Movie Review (VENOM)

The Marvel Comics ‘Verse movie VENOM is about dancing in and with one’s darkness, all while learning to have it support the light.

Tom Hardy plays Eddie Brock, a ruggedly handsome, sympathetic journalist based in San Francisco.  His heart is in the right place as he goes about bravely interviewing and exposing corrupt public figures, including a somewhat Elon Musk-inspired Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed of 2016’s ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY).  Drake is a wealthy big pharma. industrialist and researcher who focuses his resources on exploiting the capabilities of dangerous alien creatures labeled “symbiotes,” slimy life forms he has captured via a manned probe sent far out into space before returning to crash-land in the Malaysian countryside.  This is where the movie begins.  These symbiotes must live inside another body or “host” in order to survive.  If the body tolerates the symbiote well without getting drained and eventually killed by the foreign organism, which usually happens, then the match is perfect and a powerful symbiotic relationship of two sentient beings occurs.

While all other characters exist in the film to react to the protagonist and villain, most of them are not particularly multidimensional or interesting, except for Venom as he develops inside of Brock, and, to a lesser extent, Riot, the more power-hungry symbiote who enters Drake later in the movie.  The one exception of a notable, off-beat supporting character is an older Asian female who owns a convenience store that Eddie frequents.  Often largely dead-pan and clearly enduring her lonely existence like a sentinel, she is a caring bystander and brief foil for Eddie as he grapples with loneliness and an encroaching cynicism.

Predictably, our hero ends up becoming a host while he is snooping around Drake’s high tech. facility.  Venom finds Brock’s body a suitable match.  From there, Brock must soon contend with more than his own grief-filled, depressing thoughts.  Eddie’s fiancee had recently left him on the same day he’d been fired from his job for, you might have already guessed it, being too probing of the deeply corrupt Drake while interviewing him for an online news outlet.  Now, Eddie wonders if he is going insane as he hears an internal voice shouting commands at him, such as to eat living flesh.  In a particularly hyperactive scene inside a high-end restaurant, he obliges Venom by jumping into a tank of fresh lobsters and eating one with gusto.  I couldn’t help but wonder how much fun Tom Hardy had doing that and other scenes in this often gritty yet refreshingly campy movie.

Much of the film had me laughing now and again as Drake and Venom get to know each other and negotiate how to function together inside a shared body.  The action scenes, including a prolonged multi-car chase of Eddie/Venom on a motorcycle, are often routine but fun nonetheless.  Venom is basically invincible, except from flames and certain high frequencies of sound.  All this power for down-on-his-luck Eddie eventually, and understandably, becomes appealing to him.  One-liners, such as when Venom mentally calls Brock a “Pussy!” in his deep, mechanically enhanced voice are quick little surprises of patter along with the intense action.  This makes for a clever mix of adrenaline and laughter-induced endorphins for the viewer, a real rush of a film.

It becomes clear that, while Venom has somewhat of a core personality, it gets further developed and tweaked by Brock’s own.  The reverse is the case as well.  Venom’s plasticity of body and, hence, Eddie’s too, make for great CGI.  All black, multi-fanged, possessing huge white eyes like a bug’s or snake’s, and able to grow far larger then a tall human, Venom at first scares Eddie as he looks at his/their reflection.  Getting to know one’s shadow parts is like that at first.

I am satisfied with how Eddie and Venom believably decide to work together to defeat the villain Riot, who intends to return (via his host Drake’s manufactured rocket ship) to his place of origin in outer space and retrieve millions of more symbiotes.  Why does he do this?  Well, to bring back and take over earth completely with his own kind, of course– a cliche of a plot if ever there was one.  Frankly, I didn’t care.  The main characters and creative visuals are all that really matter here.

