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.

Review of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The relaunch of “Star Wars” last year with “The Force Awakens” and plans to release other films that filled in backstory for some main characters and events had some people asking the question, “Is this too much ‘Star Wars’?” As long as films like “Rogue One” are what’s coming out of Lucasfilm and Disney Studios the answer is a resounding “NO!”

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) in an angry and directionless young woman. Her father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was taken by Director Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to oversee the building of the Empire’s massive planet-killing weapon called the Death Star when Jyn was a small child. In the process, Jyn saw her mother killed by Krennic’s Death Troopers. Hiding in a prearranged location, Jyn is rescued by a friend of her parents named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who is a leader in the growing resistance movement against the Empire. Now an adult, Jyn lives under a false name and does whatever is necessary to survive. Captured using forged documents, Jyn is being held at an Imperial work camp when she is freed by a group of Rebels and brought before the resistance council. She is told her father is still alive and working on a massive weapon for the Empire. An Imperial freighter pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) has recently defected and has information about the new weapon but is being held by Gerrera who is now waging his own personal war against the Empire and is no longer affiliated with the main group. The council wants Jyn to be a bridge between the two factions and get Gerrera to give them access to what the pilot knows. Taking her to Bodhi’s location will be Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and a reprogrammed Imperial droid called K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk). Arriving on the planet Jedah, the rebels find it crawling with Imperial troops and ships. They try to keep a low profile but soon become involved in a fight started by some of Gerrera’s soldiers. During this fight they meet Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind former guard at the now overrun Jedi temple, and his friend Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Both men are handy in a fight and quickly help in taking out the Imperial troops; but they are all captured by Gerrera’s men. Jyn and Gerrera have an awkward reunion and he shows her a holographic message recorded by Galen and smuggled out by the pilot. Galen talks about why he built the weapon and that he knows a way to destroy it. He also talks of his love for Jyn and hopes that she is still alive. Just then the Death Star enters orbit over Jedah and targets the city near where Jyn and the other rebels are as both a low-power test and a demonstration of the awful weapon the Empire possesses.

That entire plot synopsis happens early in the film. The really exciting and “OH WOW” stuff doesn’t happen until later. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is packed with excellent story, action, adventure, humor and more. It may be the best film in the entire canon.

Starting with the visuals, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is a masterpiece. The special effects are integrated seamlessly with the real backgrounds as the production traveled all over the world to find their numerous planetary landscapes. Everything from the towering AT-AT’s walking and shooting at rebel soldiers on a beautiful sandy and palm-lined beach to a simple shot of a ship’s shadow gliding along the rocky terrain below it, the filmmakers and special effects crews have done an amazing job creating the visual world of “Rogue One.”

The story of the film, how the Rebel Alliance got the plans for the Death Star, is something that was just given a quick mention in “Star Wars” and didn’t really have much information with it. Coming up with a fresh and interesting story that still fits in perfectly with the well-known canon of “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” must have been a challenge. It is a combination of being tied to the original movie while also having a huge playground of previously unknown characters. It could have gone wildly off the rails and felt like watching a contortionist trying to fit himself into a box. Instead, writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, working from a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta, manage to expand what we know about the rebellion and make some sense of a more troubling part of the original “Star Wars;” namely why there was this small but catastrophic flaw in the design of the Death Star. For fans of the series, it turns that one aspect of the original film, which was probably just a storytelling shortcut by writer George Lucas, from a liability into something that make sense. It is what some would call retconning and view as a weakness. I see it as amazing storytelling.

While “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” could be a viewer’s first foray into the world of “Star Wars” and find plenty to enjoy, fans of the original trilogy will see brief glimpses of familiar faces and find characters played by long-dead or much aged actors resurrected and rejuvenated by digital manipulation. There are even bits of unused scenes from the original movie that have been integrated seamlessly into the film. It boggles the mind at how creative some filmmakers are and how technology allows at least one actor, dead since 1994, to be brought back to life and play a major role.

As much as I am gushing over the film and I do love it and will see it again soon, there is one minor quibble I have with the development and evolution of Jyn Erso. We see her first as a victim: A child that watches her mother murdered and her father stolen away. Then we see her as an adult and she’s angry and a criminal that isn’t interested in the rebellion until she discovers her father is still alive. Then after seeing his message to her, Jyn enthusiastically joins the Rebels and practically becomes their leader. Her transformation doesn’t feel legitimate. It happens so quickly and with nothing but that one message, Jyn’s newfound loyalty to the cause feels unearned. It is a convenient way to have a female hero in what has been a largely male dominated film series. I understand the desire to have another strong female lead (along with Daisy Ridley’s Rey and of course Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia) and maybe there are other scenes that didn’t make the final cut of the film that would have made her change of heart make more emotional sense; but, what we see on screen here feels like a short cut.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action. There are numerous explosions, blasters fired and spaceships destroyed in the film. We see one character shoot a man in the back. There are various fights. A large slug-like creature with tentacles envelopes one character while trying to get information from him. A small child is shown in danger during an attack on a street. There is no foul language.

If the rumors are to be believed, the making of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” might make a good movie itself. There were extensive reshoots and while Disney says they were always planned some have said the studio wasn’t happy with the tone and the last act of early cuts of the film. A well-known script doctor was brought in and may have been on set more for the reshoots than director Gareth Edwards. For a time, some thought this film may be something of a catastrophe. All the rumors and speculation about a troubled production and stitched together final product are either blown way out of proportion or this might be the new model for making giant blockbuster movies. “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” will quicken the pulse of any long-time fan while also providing a way in to anyone that has somehow avoided seeing any of the movies in the nearly 40 year old franchise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to give Lucasfilm and Disney some more of my money by seeing the movie again.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” gets five guitars.

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

There likely won’t be any posted reviews for the next couple of weeks due to the holidays. That doesn’t mean I won’t see anything but I just won’t be posting a review for it other than perhaps a paragraph. Here’s what’s coming out in wide release over the next couple of weeks:

Assassin’s Creed—

Passengers—

Sing—

Why Him?—