If Beale Street Could Talk Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes Director: Barry Jenkins Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, and Teyonah Parris
2018 was truly a year for Black cinema. Between Black Panther, Sorry to Bother You, Blindspotting, BlacKkKlansman, Widows, and to lesser but still noteworthy (and questionable) extent, Green Book, you would be hard-pressed to claim the year didn’t offer arguably the best class of mainstream works from ethnic filmmakers in recent memory – and that’s without mentioning other exquisite films like Roma and Crazy Rich Asians. Although, clearly missing from this list of yesteryear’s finest is Barry Jenkins’ follow-up to Best Picture winner Moonlight (2016), but not out of spit. Distribution minutiae standing, If Beale Street Can Talk was technically released in 2018, but didn’t receive a proper wide release until the other side of the new year. So when I declared my best films of 2018, I had no choice but to omit it. Let this late review of Beale Street be an inherent indication of just how highly I think of this deceivingly monumental film.
If Beale Street Could Talk adapts James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, telling the story of Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) and their love in the face of a reality that actively seeks to deprive them of a dignified existence. Namely, Fonny is wrongfully accused of rape and is arbitrarily jailed with little to no recourse. The film goes to length to spell out the logistical unlikelihood of his guilt, but it doesn’t really matter. Fonny is Black man in America, the implications of which help shape the narrative beats in the film. The same is true for Tish as a Black woman in America. Just as Fonny is indefinitely sent to jail, Tish learns she’s with his child and reaches out to both their families for support for what will undoubtedly be a futile slog towards an unjust conclusion, but inspired by Tish and Sonny’s pure and innocent love, they soldier on. And so, the central tragedy in Beale Street doesn’t stem from infidelity or death or our lovers’ falling out, but from the scarier truth of the African American condition, as vast a definition as that is.
Barry Jenkins again demonstrates a mastery over emotional verisimilitude throughout the film’s series of connected vignettes and flashbacks that I felt was even more accessibly resonant than in his Oscar winning film. Every facet of the production from the delectable cinematography to the gorgeous aesthetic and composer Nicholas Britell’s beautifully harmonic score aggregate a well-crafted capsule poignant in it’s ability to capture the essence of what it means to be human with no real control of your life’s potential within the arbitrary social state; the best instance of which occurs in one of my favorite sequences in the film involving Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta, Widows) and his unsettlingly neurotic monologue to Fonny and Tish about his experience in prison.
Tish and Fonny are the heart and center of Beale Street, so it’s imperative KiKi Layne and Stephan James contrive a palpable chemistry that can double as the thematic vehicle for the film, which they accomplish incredibly well – I fully expect we’ll be seeing more of them on the big screen in coming years. It’s what gives their tragedy emotional stake, as well as the film’s final, optimistic outlook; that is the consolatory triumph of love, a triumph that despite the helpless subjugation via shamelessly racist institutional handicaps (whether that’s labor or housing prospects, or safety) and random criminalization, manages to cut through the suffering.
By the end of 2018, I declared The Favourite best film of the year. I’m not sure if I prefer Beale Street over Lanthimos’ film, but I can say that they’re at least tied for the distinction in my mind, which brings me to the issue of the 2019 Academy Awards. Ever since I discovered my passion for movies as a kid, I always felt I could respect the Academy and its judgement of at least which films be nominated for the big awards, namely Best Picture. Sure, every year there’s one or two films I would have liked to see recognized, but generally I can live with the roster they put out. The same can not be said this year. It’s inexcusable that a film like Beale Street is absent from the Best Picture nominees the same year a objectively lesser film like Bohemian Rhapsody is not only nominated but somehow a contender to win. As subjective as film is, you can’t deny the discrepancy in artistic caliber between the two. It’s almost fitting that a film about the brutal truths of systemic prejudice is shunned by a legacy institution clearly ignorant of the true nature of the representation issues raised against it. Let If Beale Street Could Talk be a reminder that art and the necessity of expression cannot be determined by any central authority, whether that authority is an institution or an autonomous collective.
