Friday, July 19, 2019

PETER PARKER'S EUROPEAN VACATION: a review of "Spider-Man: Far From Home"

Based upon the Marvel Comics series created by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Screenplay Written by Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers
Directed by Jon Watts
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

And what is known as "Phase 3" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe now comes to a close.

Now with my specific brand of "superhero movie fatigue," of which I have expressed to you time and again over the years, I am indeed of somewhat mixed feelings at this time. On the one hand, it is good to know that we will have at least a year before we have a new Marvel installment to experience and to that, I am already enjoying the fact that we will have a break, some time away to allow ourselves to miss this cinematic world and experience new ones before the inevitable grand return.

On the other hand, what in the world could possibly follow Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame," the titanic and outstanding culmination of Marvel's 11 year, inter-connected adventures in the movies?! One woud think that the powers that be at Marvel would want to have significant time away to re-group and think about where they could possibly go next now that the battle against Thanos has concluded with a certain line-in-the-sand finality. In short, the Marvel movie world will never be quite the same again.

So, we arrive at Director Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Far From Home," the sequel to the surprisingly terrific "Spider-Man: Homecoming" (2017), as well as serving as what is essentially an epilogue to "Avengers: Endgame." Even more surprisingly, what Watts has delivered is no mere post-script, a more low-key palate cleanser to the gargantuan epic nature of "Avengers: Endgame."

While the tonality of the latest escapade of your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man is decidedly lighter than the wrenching, doom laden experience of "Avengers: Endgame," it is not an exercise in frivolity. On the contrary, Jon Watts has accomplished a feat that deserves any and all of the attention it receives as "Spider-Man: Far From Home" is a richly textured, high-flying and wholly complete installment that not only closes the book on all that has arrived before but it also deftly sets the stage for what may arrive in the future, while simultaneously ensuring that this one film can stand firmly and fully upon its own cinematic feat.

Opening months after the triumphant and tragic events of "Avengers: Endgame," the world is still within its earliest stages of coming to terms with Thanos' inter-galactic genocide (heretofore known as "the Blip") and recovering from it.

Peter Parker, otherwise known as Spider-Man (again played wonderfully by Tom Holland), more than personally affected by "the Blip," returns to his Queens, New York high school wanting nothing more than to take an extended break from his super-heroics, going so far as to blatantly ignore contact from Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) himself.

Peter's wishes for a getaway arrives in the form of a two-week European summer excursion with his classmates, including best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon), wealthy rival Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), Betty Brandt (Angourie Rice) and secret crush MJ (Zendaya) plus his teachers Roger Harrington (Martin Starr) and Julius Dell (JB Smoove) as chaperones.

Yet, not long after arriving in Venice, potential cataclysm arrives in the form of the Elementals, massive creatures devised of the four elements of air, water, fire and earth and all ready to wreak havoc--the very type of forces Peter desperately wishes to avoid and is indeed unable to stop all by himself. Help miraculously appears in the form of Quentin Beck a.k.a. Mysterio (a terrific Jake Gyllenhaal), a hero from an alternate Earth in the expanding Multi-verse who has been hunting down the creatures and bent on destroying them once and for all.

For Peter Parker, Beck is precisely the figure he feels that he needs at this time; someone more equipped than he to shoulder the weight of saving the world and also possibly, central ingredient to a potential new team of Fury's Avengers. But all is not as it seems, as Peter reaches a new crossroads in his life as Spider-Man...and oh yes, will he ever be able to ask MJ out for that date?? 

In a time and place when we really do not ever need to have another Spider-Man anything, Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Far From Home" is indeed that rare sequel that improves upon its already strong first installment, through a tight screenplay, rich characters, excellent performances throughout, superlative visual effects as well as one razzle dazzle of a cliffhanger that upends the Marvel universe even further. Watts also greatly accomplishes performing the especially tricky task of building upon the Marvel Cinematic Universe by immediately following up "Avengers: Endgame" and the consequences of "the Blip" while not sacrificing the more playfully energetic tone and energy of "Spider-Man: Homecoming" and the results are absolutely splendid.

