Archive for the Science Fiction Category

Ready Player One

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction with tags on April 1, 2018 by Mark Hobin

ready_player_one_ver2STARS3It has been nearly a decade since Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. That was the last time Steven Spielberg (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park) actually directed the kind of live-action adventure that made him THE highest-grossing director worldwide.  That alone makes Ready Player One something to be excited about. The production is an adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel of the same name by Ernest Cline. His novel was set in a dystopian future 2044 about a teenaged protagonist that simply wants to solve a 3 part quest in a virtual reality video game.

In Columbus, Ohio, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) is from “The Stacks.” The name denotes a decaying trailer park where vehicles are stacked on top of one another so more people can live in the same space.  This is apparently because of overpopulation problems and possibly economic ones as well. Existence is a bummer and so to escape, citizens turn to the OASIS, a hyper-realistic 3D virtual reality video game. The game itself is presented as something of a paradise. People enjoy the OASIS. The real world may be a dystopia, but virtual reality is not. Within the OASIS, you can literally be anyone. For reasons I still don’t understand, Wade chooses to look like a frail teen named Parzival. He’s the expression of an unexceptional anime character. Within the game, he frequently interacts with Aech (Lena Waithe), a huge muscular mechanic, as well as the samurai Daito (Win Morisaki) and ninja Sho (Philip Zhao). Never having met any of these people, Wade only knows them from their chosen avatar.  Their physical appearance in the real world is a mystery…initially.

The OASIS was created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance) and Ogden Morrow (Simon Pegg). Eccentric billionaire Halliday is no longer with us.  However before he died, he announced that he had hidden an Easter egg within the OASIS that would be accessible after three keys were found. Collect the keys and his fortune (and control of the OASIS) is yours. Holy shades of Willy Wonka and his chocolate factory! This mission forms the crux of the story. Everyone wants to win. Wade and his friends want to escape the very mire of their existence. The main antagonist is the evil CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who runs IOI (Innovative Online Industries). Sorrento has rounded up a number of players to find the keys for him. He seeks to take over the OASIS and exploit it to augment his already massive fortune. To be honest, he and Wade ostensibly want the same thing but Sorrento is willing to murder to get what he wants so that’s where the narrative makes it OK to root for Wade and not Sorrento. I’m not sure if Sorrento’s personal style was supposed to recall Assistant Principal Vernon in The Breakfast Club but given the film is all about the pop culture of a certain era, I’ll assume the casting choice was intentional.

It’s a bit ironic that I’ve spent two paragraphs detailing the backstory for a movie in which the plot is so weak. The aforementioned set-up is merely an excuse to present a CGI fest of various challenges. The viewer is invited to stare wide-eyed and slack-jawed as we marvel at the technological curiosity before us. Don’t get me wrong.  This is a visual wonder to behold. Each quest involves obtaining a key. The first may be obtained when our fearless hero must finish a race. We see him drive a replica of the DeLorean from Back to the Future through a Hot Wheels-style course with jumps and loops. It’s seemingly impossible to even finish. King Kong manages to stop him in his tracks. The competition is run more than once. It’s during the revisit where we’re dazzled by some fantastic perspective shots. It’s a dizzying spectacle. It’s here where he meets love interest Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). She laments that her avatar is much more attractive than her real appearance. Then we meet her and she’s actually gorgeous. Oh sure she has a birthmark on her face, but she’s still very pretty. Her despair that he won’t find her beautiful is somewhat annoying.

Screenwriter Ernest Cline co-adapted the screenplay from his own book with Zak Penn. A big part of his novel were pop culture allusions.  Cline has a fondness for very particular things.  The author was born in 1972 and suffice it to say that the closer your birthdate matches his, the more likely you will identify with his points of reference. He occasionally acknowledges more recent things: the spaceship Serenity from the TV show Firefly for example. Though examples from 2000 on are rare. His treasured memories are mostly focused on the late 70s early 80s. His fiction was a love letter to fellow fanboys that obsess over comics (Superman, Batman), music (Saturday Night Fever, Duran Duran) movies (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Iron Giant) and video games (cartridges for the Atari 2600) of his childhood.

There’s a hip self-awareness that savvy fans will appreciate. A key element of the Ready Player One novel was specialized geek culture.  However, Steven Spielberg has wisely opened up that narrow focus and cited things that nearly everyone with a casual awareness of mainstream tastes can enjoy.  We’ve seen this done before in the movies. The Cabin in the Woods played with the manipulation of various tropes perhaps even more successfully, but the joy is similar. I won’t spoil the surprise, but the second key concerns an extended walkthrough of a certain movie. This is a departure from what happens in the book but it’s my most favorite setpiece. It practically justifies the entire production.

Ready Player One is a fine film. It’s entertaining enough but it doesn’t have the organic components of Spielberg’s very best work. I get that it’s all about virtual reality and so there’s very little that is tangible about this story. The frenzy keeps the audience at an emotional distance. We observe individuals in action but we never feel like we understand the experience or the intimacy of these people. It’s a technologically manufactured CGI amusement park ride, not an actual narrative motivated by plot and characterization. It’s no masterpiece, but it isn’t a disaster either. I’ll admit the 140-minute runtime can occasionally be exhausting. Yet there should be enough thrills here to satisfy most viewers. I was appeased.

03-29-18

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A Wrinkle in Time

Posted in Action, Adventure, Family, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on March 10, 2018 by Mark Hobin

wrinkle_in_time_ver2STARS2.5Meg Murry (Storm Reid) is a high school girl who takes a journey across time and space to rescue her scientist father. Four years prior Dr. Alex Murry (Chris Pine) discovered a tesseract, or a wrinkle in time, that allowed him to travel through the universe. A malevolent force known as the Black Thing now holds him prisoner on a distant planet. Meg is accompanied by her brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) and (rather pointlessly) by her friend Calvin O’Keefe (Levi Miller). Madeleine L’Engle’s science fantasy novel A Wrinkle in Time is a classic for teens and pre-teens. First published in 1962, it won the Newbury Medal for “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” I read it in junior high and I loved the book. Its blending of science and theology was mysterious, provocative, deep, and yes even inspiring. Unfortunately, it’s proven to be a most difficult publication to adapt.

