hand-to-hand combat scenes ever committed to film. The long stretch between those heart-racing anchors, however, are painfully in need of some shrewd editing. It’s tempting to think of The Revenant as a revenge film floating somewhere between a Western & an exploitation, but a majority of the film is a travelogue. DiCaprio, Hardy, two opposing bands of American & French Fur trappers (one headed by Domnhall Gleeson, who’s been batting a thousand lately), and a revenge-hungry native tribe all slowly trudge toward an inevitable climactic bloodshed (while still recovering from the one that opened the film) in an unnecessarily-detailed step-by-step procession. At times the film itself feels like DiCaprio’s broken protagonist, crawling & gurgling blood for days on end under the weight of an over-achieving runtime. Shave a good 40 minutes of The Revenant by tightening a few scenes & losing a shot here or there (as precious as Lubezki makes each image) & you might have a masterful man vs. nature (both human & otherwise) revenge pic. As is, there’s an overbearing sense of self-importance that sours the whole ordeal.
For the most part, though, the self-importance on display in The Revenant isn’t nearly as off-putting as it can be in Birdman. For instance, Lubezki’s camerawork is just as showy here as it was in Iñárritu’s Oscar Winner, but it ditches the single-extended-shot gimmick of that film in favor of a more tasteful line of highfalutin action cinematography. There are some gorgeous transitions from intense close-ups to long tracking shots in impossibly smooth single-swoops, but these shots are broken up in a way that Birdman‘s unrelenting gimmick of a structure allow for. Plot wise, The Revenant echoes the loud & obnoxious majority vs. the righteous intelligence of the few in the know that turned me off so sharply in Birdman (with Hardy anchoring the obnoxious brute end of that equation & DiCaprio serving as the righteous), but it’s not quite as much of a turn-off here. At worst, the preciousness & empty philosophy of lines like “As long as you can still breathe, you fight”, “Remember what mother used to say about the wind?”, and endless mutterings of “You are my son, you are my son,” (similar to the way Sean Penn whispers “Mother” into the void for hours in Tree of Life) are worth a hearty eyeroll or two. At best, they’re a nice break from watching DiCaprio gurgle & crawl his way through the snow. The dialogue in Birdman was much more off-putting.
Like I said, there’s too much of The Revenant that resonated with me to dismiss it outright. I’m more than willing to forgive an overwrought image or two (there’s a particularly egregious moment when a white bird emerges from a bullet wound, for instance) in exchange for the film’s more successful flashes of brilliance (like the bear & knife fights). For all of The Revenant‘s try-hard stabs at achieving High Art through hyper-masculine brutality, there’s a hell of a lot of praise-worthy ambition & striking imagery that’s well worth the patience required to make it through the perilous journey of its over-inflated runtime. Shorten some its travel time through montage & soften the cheese factor of its philosophical mumblings & I might even have heralded it as a masterpiece of brutish revenge cinema.