There is some racism in the film, most unfortunately.  The protagonist and his girlfriend are white, while the villain (Drake) is portrayed by a dark-skinned, albeit beautiful, man of Pakistani descent (Ahmed).  A thuggish store robber is played by a Latino man, very much a stereotype.  When there is more interchangeability of roles in movies, such as where superheroes and their leading love interests are portrayed by people of color and said people of color aren’t relegated yet again to so often playing unseemly stereotypes, the movie industry will have made further progress towards representing real people in the real world more.   This was no ground breaker film by any means like, say, BLACK PANTHER was.  We still have quite a ways to go.

The universal, existential struggle of wrestling with one’s own inner darkness and, if one so chooses, getting to know and work with it for the good is both an ageless myth and reality.  I very much enjoyed this latest telling of it in the dark hero movie VENOM, even though the script is often predictable and unoriginal and racism reared its too familiar, ugly head in places, far uglier than VENOM.  Tom Hardy, who is particularly adept at playing mentally disturbed leading men, successfully carried the film and its deeply relatable premise.

Movie Review (CRAZY RICH ASIANS)

This middle aged queen thoroughly enjoyed the movie CRAZY RICH ASIANS. A believable romantic chemistry flows between the two pulchritudinous leads, Henry Golding as the dashing, wealthy Nick Young and Constance Wu as the pretty, often star-struck Rachel Chu. Tasty looking food is periodically presented amidst a steady stream of luscious scenery, both indoors and outside.

The cast often wore beautiful, stylish wardrobe choices. Clothing indicated character. One particularly obnoxious, sexist individual, a serious partier and old acquaintance of Nick’s, dresses tackily in a heavy gold chain necklace over an open shirt, revealing a chest that I found was nothing to write home about. In the movie, this man, whose name I’ve forgotten, represents the coarse, excessive side of wealth that many succumb to when given such privilege. Then there is Astrid, the second leading woman. This first cousin of Nick’s, like a sister to him, expresses poise, grace, and deep concern about public appearances as she walks like a model across a hotel lobby within a simple (silk?) dress in her introductory scene. While Nick looks great in everything over (and off) his skin, when he dons a tux, he transforms into the ultimate handsome lover. Rachel speaks this thought aloud when she tells him he should always wear a tux no matter what he’s doing. These are but a few examples of how clothes make the person in this movie.

Visual appearances aside, family drama occurs in just the right dose to keep things moving along, albeit predictably, but also pleasantly and poignantly.

Often, the movie has a fun ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s feel to it, enhanced by some fabulous singing and music in a few glamorous party scenes and an incredibly sumptuous, yet tasteful and moving wedding scene. The party music has a lounge sound to it, which I particularly enjoy.

I have always been intrigued by Asian cultures and this film is an interesting window into very wealthy Singaporean Chinese society.  In sum, I got what I signed up for: good, escapist fun for a few hours into a world totally foreign to and different from my own.

Movie Review (MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN)

The movie MAMA MIA! HERE WE GO AGAIN was fun feel-good viewing. There were some great dance numbers and all the ABBA songs were delightful to hear, particularly if you like ABBA, which my husband and I each do.

Lily James as the young Donna (played in her later years by Meryl Streep, who only has a cameo scene towards the end in this sequel) was especially lovely, full of believable vivacity. She carried the film effectively whenever she was on screen.

Amanda Seyfried, reprising her role as Donna’s daughter Sophie, was wonderful too, though more serious in tone than the young Donna, which was purposeful.  After all, Sophie has big matters to attend to, such as unresolved grief and responsibilities around getting her hotel business up and going.

Cher added to the fun playing the errant, self-centered grandmother. I’m not at all that into Cher, but she did not detract from the story, music, or scenery in any way.

The movie is super white, unfortunately, with token people of color in servant supporting roles (such as masseurs) here and there. This was not a great film, but it was joyful and heart-warming nevertheless. And the three young, handsome men made for nice eye candy along with all the beautiful Mediterranean island scenery.

