Venom

Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott

Director: Ruben Flesicher

Writers: Jeff Pinker, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel


It is just mindblowing that a movie as ridiculous as Venom exists today, never mind that it was this successful. In an age where superhero movies rule the box office and 90% of them share a certain samey quality (even when they’re good), Ruben Fleischer and Tom Hardy have stormed onto the scene with the force of a bloodthirsty, parasitic alien to deliver a film unlike anything else in Hollywood right now. Part derivative superhero origin story, part David Cronenberg split-personality body horror movie, part human/alien buddy slapstick comedy, and part Darren Aronofsky fever dream; Venom is a volatile clash of several disparate elements concocted by an illiterate mad scientist. Nothing about it should work, and indeed very little of it does, yet it is nonetheless an incredibly fascinating and tremendously entertaining movie. Venom is silly, baffling and almost completely incoherent and the only thing stopping it from being one of the year’s unmissable movies is its unwillingness to fully embrace its own looney tunes compulsions. The film has been edited right down to the barebones and is about 30% tamer, duller and more mediocre than the movie it clearly wants to be.

One of the most remarkable things about this movie is how totally unremarkable the first hour is. Much like Fantastic Four, Venom is one of those films that takes forever to get started. Before Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) gets anywhere near the symbiote, there’s a lot of tedious set-up and painful banality to get through. First there’s the spaceship from the Life Foundation which we see crash somewhere in Malaysia where its black, gooey cargo escapes. Then we meet hotshot reporter Eddie Brock, a San Francisco journalist tasked with interviewing Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), the ingenious, trailblazing CEO of the Life Foundation. Eddie finds a scoop while snooping through the emails of his fiancé Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) which reveal that Drake is testing some lethal new drug on the city’s homeless population. Eddie confronts the smug scientist, who then proceeds to utterly destroy his life and reputation. Gone are Eddie Brock’s budding career, his beautiful fiancé and his good name. Now he’s nothing more than a loser; a washed up bum languishing in a rundown apartment. And yet there’s still a ways to go before he becomes Venom.

The particulars of how Eddie is eventually attached to Venom and gets the ball rolling (like a turd in the wind) isn’t really important and the movie would have been better had they cut half of it out. All that matters is that once Eddie and Venom become one, that’s when the magic starts to happen. Venom is a scary, slimy, many-fanged creature who fuses his consciousness with Eddie’s and starts to take control of his life. He operates Eddie’s body like an animated puppet whenever danger strikes, he compels his host to rabidly scrounge for food (preferably a chompable human head) and he speaks to Eddie both from within and outside his head in the form of a ghostly profile, oftentimes just to remind his new friend what a hopeless loser he is. Venom is essentially a warped cross between a superpowered antihero, an unwanted houseguest, a ravenous beast and an off-putting wingman. He doesn’t just protect Eddie when their accidental symbiosis places them both in danger, he also takes an interest in his life and even goes so far as to offer him dating advice. It is a strange, complicated, toxic, homoerotic relationship that they share (Venom and Eddie even kiss in one scene) and it never ceases to be fascinating or enormously entertaining. Venom could have been a supernatural rom-com completely void of fight scenes or an action-based plot and I would have watched it happily.

Tying all the madness together is Tom Hardy who delivers what can only be described as an otherworldly performance. The commitment he brings to this unbelievably unhinged performance is absolute, channelling both the intensity that Health Ledger brought to The Dark Knight and the complete lack of self-awareness that Jesse Eisenberg brought to Batman v. Superman. Whether he’s sweating profusely through night terrors, rummaging voraciously for food in the bin, screaming and flailing around on the floor or frantically climbing into a fancy restaurant’s lobster tank, Hardy brings 100% to every scenario the movie throws at him no matter how silly or random. There were moments when I actually felt concerned for his wellbeing, so convinced was I that he really did have some kind of alien parasite inflicting him all kinds of physical and mental anguish (which with Hardy is not a possibility I’m ready to discount). His is the only performance worthy of note; everybody else plays typically bland, underwritten characters who aren’t given enough material to compliment whatever kind of movie Hardy thought he was in save one scene where Michelle Williams is allowed to let loose for a little while.

