REVIEW: “Venom”

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“Venom” had two encouraging things going for it since its initial announcement. First it stars Tom Hardy, an actor I’ve really liked since his 2001 debut in Ridley Scott’s “Black Hawk Down”. Second, it features a truly great Marvel comic book villain (and eventual antihero) with a compelling backstory and formidable superpowers. Those are two big steps in the right direction.

Does Sony Pictures make the most of Hardy and the titular title character? It seems critics would say no as most have panned the film. Moviegoers seem to have had a different reaction, not being nearly as harsh and having helped the film rake in $205 million globally on its opening weekend. Let’s say I fall somewhere in the middle.

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Versions of “Venom” have been in the works since 1997, but this particular iteration had its own set of challenges. Fans of the character will immediately notice how far the movie strays from his comic book origins. The filmmakers aren’t entirely to blame. Sony’s deal with Marvel Studios to allow Spider-Man into their carefully guarded MCU handcuffed the writers forcing them to create a webslinger-free origin. Interestingly they did shelf the idea of an R-rating leaving the door open for a potential crossover.

Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a Bay Area investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering deep-seated corruption. He sets his sights on the Life Foundation and its CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). Turns out Drake has discovered and captured samples of splotchy alien lifeforms he calls symbiotes. Eddie gets a whiff of potential human testing and confronts Drake during an on-air interview. It goes bad for Eddie who loses his job and even his fiancé (Michelle Williams) who works as a Life Foundation attorney.

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Six months pass and a down-on-his-luck Eddie is contacted by a Life Foundation scientist begging him to blow the lid off Drake’s experiments. While secretly infiltrating the labs Eddie is exposed to the symbiote which instantly gives him superpowers and a gruesome appetite for violence and human heads. Check that, it isn’t Eddie who has those appetites. They belong to his new parasitic alter-ego Venom.

From there the movie becomes a weird blend of horror and humor set within the framework of a superhero movie. I kind of like what it’s going for even if its tone can be wildly uneven. Eddie’s back-and-forths with the menacing Venom voice in his head can be amusing. There is also the intriguing duality of two distinct characters warring within one man. The film flirts with the idea more than exploring it which seems like a missed opportunity.

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This is also where the action amps up but not in a particularly thrilling or impressive way. Most of it is encapsulated in the trailer – a big chase sequence in downtown San Francisco and several fight scenes featuring a reluctant Eddie and the more violent Venom’s stretchy tentacles. It all culminates in a CGI-soaked finale that doesn’t do the movie any favors.

Tom Hardy does his best to bring energy and nuance to his character. It’s a good performance with several interesting layers. Director Ruben Fleischer clearly wanted to make an atypical superhero movie with a distinct edge to it. I applaud that aim and see glimpses of what he’s going for. But ultimately it’s the script and some pretty uninspired action the left me feeling a bit deflated. Sadly a good Tom Hardy, Fleisher’s edgy ambition, or even a killer end credits scene can’t quite keep “Venom” from disappointing.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

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If you have even an ounce of sympathy in your bones you have to feel for Luc Beeson. Without question “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” was a passion project. The film’s $200 million-ish budget was crowd-sourced and personally footed by Beeson making it not only the most expensive European film, but the most expensive independent movie ever made. That’s one reason the early box office results seem so catastrophic.

But it goes beyond that. Beeson writes, directs, and co-produces with his wife Virginie Besson-Silla. That only adds to the sting because there are no two ways around it – “Valerian” is a really bad movie.

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Let’s be honest, there were warning signs everywhere yet I was hoping for a “John Carter” experience. You remember it – terrible trailers, shredded by critics, but much better than the bad press it received. That’s not the case with “Valerian”. Instead we get a nearly 140 minutes slog through poor storytelling, boring characters, laughably bad dialogue, and CGI overload.

The story is based on the French comic book series  “Valérian and Laureline”. I’ve never heard of it but apparently Beeson’s interest in adapting it dates all the way back to the filming of “The Fifth Element”. But despite the enthusiasm and ambition, “Valerian” stumbles all the way through its grueling run time and no amount of money thrown at it can save it from its glaring problems.

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Let’s start with the performances. Dane DeHaan is a peculiar choice for the lead character Valerian. We are tasked with buying into him as a major(!) in the human police force on Alpha (aka the City of a Thousand Planets). The story desperately wants him to be a Han Solo-like bad boy. Look no further than an early scene where his dialogue all but pleads with the audience to believe it. And as much as he and the script tries to manufacture charisma, we never get it. I’m not certain what he’s going for, but his line delivery constantly reminded me Keanu Reeves from “Point Break”. It’s not like he gets much helps. A steady flow of mind-numbing one-liners should earn plenty of unavoidable face-palms.

His partner on the force is Laureline played by Cara Delevingne. Her stiffness is meant to be toughness but is only believable in small spurts. Her relationship with Valerian is weighted by a stale and uninspired sexual tension that is far more silly than romantic. And much like her counterpart, Delevingne is given some truly horrible dialogue. It’s astonishing that many of these lines actually made the page much less left it!

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Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) orders Valerian and Laureline to investigate a alien force gathered at Alpha’s core. The beings are potentially linked to the film’s quirky yet interesting prologue. Unfortunately it all plays out with practically no suspense and with one of the most glaringly obvious reveals I’ve seen in a while. Along the way we are inundated with corny banter, heavy-handed social/political metaphors, and an assortment of weird encounters including a pearl-pooping miniature anteater, a shapeshifting exotic dancer, and Ethan Hawke playing someone named (and this is no joke) Jolly the Pimp. Okay, so that last one was good campy fun.

That brings us to the special effects which “Valerian” leans heavily on. It’s essentially a sugar rush for the eyes that ranges from spectacular to downright gaudy. Ultimately it’s not enough to cover the abounding messiness. “Valerian” seems to be shooting for an Avatar-like experience. It’s story is worse (and Avatar’s wasn’t good) while the visuals (Avatar’s saving grace) only occasionally ‘wow’. Once again it’s a real shame. When you put up a $200 million target you certainly don’t want to miss it this badly.

VERDICT – 1.5 STAR

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REVIEW: “The Visit”

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Few people have had a more roller coaster Hollywood career than M. Night Shyamalan. His first films earned him a ton of praise from enthusiastic critics and moviegoers. But after that he put out a series of true stinkers that threatened to railroad his once promising career. In fact many people wrote Shyamalan off as dead in the water. Yet while he did put out some really bad movies there was always a glimmer of hope that we would once again get a glimpse of the filmmaker we want him to be.

His latest film “The Visit” is another reminder of how effective Shyamalan can be with small-scale focused horror. It follows his familiar formula of slow buildup, slow buildup, big reveal and it does so competently and effectively. As with many of his stories, “The Visit” toys with some of our secret personal fears – twisting, contorting, and amplifying them before our eyes. This time it’s the fear of the elderly and senility.

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As the movie started my very first response was a concerned “Oh no”. Shyamalan chose to make this a found footage picture which is a fad I had hoped was finally dead and gone. But Shyamalan is intelligent in his usage of it. He dodges most of the annoyances that come with the found footage style, most notably narrative holes and the constantly moving cameras. We get fluid storytelling and predominately still cameras which are strategically implemented throughout the film.

The story is fairly simple. A single mother named Paula (played by Kathryn Hahn) hasn’t been the same since her husband left her and their two young children years prior. Her documentarian-in-training daughter Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and freestyle rapping young son Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) encourage her to take a cruise with her boyfriend while they go spend the week with their grandparents who they have never met. Here’s the deal, Paula hasn’t spoken to her parents for 15 years following a painful and bitter fight.

This will sound absurd but just go with it. Paula puts her two children on a train to Masonville, Pennsylvania where their grandparents pick them up. Rebecca films the entire thing as a gift to her mom hoping for a possible healing and reconciliation. At the station the kids are greeted by their Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) who take them out to their country farmhouse. Everything is documented through Rebecca’s two cameras. Things start well but soon the kids begin noticing weird behavior from their grandparents which gets worse during their week-long stay.

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As I mentioned M. Night Shyamalan is known for his slow, methodical buildups and here we get it in the form of creepy moments from the grandparents. Shyamalan takes his time in feeding us these moments and just as the film started to fade for me we get the big twist which I thought worked like a charm. It quickly re-energized the story and made the final act a chilling and eerie ride filled with terrifying unpredictability.

While Shyamalan doesn’t reinvent the wheel with “The Visit” he does show us the able creative flourishes that made him a respected name and overnight success in the horror-thriller genre. It also (hopefully) reinvigorates a career that had been written off by many due to four consecutive disappointments. Maybe it’s the smaller budget or maybe it’s the clearer focus. Whatever the case, I can get behind Shyamalan doing these types of projects and hopefully this is the first step in an exciting comeback.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

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2015 Blind Spot Series: “Village of the Damned” (1960)

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Creepy kids are often an automatic score when it comes to horror films. 1960’s “Village of the Damned” is an early example of that theory in action. This unique piece of British sci-fi horror anchors its suspense in its largely unexplained phenomena. But that’s just fine because watching its straightforward story play out is a lot of fun.

“Village” was initially intended as an American picture but MGM moved it to their British studio and brought in German director Wolf Rilla to head the project. The story was based on John Wyndham’s 1957 novel “The Midwich Cuckoos”. The film faced several criticisms from censors over different bits of content most of which still found its way into the final version.

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The film opens in the small British village of Midwich. Suddenly and mysteriously everyone in the village falls unconscious including a prominent professor Gordon Zellaby (George Sanders). Gordon’s brother-in-law Alan (Michael Gwynn) grows suspicious after failing to reach anyone in the village over the phone. The unexplained phenomenon soon wears off and the community seems to be unaffected. That is until a short time later when every able woman in the town turns up pregnant including Gordon’s wife (played by the “First Lady of British Horror” Barbara Shelley).

The film presents the confusion, anger, and distrust that would naturally follow such and event. But Midwich then suspects something else is taking place as the babies mature and are born at an accelerated rate. Once born they continue to grow faster than normal, each with bright blonde hair, a heightened intellect, and “arresting” eyes. A series of unexplained events follows leaving the village and outsiders wondering what these children represent and what their motivations may be.

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Wolf Rilla doesn’t let his film devolve into an endless parade of cheap scares or contrived creepiness. Instead the movie focuses on the mystery and the evolving threat itself. Questions aren’t always answered. The movie doesn’t serve everything to the audience on a platter. Instead it leaves many things up in the air and we are just as lost and confused as most of the characters. It’s a smart approach that keeps the film from being corny or routine.

It is also helped by a solid cast of characters each of whom are truly invested in the predicaments of their characters. In fact I was a bit surprised at just how well presented the characters are both from the script and the performances. Actually the entire movie functions this way. The well presented script and performances solidify the film’s aim to be a mysterious and creepy science fiction, horror, thriller. The true grip of “Village of the Damned” is rooted in its unsettling mystery and the filmmakers know how to keep their project within those bounds. The film definitely benefits from that.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Video Games: The Movie” (2014)

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Can a documentary on the history and evolution of video games appeal to those without a care or connection to the industry? It’s a reasonable question and one that was swirling around in my head as I sat down to watch Jeremy Snead’s Kickstarter-funded new film. The blandly titled “Video Games: The Movie” seeks to tell a CliffsNotes history of video games while also promoting them as an art form and showing how far they have come since their early incarnations. For gamers this is cool stuff, but what about for others?

Let me start by admitting an important bit of information. I am a die-hard gamer and have been since Santa Claus surprised me with an Atari 2600 on Christmas of 1980. Since that time all the way to today I’ve had 16 different consoles. I was also a huge fan of the arcade culture during its lucrative heyday. I tell you all of this because, without a doubt, my personal history with gaming influenced my experience with this documentary. I have a connection with the history, the evolution, and the artistry of games as well as the pioneers and current developers who play a prominent part in the film. Therefore I have to admit that my viewpoint may be a bit influenced by nostalgia and my unflinching gamer geek status.

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That’s an important consideration because in many ways “Video Games: The Movie” is a celebration. It has its target set on the gaming community who should really enjoy this film. But as I scoured through a host of harsh reviews I noticed that many critics viewed this as a film only intended to “preach to the choir” and some go as far as calling Snead a “salesman”. In one sense I do see what they are saying because there is a lot of pro-gaming passion and exuberance throughout the film. But I also think some of these critics are the same people who the film seeks to disprove. People who perceive the video game industry as inconsequential and who dismiss it on an assortment of flimsy grounds. Yes the film promotes video games, but it also seeks to prove their creativity and importance within the entertainment space.

Sean Astin narrates the documentary which features a wide assortment of interviews. Snead talks to several video game luminaries such as Nolan Bushnell, current accomplished game developers like Cliff Bleszinski and Hideo Kojima, and even television celebs such as Wil Wheaton and Zach Braff. Some give a fascinating look into the origins of video games. Some give keen insight into where games are now. Others give personal testimonies of how games have effected their lives. But the movie doesn’t shy away from some of gaming’s hot button issues. It talks about the video game crash of 1983 and the self-inflicted causes behind the industry’s near demise. It talks about the scrutiny over increased violence in games and the measures the industry was rightly forced to take. It’s compelling stuff.