Mini Movie Review (JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM)

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM was a thoroughly enjoyable action-packed romp. The CGI dinosaurs were very impressive, and there were lots of them. Iconic imagery abounded as an homage to old monster movies, particularly during the last part of the screen drama, which takes place on a large, elegant estate. From a lush tropical island to a grand home within a pine forest of Northern California, the scenery and sets were beautiful.

The growing suspense kept my eyes riveted to the screen. The amount of visual and verbal humor were just right, not overdone. And to top it off, there was a good message in the film: tinkering with nature out of greed and a thirst for power is opening a dangerous Pandora’s Box.

These kind of blockbusters with fantastical creatures and premises are right up my alley for escapist summer fun, and FALLEN KINGDOM delivered.  I recommend this movie to anyone who also likes this sort of thing.

Movie Review (LOVE, SIMON)

The movie LOVE, SIMON moved me to tears a few times.  I especially appreciated the portrayal of loving, understanding parents that I myself never had at 17 years of age (though they have long since come around). It was interesting and compelling how the use of email and the Internet were central to the story, given how teenagers these days are bound so closely to cell phone and computer technology. The anonymity maintained between the main character of Simon Spier (Nick Robinson), a closeted high school senior, and his mysterious, online love interest set up some cleverly written intrigue and suspense in the narrative.

While Simon was portrayed as a relatively masculine white male within a suburban upper middle income family, much of the cast, including extras within the high school setting, were people of color. I could see how the filmmaker and writers were appealing to a white mainstream audience while also trying to be racially/ethnically inclusive, a delicate balance to strike. I imagine some viewers will be critical of the director Greg Berlanti’s and writers Isaac Aptaker’s and Elizabeth Berger’s portraying of diversity or lack thereof, such as having a wealthy white male be the central character. It would have been daring and interesting if he were, say, overtly feminine and from a less privileged background. I do take the movie to task with its flawed, conventional messages about gender and heteronormativity, which I will discuss later. However, Nick Robinson as Simon acted with such sincerity and sensitivity that I found myself soon not caring about his demographics. The whole cast delivered solid performances. The spunky, no-nonsense African American drama teacher (Natasha Rothwell) stood out for me in particular. A close second was Alexandra Shipp as Abby Suso, one of Simon’s close friends, also African American. She was allowed to share some back story, being a child of divorce and new to the school, having grown up out of the area. These experiences I related to and I know many other viewers surely did and will as well.

The only stilted, somewhat two-dimensional character was Tony Hale as Vice Principal Mr. Worth. I would have liked to see him more developed, like he started to seem but then was stopped short by the script writing. He ended up remaining annoyingly chummy, awkward, and sexually ambiguous. This last attribute was likely the director’s intention, that and having Mr. Worth provide comic relief.

Funny, awkward moments peppered the script, balancing levity with very serious subject matter, including blackmail– an age-old issue for queer people– by an insecure peer. I found Simon and his friends navigating a more complex social landscape because of cyberspace, which did not exist for me back in high school. At the same time, the movie’s school campus appeared quite tolerant and safe for gay/queer students, as a very feminine, black gay male character, Ethan (Clark Moore), showed while delivering withering one-liners to homophobic peers, without fear of retaliation. Very refreshing, even if accurately reflective of only some actual schools in large cities across America.

Simon is well-adjusted in this world of school and home life and he makes it a point to stress how “normal” he is. A fantasy scene has him walking along as people wave banners and flamboyantly dance along with a toned-down Simon before he states, “Maybe not that gay.” Um, not that gay?? This leads to my one strong criticism of the film: it’s theme of heteronormativity and conventional gender traits as being equal to well-adjusted and “normal.” What homophobic, transphobic poppycock! How narrow-minded and…boring.  And while Simon’s black, femme gay peer Ethan (Moore) is present here and there, he is always single and off to the side, token, not even a friend of Simon’s, except perhaps just beginning to be towards the end. The director and writer played it safe and, in doing so, lost me at a deeper level or place in myself. True embracing of diversity would have allowed for celebratory, front-and-center portrayals of more gender queer (e.g., flamboyant, “super gay,” femme, butch), even non-binary folk. Everyone except Ethan is clearly binary, cis-gendered, “normal.” Ah, well. I guess it will still have to be another movie where I and many others are fully reflected.

