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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.

Yelp supports local LGBTQ-owned businesses with new search tool

OPEN TO ALL

Happy Pride Month, San Antonio! 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 San Antonio area, Yelp points to No. 9, a florist and chocolate shop, and Cereal Killer Sweets, 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.
Photo courtesy of Netflix

Spelling the Dream gives spotlight to Indian American champions

Movie Review

The 2002 documentary Spellbound, which chronicled the quests of eight kids competing in the 1999 Scripps National Spelling Bee, was one of the rare documentaries to capture the hearts of critics, moviegoers, and Oscar voters. Eighteen years later, the new Netflix documentary Spelling the Dream showcases a new generation of spellers, one comprised chiefly of one particular group: Indian Americans.

Prior to Nupur Lala winning the 1999 Bee, competitors of South Asian descent had won only two of the previous 71 competitions. Since that time, they have become the dominant force, winning 15 more times, including the last 12 years in a row (Erin Howard shared the 2019 title with seven other competitors, all Indian Americans). The film explores the hows and the whys of group’s supremacy, and it’s not necessarily for the reasons you might expect.

Much like Spellbound, Spelling the Dream goes into detail about the journeys of four children on their way to the 2017 Scripps National Spelling Bee. However, the film complements their stories with interviews featuring a variety of prominent Indian Americans, including Dr. Sanjay Gupta, journalist Fareed Zakaria, comedian Hari Kondabolu, and more.

Directed by Sam Rega, the film shows how Indian Americans have continued to draw inspiration by the group’s growing success, including earlier wins by 1985 champion Balu Natarajan and 1988 champion Rageshree Ramachandran. The four kids featured differ in age, but they all share a love of learning, a dedication necessary to spelling thousands of words correctly, and families who guide, but never push, them toward success.

Rega and his team do a wonderful job at drawing out the personalities of the spellers, showing their home lives and their different preparations for the competition. This is especially true in the case of Akash Vukoti, who became the first-ever first grader to qualify for the Bee in 2016. When Akash demonstrates his ability to correctly spell a 45-letter word, he does so with highly entertaining hand flourishes embellished with on-screen graphics that make it clear what an impressive feat it is.

Unfortunately, not everyone sees the Indian American dominance as a good thing, and the film takes care to address the racist backlash that has come with so many members of the group winning the competition. But the supportiveness and camaraderie shown within the spelling bee community is a good indication that more people appreciate these kids’ talents than care about what they look like or where they come from.

The film gets competition-heavy toward the end, which is to be expected, but consequently that section lacks the insight of the rest of the film. Still, watching each kid tackle supremely difficult words with ease never ceases to astonish, and it’s a nice replacement for this year’s competition, which was canceled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Spelling the Dream makes the case that, due to their upbringing and other factors, Indian Americans know the value of hard work and what will come because of it. There is rarely anything more inspiring than that.

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Spelling the Dream debuts on Netflix on Wednesday, June 3.

Tejas Muthusamy in Spelling the Dream.

Photo courtesy of Netflix
Tejas Muthusamy in Spelling the Dream.
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San Antonio suburb among the richest places in Texas for 2023, plus more top stories

Hot Headlines

Editor’s note: It’s that time again — time to check in with our top stories. Here are five articles that captured our collective attention over the past seven days.

1. San Antonio suburb cashes in among the richest places in Texas for 2023. Alamo Heights has been renamed the third richest place in Texas for 2023 in a recent study.

2. San Antonio home sales slowed in December 2022, report finds. San Antonio sold 36,477 homes all year, a 10 percent decrease from 2021.

3. Here are the top 5 things to do in San Antonio this weekend. Nina Simone, Pink Floyd, the Beatles and more music-centered events made our roundup of the best things to do in Alamo City this weekend.

4. San Antonio Home & Garden Show returns with HGTV star. Ati Williams will headline the San Antonio Spring Home & Garden Show, which takes place February 24-26.

5. H-E-B opens first location in growing San Antonio suburb. The state-of-the-art facility offers 110,000 square feet of floor space, providing everything from cat food to charcuterie.


Popular Pearl brunch spot remixes with new weekend DJ nights

OONCE OONCE OONCE

Though Full Goods Diner has barely been open for half a year, it has already become a San Antonio staple for working weekday lunches and lingering Sunday Fundays. Now the Pearl eatery is looking to be a hot spot after dark.

Via release, the popular local haunt just announced a new limited-time music series, Full Goods at Night. Starting on February 2, Full Goods Diner will open select evenings throughout the month.

The Full Goods at Night series will feature popular local San Antonio DJs, including El West Side Sound, Hector Gallego, DJ Plata, Steven Lee Moya, and Cami Gee. Guests can enjoy live sets while indulging in a specially curated food and drink offerings.

