REVIEW: Spider-Man: Homecoming

5 07 2017

The “Spider-Man” series, in both its prior cinematic incarnations this millennium, have dealt with the consequences of giving extraordinary power to ordinary men. The web-slinger’s modern persona is the product of an individualistic Bush-era America where heroes were lone actors grappling with authority and treading near the line of vigilantism. He’s a symbol of the power of the one, overcoming self-made obstacles, vanquishing doubts and conquering evil menace.

But by the time that the lifeless 2014 iteration of the character, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” arrived in theaters, actor Andrew Garfield even acknowledged the hollowness of this interpretation. “The danger of these superhero films is that they maybe propagate a lie that what’s going to change the world is one man, or one woman, just being the beacon of light,” he told The Daily Beast. “That’s not the way that it’s ever happened and it’s not going to be the way that it ever happens — I think it’s going to take every single person doing their small, massive bit to create a world, to create a society and a culture, that if we can imagine it we can do it.”

While Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is far from the cooperative hero of “The Avengers,” he’s a step in the correct, more honest direction. Holland actually looks like the high school-aged kid that Spider-Man is; Garfield, by contrast, was 31 when his Peter Parker accepted a high school diploma. And from that starting point, director Jon Watts and a stable of six writers craft a superhero narrative around a lesson that resonates for adolescences both radioactive and regular. (We need not discuss the ending point, yet another reminder of the endemic inability for comic book adaptations to wrap up in anything other than a mind-numbing CGI pyrotechnics demo.)

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REVIEW: Trainwreck

4 08 2015

Trainwreck PosterAt roughly the midpoint of “Trainwreck,” writer Amy Schumer sets up a remarkable parallel between two scenes at the same baby shower.  The character Amy, played by Schumer herself, has to endure a brutal game of “Skeletons in the Closet” where posh young mothers spill dark secrets … that actually reveal themselves as pathetically and predictably tame.

Meanwhile, Amy’s boyfriend, Bill Hader’s Aaron Conners, recounts details of the many athletes he has helped rehabilitate in his sports medicine practice.  He rattles of name after name to the same awe-struck reaction from a crowd of unfamiliar men … until he drops the name Alex Rodriguez.  Among this set of New Yorkers, this blasphemy inspires a sudden outburst of profanity.  But then, Aaron goes back to some more agreeable athletes, and the peanut gallery resumes the standard call-and-response.

These scenes, juxtaposed as they are, communicate a central tenet of “Trainwreck.”  Both genders, when taking cultural stereotypes of gender to the extreme ends of their performance, deserve mockery for their folly.  (This also includes John Cena, who briefly appears as Amy’s bodybuilding boyfriend who talks about the gym like many women talk about the nail salon.)  Schumer’s feminist intervention into the romantic comedy genre aims to level the playing field for men and women, not by putting the latter on any kind of pedestal but through suggesting the common humanity that unites them.

Her on-screen persona in “Trainwreck” arrives at the perfect moment, a time where many female characters are either monotonically strong or practically invisible and silent.  The “approachable” Amy, as her boss (played by a bronzed Tilda Swinton) condescendingly deems her, is a romantic comedy heroine cut from the cloth of contemporary society.  The hard-drinking, truth-telling, free-wheeling character benefits from the assertiveness in romance that women gained through the sexual revolution, yet she also pushes up against the lingering constraints left unconquered by that unfinished movement.  Amy also embodies the spirit of a generation scared to death of commitment, an era when the only thing scarier than the sea of possibilities is the choice to settle on one of them.

She meets her match in Aaron, an equally plain-spoken person who falls for Amy as she profiles him for the men’s magazine S’nuff.  The big difference, though, is that he possesses self-confidence where she shields her insecurities with self-deprecation.  Aaron, notably, never becomes a human incarnation of a “Mr. Wonderful” doll.  While exceedingly nice and admirable, Amy exposes a few of the buttons he might not like people pushing.

“Trainwreck” does not place Amy in the position of damsel in distress, nor does it make her some kind of prize for winning once tamed.  Amy’s impetus to change, although partially spurred by Aaron, seems to derive from an internal desire to stop numbing herself to the world.  And even in her triumphs (including the grand finale), Schumer always makes sure her Amy still shows some amusing, endearing flaws.  She is allowed to have flawed, circular logic, and it does not mean she is crazy; it just means we embrace her all the more.

