Friday, June 30, 2017

Spider-Man:Homecoming Review (2017)

One of the best things about Jon Watts' “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” (the second “Spider-Man” reboot in three years and third overall) is that it isn’t saddled with burden of delivering Spider-Man’s exhaustive origin story yet again. He was already introduced in last years “Captain America: Civil War” (Spidey is now officially part of the MCU, instead of having a standalone franchise) and therefore we don’t have to watch fifteen minutes of “pre Spider-Man” Peter Parker.

We don’t have to watch him get bit by a radioactive spider or comfort his dying Uncle Ben in a dark alley again. It makes for a faster, less bloated, less redundant “Spider-Man” picture. If I had to watch Uncle Ben get killed for the third time this century, or watch a bewildered Parker discover his abilities while starring at himself in a mirror, I might have walked out. This new iteration of Spiderman is ready to go: a vigilante with spiderlike powers and snazzy red and blue tights. Thank god.

Of course, Parker is still a dorky teen with dorky teen troubles. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” finds a sweet spot between goofy, enduring teen movie and goofy superhero movie. We’re dropped in the middle of Parker’s (Tom Holland) hectic life as he balances normal adolescent struggles (fitting in at school, girl crushes, parties, dances) with crime fighting. These competing lives often clash in nutty and unexpected: we get an Academic Decathlon trip that doubles as a superhero mission, that later turns into a rescue at the Washington Monument. In another scene, Parker and his friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) dissect an alien weapon during wood shop class. And later on there’s a delightful superhero inspired twist on the classic “boy-meeting-his-date’s-father-for-the-first-time” moment.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” captures the immaturity and inexperience of its teen protagonist extremely well. Parker is hyper and overly excited, eager to become a member of The Avengers but is far too undisciplined and unprepared. His attempt to interrogate a criminal goes horribly wrong, as do his attempts to stop a bank robbery and save a ferry full of civilians. Parker bites off more than he can chew when he launches his own investigation into underground arms dealer Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton). Parker can certainly walk the Spider-Man walk but in big moments he’s, more often than not, amusingly incompetent.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is about the consequences of wanting to grow up too fast, and learning to enjoy just being a kid. Spidey’s not quite ready to fight with the big boys and that’s okay. It’s a teen angst movie with a superhero. More so than any other “Spider-Man” movie, “Homecoming” emphasizes the naive adolescent angle of the character in an appealing and genuine way. Holland is fantastic, playing Parker with the right amount of awkward charm and ADD tinged annoyance. Sometimes it’s a blast following him around and other times I felt kind of embarrassed to be in his presence. Like any good, well-rounded teen movie protagonist, Parker is adorable and kind of a nuisance--very relatable in both cases, especially the latter.

Though, perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of “Homecoming” is just how fun it is. The film zips by and has an easy-going, laissez-faire attitude It’s a teen angst film that isn’t too angsty; in fact it takes plenty of opportunities to mock Parker’s angst and the high school film all together.

It’s also very funny; the screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Watts, Christopher Ford, Chris Mckenna and Erik Sommers is packed with jokes and witty banter. Everyone, including the supporting characters who peek their head in for a scene or two (Hannibal Buress as a gym teacher) gets be snarky and quick witted. Batalon is a magnificent comedic sidekick; the montage in which Ned asks Parker an endless barrage of questions about being Spider-Man is among the film’s highlights. Marissa Tomei has a few memorably kooky scenes as Aunt May, as does Tony Revolori as a bully of sorts who is also a DJ and a member of the school’s Academic Decathlon team. All of which make “Homecoming” irresistibly charming.

As the primary villain, Toomes is solid. He’s not very memorable, despite Keaton’s hammy, intimidating performance but at least he’s not the usual power hungry supervillain who wants to level New York City or raise a drone army or something. He’s just an average, non-flashy, blue-collar criminal trying to support his family and receive his fair share. As a result of this, the climactic third act battle ends up being a drastic improvement over a majority of recent superhero flicks, including “Wonder Woman.” It doesn’t involve an excessive amount of city damage or an interdimensional portal having to be closed. It’s refreshingly small scale, coherently staged and even inventive.