Right from the beginning, A Wrinkle in Time is hindered by weak character development. The behavior of some of these individuals doesn’t make sense. It’s common for the central hero in an adolescent story to be sad, lonely and socially awkward. Meg Murry is cut from the same cloth. Yet she doesn’t really look like an outcast. We’re presented with a girl who acts shy but with her gorgeous ringlets of cascading hair, she is too beautiful to truly believe she’d be treated as a misfit. The reason why her classmates tease her? Because her father has disappeared. Children are socially unaccepted in high school for the way they dress or act or look, but a missing father? Hmmm, that’s a new one. Once the mean girls’ teasing extends to her younger brother, a line is crossed and she hurls a basketball at the face of one them.  Makes sense.  She is being bullied and lashing out at your oppressors is an understandable reaction.  Apparently, this concept is too hard for her principal (André Holland) to grasp.  He isn’t the least bit sympathetic to her predicament. Neither is her mom (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

A Wrinkle in Time has deeper problems than just characters with implausible behavior. The production is high on style but low on substance. L’Engle’s source material dealt with the timeworn battle of good vs. evil too, but there was a lot more bubbling under the surface to sink your teeth into. The film maintains an uplifting moral but screenwriters Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell have discarded the book’s allegory for Communism, science, and religion in favor of easily digestible platitudes that young minds can understand. The novel’s complex themes are distilled down to the singular idea that Meg must learn to appreciate her own uniqueness as an individual. That idea is hammered home throughout the feature.  The dogma of the movie is moving in the way that a Hallmark card can make you feel good about yourself. Pop hits on the soundtrack contain lyrics that easily summarize the underlying message: “There’s someone in the world, lovely as you” (Sade), “You can find the magic in an everyday night, night, night (Sia), “I just wanna believe in me” (Demi Lovato). The subtle complexities of the enduring text are largely trounced by a bright, cheery, CGI-laden manifestation that is very much a product of our age.

Author Madeline L’Engle was never exalted by conservative Christians like C.S. Lewis. In fact, some even condemned her for what they felt promoted witchcraft. However, her strong Christian faith did gently infuse her writing. The text’s more thought-provoking theology was influenced by her Episcopalian background. Fans of the book’s admittedly religious pluralism will be disheartened to hear the screenwriters have scuttled the mention of Jesus and Christianity in favor of a more all-encompassing humanism via the teachings of Oprah Winfrey. The “Queen of All Media” looms large, quite literally, in the first half embodying one of three astral travelers that accompany the kids on their journey. As Mrs. Which, she initially towers above them all like a God. I can see why the actress/producer/talk show host/philanthropist was drawn to this part. Replete with blonde hair, rhinestones affixed to her brows, and ever-changing shades of lipstick, she beams down on them with a beatific smile. She constantly espouses mottoes that resolutely affirm how wonderful Meg is. Her didactic affirmations are so incessant they actually grow tiresome. She can’t seem to help Meg find her father but she can remind the child just how truly admirable she is. Oprah is playing Oprah.  Note to those who worship at the altar of the media mogul – I highly recommend this picture.

Interestingly the other two visionaries Mrs. Whatsit and Mrs. Who are not particularly engaging either. Their identities are vague. Mrs. Whatsit — played by Reese Witherspoon — is sort of an upbeat scatterbrain that hurls insults with a smile.  The actress exaggerates her vocal delivery and facial expressions as if she’s doing community theater. At one point she turns into a flying leaf creature and the fabrication of CGI is so poorly executed it’s laughable in this age of technological perfection. Though it did give me a craving for those delicious lettuce wraps at P. F. Chang’s. And no, I don’t get paid to say that. Actress Mindy Kaling plays Mrs. Who, an introverted (!) idealistic sort who recites quotations from the likes of Shakespeare and Rumi and the rap group Outkast. I told you this was a product of our age. She was actually my favorite of the three because she talked the least. The three of them are an ever-shifting display of bulky gowns, and bizarre hairstyles whenever they haphazardly zoom off to somewhere new, which brings me to the adventure’s biggest problem.

There is no narrative flow to the plot. The action is reduced to a series of set pieces loosely strung together in a time-traveling saga. Some of the set pieces work, mainly in the 2nd half when the three supernatural beings leave and the children are left alone to fend for themselves. The action on the evil planet Camazotz is where things finally get interesting. Director Ava DuVernay knows how to frame a shot and her skill behind the camera is evident. Scenes of a suburban world with identical houses with similarly dressed kids all bouncing a ball in unison is a captivating tableau. Conformity is bad. Individuality is good. Got it. A later scene occurs at a crowded beach where people lay about in claustrophobic proximity. It seemingly stretches on forever. The mere image is effective for its utter recognizability to real life. A man with red eyes (Michael Pena) encourages the youngsters to dine on sandwiches, which have never been more appropriately named. The discussion is eerily sinister in just the right way. I wish more of the drama had conversations this engaging.

A better title might be Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time. She has put her creative stamp all over this picture. Even before it began we were treated to an intro with a message from the director. In a nutshell, she contends this isn’t a film for critics. It’s a love letter to children, and to watch it as such. Sounds a little defensive, but she has a point. Entertainment, often maligned by intellectuals, can still become classics. Home Alone is a perfect example of just such a work. You can’t encounter any promotion for this release (including this review) without reading that Ava DuVernay is the first black woman to direct a movie with a budget over $100M. She is instrumental in the casting, introducing an ethnically diverse ensemble of characters. Meg is a biracial girl whose father is white and mother is black, with a younger brother who is adopted. The screenplay actually highlights that last detail when Meg expresses anxiety in meeting him for the first time. The three celestial beings were also cast with a nod to their ethnic identity. None of this is intrinsic to the story, these are merely visual cues made for the purpose of representation. Ava DuVernay has emphasized in interviews that these were very deliberate choices.

I think insecure children will identify with Storm Reid as Meg. Her performance is understated and natural. She finds the courage within her fear in a convincing arc. Introducing a black girl as a brainy protagonist that loves science is a unique addition that actually adds nuance to a chronicle that so desperately requires it. However, the production suffers from the plight of the modern blockbuster. A Wrinkle in Time is burdened by poorly defined characters, an overreliance on CGI, well-coiffed youths that look like they stepped out of an LA casting session, and conventional advice.  Indeed the encouragement may be a crucial reminder for impressionable tots. This film was obviously made with them in mind. However cynical children and (most) adults should probably steer clear.

03-08-18

Annihilation

Posted in Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on March 3, 2018 by Mark Hobin

annihilationSTARS3.5Annihilation is one of those sci-fi features that doesn’t pander to viewers’ thirst for answers. It is a demonstration of narrative ambiguity. Understand that before you begin to watch and you’ll enjoy the developments more. This is the much-anticipated follow-up to Alex Garland’s critically acclaimed, 2015 directorial debut, Ex Machina. Garland is an English novelist (The Beach) turned screenwriter (28 Days Later, Sunshine) turned director. The jack of all trades has seen success in his many efforts. All of which makes the expectations for another sci-fi endeavor like Annihilation even higher. I really liked this film, but I fell short of loving it.

