Thursday, October 11, 2018

‘SKumm’s Thoughts’ - VENOM

‘SKumm’s Thoughts’

To say that there is a lot riding on this film is kind of an understatement.

Sony Pictures is not willing to relinquish the rights for the Marvel characters it scooped up a while back, although it did come to terms with Marvel Studios and allowed them to introduce Spider-Man in the MCU.  For now, it appears that Sony is keeping the web slinger out of their films, and is choosing to focus on the hundreds of other characters they have to choose from.  And their own brand of a Marvel Universe begins here, with one of Spider-Man’s most notorious villains: VENOM.

Tom Hardy (aka, Mad Max) stars as down-on-his-luck reporter Eddie Brock, a man who comes into contact with an alien life form (called a “symbiote” in the film and comics).  The alien invades his body, occasionally controlling him to help thwart the baddies and keep Eddie alive—Venom has had issues merging with other host bodies, and for some unexplained reason, fits perfectly with Eddie.  It is their relationship which ultimately redeems the film; there is plenty of humor here, and some engaging action sequences.  But their banter and reliance upon each other is what drives the story.

Of course, there are a few typical superhero trappings: a lost love, a man coming to terms with his powers, the bad guy just being an evil version of the hero, the entire world in jeopardy—you get where I’m going with this.  But surprisingly, these are not enough to bog the film down.  Thanks to the script by JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE buddies Jeff Pinkner and Scott Rosenberg, along with Kelly Marcel (“Terra Nova”), moves the story along at a brisk pace, and director Ruben Fleischer (ZOMBIELAND) makes sure it stays that way.  Don’t let that runtime fool you; thirteen minutes of that hour and fifty-two minutes is credits (which, by the way, you need to sit through to the very end), less roughly five minutes of one cut scene and one special peek into another Sony project.

That is one of the refreshing things about the film: it cuts out the fluff.  We’ve seen enough origin stories to know all about moral dilemmas of using one’s superpowers for good, of how anyone that loves a hero isn’t safe from the bad guys, etc.  So it is rather refreshing to not have to rehash the same old storylines again.

The biggest risk for this film was with going with a PG-13 rating.  In the comics, Venom is one of Spider-man’s most lethal and violent foes.  He eats people’s heads, for crying out loud.  You would think that not showing that would soften the villainous good guy, but Mr. Fleischer and Company pull it off rather well.  Yes, Venom is a pretty nasty anti-hero, but the sound of the chomp and the sudden darkness is actually better than seeing a headless corpse collapse amidst an arterial shower of blood.  Keep in mind that this is most certainly NOT a kid’s PG-13 film, however.  This is not like your typical Marvel fare, which works for the better.  Had this the normal Disneyesque spin on it, it would have had softer lighting and much less…chomping.

What also helps is the grittiness of the movie.  Taking a page from Netflix’s Marvel success, Sony has created a grim reality by starting their version of the MCU off with a character that hails from the villainy side of the comics world.  This is a planned move; there are rumors circulating that there will be at least two more films, all based on foes of Peter Parker.  Also, from the rumor mill—although plans for this seem to be on hold now—was the idea that some of these other villains and/or characters might be introduced in the MCU first, and transition over to the Sony MCU.  (But even if that doesn’t work out, it makes you wonder why Universal won’t budge on their film distribution rights they have over the Hulk character) (okay, yeah—totally geeking out right now, sorry for preaching…)

Whatever they decide to do, I’m onboard.  So long as the studio continues to take the subject matter and the world they have created with VENOM seriously, the future looks brighter for edgier, harder, superhero films.

Grade: B

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

‘Blu-ray or Bust’ - SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

‘Blu-ray or Bust’

I grew up with STAR WARS (honestly, who hasn’t?)—I had the figures, the playsets, was a member of the Star Wars Fan Club…yes, even as a child, my geekness knew no limits.

I was never one of those fans which knew every last stinking detail, however.  I did not study the films and book, did not argue with others about the politics of THE PHANTOM MENACE.  I have always enjoyed film as a means of escape, a way to break from the overbearing reality of life, to leave behind concepts like bills and pressure and gravity.  I want to be entertained, and occasionally enlightened.  And while I do appreciate the amount of work that goes into every film I watch, I do not like lazy filmmaking.  I do not want to be coddled or placated.

So what the hell, Ron Howard?  With every film that is made, there is a main director, and then there is a “second unit director”.  The second unit guy is the one responsible for filming stunts, cutaways, landscapes, and setups.  They work pretty hard, as do most on a film crew, to help the shots blend once it all gets to the editing room.  Yet with SOLO, I get the distinct impression that everyone on the second unit crew was working overtime.  Part of the problem is that Ron Howard is one of those directors that you never get a certain sense of style from.  Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay films are easily recognizable, and not just because their names are stamped all over the advertising.  Both have a type of flair to their storytelling; with one, you get a fantastical sense of wonder, and the other likes to beat you on your face with fast editing and an arse-load of robots.  But Mr. Howard doesn’t have that easily recognizable flair, so you cannot really tell if he is just a name attached to the film as a money-making ploy.  Certainly, he has a great body of work thus far: APOLLO 13, A BEAUTIFUL MIND, and BACKDRAFT are all personal favorites of mine, and damn good movies.  He is a straightforward storyteller—not something you would necessarily see for a Star Wars film.

