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Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted : 2 days, 17 hours ago on 19 August 2017 11:27 (A review of Spider-Man: Homecoming)

I know it might sound crazy, but this second reboot of the Spider-Man film franchise may emerge as the best single Spider-Man movie yet. A large part of the reason this one is so successful is how scaled down it is. There’s no third-act falling debris or blue light causing mass destruction found here, instead these characters live on the fringe of the major heroics and occupy a single neighborhood. Spider-Man: Homecoming is something of a double-meaning title, not only does it take place during that high school ritual, but Marvel’s finally got its hands (sorta) back on the property after selling it off to Sony during its financially troubled 90’s.

 

His first appearance in Captain America: Civil War was a welcome home, and a general sense that we were finally getting a completely successful version of the character on the big screen. Tom Holland’s overly-eager and squeaky voiced teenaged Peter Parker was a recognizable nerd that wanted to play with the big leagues and do the right thing, even if he didn’t always know what that meant. Holland’s utter perfection in the role, sliding as comfortably into the tights as successfully as Christopher Reeve slipped into Superman or Tom Hiddleston into Loki.

 

This scaled back ambition is refreshing as it means that Homecoming is primarily a high-school movie about a superhero and less about a “the world’s going to end unless I stop the thing” event. It feels like a self-sustaining franchise that flirts with the wider world of the MCU, but isn’t just another cog into that behemoth’s massive machine. If you ever wondered what a John Hughes superhero movie would look like, then look no further as this frequently plays like The Breakfast Club-gets-superpowers.

 

Of course the laid-back groove of the film will not sustain the entire duration, and it must eventually succumb to the rigid delineations of its genre’s demands. Michael Keaton makes the Vulture into a memorable arms-dealer that’s flooding the neighborhood with alien gadgets and pilfered technology left behind by the bigger battles with the marquee heroes, but his battles with Spider-Man are still strangely bloodless. The best confrontation between hero and villain is a civilian garb one that takes place in a car as it allows the two talented actors to engage in a back-and-forth that’s tense and clearly establishing stakes both emotional and physical. There's also quick appearances from two different Shockers and the Tinkerer in Keaton's gang and cameos from the future Scorpion and Prowler, because there's no escaping world-building in these things.

 

Even worse is how stacked the cast is with supremely talented comedic actors who are left with little to do. It’s a treat to see Martin Starr play the other side after gaining fame from Freaks and Geeks, but he’s a bit wasted as a teacher that mainly has to fret about his students. He gets a great gag with Zendaya, so there’s at least that. While Donald Glover and Hannibal Buress get a few great gags and one-liners in before being escorted away. They bring a tremendous energy to the film that it never properly harnesses into something better. Marisa Tomei fares much better as Aunt May, but she is also sidelined far too much. The woman won an Oscar for a comedic role; give her more to do damnit! She does get a great final scene though, one that gave me the biggest laugh in the entire film.  

 

Homecoming should still be celebrated for managing to eschew the bog of franchise building that still sinks, or at least undermines, other films in the MCU. It points towards a brave new world for superhero cinema, one where it can manage to be something else instead of just a paint-by-numbers template origin story or grim-dark brood-fest clash between overly powered people causing massive amounts of collateral damage. Call me crazy, but I wanted more of the first half’s high-energy soundtrack and teenage handouts, and less of the overly long feeling second half where the rectors of the genre demanded their blood sacrifice. Still, with Holland leading the charge, I’m really excited to see where this version of the Spider-Man franchise is going to go.



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Dope

Posted : 2 days, 17 hours ago on 19 August 2017 10:49 (A review of Dope)

While Dope can’t quite overcome the genre conventions of a coming-of-age film, it at least adds some new wrinkles to the formula by giving the point-of-view to a trio of characters frequently regulated to the quirky best friend in other teen films. Not only that, but it’s got a generally killer soundtrack and a vibe that feels refreshingly unique and distinct even when it feels like it’s overreaching, which is often. Then again, too much ambition is better than none at all.

 

Yes, there’s something of a mixed bag of genres and styles buttressing against each other for dominance and screen time, and I can understand how that would be a demerit for several people. Hell, at times even I wondered where exactly it was trying to place its emphasis and where it was trying to go, but I also admired its commitment to its ambitions. Why the hell not take a bunch of characters living on the fringe of a fringe society and stick them in more conventional spaces and watch them flounder about?

 

Perhaps this self-consciously messy presentation is intentional as the film continually tries to underline that we shouldn’t settle for what’s expected of us, nor should we be quick to judge others based on circumstances. In-between these three characters struggling with a society that views them as liking “white shit” and trying to aim beyond their means, Dope decides to add in some heist and crime thriller elements to its breezy coming-of-age comedic situation. It frequently doesn’t cohere, but it gives Shameik Moore one hell of a role, and based on his work here he deserves bigger and better things down the line.

 

Call me crazy, but I liked Dope best when it merely sat back and was happy to watch its trio of aspirational weirdos hangout, play music, and geek out over 90's hip hop and ephemera of nerd culture. Their friendship suggests the strength of necessity of building your own communities within communities in order to survive and thrive. I like watching them play in their quirky electronic-punk band more than I cared about the realities of using BitCoin to deal drugs, but it has enough good will, spunk, and energy to power through the uneven bits and make it solid recommendation and enjoyably odd experience.  



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Great Expectations

Posted : 5 days, 14 hours ago on 17 August 2017 01:42 (A review of Great Expectations)

I would be more than happy to declare a moratorium on film adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels. Lord knows that there’s an overabundance to chose from, and many of them don’t bring much new to the material. At least this one brings a series of painterly images that recall the old masters. It makes the roadrunner like pacing easier to swallow as it’s beautiful to stare at.

 

So are the leads, but they feel a bit hollow. Jeremy Irvine gives Pip more life than the typical interpretation, but it seems like he was cast more for how fetching he looks while staring off in romantic torture. And Holliday Grainger is the cold-hearted, effortlessly sensual Estella. Her icy façade masks complicated and contradictory emotions for Pip, and no one else really, and her final confrontation with Miss Havisham where she screams that she is what she was trained to be is a delight. Grainger understands that there’s a larger game of adult’s egos raging against each other here, and she seems much more comfortable in the role than Irvine in his.

 

Of course, the real stars of any adaptation of Great Expectations are Miss Havisham, Magwitch, and Jaggers. Ralph Fiennes and Robbie Coltrane are clearly having fun with their tormented and dark characters, but Helena Bonham Carter steals the movie. Granted, Carter playing an eccentric is not a stretch, but she’s clearly having fun walking around with a limp in a decaying bridal gown. The three of them play Dickens like its grand opera or Shakespeare, which it is in a way, and aim to shake the rafters, and they damn near succeed. The film livens up whenever the focus pulls away from the paperback romance and onto them and the complicated web that weaves them together. Once again, I doubt David Lean’s canonized classic has any need to worry about its hallowed placement, but this entertaining enough version is not the worst way to spend two hours. I mean, you do get to watch Carter go full-tilt camp-tastic crazy, and that’s always worth a watch.



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52 Tuesdays

Posted : 5 days, 15 hours ago on 17 August 2017 12:32 (A review of 52 Tuesdays)

Much like Boyhood, 52 Tuesdays employed an unconventional production method in order to tell this story about the year in life of a teenage girl and her parent’s transition. While the story tends to shrink away from some of the more delicate and richer story possibilities, there’s still a lot to admire and work with here.

 

Director Sophie Hyde decided that she would only shoot the film on Tuesdays for a year, hence the title. It’s ambitious and prone to moments of striking change where we realize just how much the characters have changed physically and emotionally over the course of the film. It’s subtle in the best of ways, but Hyde also appears afraid to really dig deep into how a parent’s transition would affect someone emotionally. There’s a lot of talk and focus on the physicality of the transformation and very little attention paid to the interior changes.

 

Part of this is just how solely the film focuses in on Billie, our teenage narrator and guide. Her persistent video diaries and tendency towards filming everything, including sexual explorations with two older students from her school, mean we track her growth over the year in minute detail. Where does that leave James, her parent? As something of an ever-changing sketch, always fluctuating in relation to how Billie perceives him and his changes, and removed as a voice.

 

52 Tuesdays could play more like a gimmick if it weren’t for the wonderful lead performances. Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Billie is a knockout, as she is allowed a full range of emotions and interior thoughts that American teenagers are not seemingly scared or incapable of expressing in film. She’s not always likable, and prone to bouts of selfish brattiness and uncaring tantrums but these moments only reflect a deeper truth. Who wasn’t frequently like that as a teenager?