The story concerns Lena (Natalie Portman), a professor of cellular biology. Right from the beginning, she is being cross-examined after having already undergone a government expedition into a scientific phenomenon known as the Shimmer. We know she made it out, but what exactly is the Shimmer? It all began when a meteor crashed into the earth and created a slowly growing otherworldly area. Perceptibly it’s this glistening, sparkling force field that encompasses an area where a lot of unexplained things are occurring. Annihilation is a vividly captivating production that includes fractal designs, gaseous forms, and metallic shapes. There is a biological element to the Shimmer too as its colorful effects are felt upon the flora and fauna within. It involves an amorphous terror we don’t understand. In the U.S. this debuted in theaters where the film’s impressive visual effects and sound design could be appreciated. The spectacle is a major part of the appeal. Internationally the movie went straight to Netflix which deprived those audiences of the full experience.

In flashback, we learn that Lena’s husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) is the only person that has ever actually returned from entering the Shimmer. He was part of a military excursion a year prior. He becomes very ill. On the way to the hospital, he and his wife Lena are ambushed by a government security force and taken into some secret research compound in close proximity to the Shimmer. There she meets Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist. She’s forming another expedition. After Lena’s husband falls into a coma, Lena agrees to accompany Dr. Ventress’ all-female patrol which also includes Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), a physicist, Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), a paramedic and Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), a surveyor/geologist

Annihilation is a tale where the less revealed, the better. The developmental incidents utilize the building blocks of other pictures: Alien, The Thing, Contagion. Yet Annihilation is different than those features because the screenplay doesn’t clarify much. As a result, director Alex Garland is quite successful in creating an impending sense of dread without me being able to fully explain why.  This is fine.  It is a movie to savor not to reveal.  This is a well assembled creepy adventure.  However, the chronicle is so narratively vague it’s hard to embrace.  Despite the ambiguity, the plot is easy to understand.  Only in the final act do things get somewhat baffling.  The denouement is perplexing. Lena’s plan to escape will ultimately leave you with more questions than answers. Still, I’ll concede that the desire to overanalyze things can be a weakness in genre films. To its credit, the final outcome remains mysteriously uncertain.

02-26-18

Black Panther

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on February 22, 2018 by Mark Hobin

black_panther_ver3STARS4It isn’t hyperbole to say that there has never been anything quite like Black Panther. The film is a game changer. This picture has been out less than a week and already earned $263M in its first 5 days of release. Its weekend debut was bigger than virtually every entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Only The Avengers (2012) had a bigger opening. I think it’s safe to predict it will ultimately earn at least $600M although it has the potential to earn even more given the extraordinarily positive word of mouth. Its influence has become a phenomenon. That would’ve been enough to set Black Panther apart from its predecessors. The fact that it’s a genre film (sci-fi, rom-com, horror, etc.) that weaves racial politics and black identity within the framework of a Marvel superhero movie makes it even more unique. Its cagey ability to capture the ongoing cultural discussion and insert it into the plot is masterful. News stories blanketing its release have dominated social media as of late. Whether it be U.S. educators leading money-raising efforts for kids to see Black Panther for a school field trip or fans dressing up in African inspired clothing to attend showings, the publicity surrounding the picture is unprecedented. It has become an event.

Black Panther captures the zeitgeist as shrewdly as any in recent memory. It concerns the fictional East African nation of Wakanda. An opening narration informs us that centuries ago, 5 African nations went to war over a metal called Vibranium — a substance so vital that, according to Slate.com, the word is uttered an average of every 5.36 minutes in the screenplay.  Now there’s a drinking game that’ll get you inebriated, but quick!  The metal is so powerful that it allows the African nation to appear as a third world country to the other nations of the Earth.  In reality, Wakanda has developed the advanced science to become a technological utopia of which only its own residents are aware.  The current black panther is T’Challa, a king that has assumed his role after a combat ritual. The present leader of the Jabari Tribe, M’Baku (Winston Duke) challenged him but yields to his win in defeat. T’Challa wishes to continue Wakanda’s isolationist policies and separate itself from the rest of the planet.  Where have I heard that before?  Enter Erik Stevens who adopts the not-so-subtle moniker “Killmonger” after his success as a U.S. black ops soldier.  He disagrees with T’Challa’s stance and strongly advocates for a different policy.  He feels it is Wakanda’s duty to share its resources with the African diaspora so that they may rise up and overthrow their oppressors all over the globe. This handling of different political ideologies informs the basis of the central conflict.

Those conflicting beliefs are embodied by the main protagonist and antagonist.  Actor Chadwick Boseman is T’Challa or the titular Black Panther. Since 2013, the actor has portrayed Jackie Robinson, James Brown and Thurgood Marshall all to rapturous reviews. T’Challa is a reflective, at times somber individual. That makes him an admirable character, but perhaps not as compelling as those that surround him. In contrast, Michael B Jordan is a commanding presence as Killmonger. A dominant villain full of swagger and defiance galvanized by a painful event in 1992 while growing up in Oakland, California. The time and place — carefully selected by the Oakland-born director Ryan Coogler — are NOT fictional and very intentionally so. More than any Marvel property before, the director (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Joe Robert Cole) is the visionary behind the manifestation of a comic first created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

What makes the narrative so compelling is that it comprises a raft of complex characters any one of which could form the basis of their own movie. T’Challa is protected by royal bodyguards called the Dora Milaje headed up by Okoye (Danai Gurira). Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) is a superspy for whom he has personal feelings. Shuri (Letitia Wright) is his feisty sister and technology guru. She is to this story what Q is to James Bond. I loved her. Everyone has their moment, but Letitia Wright’s use of words like “sneakers” and “colonizer” injected some much-needed humor. Her charismatic performance (and anonymity to me) forced me to look her up on the IMDb to see what else she had done. My anticipation for Steven Spielberg’s upcoming Ready Player One in March 2018 just got more fervid. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) is T’Challa’s best friend whose own loyalty will be tested regarding the capture of a black market arms dealer who threatens Wakanda’s safety. The aforementioned M’Baku portrayed by Winston Duke is probably the side character I most wanted to know more about. When is he going to star in a film? Angela Bassett is majestic as Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother, and Forest Whitaker is elder statesman Zuri. There’s also a couple of white actors from the Lord of the Rings series. The movie isn’t about them – Tolkien white guys played by Andy Serkis (Ulysses Klaue) and Martin Freeman (Everett K. Ross). My apologies for appropriating an old joke from when the trailer dropped back in October, but it still makes me laugh.

