Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) Review

Spider-Man_Homecoming_posterScore: 4/5

The superhero element of a – forgive me – “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” was always present in both the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb franchises but as soon as Spider-Man returned to being just Peter Parker, something was missing.

Then there’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and finally there was a film with both Spider-Man and Peter Parker.

Sometime after the events in “Captain America: Civil War” Peter Parker (Tom Holland) is back at school. Unlike other iterations of the Spider-Man saga, “Homecoming” does not waste time retelling the origin story. Director Jon Watts knows that the audience will be smarter, which leaves room for a more robust story.

The gap left by the death of Peter’s Uncle Ben is simply implied and not explained by the presence of Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Stark knows that Peter has the potential to be a great superhero but is unsure whether he has the maturity. Peter’s need to impress Stark is driven by his lack of a father figure. Note that Stark’s total screen time is in the ballpark of 10-15 minutes, and in that time Watts was able to demonstrate this complicated relationship between the two.

In addition to the petty street criminals, there’s also Adrian Toomes (aka Vulture) who is played by the always delightful Michael Keaton. After the Battle of New York in “The Avengers,” Toomes’ company was hired by the city to do the cleanup. However an Avengers associated government agency takes over, creating deep resentment against both institutions. As a result, he becomes an illegal arms dealer for the city’s criminals.

It’s hard to pinpoint which of the screenplay’s six scribes is the master and commander, and clearly there is a story to be told from that credit. But whatever happened, it resulted in an awesome mishmash of classic Marvel and nostalgic ‘80s films the likes of which haven’t been seen since John Hughes put five teenagers in a library or Ferris took a day off. The addition of Toomes also adds a “Goonies” dynamic to the story. Instead of being an actual threat, Spider-Man is just a meddling kid who’s gotten way too deep into Toomes’ diabolical plan.

Holland does an incredible job of balancing both Spider-Man and Peter Parker in “Homecoming.” He’s equal parts undercover badass and awkward kid from 3rd period Physics. Yes he can beat up bad guys, but he isn’t able to intimidate them.

But kudos is due for the cast of Peter’s social circle. Jacob Batalon is Peter’s best friend Ned. He’s the epitome of the geeky Patton Oswalt-esque nerd of the 21st century, yet he’s totally loyal and totally cool. The mysterious semi-friend Michelle is played by Zendaya who has incredible comedic timing. Tony Revolori of “The Grand Budapest Hotel” fame is Flash Thompson. Choosing to make him a smug rich kid who pops his collar makes him worse than if here just a stereotypical jock – there’s no doubt in my mind that “Flash” is a nickname he insists upon.

At its core “Homecoming” is a teen comedy. Everything else is just razzle dazzle. Peter Parker is just an ordinary 15-year-old from Queens who happens to be Spider-Man. Just because he can scale walls doesn’t mean he doesn’t have the teenage mindset that everything is the most important thing ever in the world. In addition to saving the world one distressed old lady at a time, he has commitments to Academic Decathlon to fulfill, the pressure of doing well on exams and quizzes to get into a good college, and he doesn’t know how to ask Liz Allen (Laura Harrier) to the school dance without looking like a doofus.

Audiences don’t flock to Spider-Man movies to see Spider-Man – though that does help. They go because Peter Parker represents that embarrassing part of adolescence that everyone fears and loathes. “Homecoming” will mean more to those kids who are uncool because Peter Parker is uncool and as Cameron Crowe once wrote, “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else, when you’re uncool.”

The Jungle Book (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on May 4, 2016

The_Jungle_Book_(2016)Score: 4/5

“And all the old romance, retold
Exactly in the ancient way,
Can please, as me they pleased of old,
The wiser youngsters of today”

-Robert Louis Stevenson

Disney’s first adaptation of “The Jungle Book,” the 1967 animated film, was not entirely beloved. Instead, the songs were beloved while the work as a whole was forgettable, at best.

Director Jon Favreau does not update the tale of Mowgli for modern audiences. Instead, he allows the folklore to linger and push the plot forward – as it was meant to do.

Like “Peter Pan” or “Winnie the Pooh,” “The Jungle Book” is part of the canon for English-speaking children. Mowgli always represented the wild child within. To children, his life was ideal. One day he would be running with wolves, and the next day he would be fighting off monkeys with bears and panthers, while also hanging out with elephants. What’s not to like?

