Review: Peterloo (2018)

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Not a bad sized crowd. And without Twitter too: Film4/Thin Man Films

I’m fully behind everything PETERLOO as a film stands for, and with individual liberties under threat ever more stories like this have become vital. Unfortunately I found the the manner in which Mike Leigh tells this story deeply frustrating.

Lancashire, 1819. In a period of economic and social upheaval following the Napoleonic Wars, a massive peaceful protest advocating Parliamentary reforms was organised on Manchester’s St Peter’s Field. The people of one of England’s most populous northern counties demanded fair representation, but those in power saw a mass gathering of such a number of the lower classes as a great threat and took extreme measures to disperse them, to disastrous effect.

The smaller “Mike Leigh” moments, like the protesters chatting about which towns they’re from and how far they’ve walked as they wait for the big speech, are great. But there’s just not enough of them. The film is two and a half hours and yet I never thought I knew these characters.

When people aren’t speechifying they’re stopping scenes dead to explain the Corn Laws. Mike Leigh’s method uses character workshopping extensively to produce natural conversation, but here the artifice is clear and nothing rings true. Nobody in the ensemble gives a bad performance, but they all struggle to give their characters more than a single dimension. Maxine Peake’s Nellie and her family (not given a surname) are dignified in their poverty, Rory Kinnear’s Henry Hunt is an impassioned self-promoter, Neil Bell’s Samuel Bamford enjoys any cause that gives him an excuse to be a loudmouth.

The antagonists are most effective if you see them as political cartoons made flesh. The cabal of brutal magistrates are particularly good value for money (especially the shouty Vincent Franklin) though they perhaps belong in a different film, maybe a Dickens adaptation.

The film does get a lot better as it matches on. Once the crowds and the banners finally reach St Peter’s Field you can really feel the story start to thrum with the power it was previously lacking. The last forty minutes or so of Peterloo has momentum.

The desired electoral reforms were well worth fighting for. At the time the populous northern districts of Manchester, Salford, Bolton, Oldham and the surrounding areas had to share two county MPs between them. With no direct representation and only privileged landowners able to vote, the vast majority of the population of Lancashire were without a voice. The people of Manchester simply wanted the government to give serious consideration to the election of their own representative. The magistrates’ grasp of what actions were illegal (actually electing an MP without the king’s consent, not just talking about it) was ironically tenuous. The assembled crowd were only ever meeting to “consider the propriety of adopting the most legal and effectual means of obtaining a reform of the Common House of Parliament”.

It’s funny the things Leigh chose to leave out. There was an (unused) artillery unit at St Peter’s Field, and showing this would have been a very easy way to communicate the overreaction of the English establishment to the people rising up. Leigh also calls his story to a close immediately post-Peterloo, not covering the riots in Manchester that raged into the night (arguably a more justifiable reason for military supression) and he does not furnish his audience with any contextualising information in summary. Leigh has stated that ending on facts and figures would have lessened the emotional impact of the piece, and it doesn’t really fit with his usual naturalistic style. And yet, he opens with text setting up Waterloo and little else in his film is truly naturalistic or honestly emotional.

Peterloo stumbles on the march and Mike Leigh overreaches himself. I’m pleased that I’ve finally seen a Mike Leigh film on the big screen (though I wish it had been this one) and that I now know how pivotal an event Peterloo was. But this story deserves a better vehicle, one with more nuance, real emotion and clearer communication of facts. SSP

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Review: They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)

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We will remember them: Trustees of the Imperial War Museum/WingNut Films

This isn’t just another war documentary, it’s an important historical document. Despite the upsetting imagery, I sincerely hope it’s shown in schools to acknowledge the Centenary of the First World War’s end. Peter Jackson has really pulled out the stops on this one, crafting something thoughtful, affecting and deeply personal.

An account of British soldiers’ experiences during the First World War from joining up to life in the trenches and the horrors of battle, all in the survivors’ own words.

So the central gimmick being sold in marketing THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD (and whatever the honourable intentions behind the film, it is a gimmick) is the restoration and colourisation of a massive amount of footage from 1914-1918. The film’s aspect ratio gradually widens as soldiers march towards the camera and the WIZARD OF OZ moment that greets our brave boys’ arrival in Belgium is admittedly striking.

Even more so than the image restoration, the craft evident in the foley artistry is astounding. Every diegetic sound had to be matched perfectly to what is on screen, appropriate soldiers’ accounts had to be selected from a vast catalogue and knitted together. Little touches like the whir of a film projector dying away as the footage opens out and colour seeps in, snaps of post-recorded conversations between soldiers matched to the footage by lip-reading experts (“Hi mum!”) brings this story to vivid life.

The colourisation is at times jarring, looking almost uncanny, but your eye gets used to it and the sharpening and smoothing of the image does make the people on screen seem less lost in the past. I think the act of giving black and white footage the same pastel colour palette as a lot of the propaganda posters of the time was an intentional artistic decision, and it almost works.

This is my favourite kind of documentary; unbroken stream of consciousness and propelled by emotion rather than facts. I can’t stand talking heads or chronological analysis and have always thought just letting the subjects speak for themselves is far more effective.

The thing the documentary gets across so effectively is that these men were just ordinary guys. They were happy and dedicated in a lot of their work, they forged unbreakable friendships with their fellows and took great pleasure in winding each other up in their off time. As well as the horrors of the battlefield, frank stories are told of more mundane horrors of makeshift toilets (precariously perching on a plank over a pit of filth) and the more naive young soldiers having…eye-opening experiences in the Belgian provinces while on leave.

The bodies strewn across abandoned battlefields are upsetting, but not as much as a line of soldiers blinded by gas shuffling to be seen by the medics or a man in and amongst the walking wounded who has escaped battle physically intact but with a telltale tremor in one hand. Perhaps most upsetting of all is the story one soldier tells of his elderly father not believing the horrors he has been through when he gets back home and having the nerve to regurgitate what he’d read about the war back in Blighty.

This is a social history of war. The candid images of soldiers just being themselves, the importance of the few creature comforts available like jam (plum and apple) and tea, the mad dash prompted by a beer delivery. It didn’t really occur to me that “life in the trenches” wasn’t the whole experience, but only one facet of a regular work rotation, or that the war wasn’t personal on any level. There’s some great footage of German prisoners of war hanging out with their captors, chatting and smoking, trying on each other’s helmets. The Germans of course speak decent English and we just speak louder and slower. Make They Shall Not Grow Old part of your remembrance this Armistice Day, carry on the tradition of telling stories of bad times and good, and never forget. SSP

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Review in Brief: Hereditary (2018)

Is HEREDITARY a good film? Yes. A good horror film? Not so much. I love that we see plenty of examples of the genre that don’t just rely on jump scares now, but you’ve got to offer true fear junkies something other than an ominous mood. It’s the same problem I had with IT FOLLOWS; was a good character piece but I just didn’t find it frightening. Hereditary is chock-full of eerie atmosphere and the performances from Toni Collette, Alex Wolff et al as the most disturbed family this side of the Torrances are something else. Director Ari Aster has a real eye for striking shot construction and creatively blurs reality by melding dolls house and house house scales throughout. But it just didn’t chill me and when we find out what has really been going on (inside the family’s heads or not) it’s all just a bit anticlimactic. SSP

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Halloween Retrospective: Universal Frankenstein (As Played by Karloff)

I know quite a bit about Universal Horror. I wrote my Masters dissertation on it a few years back. This Halloween, I thought I’d look back at my favourite series within this cycle, FRANKENSTEIN. I know they made more than three, but I’ve limited myself to the ones where Boris Karloff played the Monster, otherwise we’d be here all day.

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Universal

FRANKENSTEIN (1931) The Gothic sideshow tone is set straight away by a pre-credits flourish that speaks straight to the audience (“Well, we did warn you…”). Colin Clive really did sell the “It’s alive!” didn’t he?Back in old Hollywoodland your wife couldn’t follow you on a monster hunt but it was A-OK to lock her in a ground floor room with a wide open window. Henry was chosen over Victor Frankenstein as the less Germanic-sounding male lead, and yet the dashing alternative All-American romantic interest is still called Victor. They clarified later in the series that he was really called Heinrich anyway. The use of “normal” and “criminal” brains as a plot device hasn’t aged all that well, but director James Whale makes the very best use of the early motion picture technology (have you ever seen how technically inept Tod Browning’s DRACULA actually is ?) the lighting, framing, camera setup is really damned effective, and Karloff is perfect in his every moment.