The script, written by WARS alum Lawrence Kasdan and his son, Jonathan, has a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) hooking up with a team of crooks led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson), all in an effort to get back to his home with enough money to rescue his love, Qi-ra (Emilia Clarke, aka “The Mother of Dragons”).  Keep in mind this is all pre-Jabba the Hut and his later adventures with Luke Skywalker and the gang.  Along the way, he meets his BFF, and meets up with the charismatic Lando Calrissian.

One job of a director is knowing, or rather trusting, that your cast can pull off the words on the page.  In this film, the actor’s jobs are a bit more demanding; Ehrenreich MUST BE the Han Solo we all know and love, and Donald Glover MUST BE Lando.  To their credit, they pull it off—in Glover’s case, he makes a strong argument for his own stand-alone SW film.  While Ehrenreich captures Solo’s charms and mannerisms, even some of the famous facial expressions, Mr. Glover IS Lando.  Not only does he become the character initially portrayed by Billy Dee Williams, but he does so in such a way that you are comfortable with how he stretches that character’s boundaries.  He is the epitome of suave, even when he has no right to be.  Nothing against Mr. Williams, but Mr. Glover makes you want to know more about the character’s history, gives you reason to pine for a (pun certainly not intended) solo film based solely on Lando’s past exploits.

Which is one of the aspects of this film in which the viewer feels that perhaps the focus should not lie entirely on the title character.  Chewbacca is given a glancing backstory, whose friendship with Solo is initially one of necessity rather than camaraderie.  

It is quite possible that the special features, besides Donald Glover’s masterful performance, may be the best things in this release.  In fact, I am totally encouraging you to purchase this on Blu-ray—but only because of the documentaries.  The best of those are the first two; one is a round table discussion with Ron Howard hosting his actors, which is wonderful to witness.  You get to see the actors being themselves, and the enthusiasm feels authentic.  The other is a discussion with the writers, which we don’t always get with these big studio productions.  Daddy Kasdan is an SW legend, having written the first three films.  And it is fun to watch him (and everyone else) tiptoe around George Lucas when he visits the set.

While there is a lot coming up in the Star Wars universe, between TV and film, let’s just hope there’s more to the Lando Calrissian story, and that Disney decides to ride Mr. Glover’s well-tailored cape into the next film.

Grade: C+
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Probably

-- T.S. Kummelman

Wednesday, October 3, 2018


‘Blu-ray or Bust’

The JURASSIC PARK franchise has seen some interesting entries over the years, but has also suffered from some repetitive plot elements that just won’t go away.

Case in point: FALLEN KINGDOM has something that nearly all of the other films does, something which was awesome the first time around, yet now, with the fifth entry, is just plain redundant.  I’m referring to the entire “dinosaur saving humans” bit.  It happens a few times in this film, and while it is an understandable plot point in one part, it feels overused in another.

So, that’s me pointing out everything that is wrong in this film.  Seriously.  The rest of the story is straight up action thriller, action comedy, and a nifty little haunted house/jail break movie.  If THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK taught us anything, it is that, for a sequel to be wholly original, you have got to flip the script a bit.  This one does on many levels, and works even better than its predecessor does.

KINGDOM reunites Claire and Owen (Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt), who are hired to rescue some of the dinosaurs from Isla Nubar.  It seems there is an active volcano there which threatens to wipe them all out, so they attempt to help relocate the animals.  After that fifteen-minute set up, the rest of the film offers you little time to catch your breath.  There are new characters along for the ride, characters which will likely show up in the next (and possibly final) installment.  Daniella Pineda plays the acidic Dr. Zia Rodriguez, and Justice Smith is computer nerd Franklin Webb, who screams like a girl better than most girls do.  Most impressive is newcomer Isabella Sermon as Maisie; while every other JURASSIC film has also shared the core element of kids in danger, she is a confident addition to the franchise that makes her less a superfluous character and more of a core element.

Another factor to the films which should not be overlooked are the effects: they get better with each entry.  This time around, the story includes one of the best action sequences out of them all: the destruction of the island.  It isn’t just the stampeding dinosaurs, it isn’t just the lava bombs and the onrushing ash cloud; it is a combination of cinematographer Oscar Faura’s (A MONSTER CALLS) incredible eye for beauty being consumed, for the wide sweeping destruction amidst the fight or flight perspective.  That, and Neal Scanlon and the effects gurus at Industrial Light and Magic.  Not to mention the directing by J.A. Bayona (THE IMPOSSIBLE), who entrusts his actors with making all of the mayhem seem life threatening instead of surreal.

Of course, this is entirely necessary on Blu-ray; from the effects to the score by Michael Giacchino (STAR TREK, UP—which he won an Academy Award for), you don’t want to miss any of the richness to the weaker format.  There are several behind-the-scenes docs, many of which offer unique insight from actors that occasionally felt more like witnesses.

The next film has a 2021 release date, and rumors have it that some of the actors from the first trilogy are set to return, thus giving the saga a definitive end.  And if that final installment is as good as this one, we should all be so lucky.  As long as they leave behind that whole “dinosaurs saving humans” bit.  Honestly, after the T-rex saved them all in the last one, how come he didn’t immediately start chowing down on people nuggets?  Like the accountant in the first film—that guy was a freaking Happy Meal, served in a box with soggy fries, no less.  At any rate, we’ve got three years to mull on the mysteries; here’s hoping the writers can work out a solid script without too much repetition.
Grade: A-
Special Features: A
Blu-ray Necessary: Uh, let’s think about this for a minute…IT’S FRICKING DINOSAURS, OF COURSE IT’S NECESSARY.

-- T.S. Kummelman