Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Truth in Journalism: A Review

C'est arrivé dans votre voisinage amical
By Orion Petitclerc

San Diego Comic Con International is a wondrous place where geek magic can foster widespread fandom or a smaller cult following. Last year at SDCC 2012, Adi Shankar and Phil Joanou revitalized indie fan films with Dirty Laundry, which starred Thomas Jane as he reprised his role as Marvel Knight Frank Castle, a.k.a. The Punisher, in a huge surprise ending. The short was an instant cult classic. So at this year’s SDCC, Shankar returned to deliver a new short fan film at the Machinima panel, called Truth in Journalism. Produced by Shankar and written and directed by Joe Lynch, Truth in Journalism starred Ryan Kwanten of True Blood fame as down-on-his-luck journalist Eddie Brock, known better as Spider-Man’s iconic archnemesis in black, Venom.
Before I begin, I must warn you that this review contains major spoilers for those who’ve yet to watch this film. This is also a very long, in-depth review, so buckle in.
"Venom Bites Dog"...or maybe "Man Bites Venom"?
A Portrait in Black

On behalf of all Venom fans (whom I dub “Venomaniacs”) and as a service to all the new comic book readers and those generally outside “the know,” let me start off with a brief recount. According to whichever source you may be more comfortable with, Spider-Man at one point wore a black-and-white suit that was secretly an organic life form called a symbiote. He attained the suit from either a machine on a distant planet called Battleworld during Marvel’s cross-comic event, The Secret Wars, or from a space rock that either fell to Earth (Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3) or was brought back from the moon by astronauts (the 90’s Spider-Man: The Animated Series). When Spidey found out about his new costume’s true nature, he cast it off the only way he knew how: tolling bells in a bell tower at Our Lady of Saints Church. (This church is seen and alluded to during a scene in Truth in Journalism.)
Eddie Brock, who had previously ruined his reputation as a journalist and was fired from the Daily Globe (Daily Bugle, if we’re talking about Spider-Man 3 or Spider-Man: The Animated Series) for false reporting, inherited the scorned suit, bonding with it to become the malicious Venom. Fueled by the suit’s passionate hatred for Spidey and Brock’s inability to accept responsibility for his actions and instead blame Spidey for his issues, Venom had been a constant thorn in the wall crawler’s side, most painfully because right off the bat Venom knew Spidey’s secret identity as Peter Parker.
Since his first appearance in The Amazing Spider-Man #300, Venom has been a fan-favorite nemesis, and has lead his own solo adventures in comics during Brock’s tenure before the symbiote began host jumping in 2005. Fans were then graced in 2007 with Venom’s film debut in Spider-Man 3. Unfortunately, Raimi and producer Avi Arad’s Eddie Brock Jr. (played by Topher Grace from That 70’s Show) and his villainous alter ego were met with mixed reviews, most leaning towards the negative feelings the whole of the film had mustered in moviegoers and comic fans. Many of the complaints against Grace’s character stemmed from his lack of bulk (which Venom was well known for) and unfaithful portrayal of the character’s personality, plus his rushed development in an already crammed roster of villains.
Ever since his train wreck of a debut, Venom fans have been promised a solo spin-off film by Sony Pictures, and to this day a project has yet to lift off the ground. Even with the Spider-Man movie franchise’s reboot in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man and Venom’s growing popularity in comics with the symbiote’s bond to Parker’s once high school bully, Flash Thompson, Sony has little to bring to the table outside barely-digestible tidbits of plans and pre-production talks.
And then Truth in Journalism came along, seemingly out of nowhere. Not to get ahead of myself, but as a rabid (and, hopefully, one day officially recognized as a) Venomaniac and a devout Eddie Brock fan, I feel I’m qualified to say that Truth in Journalism was the Venom film we’ve all been waiting for—and, more importantly, the one we deserve.

Let’s Talk Geek

Lynch and Shankar’s possibly greatest contribution to the film and fans is their faithfulness to the main source material: Venom’s first appearance in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man. Now, this isn’t to say this is a Venom film, per se; instead, this is Brock’s film, as Venom only makes a brief appearance towards the end. However, this is a neo-classic Brock: Kwanten is not a ripped body builder as Todd McFarlane drew Brock, but he’s still toned, and Truth in Journalism features a scene in which Brock is pumping iron in his apartment. Brock’s personality is also a bit more outgoing and spunky than the comics suggested, embodying a passionate, stereotypic journalist and paying homage to the character of Benoît from the 1992 cult classic, found footage, indie French film, Man Bites Dog—which Lynch calls Truth in Journalism’s “spiritual ancestor,” and which plays a huge role in the style and story of the short film (I’ll explain this further on).
Who else remembers KB Toys at the mall? Nice detail.
But, most importantly of all, Kwanten’s Brock is faithful to his comic counterpart in being absolutely creepy. There are many points in the film where I felt like Brock was on the verge of snapping into outright insanity, and his general disconnectedness from the horrors which he makes his living from reporting on shadows in comparison to Grace’s sleazy, dorky adaptation.
Truth in Journalism is, in part, a period piece; the plot, characters, and aesthetics are set in New York in 1988—the year in which Amazing Spider-Man #300 was published (though the production was filmed in modern downtown Los Angeles). Even working on a very small budget, the film’s crew did a phenomenal job with giving the setting and film that older feel, especially with the added aesthetic of shooting in 16 mm black and white film (again, another homage to Man Bites Dog). Unlike its spiritual ancestor, Truth in Journalism features a soundtrack of popular songs from the late 80’s which helped ground the setting along with the clothing and hairstyles, including Europe’s “The Final Countdown” during the aforementioned weight lifting scene.
Not too scrawny, but keep lifting, bro.
The best parts of the film, in my fanatic opinion, were the many references to the comics. One of the more recent sources of reference included Brock calling himself an “administrator of truth,” and claims to “put the ‘caution’ in cautionary tales,” which hearkens back to Venom: Dark Origin, a four-issue comic run retelling Brock’s origin story. In Dark Origin, Brock’s character was retconned for his film debut, and highlighted his twisted journalism practices and belief of creating truth from the reporter’s perspective. This wasn’t an attribute Brock was given in his debut comic, but it serves the plot of Truth in Journalism well.
Another reference in the film is the symbiote’s morphing ability, as seen when Brock is caught talking to himself in his apartment bathroom and quickly changing from wearing only workout shorts to a suit and tie as quickly as shutting and opening the door. When Brock turns into Venom, he pukes out the symbiote onto the floor and it crawls up his body, referencing the modern inclination of artists and the Spider-Man 3 movie’s sickly symbiote dispersion and transformation.
Another sweet reference is one Brock makes during the bar scene when he takes his leave, saying, “I gotta go see a lady-friend,” specifically referring to the scene in the comics in which Venom makes his first appearance at Parker’s apartment and terrorizes Mary Jane.
But the most obscure and juicy of all references is Brock’s fateful Sin Eater debacle, which before Truth in Journalism was used only in the comics. In both Spider-Man: The Animated Series and Spider-Man 3, Brock’s origin was retconned so that he ruined his career from falsely reporting Spider-Man’s supposed “criminal” activities and publishing the articles with the Daily Bugle; in the comics, however, Brock had run an exclusive set of articles with the Daily Globe (a sister company to the Bugle) in which he interviewed who he believed was the serial killing criminal, the Sin Eater. Under pressure from the police, Brock revealed his source as Emil Gregg, who was a compulsive confessor claiming himself to be the Sin Eater, before Spider-Man revealed the true identity of the criminal. In the film, Brock’s failure with what the camera crew following him calls the “Bugle Incident” and “Emil Gregg case” lurks in the background of the plot, and Brock does his best to avoid addressing the elephant in the room. He even acknowledges the necessity of his new situation as a ruined reporter for paying the bills, even at one point asking, “Am I happy spewing bile and venom in a rag like the Examiner? Of course not.”
Issues? Yeah, he has issues. Which one're ya looking to read?
Though not a direct quote from the comics, Amazing Spider-Man #300 featured a similar quote from Brock during a monologue: “I was forced to write venomous celebrity exposés and ‘I was kidnapped by aliens’ drivel for scandal rags, just to eke out a living.” Then, nearing the scene when Brock became Venom, Brock escorted his camera crew into his bedroom, where on all the walls were news clippings, the most prominent being front pages from the Daily Bugle with pictures of Spider-Man and headlines reading “Sin Eater Body Count Now 10” and “Globe Falsely Accuses Wrong Suspect”.

