An unusual note about comic book movies is that the sequel is often, perhaps usually, superior to the original. Why? Because the original can be so burdened by telling an origin story – usually one we already know.
Venom: Let There Be Carnage is one such film, superior to the original not because we already knew the symbiote antihero’s origin tale, though. Rather, director Ruben Fleischer’s much-maligned 2018 blockbuster suffered from a choppy first act and uninspired direction.
With director Andy Serkis (this guy knows how to motion capture) at the helm and a streamlined writing team (Kelly Marcel is the only writer from the original film to return, this time sharing the pen with star Tom Hardy), Let There Be Carnage determines its tone and pace from the opening scene and, for better or worse, rides that through to its concluding, post-credit moments.
The tone runs far closer to horror-comedy than the original,
a theme that suits the story of frenemies, one trying to keep the other from
eating human brains.
Hardy returns as Eddie Brock, a one-time superstar San
Francisco reporter who ran afoul of his fiancé (Michelle Williams), his news
outlet and the law last go-round, but found a life partner in the flesh-hungry extra-terrestrial
parasite, Venom (also voice by Hardy). They have inadvertently infected
cannibal serial killer Cletus Kassidy (Woody Harrelson) with symbiote blood,
and now he, too, has a little voice and big alien inside of him.
Harrelson and his slightly digitally modified eyeballs offer
villainous fun — though, to be honest, Riz Ahmed’s evil genius in the previous
film was not only underappreciated but superior to Harrelson’s lunatic menace.
Still, Hardy is the reason to see the film. His Eddie is put upon and weary while his Venom is boisterous and often very funny. Through the two performances, Hardy delivers the type of lived-in animosity needed to sell any odd-couple story.
Though the CGI was sharper last time, the overall aesthetic Serkis creates is far campier and Goth, which feeds the film’s spooky season vibe. Williams, in a smaller role, finds her stride, though Naomie Harris’s underwritten character is a shame.
The result is a mish-mash of messy, frenetic fun with a higher body count than you might expect. Plus a post-credits stinger worth sticking around to see.
You’ve seen Capone on film: films about him, films containing
him, films about gangsters reminiscent of him. A lot of these movies have been
great – some of them classic. But you have never seen Alphonse Capone
the way writer/director Josh Trank sees him.
Wisely, Trank realized Tom Hardy would be able to translate
There are moments, especially early in the film, where Hardy
and Trank seem to be conjuring Vito Corleone (Hardy has always carried the same
dangerous charisma of Brando, anyway). But it doesn’t take long before the role
defines itself as something we truly have not seen before.
The film focuses on the final year of the infamous mobster’s
life—the adult diapers and dementia year. He’s served his prison term for tax
evasion, the syphilis he contracted in his youth has taken its toll on his mind
and body, and his money is quickly evaporating.
Maybe he’s hidden $10 million somewhere. Maybe he’s just
Trank’s loose narrative is less concerned with the scheming, criss-crossing and backstabbing from underlings trying to find the money than it is with Capone’s deterioration, and that’s what makes this film so gloriously odd.
There is a grotesque humor underlying many of these scenes. Trank doesn’t ask you to sympathize with this notorious villain, nor does he revel in his decrepitude. But he definitely explores it, and that’s a brave decision. Many a mobster film fanatic will be annoyed by this glimpse into the post-badass years, but defying expectations is something Capone does early and often.
If Trank doesn’t trade in sympathy, we can still expect
Hardy to generate empathy. As is characteristic of every performance in his
career, Tom Hardy finds the faulty humanity in this character. His depiction of
Capone’s confusion is unerringly human, and in his hands Trank’s macabre humor
never feels like mockery.
Linda Cardellini flexes more in the role of Capone’s wife Mae than she has in her many other turns as put-upon spouse. She’s a great sparring partner for Hardy, and their volatile but ultimately tender relationship creates a needed grounding for a film so busy with the shadowy unreality of a diseased mind.
Because of the borderline surreal nature of a film told from
the point of view of a man in the throes of dementia, it’s often tough to suss
out the reality of the events onscreen. This generally works, but there are
certainly moments—generally those inserted to give us stepping stones of a
plot–that seem stiffly ill placed.
