Review of “Venom”

A privately-owned spaceship from the Life Foundation is bringing back samples from space when something goes wrong and it crashes in Malaysia. Life Foundation is owned by Dr. Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a wunderkind and genius in the field of bioengineering and his ambition is to cure disease and prolong life no matter the consequences. Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is an investigative journalist focusing on exposing the powerful taking advantage of the poor. He works for a cable network out of San Francisco and is known for his hard-hitting and uncompromising reporting. His boss gives him an assignment to do a puff piece on Dr. Drake and, despite his reservations, he agrees. Eddie is engaged to Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), an attorney working for a law firm representing Drake and Life Foundation in a wrongful death lawsuit. One night, Eddie is up late to get a drink and notices Anne’s laptop is blinking from an incoming email about the lawsuit and he reads it. The next day during the interview, Eddie asks Drake about the lawsuit and Drake abruptly ends the interview. Because of Drake’s power and influence, Eddie and Anne are both fired from their jobs and Anne breaks off her engagement with Eddie. Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) does research at Life Foundation. The spaceship that crashed was carrying intelligent alien lifeforms found on a comet. One of them escaped and caused the crash, but three others were still found in their containment chambers. Life Foundation has been bringing in homeless people and experimenting on merging the aliens, called symbiotes, with humans. Troubled by the lack of ethics Drake is showing, Skirth contacts Eddie. At first, he isn’t interested as Drake had already ruined his life, but he changes his mind when a street woman he knows disappears from her usual place. Skirth sneaks Eddie into the lab where he finds his friend and tries to get her out of a containment room. She gets out and attacks Eddie and the symbiote merged with her moves over to Eddie. Suddenly, Eddie has increased strength and agility and, the longer he is merged with the alien, the more control the symbiote that calls himself Venom exerts over Eddie. Drake sends his head of security, Roland Treece (Scott Haze), and his men after Eddie, but Venom doesn’t want to be captured as he has begun to like Eddie. Meanwhile, the symbiote that escaped the spaceship and caused the crash, is making his way to San Francisco by hijacking various people to get on planes and travel. That symbiote, called Riot, has plans for the next Life Foundation spaceship and for life on Earth.

“Venom” has been roasted by the real critics with 32% on Rotten Tomatoes and 35 on Metacritic. Consistent numbers like this usually mean a movie is awful and nearly unwatchable. I almost dreaded seeing Tom Hardy and the rest of the cast embarrass themselves in what was likely a poorly constructed and amateurish production. “Venom” has its problems, but it isn’t the two-hour catastrophe it has been made out to be.

“Venom” is actually pretty good. The strength of the film is in the performance of Tom Hardy. After Venom makes himself known, Hardy has to react to a voice that isn’t there (probably read off camera) and establish a relationship that hews close to the Odd Couple. Eddie is dealing with being blackballed by the journalism community and the loss of his relationship. He’d rather work a menial job and stay under the radar. Venom is an aggressive personality and comes into the partnership with a plan and Eddie has no choice but to come along. It is an uncomfortable arrangement at first that morphs into a friendship based on compromise (for now) and mutual respect. Each provides the other with something they need. It is both parasitic and cooperative and none of it would work without Tom Hardy’s ability to make us believe this impossible arrangement.

Riz Ahmed turns Carlton Drake into more than just your standard villain. Drake is looking to improve the quality of life for everyone on Earth. His methods of getting to that improvement are what make him a villain. Ahmed easily slips between the slick and likable philanthropist and the manipulative and power-hungry megalomaniac, sometimes within the same scene. Drake, while not the most deeply written character, clearly wants to make a difference in the world but doesn’t want to waste time on things like ethics or safe testing. He’s more of a “let’s see what happens” kind of guy and Riz Ahmed plays him in a way that is both likable and detestable.

If anyone is let down by the script it is Michelle Williams. Her Anne becomes willing to accept and believe just about anything she is told once the movie dives deep into the story. Her character sees Venom in action and understands the basics of what’s going on, but she also jumps in with both feet to an extent that seems unbelievable. I liked that she was willing to help, but Anne does things that don’t make sense given her lack of experience with alien symbiotes. While this willingness helps move the plot along it also weakens what could have been a much stronger character.

