HOLD THE DARK (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Director Jeremy Saulnier kicks ass!

His first feature film, MURDER PARTY (2007), about a guy who answers a flyer for a party where the other guests plan to kill him, was flawed but good. Then his amazing next features, BLUE RUIN (2013) and GREEN ROOM (2015) showed that he was definitely a director to watch. Needless to say, I was very excited to see his newest film, HOLD THE DARK (2018), from the first time I heard about it.

Currently streaming on Netflix, HOLD THE DARK gives us Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright of the HBO shows BOARDWALK EMPIRE and WESTWORLD), a writer who shows up in the Alaskan village of Keelut, in the middle of nowhere, at the request of Medora Slone (Riley Keough), whose son, Bailey (Beckham Crawford, shown in flashbacks) has gone missing. Core is a naturalist and wrote a book about tracking down wolves previously, after they abducted a child. Medora says that the same thing happened to her, and she wants something to show her husband when he gets back from his tour of duty in Afghanistan. Core agrees to help her by tracking down the wolves that killed/took her son, with the intention of killing them in turn.

Bailey is the third child in the area to go missing. The second child was taken from Cheeon (Julian Black), who is a friend of Medora’s husband.

While he sleeps on the couch, Medora walks around late at night naked, wearing a wolf mask.

When he gets back from tracking down the wolves, Core finds Medora gone, and more evidence of what happened to her son. Meanwhile, her husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgard) is on his way home after getting injured in a gun battle. When he finds out about his son, he goes on a rampage. Meanwhile, Core helps the local police chief, Donald Marium (James Badge Dale), with his investigation of both what happened to Bailey, and what Vernon will do next.

This is the kind of movie where nothing is as it seems, and everyone has their own motivations for doing things. Russell Core is just caught up in the middle of it all, including one man’s violent retribution. I don’t want to give away too much more of the plot.

Watching HOLD THE DARK, I couldn’t help but notice that Saulnier has grown as a director. He’s got a bigger canvas here than he had in past films, and he uses it well. The cast is top-notch, especially Wright, who always turns in a stunning performance, as the world-weary Russell Core – he’s pretty much the heart of the movie; Keough as the enigmatic Medora (who isn’t in the movie a lot, but leaves an indelible mark on things); Skarsgard – always a go-to guy for intense and menacing roles – as the ruthless and often homicidal Vernon; and James Badge Dale as Police Chief Marium. Saulnier’s frequent collaborator, Macon Blair, who has appeared in his other films (and was the star of BLUE RUIN), also shines in a brief role as Shan, a friend of Vernon’s who patches him up after he gets a gunshot wound. Blair also wrote the screenplay for HOLD THE DARK, based on a novel by William Giraldi.

Jeremy Saulnier’s next project is directing some episodes for the third season of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE.

HOLD THE DARK does a good job incorporating the cold, lonely landscape of Alaskan villages into the storyline. There’s a cave with hot springs that also plays a major part in the story. I’m also a huge fan of masks, and the wolf mask worn by Medora, and another one worn later by Vernon, add to the mood of the film. All in all, this is a powerful movie that deserves to be sought out. I give it three and a half knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

LL Soares gives HOLD THE DARK ~ 3 1/2 knives!

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HALLOWEEN (2018)

Review by LL Soares

When I was a kid, the original HALLOWEEN (1978) was a big deal. Everyone was talking about it, and it played in theaters for months. I saw it at a drive-in theater, something I miss a lot. HALLOWEEN wasn’t just one of the first slasher films that precluded the onslaught of similar films in the 1980s, it was one of the best, thanks to director John Carpenter. Not only did Carpenter direct it, he also co-wrote it with Debra Hill, and composed the unforgettable soundtrack music. The tale of Michael Myers, who kills his sister as a child, and is locked away in a sanitarium, until he escapes as an adult and goes on a killing spree, HALLOWEEN worked because it was simple, straight-forward, and highly effective. There was no complex, convoluted plot, no prolonged explanations, just a guy in a William Shatner mask painted white, running around and killing people with ruthless precision.

As you might have heard, the new HALLOWEEN (2018) was written as a direct sequel to the first film, jettisoning not only the sequels to the original HALLOWEEN, but also the reboot by Rob Zombie in 2007 and his HALLOWEEN II in 2009. Zombie’s remakes didn’t get much love when they came out, and even I, a hardcore Rob Z fan, consider them the weakest of his films, but you can’t blame a guy for trying, and he did try to bring his own particular spin to them. At least he had the vision to cast Malcolm McDowell (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, 1971, CALIGULA, 1979) in the role of Dr. Loomis (originally portrayed by the great Donald Pleasence in the 1978 film).

