Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

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.

Published in Reviews

Christopher Nolan’s ambitious film about the 1940 evacuation of allied troops from Dunkirk is one of the great visual cinematic spectacles of the 21st century—and for that, he should be applauded.

Unfortunately, some of his scripting and editing decisions take away from the effectiveness of his movie. In a strange way, this is one of his least-successful films. We are talking about the guy who made Interstellar, The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, Inception, Insomnia and Memento. All of those are great films—and better films than Dunkirk.

Still, Dunkirk is a good movie, and an occasionally astounding one if you manage to see it on an IMAX screen, either at the Regal Rancho Mirage or elsewhere. Nolan shot on film, with all scenes intended for IMAX; add in some incredible soundtrack work by Hans Zimmer, and the movie begs to be seen in theaters—even if the experience is a bit empty in some ways.

Nolan, who also wrote the sparsely worded screenplay, makes the film in three parts. One part is the events on the beach, which take place over a week. The second part is the evacuation at sea, which unfolds in a day. The third is the battle in the air, which covers an hour’s worth of events. The film jumps from one timeline to the next, often abruptly, with the stories ultimately interconnecting. Any Nolan fan knows that he loves to make his movies in complicated ways involving time (Memento being a prime example), and the director himself has called Dunkirk his most experimental yet. Nolan is out to prove that you can cut away from a harrowing ship-sinking sequence to an also-harrowing battle sequence in the air—and maintain the tension all along. Unfortunately, he doesn’t pull off the stunt every time. There are moments when he cuts away to another timeline that I found frustrating and unnecessary. It feels like a director being a little too cute.

I know, I know: Nolan is trying to show how hectic, crazy and unilaterally nuts the whole situation was, with each battle and predicament being equally terrible. That sort of thing goes without saying: Soldiers and civilians were put through all kinds of hell, with one terrible occurrence after another. But Nolan’s experimentation comes at the expense of good, clean, straightforward filmmaking. So far, his movie-puzzle games work better with fiction than they do with real life events.

Mark Rylance plays the captain of a private boat on his way to rescue men from Dunkirk, while Cillian Murphy is a shell-shocked ship-sinking survivor; they provide the main performances in the “sea” portion of the movie, and they offer up the film’s best acting. Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles play soldiers on the beach—and let it be said that One Direction’s Styles is a natural onscreen. Tom Hardy, his face once again covered by a mask in a Nolan film, plays one of the fighter pilots, while Kenneth Branagh is on hand as Commander Bolton, overseeing the evacuation on land.

Zimmer’s soundtrack, which utilizes a ticking stopwatch, manages to ratchet up the tension and deliver some glorious notes. In many ways, it’s the glue that holds the whole enterprise together.

Nolan decided to use real ships, planes and sets rather than relying on CGI. In many ways, this gives Dunkirk the epic visual scope that is missing in many high definition, CGI-heavy efforts. This looks and feels like a real movie.

By all means, go see Dunkirk while it is in theaters. It’s certainly a good workout for the eyes and ears, and enough of the moments resonate to make the movie worthwhile. Just be prepared to feel slightly let down if you are thinking this is going to be Nolan’s best, or one of the year’s best films.

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

Published in Reviews

The Revenant didn’t win the Best Picture Oscar, but it damn well should have.

Leonardo DiCaprio won a much-deserved Oscar for playing the legendary Hugh Glass, a real man who actually survived a bear attack and sought revenge from the men who left him to die.

Director Alejandro G. Inarritu (winner of the Best Director Oscar two years in a row) made a film that doesn’t stick to Glass’s actual storyline all that much. (The real life guy was actually too tired to do anything to the guys when he eventually found them.) His script works in a Native American son (Forrest Goodluck) and a deranged trapper (Tom Hardy, also nominated) along with Glass’ insatiable revenge lust. DiCaprio doesn’t say much with his mouth in the movie, but he says an awful lot with those eyes. His performance is a masterwork.

Equally good is Hardy, who portrays John Fitzgerald as a man operating under what turns out to be a rather naïve sense of justice. It’s his best work to date. Other supporting performances worth noting are Domhnall Gleeson as the leader of Glass’ expedition, and Will Poulter as a fellow trapper with a good heart who winds up getting into a lot of trouble.

It’ll be interesting to see what DiCaprio does next. This is a hard act to follow.

Special Features: The Blu-ray includes a near 45-minute documentary containing behind-the-scenes footage and great interviews with DiCaprio, Inarritu and others.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

For the second year in a row, director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu has delivered the year’s best film.

Inarritu was responsible for last year’s Birdman, and the best movie of 2015 is The Revenant, an eye-popping Western thriller that gives Leonardo DiCaprio the role that should finally score him his first Oscar.

DiCaprio gives it everything he’s got as Hugh Glass, a scout working with fur traders on the American frontier in the early 19th century. Glass, while doing his job, gets a little too close to a couple of bear cubs—and mama grizzly is not happy about such an occurrence.