“Venom” can’t quite decide what it is. Is it a buddy comedy? Is it a superhero (or anti-hero) origin story? Is it a drama about ethics and the desire to put profits over people? The film tries to do all these things and only succeeds with one of them. When it focuses on the relationship between Eddie and Venom, the movie sails along smoothly. It is entertaining as we not only learn more about the symbiote, but about Eddie as well. It makes a strong case for the two being the focus of several movies in a shared Spider-Man universe which will eventually put the parasite and the web-slinger against each other in a film. I am hopeful the next movie will have a more focused story and not waste so much time on secondary story elements that might work in a comic book but not in a film.

“Venom” is rated PG-13 for intense sci-fi violence, action and language. Venom bites the heads off a couple of people. We don’t see the aftermath but there’s no doubting what happens. Venom throws characters around in a large battle scene. While Eddie doesn’t want to hurt anyone there are clearly some serious injuries and likely deaths. A character is impaled by a large spike emitted by one of the symbiotes. Another shoots several small spikes simultaneously, killing several people. There is other assorted violence including car crashes, rocket explosions, falls from great heights and more. Foul language is scattered and mild.

Director Ruben Fleischer is responsible for one of my favorite films: “Zombieland.” He will also be directing its sequel, “Zombieland Too,” due out next year. Most of his movies have been of a smaller scale until “Venom.” With a worldwide opening weekend of $205-million, and a debut in China in the future, it seems likely a sequel and an eventual meet up with Peter Parker are in the cards. I hope the story issues get worked out as Venom is an interesting character and Tom Hardy handles the double duty very well.

“Venom” gets four stars out of five.

This week I’ll be review “First Man” for WIMZ.com.

Other movies this week:

Bad Times at the El Royale—

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween—

Listen to The Fractured Frame for the latest news on TV, streaming and movies available wherever you get podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Reviews of “The Secret Life of Pets” and “Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates”

The Secret Life of Pets

A terrier named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) has an idyllic life with his owner Katie (voiced by Ellie Kemper) in her apartment in New York City. Everything is perfect until a big, brown, shaggy dog named Duke (voiced by Eric Stonestreet) is rescued by Katie. Max and Duke don’t get along well and Katie leaves for work Max wrecks the apartment thinking Katie will blame Duke. The dog walker takes Max, Duke, a pug named Mel (voiced by Bobby Moynihan), a dachshund named Buddy (voiced by Hannibal Buress) and more pets from the building to the park where Duke grabs Max’s leash and drags him deep into the city. In an alley, the two are confronted by a gang of feral cats led by Ozone (voiced by Steve Coogan) and have their collars and ID tags taken from them. Max and Duke manage to escape the cats but are picked up by animal control officers. Duke tells Max if he goes back to the pound, where Katie adopted him, he will be put down. On the ride to the pound a bunny rabbit named Snowball (voiced by Kevin Hart) is spotted by the officers and they stop to pick him up. They don’t realize it’s a trap as the human-hating Snowball leads a pack of discarded animals of all kinds he calls the Flushed Pets. Snowball, a tattooed pig named Tattoo (voiced by Michael Beattie) and a chameleon attack the driver and cause the animal control truck to crash. Snowball frees a muzzled bulldog that’s part of his gang but plans on leaving Max and Duke behind. Max convinces Snowball they hate humans as much as he does even claiming they killed their owners. Snowball frees the two dogs and takes them into the sewers where all the other Flushed Pets live with Snowball as their leader. Meanwhile, a fluffy Pomeranian named Gidget (voiced by Jenny Slate) that lives across the street from Max and Duke and harbors a secret love for the terrier notices she hasn’t seen the object of her affection for a while and is worried something might have happened to him. She heads to the roof and enlists the aid of a caged hawk named Tiberius (voiced by Albert Brooks). Initially intending to eat Gidget, Tiberius is talked into helping her look for Max. Eventually, she gets Buddy and Mel to join them along with a cat named Chloe (voiced by Lake Bell), Norman the guinea pig (voiced by Chris Renaud) and a parakeet named Sweet Pea (chirps and whistles by Tara Strong) and the adventure begins to bring Max and Duke home.

