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Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Of all the various comic book characters to get their own showcase during the superhero era, Venom has to be one of most unlikely.

The character first popped up as a villain in 2007’s Spider-Man 3 with Topher Grace as Eddie Brock/Venom but made little impact because of the quality of the film and Grace’s performance. Tom Hardy took over the role in 2018’s Venom, a poorly reviewed but hugely successful film that took in $856 million worldwide.

That box office — and an end credits teaser featuring Woody Harrelson — ensured there would be a sequel, which now arrives with the somewhat clunky title Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

After unsuccessfully trying to purge the symbiote Venom from his system in the first film, Eddie Brock spends his days mostly trying to satisfy the never-ending hunger of Venom. He halfheartedly accepts an assignment to interview Cletus Cassidy (Harrelson), a murderer who’s set to be executed.

That visit proves disastrous, however, as an altercation allows Cletus to get a bit of Eddie’s blood, transforming him into Carnage. Cletus/Carnage proceeds to escape and go on a destruction spree, all while searching for his long-lost love, Frances/Shriek (Naomie Harris), who spent time with him in an institution. Naturally, only Eddie/Venom will be able to protect the city and those he loves, including former fiancée Anne (Michelle Williams), from the vicious pair.

Directed by Andy Serkis and written by Kelly Marcel, the film is an incoherent mess from beginning to end. It’s clear that Venom is supposed to be a funny character, with his insatiable appetite and inappropriate comments, but the way he’s presented is far from entertaining.

Much of this has to do with the god-awful CGI; perhaps having a being that’s constantly coming out of and surrounding the lead character was always going to be tough to present, but it’s still shocking just how bad it is.

Even worse than the imagery is the complete lack of an interesting story. Hardy has a story credit and serves as one of the producers for this film, so he was clearly invested in trying to make it good. But he, Marcel, and Serkis failed miserably, serving up a bland, confusing storyline and allowing Harrelson and Harris to overact shamelessly. Save for a couple of mildly humorous one-liners, the script does nothing to liven things up either.

It’s strange that Hardy was chosen to play this role, as he doesn’t seem to have the energy that Eddie is supposed to have. Hardy has mostly been known for his intensity in films like Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, and Mad Max: Fury Road. Watching him try to be reserved, twitchy, and a little goofy is painful, as his natural demeanor is not a good fit for those traits.

As previously mentioned, Harrelson and Harris go way over the top in their respective roles, and even though they’re the villains of the film, their lack of restraint is galling. Williams — who, it should be noted, is a four-time Oscar nominee — is once again wildly out of place, and even she can’t save her nothing of a role.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is even worse than the dog of a film that was the original. I’d love to say that this is the last we’ll see of the character, but an end-credits teaser strongly hints at a return very soon. Maybe that appearance will make him enjoyable, but I doubt it.

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Venom: Let There Be Carnage is running in theaters now.

Tom Hardy in Venom: Let There Be Carnage.

Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
Tom Hardy in Venom: Let There Be Carnage.
Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

The Big Scary “S” Word aims for enlightenment about socialism

Movie Review

For those on the right side of the political spectrum, there has been one word used to demonize people on the left in recent years: socialist.

Politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York are the two most prominent members of the Democratic Socialists of America, a group which, among other things, is working to push the Democratic Party further to the left to secure things like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and more.

The new documentary The Big Scary “S” Word, directed by Yael Bridge, attempts to explain and defuse socialism by demonstrating that it has long had a home in the United States. Capitalism, as the film shows, has been held up as the ideal for the economic and political well-being for American citizens since the country’s founding. But instead of being a system that allows everyone to flourish, it is one in which the money continually flows to the top, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and greed.

Socialism, its proponents and the film argue, can break that cycle, giving power to all of the people instead of just those at the very top.

To illustrate that point and the history of socialism, Bridge includes interviews with a litany of economic and political science professors from different universities. Each of them dutifully explain the benefits of socialism and provide plenty of examples of socialists throughout America’s history, including Theodore Roosevelt, Albert Einstein, and Martin Luther King Jr. The interviews with the professors are, to put it mildly, very dry, giving the feel of a college lecture.

Bridge tries to put a personal face on the issue by following a few people, including Oklahoma teacher Stephanie Price, who warms to the idea of socialism thanks to a teacher strike in the state in 2018; and Virginia state delegate Lee Carter, who became the lone Democratic Socialist in the Virginia House of Delegates in 2018. While they provide a bit of balance to the droning of the professors, neither of their stories is overly compelling, at least in the context of promoting socialism.