The new one is directed by David Gordon Green, an interesting director whose first feature film was the much-praised GEORGE WASHINGTON (2000), about a group kids living in poverty who try to stave off boredom. His films also include the comedies PINEAPPLE EXPRESS (2008) and THE SITTER (2011), and the “based on a true story” drama STRONGER (2017). Green wrote the screenplay for the new HALLOWEEN with actor Danny McBride (one of the stars of PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, and who also collaborated with Green on the HBO shows EASTBOUND AND DOWN, 2009 – 2013, and VICE PRINCIPALS, 2016 -2017), and writer Jeff Fradley, who also helped writer some episodes of VICE PRINCIPALS.

Jamie Lee Curtis became a star in the original HALLOWEEN with her role as Laurie Strode, one of a group of teenagers Myers attacks, and the only one to survive. In a lot of ways, the new movie is her story, because Curtis is back as Laurie, 40 years older, and still traumatized by the events of the 1978 film. In fact, Michael Myers has left such an indelible stamp on her, that she’s pretty much made him the focus of her entire life, becoming an expert with an array of weapons (mostly guns), turning her home into a series of booby-traps, and ruining just about every human relationship she’s ever had, including the one with her daughter, Karen (the great Judy Greer, also in THE DESCENDANTS, 2011, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, 2014, and ANT-MAN, 2015, and seemingly a hundred other things), who was taken away from her by family services when she was 12. Laurie had a chance to instruct her daughter in the ways of self-defense, trying to drill her survivalist mentality into her, but as an adult, Karen is a psychologist who is basically trying to put her life back together. There’s also Allyson (Andi Matichak), Karen’s daughter, who wonders why her mom and her grandmother are so estranged, and who seeks Laurie out, with the intention of putting the family back together.

Meanwhile, Michael has been in a mental hospital for 40 years and has not spoken one word. It’s not that he can’t talk, it’s that he refuses to. His long-time doctor, the great Dr. Loomis, has since died, and we now have Dr. Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) trying to draw Michael out of his shell, to no avail. Two investigative reporters (Jefferson Hall and Dana Haines) come to the hospital to research Michael for their popular podcast, and open up a whole can of worms in the process, almost as if their presence reminds Michael what he’s supposed to be doing – namely killing.

While being transported to another, worse, hospital (since he doesn’t seem to be making any progress), Michael, of course, escapes, and he and his lust for killing are once again set free onto the world. He immediately high-tails it back to Haddonfield, Illinois, where the first movie took place, to pick up where he left off.

But Laurie’s been preparing for this her entire adult life. So she’s ready for Michael. Or is she?

Also along for the ride this time are Dylan Arnold (who just finished playing the nerdy kid Twig on the CMT network’s final seasons of the show NASHVILLE), as Cameron, Allyson’s boyfriend; Will Patton (of THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES, 2002, and THE FOURTH KIND, 2009) as Officer Hawkins, who says he was one of the deputies who responded to the original murder back when Michael Myers was a little kid; and Jibrail Nantambu as a funny little kid named Julian whose babysitter is doomed. Michael Myers himself is played by both Nick Castle (who played Michael in the original movie), and, when he’s in action, by James Jude Courtney.

Let’s look at what works and what doesn’t in the new HALLOWEEN, shall we?

What Works

First off, the direction is strong and assured. I like David Gordon Green as a director, and the cast is very good, especially Curtis, who still has her acting chops, and then some. If nothing else, this movie is a chance to give an underrated actress a showcase, and a chance to shine. By focusing so much on Laurie Strode, the movie gives us an interesting perspective, which I like.

Another big plus is the fact that John Carpenter is along for the ride this time, as one of the producers, and as the composer of the movie’s soundtrack. The music provides variations on what he did in the first movie, but it’s top-notch, and almost a character itself.

I also liked Michael Myers here. The way he moved, the way he just randomly kills, the way he is drawn to weapons, made him very effective. Back in 1978, he seemed like the human equivalent of the shark in JAWS, a sort of mindless killing machine, and the new movie captures that very well.

And I really liked the last scene in this movie. Unfortunately, we have to weed through an uneven storyline to get there.

What Doesn’t Work

A lot of mainstream critics really seemed to like this one, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. A lot of mainstream critics, as a rule, hate most horror movies and are not especially fans of the genre. They also, almost always, are horrible judges of what is considered scary. When HEREDITARY, a very good movie, started riding the wave of film festival buzz earlier this year, before coming to regular theaters, most critics said it was one of the scariest movies of all time. It wasn’t. It was good, but I didn’t find it particularly scary. A lot of the same critics are saying the new HALLOWEEN is scary. It’s not. For a horror movie, the scares are few.

Part of this is probably because the director and writers mostly work on comedies (although Green started out making dramas). People assume anyone can make a horror movie, but that’s not really the case. Or rather, anyone can make a horror movie. But not everyone can make an effective/scary one. In fact, really scary movies are few and far between.

I thought the script here was very uneven. I found the whole reporters/sanitarium stuff that we start off with to be stilted – and it provided a very weak beginning to the film that almost had me bummed out right away. It bounced back a little once the reporters are out of the picture, but you really don’t want a lame start for a horror film.

There are several times where its pacing just seems off.  While Michael himself is good, they just don’t do enough with him. And while Laurie’s trauma/preparation was an interesting spin on the character, most of the story just left me cold by the time the end credits rolled.

In Carpenter’s original, you couldn’t take your eyes off the screen. It was riveting from beginning to end. And I didn’t feel that way with the new movie at all. There were parts I liked, but it didn’t seem like a fully-functioning whole. There were missteps.

And what the hell is up with the title? It’s not a remake or a reboot, but a sequel 40 years later, so why call it HALLOWEEN? Just to create confusion? It’s like in comic books where every once in awhile Marvel or DC will end all of their series and start over again with all-new Number One Issues, so that when you talk about #1, you have to include the date, so people know which one you’re talking about. Really, there is no reason why the new movie has to be called simply HALLOWEEN. I’m not completely sure why, but it irritates the hell out of me.

I wanted to love the new HALLOWEEN, but all I could muster was a like. It’s better than some of the other sequels, though I still have a lot of affection for HALLOWEEN III: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1982), which was the only film in the series to have nothing to do with Michael Myers. For diehard fans of Myers and the HALLOWEEN franchise, the new movie is worth seeing. But don’t buy into the hype and go in expecting something that it will blow you away and get you as revved up as Carpenter’s original. The new one isn’t even close.

But, based on the weekend box office, it looks like it’s doing well enough to revive the franchise.

And that’s okay. Not terrific, but okay.

Which is kind of my overall reaction to this one.

I give it two and a half knives out of five.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives HALLOWEEN (2018) – 2 1/2 knives

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MR. INBETWEEN (2018)

A “TV TRANSFUSION” Review by LL Soares

It’s really annoying when you watch a new show, really love it, and then it ends much too soon.

This is what happened to me when I watched the six episodes of the new show MR. INBETWEEN on the FX Channel on three Tuesday nights from late September to early October of this year. It was the first show to be aired here in the States to be made by FX Australia. Six episodes is an awful short season for a TV show. Even more so when it’s shown two episodes at a time over three consecutive Tuesday nights.

It stars Scott Ryan as Ray Shoesmith, a hit man and all around enforcer for a gangster named Freddy (Damon Herriman, best known here for playing Dewey Crowe on the series JUSTIFIED and Buddy on the unjustly canceled-before-its-time Cinemax series, QUARRY, Herriman will also be playing Charles Manson twice in 2019, in Season 2 of the Netflix series MINDHUNTER and in Quentin Tarantino’s next movie, ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD!). While Herriman is the most recognizable actor here, Ryan is the star, and MR. INBETWEEN gives us a great introduction to this actor.

His character, Ray, isn’t some glamorous James Bond type or an especially scary cold-blooded killer. Instead, Ray is just an everyday bloke who just happens to beat people up, or more often kill them, for a living. Ray is a put-upon, world-weary dude who is just trying to get through life, and who has zero tolerance for assholes, on the job or in his regular life.

Aside from his boss, we also meet his best friend, Gary (Justin Rosniak, also in the original movie version of ANIMAL KINGDOM, 2010), a goofy, bearded fellow who is constantly getting into trouble; Bruce (Nicholas Cassim), Ray’s older brother who has a motor function disease that is incapacitating him more and more as time goes on; Brittany (Chika Yasumura), Ray’s eight-year-old daughter; Jacinta (Natalie Tran), his ex-wife; and Nick (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) another thug who becomes Ray’s sidekick in a couple of episodes, until Ray finds out a troubling secret about him. There’s also Ally (Brooke Satchwell), who Ray meets in a dog park one day and who he has a relationship with. She’s tough and sexy, and is understandably disturbed as she slowly finds out what kinds of things he does for a living.

The episodes involve such stories as Ray taking the blame when Gary’s wife finds a p-no tape involving water sports in their house (Gary tells her that Ray left it there, and she proceeds to tell poor Ray how disgusting he is); Ray spending time with his daughter the times when he has custody, including bringing her over to his brother Bruce’s house – Ray takes care of his brother who’s health is slowly deteriorating; Gary’s Russian brother-in-law coming to stay with him, and eventually robbing him at gunpoint; Ray firing a semi-automatic at a carful of gangsters following him in their car; and Ray going to anger management classes mandated by law, even though he clearly doesn’t think he belongs there (he doesn’t hurt people out anger, he does it because they deserve it). The last two episodes are a two-part story involving a couple of killers who take Ray and his car by gunpoint, with the intention of bringing him to his death, but they take a side trip to a house where Ray has some hidden money, which he’s offered to give them if they let him go.

The character of Ray, despite his profession, is sympathetic and likeable, and you find yourself cheering for him despite the things he does. After all, he’s just trying to make a living. He also refuses to take any crap from people in his normal life – like when some teenagers insult him in front of his daughter; he tracks them down later to give them some rough life lessons.

The thing is, at six episodes, by the time I was getting comfortable with the show, and really digging Scott Ryan’s performance as Ray, the season was over. Ryan also writes all six episodes, and it’s directed by Nash Edgerton, who also directed the movies THE SQUARE (2008) and GRINGO (2018), and a bunch of Bob Dylan music videos, as well as being a seasoned stuntman.

FX just announced that they’ve renewed the show for a second season, but what the hell am I supposed to do in the meantime? If anyone from FX is reading this (which, I know, is highly unlikely), how about making twice as many episodes in Season 2? Six ain’t enough to even get your feet wet.

So I found myself tracking down a 2005 Australian movie called THE MAGICIAN on Amazon Streaming. It’s the first time we ever get to meet Ray Shoesmith, and it’s kind of funny to see Scott Ryan 13 years younger than he is now, with a faint shadow of the mustache he’d have in later years. He looks so damn young in this movie! And yet, it’s a nice little appetizer if you’re a fan of MR. INBETWEEN. It’s one of those “found footage” mockumentary films, where the director/cameraman is supposed to be making a documentary about someone’s life. In this case, the subject is Ray, as the “director” Max (Massimiliano Andrighetto) follows around his neighbor (Ray) and films him as he does his job, which includes shooting people in the head, and roughing up people who owe his boss money. There are some themes and plot points in the movie that show up again later in the TV show, but, just like the show, the heart of the piece of Ray, who just treats the job of hit man and all around thug as just another workaday blue collar gig. He’s as likable in 2005 as he is now, although it’s clear that THE MAGICIAN was made for peanuts (allegedly with a budget of $3,000), as a chance for Scott Ryan (who stars in it, of course, but also wrote and directed the movie) to get some exposure. It’s a fun little throwback for you if you get hooked on MR. INBETWEEN, like I did.

I’d really like to see Ryan’s career take off after this.

But I really want to urge you to seek MR. INBETWEEN out. With each episode running about 30 minutes, it’s not a big investment to watch the six episodes of Season 1. And that way you’ll probably get hooked on the show and be as annoyed as I am that we have to wait awhile for Season 2!!

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

THE PREDATOR (2018)

Review by LL Soares

I went in really wanting to like THE PREDATOR, the latest film in a franchise that began in 1987, but I was ultimately disappointed. The buzz beforehand was this would be the movie to reboot those dreadlock-wearing aliens who love to hunt humans and rip out their spines, and while some of it works, overall, I just wasn’t jazzed.

As mentioned, the first movie in the series, simply called PREDATOR, was an excuse for action star Arnold Schwarzenegger to go toe-to-toe with one of the predatory monsters of the title in the middle of jungle. Invisible for most of the film (these creatures love their cloaking devices), we didn’t get to really see the monster until the end when its invisibility device breaks, and Arnold has his final showdown. I didn’t think it was an amazing movie, but the monster was very cool, and it’s one of the better Schwarzenegger actioners of the time.

Clearly something about these creatures captured the movie-going public’s imagination, because those nasty Predators have been popping up in a lot of movies since, including sequels, and an “Alien vs. Predator” spinoff that was never all that good, despite combining two of the coolest aliens of the 80s.

The last time we saw these title baddies was in the 2010 “reboot” PREDATORS, which somehow continues to be overlooked, even though it was the best entry in the series. And yes, I’m including THE PREDATOR in that group. PREDATORS featured a bunch of human killers, including Adrien Brody, Danny Trejo, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins and Topher Grace, who find themselves transported to an alien planet where the Predators hunt them down. It was a cool concept of bring humans to them instead of their coming to Earth, and it was dark, and well-written, and very cool. And yet no one seems to mention it when they talk about the franchise, which just boggles my mind.

In the new movie, your typical clandestine government agency led by a ruthless dude named Traeger (Sterling K. Brown, currently on the show THIS IS US, and who was terrific as Christopher Darden in the first season of AMERICAN CRIME STORY, 2015-2016, about the O.J. Simpson trial), has been aware of the Predators since the late 80s and have been keeping an eye on their comings and goings. Each time they’ve shown up on Earth, they’ve upgrade themselves to be more formidable (as we all know, this is what Predators do). A scientist named Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn of IRON MAN 2, 2010 and MAGIC MIKE, 2012), who happens to be an expert in evolution, is “recruited” to join them after a crashed Predator ship is spotted in Mexico. There’s a big debate over why they’re called Predators (as Dr. Bracket points out, predators kill for survival, while these aliens kill for sport; shouldn’t they then be called Hunters? She’ll bring this up again in the movie.)

As for that crashed ship, it showed up just when our hero, sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, who was previously the villainous Pierce in LOGAN, 2017, as well as being in GONE GIRL, 2014), a mercenary working for another clandestine agency, is lining up a shot to take out some kidnappers who are part of a drug cartel. The ship messes everything up, and Quinn makes sure to grab some tech (mainly a helmet and an arm gauntlet/weapon) and mail them back home for safe keeping. The package shows up at his house, where his genius level son (who also suffers from autism), Rory (played by Jacob Tremblay of ROOM, 2015, and THE BOOK OF HENRY, 2017), opens the box and can’t resist playing on what’s inside. Since he’s a genius, he figures out to get them to work, thus alerting other Predators who are in pursuit of the crashed ship, and leading them right to Earth.

Meanwhile, Traeger’s men are doing their best to frame up Quinn for any casualties at the crash site, in their effort to cover it all up, since that’s what these government agencies do. Quinn is sent off to military prison, on a bus full of other wackos who seem to be both talented killers and, for the most part, total psychos. Nicknamed “The Loonies” by Quinn, they include leader Nebraska Williams (Trevante Rhodes, from the movie MOONLIGHT, 2016), wise-cracking Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key of KEY AND PEELE and KEANU, 2016), Tourette’s sufferer Baxley (Thomas Jane of THE PUNISHER, 2004, and THE MIST, 2007), religious Nettles (Augusto Aguilera, of the upcoming series TOO OLD TO DIE YOUNG, 2018) who keeps mentioning “The End Times,” and demolition guy Lynch (Alfie Allen, who plays Theon Greyjoy on GAME OF THRONES).

It also turns out that Traeger has the body of the Predator who was recovered from the crash in his lab, which is why Dr. Bracket was drafted to help. But when that Predator wakes up from its heavy sedation and escapes, Dr. Bracket is yet another intended casualty to be eliminated for knowing too much. The doctor is rescued from mission-mandated death from Quinn and his Loonies, who are then on the run from the government, after they themselves escape from that prison bus. They high-tail it back to Quinn’s house, where his tough military wife, Emily (Yvonne Stahovski, of the shows CHUCK, 2007 -2012, DEXTER from 2012-2013, and, currently, THE HANDMAID’S TALE), lives with that genius kid, Rory.

Traeger and his guys are hot on the train of that escaped Predator, who is hunting for Rory, but who’s also being hunted by another, much bigger Predator, who even has Predator Dogs! This would be a cool new twist, if Predator Dogs didn’t already exist. They first popped up in that underrated movie PREDATORS from 2010, which I say again is still the best entry in the franchise.

THE PREDATOR is directed by Shane Black, who also directed some good movies (KISS KISS BANG BANG, 2005 and the underrated THE NICE GUYS, 2016) and some bad ones (IRON MAN 3, 2013), and he does a slick job with this one, although way too often it seems more like a generic action movie, with lots of car crashes and explosions, and people leaping from high-up stuff, than a cool sci-fi flick. The script by Black and Fred Dekker (based on characters created by Jim and John Thomas) is uneven at best, and thinks it is way cooler than it actually is.

Let’s see. The pluses here are Boyd Holbrook as our hero, Quinn. He is more than capable as the action star this time around, and could clearly have a future as a leading man in these kinds of things. The dude has the charisma necessary to be a star. The Loonies can be fun at times, and Olivia Munn is good as the scientist in peril.  Sterling K. Brown is really good as the bad guy here, but he’s not given a lot of depth, and could have used a little more humanizing. The Predators, as usual, are cool as hell, and the main reason these movies exist, even if the human storylines have too many ups and downs.

The negatives include those “downs” I just mentioned, the times when the script seems too much like a by-the-numbers action movie (too often), and some big lapses of logic, including a bunch of guys surfing on top of a giant alien spacecraft that’s trying to zoom away. Not only do they somehow stay on top of it, but they also find a way to bring it down (this is not really a spoiler, is it? Unless you’ve never seen an action movie before), and it’s just hokey as hell. There are a few moments like this, and none of them make the movie better.

And, of course, the ending blatantly sets thing up for a sequel. Which will probably happen.

Yet another big budget movie that got a lot of buzz before its release and then turned out to be mediocre at best, I give THE PREDATOR two and a half knives. Not horrible, but you’d be much better off seeking out 2010’s PREDATORS instead.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives THE PREDATOR – two and a half knives.

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VENOM (2018)

Review by L.L. Soares

Yet again, Hollywood underestimates the popularity of a comic book character.