What follows is a lengthy and vicious bear attack during which Glass tangles with the nasty mother not once, but twice. Inarritu, DiCaprio and some amazing visual technicians put you right in the middle of that bear attack—minus the searing pain of actually having a bear’s claws and teeth rip through your flesh. It’s an unforgettably visceral moment when that bear steps on Glass’ head.

With Glass seemingly at death’s door, the remaining party—including a conniving, paranoid trapper named John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)—is left to decide what to do with him. Fitzgerald wants to put him out of his misery, much to the chagrin of Glass’ Native American son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) and the expedition’s leader, Capt. Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson).

Henry decides to soldier on without Glass, leaving him behind to die with Fitzgerald, Hawk and young Bridger (an excellent Will Poulter). Fitzgerald takes matters into his own hands, with Glass eventually buried alive and left for dead. This doesn’t set well with Glass, who slowly recovers from his wounds and sets out to exact revenge.

Yes, this is a revenge tale—and a rather simple one at that. Those looking for a spiritual and psychological examination of revenge containing long monologues need not see this. The Revenant is about the forces of nature, stunningly photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki, trying to take down one man as he sets out on a killing mission. An uncaring wilderness throws everything it can at Glass to stop him in his tracks.

Some of what Inarritu does in the film’s few quieter, more-meditative moments reminds of the work of Terrence Malick, and that’s a good thing. For the most part, the movie is less about beautiful running rivers and more about surviving neck wounds while fending off attacking Native Americans and antsy fur trappers. What Inarritu and company achieve during these attack sequences is monumental: No movie has ever looked or felt like this. Throw in that bear attack, and you have a movie that will forever dent your skull.

DiCaprio doesn’t have much spoken dialogue. The majority of his performance consists of grunting, contorting his face and crawling on the ground (something he did memorably in The Wolf of Wall Street). His character has very few moments to smile, but when he does, it’s like having a warm blanket and hot cocoa after a week in sub-zero temperatures: It’s a major relief from the torment. 

Hardy and Gleeson, two of the hardest-working men in Hollywood right now, are magnificent in the film. Given the notoriously long and nasty shooting schedule they had to endure for The Revenant, I have no idea how they managed to appear in those other films. (They both appeared in four major 2015 movies.) They have truly mastered the art of scheduling events and tasks on their iPhones.

The Revenant is a masterpiece, and I suspect DiCaprio will finally get his Oscar. I also suspect camping numbers will take a plummet in the next year, while bear-repellent sales spike.

The Revenant is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

George Miller has been trying to follow up Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome for 30 years. He was all set to go with Mel Gibson in a fourth movie before setbacks.

Then, of course, Mr. Gibson said some very bad words, making him virtually unmarketable due to his temper and his generally poor outlook on things. So here we are, 30 years since Tina Turner put on that goofy wig and sang that lame song for Thunderdome. After a bunch of films involving talking animals (Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet), Miller is back in his post-apocalyptic world, messing around with fast rigs on desert landscapes. He also has a new Max—that being Tom Hardy. Charlize Theron is also along for the ride.

The results are a blast: Max Max: Fury Road is probably the franchise best when it comes to action. However, I prefer Gibson over Hardy for his Max portrayal. Hardy is good, but Gibson is the original and best Max—even if he is a total asshole.

The film starts off with a shot reminiscent of The Road Warrior (aka Mad Max 2)—and then it goes berserk. Max gets himself captured by a really disgusting-looking, villainous ruler named Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and finds himself hanging upside down and providing blood for a pale, bald minion of Joe’s, Nux (Nicholas Hoult).

Theron then shows up, head shaven, as Imperator Furiosa, a one-time loyal of Immortan Joe; she tricks him and kidnaps his wives, intent upon taking them to some sort of green promised land. When Joe figures out she’s making a run for it, his soldiers (who look a little like the cave creatures from The Descent) take off after her. This includes Nux—with Max strapped to the front of his car and wearing a face mask that reminds of his Bane getup in The Dark Knight Rises.

As far as plot goes, that’s about it. Theron and the wives try to drive really fast, and those pursuing her drive really fast, too. Along the way, they pick up a few other characters, and some folks get mulched under car wheels. You get the picture.

What makes Miller’s latest a cut above the rest is a major reliance on practical effects for the stunts. Sure, CGI shows up (and when it does, it’s very well done), but much of what we see is stunt people doing crazy, crazy things in front of cameras.

The folks who developed the look of this movie—from its terrific cinematography, to its costuming, to its incredible stunt work—all deserve praise and extra beers. The pounding soundtrack and the editing help make this a true pulse-racer. No matter how frantic the action gets, there’s a certain visual clarity to everything. It’s easy on the eyes, even when the edits are rapid.

Theron brings a nice bit of gravitas to this blockbuster. Sporting a CGI mechanical arm, face paint and a permanently stern expression, she is one badass rebel. While Hardy is fine in the Max role, the really great performance in this film comes from Theron.