 

In the end the elliptical nature of 52 Tuesdays is forgiven for how real and complicated it allows its characters and situations to be, even if it doesn’t dig as deep or quite where it should. As a calling card goes, Hyde has done herself proud with this one. It’s compelling and small in such enthralling ways that I can’t help but hope it’s the beginning of a new talent.



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From the Terrace

Posted : 1 week ago on 14 August 2017 08:33 (A review of From the Terrace)

Sudsy melodramas need some juice in order to work and be entertaining, and in both of these regards From the Terrace stumbles forward in awkward gasps. No one could possibly mistake Butterfield 8, the other John O’Hara adaptation of 1960, for a great movie, but it is a gloriously entertaining piece of trash, in large part thanks to the ridiculous performance Elizabeth Taylor gives it. It comes roaring out the gate acting like it’s going to be another variation of the idle rich behaving badly, but then it starts moralizing and the whole thing deflates.

 

Maybe it’s that the opening act has Leon Ames and Myrna Loy tearing into the material with scenery chewing élan. I mean, Loy’s drunken matriarch is a blast of much needed energy any time she’s on-screen. She brings a neurotic quality that allows her scenes to breathe, and she’s one of the few characters that we actually care about. Ames is a more serious-minded variation of his authoritarian patriarch from Meet Me in St. Louis. There’s no adorable tots and teenager daughters to knock the wind out of him here, and he’s allowed to bellow and rage unchecked. He’s an ornery bastard, but he makes the most of his cloistering father figure.

 

Shame that we’re sacked with a limp love triangle, or is it really more of a square? No matter, Paul Newman is dependably solid as the upwardly mobile rich boy trying to make good on his own. It’s not one of his better performances, he’s always best when playing rascals or outright amoral types and his character is too square here. I mean, all he really wants is a warm family home with a dependable wife and some kids. He doesn’t find it in Joanne Woodward’s hellraising society girl. Woodward gets the showy part, and she comes damn close to finding the appropriate tone for this bordering on camp material. Of course, she and Newman were a great love affair and those sparks come across here, ironically their scenes of strife and sparring are the best between the pair.

 

The two of them are left a bit saddled with their other romantic interests. Patrick O’Neal is just an oily asshole throughout, and it’s hard to see what exactly the attraction is between him and Woodward that keeps them running back to each other. Ina Balin is fine, but she plays the material so damn earnestly you’d be mistaken for a second for thinking that it deserved this kind of tone and commitment. Aside from Loy and Ames, the best supporting performance is from a one-scene wonder in Barbara Eden. She’s horny, manic, and clearly enjoying the chance to go big. She finds the right balance in the material to make it snap, and I wonder what the rest of the film would have been like with her replacing one of the other female leads.

 

Films like this were stock-and-trade for the era, but you notice the things that separate the good ones from the bad, or in this case, the mediocre. The major problem here is director Mark Robson, a man who was permanently attached to trashy material while alternately seemingly afraid to fully embrace its camp potential (see: Valley of the Dolls). His direction is one big weight around the film’s neck, but you’ve got plenty of handsome costumes, interiors, and glamorous movie stars behaving badly to stare at for two-and-a-half hours.



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Glengarry Glen Ross

Posted : 1 week, 5 days ago on 10 August 2017 04:14 (A review of Glengarry Glen Ross)

You know what’s a great way to make an entertaining movie? Give a series of juicy monologues and biting one-liners to a group of highly talented actors and point a camera at them. No fuss, just the joy of watching the greats knock out a few rounds with well-written material and play off of each other. Behold then Glengarry Glen Ross.

 

Yes, it doesn’t exactly open up the play much as it keeps its scope limited to a few interiors, but mainly the claustrophobic office that reverberates with pessimistic foreboding. But here’s the thing, director James Foley hired a great editor, Howard E. Smith, to make the rhythms of David Mamet’s dialog work in perfect sync with the cuts, close-ups, and various stylistic choices. Foley knows he doesn’t need to embellish much, he just needs to find the palpitations of the material and ride the wave to the climax of each scene.

 

Foley also assembled a group of actors that would make any director envious. Alec Baldwin rips into a memorable opening cameo that’s basically a warning shot of the brutish dialog and overheated toxic masculinity to come (“Coffee is for closers”). Then there’s Alan Arkin, Ed Harris, Kevin Spacey, and Jonathan Pryce delivering reliably solid turns. Each of them bring a unique texture and color to the material with their distinct performing styles and personalities. But the two greatest performances belong to Al Pacino and Jack Lemmon.

