Monday, July 10, 2017

A Missing Element Returns in "Spider-Man: Homecoming"

Spider-Man is as important a character to the Marvel (comic-book) Universe as Superman and Batman are to the "Distinguished Competition."  It’s almost been a Lack-of-the-Room’s-Elephant situation that Marvel Studios has cranked out all these films over the last decade, forming a moving-pictures comic book series, and Spider-Man WASN’T a part of it (yeah, I know the deal about him and the X-Men - don’t lecture me). Whatever failure Sony may have imagined their last two Spider-Man movie attempts to be, the positive of them not making more than a billion and a half dollars off of them was that it led Sony to team up with Marvel Studios to produce new Spider-Man movies for them and allow Marvel to include them in their Cinematic continuity.  Everybody’s happy now… right…?

Look, Spider-Man: Homecoming is pretty darn good.  Let me get that on the page at the outset.  I really enjoyed it… for the most part… and I think the overwhelming majority of fans of the modern comic-book movie genre will lap it up and beg for more just like it.  I have a quibble or three, but I openly acknowledge those quibbles most likely won’t affect ninety percent of the audience that will see it, and I DO recommend you see it.  Allow me to cover the Good before I get to the very tiny amount of Bad.

Advancing to a future landscape while turning back our hero’s biological clock, Spider-Man: Homecoming counts as a clean slate for Peter Parker’s web-slinger. Now nestled into the established Marvel Cinematic Universe after an outstanding debut in Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland is a true teenaged Spider-Man, one that was never successfully conveyed by two previous franchises and their over-aged actors.  Aiming to please and bursting with youthful energy at every turn, director Jon Watts succeeds at making a movie that serves as a brand-new jumping-off point for a character that badly needed course-correction.  To give credit to the SIX (yeah, count 'em!) credited screenwriters on this movie, the oodles of rather convoluted plot detail are relatively clear, even if you’re not super-paying-attention.

The brightest quality of Spider-Man: Homecoming is certainly the lead actor. Tom Holland’s likeability in Captain America: Civil War wasn’t a fluke, and he has ample opportunity to continue to prove himself here.  He’s a fantastic young talent with excellent comic timing, and his Peter Parker is an incredibly well-written showcase for that.  He eases into the levity, the emotional heft and general fanboy excitement that comes with Tony Stark becoming his mentor.  Peter is a fully-realized character and is infinitely watchable.

Yes, Robert Downey, Jr. is here as Tony Stark, and even Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan is here, anchoring the story in the Marvel Universe, but there are new faces, too.  Notably, Michael Keaton excelling as a formidable and indignant nemesis that fits this film’s urban confines and plays off the adult vs. kid dynamic.  For goodness sake, it’s Michael "Batman/Beetlejuice" Keaton!  After a lengthy cold streak of embarrassingly one-dimensional rage villains (until Kurt Russell’s Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), Marvel has now put forth two vivid antagonists with edge and complexity in a row.  Credit goes to the filmmakers for casting solid actors like Keaton and Holland, and more importantly, improving their material.   

However, Marissa Tomei as Peter’s Aunt May feels almost extraneous.  The relationship between Peter and May is a lot of fun to watch, and there are some entertaining moments between them, but she largely seems to be there just because Peter needs someone from whom to hide his identity.  She also seems to exist so that people can comment on how attractive she is.  This character definitely needed work.

Tidbits of Spidey’s comic history pepper the landscape of the movie, possibly serving as “Fan Service,” something of which I’m rarely a fan, but I found them to be suitable here, and they inject energy and flair to every corner of the film.  The emotive Steve Ditko-inspired eyes on Spider-Man’s mask are used to great effect (sorry, Deadpool, Spidey came before you and does it better).  Elder viewers (yes, like me) with an ear for classic cartoons will be overjoyed by the opening measures of Michael Giacchino’s robust orchestral take on Spidey’s cartoon theme replacing the Marvel Studios “fanfare” (at least for this picture - we’ll see if future Spidey movies retain this distinction).  There are others, but I’ll leave them for you to discover.

Now for the Bad… well, what little of it there is.  I’ve been reading Spider-Man comics on-and-off for forty years, and watching movies featuring the character for getting on twenty (...and keep the “Man-Child” wisecracks to yourself for now).  This version of Peter Parker is less cocky than the prior incarnations of recent years.  He is also rather whiny a lot of the time.  The Peter Parker I grew up with was certainly socially awkward in his high-school years, but he didn’t hunch over like a weasel whenever he had to get out of a social situation to go fight crime.  While Holland hunches over with sincerity and skill, I have to admit I am not enthralled by this variation on the teen superhero’s alter-ego.  Peter Parker as a nerd, I can roll with; Peter Parker as a dork, not so much.

Peter Parker was also special to me because he did it all himself - he made his own costume, he made his own equipment, he made his own excuses.  His now depending on Tony Stark for all of his toys and alibis was a bit hard for me to swallow.  I understand this is a new version of the character, aimed at a generation of which I’m not a part.  Fine.  I’ll get over it, but it’ll take some time.  We who believe in Rugged Individualism seem to be a dying breed in our “progressive” society, anyway.

The film also somewhat falls just a smidge flat in the action department.  None of the action set-pieces are especially bad, but they also don’t stand out as particularly memorable.  A sequence involving the Staten Island Ferry should be a definite standout, but even that is missing something.  This character has immense scope for impressive action sequences on which this film doesn’t quite deliver, but it is good that the stakes are scaled down appropriately for the character with the struggle being a far more personal one than we’re used to in the summer world-threatening blockbusters of recent years.