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Universal

BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) The bring us back with a clever little framing device acknowledging the Monster’s literary origins and handy plot recap for those in the cheap seats. There’s a certain casual disregard for how definitively the last film ended, but I doubt many entertainment-hungry audiences cared. The Monster kills more excessively this time seemingly just because he’s had enough with our crap. The camp humour is liberally scattered throughout at Whale’s behest and the script is much sharper overall. It’s almost a shame we first think of Gene Hackman’s lethal blind man in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, because the scene it is so affectionately ribbing here is just so earnest and touching. The Monster climbs through another window to get at Elizabeth. I agree with Karloff; having the Monster speak broken English throughout much of the film removes much of his power. His final (should have been only) line, “We belong dead!” still really works though.

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Universal

SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) They’re not even trying to maintain continuity any more. The never-European town is renamed and remodelled, the previously contemporary(ish) events are pushed further back into time to provide a big of distance between the Monster’s creator and his not particularly reluctant heir to mad science-dom (Basil Rathbone). They would have probably just used Henry Frankenstein again if Colin Clive hadn’t been dead at the time. The Monster is silent again as well, but that’s probably for the best. This is the one Mel Brooks seems to have drawn most heavily on for his spoof, especially with the prominent scene of playing darts with a wooden-armed policeman. Ygor is a fine addition to the mythology and unusually nuanced, detestable yet tragic in Bela Lugosi’s hands, but in the other extreme Karloff and Rathbone clearly aren’t having much fun and there’s no reason for this to be twenty minutes longer than all the others. Don’t even get me started on the most irritating, attention-seeking child actor in screen history (“Well heeellooo!”).

Happy Halloween, gods and monsters all. SSP

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Review in Brief: Ingrid Goes West (2017)

Is anyone in denial about what a versatile actor Aubrey Plaza is? Well you shouldn’t be. From deadpan brilliance in SCOTT PILGRIM and PARKS AND RECREATION to charismatic psychopathy in LEGION and now her most pained, nuanced and challenging role in INGRID GOES WEST. It’s a dark drama for the age we live in, charting the destructive path of obsession channeled through all-consuming social media. Young people not having any lives without their phones, devices being their portals to everything, is no longer a tabloid scaremongering story. You can absolutely buy that someone like Ingrid (Plaza), with her psychological volatility and need to escape from her pain-filled unfulfilling life would latch onto a charismatic personality that she could emulate. It’s disturbing, tragic stuff and no character is easy to like (especially Elizabeth Olsen’s Insta-celeb), though the cast give them depth and pathos in abundance. SSP

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Review: A Quiet Place (2018)

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Right children, fingers on lips!: Platinum Dunes/Sunday Night

Sometimes the simplest premises have the most memorable results. I don’t think A QUIET PLACE is a game-changer for the horror or sci-fi genres, but it is very good at what it does. It also makes me want to see John Krasinski and Emily Blunt apply the lessons of their real-life marriage to more of their work.

The Abbott family live a quiet life, not out of choice, but out of necessity. The world has been invaded by deadly creatures that hunt by sound, and the Abbotts struggle for survival has already dealt them their share of pain, but it isn’t going to get any easier with a baby on the way…

The stakes in this post-apocalypse are clear from the off as we see the ingenious DIY systems the family have developed to avoid unnecessary sound, from sand tracks along their walking routes outside to painted floorboards taking you on the least squeaky route throughout the house and eating all meals from leaves to avoid clattering.

Never mind the space monsters, to derive real drama A Quiet Place confronts issues every family faces in macrocosm. A simple belligerent family tiff becomes a death sentence, growing pains and not feeling like you belong are more-massive-than-usual hurdles to overcome.

It’s more tense than truly scary, but effectively building tension is a craft, and not an easy one. For every JAWS that gets it just right, you get a JAWS 2 that completely botches it. A Quiet Place gets that there’s a rhythm to tension and exploits our expectations of that rhythm to extremely good effect.