Thankfully, Hardy’s there to command your attention. No doubt some viewers will be disappointed—those who tuned in to see Hardy play a badass at the top of his game. My guess is that the reason one of the finest actors working today was drawn to Capone was the opportunity to do something just this unexpected.
We don’t need another superhero. That’s what the Venom trailers told us, and it’s pretty true.
So, what Venom had to offer—an antihero, a Jekyll/Hyde thing starring a brilliant actor who excels with complex, dark roles—felt like a great change of pace.
Tom Hardy was the ideal choice for the dual role of Eddie Brock, semi-doofus reporter, and Venom, flesh-eating alien symbiote. This should have worked, partly because Hardy knows how to mine villains for their humanity, and watching him wrestle with the good v evil duality never ceases to be impressive.
What Venom suffers from more than anything is the expectations set by a Marvel release. Don’t be mistaken, were this the DC universe it would be the second best comic book film released since Christopher Nolan cast Hardy as a super villain.
But it is, indeed, Marvel. (If you forget, Stan Lee shows up to remind you.) And for that reason, regardless of the fact that Venom boasts superior acting, FX, story arc, action choreography and writing than anything DC has done this century besides Wonder Woman, its regrettably traditional execution makes it feel a bit stale. Because it is Marvel.
A characteristically committed Hardy elevates scenes, indulging a far more humorous tone than what we’ve seen lately from the versatile actor. Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler, Four Lions) is a solid choice to play Eddie/Venom’s nemesis. Never campy or over-the-top, Ahmed evokes a type of lifelong genius who cannot be persuaded that his ideas are at odds with the ideals he alleges to support.
Michelle Williams is uncharacteristically flat, and the balance of the cast is mainly forgettable, but the real problem with the film rests on uninspired direction.
Ruben Fleischer showed a flair for action, colorful theatrics and humor with his 2009 breakout Zombieland, but the joy of carnage and camaraderie that infected that flick is sadly missing here.
Zombieland was aided immeasurably by writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, whose irrepressible irreverence made the Deadpool films such a riot. It’s a tone sorely lacking in this screenplay, penned by a team of four whose output includes a Fifty Shades film, Kangaroo Jack and Fleischer’s abysmal 2013 mob flick, Gangster Squad.
Venom is not a bad movie. It’s fun, competently made entertainment.
Christopher Nolan, one of the biggest imaginations in film, takes on a WWII epic – the truly amazing evacuation of 400,000 British troops from certain death on the beaches of Dunkirk, France.
Nolan = epic, yes. His career is marked by complicated ideas, phenomenal visual style and inventiveness, ever-increasing running times and head-trippery. So, if you’re prepared for a long, bombastic, serpentine, heady adventure, you are not prepared for Dunkirk.
Though the word epic still fits.
Nolan’s storytelling is simultaneously grand and intimate. To do the story justice, he approaches it from three different perspectives and creates, with a disjointed chronology, a lasting impression of the rescue that a more traditional structure might have missed.
The great Mark Rylance brings in the perspective of the courageous Brits who manned their pleasure boats and headed toward the beleaguered troops to ferry them to safety.
From the air, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden offer the view (literally and figuratively) of the RAF, undermanned and outgunned, maneuvering to end as much of the carnage as possible while the evac takes place.
And on the ground amongst those desperate for removal is young Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), the actor with the most screen time and quite possibly the fewest lines. He’s the reminder that these soldiers were heroes – flawed, brave, terrified and young.
The cast is appropriately huge, including a surprisingly restrained Kenneth Branagh as well as James D’Arcy, Cillian Murphy, Barry Keoghan, Tom Glynn-Carney and, of course, One Direction’s Harry Styles (who commits himself respectably).
Solid performances abound without a single genuine flaw to point out, but the real star of Dunkirk is Nolan.
Talk about restraint. He dials back the score – Hans Zimmer suggesting the constant tick of a time bomb or the incessant roar of a distant plane engine – to emphasize the urgency and peril, and generating almost unbearable tension.
