Spider-Man: Homecoming

Release: Friday, July 7, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jon Watts; Jonathan Goldstein; John Francis Daley; Christopher Ford; Chris McKenna; Erik Sommers

Directed by: Jon Watts

The only thing that’s slightly unconvincing about the high school experience as depicted in Jon Watts’ re-re-freakin’-re-boot is the distinct lack of oily skin and pimples. Nobody ever looks as liberated from acne at this stage, not unless you have a parent working for a skin-cleansing company. Or maybe you were just more amazing than Spidey himself way back when.

Otherwise, holy crap. Spider-Man: Homecoming gets it. Tom Holland definitely gets it. The high school awkwardness. Being so young and impressionable. Being willing, perhaps overeager, to prove yourself. These clumsy first steps toward adulthood are so earnestly rendered this played out as a flashback of my drifting through Farragut High, a school originally designed for 1,800 but whose population was, at the time, swelling to over 2,100. I was reminded of the cliques and the cliches, of Toga Nights and canned food drives that epitomized our silly little rivalry with the Bearden Bulldogs. And, more generally, the undeveloped idealism that inspires 18-year-olds to “change the world.” And, of course, how few school dances I went to wasted time and money on.

Although Spider-Man: Homecoming almost made me nostalgic for those days, it’s not a film completely defined by its knack for triggering trips down memory lane. It’s a superhero origins film, through and through. It’s far less formulaic than many are inevitably going to give it credit for. While significant chunks of character development take place within the confines of the fictional Midtown School of Science and Technology, the story follows a proactive Peter Parker (Holland) as he attempts to stop a newly emerging threat and thus prove himself worthy of Avengerdom. He’s also taking part in academic decathlons and learning how to drive and talk to girls. Because of its placement within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Watt (along with half of Hollywood’s screenwriters, apparently) choose to keep the world of . . . World-Saving on the periphery, effectively ensuring the film has a personality and trajectory all its own.

This is undeniably one of the most assured installments in the MCU yet — some feat, considering we are nine years into this thing now. It’s thrilling because of what it suggests for the future of the MCU and future standalone films, yet the production remains fully connected to the present and focused, careful in the way it blends spectacle with human drama. In the process it leapfrogs past Andrew Garfield’s two outings and at least two of Tobey Maguire’s. Arguably all three, for as cuckoo as Doc Ock may have been, Michael Keaton’s villainy is far superior both in terms of impact on the story and the menace introduced. Spider-Man: Homecoming may be about teenagers, but it carries a surprising amount of gravitas. Driven by the exuberance of the youthful Londoner, the saga is bolstered further by the mentor dynamic established earlier between Tony and Peter in Captain America: Let’s All Hate Each Other Temporarily.

We’re first introduced to one Adrian Toomes (Keaton), who has been profiting from the salvage of scrap metal and precious recovered alien technology in the aftermath of the Battle of New York. Shut down by the intervening Department of Damage Control, jointly created by Tony Stark and the feds, the already desperate Adrian finds himself turning to more shady activity all in the name of providing for his family. Cut to eight years later, and to the unassuming residential sector of Forest Hills, Queens, New York. The architectural wonder that is Stark Tower looms large on the Manhattan skyline. Peter, in a makeshift outfit, sets about fighting pick-pocketers and other small-time crooks after school. To satisfy his ever-curious Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), he explains that he’s busy taking part in “the Stark internship.”

We know the drill by now. Secrets don’t stay secrets for long when you are living a double life. The tension’s familiar — Peter having to come up with ways of defending Spider-Man (“he seems like a good guy”) all while excusing himself from his normal activities with little to no warning. But the execution here is confident and creative, a consideration of what must be in place first before one goes from part-time to full-time superhero. Several recurring motifs are presented, but they’re buried convincingly within the drama more than they ever have been. Keaton redefines the role of the antagonistic father with a mysterious alter ego all his own. Best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is the first Average Joe to become privy to Peter’s abilities. The girl is right there in front of Peter, yet she couldn’t be further from reach.

