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-

THE SOUND AND THE FURY (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: James Franco

Written by: Matt Rager

(based on the novel THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner)

Starring: James Franco, Jacob Loeb, Joey King, Tim Blake Nelson, Loretta Devine, Ahna O’Reilly, Scott Haze, Seth Rogen, Danny McBride & Logan Marshall-Green

William Faulkner’s work has been notoriously difficult to adapt onto the screen. While his stories are about being human and life itself, his stream-of-consciousness style has confused countless readers and seems impossible to properly translate into film format. Enter literature-lover James Franco and his ambition. Franco tried to adapt Faulkner in 2013’s AS I LAY DYING and he attempts to adapt one of Faulkner’s most acclaimed novels in THE SOUND AND THE FURY. There’s effort being put into this project, but it’s wasted with amateur directing, a bland tone, and bad acting. There are highlights in Franco’s cinematic version of Faulkner, but these are few and far between.

Like the novel it’s based upon, the film is split into non-linear chapters (four in the book, three in the movie as it combines the third and fourth sections). We follow the Compson Family in early 20th-century Mississippi. The family has suffered hardships in the past and is about to fall into complete disarray. We watch the family’s fall from grace from the perspectives of the three Compson sons: mentally challenged Benjy (James Franco), intellectual Quentin (Jacob Loeb), and scumbag Jason (Scott Haze).

In discussing this film, I need to break down the (few) positives and (many) negatives of each chapter. In the first segment, James Franco clearly didn’t listen to Robert Downey Jr.’s sound advice from TROPIC THUNDER and proceeds to go “full retard” as Benjy. Franco fearlessly thrusts himself into the role of this mentally challenged man and the results are cringe worthy to say the least. He dons a set of fake teeth, drools all over the place, and proceeds to ass-bite a small child. God, I wish I was making that last part up.

To be fair, the first section of Faulkner’s novel is often regarded as damn near incomprehensible and Franco tries to do the same thing here with his camera. The film frequently cuts to pretentious shots of Benjy cradling his face in curtains and screaming in a hospital bed…for no apparent reason other than the film being “art.” A child’s whispery voice fills in the narration of this character’s inner monologue, mostly repeating the line about how his sister Caddy (Ahna O’Reilly) smells like trees. This was kind of cool at first (as someone who had to read the novel in college), but it grows mighty annoying and laughably pretentious over the space of 30 minutes.

The second chapter fares much better as Jacob Loeb proves himself to be a capable enough in the role of deeply depressed Quentin, whilst Tim Blake Nelson’s Compson father drunkenly waxes poetic about time and water. The second section’s best scene involves Quentin confronting his sister’s scummy ex-boyfriend Dalton (Logan Marshall-Green). This entire sequence seems like it was ripped straight out of Faulkner’s book. However, the rest of Quentin’s perspective frequently meanders and makes him into a downright unlikable guy, by ignoring the only heartwarming piece of his story from the novel for no apparent reason.

The third/final chapter is much more straightforward and coherent as we follow scumbag Jason, played to over-the-top levels by Scott Haze. The appearance of Haze’s Jason resembles a villainous cartoon character. This segment certainly isn’t aided by obvious age make-up on Janet Jones or distracting cameos by Seth Rogen (as a telegram operator) and Danny McBride (as the town sheriff). At least, Joey King is believable as Jason’s defiant niece and Loretta Devine is well-cast as the family’s put-upon house servant.

This final segment is also a remarkably weak way to end the film, though I’d actually blame that upon the source material. I’m having a really hard time finding many nice things to say about Franco’s adaptation of THE SOUND AND THE FURY. It’s long, tedious (only occasionally capturing the spark of what makes its source material work so well), and directed rather poorly. There are dull stretches where the viewer will find themselves checking their watch and Faulkner fans will simply be waiting for the next event to occur. Even if you’ve read Faulkner’s celebrated book, this mostly lifeless cinematic version of THE SOUND AND THE FURY probably won’t do much for you. I’d say avoid this film and let’s hope that Franco doesn’t attempt to adapt any more of Faulkner’s work to the screen.

Grade: D

SNOWDEN (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Sexuality/Nudity

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Directed by: Oliver Stone

Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald & Oliver Stone

(based on the books THE SNOWDEN FILES by Luke Harding and TIME OF THE OCTOPUS by Anatoly Kucherena)

Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Rhys Ifans & Nicolas Cage

I’ve been looking forward to SNOWDEN for a while now. Though director/writer Oliver Stone has suffered a mediocre slump in his output, this controversial story seemed like the kick in the pants that he needed to reinvigorate his filmography. This movie was originally supposed to be released on Christmas 2015, but for some reason it was delayed until May 2016, until it eventually was postponed until September. SNOWDEN has finally hit theaters with minimal promotion, mixed reviews, and a handful of screenings per theater. There’s a positive side to this though. My Tuesday night showing was sold-out and audience word-of-mouth has been extremely positive. Remarkably, this biopic doesn’t choose a side in the conflict, but rather presents points that Snowden might be a hero, a traitor, or a bit of both. This political thriller leaves that aspect for the viewer to decide.

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In June 2013, NSA contractor Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) leaked classified documents to the press that exposed government surveillance programs that infringed on the civil rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens. This led to treason charges and a hot debate over security vs. freedom that still hasn’t fully been resolved in the public eye. This film spans from 2004 to 2013 in showing Snowden’s injured exit from the military, experience in the CIA, relationship with his girlfriend, and time in the NSA that ultimately pushes him to sacrifice everything to deliver information to the public.

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Whether you think he’s a traitor who deserves execution or a hero who should be celebrated, this film presents itself as a balanced character study of Edward Snowden. Though I’ve seen reviewers claim that this movie merely rehashes real-life events and nothing more, I wouldn’t consider that to be a negative when the events are incredibly interesting and troubling. This cinematic version of Edward Snowden is grounded on a human level thanks to a heavily developed relationship with his opposites-attract photographer girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley).

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt has proven himself to be an excellent actor in the past and that certainly doesn’t change here as he becomes Edward Snowden. From the mannerisms to the distinct way of speaking, I forgot that I was watching Levitt. He’s that good. Shailene Woodley (who’s had dramatic ups and angsty downs) gives her best work to date as Lindsay Mills. The quality performances don’t end with those two though, because Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson, and Zachary Quinto are great as three journalists with Snowden confidential info. Scott Eastwood shows up as a temperamental NSA employee. Timothy Olyphant plays a smarmy CIA agent. Rhys Ifans shines as Snowden’s mentor and “friend,” which makes later scenes even more intense to watch. Finally, Nicolas Cage delivers his best performance in a decade with five minutes of screen time as a CIA instructor.

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SNOWDEN’s narrative is non-linear, opening with 2013’s fateful meeting of journalists and then flashing back to 2004. The film progressively shifts between Snowden’s interviews with the three reporters back to his progress through the CIA and NSA. This makes for a captivating experience as Stone is cramming nine eventful years into just over two hours. It’s also interesting to watch the past timeline catch up with the 2013 wraparound. Though Oliver Stone’s visual style can occasionally be a bit much (did we really need a lovey-dovey scene projected onto Snowden’s hotel window?), SNOWDEN also weaves in actual footage and news clips. There are clips of both current presidential candidates voicing (unsurprisingly) negative opinions about him, pieces of actual news stories from the leak and Obama’s reactions to the fallout. Be sure to stay through the first half of the credits for extra tidbits.

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Though it also functions as a dramatic biopic, SNOWDEN plays out like a paranoid thriller that’s made even more intense by this story being factual. We’d be naïve not to think that the NSA is still up to stuff and that we’re still being watched on a daily basis. However, Stone’s film wisely presents fuel for both sides of the argument. There’s talk of the modern battlefield being everywhere, but also about the sacrifice of freedom for security. It’s a huge gray area with no easy answers and the film doesn’t choose a side. Instead, Oliver Stone’s return-to-form is sure to keep you thinking about it long after the credits have rolled, could inspire new feelings towards one of America’s most controversial figures, and may make you paranoid enough to put a Band-Aid over your webcam.

Grade: A

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