Two people who aren’t interviewed are the ones viewers probably want to hear from most, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. Both of them appear in the film, but only in news footage or in a speech Sanders gives in support of Carter’s reelection bid. If Bridge had been able to actually sit down with Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez, it would have livened up the film appreciably.

A film like The Big Scary “S” Word needs to be one that not only fires up people who are already inclined to believe its message, but one that’s convincing enough to persuade those who aren’t. Unfortunately, the film fails on both ends, winding up in a place where the only ones who will likely care about it are those who were personally involved in its making.

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The Big Scary “S” Word is available via video on demand platforms.

Photo courtesy of Visit Houston

Major Texas airport flies high as best and cleanest in the U.S.

Soaring to new heights

Travel can be tenuous of late, and choosing a good airport for a layover or plane change can be more important than ever. Both airports in one major Texas city have just landed high honors on a prestigious global ranking.

Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport is the No.1 airport in the U.S., according to the Skytrax 2021 World Airport Awards, specifically in the World’s Top 100 Airports category.

Bush also ranks as the cleanest airport in the nation. Bush scored second-best airport in North America, achieving both honors for the second consecutive year. Soaring six spots this year, Bush now ranks No. 25 among the top 100 world airports on this list.

IAH also finished fourth in the rankings for Best U.S. Airport Staff, according to a press release.

Houston's Hobby Airport received several accolades as well, including the most improved airport in the U.S. The bustling Southwest Airlines hub also ranked third in the Best Regional Airports in North America category.

Hobby ranked 49th in the Top 100 Best World Airports category — up from 67th in 2020, per a release. Additionally, Hobby ranked 10th in the Cleanest Airports - North America category.

Notably, Houston is the only U.S. city to have two airports in the Best Airports in North America and Cleanest Airports categories.

To generate the annual rankings, the Skytrax World Airport Awards rankings analyze the annual airport customer survey for the Passenger’s Choice Awards, conducted from August 2020 until July 2021. Many travelers voted for their favorite and/or best airport based on pre-pandemic travel experiences, while other customers voted after their COVID-19 airport experience during the past 12 months, a release notes.

Yelp supports local LGBTQ-owned businesses with new search tool

OPEN TO ALL

Happy Pride Month, Austin! If you’re in search of a way to get in the spirit by supporting local LGBTQ+-owned businesses, Yelp is eager to help.

The crowd-sourced review site recently unveiled its newest attribute, which highlights local LGBTQ+-owned businesses. Additionally, restaurants and nightlife establishments that identify as LGBTQ+-owned or have an Open to All designation will be noted on Yelp with rainbow-colored map pins throughout the month of June.

In the Austin area, Yelp points to meaty favorite La Barbecue, and super cool Dripping Springs-based bakery Skull & Cakebones, which had already indicated in their Yelp profiles that they are LGBTQ-owned.

The Pride addition was brought about after Yelp noticed a significant increase in consumers searching for LGBTQ+ businesses in their local communities, noting that the site experienced a 150 percent increase in such searches in April 2021 compared with the same time last year.

“That’s why we’re excited to make it easier than ever for people to discover and support LGBTQ+ business owners, as well as allies to the LGBTQ+ community,” says a Yelp blog post announcing the new attribute.

Consumers can check out the LGBTQ-owned attribute in the Yelp mobile app under a business’ “more info” section, as well as on Yelp’s website in the “amenities and more” section of a business page.

The new Yelp map pins can be found by directly searching for LGBTQ-owned and Open to All businesses or restaurants, and through the home page on the Yelp mobile app, as well as online by clicking the banner on the Yelp search page.

The new attribute, which is free for businesses to add, is opt-in only, giving local businesses the ability to self-identify LGBTQ-owned. And in a supportive move of its own, Yelp says it will proactively monitor pages for hate speech and remove any hateful, racist, or harmful content that violates its content guidelines.

Additionally, the Open to All program, an initiative of the Movement Advancement Project that launched in 2018, partnered with Yelp to help get the word out about area businesses that have pledged to be a safe and welcoming place for everyone. Currently, there are more than 581,000 businesses that have indicated on Yelp that they are Open to All.

