Thursday, August 17, 2017

Return to Form - Movie Review of "Spider-Man Homecoming"

Before SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING, the last time fans had seen Spidey in his own movie was 2014’s THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2. While that movie had some amazing chemistry between its leads and some decent character development, the movie suffered from a bloated budget, unfocused story, difficult actors, and more. The movie barely grossed more than its budget and with the mediocre box office combined with the Sony email hack eventually forced Sony to negotiate with Marvel into sharing the character as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That was probably the best thing that could have happened for Sony, Marvel, and Spider-Man.

Unlike the first films in the other film versions of the character, SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING doesn’t backtrack and provides no origins tale of Peter Parker becoming Spider-Man. The movie begins on the assumption that the audience already knows how Peter Parker became Spider-Man; that he feels responsible for his Uncle Ben’s death; early struggles with powers, etc. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t involve any origins. However, instead of explaining the origins of the hero, this movie explores the origins of its key villain: the Vulture, portrayed by Michael Keaton. The movie actually begins after the events of the first Avengers movie. Parts of New York are a mess after the intergalactic conflict between the extraterrestrials and the Avengers. Keaton’s Adrain Toomes is a working man with a clean-up crew hired to help remove the rubble. But, as is the case in real life for many people, the government comes in and Toomes and his crew are dismissed from the work site without any compensation. Toomes later learns that Tony Stark is responsible for what happened to him and that knowledge combined with an unexpected surprise changes Toomes’ life. He becomes the Vulture not as a way to bring about evil, but to make money to support his family.

We first meet Peter Parker and Spider-Man in this movie through a video diary Peter made when he was brought to Germany during the events of CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR. Audiences get to see a few behind the scenes moments from that movie. This segment ends with Tony Stark dropping Parker off at his home, just days after the events of CAPTAIN AMERICA CIVIL WAR (referenced later when one character says of Captain America, “I think he’s a war criminal now”). Parker truly feels like he’s really a superhero now and is excited at the prospect of leaving his ho-hum high school existence behind and joining The Avengers full time. However, Stark doesn’t think Parker is ready and keeps encouraging him to continue to be involved locally; to be the “friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.”

Parker tries, but while doing so discovers that there’s a group of people selling illegal weapons built with alien technology in his neighborhood. These weapons are dangerous and threaten the lives and livelihoods of the people Peter cares about. The arms manufacturer/dealer has to be stopped and he’s determined to do whatever he can to make sure that happens. In the midst of all this, Peter is also just a regular sophomore boy in high school attempting to keep his grades up and dealing with his feelings towards girls.

While SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING is definitely a Spider-Man movie, a comic book movie, and a movie that’s a part of the larger MCU, it’s a movie that even casual film goers can enjoy. The script is focused (although it gets rather lengthy in the final act), the acting top-notch, and the effects superb. There’s some great acting and the chemistry between the characters and the character development of those characters is amazing. Michael Keaton is the best villain in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since the introduction of Loki in THOR. Like Loki, Toomes isn’t a completely evil person. Make no mistake, he does some pretty horrible things during the course of the movie. However, he doesn’t always act like a villain and sometimes his intentions are not only understandable, but almost honorable. I really hope that we see Vulture again and not just in another Spider-Man movie.

The other lead actor in the film is Tom Holland as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Holland gives an impeccable performance. There are a lot of nuances to the role and Holland has just the right balance of humor and lightheartedness (something that Andrew Garfield’s incarnation lacked) and grounded grit (something that was lacking in Tobey Maguire) required of the character. I look forward to seeing him portray the character for years to come.

SPIDER-MAN HOMECOMING is a great movie. While the film is deeply indebted to previous Spider-Man incarnations (there are lots of references in this movie to earlier incarnations) and is heavily tied to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is a movie that also stands well on its own. It’s fun, entertaining, and exciting. It’s good to welcome Spider-Man home and I hope all of his cinematic adventures from here forward are as well developed.

Back to the Beginning - Movie Review of "Alien Covenant"

In 1979 director Ridley Scott shot to stardom and made sci-fi/horror mainstream with the release of ALIEN. The movie was so successful in birthed a sequel  (ALIENS) which was even more popular and a franchise was born. However, since the release of ALIENS, the Alien franchise has had some serious missteps, beginning with ALIEN 3, one of the most nihilistic mainstream films made.  After years of toying with the idea, Ridley Scott finally returned to the Alien franchise with PROMETHEUS. That movie was a prequel to the Alien franchise that is both a sci-fi/horror film and a piece of philosophical pondering that examines the mythology of the Alien universe as well as human metaphysical questions. Scott has again returned to the Alien universe with the release of ALIEN: COVENANT, a sequel to PROMETHEUS.

Set over ten years after the events of PROMETHEUS, ALIEN: COVENANT follows the crew of the colony ship Covenant.  All  of the ship’s passengers and crew are kept in stasis, except for the android Walter who monitors everything during the seven-plus year journey. An unexpected phenomenon while the ship is re-powering causes the death of several passengers as well as the ship’s captain. While undergoing repairs, the ship receives an audio transmission from a nearby, but unknown planet. Despite objections from the second-in-command (and the former ship captain’s widow), the new captain, Oram (Billy Crudup) decides to investigate the signal. Initially, the planet seems better suited for colonization than their original destination. However, when two crew members are infected with alien spores, things begin to go horribly wrong. The crew of the Covenant seems to find some sanctuary when they are rescued by David, an android survivor from PROMETHEUS. But in space no one can hear you scream and on an alien world, things are definitely not what they first appear to be.

As a sci-fi action film, ALIEN: COVENANT is a better movie and an improvement over PROMETHEUS. There’s not as much mythology and metaphysics and more action and violence. While the movie is a sequel to PROMETHEUS and contains characters from that movie, a person unfamiliar with the Alien universe can watch the movie and enjoy it on its own merits; familiarity with the Alien universe isn’t a necessity for ALIEN: COVENANT.

However, with that said, the film does answer some questions that were left unanswered in PROMETHEUS. In addition, it illustrates the origin of the xenomorph creatures audiences first saw in ALIEN.

In terms of acting, the standout performance in the film belongs not to Katherine Waterson, but to Danny McBride. McBride is mostly known for his comedic roles. However, even in those tv and movie comedies, McBride often shows a glimmer of a more serious actor who can actually act and in ALIEN: COVENANT those talents are in full display. The movie is a piece of sci-fi/horror, but McBride helps ground the film in human sentiment and reality. He’s not the story’s central protagonist, but he might as well be because without his presence, the movie becomes uneven and would falter beneath its more unrealistic elements.

While ALIEN: COVENANT is a good movie, it does have a couple of flaws. First, it suffers from the flaw of bipolar pacing. The opening segments of the movie move as slowly as most of the scenes in PROMETHEUS. Other scenes move as fast the best scenes in ALIENS. This flipping back and forth never stops. I realize that the movie is trying to copy a technique used in many horror movies, but it just doesn’t work very well in this film.

The second flaw of the movie is how unrealistic most of the characters act. Take Oram and Daniels. While trying to decide whether to investigate the radio signal, Oram explains why they should investigate. His reasons are completely legitimate. Daniels, on the other hand, is completely against the idea. At this point, it’s understandable why Daniels doesn’t seem logical: she just lost her husband. The movie makes a point to try to get the audience to agree with Daniels and illustrate she is right, but it’s actually Oram who is correct during this discussion. However, after this point, Daniels can do no wrong and everything that happens during the rest of the film is supposed to be vindication of her disapproval of visiting the planet near the beginning of the movie. On the other hand, after his correct decision to check out the signal, everything Oram does is either a mistake or set-up to make the audience feel that he was in the wrong at the beginning and should have listened to Daniels. Oram, who at the beginning was the most logical of the characters, makes one decision after another that are clearly mistakes and not like his character. This inconsistency of characterization happens with all of the characters, including Danny McBride’s Tennessee: women go off alone to wash up; couples copulate in showers almost immediately after major skirmishes with aliens; people lose their loved ones and attempt to endanger the lives of other crew members because of that, etc.

Overall, ALIEN: COVENANT is a better movie than PROMETHEUS. It walks the middle ground of the metaphysics of that movie and the sci-fi/horror elements of ALIEN and ALIENS. For fans of the Alien franchise, it does answer some questions (while offering more unanswered questions) from previous films. It’s also a movie that a person unfamiliar with the franchise can watch and enjoy.

