Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
There seems to be a lot of confusing information about this one. Early reports were eviscerating the film, some calling it “worse than Catwoman” (meouch!). Yet, others were extolling a healthy amount of praise upon it. Rumors abounded, and one of them seemed to indicate that the most negative backlash was coming from Lady Gaga fans trolling Venom in hopes of tanking it in favor of opening-weekend rival A Star Is Born. With Venom ultimately claiming the top spot with over $80 million domestically and Star taking half that, seems the plan, if it truly existed, didn’t quite work. But that still leaves us with the task of sifting through the mess to find the reality. And the truth is, from my humble perspective, Venom is neither terrible nor a triumph, but merely a passably enjoyable film with more than its fair share of issues.
Venom seems to be one of the few to survive the early Sony plans to create films based on Spider-man’s rogue’s gallery of villains. While there are a few still in the potential pipeline, Venom is a bit of test. It’s tough to make solo outings about characters that are largely villainous, and/or tend to eat people’s heads whole. The character of Venom, depending on which origin you go with and who the symbiote is attached to at a given time, has been both hero and antagonist, and that duality is what cracks the door open here enough to work him into a proper protagonist.
The movie uses the classic team of journalist Eddie Brock (played by Tom Hardy) and the alien “parasite” known as Venom (also played by Tom Hardy). It forgoes the usual setup (as seen in the previous Raimi-film that shall not be named) of using Eddie and Venom’s mutual hatred of Spider-man as a catalyst for their partnership in favor of eschewing any mention of Spidey altogether. That alone is a BIG risk, as Venom without the webslinger is practically unthinkable to some. In response though, we spend a lot of time getting to know Eddie as a character.
And I do mean A LOT.
Probably my biggest quibble with the film is its organization, especially the amount of Eddie-setup relative to the Eddie-Venom dynamic. Believe me, I’m usually never one to complain about character development, but in this case, once we finally get to the pairing of the two, the humorous banter and ultimate comradery is entirely endearing, so much so that we want more! Hardy himself revealed (and then backtracked) that some of his favorite stuff had been cut from the film, and it’s fairly obvious that there was far more on the page than ended up on the screen. Thus, I can’t help but think there was much more development of the relationship between Eddie and Venom than the fun-but-rushed measure we ultimately got.
Venom spends much of the film, the first half really, as a silent, nameless blob of mobile goo. As the film’s true villain—sociopathic evil scientist-billionaire Carlton Drake (played by Rogue One’s Riz Ahmed)—runs numerous experiments on the species in hopes of evolving base humanity into the higher being he desires, we fill the time by following Eddie through his numerous ups and downs. Mostly downs. He loses his job, his fiancé, his home, and his reputation thanks in part to Drake and in part to his own asinine actions. Hence, much of the effort here is to make Eddie sympathetic in his pathetic-ness, and create the need for a Type-A partner like Venom to lift him back up.
It’s that nebbish, average-Joe pitifulness that had me concerned about tough-guy Hardy in the role. But to his credit, Hardy mostly pulls it off, walking the fine line between absurdly inept and humorously ordinary. There are times he slips a bit too far into cartoonish buffoonery, but overall he creates a proper contrast and need for his more-aggressive live-in partner. As Venom, he’s surprisingly . . . human, both in speech, manner, and in self-description as his own species’ “loser.” Comic fans might find some fault there, but for the film it creates both the connection and the support between the two.
As I said, the rapport between the two works, so much so that we feel almost cheated out of more. The first few interactions are, naturally, full of fear and bewilderment. And while there is a slow and effective build of trust, or at least reluctant acceptance, there is a significant jump from that to feelings of true care and friendship that seem to be firmly in place by the end. I can’t help but feel that with a fair bit of re-editing and inclusion of some of those missing scenes, we’d have a far more balanced and satisfying journey.
Michelle Williams provides the focus for the strained love story of the film. To their credit, the storytellers restrain Eddie’s befuddled attempts at reconciliation, leaving the door open while maintaining the distance between them. But more importantly, Williams’s Anne is not offered up as an object to be won or a damsel to be saved. She is confident, capable, and decisive, working her way in and out of the foray with clear-headed resolve and moxie.
Riz Ahmed’s villainous Drake is a baddie of the mind, using his philosophical outlook to coldly manipulate those around him into buying in to his destructive means. It’s Ahmed’s boyish sincerity that gives the character such a creep factor, and though Drake’s money and position give him more leverage that most, we fear for the inevitable moment when he pairs with the symbiote Riot to take his ambitions to a completely new level. It’s effective, though it would have been nice to have a few more exchanges between Drake and Eddie—as well as between Venom and Riot—to help solidify their hostilities.
That juxtaposition between Hardy’s in-over-his-head flummoxing and Ahmed’s eerie nihilism sets the tone of the film, which dances lightly between PG-13 humor and benign horror. To my sensibilities, I think it might be a little too funny, disarming the audience so much that the horror elements lose a bit of their bite. The thrills are very much there, but like with much of the film, often in the wrong proportions.
