Reel Opinions

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Girls Trip

The early moments of Girls Trip did not give me hope, as they seemed eerily similar to the set up of last month's "girls gone wild" stinker, Rough Night.  Again, we have a group of women who were best friends in college but have since gone their separate ways reuniting for a vacation to some party city (Miami in the earlier film, New Orleans here) for a lot of sex, alcohol and bad choices.  But whereas Rough Night quickly descended into a painfully stupid plot about the friends trying to cover up the death of a dead stripper, Girls Trip manages to stay bright and upbeat, and actually provides a few laugh out loud moments.

Credit goes to director Malcolm D. Lee, for not only rounding up a wonderful and charming group of leading ladies which include Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Tiffany Haddish, but for giving them real characters to play here.  They're not just one-line spewing clones being dragged through an idiotic plot.  We're allowed to grow attached and care about these women, because the movie gives them plenty of opportunities to explore their individual characters and their friendships with one another.  We buy the relationship they share, because they act and talk like real women who have known each other for over 20 years.  Is the plot contrived, and cliched as all get out?  You bet!  But these leading women give the film charm, energy and charisma to burn.  Even if what's happening to them isn't that fresh or new, we're happy to be along for the ride because of them.

As the film opens, we're introduced to the four individual friends, who were once college roommates, but have since drifted apart and gone their separate ways, until fate brings them back together.  Ryan (Hall) is a self-help author who is pegged to be "the next Oprah", and is trying to balance her successful and wealthy career with being married to former NFL star Stewart (Mike Colter from the Netflix Luke Cage series).  They have the image of a perfect relationship, but Ryan is having a hard time keeping that image intact as of late.  She's been invited to speak at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, and decides to use this as an opportunity to reunite with her old sorority sisters, whom she has not seen in years, and invites them to come along as guests.

The girls (who used to call themselves the "Flossy Posse") each have their own lives and problems when they reunite.  Sasha (Latifah) dreamed of being a serious journalist, but now runs a struggling blog that centers on celebrity gossip.  Lisa (Pinkett-Smith) is a meek single mother whose life is so devoted to raising her two young kids that she's forgotten about everything else in life.  Finally, there is Dina (Haddish), the wild-card of the group who gets all the best lines, and is probably set to make Haddish a genuine comic star, the same way Melissa McCarthy became a box office draw with her role in Bridesmaids.  Dina is the sort who never grew up, and has a violent hair-trigger temper.  It's amazing how easy it would be for the character to become annoying or unlikable, but screenwriters Kenya Barris and Karen McCullah Lutz know just how to use her character at just the right time.  It also helps that Haddish comes across as a genuine comic talent here who is willing to try just about anything for a laugh, including demonstrating a sexual act with a grapefruit that will likely be one of the most talked about moments of the summer movie season.

The ladies join together for a wild weekend in the city, and there is the expected drinking, partying, and patching up of old wounds that have kept these women from seeing each other for so long.  Like I said, Girls Trip holds no real surprises in its story.  What it does have are the likable presence of its lead stars, as well as a genuine warmth that we haven't seen in a lot of recent "adult" comedies.  And for once, the sentimental moments feel earned rather than shoehorned in.  The big difference that makes it work is that we like these women when they are being crude and funny, as well as when they are opening up to each other.  There's nothing all that sophisticated here, we just like seeing these talented actresses working together and playing off each other. 

This may not be one of the better movies of the summer, but it is one of the more pleasantly surprising ones.  Just like the character of Dina, this is a movie that could have easily been crude and obnoxious.  However, it never lets its raunchy humor overtake the genuine sweetness at the film's core.  Girls Trip is just simply likable.


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Watching Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets is akin to watching hundreds of millions of dollars burn right before your eyes for over two hours.  Yes, you can see every cent that Luc Besson sunk into making his vision of vast alien worlds, and an endless array of bizarre alien creatures parade across the screen.  But it's all at the service of a boring plot that would barely pass on a 1980s Saturday Morning Cartoon.  Combine this with wooden acting from the human characters, and a plot that nobody could give a hoot about, and you have the biggest and most expensive Sci-Fi misfire since Jupiter Ascending.

At the center of all the vast worlds and strange creatures are the two human stars, Valerian (played by Dane DeHaan from A Cure for Wellness) and Laureline (model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne).  They're a pair of interplanetary agents who engage in a lot of flirty banter that we might believe in if the young actors in these roles didn't have the personality and screen chemistry of deadwood.  Even though they share the screen a lot during the course of the film, they act like they shot their scenes separately, and were added in together in the editing room.  Early on, Valerian asks Laureline if she would like to marry him, and to be honest, I couldn't tell if he was being sincere or sarcastic.  That's just how miscast these actors are.  We don't detect any emotion, any heart, and certainly no sense of any relationship.  So, when one of them goes to the end of the Earth to save the other, we just stare blankly at the screen instead of getting wrapped up in the emotional plight.

If it were just the two lead performances that felt muted, I could chalk it up to the actors not being comfortable performing in front of a green screen for the entire shoot.  But, the whole plot is equally uninvolved.  Yes, the movie has been dressed in the finest special effects Hollywood can buy, and they virtually fill every corner of the screen.  But the plot is the very definition of half-assed, and the characters and dialogue don't hold up much better.  The story involves a planet that was mysteriously destroyed some 30 years ago, and now Valerian somehow has the spirit of the dead alien princess of that planet enter his body, and starts filling his head with visions of that world's final moments.  The doomed alien race kind of look like relatives to the creatures from James Cameron's Avatar, and they have cute little CG pets who literally poop an endless supply of precious stones.  Valerian and Laureline get involved when they are tasked with saving one of the little pooping creatures (which somehow survived the planet's destruction), as it may hold the key to rebuilding the planet.

There's a kidnapped Commander (Clive Owen), a lot of weird aliens who really just stand around looking like expensive CG effects without really adding anything, and a plot twist that is so spelled out, you can see the "surprise" villain coming almost from the second the character walks on the screen.  We get a lot of weird cameos as well, such as Ethan Hawke as a bizarre pimp, with recording artist Rihanna showing up as his star attraction.  Her stage performance (complete with stripper pole) stops the film, and not in a good way.  It literally comes in the middle of a crucial moment, and the movie forces us to watch her performance for far too long, all the while, the audience is getting restless.  Like just about everyone and everything else in this movie, she's interesting to look at, but she adds absolutely nothing and grinds any and all momentum to a total stop.

However, this would imply that Valerian had momentum in the first place, which it does not.  You can tell that Besson is going for a lighthearted, fun and at times comedic approach with his intentionally corny and banter-filled script, but it's just not very enjoyable, and every joke and one liner falls with a clanging thud.  This overly whimsical tone also drains any drama from the narrative, which makes it hard to get involved with anything up on the screen, aside from the visuals.  And despite the impressive scope of the film (and at a reported budget of $180 million, it had better be impressive), the visuals are simply not enough to carry the immediately forgettable plot, characters and stilted acting.

Unless you are familiar with the long-running French comic book that inspired this film, I can't see this movie being very appealing.  I'm not familiar with the comic itself, and all I found myself wondering is if it really is as generic as this adaptation makes it out to be, how did it become so influential to various artists and filmmakers over the years?  I also wondered why so much money was being thrown at something so undeserving.  For all of its grand ambitions, Valerian simply comes across as the most expensive cinematic junk heap to hit screens in many a moon.


Friday, July 21, 2017


If you look at Dunkirk solely as an experience, rather than a character or narrative-driven piece, you will find a lot to like.  Writer-director Christopher Nolan has stripped the war epic down to its most basic essential - survival.  This is not about soldiers banding together and forming friendships on the battlefield.  This is simply about men trying to stay alive, and as a summer spectacle, it can be a nerve-jarring experience at times.

Telling the story of Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France beginning in May of 1940 after they were hemmed in by German enemy fire, Nolan uses a very episodic and at times sporadic story telling style, jumping from one group of people to the next, each with their own individual plotline.  The dialogue is largely minimal.  We don't learn much about these people.  Instead, the movie is trying to put us in their shoes, and allow us to experience what they are going through.  In a way, I admire this approach, but at the same time, it does make certain moments feel a little emotionally empty.  I was never disappointed, I just was kind of left wanting to know a bit more about these people up on the screen at times.  Regardless, Nolan tells his story with few unnecessary elements.  Everything moves by at a very brisk 106 minutes, nothing distracts, and most of what's up on the screen engages.

