Friday, July 14, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming, Baby Driver, The Beguiled, The Big Sick Reviews

Spider-Man: Homecoming
Dir. Jon Watts
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In the past ten years alone, we've seen three different Spider-Men sling their webs all over the silver screen. If any character is deserving of "sequel" fatigue, it's everyone's favorite web-head. However, the five previous Spider-Man films have been produced by Sony, whereas Spider-Man: Homecoming is the result of a unique and astonishing deal between Sony (who technically owns Spider-Man) and Marvel Studios. Sony "loaned" the character out to be creatively handled by the masterminds at Marvel, while Sony took marketing duties. This partnership allowed Spidey to enter the world of the Avengers, and it's this concept that elevates Homecoming from being yet another re-hashed origin story to something we've never seen from this character before. There's no Uncle Ben, no J. Jonah Jameson, no Mary Jane Watson - but despite these absences, Homecoming fully understands its characters and sets its story within a unique, John Hughes-inspired high school comedy world, making what could easily have been the most rote movie of the year into a fun blockbuster that somehow doesn't feel as if dozens of worried executives feverishly tinkered with it.

The story follows 15-year-old Peter Parker (Tom Holland), living with his "hot" Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), and fresh off his Civil War escapades with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who becomes a sort of father figure for him. Peter desperately wants to be made an Avenger, but is left on his own devices by Stark to live his life as a typical high school kid in Queens and more of a small-scale, "friendly neighborhood Spider-Man" for a while. But as Peter goes through the rigmarole of teenagehood, hanging with his buddy Ned (Jacob Batalon), drooling over his crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), and getting bullied by the school douchebag "Flash" (Tony Revolori), one night during his daily crime-fighting rounds around town he's led down a trail of crimes that leads to a large weapon-smuggling ring led by Adrian Toomes, aka Vulture (Michael Keaton), who has been illegally re-appropriating and selling alien weapons left lying around after the events of The Avengers.

I really enjoyed how this Spider-Man movie felt both rooted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also feeling like its own thing (this genre-bending being the M.O. of Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige). The way Keaton's Vulture naturally evolved from the events of other films makes total sense, and the idea of this "Vulture" character scavenging for the leftover materials of previous battles is so perfectly ingenious to me. There are also lots of fun little Marvel easter eggs for fans (Captain America makes a hilarious cameo in a series of PSAs). I think the comic booky tone of the MCU also perfectly meshed with the decidedly more comedic take on Spider-Man Jon Watts and the six (!) credited writers took here. The conflicting nature of Peter wanting to take on Avengers-sized missions while trying to balance going to prom with his high school crush is ripe for drama and hilarity - you could call this movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off... Fighting Crime.

I'd argue that besides Batman, Spider-Man has the best villains. That being said, Vulture was always lower on the totem pole for me - but Homecoming might have cracked the code to make him one of the most interesting villains the MCU has given us so far. Toomes isn't just a mustache-twirling, tie-the-girl-to-the-train-tracks bad guy (as good as the original three Raimi films are, admittedly they do stray into that campy territory) - Keaton gives a realistic motivation to his character. He's just a blue-collar businessman pissed at the capitalist establishment, and this Spider-twerp is ruining his black market sales. As opposed to the countless "big blue beam shooting into the sky" superhero flicks we've had to endure lately (e.g. The Avengers, Fantastic Four), Homecoming's central conflict felt refreshingly simple and "small," even during its big action moments. Arguably the best scene in the movie takes place entirely in a car between two characters talking - it doesn't rely on bombast and dazzling effects to be entertaining even though it has that in spades.

Although the action here isn't as visually inventive or memorable as other Marvel outings like Ant-Man or Doctor Strange, I did really enjoy Parker's new upgraded Spider-suit from Tony Stark. It does take some of the specialness out of his actual abilities, but I loved all of the gadgets and "customization" options available to him - many of which he misuses at the most inopportune moment because, in his teenage hubris, he had Ned hack past the "training wheels" mode enabled by Stark. I loved how Parker stumbles his way through each action scene, still just a kid trying to figure it all out. Tom Holland looks like a baby playing this role, and watching him try to grapple with this new suit is like watching a kid in driver's ed swerving all over the road.

