VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE and THE ADDAMS FAMILY 2
They're both follow-ups to hits that also enjoyed October openings – one in 2018, and the other in 2019. They're both blessedly short, running 97 and 93 minutes, respectively. They both climax, as sequels often do, with enormous, effects-heavy creatures pounding the ever-loving crap out of each other. And if you're wondering what else Venom: Let There Be Carnage and The Addams Family 2 might have in common, they're both considerably better than the works they hailed from, although in only one case does the improvement result in something resembling a good movie.
That movie is not director Andy Serkis' continuation of the Venom series, but at least his film isn't the colossal dud that Ruben Fleischer's original was. When last we saw Tom Hardy's grossly under-qualified investigative journalist Eddie Brock and the just-plain-gross symbiote residing inside him, the pair were cohabitating in testy contentment, Brock having regained his questionable prestige and Venom feasting on chickens and chocolate when there were no bad guys around to munch on. But an end-credits cookie promised/threatened the impending arrival of Woody Harrelson's serial killer Cletus Kasady and his own symbiote, so you know … Let There Be Carnage, I guess.
As with most comic-book-flick continuations, the chief relief of this one is that we're spared the rote formula of an origin story, which allows Serkis – after a brief prologue establishing Cletus' love for the similarly institutionalized Frances “Shriek” Barrison – to get to the fun stuff right away. Of course, your tolerance for what's to come will depend on whether, like me, you put that “fun” in quotation marks. Three years have passed since the first Venom, and I'm still no closer to enjoying the sight of Hardy trading aggressively unfunny banter with a big, toothy blob of CGI goo, nor am I any nearer to deciphering the actor's particular accent here. (Hardy's growly Venom tirades are surprisingly comprehensible, but just what is the actor going for as the San Franciscan Eddie? Brooklyn/Cockney? Chicago/Swedish?) The plotting is again ridiculous, with Cletus' Carnage somehow able to do things symbiotes can't do – exactly how does he infiltrate computer networks without directly accessing them? – and Michelle Williams' ex-fiancée Anne involving herself in Eddie's plight past the point of reason. The effects are largely cheesy. The PG-13 rating is clearly a hindrance. The stabs at outrageous humor are woefully lame … unless you were craving to see Venom in an LGBTQ nightclub, draped in glow ropes, expressing his pride with “I'm coming out of the Eddie closet!” (Somewhere, Larry Kramer and Mart Crowley are silently weeping.)
But hey, at least it's not the 2018 Venom, meaning that this one occasionally doesn't suck. Despite Let There Be Carnage only being Serkis' fourth feature-length directorial effort, he does a more-than-decent job of scooting the action through San Francisco's hilly streets and up and down its edifices, and his playfulness as an actor (if usually an unseen actor) is evident in several unexpectedly spirited comic performances. Hardy is still working way too hard at his one-man Odd Couple routine, and Harrelson, though more confident in his outré choices than poor Riz Ahmed was last time around, falls into that familiar trap of playing serial-killer psychosis as a form of Hannibal Lecter priggishness. Williams, though, scores her few laughs and looks a lot less miserable than she did in 2018, and Serkis elicits equally sharp comic turns from Reid Scott, Peggy Lu, and Naomie Harris, the latter of whom plays the banshee Frances as a ravenously salacious loon; she should have been cast as Venom. (Watching Frances' beloved morph into Carnage, Harris practically licks her lips while hissing, “That is so hot!”) It's still a mess, but this Venom does have its moments, and with so many people still wary of returning to the cineplex, I was actually cheered to see the film amass a pandemic-era record of just over $90 million domestic in its opening weekend. If a weirdly accented Tom Hardy and a gelatinous monstrosity are what it takes to revive the U.S. box office, then you know … let there be Carnage. I guess.
At one point during my cineplex double-feature this past weekend, a patron sitting next to me muttered, “Wow. That was dark.” This wasn't, however, said at the Venom sequel. It was said at The Addams Family 2, and considering the event being commented on was the unmissable implication that young Wednesday Addams actually murdered someone, the statement wasn't inaccurate. It also could have applied to the movie villain's unsettling master plan of blending human and animal DNA. Or Wednesday programming her self-made lightning storm to electrocute a pair of beach bums. Or, in a living-room conversation between Morticia and Gomez, Wednesday smothering her brother Pugsley with a pillow for a loooong time while the struggling kid groans and flails his arms in a desperate attempt to breathe. The darkness is what I liked about directors Greg Tiernan's and Conrad Vernon's sequel. Their follow-up may be nastier, and consequently less kid-friendly, than the helmers' bland 2019 precursor, but happily, this one has a legitimate point-of-view. To say nothing of more fart and poop jokes than the original, so the young-'uns should have a fine time, as well.
