Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Venom is a sometimes-entertaining mess—but it’s still a mess.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: You shouldn’t have a Venom movie without Spider-Man somehow playing into the villain’s backstory. Venom looks like Spider-Man in the comic, because the symbiote fused with Peter Parker first, resulting in the “Spider-Man on steroids” look. However, this film has no Spidey, and no Spidey means the monster needs a different origin. Now Venom comes about because of a space alien that passes through an evil scientist’s lab—a space alien that looks a little like Spider-Man.

Tom Hardy labors hard at playing Eddie Brock, an investigative reporter who is infected by the symbiote and starts biting off people’s heads, PG-13-style. Brock winds up with Venom’s voice in his head and an ability to make Venom sort of a good/bad guy. It’s all kind of stupid; the film plays things mostly for laughs and squanders a chance for a real horror show.

Some of the action and effects are pretty good, and Hardy gives it his all, but the film feels like a botch job from the start. Michelle Williams gets what might be the worst role of her career as Brock’s girlfriend, and Riz Ahmed plays the stereotypical villain.

There are hints of something cool here, but they are buried under a pile of muck.

Venom is playing at theaters across the valley, in a variety of formats.

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Be prepared to get your heart ripped out by Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams in Manchester by the Sea, one of the more emotionally powerful movie experiences of 2016.

Affleck plays Lee, who must return to his hometown and raise his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), after his brother (Kyle Chandler) dies. Lee is a true mess, and we learn through flashbacks what got him to his messed-up state. He’s battling some major past tragedies on top of his brother’s death, and there’s no telling how things will work out for him and Patrick. The flashbacks are brutal, revealing things that go beyond terrible; it’s no wonder Lee is having coping issues. Affleck has turned in good work before, but nothing like what he does in this film. He’s incredible.

Williams turns in a blistering performance as Lee’s ex-wife, and a scene Affleck and Williams share together is guaranteed to knock you on your ass, and will probably earn them both Oscar nominations.

Hedges is mighty good as the confused teen dealing with the loss of his dad and his somewhat strange uncle. Kenneth Lonergan directs from his own screenplay; he’s put together some kind of movie miracle.

Besides being so emotionally powerful that you might dehydrate from crying, this movie also has some big laughs in it. It is an instant classic.

Manchester by the Sea is now playing at the Camelot Theatres (2300 E. Baristo Road, Palm Springs; 760-325-6565); the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

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I like James Franco more often than not. I loved him as a stoner; I loved him as a hiker who gets his arm stuck behind a boulder; I even liked him opposite a motion-capture chimp.

However, he is all wrong for the central character of Oz the Great and Powerful.

The role of Oz calls for somebody with swagger and snark, while Franco is just too laid back, and too normal, for a role that requires old-school charm. Yes, he’s charming in a modern sort of way, but in director Sam Raimi’s take on the wonderful wizard, you get the sense that Franco is really straining.

When he smiles in this movie, it almost looks as if he is going to tear his face, because he’s putting so much into it; his line deliveries seem forced. Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jr. were apparently offered the role, and either of them would have been much more sensible.

The movie acts as a sort of prequel to the The Wizard of Oz. We see the wizard’s origins as a desperate carnival magician in Kansas. His eventual trip to Oz via twister is much like the one Dorothy took on her voyage, and the movie plays out in black and white before his arrival in Oz, just as it did in ’39.

The movie offers up the three witches from the original film as well (one of them, of course, being the one that got squished by Dorothy’s house). There’s Theodora, played by Mila Kunis, as a sort of nice witch with a bad temper who is going to go through a major change in her complexion at some point. We also get Michelle Williams as bubble-riding good-witch Glinda in what is probably the most obvious casting of the year. Finally, there’s Rachel Weisz as Evanora, who may or may not be bad.

Weisz turns in the best portrayal of an Oz witch. There’s a nice mystery to her, and she looks fabulous. Williams is fine, if not all that adventurous, as Glinda. Williams has far less warble in her voice as young Glinda; Glinda always freaked me out when she spoke in The Wizard of Oz. It seemed like somebody was standing next to her and rubbing a finger on her throat while she talked.

The worst of the three is easily Kunis, who just blows it as the character once played by (SPOILER ALERT) Margaret Hamilton. Raimi’s film gives her a reason for becoming wicked, and that reason—jilted love—is STUPID. When Kunis is asked to scream and cackle, it’s unintentionally funny. She comes off like somebody playing the role in a high school production, and if that production were a graded element of some class, she would get an “F” and be asked to think of another trade.

She does have much better boobs in her outfit than Hamilton had, though. Much, much better.

You have the option of seeing Oz in 3-D, and it’s OK to skip that option. The effects are nothing to get excited about. I wasn’t impressed with the look of the Emerald City; Raimi is obviously going for the fairytale look charm of the original Oz, but he should’ve gone for more detail and less gloss. You get no real sense of these characters inhabiting another world. They just like they are part of a screensaver. Big special-effects movies are looking rather crappy lately, with The Hobbit, Jack the Giant Slayer and this one all looking odd.

But the lead performance by Franco is the biggest problem in this movie that’s full of problems. I expected him to take a hit off a hash pipe or something while a scene was playing out. 

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