We witness the battle through the eyes of multiple people.  First, there is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young recruit who teams up with two other soldiers (Aneurin Barnard and pop star Harry Styles) to flee the beach.  We also get the story of a civilian sailor (Mark Rylance) and his teenage son (Tom Glynn-Carney), who are heading toward Dunkirk in order to help the trapped soldiers.  There is also a Royal Air Force pilot (Tom Hardy) who is engaged in air battles throughout the film.  The whole point behind the film is to create an immersive experience.  If the characters are a bit thinly drawn, it is intentional in this case, as the filmmakers are largely giving us the experience and telling a simple, paired down story.  The people within do not have backstories, romantic subplots, or families back home wringing their hands as they wait for news about their safety.  They simply are engaged in battle for the entirety of the film's running time, and trying to get to safety.

Does this approach make Dunkirk suffer dramatically at times?  Honestly, just a little.  But again, this is not the kind of movie that Nolan was trying to make.  He is making a technical movie, not an emotional one.  And at what he was trying to make, he has succeeded.  The movie was filmed in IMAX and 65mm film, and it's obviously the format you should try to watch it in if you have that option.  But even on a regular screen, there is such a sense of immersive scope right from the opening scene, when some soldiers are waking down a seemingly abandoned street.  The fact that the action never really leaves the field of battle helps with the immersion.  There are no scenes of the soldiers planning strategies, or inspiring speeches.  Heck, the total amount of lines of dialogue in the entire film probably equals less than your average 90 minute movie.  So, it is up to the scope and the spectacle of the film to draw us in, which it does.

If I did walk out of the theater just a tiny bit disappointed in some regard, it is that this is not a very human or emotional film.  In a way, I appreciate that Nolan has trimmed away so many of the basic cliches we've seen many times in World War II docudramas, but at the same time, it is these kind of cliches that help us identify with the people on the battlefield.  With everything stripped off except for the thrill of battle, it can come off a bit inert on an emotional level.  This is definitely a movie where we are moved more by the images, rather than the story that is being told.  And when Nolan does try to get a little emotional, such as the scenes concerning Kenneth Branagh as a Naval Commander talking about home and keeping hope alive, it does come across as a bit mechanical.  It's like he knew he had to throw in some tiny hopeful cliche, but his heart was not fully in it.

Dunkirk is an experience while you are watching it, but it did not leave much of a lasting impression on me when it was over.  If you're someone who is a stickler for details and likes a lot of information instead of a heartfelt story, you'll likely love this.  Me, I admired the movie greatly and found it a success at what it was trying to accomplish.  I just can't say with any certainty if it struck any sort of emotional chord.


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Wish Upon

Wish Upon is so goofy that with a little more effort, it could have been a spoof of teen horror movies.  Even the actors up on the screen seem to realize how silly it is, and must have been suppressing their laughter while filming some of the scenes.  The movie doesn't work in any real way.  But, if I have to be honest, I was kind of amused by it for reasons the movie didn't intend.

The movie is about Clare Shannon (Joey King), a teenage girl who is smart, pretty, talented and creative.  Unfortunately, she is also poor, which makes her an easy target for the various bullies at her school, as well as the resident popular mean girl, Darcie Chapman (Josephine Langford).  She lives in a ramshackle house with her unemployed loser father (Ryan Phillippe), who spends all day dumpster diving for things he can sell.  During one of his searches, he comes across an old wood carved music box, which he gives to his daughter as an early birthday present.  There's Chinese writing on the box, and from what Clare understands, it seems that the box is able to grant seven wishes.  All she has to do is place her hands on top of the box, make a wish out loud, and it will come true.  Unfortunately, Clare does not get a proper translation of the rest of the writing until much later, as it turns out that whenever she makes a wish, something terrible or tragic will happen to someone else.

