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-

AMERICAN PASTORAL (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for some Strong Sexual Material, Language and brief Violent Images

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Directed by: Ewan McGregor

Written by: John Romano

(based on the novel AMERICAN PASTORAL by Philip Roth)

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jennifer Connelly, Dakota Fanning, Rupert Evans, Valorie Curry, David Strathairn, Uzo Aduba, Peter Riegert & Molly Parker

Despite having a killer trailer, lots of pre-premiere hype and being based on an acclaimed novel, AMERICAN PASTORAL hasn’t been nominated for anything and wasn’t well-received by most critics. This might be because the film differs so much from its source material, but I’d argue that this depressing story cuts a little too close to home for many folks. AMERICAN PASTORAL is a heartbreaking tale that seems frighteningly relevant in our modern divisive times. We’ve seen people willingly abandon friends and family members for differing opinions, all while riots erupt in the streets and hateful rhetoric is spewed on both sides of the political spectrum. After one of the most toxic elections ever and in a currently crazy year, AMERICAN PASTORAL is powerful stuff.

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Nathan Zuckerman (David Strathairn), an aging author, attends his 40th high school reunion. Though he hopes to catch up on old times, Nathan is stoked to meet former friend Seymour “Swede” Levov (Ewan McGregor). However, Nathan is informed that Swede recently died and is then filled in on details of the man’s life. Swede was a guy who had everything ahead of him. He was a local football star and married his beauty queen sweetheart Dawn Dwyer (Jennifer Connelly), they had a child named Merry, and then Swede’s life went to hell in a handbasket. When teenage Merry (Dakota Fanning) develops a penchant for radical protests and becomes the 60’s equivalent of an SJW, Swede finds his family ripping apart at the seams. This only worsens when a post office is bombed and a missing Merry becomes the prime suspect. As his relationships and life crumble around him, Swede desperately searches to find his vanished child.

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AMERICAN PASTORAL is Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut and quite impressive for a first-time feature. The visuals are slick and McGregor captures the sense of this story’s shifting time period. I was whisked away to the 60’s and saw how little has really changed on the political spectrum over the years. That’s one big point that AMERICAN PASTORAL (the film version, anyway) seems to be making, along with many other possible interpretations of the heavy material. Ideas of materialism, perfection, and ideologies over people all have a place in this tragic drama. McGregor handles the material wonderfully on the big screen, though it should be noted that I have not read Roth’s novel and have no way of comparing it to the book.

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Pulling double-duty behind and in front of the camera, McGregor steps into the role of Swede. This all-American guy is a devoted husband and a loving father, though the latter seems to outshine the former in his daily life. McGregor seems to be playing a darker version of his BIG FISH character…but we see this man’s life fall apart and some blame comes back directly onto his shoulders. Jennifer Connelly (who’s mostly hit-or-miss) does an excellent job as a grieving mother and emotionally damaged wife. The scenes of her breaking down feel realistic and tug at viewer’s heartstrings. She just wants her family to be together again, though she also struggles with her daughter from the get-go.

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Dakota Fanning is infuriatingly great as the stuttering SJW daughter Merry. Though she is off-screen for about half of the running time (possibly more), Fanning makes a strong impression on those around her and will likely have viewers frustrated in watching her interactions. Like many real-life SJWs, Merry’s conversations always have to come back to politics/social justice in one way or another. Another notable stand-out is Valorie Curry as a mysterious woman with ties to Merry. Curry’s performance actually had me angrily yelling at my TV screen at one point. She’s that good. Molly Parker is underused as a strange psychiatrist and seems like she should have been a more prominent character. Meanwhile, David Strathairn is phoning it in during his bookend moments, but his final voiceover monologue hits one universal point of the story home.

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PASTORAL encounters a few problems in its pacing and the latter half of the script. This movie is a combination of a tragic-drama and a missing person crime-thriller. It tries to do both of these things and succeeds at the former, while stumbling in the latter. One long conversation scene explains away mysteries and honestly, I feel that a “show me, don’t tell me” style would have worked far better for this story. What works on a page doesn’t always work on the screen. One scene that should have been deeply moving and powerful, instead seems rushed and like an anticlimactic revelation. Other than this disappointing scene and the opening/closing bookends, which serve a purpose and still seem jarring nonetheless, the script pretty much knocks it out of the park.

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AMERICAN PASTORAL is a depressing, infuriating, and powerful film that tackles issues of family, relationships, toxic politics, and ideologies that harm more than they help. This movie doesn’t ever fully take sides on a political spectrum and I think that’s an admirable quality. Instead, it seems to hold up a cinematic mirror to the modern divisive state of America and says, “Nothing ever really changed.” AMERICAN PASTORAL is not necessarily a film that will be liked and it was never intended to be that. This emotional tragedy punched me right in the gut and I applaud it for taking on harsh truths. If AMERICAN PASTORAL sounds up your alley, then you’ll probably love this dark drama.

Grade: A-

LABYRINTH (1986)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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Directed by: Jim Henson

Written by: Terry Jones

Starring: Jennifer Connelly, David Bowie, Brian Henson, Ron Mueck, David Shaughnessy, Percy Edwards & Timothy Bateson

What do you get when you cross George Lucas with Jim Henson and throw in David Bowie? 1986’s cult classic LABYRINTH! This film has been enjoying a recent comeback thanks to its 30th anniversary (with multiple screenings in movie theaters across the nation) and also garnered extra attention due to the sad passing of David Bowie. To state it upfront, I don’t have much nostalgia for this film (I’ve only seen it once before) and actually grew up on repeated viewings of Henson’s darker effort THE DARK CRYSTAL. Sitting through this puppet-filled fantasy was a mostly fresh experience for me and I can completely understand why it has a big cult following behind it. The visuals are eye-popping, the fairy tale dream logic is beautifully bizarre, the songs are catchy and David Bowie’s Goblin King rocks!

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Sarah Williams (Jennifer Connelly) is a bratty teenager who’s been saddled with babysitting her infant brother. After becoming sick of the baby’s ear-piercing cries, Sarah wishes for the fictional Goblin King to kidnap her brother…only to discover that the monster isn’t as imaginary as she believed and her brother has disappeared. Sarah finds herself in a race against time to defeat Goblin King Jareth (David Bowie). This thrusts our teenage heroine into an ever-changing labyrinth filled with monsters, oddball allies, deadly traps and thirteen hours to save her sibling.

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Jim Henson’s LABYRINTH is style over substance, but that’s not necessarily a terrible thing. Nearly every frame has some big special effect and great attention was clearly paid to tiny details. From an eyeball plant to a bog of eternal stench, Henson carefully crafted his puppets and environments. LABYRINTH’s creatures are far more demented and creepy than any of the charming Muppets. There’s something risky about LABYRINTH’s darkness that cements its place as an essential 80’s kids movie, a product of a decade where children’s films were downright nightmare-inducing.

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LABYRINTH is a simple fairy tale fueled by tons of spectacle. However, it also runs on goofy humor, heartwarming entertainment, and freakishly creepy moments. Humor comes from Sarah overcoming weird challenges and making unlikely friends, including brave-to-a-fault Fox Terrier Sir Didymus. Entertainment comes from lonesome Hoggle learning a valuable lesson about friendship and David Bowie chewing scenery like it’s going out of style. Creepiness comes in a variety of threats that range from death traps to a junkyard dweller with sinister motives. My pick for the film’s freakiest scene arrives in the Fire Gang, who sing a rather catchy tune while dismembering themselves and looking like Crash Bandicoot on crystal meth.

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The film’s problems mostly lie within Jennifer Connelly’s performance and occasional music video-like sequences. Though attempts are made to weave Bowie’s memorable tunes into the narrative, they stick out as their own creations for better and worse. The plot comes to a halt so Bowie can kick around a bunch of goblins and sing to a baby, then Jennifer Connelly has an EYES WIDE SHUT like dance number with Bowie, and you didn’t honestly think this film wouldn’t have a final confrontation set to a Bowie song? These moments are delightfully 80’s and crazy, but they don’t exactly propel the story forward. The less said about Connelly’s performance, the better. She’s not terrible, but she’s not good either. She’s just there. She exists as a bratty teenage girl and it’s hard to root for her in places.

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LABYRINTH is a beloved cult classic with noticeable problems. Jennifer Connelly isn’t likable and the story frequently serves as a blatant excuse for Bowie music videos. That being said, this movie’s sheer charm, 80’s effects, catchy tunes, Bowie’s scene-stealing, and a non-stop sense of fantastical fun keep it completely entertaining from start to finish. LABYRINTH is a rare movie in that there are obvious flaws, but the film’s fun factor elevates it above the grade it probably should be getting. This easily ranks above THE NEVERENDING STORY and LEGEND on the 80’s fantasy totem pole, though it might fall beneath Henson’s DARK CRYSTAL. LABYRINTH is worth entering for anyone who craves a crazy 80’s puppet-filled fantasy or simply wishes to indulge in Bowie’s most iconic movie performance.

Grade: A-

NOAH (2014)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence, Disturbing Images and brief Suggestive Content

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Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Darren Aronofsky & Ari Handel

Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins, Douglas Booth, Frank Langella, Marton Csokas, Madison Davenport & Nick Nolte

Biblical epics are nothing new. Since the art of filmmaking has been around, talented (and not so talented) directors have been putting scripture stories into cinematic form. It’s odd that the story of Noah’s ark has only been brought to film twice before. I have yet to see the 1929 silent film and the 1999 made-for-TV movie looks embarrassingly bad. Darren Aronofsky’s film version of the tale is sure to be a divisive one. Instead of staying completely word-for-word true to the source material, Aronofsky plays everything as a sort of fantasy epic. It is ironic that the people who might enjoy the film also might condemn it on sight. I’m not speaking of religious people, but atheists. There are admittedly stupid decisions here and there in Aronofsky’s storytelling (one of which definitely knocks this movie a notch down on my grade factor), but I found NOAH to be a stunning piece of work that stays true to the themes and overall message of the Bible story, even if it’s not close enough to the material for many viewers’ comfort.

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For those who have utterly no knowledge of the tale (despite it being prevalent through many different religions), Noah is a good man in a world of wickedness. He has visions from God (or as they only refer to him in the film: The Creator) that inform him of the impending destruction of the world. The Creator plans to wipe everything clean with a massive flood that will cover the entire planet. With the help of fallen angels in stone form (more on that in a moment), Noah constructs a massive ark that will carry two of each animal safely through the watery doom. The evils of man pose a threat as the king (descendant of Cain) plans on taking the ark from Noah by force when the flood arrives.

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One thing should have immediately stuck out from that previous paragraph that is vastly different from the Bible story and that’s the rocky fallen angels helping Noah out. These beings looked like the Rockbiter from NEVERENDING STORY (big strong hands) and the fact that they do talk in gravely voices made it even more awkward to watch. The first 15 minutes featuring these beasties front and center are a bit shaky to say the least. However, it does get to a point where they are merely means to an end in the background. I did like what they resolved these creatures with as well. There are other fantastical elements added as well, but I thought these other ideas were integrated very well into the story.

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The really interesting stuff comes after those first 15 minutes. The film is the Noah’s Ark story, but new ideas have been thrown into the mix that make Noah a much more fleshed out character. He’s portrayed as very flawed and faces tough choices before the flood arrives and while on the ark. The supporting cast of Noah’s family includes familiar faces too. Jennifer Connelly is great as Naameh (Noah’s wife) and delivers some really heart-wrenching emotional moments. Logan Lerman (PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER) plays the rebellious son named Ham and does it well. Meanwhile, Emma Watson is nothing short of amazing as Ila (an adopted daughter of sorts to Noah’s family). Anthony Hopkins also appears in about four scenes as Noah’s wise grandfather. Ray Winstone is a gruff and intimidating figure in his most notable roles. As King Tubal-Cain, he shines. This is the arch-enemy of Noah and there’s more to this character’s story than meets the eye. I really liked where director/writer Aronofsky took things with this plot-thread. Finally, there’s Russell Crowe himself as the title character and he gives a powerhouse performance as Noah. You feel his desperation, his struggle, and see where he’s coming from (even if you don’t agree with some of his actions).

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Effects-wise the film is absolutely amazing to behold. This is spectacle done almost perfectly. It’s a movie made to be seen on the big screen and it certainly adds power that the story’s so compelling. For all the mistakes in the opening that hint at an awkward experience shown in the beginning, NOAH gripped me more as the film went on longer. Once the flood comes and the family is aboard the ark with all the animals, you’d think the film would slow down. Instead, it went in a much more human-nature oriented direction that I imagine a lot of Bible purists won’t approve of, but I found it to be very deep and profound. The flood sequence itself and the battle leading up to it are awesome. There is a stark raw brutality around the film that must be respected too. The Bible had uplifting messages in its stories, but plenty of them weren’t pretty and the same can be said of this film adaptation. There were a couple of scenes that really shocked me at how dark Aronofsky decided to go with this material.

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Even though this story has been given almost a sort of LORD OF THE RINGS epic treatment, the message is still at the heart of this film. The concepts of sin, repentance, human life as a gift, giving thanks for blessings, and things happening for a reason are all examined in a respectful way. It’s ironic that atheists might enjoy this film a lot more than most Christians. The religious relatives I saw the film with thought it was boring and just not very well made. I heartily disagree. There is one dumb decision (those lame rockbiters), but everything else is absolutely awesome. It’s a slightly flawed biblical epic that I plan on revisiting many times in the future. Worthy of seeing on the big screen!

Grade: A-

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