Venom (2018)

2020 #181
Ruben Fleischer | 112 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.40:1 | USA & China / English | 15 / PG-13

Venom

The fad for shared universes, provoked by the success of the MCU, seems to be dying off: the Dark Universe, the DC Extended Universe, Fox’s X-Men films, the MonsterVerse, sundry others most of us can’t even remember — they all either died a quick, brutal death, or circumstances have wiped them out. Even those that are ongoing have either abandoned close interconnectedness (like the DCEU) or don’t have long-term plans (the MonsterVerse, which has nothing announced beyond Godzilla vs. Kong). The MCU still seems to be going strong (although we haven’t actually had a new MCU movie in over a year now, so who knows what the future will hold?), but other than that? Everyone seems to have realised the formula is impossible (or too much hard work) to replicate.

The exception lies in Sony’s desire to launch a superhero universe out of the one character whose rights they own: Spider-Man. It started when they abandoned Spider-Man 4 to go the reboot route with The Amazing Spider-Man, the sequel to which teased all sorts of stuff to come, some of which was announced. Those movies’ failure to live up to their titles (i.e. they were not amazing, in any respect) saw such plans cancelled, but it seems Sony don’t give up so easily — even after they loaned out Spider-Man himself to the MCU, moves to form their own universe have continued.

Which is what brings us to Venom. For those not in the know, he started life as a Spider-Man villain (if you’re not a comic book reader, you’re most likely to know him from his appearance in Spider-Man 3, a move forced by the studio that contributed to the film’s relative failure), but he later became an anti-hero in his own right, which positions him quite nicely for Sony’s first actually-filmed-and-released foray into a shared Spidey universe. (A lot of the other Spider-Man characters they own the rights to are villains, though after the success of Joker I guess they’ll feel emboldened to attempt villain-centred films.) And, to the surprise of some, Venom earnt over $850 million at the global box office, making it the 7th highest grossing film of 2018. Sony’s Spider-Man-universe-without-Spider-Man is definitely underway (there’s a sequel due next year, alongside other Spidey-related films both ready for release and in active development).

Venomous

But enough about future plans, because perhaps one reason Venom has been such a success at launching a new universe is that it didn’t try too hard. Unlike The Mummy or Batman v Superman, this isn’t a film bogged down with characters and references designed to tee-up future spin-offs. It’s an entirely standalone adventure, in which struggling journalist Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) bonds with an alien symbiote that can take over his body and do powerful things. The alien is one of several brought to Earth by the explorations of Elon Musk-esque tech billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed). In the mould of many an overconfident movie scientist before him, Drake hasn’t bargained on the aliens having their own agenda — to invade Earth and eat the populace, i.e. us. But for some reason Brock’s alien, Venom, takes a liking to the planet and vows to protect it.

It takes the movie quite a while to get to that point, mind. Sorry if you were wary of spoilers, but, I mean, it’s hardly a surprise that (a) a race of aliens that look like Venom are going to turn out to have vicious motives, and (b) the titular character is going to turn out to be a good guy who wants to save us. There’s certainly a place for slow-burn movies that take their time to get to the point or to reveal the monster, but I’m not sure a summer superhero blockbuster is one of them. While Venom isn’t exactly boring until Venom turns up, it does feel like we’re going through motions until we get to what we’ve come for, i.e. a crazy powerful alien kicking ass and biting off heads.

It feels further unbalanced because Venom is actually quite short. You might’ve clocked the 112 minute (aka 1 hour 52 minutes) running time and thought that sounded pretty reasonable (even if nowadays most blockbusters are well over 2 hours), but the actual content of the movie runs only a little over an hour-and-a-half, topped up by a long credits scroll and a lengthy post-credit promo clip for Into the Spider-Verse. (I can see why they included that in cinemas, but leaving it in the home release feels unnecessary. Apparently it’s cut from some digital versions.) According to IMDb, Hardy has said that half-an-hour or so was cut from the film, including his favourite sequences. Why those cuts were made and what exactly went, I don’t know, but even in the released version it feels like they could’ve slimmed down the first 50 minutes and put in more of Venom himself.

