The Two Reviews: Venom and Early Man

Venom (2018 Marvel Entertainment, Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures)
Directed by Ruben Fleischer, featuring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams and Riz Ahmed.

This recent addition to the Marvel superhero/monster-menace series of films is a great box office success, but critics are harder to please. First of all, there is no doubt that Venom contains a comic-book style narrative and a visual-splash-across-the-screen for audiences who want some light entertainment and over-the-top CGI effects. That’s what you get; nothing else. And there’s nothing wrong with that, so don’t be disappointed that the dialogue doesn’t quite match Shakespeare….or even the narrative consistency of The Three Little Pigs. This film is for teenagers and groups of single guys in their 20s. Okay, I watched it too.

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Bad guy Carlton Drake (Ahmed) is the all-powerful CEO of Life Foundation, a high-tech science and engineering company exploring space when one of their craft crashes in Malaysia, and among the few survivors are black wriggly things (looking curiously like the infamous Black Wiggle who was expelled from the children’s daytime TV show – this is what I will call from here on). These creatures have extraordinary survival credentials, and Life Foundation is keen to undertake human tests to combine human DNA and Black Wiggle DNA to enhance space travel survival for humans into the future, no matter what the cost to the human subjects. Alas, most humans kark it. But when on-the-street journalist Eddie Brock (Hardy) happens upon the scene, he accidentally undergoes a symbiosis and survives, thereafter transforming between Black Wiggle Venom and human Eddie Brock. Initially, Venom is in control. As chaos reigns, Drake himself undergoes a symbiosis with another Black Wiggle, and a contest between both Black Wiggles takes place.

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The story is simple, but its drawback is not. It is just lack-lustre. There’s not a lot of consistency to the story, no character development, barely any tension, and the jokes are a bit lamer than usual for a superhero film. Tom Hardy and Michelle Williams – who has an almost pointless role as Anne Weying, an attorney and Eddie’s ex-fiancé – are great actors, but both are wasted in this film. The soundtrack is loud so as to let you know something is happening. The CGI is a bit rubbish but passable. The editing is quite good. You kind of get why Anne is Eddie’s ex – there’s no spark, no chemistry, no nothing between them; a kind of wet-sock handshake of a relationship. And that’s characteristic of the film as a whole. Characters are detached (it is as if they are actors reciting lines in front of a green screen). There’s nothing much at all – just Black Wiggles shouting and CGI fighting, and a couple of lame jokes here and there.

I don’t hate this film. It is hammed-up fun and one isn’t supposed to take it seriously. But it does lean heavily towards being very lame. I think it is fine for a younger audience.

Reviewed by Robin Stevens – Rated 2/5

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Early Man (2018, Aardman Animations and British Film Institute)
Directed by Nick Park, featuring the voices of Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall and Rob Brydon.

This superb stop-motion animation may not yet have had a wider release around the world, but it is certainly worthy of it. Nick Park, the gifted creator of the characters Wallace and Gromit and co-director of the brilliant Chicken Run, brings us yet another hilarious, comedic gem in Early Man – a madcap film that follows a Stone Age tribe of misfits who are forced to fight for their home against a more technologically-advanced group in, of all things, a football match. It sounds mad and it is mad. But it is mad in a family-friendly way. If you enjoyed other Aardman films like Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit and The Pirates! Band of Misfits, then this film will not disappoint. It certainly maintains the high level of quality that is consistently manufactured in that studio.

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After an asteroid hits the earth and kills off all the dinosaurs, a group of caveman start kicking around a still-very-hot chunk of space rock, thus inventing the game of football. Several years later, a descendant of these people called Dug tries to invigorate his tribe by suggesting they go hunting game that are bigger than the crafty, elusive rabbits that they struggle to catch. When they come across massive mammoths roaming their valley, they find the creatures to be part of an army of miners, led by Lord Nooth, who are taking over land in search of bronze. The tribe are then pushed out into the more dangerous territory of giant ducks and active volcanoes – called the Badlands. Dug, however, stays behind and manages to get smuggled into the army’s large city, finding himself on a field in a large crowded stadium. This, he discovers, is where the city’s inhabitants gather to watch football matches between Lord Nooth’s legions of men. Dug, clearly the spirited core of the story, challenges Nooth’s best players to a grudge match. If Nooth wins, Dug and his tribe will slave in his mines for the rest of their lives but if the tribe win, they will be free to go back to their home in the valley. Dug heads back to the Badlands to train up his tribe, but unfortunately they have not got the faintest idea how to play football.

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Indeed you must suspend reality to enter into an Aardman world and, although the story in Early Man plays with elements of what we actually know about the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods, you are not expected to engage in any meaningful scientific discourse about the human past here. It’s all meant to be very funny and incidental. There is a certain formulaic inevitability to the story – the football match between Dug’s battling commoners and Lord Nooth’s arrogant oppressors being the very expected and predictable climax – but regardless, it is a film that is very wholesome, and considering England’s great, unexpected run at this year’s World Cup, there is a timely sense of local pride floating around. And, sorry if I said it before but, the film is absolutely hilarious. Dug’s loyal pet wild boar, Hognob, steals the show in a scene where he tries to maintain Dug’s undercover mission at Lord Nooth’s castle by pretending to be Nooth’s personal masseuse. Rob Brydon’s multiple voicing of characters, such as the two match-day commentators (reminiscent of Richard Keyes and Andy Gray), is also a treat. And it is a nice touch too that Dug’s female friend, Goona, is not just another bland love interest but rather evokes an equal hero status with Dug, turning out to be a more competent football coach than him and makes a stand for women by taking part in the grudge match, despite Lord Nooth’s exclusion of females in such events.

It’s a charming film that evokes the best of the Wallace and Gromit series, as well as other stop-motion animation classics, and I presume the whole family would enjoy it.

Reviewed by JJ McDermott – Rated 4/5

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