Jon Watts continues to create a dazzling aesthetic that contains a pace and style that suggests a work akin to Preston Sturges by way of John Hughes, as the dialogue and humor is as superbly fleet of foot as the action set pieces. While he continues to have the film fly at a breakneck pace, Watts attains an even greater sense of control and purpose for detailing his vision for what a Spider-Man film could be, and for "Spider-Man: Far From Home" (and without divulging any potential spoilers), he has created a film that works simultaneously as a comic book adventure, romantic comedy, coming-of-age film and even one that is more than self-reflexive regarding the nature of how we interact with not only special effects, but the art of the movies themselves--engaging ourselves within the act of believing what we know is unbelievable. And dear readers, Watts has devised of several psychedelic sequences that have, in my humble opinion, skyrocketed past the sights seen in the Quantum Realm in Peyton Reed's "Ant-Man" (2015) and the mystical metaphysical visions showcased in Scott Derrickson's "Doctor Strange" (2016).

For as genuinely funny and as entertaining as "Spider-Man: Far From Home" is, I deeply appreciated the sense of pathos that Watts gently injected into the film regarding Peter Parker's inner journey and for that matter, Tom Holland is equal to every moment given to him, creating tremendous empathy and a hero we will always root for. In many ways, especially as Peter Parker looked up to Tony Stark as his mentor, the film places echoes of Stark's journey within Peter Parker's.

Up until the devastating events of Anthony and Joe Russo's "Avengers: Infinity War" (2018), the Peter Parker we knew was one of restless teenage abandon, a young man anxious to be a part of the action, to be an Avenger, to be an adult and his recklessness literally reduced him to ashes. With "Spider-Man: Far From Home," we meet a Peter Parker forever changed from the events of Blip and rightfully so, he is reluctant to pick up the hero's mantle again and more than likely, he is indeed scarred with PTSD, just like Tony Stark was afflicted after venturing through a wormhole in Joss Whedon's "The Avengers" (2012). 

Jon Watts is now delivering a more reflective Peter Parker, more troubled, shaken and unsure of himself plus his reluctance to grow up as well as even questioning his desires to be Spider-Man anymore, let alone pick up where the previous Avengers had left off. All of this is handled in a light, and even tender style, again much like a John Hughes film, where smack dab in the middle of the adventure, Watts gives us a Hughes-ian heart-to heart between Peter Parker and Tony Stark's former bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau), designed to help Peter make sense of where he has been, his present state and how he will move onwards because even after tragedy, life does indeed still progress...and the world of Marvel still needs its heroes.

Dear readers, this year has truly found the Marvel movies in an especially sweet spot, as well have received three films this year that have interlocked and advanced the larger narrative intricately and with grand style and substance. Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Far From Home" has beautifully concluded this latest wave of Marvel films not with a placeholder but one that is essential to the ever expanding conceptual canvas. 

And for as much superhero fatigue as I am harboring, this film has made me more than thirsty for the next one.

Monday, July 8, 2019

ALL THE WRONG NOTES: a review of "Yesterday"

Story by Jack Barth and Richard Curtis
Screenplay Written by Richard Curtis
Directed by Danny Boyle
*1/2 (one and a half stars)

The mystery and magic of The Beatles will never cease to amaze me.

For example, for all of us who have ever loved The Beatles, it amazes me that over these 50 plus years and regardless of generation, race and walk of life, these four men--John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr--were inexplicably able to create music that spoke to the time in which it was created while also transcending it, generating songs that were universal and yet, for every listener, the music and the experience of interacting with it was also intensely individualistic. My life with The Beatles is not the same as anyone else's. My favorite songs and albums are not the same as anyone else's as the experiences of them are indeed so deeply personal to the point of even being primal. And yet, we all can join together for the same shared feeling...the love we all have for the same music.

What an unbelievable feat to achieve and how extraordinary that even now, in the 21st century, the songs feel as fresh as the day they were written and recorded and I just find it inconceivable to imagine a world without The Beatles existing in it--and that even includes the inevitable sad day to come when all four men pass on into the universe.

This conceit is precisely what makes the concept of "Yesterday," the new musical fantasy from Director Danny Boyle and Writer Richard Curtis, so ingenious. To honestly imagine a world where The Beatles, so omnipresent and a part of our collective existence as the sun and the sky, suddenly vanished from existence and human consciousness save for only one individual is exactly the conceptual kick in the cinematic pants the movies have needed since we have been so overrun with sequels, prequels, re-boots, remakes and re-imaginings. And that is what makes it so tremendously disheartening to announce that "Yesterday" is a resounding failure.

It is not for lack of imagination for the concept is, as I have already stated, ingenious. But an idea or a concept is not a film and unfortunately, this is what both Boyle and Curtis have arrived with: an idea masquerading as a full length film, an idea that clearly was never even thought of beyond its own initial stages, making for an experience that is demonstrably beneath anything worthy of The Beatles and for anyone who has ever loved them. Yes, this is easily the worst film I have seen so far this year.

"Yesterday" stars Himesh Patel, in a thoroughly winning performance, as Jack Malik, a former school teacher and struggling singer/songwriter. Lily Allen, co-stars as Ellie Appleton, also a school teacher and Jack's childhood friend and manager who also secretly loves him.

On one fateful night, as Jack is riding his bicycle home, a global blackout occurs and he is hit by a transit bus, knocking him to the pavement unconscious, When he awakens in the hospital, he soon discovers (aside from two teeth being gruesomely battered out of his mouth from the accident), that he is the only person in the world who possesses any knowledge of The Beatles.

Seizing this newfound opportunity, Jack soon begins to pass off the music of The Beatles as his own compositions, a decision that ultimately garners him worldwide attention and acclaim as the greatest singer/songwriter even as he grows increasingly conflicted now that is life has become a lie.

Dear readers, I am simply incredulous at the wasted opportunity Danny Boyle's "Yesterday" actually is, especially when armed with such a truly inspired concept. In some ways, it is the latest entry in the new round of, what I guess could be called "jukebox classic rock musicals," during which the overall result is to just have audiences happily sing along with the tunes we all know and love and to completely disregard the work it takes to create a good movie fueled with and anchored by great storytelling. And despite the large amount of songs on display in the film from end to end, "Yesterday" accomplishes, so to speak, a bizarre feat--to be a Beatles inspired movie that honestly has really no regard or any real opinion about The Beatles.

As I watched "Yesterday," Julie Taymor's Beatles inspired musical kaleidoscope "Across The Universe" (2007) came to mind often as that was indeed an ambitious yet unsuccessful film that was a wholly strange one as Taymor created an experience which was Beatles inspired, contained characters named after Beatles' song characters who sang one Beatles song after another and existed within a very real 1960's landscape filled with the iconographic figures and events of the era...except for The Beatles themselves!

To be fair, Boyle and Curtis do create some genuinely warm moments throughout "Yesterday," while also delivering a gentle satire about the sad state of affairs in the 21st century music business (addressing the novelty of having one songwriter as opposed to a fleet of writers and producers was sharp and additionally, Ed Sheeran, who portrays himself, is a trooper with all of the barbs flying in his direction). Again, Hamish Patel, in his debut film performance during which he sings and elicits musical performances with genuine verve and depth, is absolutely terrific as is Joel Fry as Jack's sidekick roadie, Rocky.

And finally, we have Lily Allen, who unquestionably made the most of her criminally underwritten role as the long suffering, perpetually unrequited Ellie. She certainly shared some rich chemistry with Patel but honestly, it is 2019, and our actresses deserve so much better than being forced to enliven the type of insipid role that went out of date decades ago.

But having Lily Allen essentially look pretty, wistful and sad for two hours was not this film's greatest cinematic sin. It is the fact that both Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis elicited no ideas beyond its initial one. Granted, as the film begins, all is well and involving. As Jack slowly begins to realize how the world around him has changed and he begins to plagiarize Beatles songs and then perform them for friends and family, he doesn't initially receive any rapturous responses.

At first this confused me but quickly, I realized that this was may have been the right move to make because, if we are to believe that we are witnessing a world that has no idea of who or what The Beatles even are, then, of course, it would be a world that would never miss them. In doing so, no one would know what they are missing in the first place. It would be as if say...Culture Club ceased to be in the public's collective consciousness or something like that. The world would simply go onwards without a care.

But then what?

This is where "Yesterday" goes disastrously wrong, and even during those early scenes when Jack's friends and family are not initially bowled over by his "new" songwriting compositions. For if these people are not transformed by the songs, then what is it about The Beatles' music that has made it so beloved for generations upon generations in the first place?

"Yesterday" doesn't even begin to even ponder what it is about The Beatles and their music that would even make it something to be loved and therefore to be missed to the point where the world itself would never feel the same to Jack. And in doing so, Jack's rise to stardom also does not make any sense whatsoever because the film never bothered to explore what makes these songs so brilliant and timeless.

Why do we love The Beatles? This is really a question that only people who love The Beatles can answer for each and every answer, I would imagine, would be so different yet so inter-connected. Furthermore, if the same people were asked how they would envision a world with The Beatles, just imagine what answers would be given!! In essence, a potential film like that is more interesting than any moment within "Yesterday" because neither Danny Boyle or Richard Curtis ever, at any point, bother to even approach that very question and it was just unfathomable to me, and after some time, it even began to make me angry.

I absolutely hate it when movies are wasted opportunities for no reason other than the filmmakers never tried and "Yesterday" is precisely that, a movie that doesn't even try to address the very subject it introduced. It was a film inspired by The Beatles that possessed no opinions about The Beatles so what was the point of the whole escapade? To that end, the film often abandoned the concept to just rally itself around terminal romantic comedy cliches as if we were witnessing rightfully discarded scenes from Curtis' "Love Actually" (2003). 

And even then, neither Boyle or Curtis ever seemed interested in how or why something so bizarre like the erasure of The Beatles could happen--and for that matter, why are other well known items like Coca Cola, Harry Potter and Oasis (a nice touch) removed from public knowledge, and therefore, existence? And with an omission this glaring, "Yesterday" is a film that truly contains no reason or resolution. Honestly, Thanos' SNAP was more compelling!!!

And even then, I absolutely loathed a late film sequence which was clearly designed to be a moment of perhaps tearful, hopeful whimsy but in actuality, formulated a moment and emotions that felt so unbelievably wrong and frankly, irresponsible as it was so shamelessly cheap.

Dear readers, I happened to see this film on the 79th birthday of Ringo Starr and one month, almost to the day after seeing Paul McCartney live in concert in my city and from the 15th row at that! Those two milestones hold such significance for me because The Beatles have been instrumental to my DNA ever since the year of my birth and for 50 years since my arrival. I have never known a world without The Beatles and I honestly am unable to conceive of a time when they did not exist, even though I know that time did exist.

For me, The Beatles are dreams and visions. The Beatles are hopes and heartbreak. The Beatles are plans, schemes, fun, frivolity, passion, playfulness, pain, healing, uplift, despair, individualism and independence as well as blessed union and communion. The Beatles are indeed peace and love as presented through the prism of an inexplicable alchemy that happened when those four men joined together to play and create music.

Why didn't Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis do just that? Just sit together, shoulder to shoulder and transcribe what The Beatles possibly meant to themselves and then, fashion a story and screenplay based upon the list they devised and then, fashion a cinematic experience to honor their perceptions of what The Beatles mean to them? These two men are talented filmmakers and, what in the hell happened with "Yesterday"?

 The Beatles and everyone who loves them deserved so much better.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019


Last month was a bust. Broke down and busted!

That statement was not directed at any of the perceived quality of films released during the moth of June. And that is because I just did not see any...literally.

Due to an inexplicable mishap with my glasses and being saddled with an ancient pair armed with an equally ancient prescription making it difficult to view anything at all-including this very computer screen on which I am currently writing to you--I saw not even one film in June, and one of the ones that I had hoped to see, the comedy "Late Night," has already bombed at the box office and has vanished from my local theater screens.  Such is the sad state of the current theatrical landscape where films do not eve have an honest chance anymore...but that is for a whole 'nother posting...

So, with the addition of Danny Boyle's "Yesterday," which just opened but I have yet to still see as I do not have my new glasses, I am going to keep this month's activities rather conservative...
Director Jon Watts' "Spider-Man: Far From Home," the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe and post-script to "Avengers: Endgame" has arrived and of course, I'll be there.

Beyond that, the most anticipated film of the month for me is unquestionably...
Yes indeed...the penultimate film of Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino's film career is almost upon us and especially after its rapturous reception at this year's Cannes Film Festival, I am more than ready to bask in the unparalleled dialogue and storytelling gifts of this idiosyncratic artist.

All things considered, this is more than enough to realistically plan for this month. So, please, as always wish me luck and i will see you w hen the house lights go down!!!!