Mercifully, the film avoids a retread of the “great power” lecture. Tomei and Holland brilliantly internalize the pain created in the wake of the death of Uncle Ben. This frees up the quasi-origins story to explore the specific challenges of maturing into a bona fide superhero. Feeling suppressed under the supervision of Tony’s personal assistant, Happy (Jon Favreau), Peter is often left frustrated by the red tape he must deal with from his idol, a point of contention that frequently paints him, no matter how naturally aligned our perspective is with his, as a kid with a lot of learning ahead of him — an homage to the Tony Stark that was before he engineered his way out of a terrorist cell. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Tony chastises the 16-year-old for not fully understanding the consequences of his actions.

Question is, does director Jon Watts (Cop Car; Clown) realize the consequences of his? A bar has been raised. Will it remain out of reach? It’s no accident that Spider-Man: Homecoming is the most solid MCU offering since Iron Man (in effect, the inception of the MCU itself). It’s a fluidly paced, two-plus-hour movie that passes by in what feels like five minutes. It balances dramatic elements with high entertainment value, all while introducing highly advanced tech, with yet another new, sleek suit sporting over 500 different web combinations (thanks, Dad!). More compelling than the suit, though, is the way Holland acquits himself with regard to the burden of expectation placed upon him. Maybe that’s what reminds me most of Iron Man. That movie wasn’t supposed to be that good.

So, yeah. With great power comes . . . well, you know the rest.

What a fun movie.

Spidey chillin in HisTube

Recommendation: Buoyant, heartfelt, surprisingly moving. Spider-Man: Homecoming proves that not only was a new iteration possible, it was essential to our understanding of where the MCU goes from here. Speaking from the point of view of someone who never read the comics, I just fell in love with Spider-Man. I really did. I can’t wait to see more. With any luck, the more committed come out feeling the same way. It’s a testament to the quality of the film when it thrives even without J.K. Simmons. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “What the fu — ” 

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Captain America: Civil War

'Captain America - Civil War' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 6, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Markus; Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony & Joe Russo

Standing in a line of about 200 rabid fans an hour before the screening I was asked by a woman in line — a hot mom actually — if this was the line for the Avengers movie. I really wanted to tell her, “No, this is for Captain America,” but who am I kidding, this is totally an Avengers movie. And so I was like, “Yeah,” and she was like, “Cool,” and then we both just went back to our lives.

That Captain America: Civil War is closer in spirit to one of those ultra-blockbusters is actually good news for me as I’ve never really stood behind Captain America. The Boy Scout/super-soldier kind of ruffles my feathers for some reason, and that’s through no fault of Chris Evans either. Nevertheless there I was, middle of a mob on a Saturday afternoon, the manufactured product of a month-long brainwashing program designed to win my allegiance toward either Team Steve or Team Tony.

Civil War is a film whose emotional upshot takes an eternity to eventuate, but when it does it’s actually well worth the two-and-a-half-hour sit. Steve and his embattled friend Bucky, a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) are at the heart of a complex moral, emotional and psychological battle that divides the Avengers — all but Hulk and Thor, of course, who are off galavanting elsewhere — straight down the middle when they are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, a peacekeeping effort drawn up by the United Nations in response to the concerns of a growing population that thinks the Avengers are doing more harm than good.

After yet another disaster, this time in Wakanda at the hands of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, who has completely given up on trying to sound Russian at this point), in steps Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) to give everyone a choice: either agree to the sanctions, to be potentially overruled in any given situation if it is deemed necessary . . . or retire from the superhero biz.

And then everyone seems to get really mad. Needless to say, the stakes are high this time, higher than they were when Loki was trying to divide and conquer from within all those movies ago, if you can believe it . . . (wasn’t it pretty much doomsday then, too?) One side argues for their continued autonomy while the other, surprisingly spearheaded by a guilt-ridden Tony, believes having a watchdog might help prevent future awkward encounters with any living relatives of people he has inadvertently killed.