It felt at least partially affirming to watch a mostly well-written, gay-themed movie with good production values in a theater I frequent, where largely blockbusters are shown. Slowly, inroads are being made, even if LOVE, SIMON is just a good start towards more stories and images of positive, wide-ranging queerdom in mainstream American movies. I’ll take it, thank you, and still keep expecting better and more.

Movie Review (A WRINKLE IN TIME)

The movie A WRINKLE IN TIME was a mixed bag, but sweet, cute, and heart-felt nonetheless. The three “Mrs.” characters were far too young, by a minimum of twenty years, especially two of them. The leader Mrs. (Mrs. Which) played by Oprah Winfrey conveyed some degree of gravitas, though even she seemed underaged by at least fifteen years. The three magical, universe-traveling women should have embodied old, wise crones or goddesses, along the lines of the Three Fates or Norns in ancient Greek or Norse mythology, respectively. Instead, they were Hollywood glamorized women who did not come across as particularly sincere or wise, with the partial exception of Ms. Winfrey as Mrs. Which.

The story’s pacing, plot, and character development were often too pat, polished, quick and convenient, as opposed to more steadily built upon to then unfold.  Additionally, the editing was choppy at times, particularly towards the end.  Hence, I was frequently aware of watching a movie and not feeling drawn in much of the time.  There were some visually pleasant special effects CGI, especially in the sunny, grassy world where a field of flowers chatter and levitate.  Other times, the CGI and sets were rather simple for today’s standards, though they at least looked clean and crisp.  Some films, such as JUSTICE LEAGUE, had sloppy, chop suey CGI, so it was great that A WRINKLE IN TIME did not.

I found both Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling, as Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who respectively, often downright annoying, particularly Witherspoon. They acted like amateur stand-ins playing characters far older and wiser than they. Even Ms. Witherspoon’s overfull white gown seemed out of place, more like some couture reject than what her ancient, travel-weary character would wear, per how Mrs. Whatsit was fleshed out in Madeleine L’Engle’s thoughtful book. That particular, original Mrs. wore a simple, dowdy dress, indicating how she was far removed from caring about physical superficialities such as clothing style.

I appreciated the three main child roles and acting by the kids who portrayed them. They were generally quite competent. The leading character Meg (Storm Reid), a girl of about thirteen, struggling to overcome her low self-esteem, poor self image, and longing for her long-lost father was someone I could definitely relate to from when I was that age.  Meg ‘s primary motivation to find her father, after his mysteriously disappearing four years before the start of the story, creates and then drives the plot.  She is fairly close to how she is portrayed in the (much better) book, with the exception of being biracial American instead of white and British. These physical changes were understandably made to update the story in a diverse, more awake world. Same goes for the genius younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe). Meg’s male peer and companion Calvin (Levi Miller) remained Caucasian in the film. The scenes between the children without any of the adults around were the most interesting, sincere, and heart-felt, though Mrs. Which (Winfrey) had some caring moments with Meg, which touched me.

While the resolution of the film was predictable, it felt satisfying. The vital importance of witnessing on screen the successful personality development and maturation of a young female (and one who is biracial at that) into an effective individual of agency was not lost on me. More female-centered films presenting well-evolving girls and women need to be made and seen. And for that I am glad the movie was produced and I supported such a creative endeavor, deeply flawed though it is.

Further Thoughts on the Film BLACK PANTHER

[***Spoiler warning: Outcome of movie referenced towards the end of this article.***]

I’ve seen the movie BLACK PANTHER twice and feel like I can still watch it again and derive more to think about. I have read a few articles written about the film, including a very critical one, which has also helped me to mull it over further.

Historically, Black Panther’s kingdom of Wakanda is a country that has never been truly known or fully “discovered” by the rest of the world. This makes that nation a completely uncolonized land, truly a safe haven for African born people. From this backdrop, the struggle to return to one’s origins when one has not been born in her/his ancient, ancestral land, but descended from natives still there, is powerfully depicted in the movie. I can only try to fathom the workings of this beautifully complex internal and external struggle to sense ever-deeper into one’s African roots and form a clearer, stronger identity from there.  And all this done as a means to help facilitate a solid inner state of purpose and agency in life, these being basic human needs for thriving, not just surviving.  Such a process is constantly played out both individually and collectively for Blacks in America and everywhere.  This movie struck an inner chord for viewers by distilling and mirroring these aforementioned strivings into a compelling portrayal of one man’s flawed but earnest efforts to connect to his beginnings and a resulting cultural identity he had heretofore found lacking, albeit seemingly just within reach.  All this is juxtaposed against an idyllic vision of people living from a line of unbroken rootedness to their ancestors, cultural traditions, and a subsequent sense of cohesiveness and effectiveness in the world around them.  The virile Black Panther King T’Challa, his brilliant tech-savvy princess sister, and other characters closely associated with the monarch each embody this ideal of a solid, grounded identity in their own appealing ways.  Talk about feel-good fun!  Ultimately, regardless of one’s race(s)/ethnicity(ies), I think it’s a natural impulse to wonder about one’s heritage, those somehow special, unique beginnings of where one came from that inform who one is now, be that biologically, culturally, spiritually. Hence, why I–who appear as being almost as “white” as you can get– was moved by this film and its message of valuing a meaningful, alive-feeling connection to one’s rich background, whatever that happens to be, or at least honoring the longing for such. It’s a longing I myself hold dear and sometimes pursue at fulfilling.

Practically speaking, Wakanda is an anachronism, not to mention an obvious bubble of a utopia, placed outside of the context of linear, “real” time as most, if not all, of consensus reality would dictate. Still, this fictional land with its ancestrally “pure” people and the narratives that unfold from it comprise a pertinent allegory of a “place” from which to derive and better understand generalizable truths or large-scale shared experiences about the human condition, some of them just discussed above.  Given that “universal” has become understandably so associated by many with overly-absolutist, simplistic, monolithic thinking, I am purposefully not using that adjective here before the word “truths.”

From a political perspective, I appreciated the complex “villain.” Effectively played by the handsome Michael B. Jordan, the anguished character Killmonger has a good primary intention. He plans to balance out mass injustice via powerfully arming (with Wakanda’s unique vibranium-made weaponry) oppressed populations around the world. All downtrodden African descended peoples are his understandable main concern. However, fulfilling his vision would have led to draining Wakanda of resources in fairly short order and putting the country in imminent danger to other, larger superpowers.

I felt ambivalent about the anti-immigrant message conveyed in the film. But, then, Wakanda is not representative of, say, the U.S.A. It is a small country with unique resources to protect, especially from falling into the wrong, corrupt hands. I could imagine how welcoming immigrants into the little nation would lead to endangering Wakanda’s particular integrity. I imagine others have thought this issue through more than I have, however, and am open to hearing/reading other views on this. I did find that King T’Challa’s opening up his country the way he chose to at the end was naive and not well-thought-out, as much as I deeply appreciated his magnanimous intention behind doing so.

In BLACK PANTHER, the protagonists and main antagonist (Killmonger) were neither “all bad” or “all good” in the tired, formulaic, Manichean way of character presentation in a drama. This was both refreshing and a big nod back to the ancient Greek tragedies, where every main player had a tragic flaw that left them vulnerable to downfall while they also possessed humanly relatable and well-meaning intentions.

BLACK PANTHER is undoubtedly one of the most thought-provoking Hollywood blockbuster movies I’ve seen in the longest time, if ever.