 

Al Pacino got the sole Oscar nomination for the group, not undeservedly but more than likely having more to do with Scent of a Woman being released the same year, but it’s Jack Lemmon that lasts the longest in the mind. Hell, the best extended scene of consummate acting is a two-hander where they try to pull one over on Pryce. They develop a lived-in back-and-forth that is engaging to watch as they pick up subtle cues from each and deliver non-verbal tics like a quarterback giving away play ideas to his teammates. It’s a duet for the ages between two titans.

 

Lemmon already blessed us with a wide-range of memorable performances in classics like Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, The Odd Couple, and The China Syndrome. But he tops all of them here. He seems like he might breakdown in desperation and neurosis at any second, but he just keeps moving forward. His anxiety is palpable as he twists and turns to try and get one over on his colleagues. Survivalist instincts is pumping throughout his veins at all times, and a scene where he hopelessly tries to convince a man to buy real estate is a knockout of his persistence meetings an immovable object. It’s a late career masterpiece from one of America’s finest actors, one that makes us think we may have taken his mastery of the craft for granted during his lifetime.

 

This thread of anxiety and desperate is felt throughout Glengarry Glen Ross as these men work in a dead-end office chasing leads that a more pipe-dreams than anything else. They get through the day by hurling insults at each other with such imaginative and promiscuous vocabulary that it also takes on the form of musical theater. It’s an amazing feat and a credit to the synthesis of writer, director, material, and actors that we end up caring about any of these despicable characters. Even the pessimistic ending here would make the downers in other films blush for just how sour a note we leave on, but there’s no other imaginable way for the story to end. No with the world of trapped animals clawing at each other for survival that we’ve just spent two hours with.       



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Big Trouble in Little China

Posted : 1 week, 5 days ago on 10 August 2017 03:34 (A review of Big Trouble in Little China)

I think if I had watched this from start to finish prior to the age of, I don’t know, about thirteen my opinion on it would be totally different. As it stands, I watched it as I slowly moved over the hump towards thirty. It’s probably one of the best bad movies I’ve ever watched, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually very good.

 

Nothing about it makes any sort of sense. I watched it but still struggle to explain what exactly Kim Cattrall is doing in the middle of all of this. I guess the plot required a second green-eyed woman, and they figured why not throw in a white leading lady for Kurt Russell to romance? Seems as flimsy and good enough a reason as anything else that happens in this overheated pulp-fest.

 

The best thing going for it is an insouciant sense of humor about it all. This is perfectly encapsulated in Kurt Russell’s blissfully unaware and braggadocio leading performance. Well, he’s billed and displayed as the lead, but he’s really the goofy sidekick in a pleasing bit of bait-and-switch of our expectations. Russell’s self-winking knowledge of this fact gives his blowhard a deeply likable streak, and it’s brilliantly showcased in a scene where he delivers a monologue to the villain while his mouth and teeth are covered in lipstick after having lip locked with Cattrall. He never entirely displays that his character knows he looks ridiculous, but Russell’s glint in his eye lets the audience know just how absurd all of this play-acting is.

 

Big Trouble in Little China could have used more of this satirical bent and less of the non-stop parade of special effects work that renders many of the actors are mere foreground adornments. And yes, there’s also the stereotypical portrayal of Asian culture as some of the exotic, mystical netherworld where everyone knows martial arts. It’s a cult film through-and-through in every sense of the term, so you gotta take the good with the bad and the ugly.      



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A Girl Named Tamiko

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 24 July 2017 03:23 (A review of A Girl Named Tamiko)

Laurence Harvey’s brief foray as a leading man seems improbable in hindsight. He was so dour and borderline unlikable, so prone to looking frankly bored and displeased in front of the camera that his prominence in the late 50s/early 60s makes you wonder if everyone in Hollywood lost their damn minds. Occasionally these zombie-like characteristics would merge well with a character, like in The Manchurian Candidate, but more often than not, it sank the material, as it does here.

 

There’s little reason to believe that Martha Hyer and France Nuyen would be so drawn to him, and he generates a kind of anti-chemistry with both of them. His character uses one to try and get American citizenship (Hyer), and the other is supposedly his actual love interest (Nuyen). With no heat generated in the love triangle then what exactly are we left with here? The answer is nothing much.

 

There’s some lovely location footage that’s been spliced into the rear projections, and Nuyen and Hyer are clearly favored by the filmmakers over their leading man. They do decent work, Hyer posing like a glamorous movie star and Nuyen wafting throughout as the embodiment of multicultural chicness. A Girl Named Tamiko just limps along for its two hour running time.



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The Horizontal Lieutenant

Posted : 1 month ago on 17 July 2017 04:31 (A review of The Horizontal Lieutenant)

Absolutely nothing works in The Horizontal Lieutenant. From the predictable title straight on down to the indifferent plotting there’s very little to engage you here. Jim Hutton mugs and falls down a lot, Paula Prentiss plays the sensible foible, and there’s a bunch of supporting players that drift in and out for easy laughs. If they were trying to make Hutton/Prentiss a viable romantic-comedy duo for the ages, then they needed to give them better material. Same could be said for the supporting players, like Oscar winner Miyoshi Umeki wasted in a role that basically boils down to her yelling at the Americans in Japanese and singing one song in half-Japanese/half-English. The whole thing feels frozen in amber from the early 60s sex comedies in which the title did most of the clever jokes.



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Flower Drum Song

Posted : 1 month, 1 week ago on 16 July 2017 04:27 (A review of Flower Drum Song)

Oh boy, it’s hard to talk about Flower Drum Song without wincing. It’s not an outright terrible film, but it is loaded with baggage that hinders one maximum enjoyment of this entertaining but unwieldy adaptation.

 

Many of the problems with Flower Drum Song originate in the Rodgers and Hammerstein book/score, which is widely considered one of their weaker efforts. That’s not even taking into consideration the cavalcade of stereotypes on display, or the overstuffed nature of this adaptation that leaves all of its main players as mere sketches and supporting ideas instead of fully fleshed out characters. And we still haven’t even talked about the uneasy nature of watching Juanita Hall, a black woman, play a Chinese woman and belt out “Chop Suey,” the lowest of the film’s many low points.

 

At its heart, Flower Drum Song is primarily about two things: generational conflict, the Old East versus the New West, and a series of young romantics falling in and out of love with each other. There’s just too much going on in the story that it feels both burdened with too much and too little. Yet there’s still the chance to watch a group of primarily Asian actors take the lead, play scenes of romance and comedy, sing and dance.

 

Miyoshi Umeki gets her finest hour as a movie star in her limited filmography here. She’s reprising her Tony nominated stage role, and she’s consistently charming and endearing, deploying moments of sly humor then hitting you hard with her musical abilities. She also gets the closest thing to a full-blooded character here, yet she’s still sidelined and lost in the ever-expanding shuffle of musical numbers and characters hogging the limelight. She’s still demure and bashful at points, but she gets to engage in physical comedy (“Don’t Marry Me” with Jack Soo is a riot), sing (“A Hundred Million Miracles” is a delight under her guidance), and assert some brains and agency by finding the loophole in her arranged marriage to run off with the man she truly loves.

 

Supporting her are Nancy Kwan, saucy and vivacious as naughty girl Linda Low, Jack Soo, who plays Sammy Fong as if he stepped out of a Damon Runyon short story, and James Shigeta, wonderful and impossibly handsome as the leading man. Yet there’s still the strange vision of watching these characters get sidelined for moments that place the emphasis on the wrong thing. Kwan’s “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” one of the best and campiest songs in the show, understandably gets the lavish treatment, but the extended dance breakdown in “The Other Generation” just eats up time as the kids are hardly major factors in the story. Same goes for “Love, Look Away,” undoubtedly one of the best moments in the film for its beautiful dancing and production design, but it’s given to a character that has barely registered as integral to the story in any way except for this one moment.

 

Even worse is the icky political undercurrent that stacks the deck in favor of tradition, and forces Umeki and Kwan to square off in a variation of the virgin/whore complex. Flower Drum Song wants us to believe that the old ways are the best ways, and that includes the quiet, docile wife. It’s all wrapped in glossy colors, extensive production design, and a general sense of happy, warm fantasy. The Chinatown we spend time in here is clearly a confection with no basis in reality or resemblance to the realities of assimilation.

 

It was selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry in 2008, which makes perfect sense as its more interesting as a cultural artifact than an actual film. It has something in common with 1943’s pair of all-black musicals, Cabin in the Sky and Stormy Weather: they’re rare glimpses to watch a majority of people of color get to play actual characters and display the full range of their talents, even if the material does crudely dip into stereotype.  



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