Just as Barry Sonnenfeld's 1993 Addams Family Values is vastly superior to – and infinitely funnier than – his 1991 Addams Family, this new, gorgeously animated endeavor is preferable to its 2019 predecessor in nearly every way. While the talented vocal cast (Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Kroll, Bette Midler, Snoop Dog) is largely the same, this time it's augmented by Bill Hader and Wallace Shawn, and the decision to send the Addams clan on an extended road trip yields loads of inventive results … though I am perplexed by why the filmmakers went with Addams Family 2 as a title when Addams Family Vacation was right there waiting for them. Nonetheless, the verbal gags are generally terrific (if still too reliant on the kinds of puns that I detest almost as much as Wednesday does), the visual ones are even more ticklish, and while the finale is unfortunately overscaled in the generic comic-book-movie manner, it does boast a trace of heart. A heart ripped from someone's chest, perhaps, but at least it beats.
THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK
Though I have to shamefully admit that I haven't watched every episode of The Sopranos, having wandered away from it around 2004 and not (yet) bothering to return, I've certainly seen and enjoyed enough of them to concur with the commonly held belief that creator David Chase's iconic gangster epic managed to make everyone in it interesting. Director Alan Taylor's new Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark (currently at the cineplex and streaming on HBO Max) manages the opposite feat, as it doesn't seem able to make anyone interesting – and a number of its characters, principally Tony Soprano himself, factor heavily into the series. It's hard to determine exactly what went so wrong with this project – whether the problems stemmed from its unfortunate choice of protagonist or (being a prequel) its fundamental lack of surprise, or whether the 14 years following the show's finale have just gangster-ed us all out. Yet while Taylor's saga-expander is certainly watchable, it remains only that, and the glory of HBO's 1999-2007 ratings dynamo and Emmys magnet was that it was never “only” anything.
A slow, rolling creep through a cemetery at the very start delivers Many Saints' most arresting passage, with voices of the dead whispering their histories and the camera finally landing on the tombstone of Christopher Moltisanti, who was murdered by his “Uncle” Tony near the series' end. Sopranos regular Michael Imperioli returns to voice the role through occasional narration from the grave, intimating that, through the course of the film, we'll get to see how Tony became Tony. But we really don't. Instead, Taylor's movie (co-written by David Chase and Lawrence Konner) focuses primarily on Christopher's gangster father Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), with Tony himself – Dickie's beloved acolyte and protégé – a largely peripheral figure. It's an unusual tack for the story to take, but not an entirely unpromising one, as it comes with potentially fascinating detours involving a rival to Dickie's criminal empire (an electric but sadly ill-used Leslie Odom Jr.), Dickie's killing of his father played by Ray Liotta, and Dickie's attempts to assuage his guilt by befriending his father's incarcerated brother – a role also played by Ray Liotta. (The double-casting may bring to mind Paul Dano's twinned roles in There Will Be Blood, but I may have enjoyed the conceit even more here – Taylor and the writers suggesting that whether the guy is a hot-blooded Liotta psychopath or a somberly reflective Liotta type, a murderer is a murderer.)
Dickie, however, isn't the least bit distinctive as a character, and neither, equally sadly, is the gifted actor portraying him. We all know what to expect from Mafia-based entertainments: random shootings; colorful insults; upbeat pop tunes on the soundtrack; treatises on loyalty and disloyalty; so much Italian food that you practically develop heartburn by proxy. (Although we're denied the obligatory scene set in a strip club, Michaela De Rossi, as Dickie's stepmother/goomah, does at one point appear topless in an apparent nod to Sopranos fans.) Yet everything about Dickie's arc feels familiar, and Nivola hasn't been given material specific enough to make the familiar fresh; he feels as interchangeable, and immaterial, as any number of one-and-done gangster extras on the HBO series.
There's some moderate fun to be had in the heavily accented Jersey readings of Vera Farmiga as Tony's domineering mother Livia, if nothing to suggest the blood-chilling fearsomeness of TV's Nancy Marchand. It's kind of a kick to see Tony's (initially) faithful henchmen Paulie Walnuts, “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, and Silvio Dante respectively reenacted by Billy Magnussen, Samson Moeakiola, and John Magaro. (The unrecognizable Magaro actually looks less like The Sopranos' Steven Van Zandt than a middle-aged standup comic doing a De Niro impression.) And Jon Bernthal and Corey Stoll also show up, which is never less than a good thing. Stoll was even responsible for my one audible gasp at the film's violence, when his Junior Soprano – a role originated on HBO by the great Dominic Chianese – slipped on some wet stairs and fractured his back.
But none of the ensemble figures are written with any particular relish, and when James Galdolfini's real-life son Michael finally appears, an hour into the film, to take over his deceased father's legendary role, teenage Tony proves so unformed and generic that you wonder why the filmmakers bothered to cast the late actor's actual child. This despite Michael Gandolfini resembling his dad a lot – though a chubby John Cusack even more. (William Ludwig, in his scenes as the tween Tony, actually proves to be the more memorable Tony interpreter.) Even the one genuinely great moment in the movie – infant Christopher reflexively bawling at the sight of the guy who'll one day kill him – is undercut by needless commentary explaining the image that we all instinctively understood. The Many Saints of Newark is a depressing disappointment. I am grateful, though, that its presence may have finally inspired me to catch up with and complete The Sopranos. Even the series' most underwhelming individual episode has to be stronger than this.