Visually, Nolan’s scope is breathtaking, oscillating between the gorgeous but terrifying open air of the RAF and the claustrophobic confines of a boat’s hull, with the threat of capsize and a watery grave constant.
What the filmmaker has done with Dunkirk – and has not done with any of his previous efforts, however brilliant or flawed – is create a spare, quick and simple film that is equally epic.
Five missing women. Five grisly murders. A town living in fear.
Hey, let’s put on a show!
London Road takes us to the sleepy English town of Ipswitch back in 2006, when a string of murders had residents looking at each other with growing suspicion. The tale is told not only through music, but more importantly through the words of the residents themselves, exactly as they said them in interviews.
Sing: “Everyone is very, very nervous….”
It’s a fascinating clash of material, as enthralling onscreen as it apparently was as a highly successful stage show. Director Rufus Norris and writer Alecky Blythe craft a film so inviting and original, it becomes exponentially more enjoyable as it continues to exceed your expectations.
While not exactly profound, what London Road lacks in depth it makes up in sheer artistic expression. Lines are repeated and repeated again, layered over each other in rising choruses amid elaborate choreography.
That what-am-I-watching face on the person next to you? You’re probably wearing it, too.
The cast (including a Tom Hardy cameo) is uniformly perfect, led by the always-welcome Olivia Coleman as the plucky Julie. Seeking to help her neighborhood recover from the murders, Julie organizes a gardening contest, then floors you as she cheerily describes the reason she’s grateful to the “Suffolk Strangler.”
Like some bastard child of Sweeney Todd, London Road is a thoughtful, darkly funny and melodic peek into blinding self-interest, and unlike anything you’re likely to see this year.
The Oscar nominations are out, and – as is the case every year – the nominees with horror movie skeletons in their closets are fully accounted for. We’ve discussed the great Mark Ruffalo’s not-so-great The Dentist in previous podcasts, so we’ll leave that one in the closet this week. Rooney Mara just missed the cut, as well, with only a cameo in her sister Kate’s Urban Legends: Bloody Mary. The only problem with Tom Hardy was basically determining which bad horror movie to choose (which basically means Tom Hardy is filling in for George “Oh So Many” Clooney this year.)
Who made the grade? Who might take home an Oscar regardless of this horrific offense in their background? Provocative!
Jennifer Lawrence starred in three films released in 2012 – The Hunger Games (maybe you’ve heard of it?), Silver Linings Playbook (winning her first Oscar), and House at the End of the Street. One of these is not like the others.
Lawrence plays Elissa, high school badass who moves into a secluded new house with her single, doctor mother (Elisabeth Shue). Legend has it, out in the woods behind the house roams the crazy-ass, murdering sister of the cute if damaged neighbor boy, Ryan (Max Thieriot).
House at the End of the Street is a smorgasbord of ideas stolen from better films and filmmakers, although it is not a god-awful mess. Whatever success it has is thanks to Lawrence, whose talent knows no bad screenplay, no clichéd character, and cannot be overshadowed by a tight, white tank top.
4. Blood Creek (2009)
What would be more compelling viewing than Superman Meets Batman? Henry Cavill’s run-in with a Nazi zombie played by Michael Fassbender. Clearly.
A Nazi scientist finds a Viking runestone on a West Virginia farm, where blood sacrifice turns him into an ageless monster, and a weird, runestoney ritual keeps him bound in the farmer’s basement. That guy – that Nazi zombie – is played by Michael Fassbender. Whose mind is blown?
Cavill comes into the picture when his character Evan reunites with long lost and presumed dead brother Victor (Dominic Purcell). Some crazy farmers have had him locked up all this time, taking his blood for god knows what purpose.
Truth be told, Cavill offers a fine turn full of longing and regret, and Fassbender is mesmerizing. The guy cannot turn in a bad performance. He’s completely feral, totally unhinged. It’s like he has no idea that the movie he’s in is so, so, so very bad.
The effects are terrible, the medieval Viking hocus pocus is beyond ludicrous, Purcell cannot act, and the script’s lack of logic actually makes you long for director Joel Schumacher’s better efforts, like Batman and Robin or 8MM.
Seriously, that’s how bad this is.
3. Critters 3 (1991)
Long before Django Unchained, Titanic, or even What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a barely pubescent Leo DiCaprio donned a day-glow t-shirt and a pre-teen scowl to battle Gremlin rip-offs in Critters 3.
They are furry, toothy, ravenous beasts from outer space and, until episode 3, they were content to terrify rural folk. But now they’re in the big city, and (in a clear rip off of the not-quite-as-terrible film Troll), they are pillaging a single apartment building and terrifying all those trapped inside. It’s a comedy, really, the kind with farting furballs and dunderheaded people. Which is to say, one that’s not particularly funny.
Serving up the same derivative comedy/horror pap you can find in one out of every three films made that decade, Critters 3 has a lot of hair in scrunchies, oversized blouses belted over colorful leggings, stereotypes, and actors on their careers’ last legs. And Leonardo DiCaprio, which will forever be the only reason this movie was released to DVD.
2. Minotaur (2006)
Oscar nominee Tom Hardy is truly one of the most talented actors working today, and I’m sure he’s proud of all his films. Except maybe this one.
The film plays like Jabba the Hutt’s palace set in Middle Earth, except in place of Jabba we have Candyman (Tony Todd, whose actual character name is Deucalion, but he’ll always be Candyman to us). Todd is king of the realm, and beneath his castle lives a Minotaur who requires a blood sacrifice. Periodically he rounds up youngsters from Theo’s (Hardy) village and drops them down below.
Hey – just like the Rancor!
Theo secretly takes the place of one of the sacrificial lambs and hits the underground to slay the Minotaur and reclaim his (probably long dead) love. Hallucinations, danger, and stilted medieval dialog await below the castle, while up above, Deucalion wants to get it on with his sister, who wants to get it on with Theo.
The sets are pretty terrible, as are the accents, props, costumes. Oh, and the Minotaur! He’s like an angry Muppet. But Hardy acquits himself reasonably then quickly goes on to better things.
You will, too, but why not indulge?
1. Dead Space (1991)
A distress signal from a research lab on the planet Fabon draws in maverick space cowboy Steve Krieger (Marc Singer, from such superior films as Beastmaster 3) and his cyborg shipmate Tinpan. Oscar nominee and billion-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston plays an infected scientist more sympathetic to the creature he’s created than to the crew this merciless muppet feeds upon.
Jesus God this movie is bad.
The story is utterly nonsensical. No, not that scientists removed from earth have unwittingly created a monster. But why do they feel obligated to share all their secrets with some rando space ranger, why does he take charge of the vessel, why does everyone wear blue unitards underneath their lab coats, who on earth thought Laura Mae Tate could act – well the unanswerable conundrums are legion.
But Cranston tries. He tries to create a character, tries to generate chemistry with other actors, tries to be both villain and victim, tries not to look like a mannequin when the giant mutant tears his head clean off. He totally fails, don’t get us wrong, but damnit, he tries.
To say that George Miller has stepped up his game since he left us at Thunderdome would be far too mild a statement to open with. Mad Max: Fury Road is not just superior to everything in this franchise, as well as everything else Miller has ever directed. It’s among the most exhausting, thrilling, visceral action films ever made.
Powerful, villainous white guys have ruined the planet by way of their greed for oil and their warmongering, and now they are sustaining their power by taking control of women’s reproductive systems. So, you know, pretty far-fetched.
But Max doesn’t belong to any of these festering wounds called societies. He’s feral. Again. No telling how long it’s been since Max saved the kids from Aunty Entity, but he’s lost himself again, wandering the desert hunted by man and haunted by those he couldn’t save.
Again Miller puts Max in a position to redeem himself by helping the vulnerable and pure survive this apocalyptic future. Mercifully, there are no children and no mullets this go-round.
Unsurprisingly, the great Tom Hardy delivers a perfect, guttural performance as the road warrior. As his reluctant partner in survival, Charlize Theron is the perfect mix of compassion and badassedness. Hardy’s a fascinating, mysterious presence, but Theron owns this film.
Like the first two films in this series, Fury Road wastes little time on dialogue or plotting. Rather, it is basically one long, magnificent car chase. Miller adorns every scene with the most astonishing, peculiar imagery and the vehicular action is like nothing you’ve ever seen.