Thanks to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, two writers keen to redress familiar characters under this new guise of bitterness, distrust and uncertainty, there are equally compelling reasons to join either camp. In fact as Civil War progresses it gets ever more entrenched in the complexities of this ideological conflict. The appearance of a cold German militant named Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the one behind an earlier attack on the UN that claims the life of Wakanda King T’Chaka, father of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), inspires Steve to ignore new-age protocol as he attempts to stop Zemo from unleashing a secret arsenal of other Winter Soldiers being kept in cryogenic stasis at a Hydra facility in Siberia.

Civil War, like Tony and Steve, has a lot on its plate, but it wisely (and creatively) spreads the workload across its many players. Even if Downey Jr. takes this opportunity to effect a more somber version of his character than we’re used to seeing, that famous acerbic wit is never lost with the integration of Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and Tom Holland’s amazingly acne-free Peter Parker/Spider Man. Black Panther digs his claws in with menacing presence and a lot of righteous anger. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye returns as do Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Paul Bettany as the visionary . . . Vision.

Even though giving each their time to shine means taking some away from Evans, extended interactions between less famous figures are more than welcome and give these individuals purpose within the context of the cinematic retelling of their own journeys. Bettany is perhaps the highlight, his loyalty to protecting the lone Maximoff twin from destruction following her actions in Wakanda offering a miniaturized version of the conundrum facing Iron Man and Captain America. And then there’s Black Panther’s determination to take out the one responsible for his father’s death.

For all of the potential devastation that is implied Civil War isn’t a dour affair. It doesn’t dwell in misery, and it really could have. There’s a melancholy vibe here, but the Russo brothers seem comfortable conforming to Marvel’s standard of finding levity amidst dire circumstances, injecting humor into scenes that would otherwise trend DC-dark. (God forbid that ever happen.) A movie with ‘war’ in its title going the comedy route is a risky proposition, and though this isn’t devoid moments of weakness, the continued expansion of a world parallel to ours allows them to pass quickly. There’s so much going on that Civil War all but demands repeat viewings. Eight years into the game, that’s a very good thing for the MCU.

I wonder what the hot mom thought about all of it.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.03.32 AM

Recommendation: With the slightly-famous actors as comfortable as ever in their respective roles, Civil War benefits from the intersection of emotionally resonant performance and thoughtful, crafty storytelling. People like me — non-Captain fans — benefit greatly from the distraction of the other people around him fighting for what they believe is right for the future of the Avengers. A solid realization of a very complicated time, and the balance struck herein makes it one of my favorites of the entire MCU canon thus far.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 146 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, anybody on our side hiding any shocking, or fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose, I’m open to suggestion.” 

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The Big Short

The Big Short movie poster

Release: Wednesday, December 23, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Adam McKay; Charles Randolph 

Directed by: Adam McKay

When it was announced Adam McKay would be putting his comedic muse Will Ferrell in time out so he could make a film not only steeped in but specifically commenting on the 2008 financial crisis (and the events that precipitated it), I knew there could only be two possible outcomes.

This was boom or bust. The Big Short was either going to be an exciting new direction for the guy who gave us a NASCAR driver with two first names and the Channel 4 News Team    . . . or it was going to be an unbearable misfire, proving the limitations of a director who likes to keep things casual.

It turns out I was wrong. There was actually a third option, a middle ground — the dreaded ‘it was just okay’ territory where you’re not sure whether what you’ve just watched is something you’re going to care about by the time you get to your car. But The Big Short lingers in the mind for at least that long because you just can’t shake the weirdness. It is a weird experience; I mean, really weird. Not in a Rocky Horror Picture Show or Guillermo Del Toro kind of way, where weirdness is beneficial, even a signature.

It’s a film in which weirdness is just off-putting. Events are rooted very much in dramatic realism but tonally McKay prefers going for that whole meta ‘breaking the fourth wall’ thing that made Scorsese’s commentary on the wealth of Wall Street a couple of years ago oh so much fun. He douses character dialogue and interaction with an arrogance that would make Ron Burgundy and Ricky Bobby proud. And, okay, even Jordan Belfort. Key players are more caricatures than characters and they’re this way because McKay doesn’t want to be lecturing audiences with characters who aren’t fun and in that way, relatable.