The Pride additions augment Yelp’s long-held dedication to lift up underrepresented communities. In 2017, the company launched its Gender-neutral Restroom business attribute, with more than 426,000 businesses currently indicating they offer gender-neutral restrooms. And in 2019, Yelp joined the Human Rights Campaign’s Business Coalition for the Equality Act and this year signed HRC’s Business Statement Opposing Anti-LGBTQ State Legislation.

“To continue our support of the LGTBQ+ community, we are thrilled to launch a new attribute for LGBTQ-owned businesses, as well as a new map experience exclusively for the month of June. We hope this new attribute makes it easier to find and spend money with LGBTQ-owned businesses,” says Miriam Warren, chief diversity officer at Yelp. “For the first time, we’re also introducing rainbow map pins to our platform. Our intention is to help users discover inclusive and welcoming businesses to celebrate during Pride.”

Photo courtesy of Neon

Timely documentary Totally Under Control indicts U.S. response to COVID-19

Movie Review

Most documentaries take years to make, as filmmakers follow their subjects trying to piece together a specific story or, as is often the case, find the story as filming goes along. Totally Under Control is a wholly different experience, as it’s an of-the-moment retelling of how the Trump administration handled the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, something that is evolving even as we speak.

Directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Taxi to the Dark Side); Ophelia Harutyunyan; and Suzanne Hillinger, the film uses contemporary reporting on the pandemic along with a series of carefully orchestrated, socially-distant interviews with experts and Trump administration insiders. Among them are Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services under Barack Obama; Taison Bell, a frontline doctor; Dr. Rick Bright, a vaccine expert under Trump who became a whistleblower; and Max Kennedy, who volunteered to try to secure needed personal protective equipment under the leadership of presidential advisor Jared Kushner.

The thesis of the film — that President Trump and his administration have bungled nearly every opportunity to minimize the impact of the pandemic on the United States — should be clear to anyone who’s paid attention to the news in 2020. But even those who think they know the depth of the administration’s mistakes will still feel the impact of all of them laid bare in the no-nonsense manner demonstrated in the film.

The above interviewees have some of the most damning testimony, especially since two of them — Bright and Kennedy — were in the position to help directly, and wound up shocked and dismayed at the ineptitude of those supposedly in charge. Each bore witness to moments where their supervisors and others made decisions that either did little to help the American public, or worse, actively put them at risk merely because doing the right thing would be admitting they did something wrong.

The filmmakers also go to great pains to compare the U.S. response to that of South Korea, as both countries recorded their first COVID-19 cases on the same day. While the U.S. took its time ramping up testing and employing any other widespread preventative measures, the South Koreans moved quickly to identify cases, trace the contacts of those infected, and isolate people accordingly. After an early spike, South Korea has rarely exceeded more than 100 confirmed cases per day, whereas the U.S. hasn’t gone below 25,000 cases per day since mid-June.

The speed in which the film was made does have its limitations, though. Although it includes some recent revelations, including Trump’s interview with Bob Woodward in which he admits he knew more than he revealed to the public, the bulk of the film details moments in the first four months of the year. This obviously leaves out any number of things that transpired in the past five months, something which future films will be able to use to their advantage.

The stream of talking heads also makes for somewhat dull viewing. Although they each have some interesting tidbits to add, none of what they reveal is in any way shocking because the news of the pandemic has been the focus of all of 2020. What they have to say just reinforces everything we’ve learned this year, and none of it is good.

Totally Under Control is yet another indictment of the Trump administration in a year that has been full of them. Only time will tell if it’s a film that helped shed light on all that has gone wrong, or if it will be swept to the side in our never-ending chaotic news cycle.

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Totally Under Control is now available via VOD options like Apple TV, Amazon Prime Video, VUDU, GooglePlay, and FandangoNow. It will premiere on Hulu on October 20.

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios

Documentary Time tackles large issue by going personal

Movie Review

The standard movie, no matter if it’s fiction or documentary, spends a certain amount of time introducing its story and characters. Some do it in a flash, some take a long time, but all of them try to make sure that the audience knows what’s at stake before delving into the meat of the film.

The new documentary Time eschews that norm, along with many others, for an experience that cuts to the bone and confuses in equal measures. At the forefront of the film is Fox Rich, whose husband Rob is serving a 60-year prison sentence for armed robbery. As the film goes along, we gradually learn that Fox is working hard to get him out of prison, and that she spent an unspecified amount of time behind bars as an accessory to the crime.