I understand my impressions here are probably going to be out of step with those of the masses of people who are going to attend this movie and have a good time with it.  This is a picture designed to provide bright, vivid thrills and breezy bits of amusement.  As someone who’s kind of wired to notice such things, I might say “This movie really wastes the talents of Hannibal Buress and Martin Starr,” whereas a less-concerned person will see these performers and say, “Oh, yeah, those guys are funny.”  Marvel movies are not concerned with altering your world-view or broadening your appreciation of the filmmaking process. They have done as they always do, produce a slightly better-than-average example of the genre, and it is totally worth seeing as such.  Being exposed to Spider-Man for a decade or two less than I happen to have been may help your enjoyment of it, though.

Monday, July 3, 2017

"Baby Driver" is what Fast, Furious fun REALLY looks like!

Who doesn’t love a good car-chase movie?  Those Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson flicks sure do seem to make a lot of money, but we could debate about whether those are actually car “chase” movies or car “wrecked” movies.  Anyway, there are a number of cinemaphiles who preach the gospel of such flicks as Bullitt, To Live and Die in L.A. and (in a way) the Mad Max movies.  I start this piece with mention of the style of those films, but I am already wondering if I’m going down the wrong path, as Edgar Wright’s latest, Baby Driver, is something altogether similar, yet wonderously unique among them.

Our driver is Baby (Ansel Elgort), an orphaned, insular kid who walks to his own beat, orchestrated by the buds in his ears, belting out one of hundreds of playlists that help to subdue the tinnitus he has suffered since a childhood tragedy, but more appealingly to Kevin Spacey’s Doc, the head of a bank-busting crime syndicate, it makes him the best getaway driver in the business.  He’s so good that he’s the only constant member of crew that rotates it’s criminals between characters such as Griff (Jon Bernthal), Buddy (Jon Hamm), Darling (Eiza Gonzalez), and Bats (Jamie Foxx), among others.  Baby owes Doc a large debt, and now that it’s almost paid off, he wants nothing more than to be done with a life of crime, and to just drive off into the sunset with Deborah (Lily James), the good-hearted waitress who sings her way into his life ("Baby - your name’s “Baby?” You get all of the good songs," she says to him during one of their breezy encounters).

So what makes this movie any different from the 70s influences (The Driver and Vanishing Point) that it wears on its sleeves as Go-Faster stripes?  Well, aside from swapping the usual concrete jungles of Los Angeles or New York for the refreshing setting of Atlanta, Georgia, this movie is also kinda-sorta a musical.  The opening sequence, a rip-roaring, white-knuckle chase set to "Bellbottoms" by Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, shows masterful editing and spatial choreography. It also shows that Wright has his own ideas about what makes a good car chase - speed, sound, fury and locale, but not necessarily the smash-'em-up approach where a dozen cop cars have flipped over before the first left turn.

Then the opening title sequence immediately follows, and we begin to get the feel for the rhythm changes Wright will use throughout - a one-take tracking shot which follows Elgort as he picks up coffee, swings on lampposts, shadow-mimics graffiti, and awkwardly mimes to lyrics in the same way that we all do once submerged in our own in-ear soundtrack to our lives. All of the musical cues and ticks are so perfectly aligned to the on-screen action that the whole thing feels organic, part of one fluid machine.

The soundtrack is immense, sure to influence your life in the same way that it does Baby’s, with The Commodores “Easy (Like Sunday Morning)” a recurring motif that accompanies joy, revelation, and sadness. There’s also the lesser-known Queen track “Brighton Rock,” and the brilliance of Young MC’s “Know How.”  These are just three from a litany of carefully-selected choices, from a director who wants his film to be informed by the same music that pieces together the fabric of Baby’s emotional arc. It’s an audio/visual jigsaw puzzle that pieces together almost perfectly.

It’s only when the brilliance of scenes such as a laundromat headphone waltz between James and Elgort, or the wonderfully-played exchanges with his deaf foster-father, give way to more straightforward action mechanics that the movie slows, but it never stalls.  These speed-up/slow-downs in the movie’s pace also feel musical, a cadence of storytelling to match the feel of the soundtrack.  Lines of dialogue are layered upon the rhythm of the action,and gunfire matches drumbeats in such a way that by then, you’re so attuned to the DNA of Wright’s film that you almost don’t notice them. Like all of the best albums, re-watches/listens will be a must.

The cast are uniformly great.  Elgort was in line to play the young Han Solo, but here he has the chance to shoot first with a role that sets the bar for cool, as well as ensuring Baby has a vulnerable awkwardness, making his fate worth rooting for. Lily James compliments him perfectly in the hip-to-be-cool stakes, with whip sharp quips and Tarantino-style wordplay. Any worries that she’s simply on-board to be rescued by Baby go out the window by the time the satisfying coda plays out. Jamie Foxx plays the intimidation card to perfection, Kevin Spacey brings his Swimming-with-Sharks persona to the heist table, revelling in the chance to chew on Wright’s dialogue, and Jon Hamm gets an unpredictable arc, which doesn’t entirely work, but as always, he’s very watchable.

I thought a couple of characters began to behave out-of-character in the film’s climax, but by that time, the movie had generated so much goodwill with me that I was willing to forgive these imperfections.  If Edgar Wright leaving the Ant-Man movie three years ago is the reason this movie got made, then I am definitely glad he and Marvel parted ways.  Baby Driver is a pulse-pounding thriller, a film-noir, a heist movie, and also, of course, a musical, a love story, and a tale of tragedy buried underneath.  It belongs in a discussion alongside those great heist/chase movies mentioned above, but it is so original that it will never be mistaken for any of them.