Tony Stark, aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) shows up occasionally as a parental figure to give Parker a few “be responsible” speeches (You know you’re undisciplined when Tony Stark tells you to shape up) and to remind us that this is an Avengers movie. The efforts to connect Spidey to the larger MCU can cause the film to lag, especially when it suddenly becomes an “Iron Man” reunion. Both Jon Favreau and Gwyneth Paltro show up. That being said, I’ll gladly take an “Iron Man” reunion over watching Uncle Ben die again.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is imperfect but for being the third “Spider-Man” reboot in fifteen years, it’s pretty damn good and one of the better recent MCU films.


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Beguiled Review (2017)

What happens when a group of horny, restless people are cut off from the world and stuck in a confined space with little to do? As Sofia Coppola’s delicate and explosive “The Beguiled” shows us, they lose their minds.

Based on the book by Thomas Cullian, (and a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film starring Clint Eastwood) “The Beguiled” is a tight, wildly entertaining psychological thriller about repressed desires and primal urges exploding out into the open in tense and often violent ways. It’s mild mannered and chaste, yet scenes drip with sexual tension and crackle with devious energy.  The film is playful, with its sexual innuendos and Freudian undertones, and appropriately restrained—operating with subtlety and nuance. Writer/director Coppola brings precision and intelligence to what could easily be an overly trashy and toothless erotic thriller.

The film is set in Virginia during the last years of the Civil War. At a girl’s school, two women and five girls live an isolated, austere existence. The resilient schoolmarm, Miss Martha (Nichol Kidman) keeps the girls busy with schoolwork, religion and farm labor. Her second in command is Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the girls consist of: Amy, (Oona Lawrence) Alicia, (Elle Fanning) Jane, (Angourie Rice) Marie, (Addison Riecke) and Emily (Emma Howard).  “The Beguiled” assembles a superb cast that all give layered, understated performances. Kidman, in particular, shows that she’s one of the best actors working today.

The situation changes when Amy brings a wounded Union soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) through the school’s front gates, disrupting the routine. At first, McBurney is greeted with fear and mistrust but as he spends more time at the school, the women begin to view him as desirable. He has a calm, down to earth demeanor-- sensitive and quietly smooth. First, Edwina and Alicia develop feelings for him and take turns flirting with him in secret. Soon, everyone is enamored by McBurney, which leads to a wonderfully ridiculous dinnertime scene in which they all vie for his attention and affections, without directly coming onto him. McBurney happily obliges. He knows full well the kind of effect he has in this all female setting and slyly plays the women against one another.

However, said playfulness gets out of hand and gradually morphs into to conflict, taking the film down a tensely feverish path. The characters in “The Beguiled” let their silly romantic feelings and urges turn to jealousy, bitterness and even vengeance--bringing out the worst in one another and losing a part of their humanity in the process. When his charming ways eventually backfire on him, McBurney reveals an antagonistic side of his personality that takes us by surprise. Even the stern, deeply religious Miss Martha shows an ugly, spiteful side to her that we didn’t know was there. Coppola’s screenplay avoids clear-cut good guys and bad guys; her characters are at once sympathetic and recklessly petty, their emotions sometimes leading them to exhibit borderline psychopathic behavior.

Additional conflicts and suppressed desires (Edith being unhappy at the school and wanting to leave) make their presence known, causing further internal disarray.  Miss Martha tries to shield her girls from the senseless realities of the war but ugly, senseless conflicts burrow their way in anyway. Coppola directs the picture with such a sure hand, moving the action along at a slow but thrilling pace, like she’s gently stretching a rubber band out, giddily waiting for the right time to let it snap. Coppola’s film is a worthy companion piece to the superb Siegel version and a wickedly thrilling picture on its own.


Monday, June 26, 2017

Baby Driver Review (2017)

Perhaps the best thing about Edgar Wright as a filmmaker is that he really uses the medium. Unlike, say, Judd Apatow, who’s enamored by the long winded riffing between two experienced comedians (interactions that are generally captured in boring medium and close up shots) Wright shrewdly marries editing, action choreography, sound and cinematography together to create zany, genre blending experiences.*  Yes, his hyper, always-moving style can sometimes feel relentless and wear thin (particularly during the third act) but for the most part they make for a fun time at the movies. Wright’s latest film, “Baby Driver” is no exception.

“Baby Driver” is exuberant, fast paced and tightly scripted. There’s not much in the way of fat—no scene goes on longer than it needs to. The picture isn’t just a collection of jokes and improve-y back and forths poorly glued together to resemble a feature length film. Wright firmly believes in narrative and structure to keep things organized and the action moving. Story and character come first, while the humor flows effortlessly out of them. “Baby Driver” keeps to a meticulous and playful comedic rhythm, sort of like a classic screwball comedy with more music, heavier cutting and a lot more action.

Wright also likes working within established genres. “Baby Driver” embraces a well-worn sub genre of the crime film—an expert criminal trying to get out that dangerous life but that life wont let him leave. In this case, that expert criminal is a young (talented) getaway driver known as “Baby” (Ansel Elgort). A good kid who mostly means well, he works for the master criminal Doc, (Kevin Spacey) doing jobs to pay off a debt he acquired years ago. Once he finishes paying off said debt, Baby wants to leave, especially after meeting diner waitress Debra (Lily James) but this proves to be more difficult than he thought.

“Baby Driver” is Wright’s hyper screwball take on films like “Thief” and “Drive.” It’s kinetic and cartoon-y, with a palpable undercurrent of violence and danger. The criminals that Baby brushes up against, including Bats (Jamie Foxx) and Buddy (Jon Hamm) are cold-blooded and sadistic.

The most inventive thing about “Baby Driver” is the way it uses music and sound. Baby’s most prominent characteristic is that he’s always listening to music on his IPod, to drown out the constant ringing in his ears caused by a childhood accident. As a result, Baby structures his entire life around the music he’s listening to, including his getaway driving. In one scene, just as the crew he’s working with is about to pull off a bank-robbing job, Baby makes them wait temporarily so he can sync it up with a song. Music is his way of dealing with his personal trauma as well as a method for maintaining order among disorder. He makes this dangerous life just a little more tolerable.

 Almost every scene is scored with some pop or rock song, which in turn informs everything else in the frame. The editing, the blocking, the choreography and all the individual Foley sounds are synched to whichever song Baby decides to play, making for vigorous, carefully constructed symphonies of action and sound. In another scene, an entire gunfight is synched to the song “Tequila.” (Wright is one of the few directors who can make a gunfight or a car chase funny). In this regard, “Baby Driver” is Wright’s manic, clever take on the musical.

Admittedly,  “Baby Driver” lacks the emotional and character depth of Wright’s best films. Outside of Baby, the other characters are thinly developed and his relationships, with Doc, Debora, or his deaf guardian Joseph (CJ Jones) aren’t as poignant or fleshed out as the bromantic bonds in films like “Hot Fuzz and “Shaun of the Dead.” Wright’s frequent collaborators Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are absent from this outing, both in front of and behind the camera, which can be felt.

Additionally, the picture goes off the rails during the last act; the action begins to get a little repetitive and tedious while the narrative loses focus. It takes a peculiar outlaw-lovers-on-the-run turn involving Baby and Debora that doesn’t quite work. The way Debora gets thrown into the central criminal action is too far fetched. In fact the romantic angle overall, while cute, feels a bit shallow and forced.