It’s a film where strippers lament having to pay multiple mortgages and Ryan Gosling can almost pull off the fake tan and hairstyle á la Bradley Cooper in American Hustle. Christian Bale doesn’t have the gut or the really bad wig this time around though.

Working from a script written by Charles Randolph and himself, one based upon Michael Lewis’ 2010 book of the same name, McKay zeroes in on three groups of finance geeks who predict the destabilization and eventual collapse of the national and global economy several years in advance, paying special attention to the precarious state of subprime mortgage loans. The borrowing of money was an issue further compounded by big banks’ frivolous selling of what are known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), ways of bundling together poor loans in a package those banks would sell to their investors as a way of transferring any responsibility of debt repayment.

Those key players probably could use some sort of introduction. There’s the eccentric Dr. Michael Burry (Bale) who is first seen in the film doing his homework on the health of the housing market in 2005. He’s the guy who realizes he too could profit immensely off of the blindness (or is it just ignorance?) of suits who don’t realize how faulty their investments actually are. He also doesn’t wear shoes in his office and blares loud music whenever he’s crunching numbers.

Sometime later a slithery, opportunistic investor named Jared Vennett (Gosling) catches wind of Burry’s idea and, realizing just how right he is, wants in. Vennett smells blood in the water and taps stock traders like Mark Baum (Steve Carell) to join in on the action. Carell colors Baum as a self-righteous, idealistic man who’s cynical so far beyond his years the question has to be asked: what are you still doing here on Wall Street? His wife Cynthia (Marisa Tomei) repeatedly tells him he shouldn’t try to fix every problem in the world. Baum experiences a crisis of conscience when he realizes how much money there is to be made off of the greedy bankers’ investments, and also realizing the parallels between that reality and the white collar crimes that have been perpetrated to create this entire mess.

There are also two young hot shots who discover the credit bubble and are eager to gain from it. Otherwise . . . it’s back to living at home with mom! Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are seeking a way to establish their own names so they enlist the help of retired banker Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) — this is the wizened old fool who has been sickened by corporate greed and has sworn off of the trade — to help them short up (a.k.a. buy bonds cheap now to sell them for profit later) several high profile accounts.

I know, doesn’t this movie sound like so much fun? It is a credit to McKay and his entire crew that The Big Short maintains any semblance of energy whatsoever, as the story becomes far more bogged down by industry jargon than by the emotions this still raw subject matter is liable to generate in viewers.

Setting aside the inherent complexities of the story, The Big Short is just too much. It’s information overload, and on top of that it’s a whole lot of opinion flying in from all directions. Gosling’s character is entirely condescending and annoying — even more so than the dictionary definitions we must read occasionally on screen (McKay knows most people would be lost without them). Carell is a nervous wreck who challenges his own Michael Scott for most grating characters he’s ever played. Performances are otherwise, for the most part, not all that notable.

Somewhere buried deep inside this hodgepodge of statistics, dramatic license and comedic interplay there is genius. McKay embraces a challenging story with confidence that can’t be ignored, but just as unavoidable is the fact his dramedy is about as strange a concoction as I had presumed it would be, what with a cast that it is essentially split 50-50 in terms of comedic and dramatic talent. If you want to talk about big bailouts, The Big Short definitely benefits from its high-profile personnel.

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 6.36.54 PM

Recommendation: An odd and mostly unsatisfying blend of comedy and dramatic realism, The Big Short could very well divide the Adam McKay faithful as it doesn’t quite offer the memorably quotable scripts from times past, but it does suggest the man can do more than just provide a couple of comedians a line-o-rama for 90-plus minutes. Fact-based story is ultimately bogged down by jargon and dizzying editing that makes the whole thing kind of a headache. Disappointing. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 130 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me the difference between stupid and illegal and I’ll have my wife’s brother arrested.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is strictly prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Spare Parts

spare-parts-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 16, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Elissa Matsueda

Directed by: Sean McNamara

Well-intentioned but also thoroughly cliched, Sean McNamara’s strict adherence to the inspirational Wired.com article ‘La Vida Robot’ still manages to surprise with an atypical performance from George Lopez.