Black Panther is a rather dignified picture. It’s also glorious. A colorful Afro-futuristic sensibility informs gorgeous landscapes, opulent costumes and a large, mostly all-black cast in which even the supporting parts are played by name actors. Not since the kingdom of Zamunda in Coming to America have we seen pure African style presented in such a regal manner. Although I’ll admit the role of women in Zamunda was decidedly less enlightened. Black Panther has a vision unlike any Marvel episode before it. I have never seen a chapter that is less interested in the way that it fits within the MCU. Except for a concluding title card that informs us of the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War (which got the Pavlovian round of applause anyway) this feel more like standalone entry than any of the 17 installments that came before. I must admit that I like my superhero productions with a bit of humor. I’ve often said in my reviews that dressing up in tights and fighting crime is inherently silly. So why not treat your creation as such? A tongue in cheek attitude serves your worldbuilding well. This is why I particularly love Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: Ragnarok. In contrast, Black Panther is a very noble superhero feature. It’s telling that the action, while serviceable, is the least interesting thing about the picture. Instead, it’s highlighted by a narrative steeped in a complicated and detailed backstory that brilliantly weaves reality into fantasy. It’s more than a film. It’s a mission statement that manipulates the spirit of our time into entertainment.

02-15-17

The Cloverfield Paradox

Posted in Action, Adventure, Horror, Mystery, Science Fiction with tags on February 9, 2018 by Mark Hobin

cloverfield_paradoxSTARS2It’s only February, but The Cloverfield Paradox just may go down as the most brilliantly marketed gimmick of 2018. Paramount couldn’t have asked for a better moment to drop their movie. Originally produced under the title God Particle, it was scheduled for an April 2018 release in theaters. Then during Super Bowl LII, a trailer teased that the $40 million budgeted film would actually be presented on Netflix right after the Super Bowl on February 4, 2018. Now retitled The Cloverfield Paradox and marketed as part of the Cloverfield series, the picture was debuted. The reviews were less than enthusiastic. There’s a reason for that. It’s pretty bad and I’m convinced that Paramount knew this would happen.

The studio heads were very smart. The protracted trajectory of a movie normally includes a lengthy build up of anticipation that in this case would have inevitably led to a crushing disappointment.  The studio sidestepped all this and minimized the damage. Instead, the negativity was contained within the surprise unveiling of a unique sci-fi film that many didn’t even know existed. I must admit, I was pretty excited to watch when I saw the trailer during Super Bowl 52. The instant hype created a need in me to see this fresh sci-fi production. I, for the record, enjoyed Cloverfield (2008) as well as it’s spiritual sequel 10 Cloverfield Lane (2016). I happily switched over to Netflix after the game. O dear! I have never watched the drama TV series “This Is Us” but I can safely say I wish I had kept the channel on NBC right after the game. The Cloverfield Paradox is simply awful.

It’s the year 2028 and the Earth is suffering from a global energy crisis. A crew of astronauts is thrust into space in order to help solve the planet’s energy problems. Unfortunately, their efforts may open portals to other dimensions that could have a negative lasting effect on their current existence. Naturally, this is exactly what happens. The charismatic crew (cast) includes Daniel Brühl, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris O’Dowd, John Ortiz, David Oyelowo, Zhang Ziyi, Aksel Hennie and Elizabeth Debicki. They’re more than up to the task of giving this ridiculous script life. The problem is, nothing makes sense. The narrative is a grab bag of assorted sci-fi tropes that recalls Aliens, Interstellar and 2017’s Life. Anyone remember the cockroach scene when they burst out-out of E. G. Marshall in Creepshow? Yeah well, something like that happens in this movie too except it’s with worms this time. Yup, it’s just as gross as it sounds.

The Cloverfield Paradox is a mess. It’s a sequel to the franchise in only the most general sense. Some script tweaking has creatively brought this into the same universe. If you’ve seen the other entries you may see a loose connection, but it certainly isn’t necessary to be familiar with the franchise. This J.J. Abrams produced prequel was directed by the heretofore unknown Julius Onah with a screenplay by Oren Uziel who co-wrote the comedy 22 Jump Street. That’s kind of telling. This unintentionally veers into comedy on several occasions. The production also feels like the umpteenth version of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. Yet this adventure has no direction.

The Cloverifeld Paradox is all over the place. No focus. Just a mish-mash of ideas that occasionally captivates the mind for a moment only to be let down by another concept that subverts the one before it. When an astronaut played by Chris O’Dowd loses his arm in a freak accident, the occurrence is so bizarre we are captivated by the event. Then the arm comes to life, receiving instructions from some alternate reality that forces the viewer to pay attention.  I was enrapt for a while as the limb starts to write notes on its own volition, but the longer this nonsensical account plays out, the sillier it gets, At one point it appears that the planet Earth no longer exists. Then it does. There’s nothing here but a lot of half-baked theories and unresolved plot threads. The Cloverfield Paradox is a jumble of contrivances.  It’s an entertaining medley for only the introductory section of the movie. I was entertained in the beginning, then common sense took over.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on December 19, 2017 by Mark Hobin

star_wars_the_last_jedi_ver9STARS4“If you post spoilers, I will unfriend and block you.”  That sentiment was typical of the posts on my Facebook feeds following the release of The Last Jedi this weekend.  I don’t recall seeing such aggressive declarations when either Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or Wonder Woman opened this summer. For some reason, people are emphatically wary of Star Wars spoilers, even if it concerns the most banal information. I agree that ruining important plot developments is disrespectful. Rest assured this review is spoiler-free. That’s true of all of my write-ups. Nevertheless, if you’re especially sensitive to the reveal of what a critter is named or the sheer confirmation that lightsaber battles occur, then I suggest you don’t read my (or any) review of this film until after you’ve seen it.

Episode 7 – The Force Awakens – set the stage for a new group that would transition our allegiance from the previous cast (Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill) to an ever-expanding ensemble.  Han Solo was an important figure in Part 7.    Now it’s Luke Skywalker’s turn to inform the narrative.  Although Luke seems like a completely different person here. Obviously, he’s older, but he sports a salt and pepper beard like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. The young hotshot of the original trilogy now seems like a peaceful Buddhist living off the land on an island retreat. He speaks differently too, in verse like quoting the scripture of some sacred text.  Mark Hamill has done a lot of voice work over the years and it really shows. He sounds imposing even when he doesn’t always carry himself in that manner.

