Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming


Like Wonder Woman before it, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun-filled adventure that falls apart under scrutiny, more a movie theater equivalent of a Disneyland ride than a fully formed story. What keeps the action piping along is the charismatic acting and winsome dialogue that manages to genuinely capture the quippy character of Spider-Man. Star Tom Holland works well, but baddie Michael Keaton shines especially brightly in this flick. It’s just that- as the third film incarnation of Spider-Man in the past fifteen years, and the umpteenth film under the Marvel Cinematic Universe umbrella, certain aspects of the movie feel tired, if not wholly redundant.

Much was said about how Homecoming wouldn’t be an origin story, but in terms of how adept the web-slinger is with his abilities, it might as well be. Spidey stumbles, slips, slides and argues his way out of jams so consistently that he feels more like Spider-Twerp than Man. Again, Keaton is the real star of the show here. Not to disparage Holland’s performance, which is wonderful in its own right, but Keaton pushes the MCU into Oscar-worthy acting, a feat previous performers have failed to accomplish. His sinister sneer and hard-luck, working-class-hero routine alternate keenly to give the MCU something it’s been sorely lacking- a villain with some measure of depth. Keaton has the skill of taking even the most generic dialogue and infusing it with real, relatable character. Holland’s performance, for all its charm, never exceeds the bounds set in Captain America: Civil War.

Beyond the leads, Homecoming’s supporting cast is packed with lovable character actors and comedians. The casting and referential writing do a good job of playing bait-and-switch with the audience, hinting at the potential for certain players to take other forms in future films, but never revealing more than they need to. Most of these players inhabit Peter Parker’s school life, making the movie more coming-of-age comedy than superhero adventure. Compared to other Spider-flicks there’s less time slinging webs, and more time slinging one-liners.

The action is well-conceived, fairly inventive and occasionally well-shot, but never so iconic as the train sequence in Spider-Man 2. The movie is light on melodrama, choosing cerebral comedy and a few brief moments of visceral tension instead. A better Spider-Man movie might have borrowed some of the physical humor of Raimi’s films to fit more snugly into the same vibe as the raw physicality of Keaton’s drama, but that’s more of a nitpick than a glaring error.

The real glaring error is the hovering parental supervision of Tony Stark. The gag here is that Tony has Spidey on “training wheels” protocol, and the storytelling reiterates this fact constantly. Whenever there’s an opportunity for Spidey to be- dare I say, spectacular?- Tony swoops in and provides his trademark brand of ‘do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do’ lecturing. For a hero who was totally okay throwing Spidey against Captain America last time, (not to mention having a ten-year old rebuild his suit in Iron Man 3) this new, sterner Stark is more a deus-ex-killjoy than a wise-cracking mentor. Those hoping for scenes of Tony and Peter soaring through skyscrapers after a winged foe (and solving their differences) will be sorely disappointed.

The messaging of the movie is kind of corrupted by the randomness of Tony’s intrusions and the fact that character motivations stop mattering by the three-quarter mark. Keaton’s Vulture vows to kill Spider-Man around the same time a twist provides reason for him not to, but due to the necessity of a surprisingly sinister car ride scene, this logicality is ignored. Who needs to make sense when you have Keaton acting his ass off? A friend once criticized my writing by saying, “I guess nothing else matters so long as it’s funny,” and I see the point of his sarcasm here. Sometimes an acrobatic hero like Spidey bends so far backwards to get a reaction, the reasoning for it suffers.

This is not to say you will not enjoy Spider-Man. You’ll likely have a blast, as I did, for the most part. This just isn’t that perfect Spider-Man movie fans have been waiting for, in the sense that The Dark Knight is the perfect Batman film for many Bat-fans. Nothing in this movie sings as loudly or as memorably as that great airport fight in Civil War, though overall this story is more consistently enjoyable. And certainly this is leaps and bounds above the travesties of Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. This is more of an improvement on Amazing Spider-Man 1, a fun, watchable entry mostly distinguishable by its villain. But like many a Marvel movie, I was left hoping they’d get to the “really good part” in the next one. Knowing Marvel, there’ll be no short supply of “next ones” to keep that hope alive.