Note the lack of Venom

Partly this is the plot suffering from having to be an origin story, with all the usual issues that brings: a lot of time spent on setup; a villain who’s sidelined for the bigger point of Eddie and Venom finally coming together. Once it reaches that point, it’s allowed to indulge in the barminess of the character and the situation a little. All while playing safely within a PG-13 box, of course. Venom is kind of a ’90s teenager’s idea of what it means to be edgy and dark, and by staying faithful to that the film version consequently feels quite like an early-’00s superhero movie. There’s even an Eminem theme song. It reminds you how far superhero movies have come, though. I mean, they were hardly held in the highest esteem back then (aside from breakout examples, like the first couple of X-Men and Spider-Man movies), and it’s not just time that has changed attitudes but also developments in how they present themselves. But now, that it’s a bit of a throwback is part of Venom‘s charm — or another reason to dismiss it, if there’s no nostalgia in that for you.

Certainly, the cast are all better than this. Sometimes that elevates it — Hardy is having a ball talking to himself and doing random shit like climbing in lobster tanks — but other times it feels like people are here for a payday. Riz Ahmed’s character arc is gradually whittled down to nothing, replaced by a CGI monster. And what made four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams decide this was a part worth her time? (Turns out the answer is “the chance to work with Tom Hardy.” But I’m sure the cheque didn’t hurt either.) Hardy has spoken a few times about how he wanted to make a movie his son could actually see. A superhero movie seems a good shout for that but I don’t know that Venom was the right pick. The film is clearly aiming for a PG-13 (there’s only one “fuck”; it’s not particularly gory), but the horror sequences and violence were enough to push it up to a 15 over here. And that’s probably fair — there are twisted and broken bodies (even if they then fix themselves), and several instances of biting off heads (it’s not shown in graphic detail, but we’re fully aware that’s what’s happening).

Real mature

All things considered, I wasn’t sure what I thought of Venom. It’s kind of fun, in a juvenile way (juvenile like teenagers who think violence and edgy dialogue is “grown up”). But it’s also kind of rubbish in places, in part because it can be so juvenile (juvenile like… yeah, same again). There’s a chance it’ll tee-up a superior sequel — with the origin stuff out of the way, hopefully we can expect a more original storyline; and, as it was such a hit, maybe that’ll allow the filmmakers leeway to go even barmier. For one thing, a brief sequel tease suggests Woody Harrelson is all ready to Woody Harrelson it up. Until then, I guess this’ll do as a crazy placeholder.

3 out of 5

Venom is available on Netflix in the UK from today.

Nightcrawler (2014)

2017 #63
Dan Gilroy | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Nightcrawler

Dan Gilroy’s neo-noir thriller is part “state of the nation” observational drama and part character study.

The character in question is Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young man who, like so many in modern America, struggles to find paid employment. Indeed, as the film opens he’s resorted to stealing fences to hawk to scrap metal dealers — and, when cornered by a security guard, also resorts to violence. That’s the kind of man Bloom is, which will become important as the film goes on. On his way home he comes across the aftermath of a near-fatal car accident, and witnesses the freelance news cameramen rushing to the scene. For some reason this job strikes Bloom as glamorous, so he buys a camera and a police scanner and throws himself into it. His boundary-pushing enthusiasm soon puts him on the way to success, racing around nighttime L.A. chasing bloody imagery. It’s a cutthroat industry, but Bloom is prepared to go pretty far for exclusive footage…

Any well-informed viewer isn’t likely to glean much from Nightcrawler about the state of modern America. That Bloom is desperate for employment is more of an inciting incident than a dissected issue, though it does also partially fuel a subplot when he employs an assistant. That US TV news is all about shock value — “if it bleeds it leads” — is a truism that’s decades old, too. If the film contributes anything to that discussion it’s to wonder if things have reached a nadir. Writer-director Gilroy says he was trying to tell an objective and realistic story, but it’s coming from a very cynical, almost satirical place about TV news. Or maybe local US news really is that extreme, I don’t know. Either way, this observational stuff isn’t bad, but nor is it revelatory.