The menu will include some of Full Goods Diner's best—selling items, such as French toast sticks, barbacoa waffle fries, and jumbo cheesy tots. Libations like the Attaboy Negroni, Royal Bermuda Daiquiri, Pink G&T, and more will fuel the festivities.

In addition to enjoying moonlight brunch, guests can relish some prime people-watching. And, of course, the restaurant is just a hop from other nightlife destinations like Pink Hill, 3 Star Bar, and Summer Camp Bar, making it the perfect party starter.

The series runs every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from February 2-25, 6-10 pm. The complete DJ schedule is listed below.

February 2 — El West Side Sound·
February 3 — Hector Gallego
February 4— DJ Plata
February 9 — El West Side Sound
February 10 — Steven Lee Moya
February 11 — Cami Gee
February 16 — El West Side Sound
February 17 — Steven Lee Moya
February 18 — Hector Gallego
February 23 — El West Side Sound
February 24— Steven Lee Moya
February 25 — DJ Plata

4 San Antonio culinary pioneers win $21K from the Texas Food & Wine Alliance

CULINARY INNOVATION

Texas’ skyrocketing culinary scene is about to get a huge boost. The Texas Food & Wine Alliance’s grant program has awarded $107,500 to 19 culinary innovators around the state. This marks the Alliance’s 11th year providing funding to support culinary projects contributing to local communities.

The award winners were announced in a ceremony at Austin's Holdsworth Center on January 21. A private panel of distinguished culinary experts chose the winners out of 40 grant applications this year. Nine winners hail from Austin, three from Dallas-Fort Worth, three from Houston, and four from San Antonio. The awards range from $1,500 to $10,000, with a special $25,000 grant investment from Austin favorite Tito’s Handmade Vodka in honor of the company’s 25th anniversary. Grant funding will support chefs, farms, and culinary education groups, among others.

Out of the four San Antonio area winners, Talking Tree Farm received the most from the grant program, $6,250 to purchase shipping containers for storage and to buy a solar-powered cold room for their harvests. John Marshall High School’s culinary arts program will use their $5,000 grant to establish a morning café. Agricultural project Habitable Spaces and pasture-raised chicken farm Cielito Lindo Farm also won $5,000 each to purchase equipment or build infrastructure to further their endeavors in the culinary space.

Austin-area winners received the most funding from the grant program, totalling $53,750, while San Antonio winners received $21,250 in total. Dallas/Fort Worth winners were awarded $19,750, and the three Houston recipients won $12,750. All of the 2022 winners reflect just how diverse the state's trailblazing culinary scene continues to expand.

“All of this year’s funded projects will further enrich the state through innovation and giveback,” said Erika White, executive director of the Alliance. “We’re extremely grateful to each of the Texas communities, our sponsors and their support in allowing us to reward these mold-breaking projects.”

In Austin, organic farm Trosi Farms was awarded the most funding ($10,000), which will help construct a germination shed for more stable plant start production. Locavore pioneer Boggy Creek Farm won $7,500 in grants to provide ADA-compliant accessibility to their new climate-controlled Tomato House, while Texas’ first organic feed mill, Coyote Creek Organic Feed Mill & Farm, received $6,250 to help purchase a building to be used as a store for the local community.

The six other Austin area grant recipients, each winning $5,000, include Vista Farms at Vista Brewing, Jamaican family business Tierra Todun ATX, coffee roasters Rising Tide Roast Collaborative, culinary educator Chef Pascal Simon from Bake Austin, East Austin food truck Community Vegan, and Latinx pastry project Comadre Panaderia (who also just earned a James Beard nomination). All winners will be able to use their grants to improve efficiency and expand their businesses, or in Chef Pascal's case, further research and development for her upcoming cookbook for Gen-Z young adults.

After starting the program in Austin, grant co-chair and TFWA past president Cathy Cochran-Lewis says it was the Alliance’s dream to expand the grant statewide.

“We’re so humbled and thrilled to now not only support worthwhile projects across Texas but also to give more than a half million dollars in funding over the last decade to help dreams come true,” she says. “This is a tribute to the culinary talent and the community mindset we are lucky to have in our state.”

The winners in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas include:

For this year's Honorable Mention, the Alliance chose San Antonio eatery Tacos Cucuy, who will soon open a brick-and-mortar space with an expanded menu. Tacos Cucuy are currently looking for support to develop a Tex-Mex charcuterie program called La Cura Carnes Especiales.

More information about the 2022 grants and its recipients can be found on texasfoodandwinealliance.org.