The best and worst person you could be stuck with in a soundless apocalypse is someone without their hearing. Regan (Millicent Simmonds) may not have the same temptation to speak as the rest of her family, but she also can’t hear any danger coming or any sound she inadvertently makes without seeing the reaction of others.

Good sound design is such an essential, and often underrated aspect of the filmmaking process. It’s such a neat little idea to have the sound cut out completely every time we shift to Regan’s point of view. It works stylistically as a method of differentiation but also adds to the tension as we’ve no idea (along with her) how much noise she is making. It’s a gimmick that could stood to have been used a bit more liberally to drive the point home and make the film stand out, much the same as HUSH from a couple of years back.

Lee’s only concern is the protection of his family, but that drive does bring with it some old-fashioned views. He’d sooner train his scaredy-cat son (Noah Jupe) up as the next hunter-gatherer than his much tougher, more practical daughter, because it’s what the boys are supposed to do and the girls aren’t. Regan and Evelyn really do get to show what they’re capable of in kick-ass fashion before the credits roll, so Lee’s fears were unfounded.

There’s a certain amount of acceptance in Regan’s notion of self; though her dad would sooner “fix” her with improvised hearing aides she has long since come to terms with her disability and now seems to see it as part of who she is (“Just. Stop!”). Simmonds sells this expression of self-acceptance 100% and acts everyone else off the screen.

The monsters, seemingly like a lot we’re seeing on TV and film lately, look like a cross between the CLOVERFIELD monster and the demogorgon from STRANGER THINGS. The word of the day for monster design at the moment seems to be “spindly”. I’d have liked to see a more original monster, but there you are.

A Quiet Place is an extremely effective thriller. It’s also love letter to, and demonstration of the power of, the most unappreciated aspects of filmmaking. Add to this a very real-feeling and compelling family chemistry and I completely understand why this made such a big splash with audiences. Definitely worth a look. SSP

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Review: First Man (2018)

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Enjoy this medium shot, you won’t be seeing many others: Universal Pictures/DreamWorks

We all know this story. If you were alive for the Moon Landing then you watched it, if you weren’t then you’ve still seen the footage. With FIRST MAN, Damien Chazelle explores the cost and the impact of getting the first man on the Moon on those most closely involved with the almighty effort.

Following a series of personal tragedies, test pilot Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) is accepted onto NASA’s Project Gemini aiming to get American men into space and eventually on the surface of the Moon. For almost a decade, Armstrong and his fellow astronauts put their bodies through unimaginable pressures, their families through trauma and strain, and their very lives on the line.

Throughout First Man we watch Neil go through cycles of extreme focus and total emotional shutdown. When he has a clear task to achieve, nothing can deter him and he throws everything into doing the impossible. But when he loses somebody close or is forced to express emotions he is uncomfortable with (especially with others watching) he withdraws into himself completely. This of course effects his home life drastically and you really feel for how challenging life with him must have been for his wife Janet (Claire Foy) and sons. Gosling and Foy portray the Armstrongs’ loving but sometimes fraught marriage with captivating realism, never more so than when Janet has fly off the handle to stop Neil from doing something they will all regret.

It’s very thematically appropriate that when he finally walks on the moon, because of the necessary solar shielding on his helmet, the normally difficult to read Neil doesn’t have a face. Nobody does withdrawn, strong silent types quite like Gosling and all attention is on him here, every minuscule reaction in his unreadable visage.

This is one of the most effective uses of IMAX of all time. I won’t tell you the exact moment the change comes, but I think you may have an inkling. While the film makes the very best use of modern filmmaking technology in the set pieces, the film stock used and the pace of the earthbound scenes make it feel like classic film.

Much like THE RIGHT STUFF, the real terror comes from the constant cacophonous noise, not just the roar of fuel burning and air whistling past but more mundane, un-spacey and terrifying noises like rattling rivets and creaking metal. I was aware people died during the failed launches, but not the exact horrible circumstances. We know from films like HIDDEN FIGURES (which would be a good primer for this follow-up story) how much was riding on every calculation, and we really get a sense of what polymaths astronauts had to be; at their physical peak, calm under the pressure of imminent death and always able to not just think but think in three dimensional space, adjusting for acting forces or lack of in your given environment.