What director Garrett Bradley doesn’t do is try to tell the story linearly. Using a mixture of home footage from the Riches and his own professional filming, all of which is in black-and-white, Bradley jumps back and forth in time in the family’s life. Slowly but surely, we come to understand the impact that Rob’s incarceration has had on the family, as well as the depth of Fox’s devotion not only to her husband, but to the cause of opposing unfair sentencing practices.

Unlike similar films, this is not a wrongful conviction story. Fox freely admits the crimes she and Rob committed, but strongly objects to the idea that his crime is one for which he should spend the majority of his life in prison. Were this another film, it would try to educate viewers about unfair sentencing practices in general, using Rob’s sentence as its prime example. However, Bradley prefers to keep the message personal, leaving broader proclamations to films like Ava Duvernay’s 13th, many of which are echoed in Fox’s musings.

In so doing, though, he leaves out or blurs some significant details. Though it’s apparent that Fox has been working a long time to get Rob out of prison, it’s unclear how many years have passed, although we get strong clues by seeing how much their kids have aged. In the same vein, it’s never explained why Rob received such a long sentence or what methods Fox is using to secure parole or a sentence reduction. Fox is obviously tenacious and mostly unflappable, but the film leaves the audience in the dark as to the minutiae of her work.

Instead, the film follows Fox’s lead and keeps her family as its main thrust. Instead of concentrating on negative aspects, Bradley notes the various successes of their lives, including one son’s scholastic achievements. While we rarely see Fox and Rob together, the force with which she talks about him and their kids leaves no doubt as to the strength of their bond, even through their long separation.

Time is a message film, but it’s one where the smaller message trumps what’s normally perceived as the bigger message. For Fox Rich, family is everything, and anyone who has a partner as determined and loyal as her should consider themselves lucky.

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Time is playing in select theaters starting on October 9 and will stream exclusively on Amazon Prime Video starting on October 16.

Fox Rich and Rob Rich in Time.

Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios
Fox Rich and Rob Rich in Time.
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Austin Pets Alive and Austin Animal Center launch $31 pet adoptions for the holidays

New home for the holidays

Two Austin organizations are looking to get local pets into their "furever" homes this holiday season. In a special December promotion, Austin Pets Alive! (APA) and Austin Animal Center are working to get as many animals out of the shelter as possible, by making all adoption fees a flat $31.

The promotion runs December 1-31. According to a release, APA's director of lifesaving operations, Stephanie Bilbro, sees this as a great opportunity to clear out the shelters and make a great impact heading into 2023.

“The holidays are a great time for the Austin community to come together and add to their families. We have so many precious kittens, puppies, cats, and dogs just waiting for their turn to find a family,” said Bilbro. “We hope this is a chance for any family who’s been looking to add a pet to theirs to do so right in the middle of the holiday season. We know Austin is in the upper echelon when it comes to animal welfare. We hope this promo sets us and AAC up for a successful end to 2022 and a fast start going into 2023.”

Both shelters are also seeking fosters and volunteers throughout the holiday season, for Austinites looking to help the shelters without making a long-term commitment.

APA has two locations, one at 1156 W. Cesar Chavez St., and one in Tarrytown (3118 Windsor Rd.). Both locations operate 12-6 pm daily, except Christmas Eve (12-4 pm), Christmas Day (closed), and New Year’s Eve (12-4 pm). The Austin Animal Center is located at 7201 Levander Loop and is open every day from 11 am-7 pm for adoptions. For holiday hours, AAC will be closing at 5 pm on December 23 and will be closed December 24-26.

'Famous' rooftop igloos return to Austin hot spot for the coolest experience this winter

Stay Cool

There aren’t so many winter wonderlands in Austin during the holiday season, but things get colder at higher elevations. The Hotel Van Zandt fourth-floor rooftop may not be high enough to change the weather, but visitors throughout December are invited to hang out in its self-proclaimed "famous" all-weather igloos, snacking on bites from inside and themed cocktails after the sun goes down.

Each private, six-seat igloo at the “South Pole” contains a Christmas tree, board and card games, festive records, and other cozy holiday decorations. It’s as private as Austin dining gets without completely breaking the bank, but the poolside mini-village of transparent igloos creates a warm feeling of togetherness. And in case it actually does get cold (a Christmas miracle!), the vinyl globes are heated.

It's not just a fun gimmick — as cute as the igloos are, Geraldine's is a great foodie destination. Visitors can expect (strong) drinks like the “Dandy Andes,” a minty chocolate mix of Grey Goose vodka, crème de cacao, crème de menthe, and matcha tea. “Santa on a Beach” combines tropical flavors with cinnamon, and other drinks include unusual ingredients like Chartreuse whipped cream, pistachio, and chocolate mole bitters.