So, the movie is essentially a modern telling of the classic horror story, The Monkey's Paw.  Clare's first wish is that mean Darcie would "just go rot".  The next morning, Darcie awakens to find her legs covered in some kind of strange skin disease that requires hospitalization.  As a consequence, Clare's distant but wealthy uncle slips and falls in the bathtub, and dies.  For her next wish, Clare wishes that her father had money.  Hey, what do you know?  Turns out that wealthy old uncle left his entire fortune to her in his will!  As a consequence, the nice lady across the street somehow gets her hair stuck in the kitchen garbage disposal and is choked to death.  The death scenes in this movie sort of resemble the elaborate ones in the Final Destination series, and almost seem to be going for a kind of dark slapstick vibe.  I can easily see someone on Youtube editing the sequences with cartoon sound effects and an off camera laugh track.  The whole tone of the movie is so over the top, it's certain to elicit laughs from an audience, rather than the desired thrills and chills.

Clare's further wishes include being popular, having the guy she longs for fall madly in love with her, and for her father to be less embarrassing.  This somehow results in her father suddenly knowing how to play the saxophone, and being in a jazz band.  It's not until a kid at school (Ki Hong Lee) helps her translate the full Chinese inscription upon the box that Clare realizes the consequences that are connected to her wishes.  So, why doesn't Clare destroy the box?  Turns out it's indestructible.  Why doesn't she just stop making wishes?  Turns out there's a demonic curse connected to the box that makes Clare obsessed with the power it can grant her.  The tragedies and deaths around her start piling up.  Even the cute guy she wished would be in love with her turns out to be an obsessed stalker who sneaks into her house and takes photos of her sleeping.  But Clare just can't stop, despite the pleading from her closest friends.

Wish Upon does not know the meaning of subtlety, and while I don't exactly ask for subtlety in my horror films, there is a fine line between going over the top and going into straight-up unintentional comedy.  The screenplay by Barbara Marshall does not understand this delicate balance.  Apparently it was once on Hollywood's Black List for the best unproduced screenplays.  My only guess is whatever worked in the script did not carry over to the screen.  There's little tension to be found, and director John R. Leonetti (Annabelle) just can't craft any memorable or suspenseful images out of this material.  The cast at least are doing their best with what they've been given, but they often seem too good for what they're working with.

This is not a good movie, but I can see it earning a kind of cult following with people who love bad horror films.  It doesn't quite go far enough for me to label it a personal guilty pleasure, but I have to admit, the movie is too silly to be boring. 


Monday, July 17, 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes

The two previous Apes movies, which kicked off with 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes and continued with 2014's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, has surprisingly become one of the most emotionally fulfilling summer movie franchises in recent memory.  I honestly can't think of a big budget franchise that is more human, tragic, and exciting.  And most of these movies have starred mostly CG apes performed by actors using Motion Capture technology.  But here's the thing.  There's a real story being told here, one that is complex and worth telling.  And the latest (but I suspect far from final) installment War for the Planet of the Apes is perhaps the best of the franchise, and easily my favorite of the summer's blockbuster offerings.

In a movie filled with some stunning effects and action sequences, the most amazing thing is how quickly the audience forgets that we are even watching special effects for a majority of the movie.  The lead ape, Caesar (once again performed by Andy Serkis), not only has to carry a majority of the movie alone, but create a complex performance.  The special effects artistry that allows Serkis' performance to be recreated by a CG ape is not only astounding, but the performance itself is so masterful that you wish that the Oscars could at least honor his work in this series with some kind of special award.  The fact that we completely buy into Caesar and never once question the behind the scenes wizardry that created him is only part of it.  The other part is the fact that he is so fully realized by the screenplay, the performance and the direction by Matt Reeves.  Caesar is easily the most interesting lead character in any movie so far this summer.