Downrange Rated: NR Runtime: 1 hour 29 minutes Director: Ryûhei Kitamura Starring: Kelly Connaire, Stephanie Pearson, Rod Hernandez, Anthony Kirlew, and Alexa Yeames
Browsing Shudder the other week, I decided to take a gamble on one of their proclaimed “exclusive” features called Downrange. A cool blind of isolation and slasher horror, Downrange follows a troop of friends, presumably college students, as they befall a flat tire in the middle of a desolate stretch of road before quickly discovering their car trouble is no random happening. A homicidal sniper has taken up his nest with the intent to kill anyone unlucky enough to enter his kill zone, which they have just done. With death coming at any moment, the heroes must struggle to escape their inescapable predicament. You can probably surmise from the conventional set-up that Downrange is going to ultimately be your standard killer-kills-young-adults-in-mostly-brutal-fashion flick and that’s exactly what it is, but not without a few twists up it’s sleeve. Although, the impact of those subversions may be an overstatement in light of the film’s more unfavorable elements.
Firstly on what works really well; the premise, or the situation, the film stages is legitimately scary in precisely on how pragmatic its execution is, especially with random gun violence becoming an accepted norm in America. Some may even recall the 1966 University of Texas tower shooting where a former marine took up a vantage point with long-range weapons to shoot and kill 16 people. On that detail, I have to give props to director Ryûhei Kitamura for running with it; it’s quite effective. Another thing that surprised me was the gore. The gore effects are very well done and are really what sell the film’s explicit slasher-ness if you will. Those not familiar with extreme gore like convincing head cave-ins and gaping body wounds, this one could sneak up on you. I’ve never been a huge fan of slashers: watching cruelty for cruelty’s sake isn’t intrinsically fun, and while I agree there’s something morbidly exhilarating or curious about going to that dark place with content – “disturbing” film enthusiasts know what I mean – there’s a time and a place for everything. With Downrange though, the bouts ultra violence don’t so much go down easier, but are subtextually justified by genre intent.
The film tries to toss in a couple twists on the conventional slasher, like swapping out the knife/stabbing kill weapon for a firearm or subverting the final-girl-who-grew-up-a-survivalist-saves-the-day cliche. I suppose the ending is also supposed to be a surprise turn of events, but the full potential of that creative effort is undercut by the needlessly elongated pacing and unconvincing character acting. This is definitely one of those horror films where you want the main characters to die because they’re so annoying to watch. I mean, for what the film is, the casting is fine enough, but it’s apparent the actors needed more direction from Kitamura than what they got.
Downrange isn’t the smoothest survival slasher, but it hits the mark with it’s terrifyingly relevant premise and impressively gory kills anchored by its single location narrative. As horror goes, you could do a lot worse.
The Favourite Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour 59 minutes Director: Yorgos Lanthimos Starring: Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, and Nicholas Hoult
The Favourite is the latest romp from Greek satirist Yorgos Lanthimos. Taking a stark departure from the usually modern setting characteristic of his previous English language films The Lobster (2015) and The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Lanthimos’ newest film dives into 18th century England for a playfully volatile love triangle between Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her intimate political confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Lady Sarah’s tragically misfortuned niece Abigail (Emma Stone). What transpires in the film’s brisk two hour runtime is not only another visceral examination of existential contradictions inherent to modernity, but is the acclaimed director’s best work to date, if not his masterpiece.
Historically, I’ve found Elizabethan/Georgian period dramas, thematically, to be too measured and sanitized to hold my interest in any compelling way. While I can often times appreciate the “time travel” effect of watching such films – imagining living amongst the people in that distant time period – but the frivolity brought on by the dishonest historical depiction guts my ability to connect on the same empathic level I’m able to with other genres. If you could promise me every period piece could have the same naturalistic verisimilitude and artistic detail that graces The Favourite, I’d be first in line every opening night.
