Director: Ruben Fleischer
One of the things that makes Venom so refreshing is its old-school feel. The characters are not preachy, obnoxious, or offensive, and you never get the sense that the director is trying to push any kind of agenda on you. It’s just a good fable, engagingly told. This is an unadulterated throw-back to the great pulp comic book films of the old days (and I mean very old days), in which an Average Joe gets randomly chosen to be the bearer of special gifts. I went into this movie not knowing anything at all about it; sometimes I just like to wander into a theater and see what happens.
The plot: hack reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) sticks his nose in dangerous places, and runs afoul of a wacko billionaire who has dreams of fusing humanity with alien life forms. He accidentally “merges” with one such alien (named “Venom”) and this gives him almost godlike physical powers. Eventually he is forced into a showdown with the evil billionaire, who by this time has himself become taken over by his own absorbent alien. If all this sounds confusing, don’t worry about it. You’ll figure it out. As I sat in the theater today watching this, I kept telling myself how little humanity has changed since the days of the ancients. Because when you really come down to it, Venom is basically just an updating of a very old theme in classical mythology: the idea that a godlike presence can take over a mortal and use him for its own purposes. In the days of the Greeks and Romans, the supernatural agency would have been some Olympian god who came down to earth and interacted with humanity. In our modern era, that function is performed by “aliens” or some other inscrutable cosmic force. We’ve just substituted one “god” for another. And most of the fun here comes from watching our hero discover his new capabilities, and learn how to deal with them.
In any case, Venom is good, clean fun, the kind of movie that doesn’t get made much anymore. Tom Hardy plays it just right, striking that perfect balance between clueless bum and grasping idealist. And it’s always a pleasure to watch him do his thing.
Angel Eyes (2001)
Director: Luis Mandoki
This was a major disappointment. I had not heard of this film until last week when I saw it on Netflix, and now I know why. A decent cast (Jennifer Lopez, Jim Caviezel, Terence Howard) is wasted in this weepy melodrama that goes nowhere. The plot: police officer Sharon Pogue (Jennifer Lopez) is violently assaulted by a criminal, and is miraculously saved by a weird loner (Jim Caviezel) who appears out of nowhere. The loner calls himself “Catch,” and seems to have some sort of chip on his shoulder, but Lopez pursues him diligently anyway (because we all know in real life that attractive women pursue introverted oddballs in shabby overcoats). Eventually the two start a quasi-relationship, which is constantly threatened with derailment by Catch’s hair-trigger temper and morose ways. In time Sharon suggests ways that Catch can heal himself.
Beyond this little summary, not much happens in this film. There could have been a decent drama hidden inside this material, but whoever wrote this script forgot the first rule of screenplay writing: you need a story that goes somewhere. Ah, well. Can’t win them all. To date, Jennifer Lopez’s best movies are the wonderful Cell and Out of Sight.
Once Upon A Time In America (1984)
Director: Sergio Leone
I saw it again last week for the first time in a while. Not only has it held up well over the years, but it seems more poignant, painful, and melancholy than ever. For those who don’t know, this was the great director’s last film. The movie, originally based on an old book called “The Hoods,” is one of those epics that spans many decades. Told in a fragmented series of flashbacks, the story tracks the relationship of a group of gangsters who grow up in New York City in the early 1900s. The themes here are the passage of time, betrayal, and the inexpressible agony of lost love.
This is not your normal cinematic experience. Clocking in at almost four hours, the original cut of this film has rightly been recognized as a masterpiece. And it really is. After a few viewings, you begin to see the little things that make this film a great one: the brilliant use of the phone ringing at the opening, the recurring use of haunting musical patterns, the operatic sentimentality of the scenes, the flawless transition sequences between time periods, and the devastating moment when the major protagonist Noodles (Robert DeNiro) discovers that he is not the betrayer, but the betrayed. Some critics have found fault with Sergio Leone’s alleged lack of depth that he gives his characters, but these critics are mistaken. Leone has always been about the grandeur of myth: “characters” as individuals do not interest him as much as his mythos. He is a director of sweeping operatic flourishes. It was this unique quality that made his The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly and For A Few Dollars More such enduring classics. And it is just what makes Once Upon A Time In America such a treasure. See it now, while it’s still on Netflix streaming.
Acts Of Violence (2018)
Director: Brett Donowho
You just have to love Bruce Willis. He’s been in a million movies and yet has somehow managed to avoid ever getting typecast or pigeon-holed in any one role. You can never quite put your finger on his stage presence. How would you describe it? Charismatic but not oppressively so? Sympathetic but not overly so? Dynamic but not overly so? It isn’t an easy question to answer. This movie is not great, but it’s good enough to merit checking out. The plot: some guy’s fiance is kidnapped by traffickers, so he rounds up his brothers to bring her back. Along the way, he enlists the help of quasi-rogue cop Bruce Willis, who sternly warns him not to cross any lines. He does, of course. And the results are a series of shoot-outs and explosions that sustain our interest through the two hour running time of this delightfully B-grade action flick. Nothing classic here, but sometimes we don’t need classic to have a good time. Keep it up, Bruce. We need you out there making movies.
Check out my new, original translation of Cicero’s On Moral Ends, and see all the special features it has to offer: