Another month, another random assortment of films face our terrible judgement. Get out thoughts on Venom: Let There Be Carnage, Ron’s Gone Wrong, Finch, The French Dispatch, and Dune. Appeals for clemency will be denied.
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So we never talked about the first Venom film at the time, because I hadn’t seen it, which seems as good a reason as any. We also didn’t talk about it some months later when I caught up with it, on my part at least because I was only half watching it, but even so it didn’t seem half as bad as my impression of the general consensus would have me believe. So, that was enough to tempt me into a cinema to watch this follow up, Venom: Let There Be Carnage, and also because the trailer promised a Tom Hardy / Woody Harrelson scenery chewing gurn-off. Sign me up!
This sees Hardy’s Eddie Brock having reached something a détente with his superpowered alien symbiote Venom, with absolutely no eating people. Even the bad people. But Venom’s straining at the leash, wanting to get out and see the world, meet people, eat some of them, while Eddie’s insisting on laying low, what with him being at least a person of interest to Stephen Graham’s Detective Patrick Mulligan for the chaos of the last film.
He’s trying, with little success, to restart his journalism career, but his luck changes when he’s called in to prison to interview a death row inmate, Harrelson’s Cletus Kasady, a very crazy serial killer who’s refusing to give up the locations of his victims. Much to Mulligan’s chagrin, Eddie / Venom crack the case to plaudits aplenty, but Kasady gets something unexpected out of it too, a bite and a taste of symbiote blood leading to the spawn of another symbiote, Carnage.
Just as Kasady is coming into his super-powers, the tension between Eddie and Venom finally boils over and they separate. Just the wrong timing, as Kasady breaks out of prison and sets about breaking out his also kinda crazy girlfriend, Naomie Harris’s Frances Barrison, or Shriek, due to her ability to create powerful sonic blasts with her voice. Will Eddie and Venom be able to get their act together and defeat Carnage and Shriek? Well, obviously. This is not something that’s looking to break any molds.
To be honest, it’s kind of refreshing in this day and age to watch a comic book adaptation that, well, seems like it wants to be a comic book adaptation and keeps any delusions of grandeur in check. It’s a big goofy film with a silly plot, silly characters and silly action setpieces and gets out of your way in about ninety minutes. It’s like a refugee from another time. The multiverse truly is imploding.
Director Gollum keeps things battering along at a fair old clip, the performances are, well, let’s politely say broad, but fitting for the material, the action sequences are adequate if hardly ground-breaking, and there’s a few decent lines in amongst the more serviceable parts of the script. I’m not going to bat for Venom: Let There Be Carnage being a masterwork of cinema, but it is an entertaining slice of hokum of the kind that I wish Marvel would embrace more closely. And maybe with the post-credit scene and the impending clustercuddle of Spider-man: No Way Home we’ll get that, but I am not holding my breath.
Ron’s Gone Wrong, the debut feature from studio Locksmith Animation, is the simple tale of a middle schooler named Barney (voiced by Jack Dylan Grazer) and his always-online, artificially intelligent roaming robot social media platform B-Bot, Ron (Zach Gala-falafel-banana-khakis).
Barney begins the movie somewhat of an outcast, the only one in his school not in possession of a B-Bot; the omnipresent tech toy which bonds with it’s owner and facilitates an endless stream of content generation out of their day-to-day activities. In a poor facsimile of actual social interaction the B-Bot platform makes influencers of a select few kids, and followers of the rest, a situation which bizarrely, but I suppose necessarily for the plot, seems officially sanctioned by the school system, with rows of B-Bot storage racking replacing lockers throughout the corridors.
Barney’s single parent father Graham (Ed Helms) runs a cheap novelty import business out of the house, and simply isn’t in a position to afford a B-Bot for his son until, wracked by guilt at his son’s social disadvantage, he is able to buy a slightly damaged model quite literally off the back of a van outside the headquarters of Bubble, the tech giant creators responsible for this craze.
Now, the last time I had faulty tech the extent of my ensuing “adventure” was making an appointment at a Genius Bar just for some gratingly hip Insta-clone half my age to patronise me, presumably because my failure to wear skinny jeans and transparently framed glasses offended their generative, adversarially-networked sensibilities. Fortunately for Barney he of course exists inside a movie, so in his case it translates to “zany fun time shenanigans” as his B-Bot Ron, bereft of safety protocols, teaches him and his classmates the meaning of true friendship, while sticking it to the man in the turtleneck sweater at the top of the Big Tech pyramid.
If Ron’s Gone Wrong has a message, however subtle, it’s that social media is absolute soul-destroying bullshit which poisons peoples minds by preying on their insecurities and negatively reinforcing their existing prejudices in pursuit of an infinitely recursive model of marketing monetisation. Not a bad message really, but for the fact that Ron doesn’t quite follow through on its message by taking it to the logical conclusion of its child protagonists denouncing social media; they don’t. Instead they find some equilibrium, and I suppose “all things in moderation” is a more positive message than “ASSIMILATE,” but there definitely is something false about the movie’s outcome.
Nonetheless the litmus test of Ron, which is clearly not a movie aimed at adults, is to consider the reaction of small people, by which I mean “children” and not midgets, obvs, and my two (children that is, not midgets) liked it well enough. That I can barely remember many details less than a fortnight later seems largely inconsequential. Ron is a competently made movie with a sensible message, a good heart and a decent sense of humour which will entertain small people. And possibly midgets.
In our last episode we talked about Miguel Sapochnik’s Repo Men, his only previous film-directing credit. Since that film he’s made a really good name for himself in TV, in particular directing some notable, action-heavy episodes of Game of Thrones, including The Battle of the Bastards and The Long Night. Before taking up his role as showrunner for the upcoming Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon, though, he’s been tempted back into film by this post-apocalyptic tale that’s definitely not Short Circuit in Fallout.
A particularly powerful solar flare fifteen years ago destroyed most of the Earth’s ozone layer, leaving much of the planet an irradiated, boiling, storm-torn hellscape. Humans are now scarce, thanks to the fact that stepping out unprotected into the sun will ensure you instantaneous burns, and all of that unfiltered UV having frazzled all of the plant life.
Much of this suits Tom Hanks’ Finch quite well: a misanthropic loner, Finch seems quite content to be the only human for hundreds of miles. But his will to survive continues, and he scavenges what little he can from the few unmolested stores of food left available. Mentally, he’s kept going by his project to build a robot, not as a companion but as a replacement, should anything happen to him and there’s no-one left to look after his dog. His horrible, bloody, cough absolutely does not suggest that there’s a ticking clock on this.
Normally holed-up inside his former place of work in St. Louis, an approaching superstorm, forecast to last 40 days and therefore meaning certain death if he stays, forces Finch to load up the not-quite-finished robot and the dog onto his RV, and start heading West – maybe San Francisco, which he’s never visited, will be in better shape?
The robot, voiced by Caleb Landry-Jones and, either through acting choice or sound processing effects, sounding in the early part of the film for some reason like a Russian Stephen Hawking (in Soviet Russia AI Robot create you), begins to learn at an incredible rate, though apparently not quickly enough for the irascible and cantankerous Finch, who is unreasonably angry and frustrated that his creation isn’t immediately perfect.
After thirty minutes the robot, who has dubbed himself “Jeff”, trying to act human and understand difficult concepts like metaphor, while getting into hi-larious scrapes, was already begin to wear a little. Sadly, this was also around the time I realised, “oh, this is the whole thing, isn’t it? The whole “Earth is a wasteland” thing almost becomes incidental after a while, with Finch settling into a groove of Chappie goes on a road trip. There’s no jeopardy, no sense of danger. Once the road trip gets going, food magically stops becoming an issue. Where does the diesel for the RV come from? Well, it’s just there, isn’t it? But look at the silly robot and the cute dog!
I realise I’ve now referenced both Chappie and Short Circuit, but they are the two obvious comparisons, and while they’re the only two I can immediately bring to mind, I already feel that with them the genre of “advanced robot comically misunderstands humans before learning about them” is already well-enough served, and this film is extraneous.
Not that it’s bad, per se, just unremarkable. It looks quite nice at points, and… I’m struggling to find positives. It’s fine, but it’s hardly The Road. There’s good effects work on display – Jeff is an impressive amalgam of motion capture, CGI and puppetry, though for some reason I found the robot’s constant round-shouldered hunching made me want to see it suffer in a press like the original T-800 in The Terminator – but good effects work is pretty much a given nowadays, and it needs to be in service of something, which it isn’t here.
Perhaps the one remarkable thing about Finch is Tom Hanks’ performance. It begins by feeling like a very Hanks-ian performance, for better or worse, but I certainly didn’t expect to end up hating a character played by him so much: Finch is an arsehole. That’s there in the writing, of course, and much of it is explicable by the facts of Finch’s situation, but even when playing a murdering mob enforcer, as in Road to Perdition, Hanks still somehow manages to make his character a genial, likeable murdering mob enforcer. Not so here, where his character is a git. I like it, because I don’t like it.
There’s little else to recommend it, though – too bland, too safe, too mushy.
Although less limiting than the idea of picking a single favourite film, picking a favourite film director is a similarly futile and pointless endeavour. That said, if, in some unlikely, difficult to imagine and violent aesthetic appreciation scenario, where a gun was put to my head and I was forced to pick, Wes Anderson would certainly be one of the names in the forefront of my mind (if you’d like to hear Scott and I talk in-depth about his oeuvre and our love for it, then please check out our dedicated episode from February 2019).
Anderson or, as he’s occasionally known around here, Lord Whimsy Whimsington the Third, is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, his very particular aesthetic and whimsical tone being something that, for a lot of people, is something you love or loathe. His films have always worked for me, though, and I enjoy the Anderson-style whimsy. With The French Dispatch, however, I fear that, operating as he is here at approximately 300% Wes Anderson, I have finally found the point of too much Wes Anderson.
Things certainly don’t begin well for anyone unenamoured of the director’s stylings, with pretty much the first thing we see being the name of the fictional, Belleville Rendez-vous-recalling French city in which the film is set: Ennui-sur-Blasé, in English “Boredom-upon-Apathy”, which had my eyes rolling back in my skull, and remember, I like Wes Anderson.
The French Dispatch, with a cast including Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Mathieu Amalric, Frances McDormand, Benicio Del Toro, Timothée Chalomet, Tilda Swinton, Léa Seydoux and Jeffrey Wright (and smaller roles for Jason Schwartzmann, Saoirse Ronan, Bob Balaban, Christophe Waltz and, surprisingly, Fisher Stevens, who hasn’t been retroactively cancelled for Short Circuit) is actually three stories in one. Well, actually three and a half stories, plus added framing scenes. The conceit (my, that’s an appropriate word here) is that The French Dispatch is a magazine, a supplement to the fictional Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun (though what it actually is is The New Yorker, very lightly disguised), run by Bill Murray’s idiosyncratic editor, Arthur Howitzer, Jr.
When Howitzer dies, his will states that the magazine will cease publication after one final issue is produced, the articles of which comprise those three and a half stories.
First, we have a travelogue, in which Owen Wilson’s Herbsaint Sazerac, on a bike, in a beret, gives a flavour of the life in Ennui, replete with corpse-filled river, pickpockets and roving gangs of choirboys.
Following that is a tale of an incarcerated and insane artist, Moses Rosenthaler, whose work inspires a fellow inmate and art dealer, who, on his release, promotes Rosenthaler’s work and makes him a global sensation, then gets pissed off at the artist for not making any new work.
The middle section, probably the weakest, sees a journalist get involved with the topic of her piece: a young political radical called Zeffirelli, who is trying to foment a rebellion. Despite this being clearly inspired by May 68, it is weirdly apolitical, despite being based on something very, very political. Here I think it could be argued that Anderson’s whimsy has gone too far, given its inspiration, though this doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable, just that its taste is questionable.
The final story, the best, is a strange, yet touching, amalgam, in which a black, gay American reporter, exiled to France for “loving the wrong way”, begins his story thinking that it’s going to be about that great sub-genre of gastronomy, police cuisine, and its hero, the legendary chef, Nescaffier, and sees it end with car chases, kidnappings and gangsters.
The French Dispatch is every bit as artificial as any Wes Anderson film, but is every bit as funny, beautiful and delightful, too. And infuriating.
Wes Anderson’s films tend to benefit from a repeat viewing, even those that are great first time around, and a second viewing can change how you feel about them completely. For example, while I didn’t much care for Fantastic Mr. Fox the first time that I watched it, I now love it, so I’ll definitely watch The French Dispatch again, but it would certainly be asking a lot for an Anderson newcomer, or a hater, to commit to that: this is advanced-level Wes Anderson, and only for the existing fans. I did enjoy The French Dispatch, but it exasperated me as much as it delighted me. I’ll leave the final words on this to another reviewer, Wendy Ide of The Guardian, who succinctly summed up how I felt about much of this when she wrote, “on a first viewing I found it to be among the most punchable films I have ever seen”. She’s not wrong. But now I need to see it a second time.
We’ve said in the past that nothing’s unadaptable, but it’s also fair to say some works resist it more than others. Hence Dune, Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction work, beloved by many, including me, is a rare instance where the best piece of movie or TV it’s associated with is a documentary about a failed effort to adapt it, Jodorowski’s Dune. I could talk for hours about where David Lynch’s Dune valiantly tried, but ultimately failed, although I couldn’t say the same about the TV mini-series, which may well hew closer to the text of the book but somehow miss out on all of the life. However, the question I suppose we’re here to answer today is can Denis “The Menii” Villeneuve get closer to the mark?
And, we can’t really answer, because one of the first things you’ll see onscreen is that this is Dune: Part One. So, see you in October 2023.
Oh, alright. Firstly, for the uninitiated, Dune takes place in the very far future, where humanity has spread across the galaxy under the rule of an Emperor, with planets ruled by the Great Houses, such as Oscar Isaac’s Duke Leto Atreides, much respected by the other houses and thus seen as a threat by the Emperor. Suspicious, then, that the Atreides are given the lucrative exclusive franchise to mine the precious drug Spice from the planet Arrakis, displacing their mortal enemies the Harkonnens, headed by Stellan Skarsgård’s Baron Vladimir Harkonnen and Dave Bautista’s Glossu Rabban.
To no-one’s surprise, it’s a trap. Well, a series of traps and difficulties, some of which the Atriedes staff can deal with, such as their human-computer mentat, Stephen McKinley Henderson’s Thufir Hawat, Josh Brolin’s Army head Gurney Halleck, and Jason Momoa’s Duncan Idaho, tasked with scouting ahead and making contact with Arrakis’ natives, the Fremen, in equal parts feared and oppressed by the Harkonnens, whom Leto hopes to form an alliance with. Against all this upheaval, Leto tries to bring his somewhat reluctant son, Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, closer into the family business of politicking and planning, as someday all this will be his.
While it initially seems like the plan might be just to let the Atriedes fail by providing only garbage-tier harvesters, which would be a disaster given that the Spice must flow, as it’s the only thing that enables safe interstellar travel, before long a rather less subtle plan of all out war is unfolded, the Empire and Harkonnens joining forces to batter them, with Paul and his mother, Rebecca Ferguson’s Jessica only just managing to escape into the desert with only their wits, and Bene Gesserit training that enhances control over their bodies and a power to control the weaker of mind with the voice.
As it happens, they don’t get much further than meeting a tribe of the Fremen, headed by Javier Bardem’s Stilgar, and containing Zendaya’s Chani, the woman of Paul increasingly prescient dreams as his latent powers awaken, before the credits role, which maybe doesn’t sound like a lot of plot to cover two and a half hours, even accounting for my simplifications and omissions.
And, well, while I have to first disclaim that I am not the person to come to for unbiased opinions about Dune – had this been a crayon scribble with Villeneuve making pew-pew noises for two hours I’d probably still have liked it – the thing that makes Dune difficult to translate is that even in the novel, no-one loved it for the basic core of the hero’s journey that’s been done many times over, or even really for the characters, which with only a few exceptions aren’t a lot more than job descriptions, if that, even if they are likably written, and in this film, likably performed.
What people, or at least me-flavoured people, loved about the book was the scale of the universe that Herbert’s concocted, some of which is detailed, some of which is vague enough to provoke wonder, and the hints of what’s happened in their distant past, and our distant future, like why the seemingly singular religion is still around, a mash up of Zen Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam and apparently all others, and quite how space travel and technology in general is supposed to work without mechanical computers, amongst others,
Lynch, arguably, mostly ignored this and focused on providing visual awe, the mini-series tended towards lots of characters expositioning at each other and sent us to sleep. Villeneuve, I think, does a pretty admirable job of threading these needles and giving enough detail to provoke that wonder with words, as well as some jaw-dropping effects work and cinematography that continues Villeneuve’s hot streak from Blade Runner 2049.
Where his hands are a bit more tied, even if by himself, is the film’s structure, as it struggles to reach a natural end point after struggling to be beaten into something approximating a three act structure, and, well, it’s wound up feeling like it’s skipped the Star Wars and went straight to Empire, although maybe that’s good thing.
I do want to open this up to the floor as I could waffle on about this and the wider Duneiverse for hours, so I’ll let you know that, unsurprisingly, I really enjoyed Dune, and while for reasons aforementioned – character depth and structure, primarily – it’s not a perfect film, it might be the perfect Dune film. Or half of it, at least.
Thanks to everyone who has got in touch with us on this, or said kind words about the show – it’s all very much appreciated.
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