The Spiritual Ancestor

Yet as chock-full of geekgasmic comic insider references as Lynch and Shankar squeezed into Truth in Journalism, this was only the tip of the iceberg. As mentioned earlier, Lynch mentioned Man Bites Dog as Truth in Journalism’s spiritual ancestor. This is, perhaps, an understatement. Truth in Journalism not only pays homage to Man Bites Dog, but embodies the genre and mimics certain plot points. Lynch and Shankar essentially set Man Bites Dog in the Marvel comics universe and had their French-Belgian camera crew follow around a detached, delusional journalist instead of a practical, friendly serial killer. Both Brock and Benoît share their hair-trigger, outgoing personalities, and both films follow a similar plotline to a point: the camera crew follows their subject with a focus in exploring the nature of a person in a particular line of work; the camera crew runs into issues with funding part of the way through the film, and their subject offers to help them with money; the group eventually runs into another competing camera crew; and the main camera crew dies at the end of the film.
However, Truth in Journalism deviates from the plot of its spiritual ancestor at several points: when Eddie offers his crew financial assistance in the spirit of cinema (both films also share the catchphrase “cineMA!” during their respective bar scenes), the crew ends up declining his offer for the sake of integrity and, secretly, to avoid becoming accessories to his possible criminal activities because they don’t trust Eddie. In Man Bites Dog, the crew became so caught up in Benoît’s crimes, they were forced to accept his offer not only for their fear of him, but also because of their Stockholm syndrome-like interest in his nature. When the crew and Eddie run into another competing camera crew, instead of killing the competitors like Benoît did, Eddie’s crew is almost killed by the competitors’ own subject, the infamous Bullseye (played by Derek Mears) of Daredevil origins (who, funny enough, is called “Ben” by his director in the scene…seeing the connection yet?). And, finally, where Benoît and his crew are killed at the end of their film by unseen gunmen, Eddie kills his crew as Venom when they decline his funding—most probably out of paranoia.
This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship!

It’s all in the Names

But wait! The insider jokes, geek references, and Easter eggs don’t end there! On top of the healthy dose of faithfulness to the source materials, the fake credits in the beginning of the film hold a few layers of meaning on their own. Three names were given in the beginning credits: Rémy Plissken, Pierre Balcomb, and Benoît Shankkar. Obviously, Rémy and Benoît refer to Rémy Belbaux and Benoît Poelvoorde, both the cast and crew of Man Bites Dog (as well as Lynch’s son, Rémy, who’s named after the film maker); but probably lesser known is whom Pierre Balcomb’s first name references: Pierre Vanbraekel, who played the father of the child Benoît smothered in Man Bites Dog.
Another obvious reference is Benoît Shankkar’s last name, referring to the last name of Truth in Journalism’s producer. Both the Plissken and Balcomb last names, however, may be references to the film or crew’s less obvious inspirations: Plissken referring to Snake Plissken, Kurt Russell’s character in the Escape from New York and Escape from L.A. films (the impact on Truth in Journalism and its characters is lost on me as I’ve yet to see either film); and Balcomb possibly referring to Florence Balcombe, wife of Dracula author Bram Stroker, who is remembered for leading the destruction of most of the prints of 1922’s Nosferatu, which unofficially adapted her husband’s gothic vampire tale to the silver screen. This last reference plays a particular part in the film, as Eddie’s character was restored to his horrific personality as originally written in the comics, as well as the similarities to the themes of Balcombe’s inquisition against fraudulent profiteering and Eddie’s failure as a journalist for reporting fraudulent evidence in the spirit of “making it big” as a reporter.