Dudes on poles!
Miller’s magnificent action sequences keep the film from ever hitting the dragging monotony of his first two efforts in the series. While the characters remain as paper thin as they have been in every episode, the vast superiority of this cast from top to bottom guarantees that the marauding band’s excess and abandon are handled with genuine skill.
Fury Road amounts to a film about survival, redemption and the power of the universal blood donor. Clever, spare scripting makes room for indulgent set pieces that astonish and amaze. There’s real craftsmanship involved here – in the practical effects, the pacing, the disturbing imagery, and the performances that hold it all together – that marks not just a creative force at the top of his game, but a high water mark for summer blockbusters.
Butts did not fill seats when Tom Hardy and James Gandolfini’s small time mobster flick The Drop screened theatrically, which is a shame. But the film releases today for home consumption, so eat up, people! The two play cousins running a bar used to launder Chechan mob money, with Hardy adding layers and layers to a fascinating, maybe simple bartender. Shady characters, double crosses, symbolism and meager redemption keep your attention, plus there’s an incredibly cute dog. It’s worth a look.
The Drop writer Dennis Lehane has penned a number of Boston-based crime dramas, including Shutter Island and Mystic River, but the best of the bunch is Gone Baby Gone. The film that shocked us all with the knowledge that Ben Affleck is a genuinely talented director follows two private investigators working a missing kid case. Morally complicated, brilliantly filmed and boasting a career-best turn from Amy Ryan, this is a surprisingly great crime drama.
Weird theme for great 2014 movies: one word titles. The oddest trait we saw emerge in great films this war was the one-word title film. A full 15 of the best films of 2014 had single-word titles – who knows why? Whatever the reason, in no particular order, are the best of the one-word-title films (and some of the very, very best films of the year.
1. Wild: Reese Witherspoon will no doubt garner her second Oscar nomination and quite possibly her second Oscar starring as a woman who walks 1100 miles solo to get her head together.
2. Selma: Ave DuVernay’s powerful, painfully relevant biopic on Martin Luther King, Jr. and the marches on Selma, Alabama delivers all the punch it needs with one word.
3. Unbroken: Angelina Jolie returns to a spot behind the camera for this true tale of Olympic athlete and WWII POW Louis Zamperini.
4. Birdman: Meta-magical-realism at its finest, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu’s look at the transience and transcendence of fame will scoop up some Oscars this year.
5. Calvary: Woefully underseen, this wry, weary and brilliant look at the affects of Catholicism’s abuses boasts the great Brendan Gleeson’s best performance.
6. Whiplash: Holy shit! JK Simmons gets the role of a lifetime as an abusive music teacher who is either trying to push his students to greatness or is trying to get away with absolute sadism. This may be the most tense film of the year.
7. Nightcrawler: Another amazing film, this one positing a weirdly sometimes likeable sociopath (Jake Gyllenhaal at his absolute best) in the context of local news – what better fit could there be?
8. Frank: Another underseen gem, this one has the great Michael Fassbender hiding inside a giant plastic head in an exploration of madness and music.
9. Foxcatcher: Bennett Miller returns with another masterpiece in understatement, a true crime tale of Olympic wrestlers and insane billionaires that could bring Oscar nominations to the unlikeliest of actors: Steve Carell and Channing Tatum.
10. Rosewater: Jon Stewart proved his mettle behind the camera with this touching, insightful and underseen true story of a journalist jailed during the Iranian elections of 2009.
11. Boyhood: The best film of 2014, Boyhood’s filming spanned 12 years and let us glimpse something no other film has ever captured.
12. Wetlands:Underneath the shock and body fluids is a deeply human story boasting a fearless and nuanced performance.
13. Snowpiercer: The best SciFi in a year of especially great SciFi, the film was sabotaged by its own studio and still wound up wowing audiences everywhere.
14. Interstellar: Not Christopher Nolan’s best, but when his intergalactic epic is working, it is a mind-bending ride.
15. Locke: A one man show that highlights the talents of perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, Tom Hardy. See it. Do it!