If it bleeds it leads

Where the film really flies is in its characters. There are impressive supporting performances, from Riz Ahmed as the uncertain and kinda gullible young guy Bloom employs as his assistant, and Rene Russo as the outwardly confident but actually kinda desperate TV news producer Bloom sell his work to; plus an almost cameo-level appearance by Bill Paxton as a rival nightcrawler who rubs Louis up the wrong way.

But the film belongs to Gyllenhaal. Wild-eyed, eager to please, but not quite right in how he interacts with other human beings, and with a real thirst for the gory profession he lands upon, Bloom has a sense of morality that is quite removed from the norm. From the start we’re in no doubt that this is a guy prepared to take relatively extreme measures to secure what he wants, but how far will he go? As he begins to establish himself as a respectable businessman — or, at least, someone who wants to be thought of as respectable — how much has his attitude changed, if at all? Gyllenhaal immerses himself in the role, skilfully negotiating Bloom’s swings from smarmy charm to emotionless non-engagement with the horrors he films. He’s physically transformed too: he lost weight, didn’t eat, and stayed up nights in preparation for the role. On the Blu-ray, Ahmed comments that the literal hunger Gyllenhaal was enduring contributed to his performance as a guy who is so hungry (for success) he’ll do anything necessary to achieve it.

(Talking of the Blu-ray, its only special feature (aside from an audio commentary) is a five-minute featurette that briefly features the two real-life nightcrawlers who consulted on the film. They share a couple of quick anecdotes about what the real job is like, which is quite fascinating — it’s a shame there’s not a fuller feature about those guys and their work. I don’t know if it would sustain a whole feature documentary — maybe it would — but a decent-length DVD extra would’ve been nice.)

Nighttime L.A. car chase

Outside of its characters, Nightcrawler impresses with technical merits. The lensing of nighttime L.A. by DP Robert Elswit is highly evocative, a netherworld where flashing red-and-blue lights illuminate scenes of carnage. The film’s pace is apparently unhurried but constantly engrossing. You’re not exactly sucked into this world alongside Bloom (Gilroy’s right that presenting him as unnecessarily aggressive upfront serves to stall sympathy from the viewer), but you become an interested observer, unable to look away — like a rubbernecker at an accident, appropriately enough. Several scenes, especially in the film’s second half, generate a level of nail-biting tension, while a climactic car chase is an action scene for the ages. Gilroy’s brother Tony, a producer on the film, was one of the architects of the Bourne franchise, and you wonder if he brought some expertise to the realisation of that sequence. This isn’t a film for adrenaline junkies on the whole, but that scene is a kick.

Driven by a sharp character examination from writer-director Dan Gilroy, brought to life in a compelling, committed performance from Gyllenhaal, Nightcrawler is an appropriately cynical exploration of modern morality as embodied by one outsider, moulded in the shape of a fantastic noir thriller.

5 out of 5

The UK TV premiere of Nightcrawler is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm, after which it will be available on iPlayer.

Nightcrawler was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

It placed 8th on my list of The 17 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2017, which can be read in full here.

Centurion (2010)

2011 #82
Neil Marshall | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Last week, as I’m sure you’re aware, I posted the top ten films I’d watched in 2011. Among them were three I’ve yet to post a review for… so what better way to begin finishing off my 2011 reviews than with those. So here’s the lowest, #9…

CenturionThe fourth feature from writer/director Neil Marshall (despite owning his first three on DVD, this BD rental is the first I’ve actually watched — story of my life) is a bit of a departure: where the first three were horror (or at least horror-leaning) flicks, Centurion is an action-adventure crossed with something a little more artsy. Only a little, mind. Think Seraphim Falls.

The story involves a Roman legion (a real one, in fact — the story is based in historical fact) venturing into Scotland to take on the natives. They get massacred, the survivors try to get home alive. The story moves quickly, keeping the momentum up. Indeed, at times it moves so fast that some characters seem to be given short shrift. There’s a “who will survive?” element to the plot — Marshall’s horror roots showing through, perhaps — but you can largely guess which order they’ll be shuffled off in based on, a) how much screen time the character has, and b) the good old deciding factor of “which actors are most recognisable”. Predictability doesn’t really matter though, because there are (perhaps) a couple of surprises in store, and it’s only one element of the story.

Run, Fassbender, runRegular readers may know that I have an ever-growing dislike for films that begin at or near the end for no good reason (and most of those that do have no good reason to do so). Centurion’s opening line notes that “this is neither the beginning nor the end” of the lead character’s story. Oh dear, thought I; though perhaps “nor the end” signifies we might reach this point suitably distant from the credits, maybe. Not meaning to spoil it, but we’re there just 10 minutes later. Nice work Mr Marshall.

And with the mention of credits, allow me to note that both the opening and closing credits are wonderful, reminiscent of Panic Room’s much-exalted titles without being a clone.

The characters who do get screen time are well built. Most of them conform to regular men-on-a-mission types, but in the hands of actors like Michael Fassbender and David Morrissey that doesn’t matter. This seems like an appropriate enough point to note that Fassbender is fast becoming, if he isn’t already, an actor where it’s worth watching something with him in even if it doesn’t otherwise appeal. His mixed choices of blockbusters/mainstream-skewing movies and acclaimed artier fare suggest pretty impeccable taste. (Or, at least, tastes that match my own.) Olga the ScotThe cast is packed with people who, even if you don’t know their names, there’s a fair chance you’ll know the faces (assuming you watch your share of British drama): in addition to Fassbender and Morrissey there’s Dominic West, JJ Field, Lee Ross, Paul Freeman, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke, Riz Ahmed, Imogen Poots, Rachael Stirling, Peter Guinness… not to mention Film Star Olga Kurylenko. Recognisability doesn’t guarantee quality, of course, but that’s a pretty good list.

On the action side, there’s a selection of excellently choreographed fights. Lots of blood and gore, but surprisingly not gratuitous considering we have all manner of limbs being lopped off, decapitations, heads being shorn in two, and so on. It’s unquestionably graphic, but it doesn’t linger — the battles are hectic, fast, a blur… but in a good way: you can see what’s going on, but it feels appropriately chaotic.

On the artsy side, the Scottish scenery is extraordinarily stunning. Helicopter shots are put to marvellous use. Think Lord of the Rings, only this was shot on our own fair island. The filmmakers went to extremes to achieve this — it’s entirely real location work, beyond the back of beyond in the depths of a snow-covered Scottish winter; no green screen, no CG enhancement — and their effort has paid off. It looks thoroughly gorgeous. I fear I’m overemphasising the point, but… nah.

Stunning sceneryI really enjoyed Centurion, appreciating its mix between brutally real action and stunning scenery, with a slightly more thoughtful side emerging in the final act. It’s also always pleasant to see a film that runs the length it wants to at a reasonable speed, rather than padding itself to reach two or even two-and-a-half hours. Splendid.

4 out of 5

Centurion placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2011, which can be read in full here.

Rage (2009)

2009 #81
Sally Potter | 98 mins | streaming | 15

RageI really didn’t expect to like this: a series of straight-to-camera monologues, performed in front of just plain-coloured backgrounds, about the fashion industry, written and directed by the writer/director of Orlando, which I thoroughly disliked. But I watched because it was going free and, despite the concept’s innate pretentiousness, it’s an intriguing one. Once Rage settled into its stride (or, perhaps, I settled into its stride), however, I loved it.