Sharing Isn't Always Caring - Movie Review of "The Circle"

THE CIRCLE is based upon a novel by Dave Eggers who also co-wrote the screenplay. The movie stars Emma Watson as Mae Holland. Mae is a twenty-something who supports herself by working at horrible customer service temp jobs. She loves to spend her time kayaking and it is hinted at that she also enjoys other adventures in the great outdoors. She drives a run-down used car that has seen better days and she dreams of working at a regular full time job where her talents and ambitions can be fully utilized. Her life changes drastically and apparently for the better when her friend Annie (Karen Gillan) gets her an interview at the hi-tech company The Circle. Mae is interviewed and hired and soon becomes swept up in the improvements in her life that occur as a result at working at The Circle (a company that appears like a combination of Facebook, Google, and Apple).

Mae works hard and becomes a great Customer Experience representative. However, Mae is a bit of an enigma to her co-workers at The Circle. As she jokes around with an attractive stranger she meets at one of The Circle’s parties, it seems like everyone has drunk the Kool-Aid who works there.  She goes home and visits her parents on the weekends. Her father (portrayed by the late Bill Paxton) is suffering with MS and it is increasingly becoming a burden upon her mother and she feels she needs to be there. She also enjoys partaking in the things that give her joy, but alone and on her own time. Her co-workers are worried that during the weekends Mae hasn’t participated or posted anything at all in the social media of the company and that she spent so much time alone. In the spirit of getting along, Mae attempts to participate more in the “non-required” activities The Circle offers.

However, when her life is apparently “saved” because of one of the new gadgets that The Circle is beta-testing, Mae drinks the Kool-Aid like everyone else and she doesn’t just drink a glass, she drinks the whole pitcher. She becomes the new wunderkid and face of the company and agrees to become the first worker of the company to become “transparent”, broadcasting every part of her life (except 3 minute bathroom breaks) to the world 24-hrs a day (think the movie ED-TV, but without the comedy and on steroids), 7 days a week. This decision affects Mae’s relationships with her parents, friends, and pseudo-boyfriend. She not only spouts the company’s mantras (“Sharing is caring;” “All that happens must be known;”  “Secrets are lies;” etc.) but believes in them wholeheartedly and pushes for more and more control, presence, and surveillance of The Circle in everyone’s life. Then something traumatic happens and Mae reflects and questions all that she has allowed to happen.

In terms of pure cinema, THE CIRCLE is not a great movie. However, it does offer some treats for filmgoers.  Bill Paxton plays Mae’s father who is stricken with MS. The role is basically a bit part. However, Paxton really brings the character to life and is one of the few characters in the film that helps to humanize Mae and keep her from being a complete cardboard cut-out.  Tom Hanks stars in the film as Eamon Bailey, one of the founders of The Circle and its current leader and spokesperson. Hanks is always a joy to watch on the screen. He’s a genuine nice guy and often is typecast in the roles of an Everyman and the Hero. In THE CIRCLE, Hanks gets to use his likeable charm to portray a character who for all intents and purposes seems and appears to be a likeable and nice guy, but who is actually a villain. Also enjoyable in the movie is Karen Gillan as Annie Allerton, Mae’s friend. Gillan steals many of the scenes she is in, reminding me of why she was such a valuable part of DOCTOR WHO when she was on that series.

Despite these fine performances, there are two huge reasons that THE CIRCLE largely fails as a movie. The first is its star, Emma Watson. Emma Watson is a fine actress. However, in this movie, she really doesn’t feel believable.  She’s fine in the role until about halfway through when  Mae becomes a convert to the agenda of The Circle. Mae is supposed to swallow the company propaganda hook, line, and sinker. However, Watson is not at all convincing that Mae is a true convert. One gets the feeling that instead of a convert, she is instead a spy and promoting a product she has no real belief in. There should be a transformation of Mae’s character and while it happens on the surface, it never occurs any deeper.

The other big negative with THE CIRCLE is that it is written as a realistic sci-fi thriller. Unfortunately, there are no thrills in this movie. There is never any sense of danger for the protagonist. Mae breaks into rooms, has secret meetings with an enemy of The Circle, and opens her life to the world. However, there is never any indication that she is risking anything. Even during the scene when Mae almost dies and is “saved” because of The Circle technology, she isn’t risking anything and doesn’t seem to be in any real danger.  Instead, her rescue feels more like something that was staged for convenience. For a thriller of any kind, there actually has to be some thrills and there isn’t any in THE CIRCLE. It’s far too safe.