Maybe this is me getting older and actively becoming more and more interested in world history, but the first shot of the film is overwhelming with detail, almost to a disturbing effect. Queen Anne’s royal garbs and dresses are beautifully ornate displays that threaten to intimidate the viewer as if they were an English commoner in the room: co-stars Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone also wear a number of extravagant costumes encapsulating their character throughout the film. The costumes, as great as they are, only compliment the film’s total visual aesthetic. We spend a vast majority of the film in Queen Anne’s massive royal palace. Anne is quite the homebody so she spends most of her time in her master bedroom, relying on the network of secret passages ways built into the walls to move in her home in privacy. The sets are breathtaking, highlighted by the large film aspect ratio and spacious cinematography. The look and fell of the film is spectacular and could be worth the price of admission alone, but still the main selling points here are the leading trio performances from Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, and Emma Stone.
As you would probably expect with a movie about one of the Queens of England, The Favourite is thoroughly concerned with politics, just not so much the politics of governing England. Sure the plot majorly revolves around a crucial decision to deploy offensive infantry or not and inquire peace, which would require a significant land tax increase if the former is taken, but the central conflict is a political gridlock between these three women, each of whom bring a particular complexity to their respective fights for agency. For Abigail (Stone), that “agency” is the agency to live a secure, dignified life free from the threat of rape or death. If this film had a singular protagonist, it would probably be Stone’s character. Lady Sarah (Weisz) is Queen Anne’s dearest and closest friend, advisor, and secret mistress. Despite the power disparity between the two, it’s made clear early on that she’s the one calling the shots in England’s political matters, not so much the Queen. As the favourite, Sarah’s intimate relationship with the Queen grants her proxy rule over the country in most instances and guarantees her the highest freedom and privilege attainable without being the Queen herself. Queen Anne (Colman) has grown frail over the years, requiring constant medical supervision for her severe case of gout and especially attentive emotional support for the years of trauma suffered from losing 17 children, and so she seeks agency for emotional respite from her torment and good company to pass the time, all the things Lady Sarah has provided to her for a significant portion of her life.
Words can’t begin to describe what Colman, Weisz, and Stone achieve in harmony, and what’s so impressive with the narrative itself is how it uses each character in service of the larger examination. When you’re watching the film, it’s impossible to pinpoint who the sole protagonist is. We’re so used to narratives, across multiple mediums, having only one main character, but there’s no universal law saying you have to only have one main character in a story, as rare as it may be. There are no single “protagonists” in real life, just disparate souls doing what they know how to survive.
The Favourite really surprised me; from the career-defining performances from all three lead actresses and the rest of the film’s supporting cast, to it’s impeccable set and costume design, to its creative commentary on modernity and existential paradox, this is the closest thing to time traveling to 1708 you can get without imaginary technology. As far as I’m concerned, I’ve seen all the movies I’m going to see for 2018, so I can confidently declare The Favourite my favorite film of the year (sorry had to do it).
Natural Born Killers (1994) Runtime: 2 hours 1 minute Rating: NC-17 (R if theatrical cut) Director: Oliver Stone Starring: Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis, Robert Downey Jr., Tom Sizemore, and Tommy Lee Jones
“The whole world is coming to an end, Mal,” Mickey Knox professes to his beloved in the opening minutes of three time Oscar winning director Oliver Stone’s infamously divisive Natural BornKillers. Initially a Quentin Tarantino screenplay edited into an Oliver Stone script, Natural Born Killers tells the story of Mickey and Mallory Knox, two prior-functioning-members-of-society-turned-psychopathic-love-struck-murderers, as they kill their way cross country, unwittingly drawing mass media attention and adoration from patrons around the world for their shameless moral depravity. Made famous for its cast of dedicated performances, impressive psychedelic imagery, and casual ultra-violence, the cult classic (and one of my personal favorite movies) is typically dismissed in critic circles for its lack of thematic subtlety and perceived nuance, Stone’s provocative satire has more or less come to fruition in reality, albeit not exactly on the same terms the film’s rhetorical detractors insists it’s operating, nor of its native epoch. Is it true that mainstream media consistently covets societal violence for financial gain? Of course – TV industry mantras like, “if it bleeds, it leads” should attest to that operational truth – and the film goes to extreme lengths to make this explicitly clear. However, despite the seemingly unoriginal social commentary, there is a figurative in to a much more cognitive perspective on mass media’s complacency in the working of the current power structures that inadvertently spawn the socio-political nihilism that comes to embody Mickey and Mickey.
To get to that commentary, we must first reframe the film’s content as being purely symbolic; because once we let go of our expectations of “valid” artistic form, Stone’s stylistics excesses begin to operate in service of a much more cohesive message spelling a cautionary, and stimulative, simulation of the logical outcome of exploitation culture. Then we must first divorce the film’s subtext from the exclusive topic of the media and commodified violence, for the problem the narrative addresses is much larger than any single social issue. ***plot spoilers follow***
When we first meet the killer couple terrorizing a group of diner patrons in the opening prologue, Mickey and Mallory have already at this point fully embraced their nihilistic romance, engaging in social ceremony only when priming their next set of unsuspecting victims for slaughter. Surely, Mickey and Mallory are evil people; they casually murder innocents for kicks and giggles, and yet we’re expected to accept these characters as our protagonists. We’re quickly provided in the first act the “why” these characters are the way they are with a sitcom-ized flashback showing Mallory’s life pre-Mickey Knox. Constantly berated and harassed by her deadbeat, narcissistic father while her spineless mother bends to his every whim, Mallory and her perverse nuclear family is indicative of a common tendency of American families to manifest the greater vices of the current social order through its interfamilial relationships. We learn Mickey too suffered a hard childhood under a violent, drunk father, as did his father before him and so forth, who would hurt him and his mother. The two tortured souls meet for the first time during one of Mickey’s deli deliveries to Mallory’s residence, falling in love at first sight. The two quickly decide to steal her father’s car to runaway in rebellion. Naturally, this upsets her father, who has Mallory returned home and Mickey thrown in jail. Effectively dooming Mallory to a, likely short, life of incestuous rape and chastisement.
True loves’ embrace in the face of despair forces Mickey and Mallory to come to the existential realization that no one is coming to save them from the world as it presently exists; and with every sign indicating a perpetual worsening of the status quo, what rational reason do they have to continue to obediently suffer in service of a governing framework that has arbitrary deemed them unworthy of a pleasant life? What universal law mandates that they have to accept the misery they’re equivocally doomed to endure for civility’s sake? Well, none. There aren’t any. As functioning members of society we all make a conscious, virtually oblivious, effort to uphold the present socio-economic state of being – a social contract – through our participation in it (i.e. the jobs we work, the products we buy, and the political agency we choose invoke), with the promise that if we comply, we will be free to live without fear of arbitrary violence. As far as Mickey and Mallory are concerned, that deal has been irreversibly broken and every individual citizen who actively buttresses the functions of domination that define Capitalism by these means is by consequence guilty of abetting all peril resulting from it. This is why the soon-to-be-mass-murdering-couple have no qualms massacring any civilian they come across (with the exception being a hospitable Native American elder who lives off indigenous land and hence does not fit into their otherwise indiscriminate victim criteria). This is also not to say that Mickey and Mallory are ethically justified in their cruel avenue of expression against people who are simply ignorant of the outcome of their complacency is, but that their actions are rationally valid.
Upon escaping jail, Mickey comes to rescue Mallory from her evil father. They murder Mallory’s parents before setting off on their campaign of selfish carnage and debauchery. It’s not too long before they become pop culture icons among the likes of Charles Manson and Jeffrey Dahmer, inspiring sensational media attention and true crime TV specials about them. One TV personality in particular, Wayne Gale (played by an especially hammy Robert Downey Jr.), comes to embody the very essence of the mainstream media. After Mickey and Mallory are captured by Detective Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore) and imprisoned under the supervision of prison Warden Dwight McClusky (an even hammier Tommy Lee Jones), more on them shortly, Wayne aims to be the true crime “reporter” to secure the coveted Mickey Knox interview for a post-Super Bowl broadcast, a ripe “ratings” ground. On camera, he puts on the socially expected show of pathos and virtue signaling, but off camera he’s revealed to be even more ethically fluid than the killers he’s investigating. His reckless pursuit for ratings and the riches that come with it, ends up being the final catalyst for the avalanche of utter chaos that comes in film’s third act.
Clearly, Downey’s absurdist depiction of eccentric true crime reporter is not to be taken at face value but is instead an aesthetic criticism and the real mass “news” media’s Pavlovian drive to maximize ratings/viewership – the metric of profit in media spaces – foremost. That is, media bodies fixated on amassing profit strategically cover specific news content, ideally violence and crime, with the ulterior motive of making more money. Note that violence does not just mean physical acts of violence but also encompasses acts of rhetorical, institutional, and economic violence, as regularly committed by establishment politicians, “partisan” news networks, and stubborn Capitalists (conglomerate control). In 1964, Canadian professor and early media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, the medium is the message, which encapsulates the notion that the content of what is being communicated is semantically secondary to the context, or literal medium, by which it is received. For example, recall the recent field test of Donald Trump’s national presidential alert system, that directly sent a dummy message to the mobile phone of every US civilian across the country. Doesn’t really seem like a big deal given the stated intent – we already have various means of mass communication in place for emergency situations. But when we consider the message inherent to the method it was transmitted and by whom, that seemingly procedural demonstration takes on a more sinister, authoritarian connotation. Likewise with a media staple like the evening news, the presumed objective of the programming is to inform the people of information deemed vital by the “appropriate bodies.” Yet, the evening news is always broadcast with regular commercial breaks and corporate sponsorships. Surely, the operational cost of local and national news coverage could easily be covered with state/federal allocated funds considering how instrumental the media industry is to social consciousness, but still we find the workings of Capitalism fixing the intent of the medium, in the film’s case television (but also extends to print and social media), to the accumulation of capital. Maximal ratings means maximal viewership which means maximal revenue from advertisers/paying subscribers. Wayne Gale’s motive behind interviewing Mickey on live TV is not to deepen society’s understanding of an evil person, but to capitalize on society’s cultivated obsession with violence. Wayne’s job is then to lure minds to the screens by provocation at all costs, as we later see him still in-character live commentating while a full blown prison riot rages around him and his escapee caravan.
Back to Detective Scagnetti and Warden McClusky for a moment. Sizemore’s Scagnetti comes into the film somewhere in the middle of the second act, characterized as a lawful evil who, while vigilant in apprehending Mickey and Mallory, gleefully indulges in carnage of his own with impunity (e.g. the current problem of law enforcement murdering civilians with contrived cause). Scagnetti can see through the media’s moralistic veil, but considers himself “above” it and so finds Wayne Gale harmless. Warden McClusky on the other hand, is disturbed by Wayne’s insistence of agitating the state of order. He knows that giving a platform to a chaotic voice like Mickey Knox’s can very easily spell trouble amongst the like-imprisoned folk that surround them all; his concerns prove correct as Mickey’s televised sermon spawns the hellish prison riot.
By now, the parable at work should be clear. Mickey and Mallory embody the logical outcome of Capitalist society as it presently exists – chaos incarnate. Wayne Gale (contemporary mass media), the literal interface between members of society and the sensational realism they consume as entertainment in the name of corporate profit. Detective Scagnetti and Warden McClusky convey the institutions of law and order, respectively. Tasked by the state to contain society’s criminal element, Scagnetti and McClusky are incapable of containing the chaos brought on by Mickey and Mallory, as they are both outwitted and overwhelmed by the sheer ferocity of their infectious rage. The moral anarchy inevitably spawned in reaction to the contradictions of this hierarchal society cannot be contained by law enforcement, who only exist to address the disruptive symptoms of an inherently self-destructive framework, nor can the media conveniently decide when to reinstate “civility.”
After ultimately killing Scagnetti and McClusky (whom is literally torn to pieces by rioting prisoners), Mickey and Mallory’s final victim before retirement from mass murder is none other than Wayne Gale, the last surviving TV crew member following all the action. Despite being a hostage during their prison escape, Gale elects to embrace the carnage, seeking solidarity with Mickey and Mallory. They don’t buy it for one second. They may find him amusing, but Mickey and Mallory are very conscious of what it is Wayne Gale represents and how he and his colleagues are instrumental in perpetuating the very conditions that birthed the Mickeys and Mallorys of the world. This is perhaps the defining moment of Natural Born Killers, and ironically the most misconstrued scene in the film. The obvious implication is that Mickey and Mallory’s final hooray is a lasting spite of the media and its hypocritical proliferation of violence, but considering the fact that at no point in the film do either of the two intentionally take up the revolutionary burden on behalf of humanity or anything of the sort, it’s doubtful they are making a conscious political statement. As the interface by which the conglomerates and oligarchs that really run things present the world to its subjects, the media is the very lens through which we, the subject, perceive ourselves and one another outside of the reality of our immediate vicinity. For this reason, mass media is imperative to any civilization. Naturally, the character of any society’s aggregate media will be determined by the form of its underlying economic framework, in the our case, Capitalism. The fundamental problem here begins and ends with Capitalism. It doesn’t matter if it’s “better” than the other alternative(s); it’s the governing ideology under which this crisis has arisen.
Mickey wasn’t wrong when he declared “it the end of the world.” It’s true. For the first time in human history, our species faces the dire inevitability of increasingly extreme weather conditions spurred on by climate change while political atrocity sprouts up around the globe in the form of authoritarian regimes and far-right national populist movements. The world’s super wealthy have given up on trying to save the planet from the climate ruin they’ve directly nurtured over the past century and a half: choosing instead to pursue ways to surmount the burden of their Earthly confinement. The present institution of law and order are functionally incapable of rectifying the situation as time and time again, national leadership purposely exacerbate the crisis, out of malice or ignorance, instead of providing aid the people who need help from the elements (e.g. the horrid US response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and most recently the spiteful reaction/response to the devastation wildfire here in California from national leadership). No institutional power is coming to save us (*cough* liberals *cough*). If we aim to survive going forward, we must begin to wield our local agency to help ourselves. Again, it’s important to note that, while Mickey and Mallory are indeed chaotic beings, they are merely products of their unique historical circumstance and hence are driven by a desire to live on their own terms, not by suicidal nihilism. The goal isn’t to die in a hail of bullets but to find some kind of resolve amidst the so-called mess of things. Mickey and Mallory could let Gale go, since he is in fact the sole survivor in their latest spout of violence, but there’s one stipulation standing: the camera, which has been live broadcasting to the world since the prison riot broke out. This is to say, the physical infrastructure of the media isn’t the problem, the motives behind its use is – precisely the very motives Gale internalizes in his identity. A destruction, symbolic or otherwise, of mainstream media must take place before any meaningful progress towards existential reconciliation can take place: specifically, a destruction of its corrupting Capitalist drives (the execution/destruction of Wayne Gale).
I’m not sure I’ve seen another movie as thoroughly paradoxical as Natural Born Killers. Simultaneously heavy-handed and subtle, Oliver Stone cleverly captures the urgency of the waging ideological war for humankind’s future. This conflict is bigger than anyone one TV network or president and addressing it will require drastic action and vigilance, let it be proactive or reactive. It’s no mistake that Stone commits to the topic of the media. A particularly outspoken critic of American politics, Stone has delivered some the most iconic and seminal films about America (e.g. Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and JFK). As good as his more critically lauded projects are, I can’t help but feel like Natural Born Killers is his most of-the-moment work that couldn’t be truer in 2018.
Venom Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 1 hour 52 minutes Director: Ruben Fleischer Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, and Jenny Slate
Venom is the n-tenth superhero film of 2018, this time from Sony Pictures, the previously sole owners of the Spider-Man IP. With their friendly neighborhood wall-crawler currently residing with Marvel Studios, Sony has taken up the task of bringing the renowned hero’s rogue gallery to life with its own parallel villains universe. As successful as that may or may not prove to be, we have the first entry in said universe, Venom. Set in San Francisco, CA, Venom follows guerilla reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) who, after uncovering the Life Foundation’s illegal human experiments on homeless people, loses his job, his fiancee (played by Michelle Williams), and his reputation. With nothing left to lose, Eddie elects to further investigate the Life Foundation by breaking into its secret test lab, where he accidentally contracts a “symbiote” – an otherworldly parasite that bonds with its host both physically and psychologically, granting them nigh-invulnerability and strength. It doesn’t take long before the appropriate parties realize Eddie has stolen the symbiote and goons are sent after him to retrieve it. Little do they realize, Eddie has successfully bonded with the symbiote (Venom), turning him into an unstoppable, shapeshifting monster. Eddie must learn to tame, or plea with, Venom so that together they can stop the Life Foundation as well as an even more dangerous symbiote named Riot, and their plot to bring a planet of unique symbiotes from their home planet to Earth to feed on the human population.
What do I want to say about this film?
Tom Hardy puts in work. Perhaps the biggest draw to 2018’s Venom is leading man Tom Hardy, who fully commits to his interpretation of the Eddie Brock character. The film does an excellent job of conveying Eddie as a “live” character. There’s a number subtle naturalistic details in the first act that don’t really serve the plot, but are cool character-isms nonetheless; like how when Eddie goes home to his apartment he always takes exactly 2 beers out of the fridge and pops a handful of Ore Ida frozen tater tots into the toaster oven.
Overall, Hardy’s Eddie Brock is a worthwhile protagonist to root for. While Eddie is the film’s singular protagonist, the real main, titular character is combined being of Eddie and the otherworldly symbiote that invades his person, whom Mr. Hardy also does the voice-acting for. Venom/Eddie Brock make for an extremely fun duo, and its in these scenes that Hardy’s expressive performance truly shines. I haven’t seen Tom Hardy this wacky since Bronson (2008).
Venom‘s villain has gotten an unfairly bad rap. Riz Ahmed’s morally disinterested Carlton Drake is the CEO of the Life Foundation – a cold, dispassionate science-tech figurehead, à la an Elon Musk or a Mark Zuckerberg. Drake’s egotistical drive to “save humanity” self-justifies the atrocities he casually commits. Ahmed’s performance is intentionally subdued so to establish that meta context.
The film’s journalistic depiction isn’t particularly sophisticated – about as shallow as The Daily Planet scenes in Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman (2016).
Venom suffers from narrative stiffness, very much in the vain of a Ghost Rider (2007) or a Blade (1998), which may feel a little weird now in 2018, but at the same is oddly refreshing in the post-Iron Man era. Ironically, Venom is the professed start of a new cinematic universe.
Venom begged the question of whether or not non-superhero superhero movies could fair well in the presently saturated market, as I suppose Suicide Squad (2016) did as well. Could a franchise centered around a villain prove successful? Well, yes and no. Yes, movies with super-villain protagonists instead of a super-hero ones can, and have on multiple occasions, prove financially, if not critically successful: Megamind (2010), Despicable Me (2010), Suicide Squad are all super-villain IPs that tell stories of villains embarking on a traditional hero journey, emphasis on “hero.” If your idea of a super-villain movie is just a super-villain doing heroic things, then aren’t you really just making a super-hero movie? I wouldn’t categorize Venom as the super-villain film it promotes itself as; it’s much more akin to a Punisher or Ghost Rider than a Man Bites Dog (1992), but I did enjoy the film for what it was. And for that simple reason, I recommend any curious eye give it a watch.