The can’t fail, they mustn’t fail or else all that waste of life would be just that. I’m not a space geek and I don’t foster that dream of one day getting into space as many do (on the contrary I find the idea of leaving Terra Firma and facing the infinite, even for a moment, absolutely terrifying). That said, I get the fascination, I get why it’s important to keep striving for advances in this area.

The only real issues I had with First Man were ones of connection, but this was likely intentional. For me the camera could have pulled back a few more times to take in a moment, given us a break from feeling like we’re invading the Armstrongs’ privacy.

The space flight scenes gave me pretty intense motion sickness, which probably means they worked well. What will stay with me was the personal touch, not quite letting you in to the Armstrongs’ lives but using them as stand-ins for so many families that were changed forever by the Space Race. SSP

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Review in Brief: I Kill Giants (2017/18)

I KILL GIANTS is worth watching for many reasons, but one of the simpler pleasures on offer is the offhand way a character says the line “My older brother was misbegotten”. It feels like A MONSTER CALLS meets BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA, but with perhaps more honest emotionality¬† and fewer fireworks to hide behind than either. The kids turn in better performances here as well, especially Madison Wolfe as the emotionally complicated Barbara. Don’t let the marketing fool you, this isn’t a fantasy adventure. The fantastical elements are all a metaphor darling, a coping mechanism and outlet for our lead feeling scared, alone and different. Under sufferance she has a friend (Sydney Wade), an overworked but loving older sister (Imogen Poots) and a school counselor who looks out for her (Zoe Saldana), but Barbara mustn’t let any of them in lest they (as she sees it) get in the way of her town-saving destiny or (in reality) break her guard and make a real connection with her. SSP

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Review: Journeyman (2017/18)

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Lose yourself: Film4/Inflammable Films

I really don’t know how he does it. TYRANNOSAUR singled Paddy Considine out as a filmmaker to watch, one with a clear and distinct voice all his own. But apparently just writing and directing just didn’t quite satisfy his creative drive. With JOURNEYMAN he is not only telling his own self-penned story but he is almost the entire focus of it portraying its trauma-inflicted lead.

At the height of his fame, middleweight champion boxer Matty Burton (Paddy Considine) suffers a head injury that turns his world upside down. Can Matty regain anything of what he has lost and remain part of his family’s life?

If we’re looking for easy movie comparisons, it’s a British ROCKY meets the documentary MY BEAUTIFUL BROKEN BRAIN, weighted far more towards the latter. At this point I’ll briefly pause and ask that you seek out My Beautiful Broken Brain on Netflix if you haven’t already; it’s brave and enlightening and a great real-world primer for a drama that covers similar material. In Journeyman the fight of Matty’s life isn’t in the ring but within his debilitated mind. Most of us can’t imagine the painful, draining process of having to rewire our brains almost from scratch, having to re-learn things that are second nature to a functioning adult, like connecting names with faces, or remembering to boil a kettle to make a cup of tea.

To start with you think Considine’s portrayal of Matty’s impairment might be a little obvious, ticking off everything we all think we know about people who suffer brain injuries. Thankfully, we are taken into more uncharted territory as his story progresses, Matty’s increasingly frustrated, erratic behaviour eliciting some unexpected, hard to watch, but completely understandable reactions from his nearest and dearest. Jodie Whittaker is a perfectly-pitched co-performer, painfully selling the other side to what Matty is going through. It’s great to see that Whittaker’s copious talent will shortly be reaching a mass audience as she travels time and space, as she’s been impressing in TV drama and on the indie circuit for years.

Boxing movies as a rule don’t tend to feature much, or really be about, boxing. Journeyman sticks to this convention. The boxing ring is only a window through which we explore trauma, trials and tribulations. There’s only the single match depicted at the beginning as it’s the inciting incident, the moment where Matty is at his highest¬† high and about to plummet to his lowest low. Considine looks the part and the scene feels completely convincing, but the physicality of the ring is really only a warm up for what we are about to see Matty go through.