Lopez plays Fredi Cameron, a substitute teacher whose inexperience with the troubled Carl Hayden Community High student body is predicted to eventually overwhelm him. A grilling interview with the principal (Jamie Lee Curtis) suggests he should take his engineering mind elsewhere. His character is actually an amalgamation of real-life instructors Fredi “Ledge” Lajvardi and Allen Cameron and is a personality that meshes well with Lopez’s kind eyes and warm smile.

Mr. Cameron decides to tough it out and soon discovers a group of students with some unique talent, the likes of which are doomed to be overlooked in favor of the statistical probability their undocumented status in the States will lead them down a dead-end road. There’s Oscar (Carlos PenaVega), a senior with aspirations of joining the Armed Forces after school and whose confidence masks his deep-seated fear of being deported; Lorenzo (José Julián), a 16-year-old with a penchant for getting into trouble on the streets but more importantly a mind for building and designing things; Cristian (David Del Rio), a genuinely good kid whose youth belies one of the sharpest minds in the community, possibly in the greater Phoenix area and whose home life has him living in a small shed off to the side of the house; and Luis (Oscar Gutierrez), a quiet and unconfident young man undoubtedly conscientious of his physical size and self-assessed lack of practical skills.

The foursome rally around an extremely amiable Lopez even as he’s somewhat reluctant to invest his own time in the school’s robotics club. He sees the kids desperately need some direction, but it’s not until he’s finally won the support of a cute colleague (Marisa Tomei), who believes the students don’t need any more misleading, that Mr. Cameron realizes his passion for engineering can actually marry with his desire to help others. The robotics club sets their sights on the underwater robotics competition hosted at the University of California, Santa Barbara where they will have to pit their $800 robot, built out of PVC piping and nicknamed ‘Stinky,’ against teams with arguably more talent, confidence and community support and most assuredly more financial aid.

The end result of said competition is a foregone conclusion since there’s now a film based on the story, but in getting there the journey really has to be seen to be believed. Spare Parts falls back on trope after trope but it’s not doing this to intentionally harm anyone’s image, least of all those of the student subjects. If anything — and here’s a more cynical way of considering the production — this is a career-booster for the Californian talk show host who has made a habit of providing ridiculous faces and fluff commentary on his show Lopez Tonight. Here he is putting in substantive work and it is appreciated. The actors portraying the students leave a stronger impression than Lopez, though and are the real stars of the show. Convincingly portraying the utter despair and turmoil that their individual situations have thrust them into, these relatively undiscovered actors will hopefully pick up some more work later on down the road.

Richard Wong’s gritty and saturated color palette tends to flick the dirt and grime of the Phoenix area in our faces with an effectiveness that might overshadow any other element present here. This world looks and feels real; intimate and often dimly-lit settings emphasize serious overtones that are otherwise frustratingly undermined by cringe-inducing dialogue and contrived plot development.

Spare Parts manages to sustain its enthusiastic spirit and reverence for not only Joshua Davis’ excellent in-depth examination but the team itself. It is a joy to see a visual interpretation of an extraordinary chapter in this Phoenix-based school, a school that has since gone on to receive global recognition for its technical achievements. However, that’s nothing compared to what these trials and tribulations have done for young Oscar, Lorenzo, Cristian and Luis. How do you not applaud these kids.

george-lopez-in-spare-parts

3-0Recommendation: An uplifting family drama through-and-through it’s difficult not to root for Spare Parts. It’s full of heart but also filled with a lot of things that could have been done much better to limit the eye-roll factor. And why, again, does Marisa Tomei have to be relegated to such a restricted role? Ugh. I’m getting tired of this; she’s better than this! Or, maybe not? Cliched or not, this is a story that does deserve to be watched. I give it one-and-a-half Roger Ebert thumbs up (one of my thumbs is like, turned sideways . . . or something).

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “They’re not adults, they’re kids. Every day in a hundred ways they are told they are worthless. . .”

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