Jenny Slate

Venom

09/10/18

First, the good news. Venom isn’t quite as terrible as everybody is saying.

The bad news? It still isn’t great.

Indeed, watching this unfold, I can’t help wondering what it was about the project that tempted top drawer actors like Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed to hop aboard for the ride. It can’t just have been the size of the pay check. Can it? I mean, surely they must have thought the end result would be… well, better than this?

Events start (as they so often do in such stories) with a spaceship crashing in East Malaysia. Billionaire scientist Carlton Drake (Ahmed) has despatched it to a remote asteroid to collect some alien life forms. In the ensuing chaos, one of the captive creatures manages to escape after latching on to a human host. (Yes, I know. So far, so dreadfully familiar.) Drake manages to salvage the other ‘symbiotes,’ as he dubs them, and has them brought to his state-of-the-art laboratory in San Francisco, where he sets about experimenting on them by unleashing them into a succession of live hosts. At first he contents himself with cuddly bunny rabbits but, despite all of his top scientists advising against it, he quickly progresses to homeless people, whom he’s duped into helping him with his ‘research programme.’ Drake, as you’ll have gathered, is not a very nice man. He’s hoping that he’ll find a perfect match, creating a human-alien hybrid, but his first attempts are… messy, to say the very least.

Meanwhile, freewheeling investigative reporter, Eddie Brock (Hardy), tries to do a filmed exposé on Drake, but soon discovers that the man has enough power to get him unceremoniously fired from his job. The problem is, Eddie has ‘borrowed’ some information from the files of his fiancé, lawyer Anne Weying (Williams), which means that she also gets the push. She is angry enough to tell Eddie to stick his engagement ring where the sun don’t shine. Eddie is understandably miffed by all this but, when one of Drake’s employees, Dr Skirth (Jenny Slate), smuggles Eddie into the laboratory, things go spectacularly wrong. He is invaded by one of the alien creatures, endowing him with a range of formidable superpowers and some very unsavoury eating habits. Chaos ensues, as Eddie and ‘Venom’ learn to co-exist. While some of this is reasonably entertaining, the greater part of it suffers from a bad case of over-familiarity.

To give Hardy his due, he does his level best to make this unpromising material work, but the fact that he’s been asked to play things for laughs may not have been the wisest decision. His Eddie Brock is a likeable slacker, who has inadvertently been thrust into very difficult circumstances, and he handles that side of things well enough. But overlong motorbike chases and CGI tweaked punch-ups are not really Hardy’s forte. Likewise, Williams is too much of a trooper not to give this her best shot, but she really isn’t given an awful lot to do and, once again, if you have an actor of such undeniable skill, maybe give her something to convey other than bewilderment?

Like most Marvel films, this eventually heads into one of those extended animated monster-battles, which – while undoubtedly expensive – just become rather tedious to behold. Director Ruben Fleischer must have been confident that this project would fly, because the first post-credit sequence sets up a sequel featuring a very well known actor in a fright wig. I can’t help feeling this is an over-optimistic move. There aren’t  many bums on seats at the viewing I attend. If however, you do feel like hanging on through the interminable credits, it’s worth staying in your seats for a sneak peek at Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, an upcoming animation that, in just a few minutes, manages to knock spots off everything that’s gone before. Maybe Sony Pictures decided they needed to salvage something from the wreckage. Or maybe they’re just proud of their new baby.

Venom is ultimately one for the Marvel-heads – and only the most diehard amongst them, I think. It really didn’t rock my world. Oh, and – of course – there’s a Stan Lee cameo. There’s always a Stan Lee cameo. Don’t worry, it’s mercifully brief.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Advertisements

Gifted

18/06/17

In this enjoyable tearjerker, Chris Evans hangs up his Captain America outfit in order to play something a little more down to earth – an ordinary joe. He’s Frank Adler, a freelance ‘boat-builder’ who has appointed himself guardian of his young niece, Mary (an extraordinarily accomplished performance from McKenna Grace) after her mother’s suicide. The two of them live together in a Florida trailer park with one-eyed ginger cat, Fred. Next-door neighbour, Roberta (Octavia Spencer) pitches in to help out with babysitting duties when Frank needs to hit the local bar. But problems occur when he decides he needs to enroll Mary in elementary school – up to now he’s been tutoring her at home. There’s a reason why Frank has been holding off on this. Mary’s mother, Diane, was a mathematical genius who devoted her life to trying to solve one of the infamous Millennium Prize Equations – and it soon becomes apparent that her daughter has inherited her skills, when Mary finds her school maths lessons laughably easy and treats them with contempt.

Her teacher, Bonnie (Jenny Slate) recognises her new student’s potential and informs the school’s principal. Before anyone has time to think about the implications of this, Mary’s Grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan, playing a solid gold, pole-up-the-ass Brit) appears on the scene with plans to whisk Mary off to a special school where she can devote her life to  completing Diane’s unfinished project. Frank’s view is that Mary deserves to have an ordinary childhood and wants to keep her suitably grounded. Inevitably, he and Evelyn end up in court, fighting for custody of Mary.

This is undeniably emotionally manipulative stuff – and I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t have me in tears at a couple of key points. But there’s plenty here to admire, not least Tom Flynn’s witty and acerbic script, which knows just when to lift the tension with a well-placed zinger. Director, Marc Webb (best known for the 2012 Spiderman reboot) handles the subject with skill, managing to stay just the right side of mawkishness and always ensuring that his characters are believable – even Evelyn (herself a gifted mathematician who sacrificed her own career to have a family) has reasons for acting the way she does.

But ultimately it’s McKenna Grace who makes this fly. I’ve no doubt that she has a huge future ahead of her. Meanwhile, this is well worth catching if only for the novelty of seeing Evans wearing blue jeans instead of spandex.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney