RāViewz: Film & TV | December 2021
With a focus on addiction, superheroes and stories of colour, here's what Rāwiri is watching this month...
Venom: Let There Be Carnage (2021), Sony Pictures
Spider-Man is one hot property. Three separate film series have been launched with Peter Parker at the helm, and all have gone on to make serious bank at the box office. Hell, the mythos surrounding the web slinger is so captivating, even associated characters can land successful franchises. It seemed inevitable that a Venom film would do well (not to mention, give Sony a much great piece of the Marvel pie) but even industry insiders were left slack-jawed when 2018's Venom generated $850 million worldwide.
Leaning committed and confidently into its batshit crazy, the story of Eddie Brock's bonding to an alien symbiote offered a welcome reprieve from the comparative 'real' world feel of the Marvel Cinematic Universe at the time. And so it is, the follow up teased in the credits sequence finally lands in theatres worldwide, after a Covid-related delay.
Eddie (Tom Hardy) is still struggling with the break-up to ex-girlfriend Anne (Michelle Williams), but it's the co-dependent relationship with the titular people-eating black goo monster that sets the action into motion here. When the symbiote also bonds to serial killer Cletus Kassady (Woody Harrelson), he becomes Carnage, and Eddie must reaffirm his relationship to Venom in order to stop him and his sonically unhinged girlfriend, Shriek.
Director Andy Serkis cranks up the weird tone of the first film to 'batshit' setting and allows his seasoned actors to charge ham-fistedly through the script's obvious but endearing plot contrivances. It operates and exists in its own Sony Pictures version of Marvel-owned characters and it lacks the nuance and the MCU's best efforts, but it has a cool charm all its own and if you go in to the experience unclenched, you should have a good time.
Dopesick (2021), Hulu/Star
Based on Beth Macy's novel Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors and the Drug Company that Addicted America, Hulu's latest hit is an affecting, razor sharp study of America's legalised opioid crisis. Creatively licensed but based on true events, the shocking story of how a nation became addicted to drugs seems so outrageous it could hardly be fiction. Sadly, it is.
In the 1990s, the morally bankrupt but incredibly auspicious Sackler family patented Oxycontin, a strong pain narcotic that was touted as being less than 1% addictive - a claim it based on an outdated and unqualified statement - that the family knew was untrue. Purdue Pharma, the company behind the Sackler family endured decades of legal suits and enforcement threats, and in 2020 settled with the US government for over $8 billion in damages.
Dopesick tells the tapestry of faces behind those affected by Purdue's insidious and FDA-sanctioned selling of Oxycontin. Bridget Meyer of the DEA is out to bring the company down, as are attorneys Rick Mountcastle and Randy Ramseyer. Dr Samuel Finnix prescribes oxy for young Betsy Meyer on the advice of salesman Billy Cutler. All of these people - and more - are sucked in, and spat out by the Sackler family, most notably, the ambitious oddball Richard.
The characters are clearly defined and developed and the ensemble cast are exceptional. Michael Keaton delivers yet another beautifully heart-breaking performance and is matched by seasoned pros Rosario Dawson and Peter Sarsgaard. Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart, Unbelievable) continues her career ascension with a standout performance, too.
Writer/Creator Danny Strong has a penchant for the political, having penned Recount, Game Change and The Butler and although the varied cast of characters are kept out of the white house in Dopesick, there are familiar strategies employed by Big Pharma, media agencies and the small-town folk who oppose them. Industry veteran Barry Levison directs the first couple of episodes, setting the tone of the show, while Strong gets to provide the resolve, helming the last two episodes.
Audiences with real-life connection to the war of addiction will find plenty of horror and healing in this mini series, but even those without prior knowledge should come away from these final episodes with compassion, righteous confusion and new comprehension of addiction.
Simply, Dopesick is one of the most affecting series of the century so far.
Hawkeye (2021), Disney+
It's been a big year in the world of Marvel and the fifth and final television series of 2021 has landed - slings, arrows and all. Jeremy Renner's Clint Barton/Hawkeye has been a supporting member of the Avengers since his introduction in 2012, and his 2019 Endgame story arc set him up for a standalone film nicely. Marvel chief Kevin Feige changed tactic, opting instead to forge a six-hour series for the quippy archer and surprisingly, the result is a highlight of the MCU's Phase Four.
Taking place in the year after the events of the blip, Clint is looking forward to spending his first Christmas in five years with his family. On holiday in New York City, his plans are interrupted by a young woman named Kate Bishop, who took up in the robes of Clint's former mercenary persona, Ronin. When Kate is targeted by a gang, Barton feels responsible to distance her from the Ronin mantle, and takes the talented young archer under his wing.
Creator Jonathan Igla - an Emmy-nominted producer of Bridgerton and writer on Mad Men - has focused his story on Hawkeye's redemption, and with Kate, Clint sees the opportunity to right the wrongs of his sacrifice of Black Widow on Vormir. It seems drab and deep, and in other hands probably would've been, but Igla wisely chooses to balance the psychological fallout of Endgame with the style and bombast of a Shane Black Christmas action-thriller.
Jeremy Renner is given far more to do here than in any previous outing and despite his character's intention to retire, looks to be having more fun than we've ever seen him. The chemistry between him and Hailee Steinfeld (Bishop) is crackling and dynamic, whether its taking out cartels in expertly crafted fight choreography, or trading barbs courtesy of its finely-tuned scripts. Supporting cast are roundly strong, and the appearance of a newly-added member of the wider Avengers family is a welcome and interesting move.
Fresh, festive and full speed, Hawkeye is a stronger and more consistent series than any of Marvel's previous entries with the exception of WandaVision. If the bow and arrow is to be passed down to new blood, Hawkeye shows that they are in safe hands.
The First Wave (2021), Neon/National Geographic Film
With film crews given special access to the Long Island Jewish Medical Center, The First Wave is an engrossing, confronting documentary that spans the first three months of the Covid-19 pandemic as it ravages New York City - one of the most severely hit hotspots of the virus.
Director Matthew Heineman, the Emmy-nominated auteur of Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare, casts a spotlight on the doctors, nurses and healthcare workers that helped New Yorkers fight an insidious new enemy. As the bewilderment of early March 2020 gives way to careful procedure, and then fatigue, it is a timely reminder of how far the world has come since the initial lockdowns of last year.
It's a film far less inclined to facts and figures, instead focusing on a handful of healthcare workers and their patients - some, but not all of whom make it through the film. Those that are released from intubation and the hospital at large, do so far from fully recovered.
The patients we get to know best are Brussels Jabon and Ahmed Ellis, two frontline workers of colour whose stories are deeply impactful, not only because of their early exposure to Coronavirus but because the American healthcare system disproportionately affects African American and Hispanic people - a fact that is echoed eerily by the chants of "I can't breathe" by marchers outside the hospital in protest of George Floyd's murder by policemen.
As the world comes to grips with vaccine mandates, lockdowns and other adjustments to post-Covid existence, The First Wave is a stellar reminder of a precarious moment in time, and an all-around absorbing film.