Most of the film is a low-key realist flavour of upsetting, only towards the end does Considine employ the somewhat cheap trick of playing some Nick Cave in the background to elicit a bigger round of sobbing. Lesser films would use musical emotional blackmail more often, or make an obvious point about the characters in quotable dialogue. Considine is clearly more of a show, don’t tell kind of guy, and he respects his audience enough to keep up with where the characters are without explaining it outright. A fair few of the key scenes are lengthy and unrelenting, Considine not giving his viewers the chance to look away.

Journeyman is a pretty tough watch, but it’s an soulfully fulfilling and emotionally resonating one as well. In short, put the work in and this film will repay in dividends. Seek it out, endure and reap the benefits. Just don’t leave it so long next time please, Paddy, Mr Considine. SSP

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Review: Venom (2018)

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Gene Simmons? Is that you?: Avi Arad Productions/Columbia Pictures

VENOM is a bad movie. I shock you, I know. It’s not the worst SPIDER-MAN movie ever, but that’s mostly because Marvel Studios wouldn’t let Sony rent Spidey back for a cameo. The scant lip service they’re allowed to give this is frankly hilarious.

Maverick reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) loses his girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams), his job and his self-respect when he tries to bring down shady billionaire scientist Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) using stolen evidence. Meanwhile, aggressive alien lifeforms have been brought back from space and Drake’s experiments bring one into Eddie’s life… ¬†

There is a certain joy to be had watching Tom Hardy act like nobody’s watching. The best scene in this whole sorry affair has Hardy sitting in a lobster tank chowing down on the live inhabitants, offering one of the film’s few truly memorable images. His really odd behaviour you can buy because he’s got another being taking a ride inside him, but what’s everyone else’s excuse? Nobody talks like a person in this, to the extent that I began to wonder if they weren’t all squishy aliens wearing human skins. Michelle Williams looks like she’s hating every minute of the experience, not to mention how disheartened she sounds having to deliver such lines as, “I love you, don’t forget to feed the cat” and “I’m sorry about Venom”.

The whole symbiote hunger thing never really makes much sense. At first it rejects “dead” food (leading to the aforementioned lobster tank incident) and only craves human flesh, then it starts to leech off Eddie’s organs before it seems to suddenly decide against requiring either and that Tater Tots will be enough to satisfy its hunger. It wants to conquer and consume the planet with the rest of its species but all of a sudden it comes out with “You changed me, Eddie”. Um, when? Maybe some point after they had their Gollum moment reflected in a car door.

I know this is a problem even a lot of the proper (as opposed to “in association with”) Marvel movies have, but the villain’s evil scheme reads like you’re turning over at least two pages at a time. As far as I could gather, it goes as follows: 1. Bring symbiotes back to Earth, 2. Allow symbiotes to infect the kidnapped homeless, 3. When/if a symbiote achieves “full symbiosis” we’ll apparently be ready to live on other planets because…reasons, 4. Profit?

The stretchy particle effects used to realise the symbiotes never look better than the water creature in THE ABYSS, and that was made in 1989. How long was it between the announcement trailer and the finished film? 6 months? You really couldn’t improve that shot of Eddie being pulled back onto the mid-air motorbike by liquorice tendrils? Speaking of the symbiotes’ wasted potential, for a while it looks like director Ruben Fleischer is going to do something interesting with their body-hopping behaviour, like John Carpenter did so memorably with THE THING, as mostly this happens offscreen and leaves you guessing who is the goo. But no, each time this happens it becomes almost instantly apparent who is about to spout tendrils and all tension and intrigue evaporates, making you wonder why they bothered even pretending it was a plot point.

If we get more Venom movies – and we may well get more Venom movies – and the guy with the tongue ends up fighting a succession of bad/worse symbiotes, can we at least colour code them distinctively? Venom’s final showdown is of course two special effects punching each other in the dark. I presume this is just because that’s the standard ending for the first movie in a new superhero franchise. Unfortunately this film’s action goes from dull to incomprehensible because Venom, a black symbiote, is fighting Riot, a grey symbiote.

Venom is a mess, but it’s very nearly the fun kind. Everything about it is inconsistent and ill-judged, with leaps of tone and logic galaxies wide. And yet there’s something strangely endearing about Hardy trying to make something memorable out of this cinematic sludge. SSP

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