Even so, “Baby Driver” is a lot of fun and continually demonstrates just how great a comedic (and action) filmmaker Wright is. Lesser Wright is still worth experiencing on a big screen.


Here is an excellent video essay the goes into further depth about Wright’s filmmaking and the way he creates humor:

For the record, I don’t hate the Apatow style of filmmaking but I vastly prefer Wright’s method.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Okja Review (2017)

At its most basic level, “Okja” is a “child-and-their-lovable-pet” film. In the mountains of South Korea, Orphan Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn) lives an isolated, carefree life with her guardian Hee Bong (Hee-Bong Byun) and her adorable pet Okja-- a giant “Super Pig” that resembles a pig crossed with a Hippopotamus. Mija and Okja run around together, eat persimmons, go swimming in waterholes and take naps together. Cute.

When a movie involves animals, it doesn’t take much for the audience to be engaged. Seriously, just throw a dog or cat on the screen for a second and I’ll feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Okja is a gentle, benevolent creature, so of course we love her immediately. However, “Okja” has greater ambitions beyond being a simple tale of a girl and her creature, which is good but it also prevents this core relationship from being as poignant as it should be.

Directed and co scripted by Bong Joon Ho, (“Snowpiercer, “ “The Host”) “Okja” is a scathing commentary on capitalism’s icky underbelly. It’s about exploitation and selling out and how crucial a role marketing/branding play in distorting and repackaging the ugly truth behind certain capitalistic enterprises. Okja was created in a lab (along with thousands of other Super Pigs) by multinational corporation Mirando as a new kind of livestock to be used for meat. As a marketing ploy, twenty-six Super Pigs were sent to twenty-six different farmers from around the globe (one of those farmers being Hee Bong) to be raised, to create the illusion that these creatures were found in nature and farmed in a free-range environment.

 “Okja” also tackles the controversial abusive practices used in factory farming and our collective complicity in it. For audiences, this may be the film’s hardest issue to confront. Most of us don't want animals to be abused, even if they’re being used for food but due to socioeconomic factors we often have to keep supporting these corporations that employ abusive slaughter practices. The film does a good job of being critical while also acknowledging the difficulty in stopping it altogether. As long as there’s a demand for cheap meat, these hasty, abusive practices will continue.

Considering all these weighty issues, the film could have been excruciatingly didactic in the wrong directors hands but Joon Ho handles the material with sincerity and evenhandedness, organizing the material in a fast paced, energetic adventure structure. When the company comes to collect Okja, plucky Mija venturing into to Seoul and eventually traveling to New York to get her beloved pet back.

Joon Ho takes the material seriously, letting the social commentary sting and make you uncomfortable at times, while also allowing for nuttiness and playful mocking. The script is injected with plenty of offbeat humor (the gags involving a group of animal rights activists are among the best) and Joon Ho populates the film with giddily eccentric supporting characters. Tilda Swinton is a delight as peppy but wildly insecure Lucy Mirando, the current CEO of Mirando and the creator of the Super Pig project. Meanwhile, Jake Gyllenhaal gives a bizarre, out of left field performance as Johnny Wilcox, a former animal reality TV show host who’s now shilling for Mirando. Joon Ho avoids turning these characters into evil, one-dimensional, money obsessed caricatures. Both are seemingly good people with good intentions that are ultimately compromised by desperation and the pressure to achieve success and make money. We see this very prominently in Wilcox, an animal lover who, in tough times, sells his integrity in order to survive.

Unfortunately, the core relationship between Mija and Okja sort of gets lost in all this other stuff. Due to the film’s kidnap-and-rescue structure, we get few intimate moments between the two (outside of the beginning section in rural South Korea). They spend a majority of the film separated. Ultimately, the movie becomes more about the people and the activity surrounding Mija and Okja rather then Okja and Mija; the corporation that wants Okja (and later Mija, in another marketing ploy) or the animal rights group that wants to expose Mirando’s sinister practices to the world.

