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

Other movies this week:

Bad Times at the El Royale—

Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween—

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Review of “I Feel Pretty”

Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) is the website manager for Lily LeClaire Cosmetics in New York City. She doesn’t work in the gleaming skyscraper headquarters but in a small office under a Chinese takeout with her coworker Mason (Adrian Martinez). Renee is insecure about herself. She doesn’t feel pretty enough, skinny enough and smart enough for the rest of the world that surrounds her. She hears of a receptionist position opening up at the company headquarters where the CEO Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams) runs the cosmetics giant. Renee considers applying but her lack of confidence makes her unsure. One day at spin class she falls off the bike and strikes her head. When she wakes up and looks in the mirror, Renee sees herself as a gorgeous and confident woman that can do anything she chooses. She applies for and gets the receptionist job despite the position normally being filled by young models. Renee impresses Avery with her confidence and soon the receptionist is offering ideas for a line of cosmetics that will be sold in general retail and drug stores. Renee also begins a relationship with Ethan (Rory Scovel), a man she meets at the dry cleaners and practically bullies into giving her his number. Renee’s friends Vivian and Jane (Aidy Bryant and Busy Philipps) notice the change in Renee and while they are happy for her success in her new job and her new relationship they aren’t crazy about how she is treating them like charity cases in need of sympathy for the way they date. Being the person with all the confidence in the world also comes with needing to know when you need to back off and let others find their own way. To put it another way: With great power comes great responsibility.

“I Feel Pretty” sells itself as a story of female empowerment but comes across more as power corrupts. Amy Schumer’s Renee is a sweet but insecure woman as the film starts but turns into something of a monster after an accident unlocks her confidence. Being the uber-alpha female in both the high-intensity environment of a New York City cosmetics firm and the much lower intensity friendship with long-time acquaintances requires an ability to be able to dial it back depending on the situation. Renee doesn’t possess that ability and comes across as mean and disrespectful of her friends. It is an unattractive attribute that goes against the ideal the film is trying to get across. It turns what could have been a decent comedy into something that is hard to watch at times and downright cruel at others. I don’t know what Schumer and the rest of the filmmakers intended to do with this story but what they have created works against an equal playing field.

When Renee wakes up from her minor head injury at the spin class she sees herself in the mirror as a beautiful and powerful woman. Every person that makes casual eye contact with her is, in her mind, checking her out. She announces that while it is understandable if people believe she will leave her receptionist job at the cosmetics firm for a modeling career that she has no plans to walk the runway as she sees her long term goal as staying at Lily LeClaire. She enters a swimsuit competition on the spur of the moment and understands when she doesn’t win because the “fix was in.” She practically bulldozes Ethan into exchanging phone numbers at the dry cleaners when he was only making idle conversation. Most of what Renee exhibits isn’t confidence, it’s delusion. While everyone else in the film seems to accept Renee’s new mindset as attractive and even inspiring, from the audience point of view Renee is mentally ill. It’s the kind of behavior that in the real world would get many people locked up for a psych evaluation. I’m not sure what point writers and directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein were trying to get to when coming up with this story buy my interpretation of what they have created is mostly the polar opposite of what the trailer for the film is selling.

While I believe the story is the weakest part of “I Feel Pretty” the performance of Michelle Williams as Avery LeClaire is probably the strongest. Williams is nearly unrecognizable as Avery with a wig of long, straight blond hair and a voice that is breathy and high-pitched. Avery is funny in her cluelessness. She doesn’t understand the struggles of middle class women and feels no need to learn which works against her as the company is preparing to introduce a budget-priced line of cosmetics that will be sold in nationwide chain department stores. Her grandmother, Lauren Hutton as Lily LeClaire, sees this shortcoming in her granddaughter and is not shy about letting Avery know. The struggle of making her grandmother happy while running a giant company that has a history of exclusivity is part of what opens the door for Renee to assist in the new line. Avery’s lack of confidence in herself and the way she speaks and moves through life is mined for humor as she confides in Renee. Williams performance is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise predictable romantic comedy.

“I Feel Pretty” is rated PG-13 for sexual content, language and some partial nudity. There is a brief sex scene that has no nudity and is largely played for mild laughs. There is also a suggestive dance done during a bikini contest. We see a naked Schumer in silhouette a couple of times. Foul language is mild and widely scattered.

“I Feel Pretty” has a vein of cruelty running through it. Sometimes it is directed at Schumer’s character by those who see her as not belonging at Lily LeClaire. Sometimes it comes from Schumer’s character aimed at her friends. Sometimes it’s a general feeling of some characters not belonging despite their desire to be there. It’s a difficult thing to pinpoint at times but it’s there. While writers and directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein may have intended to tell a story of empowerment despite how someone looks it still manages to come off as physical beauty wins out. It also isn’t as funny as it should have been.

“I Feel Pretty” gets three stars out of five.

This week the 800-pound gorilla in the room is “Avengers: Infinity War” and it also is the only new film in wide release.

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