Although it's a fun ride that cleanses the palate after Sony's disappointing Amazing Spider-Man reboot, my biggest complaint about Homecoming is that, like many of these Marvel films, it zooms by with almost no time for reflection. It's always barreling forward not just to the finish line, but with an eye towards future films in the series. Large numbers of characters get a few moments of screen time only to be teasers for a sequel. One of my favorite new characters, Peter's sarcastic classmate Michelle (Zendaya), steals every scene she's in, but was clearly written more as a character to return to down the pike. While the cast from top to bottom is incredibly likable, I just wish there was a little more time for them to breathe instead of packing as much as possible into this first movie.

That being said - Homecoming is a very solid start and re-re-imagining of the Spider-Man universe that is sure to tingle your spider-senses.

Rating: B+

Baby Driver
Dir. Edgar Wright
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One of my favorite directors working today, Edgar Wright loves playing in different genres, giving them his own quirky, high-energy spin. With Shaun of the Dead he examined zombie flicks through the lens of a romantic/buddy comedy, with Hot Fuzz he basically made a Bad Boys-esque action thriller with two bumbling British beat cops, and with Scott Pilgrim he created the film analog of comic books and video games. Baby Driver plays in this same generic sandbox, and just like his previous films, it takes a well-trod genre and gives it a pop-colored, hipster-fueled supercharge. With his latest film, Wright marries the adrenaline-rush thrills of the car chase genre with the rhythmic stylings of a musical. This completely unique film is basically Fast and the Furious meets La La Land, and it's predictably a ton of fun.

The story follows the eponymous "Baby" (Ansel Elgort), a getaway driver from Atlanta who's the best at what he does. As a child, he suffered an accident resulting in a humming in his ears, which he drowns out with music. He's constantly listening to music through his stash of iPods, and it's literally a part of his every move - he even "times" his music to play at a certain point during bank heists. However, Baby is a reluctant hero, only trying to make money so he can provide for his foster father (CJ Jones) and ride off into the sunset with his waitress girlfriend Deborah (Lily James). He's working off a debt he owes to the cold and calculating Doc (Kevin Spacey), who promises Baby "one last job" before his debt's paid off. BUT... as Doc's "good luck charm," you can imagine what happens when Baby tries to escape the criminal life. As Robert De Niro says in Heat: "Don't let yourself get attached to anything you're not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner."

This movie all around is just great. The performances are spot-on; Ansel Elgort gives his quiet hero a lot of charm, and totally sells Baby's internal conflict with not much dialogue. Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, and Jon Bernthal all play fellow criminals with a real ugly side to them but are still enjoyable to hang around. If there's one weak link, it's Lily James' character who, to no fault of the actress, doesn't have much depth to her. She's posited as this kind of "Bonnie" to Baby's Clyde but ends up feeling more like a pretty-looking plot device for Baby to have stakes to lose during the action sequences. After a certain point, it became a strain to believe that Deborah - this impossibly beautiful waitress living in a big city - would blindly follow this one mysterious cute guy she just met after realizing he's involved in all this shady underground crime stuff.

For the most part the characters were fun, but shallow, but the real star of this film is the driving sequences. The first fifteen minutes of this movie alone are worth seeing on the big screen - it's one of the best car chases I've seen in a while. What makes it great isn't just that Wright shot it all in camera, with none of the pesky CGI artificiality that's become the standard in the Fast and Furious franchise, but that it's all perfectly timed to the music playing on Baby's iPod. I know it doesn't have much of a chance, but I think this movie deserves to be in the running for the Best Editing Oscar for its elegantly crafted filmic "dance" it plays between the images on screen and the music on the soundtrack. If I have any complaint about the action scenes it's just that those first fifteen minutes were such a "high" that the rest of the movie, as good as it is, never quite lives up to its opening, masterful sequence.

Overall, Baby Driver is a fun summer movie with a toe-tapping soundtrack, strong performances, and some amazing action that feels unlike any movie you've seen before.

Rating: B+

The Beguiled
Dir. Sofia Coppola
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Typically the term "remake" connotes the idea that Hollywood is bereft of originality and solely wants to make a quick buck based on a familiar property (just this year we've seen Beauty and the Beast, The Mummy, and soon we'll have to suffer through a video game re-tread of Jumanji). But Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled, based off of the 1971 Clint Eastwood Civil War thriller, seems to buck this trend of "cash cow" remakes in favor of actually finding interesting things to say by re-telling an old film story with an entirely new lens for modern audiences.

The story follows the goings-on of an all-female Southern boarding school in the midst of the Civil War, led by the matriarch Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). One day, an injured Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), seeks refuge after deserting his post on the battlefield. The multi-generational ladies all seem willing to help this lost soul, but soon sexual tensions rise between many of the women and the soldier, leading to dangerous rivalries that don't necessarily end with characters holding hands and singing Kumbaya to each other.

The tension in this film never lets up; its haunting, claustrophobic atmosphere is perfectly captured by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, there's an eerie absence of musical score throughout, and the extremely talented roster of actors imbue every character with contradictory desires and repressed feelings. As opposed to the 1971 film, which was more a "careful what you wish for" tale from the male perspective, Coppola's film is much more psychologically complex and focuses more on the women. There are many shots throughout the film of the women behind the gated iron bars of their plantation, seemingly locked away from society for their own "safety." While the war is going on, these women, alone with little to contribute to the war effort, live in this weird, inescapable purgatory, and it's interesting how the introduction of this charming, beefy soldier becomes the catalyst through which all of their repressed desires burst forth in sometimes violent ways.

I really appreciated The Beguiled for how it added whole new, tense layers to a somewhat shallow, misogynistically creepy b-movie from the 70s, but unfortunately I think my ultimate reaction to the film was dampened a bit because the trailer gave away huge plot points. The story moves a bit slower than your average thriller, with the movie really ratcheting up the "what will happen?" factor, but since I knew certain things had to happen I maybe wasn't as invested as I would've hoped. I have no idea how this movie would've worked for me had I went in totally fresh, but as it was, I enjoyed the creepy, disquieting gothic world of candelabras in the dark and meaningfully tense side-glaces that The Beguiled expertly builds.

Rating: B

The Big Sick
Dir. Michael Showalter
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The Big Sick is basically doing for comedian and TV star Kumail Nanjiani what Trainwreck did for Amy Schumer. Using his own real life as inspiration for a romantic comedy, Nanjiani's first major starring role in a film has arrived to great acclaim from critics across the board. Although this genre is typically reserved for light and fluffy fare, The Big Sick tackles big, serious ideas like dealing with illness, cultural differences with immigrant parents (in this case, arranged marriages vs. finding your own partner), and being in that strange "young adult" place where relationships almost necessarily have to be short-lived because who knows where life will physically take you. Like 50/50, The Big Sick is a funny, awkward, authentic romantic comedy that finds a perfect balance between big laughs and high drama.

The autobiographical story follows Kumail, a Pakistan stand-up comic who meets an American grad school student, Emily (Zoe Kazan) at one of his stand-up shows. The two hit it off, but as their relationship starts to grow more serious, Kamail worries that his traditional Muslim parents will not accept her. Just as their situation reaches peak-complicatedness, Emily gets sick and becomes hospitalized. Stuck in the middle of "should I stay or should I go" syndrome, Kumail has to come to terms with himself - should he "shame" his family and try to stick by Emily's side? What if Emily herself, if she gets better, no longer wants to stay with him? I loved the tensions from all sides - especially in the strange relationship that develops between Kumail and Emily's parents (played by Ray Romano and Holly Hunter).

This movie was actually written by Kumail and his real-life wife, so everything in this movie feels grounded and honest. My only major gripe with the film is that, while I found the central relationship charming enough, I ended up caring much more about Kumail's relationship to his parents and his girlfriend's parents. Because Emily is hospitalized for a good chunk of the film, her lasting impression towards the beginning needed to make a major impact in order for us to desperately want this couple to reunite, when I think it was merely a solid, cute one.

Still, despite the fact that I enjoyed the "side" stories more than the main one - and the stand-up portions of the film didn't land as well as I'd have hoped - I thought The Big Sick was a big treat. It's one of the better romantic comedies to come out in a while and it's probably a good date night antidote for all the loud, action-packed movies the summer has to offer.

Rating: B+

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