But this is so much more than a mere spectacle picture that wows us with its visual mastery.  It's a story that touches on issues such as racism, betrayal, fanaticism, revenge and sacrifice.  And it touches on these subjects in a meaningful way, not simplified, as if Reeves and his co-writer Mark Bomback are just checking off important topics on a checklist.  The movie digs deep into its themes, and creates what is easily the most adult of all the summer movies so far.  Yes, the PG-13 rating prevents the violence from getting too graphic (there are a lot of cutaway shots), but the movie is often grim, challenging and bleak.  But the movie also can be thrilling and at times even funny, due to the addition of a comic relief character.  But most of all, it is poignant, and makes you think about the film long after it is done.

Just like before, the movie is mostly seen through the eyes of the lead ape Caesar.  The humans are a constant threat, always seemingly lurking and threatening the existence of Caesar's clan.  He has tried to make peace before with the humans, but his efforts failed.  He is also haunted by nightmares of his former ape rival Koba (Toby Kebbell), whose followers have joined up with the humans because they both want to destroy Caesar and end his rule.  In order to save his own followers, Caesar seeks a desert land far away where they can live unharmed by the war-like humans, who want revenge on the apes for the disease that has wiped out most of the human population.  The humans are led by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), an extremist militant who only believes in genocide of all apes.  His fanatical army obeys his every command, even though there is clearly madness within him.  When we finally learn the Colonel's motivation, it is a combination of tragedy, revenge and obsession.

Caesar, in his own way, is now driven by obsession as well.  He once believed that the humans and apes could live peacefully, but that belief has been betrayed by time and personal experiences.  Now, he wishes to go off on his own in order to confront the Colonel and his men.  He is soon joined by some of his loyal friends, one of whom, the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), fears that Caesar is being blinded by his quest for revenge.  Along the way, they are joined by a mute little orphan girl whom the apes eventually name Nova (Amiah Miller), and fearful ape who has been alone most of his life and calls himself "Bad Ape" (Steve Zahn).  As the story unfolds, we can see references to films like Apocalypse Now and Bridge on the River Kwai, as well as plenty of references that will lead into the original Apes franchise.

But War for the Planet of the Apes is not just references and set up.  It is fully fleshed out, alive, and as intense as you could ever hope it could be.  Yes, it is a summer adventure movie, but it is one where there is a sense of dread throughout.  The moments of humor are few and far between, and the plot goes into some very dark personal areas of the minds of its lead cast, both human and CG ape.  This is the rare summer spectacle that seems to be designed solely for adults, so I hope parents will think twice before letting young children watch it.   At the same time, that's also what's so fascinating.  How many big budget summer movies can you think of are truly made just for adults?  And how many of them fully explore their ideas and themes in an intelligent and dramatic way?  It may have seemed like a gamble on paper, especially when you consider that half the cast are talking CG primates, but it has paid off beautifully, and I applaud the studio heads and filmmakers for letting Reeves' dark and fascinating vision truly take shape.

Am I saying that I want all of my summer blockbusters to be serious from now on?  Absolutely not.  I enjoy escapism as much as the next guy.  But when a movie like this comes along, you just have to embrace it, and applaud the effort it took.  This Apes prequel trilogy could have easily been a simple cash grab, but it has evolved into so much more, and ultimately has become one of the strongest examples of big budget filmmaking in recent memory.


The Big Sick

The Big Sick is the best romantic comedy I have seen in a very long time.  Like the best films of the genre, we don't only root for the couple at the center of the story and want to see them get together, but it is also filled with undeniable truths about relationships to go with the laughs.  It has moments of sadness, sweetness and joy.  This is easily the most uplifting film of 2017 so far, and helps clear the air a little after a string of stinker comedies aimed at adults that have come this year before it, such as CHIPs, Baywatch, Rough Night, and The House.

The film is loosely based on the real life relationship between the film's writers, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon.  They met some 10 years ago, when Nanjiani was a stand up comic working in Chicago, and Gordon was a therapist.  They fell in love, but eight months into their relationship, Emily got sick and had to be placed into a medically-induced coma.  The film uses this simple premise to create such a heartfelt and funny film that it sometimes feels like a small cinematic miracle.  There is no forced sentiment, no situations that a real couple cannot relate to, and nothing feels artificial here.  With Kumail Nanjiani playing himself, and Zoe Kazan filling in for Emily up on the screen, they create a natural chemistry.

Kumail was born and raised in Pakistan, but his family moved to Chicago when he was young.  His parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, both wonderful here) are not happy with the fact that their son is working mostly in stand up (he works as an Uber driver on the side), but do hope to marry him off, and bring before him a steady stream of Pakistani-American women and potential brides, whom they always secretly invite over for dinner whenever Kumail visits home.  One night, while Kumail is on stage at a comedy club, a young woman in the audience begins to lightly heckle him.  This is Emily, and there is an instant connection between them when the two meet at a bar after the show.  He recognizes her from the audience, and she seems drawn to him, but she's busy with her career as a therapist, so she's not sure if she should get in a serious relationship.  This concern does not last long, and before you know it, he's inviting her to his place to watch his favorite classic horror movies.

What makes the first half of The Big Sick work so well is not just the warm relationship that Kumail and Emily share up on the screen, but the various other notes that the film hits along the way.  We get an inside look at stand-up comedy, with Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham and Kurt Braunohler delivering big laughs and strong performances as Kumail's fellow comics and friends.  There are also the dinner scenes with the family, and the scenes depicting cultural differences.  All of it works beautifully, and is constructed so well, it sometimes doesn't feel like scripted material.  We feel like we are watching these people's lives, and that's something only the best romantic comedies (and movies, in general) can pull off.  Director Michael Showalter (Hello, My Name is Doris) keeps everything moving at a brisk pace, so that the multiple plots and tonal shifts never clash, and seem to create a natural chain of events.

The second half of the film is when Emily is in a coma, and while there are still laughs, it also has moments of dramatic weight as Kumail examines the relationship he's had with her up to that point.  Things were not on a good note for them before Emily gets sick, and he wants to be there for her.  But her parents show up at the hospital, and now he must try to bond with them, even though they know who he is and that he hurt their daughter.  Holly Hunter and Ray Romano (finally in a real role after years of being trapped in the Ice Age films) play Emily's mom and dad, and are note perfect in their roles.  Hunter is feisty, opinionated and filled with pride and worry for her daughter.  Romano is more low key, and comes across as a bit of an "Ugly American" at times. (Shortly after he meets Kumail, he asks what his opinion is on September 11th, and Kumail's response is one of the biggest laugh out loud moments of the movie.) Yet, just like Hunter, there is a lot of love for Emily, and they both bond with Kumail and begin to realize what their daughter initially saw in him.

Even though the relationship that builds between Kumail and Emily's parents takes center stage during the second half of the film, it still is able to successfully juggle and balance all of its many characters and subplots.  And even with Emily being in a coma for most of the second half, it never once feels like the movie has forgotten about her, or that it has moved away from her.  She remains a focal point of the story, because of Kumail's constant analyzing of what she means to him.  There is a beautiful moment late in the film when Kumail breaks down while in the middle of a comedy routine and opens up to the audience that is filled with more romantic emotion than just about any other scene I can remember in a while.  

The Big Sick made me happier than just about any other movie so far this year, and while it does run about 10 minutes too long, it doesn't change the fact that this is not only the funniest movie of the year, but also the sweetest and most charming.  It's also easily one of the great films of 2017.  I'm already looking forward to watching this one again.


Saturday, July 08, 2017

The Beguiled

Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled is easy to admire, but a bit harder to enjoy.  With its beautiful, dream-like images and first-rate performances, it's easy to see why the film won Coppola the award for Best Director at Cannes.  But at its very center, the screenplay is emotionally cold and distant, and it suffers from a severe tonal shift from atmospheric drama to lurid melodrama in the last half.  Even the film's climax, which should be filled with dread, feels somehow empty and unsatisfying.

The film is based on a novel by Thomas Cullinan, and was filmed earlier back in 1971 with Clint Eastwood in the role of a wounded Civil War soldier who finds himself under the care of some lovely and potentially treacherous Southern ladies.  I have neither read the book nor seen the earlier film, so I can't comment how closely this new version follows the earlier attempts at the story.  All I can say is that I can see what Coppola is going for here.  She has crafted a laid back, beautiful drama where atmosphere is the key component.  But then, during the last half, that atmosphere is stripped away for over the top potboiler thrills.  Perhaps this is how the story is supposed to play out, but as a filmmaker, Coppola seems more comfortable with the quiet aspects of the story, rather than the over the top later elements.  I wouldn't say that the tonal shift completely stops the film, but it does lessen the effectiveness of what came before.