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REVIEW: Love is Strange

13 06 2014

Love is StrangeLos Angeles Film Festival

A film that puts a big conceptual catch-all phrase in its title, such as “love” or “American,” should certainly be prepared to make a grand statement.  Ira Sach’s “Love is Strange” certainly has the ambition, providing three generations of characters whose problems play out on the screen.

From what I saw, though, the strangeness and conflict within the film did not come from love.  It arises, rather, from the complexities of the real estate market and overbearing taxes.  Or, as I like to call them, fates worse than death.

That’s not to dismiss the two lead performances at the center of the film by Alfred Molina and John Lithgow.  Respectively portraying George and Ben, life partners who finally get to legally tie the knot around the same time they qualify for the senior citizens’ discount at the movies, their bond of affection feels tender and sincere.  The kind of deep mutual understanding that couples strive for years to achieve is recreated effortlessly by these two great actors.

“Love is Strange” is at its best when it focuses on the two of them trying to navigate living apart after losing a cherished apartment they shared together for decades.  While they attempt to find a new place, George stays with some boisterous neighbors and Ben shacks up with some extended family navigating tenuous times of their own.  Lithgow is the film’s revelation (if he can be called that at the age of 68), portraying senility without a histrionic hint of burgeoning Alzheimer’s.

To the film’s detriment, Sachs expands his film and tries to encompass more experiences than it can comfortably portray in a 90-minute runtime.  The parenting tussle between Ben’s surrogate son Ted and his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei) and the vague growing pains of their teenage son Joey feel like distractions from the film’s emotional core, George and Ben.  Had “Love is Strange” stayed a little more intensely fixated on them, the micro-level relationship might have satisfied the title’s promise of illuminating something bigger in the macro-level experience of love.

But Sachs insists on lingering and wandering through the lives of an ensemble, disrupting the intimacy of a two-handed love story.  Even though he is unable to satisfactorily accommodate them all into the narrative, “Love is Strange” still retains the feel of the piano sonatas that score the film.  There’s a gentility about the film, though that placidity seems to come at the cost of a more fulfilling emotional resonance.  B-2stars





REVIEW: The Lincoln Lawyer

28 08 2013

I’ll admit, I’m a bit of a sucker for a legal thriller.  Though I don’t watch any of the “Law and Order” series, I’m pretty much game to get involved in any movie that takes place in America’s criminal justice system.  “The Lincoln Lawyer” is not a particularly notable entry into the genre, but it’s compelling and entertaining enough to make for a good watch.

Matthew McConaughey stars as the titular litigator Mickey Haller, a slightly crooked lawyer in the mold of George Clooney’s character in “Michael Clayton.”  He’s caught in entangling web of alliances and often finds himself in tough positions as a result.  His bind in “The Lincoln Lawyer” results after taking on a spoiled brat of a client, Ryan Phillipe’s Louis Roulet.  He’s been accused of beating a prostitute and ropes Haller into a devious master plan that will keep him out of jail.  Unwilling to be made a pawn in anyone’s game, Haller and his investigator Frank Levin (William H. Macy), start pulling their own strings.

The story, taken from the novel by Michael Connelly, is engaging and engrossing, just as any good page-turner feels as you grip it.  But as is often the case with such airport magazine stand mass-market paperback books, “The Lincoln Lawyer” keeps the events rolling by sacrificing character development.  While McConaughey’s performance (one of the earliest in his much-heralded comeback) is decent enough to propel the movie, it could have gone from merely good to GREAT by adding a few more layers of complexity to Haller.  But all in all, “The Lincoln Lawyer” is fitting for what it is: a breezy legal drama.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Crazy Stupid Love

29 07 2011

I sit through way too many romantic comedies each year hoping that one of them will wind up being something like “Crazy Stupid Love.”  Coming at the tail end of summer 2011, this genre-pic manna tastes way too sweet.  But it’s not worthy of exaltation just due to the sea of flops surrounding it or praise just because it wasn’t bad, it’s actually just a good movie, one with heart, humor, and insight.

Take away the Christmas setting and it’s actually reminiscent of a small-scale “Love Actually.”  The movie provides perspectives on love from Generations X, Y, and Z, stories that are told with an uncanny sincerity that overpowers their slightly hackneyed development.  Written by Dan Fogelman, who had previously only dabbled in light kiddie fare like “Tangled” and “Cars 2,” delivers a work full of maturity and scope, one that winds up being surprisingly clever.  The movie has a few tricks up its sleeves, and it makes the movie a great deal more engaging than any other movie dealing with this subject matter.