In some ways, the history of VENOM (2018) reminds me a lot of DEADPOOL (2016). Both were successful characters introduced by wunderkind comics book artists (and then-future founders of IMAGE Comics) during the time they worked for Marvel (Venom during artist Todd McFarlane’s run on THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and Deadpool during Rob Leifeld’s run on THE NEW MUTANTS). Both had dismal “first appearances” in the world of movies. For those who forgot, Venom has been onscreen before, in the absolutely abysmal Sam Raimi flick SPIDER-MAN 3 (2007), where he was played by That 70s Show star, Topher Grace. Rumor has it that Raimi didn’t want to include Venom in the movie, but the studio (Sony in this case) insisted. For some unfathomable reason, Grace (a young comedic star from a television show) was cast as world-weary Eddie Brock, a reporter who in turn becomes Venom. Horribly miscast, and in a horrible film, Grace’s version of Venom is rightly forgettable. Deadpool, on the other hand, also had a dismal debut in X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE (2009) played by Ryan Reynolds as a wisecracking character who doesn’t have much to say in the film (thus negating his most significant superpower, his wit). Reynolds was smart and savvy enough to know that Deadpool deserved better and pushed for the solo movie that made the character (and Reynolds) a household name. The summer before DEADPOOL the movie came out, I saw tons of people in Deadpool costumes at my local version of ComicCon, heralding the fact that the movie was going to be the huge hit that it was.

People also love Venom from the comics; they just wanted the version they loved to be done right onscreen. SPIDER-MAN 3 failed to give them that. So when VENOM, an overall goofy movie that has some real fun parts, finally opened in theaters, and people got a character who was very obviously their hero (anti-hero) from the comics (as opposed to that forgettable Topher Grace character), they ate it up. Just like Venom does to some lowlife criminals in the movie.

The star of VENOM is Tom Hardy, and it’s interesting that we have yet another link to the “bad first appearance” theme I’ve started here. Hardy has had big success in superhero movies before, having played the iconic Bane in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012), after Bane had been done (badly, and forgettably) first as a henchman for Poison Ivy in Joel Schumacher’s BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997), where he was played by wrestler Robert “Jeep” Swenson.

Which is all a long way of bringing us to a review of the new VENOM movie, starring Hardy.

In the comics, the origin of Venom is a long, convoluted tale that begins when Spider-Man gets an alien costume during the cosmic “Secret Wars” storyline. A costume that turns out to have a life of its own and an evil agenda, leading Peter Parker to ditch the “cool new black costume” he brings back to Earth. The costume, actually a parasitic alien called a “symbiote” that needs a host to survive, then latches on to suicidal reporter Eddie Brock, whose life has just fallen apart.  Brock hates Parker for his own reasons, the costume hates Parker for rejecting it, and the costume retains the knowledge of Parker and his secret identity, turning Brock into a powerful bad guy who also just happens to know all of Peter Parker’s secrets. But no longer was the symbiote portrayed as a cool black version of Spider-Man’s costume. On Eddie Brock, the costume became much more horrific: a monster with rows of dagger-like teeth, and a horrid and very prominent tongue. In other words, the Venom that comics fans would recognize and love.

The new VENOM movie, having less time for an origin story, and (legally) no real access to Spider-Man, creates a new/truncated origin for our hero, involving alien symbiotes come to earth, and world-weary Eddie Brock, but eliminating the Spider-Man connections. Of course, I’m sure plans are afoot to somehow have Venom and Spider-Man interact onscreen someday, despite the boundaries of who owns what. Marvel has, afterall, acquired Spider-Man himself from Sony in a kind of studio collaboration process, as seen in the movie SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

Anyway, back to this movie. Rich tech tycoon Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed, who starred in the HBO series THE NIGHT OF) has financed a space shuttle to go to a passing asteroid and collect some samples (proving there’s life on there!). Coming back to Earth, the shuttle crashes in Malaysia, creating headlines. Drake’s staff is able to retrieve all of the samples except one, that hops from person to person until it eventually comes home to Mr. Drake. But that takes awhile.

In the meantime, Drake is secretly experimenting on homeless people that have been abducted from the streets, combining them with the samples – those alien parasites called symbiotes – to create a new, stronger human. The symbiotes can’t live in our atmosphere without a host, and, if Drake can find the secret of combining them, not only will the aliens be able to survive in our atmosphere, the human hosts will be able to survive in space, thus creating a race of symbiotic supermen who are so much cooler than weak, ordinary humans. The sad part is, every time Drake tries to unite a human and a symbiote it ends in rejection, and the humans end up dead.

Enter investigative reporter Eddie Brock, who can’t help trying to expose wrongdoing, and who gets a chance to interview Drake. When he brings up some of the overseas shenanigans Drake’s company is involved in on-air, the powerful businessman makes sure Brock is fired from his job. And for good measure, Drake also fires Brock’s fiancée, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams), who is one of Drake Corp.’s lawyers. This leads to Brock and his girlfriend breaking up, along with Brock being jobless.

By the time he finds out about the human experiments, thanks to the conscience of Drake Corp. scientist Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate), Brock wants to never hear the name Carlton Drake again, but eventually comes around, taking up Dr. Skirth’s offer to sneak him into the labs to take pictures.

While he’s there, Brock is exposed to one of the symbiotes, and is pursued throughout the building by security. Somehow, he escapes, but this turns into a city-wide chase throughout San Francisco, ending up at Eddie’s apartment, where all hell breaks loose, in the form of Venom’s “coming out.” It starts as a voice in Eddie’s head, until the creature manifests itself when attacked, making mincemeat of anyone who tries to harm its host human.

The rest of the movie involves Drake and his minions trying to get Brock and bring him back to the lab, since he’s the one case where the human/symbiote experiment succeeded! Oh, and for good measure, Drake eventually gets a symbiote of his own and turns into a similar creature called Riot, who is Venom’s superior on their home world, but Venom isn’t exactly the type to go along with the whole hierarchy thing now that’s he’s had a taste of freedom here on Earth.

The movie starts out a little awkward. At first, Tom Hardy seems miscast as Brock; it’s hard to picture this sad sack character as a successful/charismatic TV reporter, and even his relationship with successful/sophisticated lawyer Anne strains credibility. But things change once Eddie meets his new “partner.” The interaction between Brock and Venom can be pretty humorous at times, and its their interplay that eventually turns this movie from potentially awful to a very fun ride. The Brock/Venom dynamic reminded a little of a similar concept in another recent movie, UPGRADE (2018), where Logan Marshall-Green gets a passenger inside his body (and his head) when an AI is implanted into his damaged body. I actually think UPGRADE is the better movie, but VENOM is more goofy fun, and Hardy turns a performance that at first doesn’t seem to be working into one that’s very entertaining.

Of course, Venom and Riot are going to eventually have a showdown, at the site of another space shuttle launch (part of a very sinister master plan on Drake’s part), but this movie is more of an origin story than anything else. Carlton Drake and his alter ego aren’t all that amazing; they’re just a (almost generic) bad guy for Brock and Venom to team up to defeat.

Because, obviously, Venom is pretty much the only reason to see this movie.

You can tell this isn’t a Marvel Studios (and therefore Disney-adjacent) blockbuster, because it’s not as slick as the Marvel movies, and the CGI, while mostly good, looks a little hokey in some scenes. But the Venom on the screen is the one comic book fans love, and they’ve already proven that they have totally embraced him, based on the box office receipts. VENOM just feels more low-budget in comparison to what we’re used to from Marvel, from the scenery to the character development (or, in most cases, lack thereof). VENOM isn’t exactly flashy and awe-inspiring, but it is a faithful presentation of the character, and in this case, that’s enough.

The cast, for the most part, is pretty much wasted. The great Michelle Williams, who I’ve loved in everything she does, isn’t given a lot to do in the girlfriend role, even though she does get to wear the symbiote briefly in one scene (Go, Lady Venom!), and she’s a little more hands-on and helpful than most human sidekicks. It doesn’t hurt that her Anne is smart (probably much smarter than Eddie). Riz Ahmed is a good actor, but his Carlton Drake is yet another one-dimensional billionaire who thinks he’s above the law (an archetype we’ve been seeing a little too much of lately).

But Tom Hardy makes the Eddie Brock thing work, despite itself, and has some funny moments as he bonds with his inner (and outer) monster. Hardy is one of my favorite current actors, but I have to admit, early on, I was a little unsure of whether he could pull this off. Eddie Brock isn’t one of most nuanced or best written roles he’s had, and at first he doesn’t seem sure what to do. Let’s face it, in a lot of ways, this is a step down for him acting-wise. But once Venom finally shows up, the movie redeems itself, and so does Hardy (here). And, in a perverse way, it’s nice to see an actor of Hardy’s caliber (normally) get his own piece of the superhero/cash cow pie.

The movie’s directed by Ruben Fleischer, who previously gave us ZOMBIELAND (2009) and GANGSTER SQUAD (2013), and he does a good job here. The script has its ups and downs and is one of the movie’s weakest links (luckily Hardy and Williams are better than the material) and it was written by Jeff Pinkner (who also wrote the screenplays for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, 2014, and THE DARK TOWER, 2017), Scott Rosenberg (CON AIR, 1997, HIGH FIDELITY, 2000, and JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE, 2017) and Kelly Marcel (SAVING MR. BANKS, 2013, and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, 2015). It’s based, of course, on the character created in the comics by David Michelinie (writer) and Todd McFarlane (artist).

Like Marvel movies, we even get some extra scenes during the end credits. One gives us a peak at Woody Harrelson as a guy who’s none other than Venom’s biggest enemy (all set up for the sequel). The second one, at the very end of the credits, is a prolonged scene/commercial for the upcoming animated film SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE (2018), that Sony is putting out this December. That’s overlong and not really worth sitting through, unless you’re looking forward to that movie, too.

VENOM isn’t a great movie, but I’m a fan of the character and by the end, I didn’t feel cheated (like I did with SPIDER-MAN 3) and it’s a fun ride while it lasts. So, because I had such a good time with it, I’m giving VENOM a rating of three knives.

