Monday, August 28, 2017

APEPOCALYPSE NOW: a review of "War For The Planet Of The Apes"

Based upon characters created by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
Screenplay Written by Mark Bomback & Matt Reeves
Directed by Matt Reeves
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Some time ago when the initial reviews were beginning to make their rounds throughout the internet, I happened upon one in particular that I am compelled to recall a piece of at this time. Frankly, I am unable to think of where I saw it or whom the writer was, but regardless, this particular critic essentially stated that they felt that human beings may not fully deserve a film like this one. And after having seen it myself, I am nearly inclined to agree.

Matt Reeves' "War For The Planet Of The Apes," the third and final installment of the re-booted film series is not an enjoyable film by any stretch but it is an exceedingly powerful and poignant one. Just as Reeves demonstrated with his previous chapter, "Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes' (2014), we have a film that is truthfully not concerned with adhering to the rules, so to speak, of escapist, genre films and filmmaking. Again, Reeves has transcended the film's science-fiction trappings and therefore, any potential campiness, to ensure that what we experience is a film that serves as a dark allegory to our own collective history as human beings, most notably our intense failures which inch us closer to our own annihilation.

That quality is precisely why I also ponder if we, as human beings do indeed deserve a film like this one, especially now in our terrifying, turbulent 2017, a film where we are required to align our sympathies with the characters of the apes as we regard the ruthlessness of our human counterparts. Matt Reeves holds up a brutally grim mirror to ourselves. For those of you wishing to take in a night at the movies solely for the purpose of turning off your brains and regarding the CGI pyrotechnics, War For The Planet Of The Apes," for all of its CGI magic and action sequences, is defiantly not that kind of a movie. Reeves has delivered something much better, more soulful and unapologetically stirring.

Set two years after the events of the second film, "War For The Planet Of The Apes" finds the titular apes and their leader, the chimpanzee Caesar (the brilliant Andy Serkis) under attack from the human military, most specifically the rogue paramilitary faction known as Alpha-Omega, which is led by the ruthless, savage renegade known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson).

While The Colonel's outpost--complete with an interment/work/death camp for enslaved apes--has him preside over his troops, which also include a collective of equally renegade (yet enslaved) apes, as a merciless would-be King, Caesar still wishes to remain peaceful with the remaining humans that exist by simply being left alone with his brethren deep in the woods. Yet, that is not to be as The Colonel's ambush of the apes' territory and his murder of Caesar's wife and one of his children fuels Caesar's more than justified thirst for revenge.

As the ape colony exits the woods for a new, safe haven across a desert, Caesar departs his species in order to exact vengeance upon The Colonel, and with his adviser the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite), and the chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary), and soon joined by an old, hermit chimpanzee dubbed Bad Ape (Steve Zahn) and a mute, human child Maurice names Nova (Amiah Miller) all in tow.

But when, Caesar's colony is gravely endangered by the increasingly malicious Colonel, Caesar is confronted with his most primal impulses which clash with his highest aspirations for his species and their ultimate survival in an increasingly turbulent world.

Matt Reeves' "War For The Planet Of The Apes" is a pitch black affair and appropriately so. Through the dark, somber nature of the presentation, Reeves concocts an experience that contains equal parts elegy and fury. It is a resplendently produced film that further confirms that Michael Seresin remains one of our most valuable Cinematographers and Reeves has utilized his special effects/CGI team beautifully as we are given visual effects so elegant, seamless and photo realistic that after mere moments of screen time, the effects are not noticeable at all and we simply believe in everything taking place before our eyes.

And again, what a sight, what a formidable presence we have in Andy Serkis, whose motion capture performance as Caesar raises his own bar even higher. This is a towering performance of great nuance, depth, rage, sorrow, and complexity that I truly believe that he achieved something that could easily be considered as Shakespearian in its heft. Just regard his eyes, facial expressions, the physicality of his entire body, the gravity of his elocution and the entirety of his spirit which flows through all of the CGI artistry on display and tell me that this man does not richly deserve some sort of awards season attention and recognition--even if the powers that be have to invent a category for him!

While the excellent special effects and performances from Andy Serkis and the entire cast are paramount to the success of "War For The Planet Of The Apes," everything on the screen exists to serve a story that contributes to the overall humanism of the proceedings. As with the original quintet of films (all released between 1968-1973), "War For The Planet Of The Apes" serves itself as an explicit allegory to our past human history. Yet, unlike the original series, Reeves ensures that there is not even one moment that could be considered as camp. Reeves' aesthetic actually reminded me quite a bit about what Christopher Nolan achieved with his presentation of Batman, as he treated the character not as a comic book but as something more Dickensian in tone and feeling.