This is all well and good but as a result, the bond between Mija and Okja feels underdeveloped and neglected. In fact, it becomes the least memorable part of the film and both Mija and Okja remain fairly one-dimensional. Okja is cute and lovable in a surface level way-- she doesn’t have much personality, partly because we don’t see much of her after she gets captured.  It would have been better for the film to spend more time with just Okja and Mija instead of quickly separating them. There’s plenty in “Okja” to make it worth a watch but this is still a disappointing hiccup.


Wednesday, June 14, 2017

47 Meters Down Review (2017)

Listen, if you’re stuck in a shark cage at the bottom of the ocean and your oxygen is slowly running out and large, menacing sharks are lurking in the area looking for a snack but you’re also able to have a schmaltzy heart to heart (we’re talking about a full on conversation here) with your sister, then your predicament isn’t nearly as dire as it should be.

Yet, that’s the scenario Lisa (Mandy Moore) and her sister Kate (Claire Holt) find themselves in in Johannes Roberts “47 Meters Down.” The submarine heart to heart is a glaringly awful mid movie moment—an unnecessary attempt to strengthen the sisters’ bond that brings the action to an abrupt halt, spoiling any sense of tension that had been building up before hand. “47 Meters” down is a silly, occasionally exciting survival thriller that gets bogged down by its “human” drama.

The first ten minutes of the picture, pre shark tank, are painful. Lisa and Kate are vacationing in Mexico because Lisa’s boyfriend Stewart (unseen) has recently left her, saying she’s too “boring” for him. Lisa hopes to prove him wrong on this trip. What a lousy, slightly reductive set up; of all the ways you could get a pair of vacationers stranded in a shark cage, “47 Meters Down” picks the one that involves trying to impress a jerk ex boyfriend. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the “getting-over-an-ex” stuff was introduced and quickly dropped but everything Claire and Lisa do in the beginning is prefaced with “this will make Stewart jealous!” including going out on a dilapidated boat and climbing inside a rusty shark cage. That’ll show him!

Roberts and co screenwriter Ernest Riera stress this trite exposition more than they need to, culminating in that momentum stopping underwater one on one, where the sisters talk about Stewart some more and Lisa admits that she’s always been jealous of Claire’s more adventurous, impulsive life and blah blah blah. They’re already trying to survive being forty-seven meters under water, you don’t need them to stop and have a cheesy conversation to make you sympathize with them more. These silly human problems are supposed to be minor in comparison to the intense life or death situation there in.

 As a pure survival thriller, “47 Meters Down” yields a handful of tensely staged, claustrophobic underwater scenes. And to his credit, Roberts uses the sharks sparingly and effectively—relying more on suspense and impending doom rather than gore. However, even the tensest underwater scenes are undercut by too much talking. There’s far too much screaming and characters restating the obvious; it’s the same problem “Gravity” faced but ten times worse. The script is full of terribly cheesy lines of dialogue, delivered in a laughably stilted manner. “I’m so scared!” Lisa yells at one point. Oh, really?

At another point, after venturing outside the cage, Lisa makes her way to the edge of an underwater cliff, with nothing but spine tingling darkness below her. Okay, that’s pretty scary. You know how to make it not very scary? Have Lisa exclaim: “I can’t see what’s below me!” a few seconds later. All this chatting spoils the mood; it would have been better to let the quiet, ominous hum of the ocean dominate the soundtrack, along with muffled screams and the sounds of shark jaws chomping.

47 Meters” eventually breaks down beyond repair when it relies on an act of cinematic deception late in the third act (think “Last Temptation of Christ”) that, as a climax, feels cheap and unearned—an effort to make the film appear more intelligent than it really is.  Even worse, the deception is followed by an underwhelming and pretentiously dragged out resolution sequence.

The film ends with a whimper and we don’t even find out if Stewart was jealous of Lisa and Kate’s vacation. What kind of resolution is that!?