Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming: Fresh, Energetic, and Full of Fun

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Every couple of years there's a new Spider-Man remake. This year it was Spider-Man: Homecoming. You might think this Marvel Comics retread would be worn to the rims, but you would be wrong.

Homecoming is fresh and energetic and full of fun. 

It's fresh with the new face in the casting of Tom Holland in the lead role, coming off as this enthusiastic if awkward fifteen-year-old superhero intern at Stark Enterprises, eager to please his new mentor, Tony Stark. His squeaky teen voice gives the character a vulnerability and naivete that other Spider-man films lacked that helps build into the story line, which I will tell you about in a minute.

It's energetic in the enthusiasm with which Peter Parker takes on the opportunity to break out of the doldrums of his high school life and make a difference in the world, not to mention the excitement of working alongside his heroes in the Avengers team. And this film has tons of action, as Spider-Man tests his skills and his super cool new uniform, optimized with high tech features created by Stark Enteprises. Parker's frenetic youthful energy, and likely supercharged hormonal imbalance, gives him a boost on the screen, too.

It's full of fun, because there are lots of sight gags and missteps and humorous digs at the innocence of youth, the cynicism of adults, and the Avengers universe. Although, I could do without the continual cameo appearances of Stan Lee in every Marvel Comics movie. Jeez!

So here's the premise of the movie: Peter Parker is this super smart teen who has just finished an internship at Stark Enterprises. He is super geeked at having met Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) and the Avengers team, and he's ready for his first assignment. But Stark tells him to wait for his call, and sends Parker home with a new Spider-Man suit to finish school -- on the hush-hush. Parker keeps texting Stark through his handler, Happy Hogan (played by Jon Favreau), hoping for news but gets no answers. So he begins testing out his new suit and its limits, stopping petty crimes as he sees them on his flying swings around town. On one of his swoops, he discovers arms dealers and stumbles upon The Vulture (played by Michael Keaton), who will become an arch enemy. Back at school, as part of the very competitive debate team, Parker's friends are depending on his quick, keen mind to help them win the national championship, and he's too busy trying to track down his arch enemy to support his team. The Vulture turns out to have a much closer connection to Parker personally than he can ever imagine, and as Spider-Man battles The Vulture, things turn deadly.

Now, that's an oversimplification of the plot, which is full of interesting twists and surprises. And this version of Super-Man morphs some of the usual love interests (Liz is played by Laura Harrier) and character images with Aunt May (played by Marisa Tomei) and MJ, who isn't even revealed until the end of the film. Parker also gets a new best friend (played by Jacob Batalon), a geek who in a twist doesn't turn into a nemesis. It even manages to fit in some humorous cameos by Captain America and, more seriously, actress Tyne Daily. 

Maybe this film was focused on the younger demographic, but I think we can all be entertained by this more awkward, more youthful, more error-prone superhero, kind of the kid in all of us who just wants to be more than himself and isn't afraid to try. We've already seen the other iterations in earlier versions, and they were admirable versions of Spider-Man. But in Spider-Man: Homecoming, this was more fun. And, seriously (and ironically), can't movies be fun, too?

Friday, October 27, 2017

Wonder Woman: A Class Above Most Other Superhero Movies

Movie Review: Wonder Woman (2017)
Version: Library borrow

While my daughter and I saw Despicable Me 3 in the theater, my wife saw Wonder Woman. She said it was a great movie, and having seen it now myself, I can say she was right! I loved Wonder Woman, a class above most other superhero movies I have seen lately.

Diana is the princess of the Amazons, living on an island hidden from the god of war Aries, where she lives a sheltered life of privilege and protection. She has been secretly trained by her aunt, her mother the queen thinking she will never be in danger because their world is shielded from discovery. And then a war plane crashes off the coast and German war planes and warships come crashing through the shield to find the pilot, Steve Trevor, who tells her of the evil beyond her shores. Diana decides she can't stay in her safe haven while the world struggles beyond, and she leaves with Trevor to use her powers to save the world. And from there, it's Wonder Woman against the powers of World War I Germany and, she is sure, Aries who motivates them. Trevor is at her side, along with a small crew of memorable soldiers of fortune, who help Diana take down a huge host of bad guys.

Portrayed in the old TV series as a hot chick with amazing powers, this new film version features a woman superhero with substance. Diana is clearly a force to be reckoned with, and while she shows human vulnerabilities, there is never a moment in the story where she can't overcome them. Far from it. Yes, it's her uncertainties that put her in danger, yet it's when Diana realizes her full potential and the responsibilities of privilege that she dominates what at first seem like weaknesses to beat her enemies. And while the men cower behind metal in battle, Diana steps out to fearlessly battle bullets and bombs to win the day. She's one badass Wonder Woman.

Wonder Woman features a great cast. Gal Gadot is commanding as Diana, with Robin Wright as her imperial mother, Antiope. Chris Pine is irrepressible as Steve Trevor. The lovable soldiers of fortune are played by Saïd Taghmaoui as Sameer, Ewen Bremner as Charlie, and Eugene Brave Rock as The Chief. You won't find a more eery pair of bad guys than Danny Huston as Ludendorff and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru (Dr Poison). David Thewlis fits in there somewhere as Sir Patrick, although I refuse to tell you how -- you'll just have to watch it to find out.

Now, no film is perfect, and Wonder Woman has its flaws. For instance, there are the occasional plot holes. Such as the battleship that pierces the island's shield to find Trevor's downed plane, but then just disappears without explanation when the story tellers are through with it as a threat. And Trevor suddenly appears with a German uniform to sneak into a military installation, without telling where he gets it. Those are just a couple of examples. But you can forgive these indiscretions when you enjoy the basic plot of the movie and characters and the acting.

There are so many superhero movies these days, it's easy to get tired of them and say, "Oh, not another one!" But I can tell you, Wonder Woman isn't just another superhero movie. It has great depth, with good writing, great acting, and a fresh take on an old story line. See it!

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales: Not the Best of the Series, By a Mile

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)
Version: Library borrow

The most recent chapter in the Pirates of the Caribbean saga is Dead Men Tell No Tales. It doesn't measure up to its predecessors, not from the lack of will but from the lack of a good effort.

Here we find Jack Sparrow (played again by Johnny Depp) in threat for his life by a terrifying nemesis, one Captain Salazar (played by Javiere Bardem), whom Sparrow defeated long ago at the cost of his ship and crew on cruel rocks, trapped in the Devil's Triangle. Salazar's only hope of escape and revenge on Sparrow is seizing the legendary Trident of Poseidon. At Sparrow's aid is Henry Turner (played by Brenton Thwaites), son of Will Turner, who also seeks the Trident to free his father from the depths of the sea. In the mix is Captain Barbossa (played again by Geoffrey Rush), who is looking to profit from the Trident himself, and finds an interesting connection with Turner's love interest in the story, Carina Smyth (played by Kaya Scodelario).

Although this is a long, convoluted plot line, we find the usual silliness of the past Pirates of the Caribbean films, with the reappearance of many of our favorite crew from the Black Pearl. However, Jack Sparrow has lost some of his sass and swagger, and Captain Barbossa loses a bit of his nastiness by the end of the movie, although for a very good reason. Salazar's ship is a monstrosity and he is a monster driven by a hateful obsession over revenge, in an overly melodramatic way. All in all, this film is less fun and more sea drama, but without any real purpose.

The thrill of the film is built more around its reliance on CGI than the imagination of the screenwriters and cinematographers, so once again we are the victims of technology. I suspect even the make up and costume design are given heft by technology rather than actual human work. And that's a pity. I always feel cheated when most of the magic of the film is because someone created an alternate reality with a computer and software instead of humans creating a world with their bare hands and keen eyes.

Dead Men Tell No Tales is an okay film, but it's not the best of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Not by a mile. 

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Foreigner: A Solid Action Film

Movie Review: The Foreigner (2017)
Version: Paid in-theater viewing

Ever since Jackie Chan "went Hollywood" his movie roles, at least the ones seen in the West, have been more slapstick comedy built around kung fun fighting. It hasn't been until recently that his roles have become more serious, as in The Karate Kid and Dragon Blade, save for his voice-over work. The third serious role Chan is taken on and just released in theaters is The Foreigner. He admitted in a U.S. late-night network interview it has been his plan to move in that direction, to become a serious actor.

In The Foreigner, Chan plays Quan Ngoc Minh, a humble London restaurant owner who loses his one last family member, his daughter, to a terrorist bombing as she enters a dress shop to prepare for a school dance. Filled with remorse, with the memories of the loss of the rest of the rest of his family to senseless political attack, Quan becomes obsessed with seeking revenge on whoever planted this bomb. His foe becomes a member of British Parliament from Belfast, Liam Hennessy, played by Pierce Brosnan. Quan is sure Hennessy knows who they are because of his past ties to the IRA (Irish Republian Army), and he seeks him out for help. But Hennessy hasn't a clue. He declares he hasn't been in the game for decades but is instead working to maintain the peace brokered over 19 years. Quan isn't convinced, and the movie becomes a cat and mouse game of Quan setting dangerous traps for Hennessy to convince him to give him the names of the bombers. Armed with a hefty security team, Hennessy attempts to stay ahead of Quan, but to no effect -- Quan is always a kung-fu step ahead of them. Quan is obsessed at getting the names, whatever the personal or professional cost to Hennessy.