Matt Reeves' two films within this new "Planet Of The Apes" series are decidedly more adult in tone and not terribly interested in anything resembling cinematic popcorn. With "War For The Planet Of The Apes" especially,  he is clearly evoking images, situations, themes and concepts strictly designed for us to make connections with Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, or Nat Turner and the slave uprising of 1831, for instance. Caesar's revenge/exodus mission and inner conflicts are certainly fraught with powerful Biblical allegory as the tale of his attempt to lead his ape community to the Promised Land is nothing less than the story of Moses and furthermore, Caesar's imprisonment and torture at the hands of The Colonel certainly stands in for the story of Jesus Christ and the Romans before his ultimate Crucifixion.

Even turning towards The Colonel, whose figure certainly recalls the madness of Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" (1979), we have a character who feels ripped from the front pages as his tyrannical pursuit of species purity and human dominance, in part, leads to his desire to build a wall on the backs of the apes' to further separate the infected humans and the apes he has not enslaved from the so-called purity of himself. Woody Harrelson, in a rare performance of such cruel intensity, dances to the edges of what he achieved in Oliver Stone's blistering "Natural Born Killers" (1994), perfectly adding to the urgency of the story with a riveting malevolence.

And with that, again I do wonder if we, as human beings, even deserve a film like this one--a feature this thoughtful and even wrenching, as we are essentially required to somehow root for our own extinction, or at least, acknowledge that we have had it coming for quite a long time. Are we elevated enough to be able to take a harsh look at our own inhumanity which has soiled our collective humanity in the past and definitely, the present and unquestionably, our future? Can we really accept responsibility for the damage we have done to each other and the only world we have?

Matt Reeves' "War For The Planet Of The Apes" treats this specialized genre fiction with a grave reality that is impossible to ignore and in fact, he even spells out our doom directly within the film's title! For at our own hands, arrogance, and hubris, we will meet our collective downfall, making whatever takes our place inevitable and even justified.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

BLACK AND BLUE: a review of "Detroit"

Screenplay Written by Mark Boal
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow
**1/2 (two and a half stars) 

It is more than fitting that the film "Detroit," the latest docudrama from Director Kathryn Bigelow would be released at this time. For not only does the film mark the 50th anniversary of the historical events as depicted within the film, therefore holding up a shattering mirror to ourselves in 2017 where the issues presented have not progressed even one millimeter. This film has also happened to coincidentally arrived, and I have even seen it for myself, at the same time that neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia carrying torches, sticks and whatever else, chanting Nazi slogans and driving a car directly into the crowd of protesters, murdering one.

Ain't a damn thing changed but the day.

Yet, somehow, I am troubled by this film. Deeply troubled. Not for entirely what was presented. I think my questions are housed more within Kathryn Bigelow's intents and purposes for even wanting to make this film--an issue I had powerful feelings about with her previous film "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), her critically acclaimed film concerning the hunt for Osama bin Ladin, which brazenly promoted the concept that United States interrogation tactics involving torture were directly effective and even responsible for our successful execution--an assessment that has been widely proven to vehemently false, a contradiction that Bigeow herself was unable to effectively address while on the interview circuit for that film. It was a cowardly move if there ever was one, especially considering the fact that she did indeed make a film that, while deeply effective and brilliantly filmed, was one that dangerously serves as jingoistic propaganda.

Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" was a film so disingenuous that it begged the question of why she even made the film when she was unable or unwilling to stand by what she had made. Unfortunately, I feel that we are again at this same conceptual crossroads with "Detroit."  There is no question that Kathryn Bigelow remains a searing filmmaker and I certainly do not feel that her sense of moral outrage is insincere. But I am, however, struggling with the experience of what she has amassed with "Detroit" to the point of again questioning why she even made the film to even who precisely is this film meant for.

Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit" with events that took pace on July 23, 1976, as the Detroit police staged a raid upon an unlicensed club during a celebration for returning Black war veterans. With this event serving as the proverbial straw that has broken the Black community's collective backs regarding the contentious relationship between citizens and the police department, the 12th Street Riots--complete with rampant firebombings and lootings, plus the arrival of the Michigan National Guard and Army paratroopers.

From here, Bigelow begins to introduce us to the collective of core characters within the film including Detroit police officer Philip Krauss (Will Poulter), who guns down a feeling Black male against orders yet is allowed to remain on duty until his superiors decide whether to file murder charges; Melvin Dismukes (an excellent John Boyega), a private security guard for a neighborhood grocery store, Larry Reed (standout Algee Smith), original lead singer of The Dramatics who dreams of a potential future life on stage and as a recording artist and his close friend Fred Temple (Jacob Latimore).

After making their way from the maelstrom of the riots to find refuge at the Algiers Motel for the night, Larry and Fred hook up with two White women, Julie Ann (Hannah Murray) and Karen (Kaitlyn Dever), who then introduce them to their friends Carl Cooper (Jason Mitchell), Aubrey Pollard (Nathan Davis Jr.) and Greene (Anthony Mackie), a returning Vietnam war veteran.

Once Carl stages a prank with a starter pistol and then further fires the pistol at the police, the s hots are mistaken as sniper fire forcing the troops to converge upon the motel with Krauss' Detroit police detail arriving soon thereafter during which Krauss murders Carl, plants a knife beside his dead body as "evidence" and finally rounds up the remaining patrons of the Algiers and faces them against a wall for a harrowing interrogation period during which all of the suspects are subjected to nothing less than the physical and psychological torture of "The Death Game," where Krauss and his men take one suspect at a time into a room for mock executions designed to terrify the others into confessions.

From here, Bigelow follows the characters through the aftermath of the events at the Algiers Motel.

Kathryn Bigelow's "Detroit" is a brutal, unflinchingly painful film and so it should be considering the horror of the subject matter. It is a riveting experience, intensely written, filmed and acted by the entire cast and I especially liked how Bigelow began with a wide panoramic view of the events of the 12th Street Riots, and then gradually narrowed her focus to the tormenting intimacy of the Algiers only to widen it again for the film's final third, which examines the wider legalities of the Algiers aftermath.

Now, as with "Zero Dark Thirty" and even moreso with Clint Eastwood's downright irresponsible right wing propaganda fantasy "American Sniper" (2014),  B igelow has again demonstrated how effective of a filmmaker she is, especially as she has extended her cinematic vision from more genre escapism to more topical, political projects. For all intents and purposes, "Detroit" is as much of a war film as Bigelow's excellent "The Hurt Locker" (2008) but the war in question is the one waged upon the streets of the inner cities.

One of Bigelow's triumphs with "Detroit" is to show the parallels between then and now as frankly, if any of you have been paying attention to the news over these last few years, especially concerning the 2014 protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson (which incidentally reached its third anniversary on August 9th), it would not be at all surprising if some viewers thought that Bigelow had inserted present day riot footage of Black citizens clashing with militarized forces into her period based film.

Additionally, the film's final third, which features a series of police station interrogations, courtroom sequences as well as some especially fine acting work from both John Boyega and Algee Smith, Bigelow does wield some powerful drama showcasing the historically systemic, institutionalized racism at work within the police and justice system, arranged and designed to protect those in power and are ultimately based deeply within the constructs of the slave trade itself. And then, there is the work within the Boyega character, an officer of the law within a community that distrusts him and within an industry that will never view him as an equal player but even as someone who just may be expendable. Great work unquestionably.

But even with that much to feel positive about towards "Detroit," I still found myself feeling uneasy as if Kathryn Bigelow had somehow usurped something for herself, either through some misguided cultural appropriation, White guilt or White privilege.

I guess what I am wrestling with is the question of whether Kathryn Bigelow possesses the right to even tell this particular story about American history, or more specifically Black American history. Certainly, I firmly believe that any and ever filmmaker has the creative right to tell whatever stories that they wish to tell. No question. What I am pondering concerns a certain moral rightness. Of course, it could (and has) easily be argued that say Steven Spielberg should never have made "The Color Purple" (1985) or "Amistad" (1997) as he is not Black or definitely that Quentin Tarantino should never have even conceived of something like "Inglorious Basterds" (2009) or "Django Unchained" (2012) as he is not either Jewish or Black.

But for me, after having seen those films, both Spielberg and Tarantino showcased not only a greater humanity but a deeply moral and cerebral outrage that elicited to me that these filmmakers really turned themselves inside out for their material in order to unearth the unquestionable truths within their respective subject matters. Basically, regarding any of the racial and sexual differences between the filmmakers and the subject of their chosen material, is each instance it felt as if both Spielberg and Tarantino came upon stories they simply had to tell.  Yet, with Kathryn Bigelow and "Detroit," I am not so sure...and it showed, regardless of her cinematic heft and skill.

In an interview Kathryn Bigelow conducted with Variety, published on August 1, 2017, she openly pondered the following to writer Brent Lang: "I thought, 'Am I the perfect person to tell this story? No.' However, I am able to tell this story and its' been 50 years since it has been told." 

But, honestly, is that enough?

Now dear readers, I have to again stress to you that I do not know Kathryn Bigelow in real life and I have absolutely nothing against her as a human being or as a filmmaker whatsoever. For all I know, the story of "Detroit" is indeed a story she may have felt that she had to tell. I will never know. But, something really felt off and even  hurtful to me as I watched the film, so much so that I wondered if it was even a film that was designed for me or any Black people to be viewing at all. Maybe, just maybe, "Detroit" was Bigelow's way, as a White woman, to speak to other White people about the historical realities of police brutality against Black people and the institutionalized systemic racism that remains paramount today. But then, it is more than conceivable that Black people WILL be seeing this movie and truth be told, I am conflicted and confused as to what exactly is in this movie that is designed for us.

What I am alluding to is the film's extended interrogation centerpiece at the Algiers Motel which runs over the course of one full hour or more of the film's entire running time. During that interminable stretch, we are subjected to varying levels of racist driven torture plus mental and physical brutality that is (rightfully) excruciating and exhausting but it was also (almost) numbing and even excessive to the point where I just had to ask the following question to myself as I watched: "How much Black suffering do I have to sit through just for Kathryn Bigelow and her White screenwriter, White producers and team can potentially receive awards?" 

By the nature of Kathryn Bigelow simply being who she is as a White woman and being a veteran filmmaker skilled enough to know h ow to make images resonate best, there was just something lost in the translation from her cinematic hands to endless scenes of Black torture and suffering with copious sweat, cowering, beatings, begging, praying, and pleadings for survival that all occurred without any sense of internalized context. This is not meant to suggest that Bigelow carried no sense of empathy but something just didn't feel terribly authentic.

Think of it this way: If you remember the horrific rape scene that opens her film "Strange Days" (1995), just imagine the difference if that scene had been directed by that film's screenwriter James Cameron instead of her. If that scenario played out, "Strange Days" ran the risk of coming off as exploitative and for me, that is how so much of "Detroit" came off to me. There is indeed a subjectivity at work and I feel that line, too often was dangerously crossed if not fully disrespected in "Detroit." Not maliciously, I do not think But if say Black filmmakers like Ryan Coogler, Ava DuVernay, Steve McQueen or Spike Lee had made this film, I feel that they woud have made different creative choices. As it stands, I could not shake the feeling that Kathryn Bigelow used the exploitation of Black suffering for White critical applause and acclaim. That is indeed an example of White privilege.

And even then, there was a  greater issue. Deep within the film's end credits, a notation scrolled past explaining that since not all of the events of the Algiers were properly documented, interviews were conducted with some of the real life principals and therefore some instances were dramatized for effect. Now, I know very well that films which are branded with the "Based On A True Story" moniker, the suggestion is implicit that events seen in the film have most likely been fictionalized. I get that. I know that in films based upon real events, sequences and characters are indeed dramatized or composites of real people are created to make one character for the film and so on. This is nothing new.

Yet, once I read those words in the credits for "Detroit," at a point when most people have exited the theater, I carried the same feelings I had when I saw Nate Parker's well intentioned but deeply troubled "Birth Of A Nation" (2016) as it was a film riddled with historical inaccuracies and inventions that undercut the truth and power of a story that inherently contained palpable truth and power.

For you see, even if the film is sitting thematically upon the right side of moral justice as I do feel that "Detroit" is, if so much needed to be invented to create a narrative, then that does not serve anyone any good whatsoever. What is disturbing in the case of "Detroit" is that one piece of end credit material as it did, whether intentionally or not, force the questions: "How much was invented?," "What was invented?," "Why was it invented?" and so on. At a time when Black people are still not considered to be human beings and the Black Lives Matter movement continues to be viewed with derision, how is a film like "Detroit" of any benefit when however much of it is essentially falsified?

Look, I do think that Kathryn Bigelow had her heart in the right place and "Detroit" does succeed upon its own sobering yet blistering force. But still, and going back to her own words, just because Kathryn Bigelow could tell this story does not mean that she should tell this story.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017


Screenplay Written by Allan Loeb
Directed by David Frankel
1/2* (one half of one star)

Yes, Will, I understand the look on your face. Your movie really is this terrible, this insincere and definitely, this stupid.

Dear readers, I have to begin this latest posting with a statement followed by a question. First the statement:  It is truly rare to find a mainstream Hollywood movie so ill conceived, presented and executed as this one. And now the question: What in the world has happened to Will Smith? To begin, I have to address the question. For essentially 30 years, Will Smith has proven himself, over and over again, to being one of our most engaging, magnetic and consistently surprising performers in music, television and of course, the movies.

With regards to his work in film, he has consistently impressed with the sharpness of his specialized brand of humor, intensity, humanity and seemingly unshakable focus in work that is as widely varied as what he displayed in the chamber theater piece of Fred Schepisi's "Six Degrees Of Separation" (1993), the science fiction popcorn of both Roland Emmerich's "Independence Day" (1996) and Barry Sonnenfeld's "Men In Black" (1997), the romantic comedy heights of Andy Tennant's "Hitch" (2005), the wrenching drama of Gabriele Muccino's "The Pursuit Of Happyness" (2006), the solo existential horror of Francis Lawrence's "I Am Legend" (2007) and his startling, epic portrayal of Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann's brilliant, impressionistic art film "Ali" (2001).

Certainly, I have not been a fan of every film Smith has chosen to be a part of, but even so, he has continuously displayed an unquestionable command and charisma that makes him a compulsively watchable actor, one who is able to showcase a rapid fire wit and intellect, bracing physicality and a gravitas filled with power and poignancy. Yet, in recent years, whatever magic touch Will Smith happened to hold over critics and audiences has lost some of its luster with increasingly poor film choices, including David Ayer's disastrous "Suicide Squad" (2016). Yet somehow, Smith has now headlined what has got to be his most ridiculous, painfully manipulative, mind numbingly saccharine and stunningly insincere piece of clap-trap pablum to date.

Director David Frankel's horrifically titled "Collateral Beauty," is a would-be, two hankie, "inspirational" drama of love, loss and renewal but it is in actuality a tonal trainwreck filled from one end to the other with a cavalcade of selfish characters, a level of manipulation that steamrolls past normal cruelty and plot twists abound that will have you howling in laughter or agony or some variation of both at the screen. Yes, this movie is that bad. Just unforgivably bad.  In fact, I would claim that it is essentially a big budget, A list starring vehicle that is nothing more than the worst Hallmark or Lifetime holiday movie you've ever witnessed, but that would be an insult to Hallmark and Lifetime holiday movies. For you see, those movies are more honest than any one moment presented in "Collateral Beauty."

"Collateral Beauty" stars Will Smith as Howard Inlet, a high powered advertising executive who is thrown into a clinical depression after the death of his 6 year old daughter. Over the three year period during which Howard falls deeper into his grief, his estranged friends and business partners, Whit Yardshaw (Edward Norton), Claire Wilson (Kate Winslet) and Simon Scott (Michael Pena), all attempt to help bring Howard through his mourning process--which includes copious late night bicycle rides and the stalking of bereaved parents support group meetings--to absolutely no avail.

After desperately writing and mailing angry letters to nothing less than Time, Love and Death, Howard is soon visited by physical manifestations of each abstraction (played by Jacob Latimore, Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren, respectively)...or are they?

And of course, the whole story takes place during the Christmas season. Ugh!

Now, I have to admit, that as a concept, I really have no issue with "Collateral Beauty" (except for that downright awful title) at all. In fact, if it was a film that was perhaps handled more artfully-or even as a straightforward commercial feature for God's sakes, more honestly and much more willing to fully commit to the subject matter of this potentially powerful and disturbing existential material, we could have had a truly harrowing and/or heart-aching drama on our hands.

As I watched this film, I was reminded starkly of the visually dynamic and emotionally resonant life, death and afterlife drama, Vincent Ward's "What Dreams May Come" (1998) starring the late Robin Williams in a film that encompassed love, marriage, parental bereavement, suicide, Heaven, Hell and reincarnation and all presented with a palpable urgency, wonder and matter-of-fact quality that I believed in everything that I was witnessing regardless of how fantastical the sights.  For you see, "What Dreams May Come" was emotionally true.

David Frankel's "Collateral Beauty" is painfully artificial by contrast. Certainly I am somewhat able to see why Will Smith may have been attracted to a project like this one as it may have placed him back within the similar territory of a film like Gabriele Muccino's "Seven Pounds" (2008), a film that did carry a dark resonance even when it did show some strain with credibility due to the convolutions of its plot. "Collateral Beauty," however is nothing but the epitome of convoluted plots all crashing together without any sense of style, storytelling skill or semblance of how real people behave and for that matter, any honest empathy in a film riddled with so much conceived but ineffectual pain and suffering.

Yes, the film hinges on a few plot twists, so to speak...or better yet, some sense of revelation(s), which as a your friendly neighborhood film enthusiast, I will not reveal in full here--but I am so, so tempted to do so with the full intent of saving you from wasting one minute of your life on a film this ridiculous. But here goes...

Essentially, what I gained from "Collateral Beauty" is that the process of grief exists on a finite timetable as determined not by the one who is grieving but by everyone who surrounds that person in question. What I mean is how the characters all portrayed by Edward Norton, Kate Winslet and Michael Pena (who all clearly lost bets in order to be forced to appear in this nonsense) each talk a great game about how Will Smith's character is their great friend but they also complain bitterly about the lengthiness of his grieving process, a process that truly has left him in a clinically depressed state of mind and reason for three years. But hold on, their "concern" is not due to any worries about Smiths mental health. Oh no, everything is tied to a potential business deal that is crucial Smith's character needs to attend to post haste. (Granted, saving the careers of your employees is nothing to sneeze at but even so, every reference to Smith's character's grief is tied to the business. How heartwarming...)

So, essentially plot twist #1 involves the friends playing with Smith's mental health in order to declare him incapacitated...therefore nullifying his presence for any of his business dealings! With "friends" like these...

But what of Time, Love and Death? Well, they do figure into the film but mostly for Norton, Winslet and Pena who are all dealing with variations of those themes with regards to fractured family relationships, fatal illnesses and being a workaholic at the expense of having a family life. This is layered on as subtly as a vat of maple syrup on top of one lonely little pancake and it also creates a tonal mess for the film as a whole as we are subjected to passages of light comedy, romantic and otherwise, crashing alongside would-be wrenching drama. Furthermore, all of the story threads are present enough that it gives the film's core, Will Smith, complete short shrift in his own movie!

Then there is plot twist #2 which involves an extremely pushy bereaved parent's support group therapist (played by Naomie Harris) who just badgers Smith's character over and again throughout the film for some sort of psychological release he is unable to deliver, so much so that it again presents the idea that grief exists for others to determine how long one should grieve and how. But then, even this plot thread grows to the point of being an absolute howler in the final scenes. Trust me, you will raise your arms straight upwards in disbelief and reach for the first thing to hurl at your screens in protest.

But what of Will Smith's performance? Well...I guess it was fine but it is indeed all relative considering it is in the service of a film this dumbly shallow. I mean--he gives each moment that standard commitment and his requisite monologues are well delivered. But this seems to be a movie that again, knows nothing and cares even less about the nature of grief as Smith is essentially seen in the film with an ever present scowl, he looks sad, he rides his bicycle the wrong way in nighttime traffic, he barely eats and sleeps, and he makes elaborate domino mazes only to destroy them (like the building blocks of his life?). He is inconsolable because the script says he is yet he is also 100% cognizant when the script needs him to be and again, it is all so shamelessly shallow and not at all in the same league as his best performances by a long shot.

Dear readers, it was as if David Frankel had not even decided what kind of a film he even wanted "Collateral Beauty" to be for the subject matter needed to carry some weight but not too much weight as this is a Christmas movie designed to be a tear-jerker but nothing really depressing. For that matter, I don't even think that he even really figured out precisely what he even wanted that terrible title to even mean. It's just maudlin, saccharine safeness for the masses but really, the masses deserve so much better.

Monday, August 7, 2017

YOUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD...: a review of "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Screen Story by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley
Screenplay Written by Jonathan Goldstein & John Francis Daley and Jon Watts & Christopher Ford and Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
Directed by Jon Watts
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

OK...let's break down my personal "Spider-Man" movie scorecard, shall we?

With all of my superhero movie fatigue, there are two superheroes in particular that I truly have no specific need to ever see again for quite some time. The first is Batman. The second is Spider-Man. Now, this is nothing against either character as I love them both but in the case of Spider-Man, since 2002, we have been subjected to the release of no less than five Spider-Man movies, with two of those serving as full re-boots. Now for my personal tastes, Director Sam Raimi's celebrated trilogy is deeply flawed, with only the grand exception of his superlative "Spider-Man 2" (2004) existing as the truly successful one.  With Director Marc Webb's re-boots from 2012 and 2014 respectively, I still stand by his work, where even despite h is flaws, they felt to be ore seamless and carried a weightier poignancy for me.

So, now, and after his surprisingly entertaining appearance within Directors Joe and Anthony Russo's excellent "Captain America: Civil War" (2016) in which Tom Holland more than enthusiastically took over the role of our favorite wall crawler, Spider-Man has now been re-booted for the second time in what is essentially the character's sixth film in fifteen years. As you may be feeling yourselves, this is more than enough to make one swear off any Spider-Man features for a long, long time if not for good.

Well, as you can already gather, I am quite late to this particular party as Director Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Homecoming" has proven itself to be a critical success and box office smash and for me, I am thrilled to announce that I was exceedingly pleased with the results of this new effort. It is unquestionably the best Spider-Man feature since Raimi's second film and easily the most flat out enjoyable Marvel film I have seen since Director Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man" (2015), therefore making it a perfect addition to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe.

"Spider-Man: Homecoming," now with the aforementioned Tom Holland in the titular role as well as his 15 year old alter ego Peter Parker, takes our hero back to high school again but wisely eschews with the origin story altogether, and picking up events long after Parker was first bitten by the radioactive spider and has become a Queens neighborhood vigilante in an ill-fitting, makeshift costume combined with his technologically advanced webshooters and web formula, clearly the very elements that made him catch the eye of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the first place.

Picking up shortly after the events of "Captain America: Civil War," Peter Parker is returned to his home, which he shares with his considerably younger, and definitely foxier, Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), as well as back to his studies at the Midtown School of Science and Technology, where he is a member of the academic decathlon team.

Despite his intense wishes, Peter is not yet allowed or remotely ready to become a full fledged member of the Avengers and is instructed by Tony Stark to just remain where he is in the neighborhood and school, while also under the protective eye of Stark's confidant Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). And so, impatient and feverishly impetuous, Peter Parker continues his double life as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man and as a hapless high school student with one best friend in Ned (Jacob Batalon), a serious crush in Liz (Laura Harrier) and a bully in his class rival Eugene "Flash" Thompson (Tony Revolori).

Springing back to the aftermath of the Battle Of New York as depicted in Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" (2012), we meet Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton), a salvager whose company is given the lucrative task of cleaning up the copious damage from the massive destruction until he is forced out of business by the Department of Damage Control, a partnership between Tony Stark and the government. Angered by the loss of his and his team's much needed income, Toomes and his gang covertly swipe some of the alien materials and begin to formulate an arms trafficking business with technologically advanced weapons, including items that allow Toomes to create a flying suit, complete with wings and talons, earning him the title of "The Vulture."

As Peter Parker continuously wishes to prove himself to Tony Stark by gradually discovering and vowing to stop the arms operation run by Toomes, he is tested more than ever before as he grows to understand what is means not just be Spider-Man but what it takes to be a real hero...while also figuring out if he has enough courage to ask Liz to be his date for the Homecoming dance.

Where Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy often seemed to struggle with its tonality as well as its overall storytelling (except for the brilliant #2), and Marc Webb's darker more tragic vision failed to connect with larger audiences, Director Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Homecoming" has more than discovered and therefore, richly succeeded with striking the finest balance yet between the popcorn and the poignancy within the daily adventures, hijinks and struggles of Peter Parker.

Watts has created a bright, often dazzling, seamless, high flying confection filled to the brim with laughs and thrills all anchored ..ahem...heroically by Tom Holland who indeed possesses the unenviable job of re-creating a character that we are all overly familiar with (and frankly, some of you just may be more than a little sick of seeing). Somehow, and marvelously, Holland magically makes the character his own and with no mental traces of either Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield whatsoever (no disrespect to either--intended or otherwise). In Tom Holland, Spider-Man is re-born for the moves and in a fashion that feels to be especially truthful to the source material while offering a fresh take.
Granted, my initial reaction of having Peter Parker return to high school all over again did cause me to exude a tremendously long eye roll. But, now having seen the finished film, it almost feels like a masterstroke. While not an origin film, "Spider-Man: Homecoming" is indeed a film about transformation, discovery as well as a coming of age film as Holland's Peter Parker is truly a teenager, where every emotion is dialed up to 11, where insecurities run rampant against potential growth and that eternal impatience that housed the burning desire for the fullness of life to being RIGHT NOW clashes with the avoidance of the knowledge that maturity and adult responsibilities have not yet been fully earned or even remotely understood.

And with that, the purity of Peter Parker's heart beats loudly through every decision he makes, even when he is dangerously misguided and immature-- a quality that not only allows for the Parker to exhibit some growth over the tenure of this new film but also within the growth of Tony Stark himself, who now finds his life in the role of mentor and Father figure, while also remaining the scoundrel we have come to love over all of the Marvel movies.

Watts has expressed in interviews that he wished for his film to carry a tonality that would not feel out of place in a John Hughes film and that specific quality is proudly upon display through its quicksilver light-footed pace, empathy and affection for all of its characters, and its often laugh out loud comedy. This is not to say that Jon Watts has made Spider-Man a joke, by any means. It is only that he has injected a sense of humor that is smartly tied to the realistic pressures of adolescence--especially ones that are as intelligent and intellectually gifted as the ones presented in this film--as well as the growing pains of growing up, especially when you are a superhero.

On a more significant note, I was so thoroughly pleased to see a cinematic vision of New York that is atypical to what is the norm. Yes dear readers, representation matters greatly and to witness a New York neighborhood and high school that is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and simply open to having several characters who just happen to be people of color as integral pieces of the main storyline was undeniably empowering to me.

And with race, I also enjoyed Watts' insertion of economic class into the proceedings, another quality that made "Spider-Man: Homecoming" a tad more multi-layered than it needed to be but definitely provided the film with its overall tonality. By keeping the action (mostly) in Queens instead of within Parker's Manhattan tales when he was working as the photographer of The Daily Bugle, we are given a Peter Parker, and an Adrian Toomes who essentially serve as grounded, working class heroes and villains, neither of whom are bound for any sense of world domination. Just the attempt to gain a prominent foothold in the larger world.

Additionally, "Spider-Man:Homecoming" is not a film that takes itself too seriously as the comic book movie genre's epic tonality is scaled down several notches, thus making the film more fun and less brooding and turbulent. Besides, the terrific casting of Michael Keaton more than certainly gave the film its own sense of meta satire as we all know of Keaton's past as Batman within Tim Burton's "Batman" (1989) and "Batman Returns" (1992) but also as the star of Alejandro G. Inarritu's ingenious "Birdman" (2014)! From bats to birds to vultures...

Well...color me so wonderfully surprised once again. Just as I was growing weary, the right filmmakers and the right time pull the cinematic rabbits out of the hat and in the case of Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Homecoming," the effect was enormously entertaining, so much so that I am actually  more than anxious to see where Watts, Tom Holland and the Marvel brain trust decide to take him next.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017


July was an absolutely stellar month at the movies for me with one groundbreaking feature after another, films that essentially re-invented their respective genres with high style, storytelling craftsmanship and innovation as well as that personal stamp that ensures the fullness of an idiosyncratic artistic vision at work and on display.

Now certainly, this winning streak cannot last forever but I am hoping that August will have something of quality to offer. Granted, with films like "Spider-Man: Homecoming," "War For The Planet Of the Apes," and "Atomic Blonde," I do have quite a bit of catch up to play...and with how rapidly films come and go these days, I hope that I am able to still get to them all as I really tend to see just one film a week!

That being said, I am curious about the following upcoming title...
"Detroit," Director Kathryn Bigelow's new politically themed powder keg centering around the race riots contained within the film's titular city in 1967 has already sparked its share of strong reviews as well as its inevitable criticism. Of course, I am unable to voice anything as I have not yet seen it, but after Bigelow's previous effort "Zero Dark Thirty" (2012), a film which I felt to be irresponsible to the point of essentially existing as a propaganda film, I am indeed nervous about what is depicted and how she handles this particular subject matter. the Summer Movie Season begins to wind down, please do wish me well in my endeavors and I'll see you when the house lights go down!!