Despite the movie’s enjoyability, whether inadvertent or not, there are far too many wasted opportunities holding it back from greatness. While they seem to understand that they struck some kind of comedy gold mine with Hardy’s dual performance, Venom is unprepared to commit itself to a comedic format and keeps things serious and boring for those scenes where he’s not around. Some action scenes such as a night-time motorcycle chase through San Francisco was rife for the kind of creativity and inventiveness that an indestructible shape-shifting alien could easily fulfil, but the movie never takes advantage of it. This scene instead trudges along without any sense of momentum and it is absolutely laughable how often they reuse the same locations throughout. The same goes for the climatic fight where Venom faces off against a bigger, stronger symbiote; a confused, unintelligible skirmish of dark slime shot at night where it’s just as impossible to make out what’s happening as it is to understand what Carlton Drake’s ultimate plan even is. Venom is in the wider scheme of things a mostly dull, self-serious film that would have little to no impressions had it not been for Hardy and the hilariously crazy movie he thinks he’s in. I wish everybody else had been on the same page as him.

★★

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Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale

Director: Jake Kasdan

Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner


It’s been years since I’ve watched the original 1995 Jumanji with Robin Williams, but I remember it well enough. It was a fun movie with an original concept and in the years since I never felt like it warranted a sequel. What’s interesting about this new movie though is that it isn’t clear whether it is a sequel, a remake, a reboot, or whatever else Hollywood is making these days. You could watch this film and never know that there was another movie released two decades prior. I’m not even sure if the film was originally conceived as a Jumanji sequel; I would have no trouble imagining a scenario where one of the screenwriters envisioned a movie about teenagers getting sucked into a video game, upon which someone at the studio, realising they owned the rights to Jumanji, attached the name to the property so that they might profit from Hollywood’s obsession with recognised brands. Maybe that isn’t the case at all, but what impressed about this Jumanji sequel/remake/reboot was how well it stood on its own two feet.

The movie starts off in a high school where nerdy gamer Spencer Gilpin (Alex Wolff), football jock Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), introverted teen Martha Kaply (Morgan Turner), and Queen Bee Bethany Walker (Madison Iseman), all end up in detention together. In the middle of the mess they must sort out they find a dusty 90s video game console with a cartridge for a Jumanji game attached. They decide to have a quick go, pick their characters, and are then suddenly sucked into the game. They find themselves in a virtual jungle where they have taken the forms of their avatars. Spencer is now the tough and muscular Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Fridge is the short and feeble Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar (Kevin Hart), Martha is the athletic and beautiful Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan) and Bethany is the male, overweight, middle-aged Shelly Oberon (Jack Black). Realising they have been transported into the video game and that the most likely way out is to complete all the levels, they set out to obtain a stolen jewel called the Jaguar’s Eye and return it to its rightful place before the evil Russel Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) can get his hands on it.

The body-switching trope of having these Hollywood stars play these teenagers is one that could have gotten old rather quickly if not for the commitment each star gives their role and the movie’s understanding of their character’s anxieties and insecurities. As far as teenage characters go, these ones are not as fleshed out as those in The Breakfast Club (or Power Rangers to give a more recent example) but they suffice for what is after all meant to be a fun action/adventure blockbuster. Dwayne Johnson playing a scrawny, nerdy guy who cannot believe that he now has The Rock’s body works very well, as does casting a great physical comedy actor like Jack Black as a vain, smartphone-addicted teenage girl. Kevin Hart does what he does and gets some laughs and Karen Gillan has some fun as a socially awkward girl who doesn’t feel at all comfortable in a slim body with skimpy clothing, but I do wish the movie had done more to challenge the stereotypes that she is mostly perpetuating. Still, these actors all play their roles so earnestly that it never feels like just a gimmick. There were definitely a few moments there when I actually believed that Jack Black was a teenage girl.

The action/adventure aspect is, I would say, serviceable. It does what it’s meant to do well enough. The story follows a simple video-game structure where the characters have to get through certain levels to get to their objective and along the way they’re able to learn the mechanics of the game such as the strengths and weaknesses of their respective avatars and how many lives they each have. Along the way they overcome obstacles and battle faceless henchmen and a generic villain (whether this is a meta comment on video games or just a typical Hollywood trope, I cannot tell), and in between they have some individual character moments, both comic and (sort of) dramatic. The action scenes are shot well enough that you never lose sight of where everyone is or what is happening, but at the same time you never really feel like the characters are ever in that much danger. It’s a given that these characters will all make it home in the end, so any sense of drama or suspense has to stem from their individual arcs and I didn’t find enough there for me to really invest myself in their survival. Unlike Power Rangers which made a huge effort to give its characters complex personalities and tough, relatable problems, the arcs for these characters feel pretty thin and easily solved in comparison. It isn’t bad, merely serviceable.