Yet, while THE CIRCLE is only an okay movie that fails as a thriller, it does succeed as a piece of social commentary. There are so many scenes in THE CIRCLE that are eerie in how accurate they mirror what is happening in our society. The culture of the society of The Circle is one where people share everything (“sharing is caring”) and if you believe in privacy and attempt to have some privacy, you are the outcast. The culture of the workers of The Circle is one where not only is your entire life under surveillance, but it is something you do willfully. Just look around and see how much people share on social media today and you see that we really aren’t that far away from the type of society that the leaders of The Circle want us to live in. In that regard, THE CIRCLE is more akin to Ray Bradbury’s short story “The Pedestrian” than it is to Orwell’s 1984; it’s no longer a piece of science fiction but a piece of real-time social commentary.  In a couple years from now, it might be able to pass as a documentary.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Sister Act

The latest production I have been working on opens in one week! (Friday, July 28, 2017). If you happen to be anywhere near Highland, IL you should check it out. I'm acting in a role that has been one of the most difficult in my life so far. You should check it out.

Friday, June 02, 2017

I Shall Run No More (At Least for Now)

Four years ago I downloaded the Temple Run game to my phone. To make some space, I recently deleted it. It was an incredibly addictive game when I first played it. However, I hadn't played it in a very long time. I might download it again at some point, but chances are if I do, my data will be lost and I will be starting from scratch. So, I took some screen shots of all the different "achievements" I "accomplished."

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Hyped By Nostalgia - Movie Review of "Beauty and the Beast"

In late 2015 I heard that Disney had decided to make a live-action version of their 1991 animated classic, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is not my favorite animated Disney movie, but it is a classic. That particular film was the first movie to have three songs nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, was the first animated movie to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, established that the Disney Renaissance was real and not a one-time fluke, and became the first animated Disney film to be transformed into a successful Broadway musical.  Disney’s original BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is filled with memorable characters and songs and rightfully deserves to be called a modern Disney classic.

When I first heard of the live-action remake, I thought it was a great idea. There is so much in the animated film that could be fleshed out and enlivened.  However, as the release of the film approached and more and more marketing materials for the movie (photographed still, clips from the movie, and eventually the full soundtrack) were released, my hopes for the movie severely diminished. The computer animation looked askew to me, the vocals in the music weren’t as impressive as they should be, and much of what I read about the additions and changes in the plot seemed completely unnecessary to me. However, I attempted to put aside my reservations and watch the movie with no expectations. After having seen the movie, I can say the 2017 BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a good movie and better than I expected, but it’s not a great film and somewhat undeserving of the hype and the accolades being bestowed upon it.

The movie follows the plot of Disney’s original animated film fairly closely. Belle (Emma Watson) is a free spirited woman living in a small village. Her father, Maurice (Kevin Kline) is an artist and music box maker. Maurice and Belle are not natives of the village they live in and are viewed as a bit odd, particularly Belle. The village’s local hero, Gaston (Luke Evans) is a former soldier and avid hunter who is obsessed with marrying Belle, but she will not have him. While on the way to market to sell some music boxes, Maurice is attacked by wolves and takes shelter in a mysterious castle in the woods that is covered in snow (in June!). He soon discovers the castle is enchanted and ruled by an angry Beast (Dan Stevens) who imprisons him.  Belle finds her imprisoned father and trades places with him. Over a few days, Beast and Belle fall in love, he releases her so she can save Maurice from being taken to an asylum, and Gaston leads the villagers in an attack on the castle to “kill the Beast.”

There are several positives in the new movie.  Much of the acting in the film is top-notch. Emma Watson, Kevin Kline, Emma Thompson, Ian McKellan, and Stanley Tucci all deliver fine acting performances. Most of the characters are quite enjoyable to watch, including new characters (such as Tucci’s Maestro Cadenza) that weren’t in the original movie; these characters actually add to the story and aren’t a distraction. I liked the new song “Days in the Sun” better than the “Human Again” (from the Broadway musical that was later added to the original movie). I also liked Beast’s song “Evermore.” There really is a lot to enjoy about this new live-action movie. However,  there is much in the movie that prevents it from surpassing the quality of its predecessor.

First of all, there’s the computer animation of Beast. For most of the movie, it’s well done and blends seamlessly with everything else. However, there are a few moments where it’s obvious that Beast has mostly been computer generated. In a film of lesser quality or one that didn’t have a budget of $160 million, these instances could be more easily overlooked. However, with the details that went into the rest of the movie, these instances of poor animation are severely jarring. They break the spell of enchantment that everything else in the movie has tried so hard to create.

Then there is Lumiere. Lumiere is a crucial character in both versions of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. He’s portrayed decently enough in the new live-action version by Ewan McGregor, but the biggest problem I have with Lumiere is that he’s the only one of the “cursed” household servants who has human legs. Not only that, but sometimes he has them and other times he doesn’t. When the audience first sees Lumiere he’s whispering to Cogsworth (Ian McKellan) and appears as a regular candelabra with a normal base. Later, he suddenly appears hopping and jumping about on two golden, but obviously human legs. None of the other servants who are objects have legs that resemble human legs so why does Lumiere? Later in the film there is another moment where we see Lumiere standing and again, he has a base and looks like the Lumiere of the original animated movie. However, when we see him again the base is gone and he’s walking on two legs again. Towards the end of the movie the same thing happens again. It just doesn’t fit. The movie would have worked much better had it been more consistent: either allow all of the servants to move as freely as Lumiere or keep him as a true candelabra like he is in the original movie. I understand why the filmmakers did things this way (Lumiere moves around so much, it was easier). However, when you have $160 million dollar budget, easier is not an excuse and is a challenge that should have been met. There’s also Lumiere’s singing voice. Ewan McGregor is a good singer (see MOULIN ROUGE). However, if you only listened to him sing in this movie, you wouldn’t realize that. You would think he’s an ok singer, but not very good. I’m not sure what the problem was, but listening to Lumiere’s songs in this film make me think either something was wrong with McGregor’s voice during the production or he was only delivering a half-hearted singing performance.

Of course, McGregor’s voice sounds angelic to the singing of Emma Watson. Watson is a beautiful woman and an excellent actor. Like many, I’ve been a fan of hers since first seeing HARRY POTTER AND THE SORCERER’S STONE. She captures the essence and spirit of Belle quite well. That is until she starts singing. She is not a terrible singer. However, she’s not great either, and Belle should really be a great singer.  Although it’s not done very often anymore, the filmmakers could have improved the movie by dubbing over Watson’s singing performances with someone who can sing better.

Then, there is Gaston. Luke Evans is miscast as Gaston. He somewhat looks the part in the face and he sings well enough, but he’s not tall enough or buff enough. However, his character has been somewhat altered in this version. In this incarnation, Gaston isn’t just a hunter, but he’s a decorated soldier with a bloodlust that is never satiated.  Make no mistake, Gaston has always been a villain. However, in the original story, he was a brawny villain that was full of charisma and he was driven by ambition, not bloodlust. In the new movie, Gaston does things that are completely out of character for him.  For instance, at one point he attempts to murder another character. The Gaston of the original movie would never have done that. Not only that, but in this version of the story, it seems like most of the villagers follow and admire Gaston not out of adoration, but because they are compelled to do so. It’s almost as though Gaston is part of magical spell that has fallen over the village and the town folk are attracted to Gaston even though it’s against their true nature. Regardless, the Gaston of this BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a poor imitation of the original and a failure to truly bring one of the great Disney villains to life.

Overall, the 2017 live-action version of Disney’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a good movie with some memorable moments. It attempts to replicate the magic of its animated predecessor, but doesn’t. It’s an enjoyable movie, but just not a great film. The movie is enjoying tremendous success, but that’s largely because of nostalgia and a year from now, people will re-watch the movie and realize it’s not as good as they thought it was.

Disney has several other live-action adaptations of its animated library coming to the big screen in the next few years (DUMBO, THE LITTLE MERMAID, THE LION KING, etc.). With the success of this version, my fear is that BEAUTY AND THE BEAST will be the standard that these other films attempt to emulate. While BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a good movie, it’s not as good as it should have been and never reaches the pinnacle of greatness that it should.  If the future live-action Disney films want to be great films, they should emulate the only truly great live-action adaptation brought to the screen so far: 2016’s THE JUNGLE BOOK. That movie successfully followed the plot and pacing of the original movie, but made the characters seem fresh and original. That’s the movie BEAUTY AND THE BEAST should have been, but isn’t.