Hardy actually spends much of the movie silent, especially in the early going. He looks great, even when he’s playing the part of a blood bag. Hoult actually manages to be quite moving under all of his makeup as the kamikaze who has a change of heart.

This is supposed to be the first film in a new trilogy, but it should be noted that Pitch Perfect 2 kicked its ass at the box office, so it isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. Let’s hope that critical praise and word of mouth result in a healthy worldwide run for Mad Max: Fury Road. I want more.

Mad Max: Fury Road is playing at theaters across the valley.

Published in Reviews

The Drop features the beautiful final film performance of James Gandolfini—and it’s not even the best thing about the movie.

That would be the central performance by Tom Hardy as Bob, a seemingly meek bartender of questionable intelligence who works for Cousin Marv (Gandolfini). Hardy disappears into this role, and he will leave you in awe that this is also the guy who played Bane in The Dark Night Rises. He is one versatile actor.

The bar that Cousin Marv and Bob occupy is a drop bar, where many of the gambling winnings in a seedier part of Brooklyn, N.Y., wind up in a safe. One night, the bar is held up, and Cousin Marv has to hand over $5,000. This puts Marv in debt to scary Chechen mobsters, proprietors of the bar Marv once owned. Bob and Marv must devise a plan to pay the mobsters back—and when they do, they find themselves with another dilemma: Their drop bar is supposed to be the money spot for Super Bowl Sunday. That makes the bar a prime candidate for another robbery.

In the meantime, Bob finds a bloody pit bull puppy in a neighbor’s garbage can. That unknowing neighbor is Nadia (the always wonderful Noomi Rapace), who befriends Bob and helps him with the dog. It turns out that the dog was intentionally put in the garbage by Nadia’s ex-boyfriend, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenaerts), a creep who brags about having killed somebody. He starts using the dog for blackmail.

The plotlines converge for a finale that is both tense and completely shocking. The Drop is a slow burn, but when things come to a head, the film explodes with surprising power.

Gandolfini’s Marv has many similarities to Tony Soprano. Marv was once a big man in the neighborhood, but he’s lost power to another entity, and it’s screwing with his pride. Marv looks like Tony after a decade has passed; his power has been taken away; his wife has abandoned him; and he no longer cares about appearances. The screenplay even gives him a nagging sister and a father in a rest home.

Gandolfini plays the role with many of the same mannerisms that he gave Tony. Many of the roles Gandolfini took after The Sopranos (including his wonderful turn in last year’s Enough Said) seemed to be efforts to make us forget that legendary character, but Marv definitely has a lot of Tony Soprano in him. It’s tough to watch the movie knowing it is the last time we will see something new from Gandolfini—but it’s also a blessing, in that the performance and the film are both very good.

Disappearing behind bad sweaters, flat hair and a realistic Brooklyn accent, Hardy delivers a character who is always sympathetic, even when he reveals himself to be a bit more complicated than he first seems. It’s another great performance in a rather impressive list of achievements that includes The Dark Knight Rises, Inception and Warrior. I’m curious to see what he does as Mel Gibson’s replacement in next year’s Mad Max: Fury Road.

The supporting cast is powerful. In addition to Rapace and Schoenaerts, there’s John Ortiz as a nosy detective who sees Bob every week at Mass and questions him about his refusal to take communion. Michael Aronov is appropriately spooky as Chovka, the man who wants his gambling money.

The Drop is directed by Michaël R. Roskam (Bullhead) and scripted by Dennis Lehane, the man who penned other dark neighborhood crime stories in the novels Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone. Lehane also wrote Shutter Island, novel further proof that the man knows how to tell a great story.

The ending of The Drop seems tacked on and a little happier than it should’ve been. However, that’s a small quibble for a movie that contains a last, great dose of Gandolfini, and another remarkable performance by Tom Hardy.

The Drop is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342) and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Here is one the year’s most overrated movies. Critics have been loving Locke, starring Tom Hardy (aka Bane), but I thought it was a real snore.

Nearly the entire film is set inside a car as Ivan Locke, a cement foreman, is driving to see his sort-of mistress. A one-night stand has resulted in a pregnancy, and the woman is giving birth under emergency circumstances.

Ivan is also a family man with a wife and kid, and he is supposed to be home watching a soccer match. So, he calls them; they call him; the pregnant woman calls Ivan; Ivan’s boss calls while pissed ... you get the idea.

Hardy does as much as he can with the scenario given to him by writer-director Steven Knight (who also wrote Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things). For me, the film offers little in the way of surprise or excitement. It’s just Hardy weaseling his way through a series of phone conversations.

It’s stunt filmmaking, but on a sleepy level. Hardy and his voice-actor counterparts do well enough, but the film never really goes anywhere—other than on a long, boring drive.

Special Features: You get an audio commentary from Knight and a short making-of doc. 

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing