SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sci-Fi Action Violence, some Language and brief Suggestive Comments

Directed by: Jon Watts

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

(based on the SPIDER-MAN comics by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko)

Starring: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Jon Favreau, Zendaya, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly, Marisa Tomei, Robert Downey Jr., Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier & Tony Revolori

After years of battling for the rights and fans craving Spider-Man’s inclusion in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Sony and Marvel finally teamed up to deliver (at least) two SPIDER-MAN movies set within the MCU. The web-slinging superhero’s introduction was a highlight in last year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR and I was hoping that Marvel might deliver a (second) SPIDER-MAN reboot that could actually work. While SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is a fun, light-hearted piece of superhero fluff and wisely doesn’t retread origin material that’s been done twice over, this sixteenth movie in the MCU isn’t quite up to the level of its competition.

After aiding Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) in fighting Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) is anxiously awaiting his next official mission with the Avengers. However, school comes first and Parker finds himself dealing with the angst that plagues most teenagers. Eager to prove himself to Iron Man, Spider-Man jumps at the chance to take down new high-tech supervillain Vulture. Things get complicated though as this adolescent Avenger seems to be out of his league against Vulture and is running on thin ice with Tony Stark…and there’s also the upcoming Homecoming dance. What’s a teenage superhero to do?

In its second phase and during its third phase, Marvel Studios seems more willing to take risks and mix different genres with the typical superhero formula. For example, WINTER SOLDIER was a fantastic conspiracy thriller with a superhero, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY films were space operas with superheroes, DOCTOR STRANGE was a mind-bending fantasy with a superhero, and ANT-MAN was a heist-comedy with a superhero. SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING is very much a coming-of-age tale…with a superhero. Sometimes, this works, but other times it feels overly familiar and doesn’t nearly seem as exciting or fun as it should be.

This might be fatigue from seeing two other incarnations of SPIDER-MAN within the span of 10 years, but I blame most of this film’s problems on overused tropes (from both the superhero and coming-of-age genres). None of the fault falls on the shoulders of Tom Holland, who’s playing the youngest version of Peter Parker that we’ve seen yet and convincingly brings the ambitious do-gooder, smart-ass side of Spidey to the screen. Though I still hold a soft spot in my heart for Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man and I thought that Andrew Garfield drastically improved his performance in his second outing as the crime-fighting wall-crawler, Holland just might give Maguire a run for his money in future films (as the character grows up and the stories evolve).

On the supporting side of things, Jacob Batalon earns a lot of laughs as Peter’s geeky best friend Ned. Zendaya is half-heartedly thrown aside as Peter’s bland love interest. Even worse than the unbelievably forced romantic angle is Tony Revolori being miscast as Flash. Instead of a jock bully who wants to beat Peter’s brains in, Flash has been made over into a pompous, rich kid, “king of the nerds” type of tormentor and it simply doesn’t work. Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr make appearances as Peter’s naïve teachers, while Marisa Tomei is fun as Aunt May. Also, it’s impossible not to enjoy watching Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark, even though he only gets about fifteen minutes of screen time.

HOMECOMING’s best quality comes in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. Instead of being your typical supervillain, Vulture’s motivation is sympathetic and his progression of evil has a moral compass. These character traits make Keaton’s baddie into one of the most interesting Marvel villains we’ve received thus far, even if his first action scene with Spider-Man is ruined by incoherent quick editing and shaky cam. The rest of the encounters are fun to watch, especially a conversation between the two of them in a car. Also, a mid-credits scene reveals yet another moment that make Keaton’s Vulture into a more complex villain…who deserved more than this by-the-numbers script. The same can be said of Shocker (played by Logan Marshall-Green and Bokeem Woodbine) who mostly stands around and only gets one solid fight scene that’s over far too quickly.

Every major problem with SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING comes from predictable writing and overused clichés. Coming-of-age stories have been done to death nearly as much as superhero movies, so combining those two genres doesn’t exactly give the filmmaker or (six!) writers a lot of originality to work with. This feels like a safe made-by-committee superhero movie, which could have been the direct result of Sony and Marvel working together. Still, there’s enough entertainment, good acting, and laughs to make SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING worth a tepid recommendation. HOMECOMING is your average fun superhero movie and your average fun teenage coming-of-age tale…and it’s the fourth best SPIDER-MAN film thus far (behind SPIDER-MAN 2, SPIDER-MAN, and THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2).

Grade: B-

SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 3 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Sexuality

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Directed by: John Madden

Written by: Marc Norman & Tom Stoppard

Starring: Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, Geoffrey Rush, Colin Firth, Ben Affleck, Judi Dench, Simon Callow, Imelda Staunton & Tom Wilkinson

I’ll address the elephant in the room first. A lot of people feel that SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE stole the 1998’s Academy Award for Best Picture away from SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, thus some backlash has generated against this film (similar to backlash that’s generated against TITANIC and FORREST GUMP). While I definitely don’t think that everyone will enjoy SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE, I will say that it enraptured me from the first frame and was a hugely entertaining experience as a whole. I imagine that the film will work a similar spell upon fans of Shakespeare’s work and 16th century period dramas. The film is a romantic comedy that succeeds in being more than just a stereotypical chick flick (though it does contain a few well-worn clichés), but rather a beautiful love story featuring one of history’s most famous influential writers.

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The year is 1593 and William Shakespeare is a struggling playwright trying to make his way in London. Though he has a way with words, Shakespeare is encountering a particularly nasty bit of writer’s block as he tries to construct a new comedy (titled ROMEO AND ETHEL, THE PIRATE’S DAUGHTER). Through a few passing circumstances, Romeo finds a muse in the lovely Viola de Lesseps, a royal woman with a penchant for plays. In a forbidden friendship and secret romance, Shakespeare constructs his most famous play. We see how inspiration, tragedy, and timeless love hits William as his relationship with Viola evolves.

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE was shot on a budget of 25 million and that seems nearly impossible given the film’s sheer beauty, attention to detail, and elaborate costumes on display. The Elizabethan setting comes to colorful and dank life (depending on the scene) as every piece of jewelry and grimy smudge of dirt shines on the camera. Not once, does it ever appear that this film was shot on a sound stage. Instead, it makes me question as to whether director John Madden used a time machine to shoot this film in 16th century London. It looks that friggin’ good. The spectacle alone is worth watching, but that’s far from the most enjoyable aspect of this film.

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The cast includes many big names (some of whom weren’t nearly as famous as they are today). Joseph Fiennes is perfectly cast as William Shakespeare and exudes the kind of eccentricity that one would assume the brilliant playwright had on a daily basis. Gwyneth Paltrow is great as Viola. Though the character was invented purely for the purposes of this film, I couldn’t help but see her as one of those rare nobles with a deep appreciation for the theatre. Colin Firth is fantastic as a pompous jerk with his eye on Viola. Though he’s in a small role, Ben Affleck is enjoyable as an actor who takes his craft very seriously. Imelda Staunton and Geoffrey Rush serve as two very different types of over-the-top characters. While Rush is a grimy theatre owner, Staunton serves as Viola’s kindly nurse. Tom Wilkinson has an enjoyable part as a thuggish brute who slowly develops an appreciation for theatre over the course of the film. Finally, Judi Dench is phenomenal as Queen Elizabeth and seems born to play the role.

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The screenplay isn’t immune from common tropes that show up in every romantic comedy. These mainly include problems that stand in the way of Shakespeare and Viola’s true feelings for each other as well as an ending that probably got more than a few people to cry in the theater. I also didn’t buy one of the sillier sequences that really stretched plausibility midway through. However, SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE feels very much like one of Shakespeare’s comedies that happens to star the playwright and other historical figures. In that sense, it’s truly a brilliant film. I especially enjoyed the use of Christopher Marlowe (another acclaimed playwright who lived during the Elizabethan era). The plot itself weaves elements of both ROMEO & JULIET (obviously) and TWELFTH NIGHT into a love story that feels familiar, but beautiful and touching all the same.

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SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a cinematic treat for those who adore the bard’s work or enjoy romantic comedies in general. This is definitely not your average “chick flick,” though it has some familiar clichés. Instead, the film is a very clever, well-crafted love story about a real-life writer who penned clever, well-crafted love stories among other brilliant plays. The performances are outstanding from everyone involved. The period details are fantastic. The movie has impeccable comedic timing and a genuine heart behind all of the emotions on display. This might be an obvious way of stating it, but SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE is a creation worth loving.

Grade: A-

MORTDECAI (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 47 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Language and Sexual Material

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Directed by: David Koepp

Written by: Eric Aronson

(based on the novel DON’T POINT THAT THING AT ME by Kyril Bonfiglioli)

Starring: Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany, Olivia Munn & Jeff Goldblum

Full disclosure: I didn’t have high hopes for MORTDECAI. Seeing as the backlash against this film is substantial and it has become one of the biggest flops of the year thus far (right behind JUPITER ASCENDING and BLACKHAT), my expectations were set pretty low for MORTDECAI. At the most, I was hoping for a couple of laughs and a guilty pleasure (ala I, FRANKENSTEIN). Even with these tepid feelings going in, MORTDECAI still wound up filling me with hatred against every ounce of this movie. It’s the worst kind of bad film there is: an unfunny comedy.

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Charlie Mortdecai is a moustached art dealer who happens to sell stolen goods and elaborate faux replicas. Though his family was wealthy and he still holds an estate, Charlie is on the edge of bankruptcy and financial ruin. When he’s recruited by an inspector (who happens to be a former friend with a crush on Johanna, Charlie’s wife) to track down a stolen painting that is also being hunted by various groups of dangerous people (Russian thugs, a thief named Emil, and Hong Kong gangsters). This leads to many wild, crazy antics with Mortdecai constantly being thrown into harm’s way with Jock, his man-servant, constantly getting him out of these sticky situations. While Charlie is away, the Inspector is also trying to start an affair with Johanna. If none of those things sound the least bit entertaining, then don’t worry because there’s also a lame subplot about Mortdecai’s newly grown facial hair.

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Director David Koepp has been involved with cool projects in the past, but MORTDECAI definitely is the worst thing he’s ever slapped his name on. To be fair, Koepp didn’t write the screenplay, but it feels like this film is trying desperately to get laughs. It throws everything at the wall and nothing sticks. There are fish-out-of-water situations with Charlie being in Los Angeles, awkward puns, bits of innuendo, and even room for brief puke and fart humor. Every single one of these sight gags, puns and scenarios feels dusty. One character even says the same joke twice in the space of 15 seconds in an attempt to get at the very least a chuckle. While the line is dead on arrival the first time it’s uttered, hearing it repeated a second time really hits home how MORTDECAI is beating the skeletal remains of a dead horse that has long since decomposed. As if things couldn’t get any worse, the R rating is wasted as this felt like a PG-13 flick all the way through. No profane language (save for one instance) or any jokes push the envelope. It’s as tame as can be.

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The film becomes downright unbearable during the final 30 minutes. I was tempted to give up and turn this movie off. That almost never happens when I’m watching a film either. I usually have no urge to do anything else but stick the film out until the end credits begin to roll. The real problem is that MORTDECAI feels like it has an ending and then continues forward for 30 more minutes of horribly unfunny material. It shouldn’t come as a shock that every performer isn’t exactly at the top of their game in this one. Ewan McGregor and Gwyneth Paltrow seem disinterested in the movie they’re making (I can’t say I blame them). Johnny Depp is cashing in on the typecast cartoon character that he’s recently become known for playing (hopefully BLACK MASS turns that around this September). It’s clear that Depp was trying to channel a Peter Sellers sort of Clouseau character, but even Steve Martin did it better in those mediocre PINK PANTHER reboots. The only one who seems to be having any fun is Paul Bettany as Jock, but he still didn’t get any decent laughs or lines.

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MORTDECAI is awful. It’s beyond awful, this is anti-comedy. This is the sort of film that you could show someone and it could entirely turn them off the concept of laughing ever again. It’s clear that this was nothing more than a quick paycheck for everybody involved and I’m so very glad that it tanked at the box office. MORTDECAI is a depressing, laugh-free waste of time that just might go down as the worst film in Johnny Depp’s career. Yes, I’m also taking TRANSCENDENCE into consideration when I say that.

Grade: F

THE AVENGERS (2012)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 23 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action throughout, and a mild Drug Reference

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Directed by: Joss Whedon

Written by: Joss Whedon

(based on the AVENGERS comics by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Tom Hiddleston, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany & Powers Boothe

In the history of cinema, there’s never been anything quite like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Through various origin stories and connections, Marvel released a number of films (IRON MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, IRON MAN 2, THOR, and CAPTAIN AMERICA) with the intentions of leading up to a massive epic AVENGERS movie that comic book geeks never thought they would receive in their wildest dreams. While the films leading up this 2012 summer blockbuster ranged in quality, THE AVENGERS fast became a critically acclaimed blockbuster that ranked as one of the biggest money-makers in the history of film. Everybody loved this movie and most still do, but I don’t fawn over it as much as everybody else seems to. THE AVENGERS is hugely entertaining, but far from perfect thanks to three problems.

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Top secret organization S.H.I.E.L.D. is experimenting with the Tesseract (an infinity stone) and find themselves in a bit of trouble. The evil Loki has come to our world with the goals of using the infinity stone for evil and dominating all of mankind. It’s up to special agent Nick Fury to assemble a ragtag group of superheroes to form the Avengers. They might not get along with each other, but this team of heroes is here to save the day. It’s Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye vs. Loki and his army of intergalactic conquerors.

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The biggest pleasure of watching THE AVENGERS is to see this group of Marvel superheroes interact with each other. You get to watch as Iron Man gets into arguments with Captain America and forms a friendship with the Hulk. There’s also Thor being aggressive towards everyone as well as the entire S.H.I.E.L.D. team being wary of Bruce Banner to much comic relief. Seeing as these characters have been developed through separate movies (save for Black Widow and Hawkeye), there’s no real need for extra character development. It’s a cast of actors slipping right back into their established roles with ease. Black Widow is a good character on her own, but Hawkeye is underdeveloped (though that’s mainly the result of a plot device in the first 5 minutes).

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The biggest drawback character is Loki as the main villain. He’s already been given his time to shine as the bad guy in THOR, but we’re expected to find him just as interesting in THE AVENGERS (having already seen Thor beat his ass once already). While Tom Hiddleston is funny in the role, he just isn’t that great of a threat for the Avengers. The rest of the baddies are a bunch of faceless aliens that really aren’t given much of a purpose other than to be beaten by the Avengers. For a movie that was set up as an action-packed superhero extravaganza from beginning to end, AVENGERS takes an awful long space of time just focusing on the team members squabbling with each other on their floating S.H.I.E.L.D. base. It’s as if this movie that was clearly setting itself up as a fanboy’s wet dream decided to take a break in order to build supposed tension and that doesn’t really work out in the movie’s favor.

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As far as the spectacle itself is concerned, AVENGERS looks huge and feels epic. The action set pieces are entertaining and it’s a blast to watch this well-known group of mismatched heroes working together in a climax set across the streets of New York. There are plenty of one-liners, fights, and explosions to go around. Everything looks great with one problem and it’s a big one. The Hulk is really cheesy. Mark Ruffalo is quite good in the role of Bruce Banner, but the CGI monster that he turns into looks pretty silly compared to everything else around him. It’s possible that we’ll never see a Hulk who looks perfectly rendered because, well, the Hulk isn’t that great of a hero to begin with. However, even the Hulk from 2008’s INCREDIBLE HULK was a lot better than this green Ruffalo-resembling creature. It doesn’t distract from any of the awesome scenes featuring the other heroes, but he’s pretty dumb looking by himself. That being said, a scene between him and Loki is pure gold.

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Overall, THE AVENGERS is a lot of fun. That being said, it’s far from a perfect movie. Hell, there are even films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that have managed to outdo this one (CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER, GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). The running time is bit too long and the design of Hulk looks pretty silly. Also, we’ve seen Loki before and I wish they could have given us a better villain. With all these things in mind, THE AVENGERS is a highly entertaining comic book film that delivers the goods. I do think it’s a bit overrated, but there’s hope that AGE OF ULTRON could manage to one-up this in every possible way.

Grade: B+

AUSTIN POWERS: GOLDMEMBER (2002)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 34 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexual Innuendo, Crude Humor and Language

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Directed by: Jay Roach

Written by: Mike Myers & Michael McCullers

Starring: Mike Myers, Beyoncé Knowles, Michael York, Michael Caine, Robert Wagner, Seth Green, Verne Troyer, Mindy Sterling & Fred Savage

AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY received lukewarm reception in its theatrical release and became a quick cult hit on home video. A couple of years later, THE SPY WHO SHAGGED ME came out to delight many fans of the groovy swinging spy from the 60’s. After the hit of that sequel, it took three years for GOLDMEMBER to come out in the summer of 2002. Unfortunately, this is a lackluster installment to say the least. Jokes that were funny in the first two have gotten stale in this third outing. It almost seems like success got to the heads of Mike Myers, Michael McCullers and Jay Roach. A cameo loaded opening full of Oscar winners and pop stars is a sign that this entry had far more of a budget this time around. That’s apparent in many areas, but more money doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie. A majority of GOLDMEMBER either comes as bland or forced.

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Austin Powers has finally apprehended Dr. Evil and tiny clone Mini-Me. However, Austin faces a threat from the past in the form of a 70’s disco-dancing Dutch madman by the name of Goldmember. This lunatic has kidnapped Austin’s neglectful father. It’s up to the shaggadelic spy and a newly found afro-touting sidekick Foxxy Cleopatra to take down Goldmember, save Austin’s dad, and stop another ridiculous plan from Dr. Evil. What happened to Felicity Shagwell of the last film? Did she go back to the past? Was she actually a Fembot? Is it possible that Heather Graham wasn’t contractually obligated to appear briefly in a third film to close off her romance with Mike Myers? All of these could be a possibility, but the real answer is never given to the audience. This is an early plot hole that’s a sign of some seriously lazy writing (even Vanessa got a good send off in SPY WHO SHAGGED ME).

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GOLDMEMBER may be a weak ending to the impromptu AUSTIN POWERS trilogy (did anybody seriously expect this to become a three-film series), but it’s the slickest in cinematography. The make-up on Dr. Evil, Fat Bastard, and Goldmember looks good. The film does obviously spoof more 007 flicks (GOLDFINGER for example), but more references to other movies (SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in a specific scene) and pop culture (a Britney Spears cameo and rap music video in the middle of a jail scene). These latter bits aren’t very funny and come off as awkward. Also unneeded are flashbacks of young Austin and Dr. Evil. Michael Caine is a welcome addition as Austin’s deadbeat father, but he’s essentially wasted for a majority of the flick. Also Scotty and Mini-Me are given story arcs, but neither are as hilarious as the material in the previous films.

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Mike Myers plays four different characters this time around. Of course, he’s Austin Powers and Dr. Evil. He also returns as Fat Bastard and the newly added Goldmember. Goldmember is also a wasted villain too. This baddie’s over-the-top Dutch accent, penchant for commenting on how tight people are, lack of genitalia, and snacks of pancakes with cigarettes come off as completely lame. None of his jokes are very funny and it’s clear that Mike Myers was going into a bad spot of his comedic abilities (this was only a year before the disastrous CAT IN THE HAT).  Most of the other jokes (including returning bits from the previous entries) are dusty this time around. A more blatant example is the dirty name of a sexy woman. In the first two films it was Ivanna Humpalot or Alotta Fagina. This time around the joke has been regulated to the easy cheap Fook Mi and Fook Yu. It’s insulting how much it appears that everyone phoned it in both acting and writing. One saving grace comes in a solid set of three scenes in Japan that I was laughing hysterically at. If everything had been up to the par of those 15 minutes, than GOLDMEMBER would be a solid conclusion to an entertaining trilogy of spy-comedies. Also, Beyoncé Knowles isn’t much of a love interest. She lacks the charm of both Elizabeth Hurley and Heather Graham.

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An overly convoluted script is just one of the many things that GOLDMEMBER suffers from. Did we really need an intricate mythology to how Dr. Evil and Austin Powers met? There are a couple of really funny moments (my favorite part being three scenes in a row in Japan), but they are few and far between. Most of the humor is far too forced. The entire film is disappointing and the end result is a purely middle-of-the-road experience.

Grade: C

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