Geraldine’s menu focuses on classic Southern cuisine without getting weighed down by tradition; that means a roster of semi-adventurous gourmet comfort foods, like mole birria short ribs, smoked carrots, and salty Brussels sprouts with serranos and mint. Shareables are a good idea, since the igloos are intimate (read: not especially convenient unless you like balancing a dinner plate on the couch).

Two rounds of two-hour seating will be available every night, and reservations will go very fast. As of December 5, there are only a few dates left. Reservations ($100 upfront) entail a $200 minimum on food and beverage, plus a 20 percent service charge. Book on Eventbrite.

Acclaimed Texas chef toasts the Italian liqueur that's perfect for the holidays

The Wine Guy

Editor's note: Long before Chris Shepherd became a James Beard Award-winning chef, he developed enough of a passion for wine to work at Brennan's of Houston as a sommelier. He maintains that interest to this day and covers it regularly in a column for CultureMap's Houston site. Here, he talks not about wine, but the perfect after-dinner sip.

All right, team! Listen up! I’m going to give you some very important holiday information to help you get through all of the parties, family gatherings, and large festive dinners. We are not going to talk about wine today. We’re going to talk about another love of mine — the life-saving amaro.

What is amaro, you ask? It’s an Italian herbal liqueur that’s traditionally consumed post-meal as a digestif. Think of it this way: you start your meal with an aperitif — could be a martini, Campari, or Aperol spritz — to get your palate going and your body ready to eat. After dinner, amaro will help you get through the rest of your night. This elixir will magically and quickly break down everything you just consumed.

Most amari are from Italy, but fortunately new producers with similar styles are popping up all over the world. Some are sweeter, some are more bitter. You just have to find the style you like. Producers don’t traditionally tell you what’s in their amaro, because most of them are made up of dozens of herbs and spices. It’s all about trial and error to find the one you love.

I drink it neat, but some people drink it on the rocks. More and more, you’re seeing amari in cocktails, too.

The amari selection at our house is awesome. My wife and I are firm believers in this beverage as a night cap, and it’s even become part of my regiment pre-dinner as a spritz. Kill two birds, you know?

Unfortunately, not a lot of restaurants carry multiple amari, so it’s up to you guys to get this trend moving. The more you ask for it, the more they’ll stock it.

Our No. 1 go to at home? Montenegro. It’s easy to find, and it’s easy drinking. It has flavors of vanilla and orange, but it’s not too sweet and not too bitter. It’s had the same recipe since 1885, and I hope they never change it.

My wife’s favorite is Braulio. This spirit is from the Italian Alps and aged in Slavonian casks. Using more medicinal herbs and fruits means it skews more bitter than Montenegro, but it has a nice sweetness at the end.

A newish player in the amari game is Amaro Nonino. The Nonino family is historically one of the best grappa producers in the world — they’ve been distilling grappa since 1897 — but they didn’t start to produce their namesake amaro until 1992. (By newish, you get what I mean.) It has lots of honey, vanilla, licorice, and orange flavors. It’s a tad less sweet than most, but I think it’s fantastic.

Pasubio is really different from other amari. If you’re a fan of blueberries, this is for you. It literally tastes like crushed blueberries.

The next two are really cool and unusual, because they're made here in the U.S. An all-time favorite is Southern Amaro from High Wire Distilling Co. in Charleston. Yaupon is one of the main characteristics, which is found all over Texas.

High Wire built its reputation on using regionally grown and foraged ingredients. If you’re ever in Charleston, you should stop into the distillery and say hi to Scott and Ann! Also, try some of their Jimmy Red Corn whiskey. Actually, everything they make is delightful.

Heirloom Pineapple Amaro is made in Minneapolis. To me, this is fantastically bitter but also tastes like roasted pineapple in a glass. One of my new favorites, for sure.

Now, here’s a helpful tidbit of info. You may have heard of fernet. That’s a general term for an amaro with very little to no sweetness. Branca is a producer that makes fernet, and it’s the most well-known. Search out others as well, because they’re all pretty cool.

Almost everything I listed can be found at most liquor stores. Don’t be afraid to try something. Yes, sometimes it tastes like taking your medicine. But I’ll bet the smell of Jägermeister penetrates your early 20s, and surprise — that’s a style of amaro as well.