Movie Review: Baby Driver


The best thing going for Baby Driver is that it’s very memorable. Like a lot of Edgar Wright’s work the imagery leaves an impact, though unfortunately, the dialogue less so. Fans hoping for a return to comedic form like Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead may be disappointed by the lackluster dialogue, but it’s clear here that Wright is stretching beyond the expected to give us something a little more Tarantino-inspired than we’re typically used to. The music and camera movement are vibrant and fill the flick with life beyond what its paint-by-numbers plotting does. There’s a vibrancy the supercedes the average filmgoing experience and rewards the viewer with a bit of old-school sensory overload, though far from the bewildering spectacle of say Transformers.

The movement isn’t quite Cuaron but it’s a step in the right direction, aping the colorful musicality of the dance sequence in 500 Days of Summer while grounding the story in a bit more gritty reality. There’s still a bit of goofball charm here, and like fellow white nerd Tarantino before him, Wright seems to take great pleasure in scripting lines for a tough-talking mildly psychopathic black badass, here played enjoyably by Jamie Foxx. Jon Hamm and Ansel Elgort fill their roles finely, but don’t give them any added panache either. The real pathos comes from Lily James as Deborah the love interest. She is acting her proverbial balls off in every scene, seemingly filling in the blanks of her character development by making the romance palpable with her gaze.

The script goes from fun-loving heist comedy to violent 70’s fetishism at a gradual pace, but thankfully in a movie about a badass driver, there are few slow segments. The violent acts of the finale make up for some of the cliche dork-ery of the story. The blind old black man that Baby cares for was cute, but felt a little hokey and ultimately fell flat for me. Unlike in Tarantino’s films or Wes Anderson’s where the music feels like a character unto itself, here the music merely drives the plot amicably from place to place as the exciting action sequences ensue. Surely it’s no different than any other action movie in that way? There’s an added charm here that puts Baby Driver ahead of the pack. 

Movie Review: Hereafter

Hereafter is clearly an interesting choice for Clint Eastwood. It’s a supernatural drama, which isn’t exactly the genre you’d expect from the dude who brought us a decade’s worth of dour dramas grounded in reality. It’s kind of fun to see Eastwood stretch as a director to fit a more conventional genre of cinema. At times it really works for him. The opening sequence of the film – a terrifying tidal wave decimating a scenic beach-side market – is an excellent example of the skillful camerawork Eastwood is capable of. The sequence is momentarily muddled by shoddy water effects – no doubt a constraint of the film’s seemingly meager budget – but otherwise the directorial style gives the audience an effective first-hand glance at what it’s like to be swept down stream and nearly drowned by crushing water. It is effective in the same vein as a good chase scene in Jurassic Park: “Must go faster! Must go faster!” We’re along with the characters for the ride so it’s easy to get swept away in the action.

The main flaw of Hereafter is that there is so little action otherwise. We begin with three characters in different stages of life at different locations around the world. It should be no surprise to the average film-goer that these three individual narratives will no doubt intertwine at some point through a catastrophic or serendipitous and ultimately life-changing series of events. The problem is that the average film-goer is baited for so long that by the time the three narratives converge the event is greeted with the guttural grunt, “Finally!” This is not to say that the individual plot-lines and performances are uninteresting. Quite the contrary, they are very engaging and watchable for the most part, assuming you like slow-moving dour dramas. Those hoping for new insight into the afterlife can check their hopes at the door. This movie is about the characters, solely.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Matt Damon’s love-interest in a sequence with a much-needed burst of sweetness that ultimately fades too soon. In fact, one might go so far as to say that between the three narratives – a young British boy who loses his twin brother in a fatal car crash, a French female news anchor trying to rekindle feelings with the preternatural after a near death experience, and Matt Damon as a petulant working class American psychic – Damon’s is the one that sticks out like a sore thumb for inappropriate inclusion. The other stories are distinctly European, work perfectly in coincidence of tone, and it is clear that inspiration from French filmmakers guide Eastwood’s hand as he shoots several sequences. Damon’s character quests for love, but every time he touches a woman’s skin, he connects with a bad memory from their past or a dead relative trying to make contact. Bryce Dallas Howard plays sweet and bats her eyelashes, clearly down to ride the Sarah Silverman express-line into Matt Damon’s bedroom. Damon meets her in a cooking class, and they immediately hit it off with lots of tasting, chopping and sexual tension. She exists solely as a character to express Damon’s inability to find love and inadequacies when it comes to intimacy, not to mention the fact that his psychic ghost-powers have great power and great responsibility. We spend so much time with Bryce, as well as with Damon’s shyster brother (a hungry Jay Mohr) that it almost seems completely arbitrary when Damon finally catches a flight to Europe and incidentally runs into the other two plotlines at the World Book Fair – probably the lamest third act set piece in film history.

There’s one really great moment where Jay Mohr finds out that his ghastly brother Matt Damon has flown to Europe through a letter. Mohr looks at the letter, then stares off at nothing and shouts angrily with all the fervor of a Home Alone actor who just realized that he left Kevin at home. This is incredibly funny, albeit not intentionally. This is one of the film’s few moments of humor. Once Damon actually meets the little boy that lost his twin brother, there are some great moments of acting as Damon acts like a hilarious jerk to a tiny emotionless child. It’s too little too late, but I will say this for Hereafter: it’s incredibly well-shot, well-acted and dementedly slow-paced. If you can put up with the unforgiving slowness, you’ll be able to enjoy the moments that follow, but for the most part this is one to catch on HBO.

“Movie” Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Calling Prince of Persia a movie is probably the highest compliment it will ever receive.  A failure on every level, from cinematography to casting to performance to writing, this travesty is almost likable for containing a Mystery Science Theater 3000 level of hap-hazard behavior that allows it to stumble from set-piece to set-piece as if any of them actually mattered.  Based on the totally badass video game of the same name, PoP:SoT is the story of a wise-cracking Parkour enthusiast with a magic time-traveling dagger that allows him to reset the last few things that just happened, thereby eradicating the need for “extra lives.”  As a movie, this device is notably moronic, and if you’ve read any other reviews you’ll find many of the writers complaining that the time-travel robs the movie of tension by providing an easy quick-fix for any problems that the Prince might encounter.  In reality, the dagger is used so infrequently that it might as well relinquish its credit as the movie’s McGuffin.  Once the dagger is activated, you’ll see the only passable special effects in the entire film, but for some reason the screenwriters seemed more concerned with the Prince’s intense familial drama than the magic fucking dagger that supposedly everybody in the movie wants. If even your characters don’t care about the McGuffin, why should we?

Horribly miscast from moment one, Jake Gyllenhaal’s tenuous acting abilities fare no better here than anywhere else. You can hear his vocal chords cracking under the weight of his faulty British accent.  Love interest Gemma Arterton is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and charismatic young actresses we have available these days, but for some reason she made the hideous choice to speak like Newt from Castle Anthrax for the entire movie.  So distractingly bad are the vocal affectations in this film that you almost forgive Ben Kingsley for chewing the scenery, in the same way you forgive a lab rat for gnawing the sides of his cage.  Bad decisions are made in succession in Prince of Persia, so the fault must lay with the director, Mike Newell.  Previously responsible for the massively more watchable action-fest Harry Potter and the Goblet of Spooky Dragons, there is really no excuse for this movie’s failure.  It almost seems like Newell wanted to undermine his own credibility by producing a mindless Michael Bay-style action flick.  It’s endearing that a kindly old Brit would want to expand his horizons from emotional drama to utter crap, and to a certain extent he achieved the unthinkable.  He actually produced a movie somehow dumber and more incompetent than Clash of the Titans.  I had a shocking amount of fun in Titans compared to this piece of crap.  And yes, there is ostrich racing in Prince of Persia, but beyond that, I cannot honestly tell you a damn thing that happened.  Mostly Jake and Gemma spit petty meaningless banter as they wander around boring, endless deserts.

There’s probably a story in here somewhere, but after playing the original video game in which there were maybe three important characters, it seemed like a waste of time to start memorizing the Prince’s long family tree, especially when most of them end up dead, albeit not soon enough. Toby Kebbell, playing one of the prince’s brothers, might be the worst actor in a big-budget feature ever.  He is the human equivalent of that terrible CGI in The Mummy where Billy Zane’s jaw stretches and locusts fly out.  Again, calling him human is a huge compliment.  I didn’t even recognize that the annoying ostrich racing organizer (yes, this is an integral character; no, the game contained no ostrich racing) was played by notorious hammy sell-out Alfred Molina.  I can’t wait until Sorcerer’s Apprentice so I can watch him belch out more self-absorbed villain dialog like he’s masturbating all the way to the bank.  Way to go, Alfred.  You’ve effectively developed duel-personality disorder.  One personality is a talented theatrical actor who cares deeply about his characters, and the other is the one we’ve been seeing on the big screen since Spider-Man 2.  You know, the one that hates audiences?  Stop hamming it up, and give your film characters the same attention that you give to your theatrical ones.  I’m sick of paying eleven dollars to see you take a shit on screen, Molina.  Kingsley is forgettable, but you’re so bad you’re memorable.

What else is there to say?  You’re not going to watch this movie.  I’m never going to watch it again.  I might actually play the video game again, because it was the one thing related to this movie that didn’t suck.  I hope the guys at Rifftrax take this down (if they haven’t already…I can’t imagine it’ll be a long wait until the DVD comes out) because there are so many opportunities for humor and foul comments amongst this dreck.  The thing I regret most about seeing this movie were the other members of the audience.  Two old ladies were sitting in the front row with their caretaker, whom they needed to walk them back and forth in front of the theater before the movie started, assumedly so their legs would not atrophy and die during the proceedings.  It struck me that these women were potentially not far off from death, and the shocking realization crept into my brain that this, Prince of Persia, this incredible piece of crap, could be the last movie these women ever see in theaters.  After a lifetime that’s spanned The Maltese Falcon to The Dark Knight, these women get to experience their death rattle along with the lousiest piece of garbage released by a studio yet this summer.  Then again, maybe I’m being a little too speculative and hyperbolic.  They might stick around for a while more, see The Last Airbender and finally croak.


DVD Review: Mystery Team

Mystery Team is the result of a lot of hard work and monetary investment from a little group called Derrick Comedy.  Featuring familiar faces like The Office‘s Ellie Kemper (a.k.a. the internet’s Blowjob Girl) and the endearingly morose Aubrey Plaza (Parks & Recreation) this movie is the product of a bunch of good friends getting together and collaborating on an exceedingly fun and goofily eccentric concept.  Based off their favorite junior detective mystery novels growing up, Mystery Team asks the question, what if Encyclopedia Brown never really grew up? Take one part Hardy Boys, one part Scooby Doo and mix it with the stark reality of gritty street crime, and you’ll have the basic tenets of Mystery Team.

The real star here is Community‘s Donald Glover.  Though the titular Mystery Team consists of three equally dorky members, Glover’s performance as Jason is the only one that struck me as memorable.  The other two characters each have a gimmick; Duncan is an all-grown-up boy genius (a comedy trope utilized to better success in popular animated masterpiece The Venture Bros.) and Charlie is “the strongest kid in town,” although he isn’t very strong.  It’s a fairly conventional comedic device to set up a statement and then ironically deny it to produce laughs, but when two of your three main characters begin to blend into the wallpaper, it raises some concerns.  It’s not just that their schtick is noticeably less funny than Glover’s, whose delightfully hammy over-acting as a “master of disguise” is a perfect blend of nerdy and charming- it’s also the fact that his teammates’ acting chops aren’t up to par.  Glover acts circles around his compatriots, making it less of a Mystery Team and more of a solo detective story with two relatively annoying sidekicks.  The sidekicks occasionally get a good bit or two, but it really depends on how much you enjoy bloody noses and pee-drinking jokes (and if I know my audience, that’s plenty!).

Ellie Kemper is remarkably underused considering her talent, and Aubrey Plaza is lovably awkward as usual.  The truth is that Glover’s charm is so charismatic, all of the movie’s low-budget flaws melt away.  There’s a great cameo by SNL‘s Bobby Moynihan as a likeable yet semi-creepy store clerk, but beyond that, this is Glover’s show.  The plot unravels in typical children’s mystery format, i.e. the characters can reason out the mystery based on internal clues, but there is no chance for the audience to figure it out at home.  Which is fine, seeing as this movie is primarily gunning for laughs, but again, if your movie is about a Team, you might want to include more interesting team dynamics from the beginning.  Since the other two members are so inept, the movie basically wanders from set piece to set piece waiting for Glover to do something insane to liven it up a little.  The end result is a surprisingly funny comedy that is definitely worth a rental.  As the stakes escalate, our former boy detectives find themselves fearing for their lives, pitted against real-world criminals in a battle of wits.  Fans of the now-defunct Party Down will excuse the metaphor, but Mystery Team is like a crock-pot.  It’s a slow burn, and by the end you’ll have fallen in love without even realizing it.