(On Cable TV, April 2019) I wanted to be more positive toward Venom, but it’s a slick and overproduced piece of typical action/SF blockbuster, well made at times and yet conceptually dull to a surprising extent. The fun here isn’t in the overall concept, which was also tackled to superior effect in the similar Upgrade. No, where Venom show signs of life is in the details of its execution, whether it’s sight gags during a rather good pursuit through San Francisco streets, a sexy She-Venom (taller and curvier than Michelle Williams) showing up for a few moments, or the ticks and quirks of Tom Hardy’s performance as a man not entirely in control of his life or his body. Part of the problem is in the ludicrous idea of making the film fit within PG-13 confines—the creature design, body horror and tendency for the monster to decapitate and eat its victims make it a poor fit for the rating. I’m usually the last person to opine that R ratings are superior, but that’s not the case here: never mind the lack of blood, it’s the film’s self-conscious restraint in the PG-13 context that makes it repeatedly frustrating—a hard-R would have allowed creative freedom to the result. Otherwise, well, Venom does feel a bit silly in between its good moments. The plausibility of nearly everything is dubious, and the film does suffer from the overproduced tendency of modern blockbusters to keep the camera shaking, overcut action scenes to shreds and throw so much CGI on-screen that we never believe in it. Fortunately, there is a human element: The always-cute Jenny Slate shows up for a few moments; Tom Hardy does turn in an interesting half-possessed performance (with a few exceptions, Hardy isn’t that interesting an actor when he’s just himself—he has to take over a bigger-than-life role to be compelling); and supporting players such as Ahmez Riz to wrap things up. There’s also some mildly interesting subtext (or rather quasi-text) in the symbiotic relationship between the protagonist and his alien host that plays well to audiences willing to let their imaginations run wild. Still, for all of the good bits and pieces to be found in Venom, they feel like exceptions dragged down by the film’s overall dull tone and plot. Something far more interesting could have been possible by using those elements better and so the film remains a disappointment no matter its scattered strengths. But I’m sure we’ll get a sequel anyway.
(On Cable TV, January 2018) Frankly, I expected the worst schmaltz from this family melodrama featuring a genius-level kid. Hollywood seldom deals well with genius, and the temptation to turn this into a syrupy rote “brain doesn’t matter at much as heart” Hollywood pap seemed irresistible from the plot synopsis. But Gifted actually works better than expected thanks to a few winning performances and generally well-executed conventions. Chris Evans is rather good as a smart-but-troubled ordinary guy trying to raise his genius niece despite significant challenges. McKenna Grace is fine as the genius kid, while Jenny Slate is immensely likable as a teacher trying to help. Octavia Spencer does her best with a limited role, while Lindsay Duncan is suitably hissable as the antagonist. Director Marc Webb returns to simpler drama after disappointingly overblown superhero films, and the genre suits him much better. Otherwise, Gifted is a straightforward family drama, not too syrupy and decently heart-warming when it needs to be. Some of the plot turns aren’t necessarily happy (and the conclusion is bittersweet enough). The details are interesting: there’s a cute Lego reference, and the look at mathematical academia is intriguing despite a bit of showboating with a celebrated “unsolvable” problem. Gifted doesn’t avoid the usual “heart> brain” stuff, but it does seem to come to its conclusion honestly. It could have been much worse, and the result is palatable enough.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) As a parent, you get to see the weirdest things, and I’m being completely honest when I say that Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked was nowhere my radar of things to watch. But daddy proposes and kitty decides, so that explains what I’m doing watching animated chipmunks sing to popular songs while landing on a deserted island. What’s even less probable is that I ended up enjoying myself. Oh, this isn’t particularly sophisticated filmmaking or even particularly refined comedy. The film is for kids, the jokes are obvious, the actors taken pleasure in hamming it up (with particular props to David Cross as a Chipmunks-hating antagonist and Jenny Slate as a castaway steadily getting crazier as the film advances. I knew practically nothing of the series beyond gagging at the trailers for the first two movies, but it’s not hard to quickly pick up on the basics. The rest is too cute to be angry, as the CGI animals blend with the otherwise live-action movie. (As noted elsewhere, this is practically a subgenre by now.) There are enough chuckles here to make the experience enjoyable by adults, and the bouncy musical numbers (including a predictable final rendition of “Survivor”) will keep the kids hopping. Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked is a cartoon, it’s fun and it’s not entirely insulting. My standards for kids’ movies are age-appropriate.