Colin Farrell has the role of the Union soldier in this film, Corporal John McBurney, who finds himself in the woods of Virginia and near death after a battle when he is discovered by a small girl named Amy (Oona Laurence), who is in the forest collecting mushrooms when she finds him.  Amy is scared of him at first, but he is quickly able to make her warm up to him, and take him back to the girls' school where she is currently residing.  Because of the war, the school is largely empty, with only a few students living and studying within.  The other four students include Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (Addison Riecke), and Emily (Emma Howard).  There is also the teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and the headmistress of the school, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman).  When Amy arrives with the wounded John, many of the girls are upset that a Yankee has been brought to their home, but Martha eventually feels that it is their Christian duty to keep him within the school hidden away and nurse him back to health.  As John stays within the walls of the school, he quickly realizes that he must befriend these young women if he wants to remain safe, and so he sets about seducing the women in various ways, or showing them his interest and special attention.

For most of The Beguiled, I don't think we are supposed to be sure if John is truly interested in these women, or if he is using them in order to avoid them turning him over to the Confederate Army.  He does strike up the biggest relationship with the lonely teacher Edwina, who dreams of leaving her current home far behind and seeing the world.  There is a certain subtlety to the film's seductive power that I found myself captivated by, and the performance by Dunst as Edwina is truly heartbreaking at times.  We can sense how she sees John as a way to a better life, and how she also falls for him completely the more time she spends around him.  With its laid-back tone and captivating imagery, I was more than willing to surrender to the almost fantastical tone that Coppola was creating.  But, at some point during the last half hour, the movie takes a sharp turn in a completely other direction, and the movie's spell was quickly broken.

I had seen the trailers for the film, so I certainly was not surprised by what was to come.  More I was disappointed by the film's sudden turn to almost unintentionally comical melodrama.  When Farrell starts ranting and raving, and the women start slyly plotting, it begins to hold all the subtlety of a daytime soap opera, just more seductively shot.  Maybe the switch in tone to the story was not handled well by Coppola, or perhaps this is a problem that has plagued the story from the beginning in its earlier cinematic telling.  I'm actually kind of curious to discover the answer, and see if the earlier film suffers from the same tonal shift.  Whatever the case, the movie loses much of its power during the last act, and it's enough for me to be somewhat disappointed with the final result.

I would label The Beguiled as a near-miss that starts out elegantly, but just can't hold onto the quiet power that the first hour or so seems to be building.  When the final moments come, they're also not as powerful as we would expect.  There's just something curiously muted.  The climax is supposed to leave us somewhat chilled, but I felt rather lukewarm about the experience as a whole.


Friday, July 07, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Of the three major comic book movies we've had this summer, Spider-Man: Homecoming comes the closest to feeling like an actual comic book brought to life.  Yes, it has its share of spectacle (including a thrilling sequence involving a New York ferry that is almost split in two), and there's a villain flying around in a mechanical bird-like outfit that makes him look like the final boss of a video game.  But at the center of it all, it's all about Peter Parker (Tom Holland, reprising his scene-stealing portrayal from last year's Captain America: Civil War), his being Spider-Man, and the people and community that surround him.

Watching this movie made me realize how little we actually see superheroes interacting with regular people.  Here, we get a sense of Peter Parker/Spider-Man's world as a teenager.  And it's not just the kids who make up his world at school, such as nerdy best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon, providing strong comic relief), secret crush Liz (Laura Harrier), the obnoxious Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), or the odd Michelle (Disney Channel star Zendaya), who always seems to be hanging around on the outskirts of her scenes, observing everything.  We also get to see Parker's New York.  We see his favorite deli for sandwiches, we see him argue with an old man who lives in an upstairs apartment (cue the obligatory Stan Lee cameo), and we get to see his hang-outs.  There is a sense of a community and a world outside of the superheroics.  To long-time fans of the character, this will make sense.  After all, he's always billed himself as the "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man".  It's about time we actually get to see him interact with the community and the locals.

This is also a much more care free Spider-Man than we have seen in the earlier two franchises we got.  This Peter Parker seems to actually enjoy being a superhero, and is not haunted by the death of dear old Uncle Ben.  There's no "with great power comes great responsibility", no radioactive spider (although it is brought up once), and no origin story, thank goodness.  We get to jump right into Peter learning the ropes of being Spider-Man, balancing things out with his social and school life, and hoping to impress Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) enough that he might possibly join the Avengers.  This feels right, as well.  After two previous cinematic attempts at telling how Spider-Man came to be, here is a movie that just gives us what we want.  We know who Peter is, and where he came from.  This movie gives us him trying to make a name for himself in a world that's already filled with so many costumed heroes, Captain America himself is being forced to do educational videos for teens about fitness and puberty. (This results in one of the funniest running gags in the film.) This is more about a new young superhero trying to stand out in a crowded market, rather than a villain's nefarious plot to rule the world.

Of course, there is a villain, although he's not exactly after global domination.  Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) was a blue collar worker on the clean up crew to fix up Manhattan after the climactic battle of 2012's The Avengers.  He lost his job, and happened to get his hands on some alien technology left over from the battle.  Seeing an opportunity, he started making his own weapons from the technology, and began selling them to criminals.  Now common bank robbers are using his high-tech guns in their crimes.  He's also devised a flight suit for himself, dubbing himself The Vulture.  As much as I have enjoyed many of the Marvel Cinematic Films, the one constant problem to me has been the fact that the villains are seldom if ever memorable.  And while I wouldn't call this one perfect, Adrian/The Vulture is easily the best so far.  He has a sympathetic angle, in that he's simply a man trying to make a living for himself in a world that he feels has jilted him.  After all, didn't Tony Stark build his fortune on selling weapons before he became Iron Man?  There is a logic and progression behind the character, and he's not your typical mustache-twirling baddie who kidnaps the hero's girlfriend and challenges him to a final showdown.  He may be wrong, but in his mind, he's just a guy looking out for his middle class family. 

I have heard some criticize Spider-Man: Homecoming as being too slight for a superhero movie, as it focuses too much on Peter's school and personal life than it does his heroics.  I strongly disagree with this assessment.  The key element that made the character of Spider-Man stand out when he was introduced is that he was a regular person beneath that suit, and that the comic explored his personal life, issues, friends, bullies and social problems.  This is the first movie in the series to properly address this side of the character.  Sure, the previous five films glanced at this part of the character, but never made it as integral as here.  And while we've had some fine young actors portray the heroic "web-slinger" in the past, Holland easily holds the top honor, with his sense of humor and his agility when he's wearing the Spider-Man costume.  With his numerous one-liners and comedic banter with Ned (whose idea of a good time is constructing Lego Death Star models), this movie veers closer to comedy than previous Spider-Man films.  But here again, the movie is smart, and knows when to let the jokes fly, and when to take itself seriously.

The most surprising thing about the film is how well it all works, despite the fact that director and co-writer Jon Watts is not very experienced.  Known mostly for small, independent films, Watts handles most of the big action sequences quite well.  Yes, there is some questionable special effects work that pops in, and a few moments where the action moves too fast for the camera to keep up.  But, he clearly has an understanding for the character and the world he inhabits.  He also does a great job of introducing Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which is clearly the main purpose of the film.  The other surprising thing is that the film has six credited screenwriters, yet it never once feels like a corporate product, or something where a bunch of writers were fighting for control of a script.  This is one of the few times where a large team of writers have created something kind of personal, while still thrilling enough to be a major summer movie. 

Spider-Man: Homecoming serves as a great introduction to the character's new place in Marvel's cinematic plans, and I can only assume that future films will build on it, and give us something grander.  I can only hope that the inevitable increase in size and scope does not diminish the personal and humorous tone that this one has in spades.  With so many superheroes locked in struggles with tyrants, evil gods, aliens, and planet-devouring monsters, it's kind of nice to just focus on a kid who is all about his community and learning the trade.


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