Fogelman’s best maneuver, however, may be reminding us to expect the unexpected when it comes to something as complicated (or crazy and stupid) as love.  While Hollywood may require a certain ending point, the journey to get there doesn’t have to be formulaic or predictable.  The characters of “Crazy Stupid Love” make that voyage fun because they are hardly conventional romantic comedy archetypes, save perhaps Emma Stone’s insecure burgeoning career woman.

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REVIEW: Cyrus

1 08 2010

Over the past few years, we’ve seen over-the-top comedy after over-the-top comedy, and it’s been a little exhausting. But you don’t need to go into outer space or back to prehistoric times to be funny; there’s humor in the average lives of ordinary people. The Duplass brothers understand that and bring us “Cyrus,” a modest comedy that finds laughter in the awkward and trite moments that make up the days of a new couple trying to coexist with an overbearing son. In a summer filled with giant explosions and comedies so corny you can all but hear the laugh-track, it’s a very welcome change of pace.

It’s like a feature-length sitcom where the writers provide the situation and the actors are left to bring the comedy out of it. There are no ridiculous lines or scenarios to pump easy laughs into the movie; it all comes from the way someone glances at another person or a few too many seconds of silence. John C. Reilly headlines the cast as John, the seven-years divorced loner just beginning to come out of his shell as his ex-wife, played by the always fantastic Catherine Keener, is getting married again.

At a party, he makes a drunken connection with Molly, Marisa Tomei’s spontaneous fireball. But little does John know what lies ahead down the road with her – a 22-year-old son played by Jonah Hill who still lives at home and is uncomfortably close with his mother. It’s a very different role for the young comedic star, who has starred in plenty of the ridiculous comedies I alluded to above (although I generally consider him to have good taste in choosing roles). He exhibits the subtlety necessary to make the passive-aggressive antagonist wholly convincing. Hill masters the death glare, just one of many great idiosyncrasies he brings to the character.

The production values are so simple that I can imagine just one of the movie’s four marquee names cost more than making the movie. The two brothers were extremely lucky to land them all because it does lend a sort of mainstream sensibility to the film that could be a little too indie for some people without them. But the crowning achievement of “Cyrus” is not how digestible the mumblecore movement (a phrase that doesn’t register with most Americans) can be made; it’s how the combination of a well-written script and actors capable enough to understand its nuances can create comedy out of anything. A- /





F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 5, 2010)

5 03 2010

The celebration of the Academy Awards here at Marshall and the Movies extends to all corners of the blog, including my weekly “F.I.L.M.” of the Week column.  I felt like this week’s movie should be a Best Picture nominee, so I decided on “In the Bedroom.”  In 2001, this subtle work by Todd Field (director of my personal favorite “Little Children”) lost out to “A Beautiful Mind.”  Yet it still remains one of the most talked-about Best Picture entries from that year, so I have been compelled for a long time to watch it.

“In the Bedroom” was definitely NOT what I expected.  I had heard people call it one of the most forceful and compelling dramas of the decade, so I was anticipating a typical display of strong emotion and grief a la “Revolutionary Road.”  However, other than one incredibly affecting scene, it is a very subtle work.  The movie struck me as strange when I first watched it because it doesn’t really cling to any genre or cliché.  It is an unsparingly honest portrait of a couple dealing with the murder of their son.  Nothing is held back; nothing is candy-coated.

Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson turn in deserving Academy Award-nominated performances as the aforementioned parents, whose twenty-something son (Nick Stahl) gets caught up in a messy love triangle with a single mother (Marisa Tomei) and her jealous and violent ex-husband (William Mapother, Ethan Rom from TV’s “Lost”).  They warn him to get out, but he believes he has something special with Natalie.  His defiance ultimately leads to his death at the hand of her former spouse.  Matt and Ruth (Wilkinson and Spacek) have a lot to deal with following the death: grief, sorrow, regret, longing, loneliness.  These all contribute to the crumbling of their relationship and any sort of peace of mind they might have found.

“In the Bedroom” will shock you in many ways, chiefly with its brutal realism but also with the state that it leaves you in.  I wasn’t quite sure how I felt when the credits began to roll, and I didn’t become more certain in the days and weeks that followed.  It’s not an unsatisfying feeling, and I’m not even sure that I would call it depressing.  It’s certainly unconventional, so I’ll leave it up to you to decide how you feel.  The movie presents the events as they are, void of sensationalism.  Perhaps you’ll feel a little numb – or not feeling anything at all.