I really liked “Video Games:The Movie”, but as a documentary the film does have flaws. The biggest problems lie with its structure and storytelling technique. To be honest it’s pretty messy at times. There is no single established time line and the film is constantly jumping back and forth with no real sense of direction. I remember at one point being dumfounded by the material that was being skipped only to be pulled back to it later in the film. Snead seems more interested in talking about topics which is great, but it’s at the expense of a needed fluidity. Then there are moments where the film suddenly transitions to topics which seem out of sync with the more interesting elements of the picture. A brief but clunky explanation of pixels. A sudden divergence into modern game technologies. These things slow the film down and take the focus off of what I was really enjoying.

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“Video Games: The Movie” is scattered and unfocused and at times it can be a bit frustrating. But I think it’s also a passion-fueled examination of an entertainment form that has passed both movies and television in terms of worldwide revenue and popularity. Video games have been dismissed in many regards but their evolution is astounding. This film seeks to show them as far more than the simple run-jump-shoot children’s experience that many think of. They have become legitimate escapist entertainment featuring intelligent storytelling and amazing artistry (when done right of course). This film promotes that thought and shows the history behind it.

So I return to my original question. Is this a documentary that can appeal to those without any care or connection to video games? Personally I think it can. It offers a ton of facts and insight about the industry that many folks may not know or realize. At the same time it offers loads of fun and entertainment for the community of which I happily proclaim being a part of. But who knows, maybe that is why the film worked so well for me.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Veronica Mars”

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It’s hard for me to pinpoint exactly what stirred my interest in the recent television-to-big screen movie “Veronica Mars”. I have never watched a second of the UPN and later CW television series. In fact I had no idea what the show was about or who Veronica Mars was. I had also heard practically nothing about the movie itself, how it ties into the series, and if a prior knowledge of the show was essential to understanding the film. So what on earth was it that drew me to see “Veronica Mars”?

I finally concluded that one of my attractions to the project was the perky and infectious Kristen Bell. She is certainly not what you would call a top-tier actress and she has made her share of stinker films. Yet there has always been something about her that I find fun. I was also attracted to the story behind how the film was eventually made. Some six years after the show was cancelled, show creator Rob Thomas and Bell started a fundraiser via Kickstarter in hopes of bringing “Veronica Mars” to the big screen. After a month the campaign had earned over $5.7 million from donors and Warner Brothers picked it up for distribution.

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The film starts out with a brief narrated summary of the series mainly intended for newbies like me. Nine years have passed and Veronica (Bell) has moved out of Neptune, California. She lives in New York City, has a great boyfriend, and is on the verge of landing a prominent job at a prestigious law firm. But then she hears the news that a former classmate and current self-destructive rock star has been murdered and Veronica’s ex-boyfriend Logan (Jason Dohring) has been accused of committing the crime. Veronica agrees to go back to Neptune to help Logan select the best council for the upcoming trials.

But of course if that is all there was this would be one boring movie. While back in Neptune Veronica runs into many of the same headaches and conflicts as before – the people who made her high school life miserable, the high society arrogance, and the unbridled corruption of the local sheriff’s department. On the good side she gets to spend time with her private detective father (Enrico Colantoni) and reconnect with few good friends she left behind. There is clearly a lot of connections that make these relationships meaningful – connections that saw their genesis in the television series. But writer and director Rob Thomas does a good job of giving us the general idea of who these people are.

And then there is the murder case. Soon Veronica finds herself drawn into the mystery and the revelations of small clues are just enough to keep her in Neptune a little longer. Well, the clues and Logan. I know nothing about their past relationship and their reconnection is one of the aspects of the film that suffered (from the perspective of someone unfamiliar with the original material). They do have a nice chemistry and you genuinely get the sense that Veronica wants to help this old friend. There are also a number of other characters that pop up as well as an assortment of cameos.

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“Veronica Mars” is definitely a budget film. Everything about it feels like a television show and it never rises above standard television production value. The camera work, the dialogue, the story structure – it all feels like it could have melded right in with the TV series. But is that automatically a bad thing? Considering the budget constraints and its television roots, “Veronica Mars” actually feels right at home. More importantly it tells a good and intriguing story. There are momentary contrivances and the occasional strained dialogue, but ultimately the movie works.

Do you have to be knowledgeble of the TV series to enjoy “Veronica Mars”? Thankfully no, but there were plenty of times where I felt out of the loop (I still don’t know what marshmallows have to do with anything). It certainly doesn’t lean on cinematic grandeur nor is the script without a few bumps. But “Veronica Mars” does deliver where it counts. It’s entertaining, Bell is fantastic, and I was engaged with it from the start. It’s clear that a lot of heart was behind the project and I tip my hat to the filmmakers, the stars, and the fans who had the passion to make a movie like this happen. And don’t worry, the pieces were definitely put in place for yet another trip to Neptune.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS