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 “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Most of Australia is a desert that is roamed by gangs looking to steal from others or make them slaves. In this harsh world is Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), a former cop who is dealing with the deaths of his wife and daughter at the hands of the aforementioned gangs. Max hallucinates seeing and hearing his wife and daughter. Max is captured by War Boys who are the soldiers of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Joe controls both the water and food for his followers, making him their king whether they like it or not as both are in short supply. Also a valuable commodity is gasoline used to fuel the various gangs modified cars and trucks used as war machines. Going out on a run to collect gas from a nearby refinery is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who was kidnapped from her clan when she was a child. Max is discovered to be a universal blood donor and is used as a living blood bag for one of the War Boys named Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Nux is a dedicated soldier of Joe’s and is willing to die for him to receive salvation in the next life in Valhalla. Furiosa has helped Joe’s five breeding wives escape his compound and deviates from her route trying to take them to her old home territory called the Green Place. Joe’s people are watching and see her change course. Joe checks and finds his wives are gone and gives chase along with several War Boys, including Nux who has Max strapped to the front of his car giving him a constant transfusion. The wives all begged Furiosa for her help and she believes this is the best chance she has to escape Joe’s domination and return home.

There’s very little story or dialog in “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Most of the film’s two hour running time is filled with a massive car chase through the desert that is punctuated with incredible stunts, huge explosions and the occasional brief bit of discussion between the characters. Most other films that follow this formula would receive a fair amount of criticism but director and co-writer George Miller has delivered an action picture that succeeds despite what for many other movies would be shortcomings.

For his first trip back to the dystopian world he last visited 30 years ago, Miller has populated “Mad Max: Fury Road” with his most twisted and distorted group of characters yet. Most are freaks in some very obvious way. The War Boys have very pale white skin with many scarred with massive images on their chests and backs. Nux seems to be suffering with an ailment that causes large tumors just under the skin. He mentions that either the tumors or the night fever will probably kill him. Immortan Joe is covered with open boils and wears a breathing apparatus. Other secondary characters have ailments ranging from facial deformities to massively swollen legs and feet. The only people who look fairly normal are Max, Furiosa and Joe’s wives. Furiosa has an artificial arm that straps on with leather belts. My guess would be she ran afoul of Joe in some way and the loss of her arm below the elbow was her punishment. Joe obviously selected the five young women with which to breed due to their apparent lack of physical deformities. He also protects his property, as he calls them, by equipping each one with a chastity belt. Joe is willing to risk everything to get his wives back, even leaving his compound largely undefended to chase after them.

Joe’s dominance over his people is a bit puzzling. He requires a great deal of physical assistance from his inner circle as well as equipment to help him breathe. It doesn’t seem like it would take much to overthrow his regime by someone with a little courage. All the various gangs appear to be led by people who could be easily deposed. While these characters are certainly colorful, the world they populate seems to be geared toward those who are physically able to take and hold power. None of the primary gang leaders appear to be up to that. Something else that strikes me as odd is the availability of gasoline. If the world economy has completely collapsed it would seem that industry would be the most vulnerable. It isn’t easy to find and pump crude oil and it takes a fair amount of technology to refine it into gas and diesel. All this takes infrastructure, manufacturing, skilled labor, transportation and more. The world of “Mad Max: Fury Road” appears to be lacking most of the things needed to keep an industry producing yet there are dozens of gas guzzling vehicles running at full throttle over vast stretches of barren desert. I’m probably trying too hard to apply logic to a movie but these things stuck out to me.

My issues aside, “Mad Max: Fury Road” is a visually spectacular film that should sate the appetite of action fans. The number of vehicles that must have been destroyed is likely enormous. Modified cars and trucks are flipped end over end and rolled numerous times right after they’ve been hit with an explosion. The stunt coordinator and stunt performers should all receive any and every award there is as bodies are sent flying in these crashes. Riders are shot off of motorcycles while flying 20 feet or more in the air. Gang members are swaying back and forth from tall polls and are dropping into moving vehicles during a lengthy fight scene near the end of the film. Many of the stunts were performed live with a minimum of computer effects making this one of the more dangerous shoots for stunt performers. This is action filmmaking the old fashioned way where there’s a chance people could die. No one did but that’s beside the point.

Aside from the stunts, the vehicles of “Mad Max: Fury Road” will catch your eye. Volkswagen Bugs covered in spikes, sawblades mounted on swing arms, trucks outfitted with dozens of speakers and a guy playing a flame-throwing guitar, a car running on tank treads, it all is on display and much more. If there is a backyard mechanic with ambition watching this film, it will likely make him or her start looking for a beater that can be modified into one of these automotive visions from Hell.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is rated R for intense sequences of violence throughout, and for disturbing images. There are of course numerous car crashes and more than a few people being run over by vehicles. We see several people shot by various weapons. There is also a scene of a baby being cut from the womb of a woman who has died. The baby is also dead. It isn’t gory but it may be disturbing to some.

Tom Hardy isn’t given much to do in “Mad Max: Fury Road” other than to look angry or concerned. It sounds like most if not all of his dialog was overdubbed adding more bass to his brief speaking parts and grunts. It’s a bit of a reminder back to the original “Mad Max” when Mel Gibson’s and most of the other actor’s dialog was replaced with American actors covering up the Australian accents. In that instance, it was done since no one in the film was a well-known star and the script contained Australian slang terms. This time, the slang has been left intact but Max’s voice has still been overdubbed but by the same actor as playing the role. I suppose this was done to set the character apart and make him seem somehow special and almost supernatural. To me, it just stuck out as odd. Of course, this movie is populated by the odd who in the world they inhabit are the normal ones. That probably makes the action of the film just another day in the Australian outback even if it isn’t your usual fare in American movie theatres.

“Mad Max: Fury Road” gets five stars out of five.

The summer movie season rolls on with two highly anticipated new films: One is a remake of a classic 1980’s film while the other is a project that was kept tightly under wraps until recently. I’ll see at least one of them and let you know what I think.

Poltergeist—

Tomorrowland—

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