If you dread taking your children to see “The Secret Life of Pets” because it’s yet another kids movie, don’t worry. The movie knows the only way the target audience sees the film is if a parent provides the ride and the admission fee. The filmmakers have put more than enough humor and action into this animated tale of enemies going on an adventure and becoming friends in adversity to keep the both parents and the children entertained. You’ve seen this story before (perhaps even done better) but the performances from a large cast of talented voice actors and a peppy plot make it worth watching again.

Louis C.K. is not known for his family friendly fare but here he seems to be the perfect choice to voice Max. Sounding at times both like a seasoned New Yorker and a big-eyed explorer seeing the sights for the first time, Louis C.K. brings both a maturity and a sense of wonder to his role. Max is a less than perfect hero in the story, sometimes behaving like a bully toward his new roommate Duke then acting as a big brother or mentor. As seen in his FX show and his standup specials, Louis C.K. is also a person with similar traits and flaws. It seems to the script writers tailored Max to the kind of person the actor is and it works to strengthen the character.

The squeaky voice of Jenny Slate is perfect for the fluff ball of Gidget the Pomeranian. Gidget is both childlike and on the edge of kicking ass depending on what the situation calls for. The stress of looking for Max, her secret love, brings out the wolf in the lap dog and she proves to be much more of an alpha than any of the other dogs in her pack of friends. It is a performance that bursts from the screen in surprising ways.

The true star of the show, though in a smaller, supporting role, is Kevin Hart as the militant bunny Snowball. Hart’s character, machine gun riffs and ridiculous asides almost require Illumination Entertainment to create a spinoff film to explain how Snowball became the leader of the Flushed Pets. It is a story that would likely be filled with more of the character’s easily excitable personality. It could even be turned into some kind of “Escape from Alcatraz” type of story with the Humane Society shelter led by an evil human selling the strays for animal research and Snowball gaining the trust and loyalty of the other animals and staging a massive break out. Transforming Hart’s Snowball from a meek and timid bunny into the fearless leader of the Flushed Pets could be a very funny and exciting story. His character in “The Secret Life of Pets” makes a strong impression every time he’s on screen and I personally would like to see more of him.

The look of the film is amazing with some thrilling camera work that introduces the film. The audience is flown over and through the digitally reimagined New York as we swoop through the skyscrapers and the trees of Central Park. It’s equally impressive when we go underground into the lair of the Flushed Pets. The dank, decrepit surroundings practically make you feel damp and musty. The various settings are designed to add to the mood the story is trying to convey and it works well.

If the movie has a weakness it is the story. It isn’t terribly well fleshed out. The comradery between Max and Duke feels like it develops too quickly and isn’t earned. Perhaps this is a reflection of how animals don’t hold grudges and are quickly forgiving of mistakes and slights; but I believe it is more of a desire by the filmmakers to work in more action and keep the film at a tight 90 minutes. There is little wasted time in “The Secret Life of Pets” but making the story more complete wouldn’t be considered a waste of time.

“The Secret Life of Pets” is rated PG for action and some rude humor. There are chases, a couple of car wrecks, some fights between the animals and the animal control officers and a couple of near drownings. If your child becomes easily upset at such things be forewarned. The rude humor is very mild and consists of a few comments most children won’t understand, the sight of a Chihuahua urinating from excitement at seeing its owner come home and when Snowball drops a few pellets. There is no foul language.

“The Secret Life of Pets” has been compared to “Toy Story” for its story of enemies becoming friends and working to be reunited with the one they love. It is an apt comparison but to be honest, “Toy Story” did the whole separated and reunited thing a great deal better. That’s not to say “The Secret Life of Pets” is not worth watching as the strong group of characters, great voice acting and a great deal of humor and action make the movie fun and entertaining in its own way. Just don’t expect to roll a tear or two at the end.

“The Secret Life of Pets” gets five stars.