The group of fourteen people who appear before the camera are almost entirely self-centred and/or not very nice, which you may guess from the outset considering their industry, though almost all still have something to reveal as the film progresses. It’s surprisingly funny too. The off-screen action is conveyed by a very effective sound mix — we see nothing but talking heads (until an incongruous final shot, at least), but there’s always background noise, however subtle, and the key action in the wider world is revealed to the viewer through this, plus comments from some of the talking heads. But time isn’t wasted spelling out what we can’t see; instead, a bit of the viewer’s own imagination is required in addition to the sound and dialogue clues to create a version of events.

A starry cast (Steve Buscemi, Lily Cole, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law, John Leguizamo, David Oyelowo, Dianne Wiest… plus recognisable (depending on what you’ve seen, of course) faces like Simon Abkarian, Bob Balaban and Babel’s Adriana Barraza.) provide exemplary acting across the board, even if some of the accents (mainly Brits playing at yanks) are frequently dubious. It seems unfair to pick anyone out, but Lily Cole is perhaps the most surprising, her fragile character aided by her Pipling-esque eyes and pale skin, but it’s her actual performance that ultimately delivers more than her autobiographical-seeming first appearance would suggest. And one can’t ignore Jude Law playing a Russian/American female(?) fashion model — for once I actually thought he was quite good. Maybe this is his niche. The majority of the performances err toward the theatrical — something certain film viewers seem to struggle with — though the intercutting and passage of time, reflected in intertitles and costume changes, make the whole experience more suited to film; indeed, with the cameraperson being such a major character (as it turns out), it is technically unstageable. (It could be staged, of course, but it belongs as a film.)

And, talking of how things turns out, the most intriguing character of all is Michelangelo, the cameraman and only main character we never see on screen — indeed, it’s a considerable amount of time before we realise he’s a character at all and not just a filmmaking conceit. His presence and the filming style (supposedly shot on a mobile phone (or, I suppose, ‘cell phone’) camera) is not just a gimmick, but, as it turns out, vital to the story. It’s probably the only film ever made that perhaps works better viewed streaming online. All the characters are in some way unveiled throughout the film, but, almost without the viewer releasing it, so too is our supposedly-inconspicuous cameraman. By the end, what seemed to be a critique of the fashion industry — and a well-worn one at that — has something else to say too.

At least, one hopes this ‘critique’ of the fashion industry isn’t the main point, because it may be the film’s biggest problem. There’s very little, if anything, new to be found in the comments and criticisms made — we well know it’s a business filled with too-thin weight-obsessed diva-ish models, self-obsessed pretentious designers, money-grabbing moral-less Murdoch-alikes and no-hope fame-hungry wannabes, and Rage doesn’t have much more to say about it than this. Sure, no one sits around pontificating on why it’s all so evil, but it doesn’t take much to see the subtext. At least it’s often funny about it; though based on comments I’ve read online, it seems this humour may be too subtle for some. Perhaps they can’t see the inherent ludicrousness of it all, with the performances flying closer to realist than the My Family-level bluntness some require from their comedy.

It’s hard going at times, even if one is enjoying it — after all, it’s still just a succession of people talking to camera. Obviously what they say — and, indeed, don’t say — reveals things about themselves, others, and events off screen, but while I was never bored there were several occasions when my eyes strayed to the clock out of curiosity over how long was left. I’ve still seen much duller films.

I don’t doubt that Rage isn’t for everyone. Indeed, you only have to look at IMDb to see how many people loathe it with near-religious fervour. (Prepare yourself if you do, because some of the criticism is irritatingly brain dead. But hey, that’s IMDb!) Some people just won’t get on with its style, or find it too slow, and with 14 characters in 98 minutes, awarding them an average of under seven minutes each, you’re not going to get Alan Bennett-level character deconstruction. But Rage unapologetically is what it is, and I liked it.

5 out of 5

If you’re interested in an in-depth (and spoiler-filled) review of Rage which features phrases like “extraordinary testament to the mindbrain”, “Mugel and Potter use sound to build an entire lifeworld”, and “it enlivens, emboldens and enriches the film, engaging ear, heart, mind, memory, intelligence, even skin and senses as a brilliant texture”, try this one from Little White Lies.

Rage placed 10th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2009, which can be read in full here.