The movie is at its best when it’s focusing on the stars and letting them have some fun. Standout moments include Black strutting around and flaunting his chubby physique as he instructs Gillan in the art of sexiness and seduction and also Johnson slipping into his expression of smouldering intensity anytime someone says “smouldering intensity”. This movie didn’t have to be great in order to cash in on the Jumanji name, but it’s clear that a lot of thought went into this film to make it more creative and surprising than it needed to be. That the movie never once resorted to cheap, empty intertextuality, by which I mean relying on the recognisable brand of the Robin Williams film as a substitute for thrills and drama, is to be applauded. This sequel/remake/reboot did its own thing and it worked out fine. The actors are all clearly giving their best and having a ball playing these characters and it is their charm and sincerity that kept me through to the end even when the concept and action started to wear thin.

★★★

The Dark Tower

Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Taylor, Claudia Kim, Fran Kranz, Abbey Lee, Katheryn Winnick, Jackie Earle Haley

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

Writers: Akiva Goldsman, Jeff Pinkner, Anders Thomas Jensen, Nikolaj Arcel


I had high hopes for this one. I read The Dark Tower series as a teenager and have been waiting for an adaptation ever since (it was always my feeling that a TV series would have served the books better than a film, but hey, I’ll take what I can get). Stephen King started writing this series in the 80s and it took him decades to complete what he hoped would be his magnum opus. The idea was to write an epic series akin to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns that would serve as the centrepiece of his literary universe, and it is a superb read. The Dark Tower has since been trapped in development hell as different filmmakers from J.J. Abrams to Ron Howard have attempted to bring this extensive, complex narrative to life (with Javier Bardem attached to star at one point). All roads have thus led us here, to Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower, a film which sadly leaves this decades-long journey unfulfilled.

The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed. The Man in Black is Walter Padick (Matthew McConaughey), a sorcerer who seeks to destroy the Dark Tower, the structure at the centre of the universe protecting all the worlds from the evils outside. The Gunslinger is Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), the last of an ancient order and the only man who can protect the Tower. A young boy called Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) has visions of these two and of the Tower, visions that his mother Laurie (Katheryn Winnick) and therapist dismiss as dreams brought by the trauma of his father’s death. Believing his visions to be real and determined to learn their meaning, Jake follows them to an abandoned house where he discovers a portal to Mid-World, the world in which the Dark Tower stands, and there meets Roland. The Gunslinger takes the boy under his wing and together they must pursue the Man in Black and stop him from destroying the Tower and bringing all the worlds to ruin.

Having been in development for so long and subjected to reshoots following negative test screenings, I think most people who watch this film will be able to tell that this is the work of a studio. It is business-like in its approach and never takes any chances with the story. In the original book series, you are dropped straight into the desolate, fantastical land of Mid-World and follow a mysterious, morally ambiguous protagonist on an uncertain quest. Here the protagonist is a teenage boy in New York who discovers that he is the key to saving the universe. We know that he’s troubled because he speaks to psychiatrists and skips school but he has no real personality to speak of. His father is dead, paving the way for Roland to step in as his surrogate father, and he possesses abilities that he does not understand. He isn’t so much a character as he is a plot device, there to take the story wherever the studio feels it has to go and to prompt the exposition wherever the studio feels its needed.

The two best and most strongly defined characters are, not coincidentally, the two who most closely resemble their literary counterparts. Elba’s Roland is a melancholy warrior, haunted by the ghosts of his past, and he brings a strong sense of weight to the role. This is a man who has experienced pain and loss we can hardly fathom and has become cold and numb with time. The humanity that his surrogate son is supposed to inspire never quite hits home but I’m inclined to lay the blame with the script rather than the actor. McConaughey meanwhile hams it up as the Man in Black, but never so much that we cannot take him seriously as a villain. He walks that fine line between being eccentric and menacing and hits just the right balance. Casting these two is far and away the best thing this movie did and anytime these two came together, I felt like I was actually watching the Dark Tower movie I had been waiting to see. It makes me sad that their performances could not have been realised with a better script with a greater vision for King’s epic.

Most of the scenes that make up The Dark Tower seem like they were included simply because those are the scenes that you need in this kind of movie. When Jake discovers the portal in the abandoned house and activates it, the house comes alive and attacks him. There’s no build up or even much of a conclusion to this scene, it’s just something that happens and is then forgotten about as soon as it’s over. The movie’s crime isn’t that it’s terrible, but that it’s unimaginative and forgettable. The book series was often dark and strange and, while not all of its ideas worked, one of the things it had that this film did not was vision. The world King built is immense. The characters he created are iconic. The themes he explored are resonant. Here the studio decided to play it safe, making a generic movie with a simplified story, watered-down characters and a non-threatening PG-13 rating. The movie attempts to appease fans of King’s work while still appealing to a wider audience and it fails at both. It’s not as bad as I feared it would be, but it falls short of even my most conservative hopes.

★★