And I’m looking forward to the inevitable sequel.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

 

 

LL Soares gives VENOM ~ three out of five knives.

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HARD Back In Print!

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted some writing news.

My novel HARD, published in 2013 by Novello Blue (an imprint of Novello Publishers), went out of print earlier this year. Well, it’s back in print now – with a a brand new, beautiful cover – from Crossroads Press! Available now for Kindle, with the paperback coming soon. And here’s the new cover:

Hard cover (1)

 

 

HELL FEST (2018)

Review by LL Soares

Since I’m a fan of 80s slasher films, I’m always curious to check out any new films in the genre, even if they’re almost always disappointing. Bad slasher films have been the norm over the past 18 years, and it hasn’t done much to help the genre at all. The latest example is HELL FEST (2018), directed by Gregory Plotkin, who also gave us PARANORMAL ACTIVITY: THE GHOST DIMENSION (2015).

One of this movie’s pluses is the location. It takes place over one night at a Halloween-themed festival, made up of scary mazes where people in costume jump out at you. The killer is a guy in a zombie mask and a hoodie, whose face we never see, who kills a girl and strings her up from the ceiling in the opening scene. Jump two years ahead to our current story, where a bunch of kids show up at the titular HELL FEST for some scares. The kids feature a few more sympathetic members, especially Amy Forsyth (also currently in the movie BEAUTIFUL BOY, and on such shows as RISE, 2018, and CHANNEL ZERO, 2017) as Natalie, who is pretty much the lead here. Sweet, shy, and very likable, Natalie is having a rough time with classes in college when she comes back home for a little R&R, namely hanging out with her BFF Brooke (Reign Edwards, of the TV shows MACGYVER, 2017-2018, and SNOWFALL, 2017-2018).

Natalie is a little bummed to see that Brooke now lives with roommate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus, who was terrific as “Bullet” on the third season of the AMC series THE KILLING IN 2013, but isn’t given much to work with here), a punky girl who they both went to school with, and who Natalie is sure doesn’t like her (Taylor frequently calls Natalie the nickname “Grade School”). But any discomfort is sidetracked by the fact that Gavin, a boy Natalie likes, has gotten them all tickets to the annual HELL FEST of the title. While Natalie clearly isn’t a big fan of being scared, the idea of spending some time with Gavin (Roby Attal), who actually asked about her while she was gone, clearly makes the visit home a little better. Like Natalie, Gavin is awkward but sweet, and they clearly seem to be hitting it off once everyone gathers at the festival to be scared. Also along for the ride are Taylor’s boyfriend, Asher (Matt Mercurio), and Brooke’s boyfriend, Quinn (Christian James), who are also friends of Gavin, and regularly tease him for being so nerdy. Asher and Quinn, however, are easily the least interesting of our college-aged protagonists.

Our killer from that first scene/flashback, who then wore a devil mask, comes to the same festival Natalie and her friends are at, this time with a rather generic zombie mask, and the hood of his hoodie pulled up. He fixates on Natalie pretty early on after killing another girl in front of her (the kids think it’s part of the show, but Natalie thinks something is wrong, since it seems to “real”), and starts following her around the park.

The park and horror mazes themselves are interesting enough, providing lots of spooky tableaus where we wonder if the threats are real or not. Lots of jump scares where costumed creeps pop out of hidden doors, and of course, our homicidal bad guy mixed in for good measure. Who will die and when? Well, our killer takes his sweet time being a creepy stalker before he actually commences with the slaughter. In the meantime, at least we get a  cameo by Tony “Candyman” Todd as a master of ceremonies during an on-stage guillotine bit, but his appearance is “cut” much too short. 

Natalie is creeped out to keep seeing the zombie-mask guy always nearby and watching her, but everyone else laughs it off. They only take her worries less seriously when they reach a part of the maze/park where numerous people are dressed exactly like the killer (thus making it hard to figure out which one is really dangerous). When he finally gets tired of watching and starts killing, however, the murders come pretty close together.

Aside from park where it’s set (which actually gets to be fun at times) and some of the acting (specifically Forsyth and Edwards, who are likable and sympathetic throughout), there’s not much new here to reinvigorate the genre. Slasher movies gotta slash, and this one is no exception. As I mentioned, I found the killer’s mask particularly bland in this one, and there’s not much to distinguish him from lots of similar killers in lots of other movies. Although a semi-clever ending clearly sets things up for a sequel that may or may not ever happen (I don’t think this did very well at the box office).

HELL FEST is directed well enough by Plotkin, with a scrift by Seth M. Sherwood, Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper, based on a story by William Penick and Christopher Sey (that’s a lot of people involved for a script that’s so forgettable). But in the end, it’s a pretty mediocre movie, and an unremarkable slasher entry.

I give it two knives.

© Copyright 2018 by LL Soares

LL Soares gives HELL FEST – two knives.

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