The effects of the film are mostly on par with today’s visual expectations, and the designs of the various creatures are sleek and given a sense of realism and weight. Yet, while the more practical action pieces are fairly well done (if boiler-plate), the CG battles, particularly in the climactic clash between Venom and Riot, are shot so close and cut so quickly it’s all but impossible to track the movements. Not sure if that’s an issue with budget limitations trying to hide the seams or with camera blocking and lack of experience shooting effect-heavy action scenes, but it resulted in diluting the engagement with the characters we’d spent so much time investing in. The final battle was more like watching a blurry Rorschach test than a promised smackdown for the ages.
What we’re left with is a lot of setup for a relatively short payoff. Whether in terms of lead-in toward the final showdown or culmination of the budding relationships, it feels like it was trying too hard to save too much for the next film. With the mid-credits sequence laying obvious groundwork for the sequel, I’d much rather have seen a little more care given to the flow of this one first. I truly believe a better film was shot, and perhaps one day we’ll see it recut on bluray. Until then, the Venom we got is a flawed but fun romp, carried forth more by the endearing effectiveness of its cast than on its design. Compared to the last time we saw these characters, it’s a major step up. This isn’t Catwoman, or Green Lantern. This is a winking setup that we can only hope delivers on its promise the second time round.
YANG: The House with a Clock in Its Walls
The only things I knew going in to this modern reimagining of John Bellairs’ 1973 children’s novel was that it had a funny name, starred manic goofball Jack Black alongside revered thesp, Cate Blanchett, and that it was directed by Eli Roth—yes, the same Eli Roth of Cabin Fever, Hostel, The Green Inferno, and other gore-porn favorites. If there’s an odder hodge-podge of constituents in cinemas now, I’d be hard pressed to name it! But as strange a brew as Roth’s cauldron might appear, the end result is a delightfully smooth concoction, full of youthful joy and magical whimsy.
I’d never read the book—had honestly never even heard of it!—but thanks to the Alamo Drafthouse’s pre-show and my girlfriend’s familiarity, I understand that a large part of the appeal of the work is the delicate mix of horror and adolescent adventure alongside artist Edward Gorey’s moody illustrations. If that’s the case, this version remains faithful to the source, providing an organic mix of thrills, mystery, and jumps in conjunction with a surprising amount of heart and familial drama amidst a spectacle of inventive visuals.
For those like me who are unfamiliar, the basic outline finds hyper-intelligent 10-year-old Lewis (Owen Vaccaro) shipped off to live with his eccentric uncle Jonathan (Black) after the tragic death of Lewis’ parents. While working through his grief, Lewis learns that Jonathan is a warlock, imbued, as is the entire house, with magical abilities that turn Lewis’ world upside down. Together with neighbor and witch Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett), they set out to solve the mystery of a clock buried somewhere in the house by the previous owner, and in the process, possibly save the entire planet.
As you can deduce from the description, there’s a plethora of genres to balance here, and Roth truly stuns in his deft ability to stitch them all together. In modern terms, there’s a definite early-Harry Potter vibe, as Lewis’ discovery of the supernatural starts with confusion and fear and ultimately morphs into uninhibited delight. And as the story progresses though, darker turns are taken, and the tone continues to shift, yet never loses site that this is a children’s film. It reminded me of the movies I grew up on in the ‘80s, full of mischief and wonder, yet never talking down to its youthful audience. When you think of the wolf Gmork in The Neverending Story, or the Skeksis of The Dark Crystal, or basically all of Gremlins, filmmakers rarely pulled punches, understanding that children can handle more than we given them credit for. Despite Roth’s pedigree, House never gets too violent or gory, yet certainly doesn’t shy away from some of the darker and more mature elements of life, death, and tragedy.
It requires a skilled young actor to navigate us through that labyrinth, and young Vaccaro is a noteworthy choice. With his impossibly sweet features and heart-melting demeanor, the young actor evokes instant sympathy and endearment. Lewis is a wonderfully layered character, coming of age amongst so many new experiences. The immersion into the realm of the mystic is but a jumping off point, as the young lad must deal with duplicitous fiends, unusual authority figures, and of course, that ever-lingering loss. But the film never belabors any particular point, and allows Lewis to develop naturally, for good and for ill.
In a wholly unusual choice of father figure, Jack Black steps up to the plate and proves he’s got more to offer than malleable eyebrows and high-pitched squeals of gibberish. Sure he nails Jonathan’s eccentricities, that was a given. But Black stretches his acting muscles across a spectrum of emotions, and in one scene even goes toe to dramatic toe with Blanchett herself, keeping pace and proving he’s earned his sustained career.
As for Blanchett herself—she’s Cate freakin’ Blanchett, of course she’s brilliant! Though, with the dearth of screentime and development early on, I couldn’t help but wonder why she might have taken such a seemingly trivial role. But as the character slowly coalesced, and her backstory revealed, it became painfully obvious. With but a look or a gesture, I realized that she had been conveying massive amounts of information to us the entire time. A simple yet virtuoso performance.
Whether you’re a child or just a child at heart, House is an fun, near-flawless throwback adventure with a modern twist. The CG brings the world to life in ways neither Bellairs nor Gorey could likely have imagined. But the heart remains at the forefront, as a bevy of broken people find and heal each other—while also saving the world, of course. I went in with reservations, and came out a believer. Much like a house with a clock in its walls, there is much more here than seems at mere first glance.