The Force Awakens introduced Rey (Daisy Ridley), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  They all get their moments here.  The once-named Ben Solo continues to struggle with the dark side.   Meanwhile, Rey’s growing influence concerns her journey to the remote planet of Ahch-To in an effort to recruit Luke into helping the cause.  The Force Awakens implied that she might be a Jedi which would beg the question, to whom does the title of this movie refer, her or Luke?  I won’t comment, but I’d love to hear your thoughts after watching this. I wish we could’ve spent more time with them.  The Last Jedi continues to add characters to a constantly growing ensemble.  Poe, Finn, and Rey must share a lot of screen time with a host of unfamiliar personalities that may or may not become central.  A welcome addition is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who fights alongside the Resistance. She is introduced by way of her relationship with Finn. Their developing partnership is a key component of the chronicle. Her oddball sweetness is charming. Less delightful is Benicio del Toro as DJ, an underworld individual who specializes in computer hacking. His affected stutter is really the only thing memorable about him. Given the fact that this production is 2 hours 32 minutes long, his existence is where I would’ve started to do some serious editing. Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) impressively juggles a lot of disparate plot threads. Still, this is a long, and frequently meandering film, particularly in the introductory slog. Yes, it takes a while to get started, but once it does, oh boy, does it dazzle the senses.

It’s impossible not to acknowledge that the real-life passing of Carrie Fisher adds an air of melancholy to her scenes.  Her role is expanded here and it’s nice to see her featured in several segments. As General Leia Organa, she leads the military effort against the First Order. She receives support from purple haired, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). The two are old friends and Amilyn steps in to support her.  Amilyn is not quite as friendly with Poe, however, as a conversation they have will attest. Their confrontation is memorable. Women rule in this world.  Beside Leia and Amilyn, there is also Commander Larma D’Acy (Amanda Lawrence) and Lieutenant Kaydel Ko Connix (Billie Lourd – daughter of Carrie Fisher). They have key roles here too.  Conversely, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), a female Stormtrooper, is regrettably given very little screen time.

The Resistance faces off against an onslaught led by the overbearing General Hux.  Actor Domhnall Gleeson is easily the most over-the-top campy performance in this entire series.  General Hux always comes across as a child who snuck into daddy’s office and is playing pretend takeover of the world.  I was kind of amused by his theatrics, but it’s definitely a “love-it-or-hate-it” type of achievement.  His authority is only exceeded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).   Kylo Ren’s relationship with the Supreme Leader continues to be a major element of the plot.  Yet this is the second appearance of Snoke and I still don’t know anything about him. It’s really not important I suppose.  He’s a bad guy — a motion capture CGI fabrication.   That’s all you need to know.

This is probably a good time to mention all the computer graphics employed in this outing. General Snoke was an excess of CGI in the preceding spectacle. Now we have adorable wide-eyed sea-bird creatures called Porgs that scream and bellow in cutely animated glee.  I think I know what’s going to be the hot Christmas toy this year. There’s also the Vulptices, crystalline foxes that live beneath the salt surface of Crait.  Then there are the Fathiers, space horses with long ears like rabbits. They race in a metropolitan center where people place their bets in a casino world that features the Monte Carlo-ish city Canto Bight. I wasn’t a fan of this backdrop. It feels like an unnecessary appendage to the primary tale. The environment is somewhat of an analog to the Mos Eisley Cantina in Star Wars but much less captivating in my opinion. Oh but I digress — back to the creatures. My favorite of them all are the Caretakers, fish-like nuns on the planet Ahch-To. Their completely random appearance was probably the most laugh out loud moment in the entire picture.

In a nutshell, The Last Jedi is the continuing adventures of the most iconic space opera of all time.  Simply put, our heroes of the Resistance, square off against the villains of the First Order. The Force Awakens brilliantly manipulated the legend of Star Wars into a thrilling fable for a new generation to consume.  Much in the same way, this script expands on things using the same approach that The Empire Strikes Back did nearly 4 decades ago. It’s a darker production that creatively enhances the fundamental mythology of the franchise. It deepens the backstories of the characters with which we are familiar.  It’s also funnier with several bits at which you will either enjoy or roll your eyes. I was pleased for the most part, although watching Luke milk a beast and drink its green formula was definitely a WTF moment.  This is a perfect segue into my next observation.

By now I think it’s safe to say that Star Wars is a formula. We want nostalgia, but we expect something new, bring back the favorites with which we are familiar, add a few new ones we can embrace. Don’t forget cute creatures and sprinkle in bits of humor. I dare say a couple gags are the most full-on hilarious bits I’ve ever seen in this franchise. At 8 episodes and counting, that’s really saying something.  By the end, you’ll want to stand up and cheer. The final 30 minutes are as exciting as any in the series. It totally sticks the ending.  Modern action films are often a succession of the fight extravaganzas that we crave, separated by speechifying portions that we don’t. I’m not sure if that’s a testament to how sensational action set-pieces have become or that the dialogue that screenwriters compose in these flicks often isn’t particularly compelling.  Either way, this is the nature of the beast.  The movie starts out frustratingly slow but ends with a bang. The narrative is a bit of a tangle in the middle, but each action set piece is an event. We get not one, but two, epic lightsaber battles. This is what we expect of the middle entry of a Star Wars flick. The Last Jedi does all of these things and it does them rather well.

12-14-17

Blade Runner 2049

Posted in Mystery, Science Fiction, Thriller with tags on October 9, 2017 by Mark Hobin

blade_runner_twenty_forty_nine_ver4STARS4Could we be in a golden age of sequels? I need to rethink my former convictions. Perhaps long-delayed continuations of old movies can be more than crass attempts to make money. Apparently, they can be an artistic triumphs in their own right. Mad Max: Fury Road was a cinematic achievement and The Force Awakens recaptured the spirit of the original Star Wars trilogy. Now Denis Villeneuve has taken on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and, if you haven’t figured out from my positive introduction, it’s a magnificent extension of an iconic classic.

Blade Runner cemented the cyberpunk aesthetic that would be utilized for a generation of sci-fi films. Its impact was legendary. This sequel picks up 30 years later but continues this thought. Bioengineered humans called replicants have been integrated into society. They are still being treated like second-class citizens, however. KD6.3-7 or K for short (Ryan Gosling) is one of these synthetic humans who works for the LAPD. Gosling is in Drive /Only God Forgives mode. He’s detached, showing little emotion or feelings. It makes sense. He’s a robot after all. He was created to “retire” older models that have been deemed a danger to civilization. In a routine investigation, K discovers the skeletal remains of what appears to be an android who died while giving birth. The ability for replicants to reproduce was thought to be impossible. This development is considered dangerous by K’s superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright). She orders him to find and eliminate the child.

Blade Runner debuted in 1982 with a theatrical cut that has been both embraced and rejected over the ensuing years. The original favored a happier ending than the subsequent one that Scott proffered. There have actually been no less than 7 different versions that have been exhibited over the years. The most notable alternative is the 2007 Final Cut that was overseen by director Ridley Scott himself. His Final Cut eschewed the voice-over narration that clarified the focus of the narrative. Additionally, whether the main character Deckard was a replicant himself, is less ambiguous in The Final Cut. The question was, given the disparate endings, which interpretation would Villeneuve’s movie follow-up?

The brilliance of Denis Villeneuve’s vision is that he honors all of these variants by being purposefully ambiguous in his sequel. (He personally professed his love for the 1982 US theatrical edit in a recent interview.) You could have seen any one of these versions and Blade Runner 2049 will still make sense. In fact, I dare say that it is imperative you do see either the 1982 theatrical release or the 2007’s The Final Cut before seeing this picture. You will understand it regardless. However, it lays the groundwork for you to have an emotional connection to the new extension. What does it mean to be human? The original was a slow moving, meditative rumination on the nature of humanity. It was as exquisite as it was ambiguous. Blade Runner 2049 is a fittingly gorgeous continuation of the same themes. Denis Villeneuve could have delved into explaining unanswered questions from the first film. The famous “Tears in Rain” speech is a baffling mix of prosaic exposition. Nevertheless, Villeneuve wisely forgoes giving us lots of answers. Instead, he focuses on expanding the world. It remains somewhat vague but he imbues it with a deeper consideration. Production designer Dennis Gassner and art director Paul Inglis have expanded on the precursor’s approach in creating something reminiscent yet different. We get the flying cars and video advertising with which we are familiar. I’m happy to say ads for Pan Am and Atari have an enduring presence. And as great as everything looks, it sounds even better.  The setting has been invigorated with a new score by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. Some echoes of the Blade Runner theme by Vangelis show up though. The climactic fight is so brazenly cacophonous my heart felt the reverberations of the score.

Blade Runner tantalizes with several supporting characters of note. Harrison Ford returns as Rick Deckard. Not a spoiler. His participation has been well publicized in trailers and posters. He’s not the star, but his relationship with replicant Rachel in the first film becomes a key plot point here as well. His humanity is on full display. Marvel at the martial arts style of Sylvia Hoeks who plays Luv, a killing machine. Meet her boss, replicant manufacturer Niander Wallace. Once again, Jared Leto plays a sociopath character that has less screen time than you were led to believe, but just enough to make an impression. We knew that replicants were outfitted with fake memories, but here we are presented with a visual as to how those memories are put together and assembled. It features Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) a memory maker creating the presentation of a girl blowing out the candles of a cake at a birthday party. It’s a fascinating scene. And finally, there’s Ana de Armas who plays Joi, a digital simulation of a human that plays K’s love interest. She is perhaps the most important addition. Her shimmering outfits change in seconds emphasizing her ephemeral beauty.  One minute she’s K’s live-in girlfriend the next she’s an advertising hologram 20 feet tall in the city square.

Blade Runner 2049 is a stunning looking film. It is a world in which to admire and luxuriate in its style. An urban Los Angeles still looks like a nightmare of neon advertising and endless rain while a bleak and desolate Las Vegas hypnotizes us with a somber spectacle of amber radioactive smog. Rooms with no discernible water source manifest aquatic reflections upon the walls. Holograms are everywhere. Elvis Presley flickers on and off in the interior of a dusty Las Vegas casino. Blink and you’ll miss Marilyn Monroe too. Frank Sinatra appears in a futuristic jukebox singing “One for My Baby.” Director of photography, Roger Deakins captures all this in his usual cinematographic style. At this point, the oft-nominated director of photography has been cited 13 times at the Oscars. It’s a safe bet he’ll be nominated for this as well. At almost three hours, the length of this production is a little problematic. Its melancholy mood has a depressive effect on the viewer. However, it’s never boring. I was transfixed to the screen to see where the story would go as it gradually unfolded. This is not an actioner in the way James Cameron’s Aliens separated itself from the more leisurely paced Alien, (also by Ridley Scott incidentally). Blade Runner 2049 maintains the spirit of the original film. It’s respectful and indebted to the past, but Blade Runner 2049 presents its own identity. It deserves to be a classic as well.

10-05-17

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction with tags on July 28, 2017 by Mark Hobin

valerian_and_the_city_of_a_thousand_planets_ver3STARS4Every now and then a film coasts by on a visual aesthetic that is so visionary in its daft mentality that it captivates the mind beyond all sense and reason. We’re talking about a production that’s fully formed from its costumes, creature designs and a cheerfully bonkers dedication to an artistic style. It’s like a drug. You actually feel a sense of giddiness simply by watching it. Of course, it relies on the prerequisite that you are open to the creative pleasures of an optical nature. There are those that require more intellectualism and sense in their sci-fi epics. I am not one of those people. Back in 1997, Luc Besson gave audiences the wonderful gift of The Fifth Element. The wildly imaginative space opera became a cult classic (and incidentally, one of my favorite movies of all time). Now 20 years later, Luc Besson has returned with Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets. It’s happening all over again because this is a joy.

Our story is set in motion when a race of humanoids on the futuristic planet Mül suffers a life threatening attack. The iridescent silvery people have been living a pastoral life in a bright tropical paradise. A willowy princess wakes up on a beach. They harvest space pearls for energy. She rises to the dawn and washes her face in a bowl full of the white lustrous spherical jewels. A cute little critter called a Mül Converter is used duplicate them. Ok to be more specific, it actually poops what it eats. Their idyllic life is forever affected when they are attacked by an enemy force. The event inspires the race to kidnap Commander Arün Filitt (Clive Owen) for mysterious reasons. This act compels Valerian and Laureline to investigate.

Dane DeHaan is Major Valerian and Cara Delevingne as Sergeant Laureline. The two basically operate as police officers in space. They are a romantic couple (natch) but bicker like a pair of people that can’t stand each other. He’s a roguish player. She’s a sharp-tongued intellect. I suppose their sexual chemistry is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of thing. I found their interactions amusing, albeit a bit reductive. DeHaan’s surfer dude accent is sort of a riff on Keanu Reeves’ character in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Attractive Cara Delevingne, with her thick brows, kind of physically recalls Brooke Shields circa 1980. When we first meet the two they’re relaxing on a sunny beach like some marooned island couple out of The Blue Lagoon. Turns out it’s just a visual reality simulation.

Laureline is forever rebuffing Valerian’s advances in a way that’s reminiscent of Princess Leia and Han Solo. Their relationship isn’t the only thing that feels Star Wars-ish. Remember the cantina scene, that bar where are all the otherworldly visitors gathered to merely hang out? Well, that’s kind of like Valerian for 2 hours 17 minutes. Besson’s production is based on the comic Valerian and Laureline by French author Pierre Christin and illustrated by Jean-Claude Mézières. That series was launched in 1967, ten years before the first Star Wars film was released. George Lucas has freely admitted he was influenced by director Akira Kurosawa when assembling his space opera. The similarities to Valerian have been noted by other people. [Side Note: Artist Jean-Claude Mézières collaborated with director Luc Besson on The Fifth Element.]

The action is centered around Alpha, an International Space Station where millions of immigrants from different planets gather amicably and exchange their knowledge and cultures. The opening sequence presents this as an array of meet and greets involving various individuals underscored by David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”. The uplifting presentation of a peaceful world is such an exaltation of goodness, I was kind of overcome by the display.  The very idea that such a naive concept could become a reality was made so emotionally resonant. The vignette is among the best introductory scenes that I’ve witnessed all year. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has another. It was the perfect primer to begin this movie. The dizzying opening is pure cinema. I was captivated from the get go.

The creature designs are the strongest part of the film. A lot of it is accomplished using motion capture and CGI. An overreliance on computer graphics is usually not something I appreciate, but here it feels so organic that I enjoyed the creativity. Some of my favorites include three platypus-like aliens called the Doghan-Dagui who offer help…but only for the right price. There’s the Boulan Bathor Couturier that presents Sergeant Laureline with a series of outfits to wear. A chubby little intradimensional species seems pretty harmless but you don’t want to anger its mother. John Goodman voices the massive pirate captain that runs the Big Market Bazaar. Ethan Hawke plays Jolly the Pimp who introduces a shape-shifting species known as a Glamopod. Her name is Bubble. She’s portrayed by pop singer Rihanna in her human form. Her performance is more a feat of CGI and Cirque du Soleil than acting, but the manifestation is unadulterated eye candy at its finest. I was hypnotized by her character.

I’ll admit that when it comes to story, Luc Besson is more fascinated by the question “How does it look” not “Why does this happen?” In that respect, Valerian isn’t going to expand your mind with philosophical thought. However, it will dazzle you with the exploration of creative worlds. It’s more about the physical display. When some gentle looking butterflies flutter by, their reveal as a dangerous threat is world building at its most hilarious. The fabrication has a European, no make that international sensibility. This is helped by the inventive casting which, besides all the aforementioned names, also includes English Actor Clive Owen, Dutch actor Rutger Hauer, American composer Herbie Hancock, and Chinese-born pop singer Kris Wu. Valerian is a production designer’s dream on a hallucinogenic trip. When our two protagonists go to “Big Market” the mind-bending action is a lot to wrap your head around. The shopping mall is a setting that has other dimensions that can only be accessed when you don virtual reality gloves and glasses. It’s so erratic in the way it switches back and forth between the two realities, it’s a madcap delight. The popcorn flick works on that level throughout the entire film. It’s just so silly. I adored it.

07-21-17

War for the Planet of the Apes

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Science Fiction with tags on July 17, 2017 by Mark Hobin

war_for_the_planet_of_the_apes_ver3STARS3War for the Planet of the Apes is Part 3 in the rebooted film series that commenced in 2011. The franchise has been operating as a sequence of prequels leading up to the events of the 1968 classic. Now with the release of this picture, people have been referring to the collection as a trilogy. Whether more installments will follow still remains to be seen.  However if this picture makes enough money, you can best believe that more films will follow.

War is the story of Caesar (played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis), the leader of a tribe of genetically enhanced apes.  His army of simian warriors is at odds with Alpha-Omega, a terrorist faction of humans.  Caesar preaches a peaceful coexistence with the homo sapiens. However, the people are led by an aggressive Colonel (Woody Harrelson).  Apparently these barbaric individuals, can’t be reasoned with.  They’re just so warlike.  Not wanting to suffer any more casualties, Caesar plans to relocate his clan to the desert far away from Muir woods.  The night before they’re supposed to leave, Caesar’s home is invaded by the Colonel and his family is brutally attacked.  Now Caesar has a score to settle. He’s out for revenge.  This goes against everything his character has ever stood for, but hey no conflict no movie right?  Now we’re ready for a showdown.

The apes are anthropomorphic miracles of technology that act with more humanity than people. Ah yes, indeed that is the intention. If you couldn’t tell from the plot description above, War is told from the apes’ perspective. The entire trilogy (thus far anyway) has been developing a personal arc that traces the life of Caesar from a tortured experiment into a commanding leader. You will identify with the apes more than the humans. In this story, apes are better than people. You’ll be rooting for the demise of the human race if this screenplay has anything to say about it. That’s an interesting take, I suppose, but there’s more to creating a compelling narrative than merely affecting a unique point of view.

Actor and performance-capture innovator Andy Serkis is at the center of War for the Planet of the Apes. It’s hard not to notice him as (1) he’s got the lion’s share of all the dialogue and (2) the camera lingers on his expressive CGI face for seemingly minutes on end. He’s a fascinating creature to be sure. Caesar rounds up a loyal band of followers. These include his second in command, an orangutan adviser named Maurice (Karin Konoval), a fellow chimpanzee named Rocket (Terry Notary), and a sensitive gorilla named Luca (Michael Adamthwaite). They are a serious lot. The whole production would be a serious downer if not for one individual. Steve Zahn voices a zoo escapee known as “Bad Ape” in a bit of comic relief.  The misfit is kind of at lighthearted odds with the rest of the cast.  Yet he’s the only mitigation from all the dreariness.  As such, he’s a welcome reprieve from the bleak narrative.

On the non-simian side, there’s the evil Colonel played with cartoonish excess by Woody Harrelson. He wants to eradicate the world of not only all apes but also virus-infected people who’ve lost the power of speech. It’s easy to side with animals when this is the example of a human with which we are presented. His bald, deranged character is clearly inspired by  Colonel Kurtz, Marlon Brando’s role in Apocalypse Now.  As a matter of fact, some graffiti on the wall actually says “Ape-ocalypse Now” lest the filmmakers’ not-so-subtle tribute wasn’t obvious.   The whole homage might seem rather clever had it not been for Kong: Skull Island liberally referencing the very same classic a mere 4 months ago.  It’s still pretty fresh in my mind.  News flash: there are other memorable films about war that weren’t made by Francis Ford Coppola in 1979.

War for the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable spectacle.  At times it actually feels like a silent movie.  There are very few speaking parts.  Facial expressions are more important than actual words.  The camera fixates on the countenance of Caesar and we are invited to be moved by the way he emotes.  The script gets by on minimal dialogue.  The apes rescue a human orphan girl named Nova (Amiah Miller) who doesn’t talk.  She was rendered mute by the Simian Flu.  Most of the apes, in turn, communicate via sign language.  The technology has grown by leaps and bounds since the series began in 2011.  Director Matt Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin inspire awe with every shot.  This is a gorgeous achievement and the reason I’m giving this production a pass.  The CGI & MoCap apes are a marvel to behold.  It’s hard not to be wowed by the way War looks.  There is a trade-off for all of this visual wonder though.  The atmosphere is lugubrious.  The pacing is sluggish.  It’s almost 2 1/2 hours.  Even though the chronicle builds to a climactic finale, action does not comprise the bulk of the drama.  It’s yet another dismal morality tale that is a punishing watch.  It relies on the oldest of clichés. I’ll summarize: War is hell, but so are you, the human race, that is.  Forgive me if I don’t stand up and cheer.

07-13-17

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 8, 2017 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_homecoming_ver2STARS4.jpgWell color me red and call me an arachnid. I was the last person who thought we needed another Spider-Man movie. Especially a role that has been played by three, yes count ’em three, different actors since 2002. Even James Bond doesn’t change quite so frequently. The first series, a trilogy starring Tobey Maguire, was extremely enjoyable, notably parts one and two. The 2012 reboot with Andrew Garfield was unnecessary but tolerable. Now we have English actor Tom Holland (The Impossible) as the most teen-friendly version yet. What makes the idea of yet another Spider-Man distressing is that this is a reintroduction of the web-slinger.

So the question is, did we really need another Spider-Man? Well as it turns out, the answer is yes. The difference now is that Sony Pictures, who own the rights to the character, has made an agreement with Marvel Studios to finally introduce him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). For the first time, Spider-Man can be classified as a Marvel Studios film, although Sony still owns the property. The legal details are much more confusing than this reviewer cares to detail in a film review. The point is, this is good news for moviegoers. It means that Spider-Man can acknowledge people like Iron Man and Captain America in the same film. They can be a part of the same universe. For example, this gives Captain America (Chris Evans) the opportunity to pop up on a TV to give a PSA in gym class. As any fan of the MCU knows, they have done a spectacular job in creating a superhero franchise. That’s one indication that Spider-Man Homecoming is going to be distinctive. Another is that this is NOT an origin story. We’re on the right track.

Tom Holland is the most inexperienced Spider-Man yet, but Tony Stark (a.ka. Iron Man) sees his potential. There’s a lot of interaction between Tony Stark and Peter Parker. This gives ample opportunity to exploit Robert Downey Jr.’s considerable charisma. Oh yes, this adventure benefits from his presence. He’s grooming him for a spot on the Avengers team through an internship. Tony gives him a special Spidey suit but it’s locked preventing Peter from accessing all of its features. Spider-Man’s uniform is a character unto itself. The threads have their own artificial intelligence voice (Jennifer Connelly) that help him navigate the many gadgets. It’s more like a James Bond collection of weapons. He’s eager to be a crime fighter. When not at school, Peter surveys the city as Spider-Man trying to help people.

Spider-Man Homecoming is a breezy joy. This doesn’t feel like the umpteenth self-important version of a superhero movie. It’s different. In fact, some of the most interesting stuff happens when he’s a very human Peter Parker. The plot surrounds our hero with a captivating cast. Particularly in high school where we meet Peter’s classmates. The film’s title is sort of a figurative welcome of Spiderman into the Avengers fold, but there’s also a literal “homecoming” dance in this chronicle. His best buddy is Ned (Jacob Batalon), an affable nerd that steals every scene he’s in. Spider-Man has a crush on the popular “it” girl (Laura Harrier), interacts with a perpetually annoyed but brainy classmate (Zendaya), and is often taunted by a snotty rich kid (Tony Revolori). Girls dish about the Avengers in a teen game: “For me, I’d kiss Thor, marry Iron Man, and kill Hulk,” says one. This is the superhero production reimagined via the 1980s as a John Hughes teen drama. There’s even a brief reference to Ferris Bueller on a TV when Tom is running through the town away from some henchmen played by Bokeem Woodbine and Logan Marshall-Green.

Which brings me to the primary antagonist. Michael Keaton is a deeply nuanced villain. It’s one of the rare times where I kind of sided with the criminal’s motivations.  As Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, he is evil, but there’s an understandable purpose behind the menace. He’s not doing so well financially. As a salvage worker, he and his team have a contract to clean the city after the battle of New York. But he’s stripped of his responsibilities by U.S. Dept of Damage Control, a government agency that reports to Tony Stark. He’s got a family for which to provide and he continues collecting the technological parts anyway. He’s going to sell them on the black market. The proceeds of which will better his loved ones. Scoundrels are more effective when they’re a controlled bundle of rage and Keaton gives one of the most memorable declarations in a superhero film. It occurs, in all places, when he’s sitting in the peaceful solace of a car. It’s absolutely chilling because he conveys a quietly controlled ferocity that belies much more flamboyant actions. He’s a loving father. Now he’s frightening killer. The change occurs in seconds and Michael Keaton makes it believable. Tom Hiddleston’s Loki has always been my favorite Marvel villain, and he still is, but Keaton gives Hiddleston some genuine competition.

Great story, well-developed characters, coherent action scenes, humanity, and heart. Spider-Man: Homecoming delivers on every level. The relatively unknown director Jon Watts (Cop Car) brings a unique sensibility to the proceedings. Seriously this trend to give promising new directors the chance to helm big-budget films is really paying off. The important takeaway from Spider-Man is that he is human. He’s a teen just coming to terms with his abilities. In that respect, we can identify with this crime fighter. He’s an underdog, a high school kid in way over his head. He has to evolve into the protector we know and love. Great heroes aren’t born, they’re created, is the screenplay’s take. Naturally, we get several big action set pieces and they’re great. Spidey must save his friends in a falling elevator at the Washington Monument and it’s thrilling. However, it’s in the quieter occasions, when Peter isn’t wearing a mask, that we connect with this individual. It’s telling that the very last line before the credits roll involves Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. It’s a perfect vignette because it involves a personal moment amongst family. It also me dying to see what happens next.

07-06-17