And Now for a Little Rant

After watching Truth in Journalism a second…and maybe third, fourth, and—oh, who am I kidding? I’ll be watching this on replay for a long time—well, you get the point, but after rewatching Truth in Journalism to catch all the Easter eggs and nods to fans Lynch and Shankar injected into each scene, I was still a bit unsatisfied. What? I’m very picky when it comes to Venom, don’t judge me! Anyways, Truth in Journalism showcases, by far, the best interpretation of Eddie Brock in a medium outside print. By far. This isn’t to say Truth in Journalism doesn’t need a few improvements to make it the best Eddie Brock and Venom film of all time. (OF ALL TIME!)
For one, I, as many other Venom fans who watched this can probably agree, believe Truth in Journalism deserved a bigger budget for a better Venom design. A practical Venom costume is completely possible, as Lynch and Shankar proved, but I believe in a costume that could mix the practical with CGI. For instance, the Venom head Kwanten sported when he became the murderous alter ego was very minimalist and had a weird tight-lipped mouth seam across it the entire time until his close-up when CGI kicked in to sport the classic mouth, complete with razor sharp teeth and a wagging tongue. With a bigger budget, they could’ve given Venom the classic open-mouth via CGI for more than a few seconds rather than having that (no offense) goofy seam.
Also, I got their intention for making Venom more alien by doing away with the big white spider logo wrapping around his chest, but I felt that choice was also as much of an injustice to the character and fans as Venom’s costume design was in Spider-Man 3 (which basically cheated and gave the black suited Spider-Man a mouth). It was almost like Lynch and Shankar were attempting to distance the character’s design from his origin with Spider-Man. I understand that the only way a Venom movie would work is if it stood alone from the PG-13 rated wall crawler, but who is the Joker without Batman?
Another little geek issue I had with the film was Brock’s New York accent (crucify me now). I know that at the time Amazing Spider-Man #300 was written and when Brock was developing in the mind of David Michelinie, Brock most likely—most probably—was meant to have a New York/Brooklyn accent. He was, at the time, assumed to be an NYC native. That is, until we learned more about him after his departure from New York in the pages of Venom: Lethal Protector. Michelinie revealed Brock to be a San Francisco native instead—a detail just about no one would know outside the fandom. So yes, I get that Lynch and Shankar were sticking close to the early days of Brock in comics, but I would have preferred Kwanten to imitate a San Franciscan accent, just to differentiate Brock more from the few New York natives he talked to.
And as much as I liked Truth in Journalism framed in the style and story of Man Bites Dog, I would have also liked the film to have its own feel. If Truth in Journalism did, in fact, get the ball rolling at Sony for a Venom solo film, not only should Venom keep his R rating, but the story should be unique. Again, not so unique it distances itself from the source and Spider-Man’s influence.
I know I set the bar high, but I did honestly, truly enjoy the heck out of Truth in Journalism. Lynch and Shankar really delivered to the fans an outstanding Venom film, even if it’s not canon to either film franchises, and Kwanten surprisingly broadened the scope of potential Brock actors. Seriously, I’ve been waging my own little war against the piping masses with my pick of American Gladiator Lee Reherman as Grace’s replacement over the fan-favorite wrestling all-star, Brock Lesnar (I know he shares Eddie’s name, but he’s too buff for a journalist! At least Reherman’s brawn is explainable, and can be easily toned down with CGI, Captain America style). I thought I had given up on finding Grace lookalikes to fill Brock’s gooey shoes, but Kwanten proved me wrong and beyond. My hat’s off to the entire cast and crew of Truth in Journalism, and with my official Venomaniac stamp of approval (as official as my reputation in the fandom makes it, I suppose), I give this new cult classic a 5 out of 5 and a kiss on the lips. No tongue, though.

Here’s looking forward to how Sony can meet this monster!

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