It has always been a hallmark of Chan movies to get at least one fairly top name to play either the bad guy or one of the good guys along side him in his films, and so it is with The Foreigner. Brosnan is good as the Belfast antagonist opposite Chan, although his Northern Irish accent is a bit thin. Having played James Bond and Remington Steele probably helped established his chops as a spy-type, and she commands the screen. Having played the heavily grieving father in The Karate Kid prepared Chan for his role as well, although I thought he was more effective in Karate, perhaps even Oscar worthy. But they make a fine dueling pair in this action-filled drama which allows Brosnan to spar and Chan to kick-punch for which they are famous. Chan is getting older, so there isn't nearly enough kick-punch and stunt work as a lifelong Chan fan would like, but I'll take what I can get.

There are plenty of chase scenes and explosions, too. It's interesting to note that a double-decker bus explosion on a bridge over the River Thames was so realistic that nearby onlookers thought it was an actual terrorist bombing during shooting, and the production crew had to shut down briefly to calm nerves. Chan, producer of the film, takes his art seriously.

While I still liked The Karate Kid better, The Foreigner was still a good, solid film and worthy of any Jackie Chan or action-film fan. If I rated films, I'd give it four swift kung-fu knuckle punches out of five. 

Thursday, October 05, 2017

2017 National Book Awards: Five Finalists Announced

Followup: 2017 National Book Awards
Five Finalists Announced for Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature

Following up on my article on the 2017 National Book Awards Literary Prize List on September 29, the five finalists have been announced for each category.

National Book Awards Week begins November 14 with a livestreamed Teen Press Conference in the morning and finalists readings in the evening. The National Book Award Ceremony and Benefit Gala will occur and be livestreamed on November 15, when the winners will be announced.

Congratulations to all!

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight: Falls Far Short of the Franchise

Movie Review: Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
Version: Library borrow

Sorry to be a party pooper, but Transformers: The Last Knight is a mess of a movie. The fifth in the series of Transformers films misses on so many levels, despite a pretty good cast and some pretty good special effects.

Let's start off with the good aspects of the film. It brings back all the great characters we've come to love. Mark Wahlberg as Cade Yeager, for one. Optimus Prime and Bumblebee as the main Transformers, for others. Then Stanley Tucci makes a memorable cameo appearance early on as Merlin, which fills in some back story for the Transformers mythology. But then the film begins to fall apart.

It introduces two totally dispensable characters: Jimmy, who is the caretaker of the Transformers while Earth is at war with them and they are in hiding out in the desert, and Izabella, who is an orphaned 14 year old in the canyons of ruined Chicago whose only "family" is a barely surviving Transformer. Cade rescues her from attack by the TFN (Transformers Reaction Force), but when she wants tag along, and she still manages to follow him everywhere. And from then on, she serves no purpose other than, perhaps, to attract a younger audience to the film. I'm not sure why Jimmy is there once Cade and cadre escape an attack by the TFN.

And that brings me to the next failure of the film. It jumps from venue to venue in the blink of an eye, without establishing spacial relationships. You go from cityscapes to desert landscapes to cityscapes and on and on. In one setting, Cade and his group run away from the TFN, who appear to be right on their tail, to arrive miles ahead in an isolated small desert town.  They battle it out on the street, in a store, then suddenly in a large cathedral, then all of a sudden they're in a glass-faced skyscraper! When that gets blown to bits, they're suddenly back in the streets of the small town. Ohhhh-kay. Then a shiny British robot shows up to rescue them and take them to a waiting flying wing (propeller-driven) plane and they fly off across the ocean to England, with no intercept.

Here we meet Sir Edmund Burton, played by the amazing Anthony Hopkins, who isn't amazing at all in this film. He's a mantle piece, try though he might. And we meet Vivian Wembley, played by Laura Haddock, who is actually refreshing relief in this film. Burton and Wembley are important as the story evolves. They represent past and present in the Transformers universe and they are key to saving the Earth from destruction by Quintessa, the creator of Cybertron, the Transformers' home world.

A good part of this film is cgi generated, obviously, so a good part of the acting is by voice. But I can't give much credit to this part of the film for making it work. It's just typical animation work. It works off the script. The scale of the work is pretty amazing in parts, but other parts are disappointingly "normal" for this franchise. I can't get into too much detail without revealing spoilers.

To wrap up this review, there really were few redeeming qualities to this film. The story was bland. It lacked a back bone, it lacked an emotional impact, it lacked a professional quality. There were so many times I shook my head while watching it, shouted out, "What the hell is going on?" because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Honestly, the producers fell far short of protecting this franchise.