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates

Mike and Dave Stangle (Adam DeVine and Zac Efron) are always the life of the party. They are often the death of it as well. Their antics and over-the-top flirting have turned many of their family gatherings into disasters with actual property damage. Their father Burt (Stephen Root) insists on the boys finding dates for their sister’s wedding in Hawaii to avoid turning that into another catastrophe. Being young men in the Internet age, they put an ad on Craigslist and it quickly goes viral with the boys appearing on the Wendy Williams Show. Tatiana and Alice (Aubrey Plaza and Anna Kendrick), a couple of recently fired cocktail waitresses and party girls, see the Stangle’s on the show and they plot to meet them. Pretending to be hit by a car as the Stangle’s leave a bar, Tatiana is tended to by Mike who applies one puff of artificial respiration and “revives” her. After the excitement of the accident, the boys get to know the girls better. Tatiana claims to be a school teacher while Alice says she’s a hedge fund manager. Both Mike and Dave believe everything they say and quickly invite them to the wedding where the girls quickly show they are not the mild and refined young women they claimed to be.

There’s a fair amount more to the story of “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” that occurs after the meet cute of the first 10 minutes. It becomes a tale of immaturity, fear of commitment, jealousy, wedding jitters and more. While none of it is terribly deep or meaningful, the movie does manage to wring a deal of humor out of a light and airy premise. It helps to have two charismatic leading men and two sexy and funny leading women plus a cast of talented actors with comedic chops in supporting roles.

Adam DeVine and Zac Efron are perfectly cast as the out of control brothers. Each has a comic energy that is fed by the other making for a duo that is unstoppable. Efron and DeVine should probably plan on working in films together for at least the next decade. Whether they are cast as the closest of friends or the most bitter of enemies, these two seem to be more than able to generate laughs in any situation. While DeVine is clearly the more manic of the two, Efron can more than hold his own.

Pairing them with Plaza and Kendrick merely amplifies the funny as their characters share similarly outsized personalities. While both are party girls, Tatiana is wilder and kind of the brains of the operation. Alice is more childlike and innocent…or at least as innocent as a hard-drinking, drug-taking girl can be. Their efforts at deception are pretty much abandoned once they reach Hawaii and the girls live it up on Mike and Dave’s dime. Plaza and Kendrick make an equally powerful comedic duo and much of the humor in the film is derived from them and their interactions with each other, the brothers and the soon to be married Jeanie Stangle, played to perfection by Stephanie Beard.

The supporting cast turns the time in Hawaii into a truly hilarious experience. There are too many funny bits to recount here; however, I probably laughed the most during a scene where Jeanie is given a “special” massage by a massage therapist named Keanu played by Kumail Nanjiani. Slipped some extra money by Alice, Keanu provides perhaps the funniest massage in cinema history. It also proves to be kind of a turning point in the film and sets in motion a great many plot points that all come to a head later.

The movie is filled with very funny bits of business that are brief but still cause a laugh. These often build on one another until the film delivers a big laugh to end the scene. It is probably a formula that all comedies employ but “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” do a better job than most.

Like “The Secret Life of Pets,” “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” comes up a bit short in the story department and for oddly similar reasons. Much of the redemption found by characters late in the film doesn’t feel earned or legitimate. I don’t want to give away the ending but it won’t surprise anyone that everything works out. This is the kind of film that doesn’t want to challenge your notions of the “Happy Ending” and makes sure all slights are forgiven and all relationships are solid by the time the credits roll. It could have left a few things up in the air or a couple still broken up by the end but I suppose they didn’t want to break any of the romantic comedy rules this film lives by. Fortunately, the laughs more than make up for the predictable story.

“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” is rated R for crude sexual content, language throughout, drug use and some graphic nudity. There are discussions of various sex acts in parts of the film. The crude names of porno movies are also said out loud during one scene. We see the ladies smoke pot a couple of times as well as a scene where Ecstasy is taken with somewhat disastrous results. We see a nude man in profile for a lengthy period of time. We see a naked breast during a fight scene and full frontal nudity of one of the female characters. Foul language is common throughout the film.

While “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” breaks no new storytelling ground it does provide a huge number of laughs. That seems to be especially well timed considering everything that is getting the most attention in the news. While the movie has not exactly been a darling with the critics it did provide me with a great deal of entertainment practically from the time it started to deep into the credits where some outtakes were shown. It may not be art but it is funny and sometimes that’s enough.

“Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” gets five stars.

This week your choices include some ladies who ain’t afraid of no ghosts and a fearless undercover drug agent. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Ghostbusters—

The Infiltrator—

Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman@comcast.net.