As far as the film’s special effects are concerned, they are not realistic. But that is because they are not meant to be. “The Jungle Book” is not supposed to be an achievement in computer effects. Instead, the jungle and its animals are presented through the point of view of a small boy.

That’s not to say that the film does not pay homage to the cinemasphere. The temple where King Louie – masterfully voiced by Christopher Walken – and his tribe of primates dwell is similar to Col. Kurtz in “Apocalypse Now.”  Even Louie, always draped in shadows, has taken the form of Marlon Brando.

Walken is not the only iconic voice in the film. Ben Kingsley is the voice of Mowgli’s mentor, Bagheera, and he brings his unique English stuffiness and harrumph to the character. I suppose that is because Bagheera is a proxy for Rudyard Kipling, the British author of the book on which the film is based..

But to cast Scarlett Johansson as the voice of Kaa was a bold choice of brilliance. In the scene when Mowgli first meets the great python in her canopy home, the images are of a biblical nature. Johansson’s seductive voice slithers with the movements of the serpent. If Kaa were a male, perhaps the forbidden sin of desire would have been absent. But Kaa’s femininity gave the scene an eeriness that will make it unforgettable for years to come.

Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book” for his daughter Josephine, who died at the age of 6. Originally, the book was a collection of short stories set in British-ruled India. Many of the stories feature a feral child called Mowgli and his interactions with the animals of the jungle.

A child cannot survive in the jungle forever, which is the great metaphor for growing up. Bagheera tells Mowgli that he can only be safe from Shere Khan, a tiger who forbids humans from entering the jungle, by living with man. Like when Wendy in “Peter Pan” is told that she will have to move out of the nursery, it is painful for Mowgli to hear, but it must be done.

“The Jungle Book” is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

Recount (2008) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 16, 2016

Recount_(film)Score: 4/5

As the 2016 presidential election draws nearer and the cycle continues to electrify with surprises, I am reminded of the influence of past elections.

Like a kaleidoscope that assaults our fields of vision with aggressive intensity, each election cycle brings with it defining images and phrases: “I Like Ike,” Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall, Mitt Romney and his “binders full of women.”

But the 2000 presidential election can be summed up in one phrase: There’s a problem with the numbers in Florida.

These are the most important words spoken in Jay Roach’s 2008 HBO film “Recount.” The movie, which premiered on television, dramatizes the events that transpired in the Sunshine State when Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore became locked in an eleventh-hour decision over who would be the rightful winner of the presidency in 2000.

State campaign officials were left  to figure out who actually won Florida, which in turn would determine who won the presidency. The close margin of votes between the two candidates in Florida prompted an automatic recount of votes.

“Recount” opens with problems with the “butterfly ballot” in Palm Beach, Florida. Candidates were listed on both sides of the ballot with the punch card in the center. The confusion that elderly voters experienced is represented by a single woman who looks at her ballot, and then at the sign in the booth that says “time limit in voting booth is five minutes.” She finally punches a hole into her ballot, but the only problem is that she doesn’t know whom she has voted for.

This is the moment it all began. It was the moment when every lawyer in the country had to learn about chad (small pieces of paper punched from the ballot when the voter chooses a candidate) and whether hanging chad (punched but still partially attached) and dimple chad (punched but all corners still attached) had to be counted. It was the moment Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (Laura Dern) became a national name.

Harris can only be described as a whack-job, and Laura Dern is a master at playing a whack-job. She’s been thrust into one of the most important positions in the world, and she abused it for the sake of herself. Everyone on both sides of the election can see it. Because it’s so clear that she’s trying to push the recount into Bush’s favor, leaders of the Bush campaign become afraid that Americans would think they’re influencing her (which they’re not).

During election years, the animalism of people comes out, and 2000 is no exception. Death threats are sent to members of canvassing boards during the proceedings. A protest in Miami-Dade County almost erupts into violence as a group of Bush supporters nearly attack a Gore lawyer. The canvassing board feels so threatened they decide to end recounting proceedings.

As history has shown, Florida eventually goes to Bush. The truth is that the Gore campaign stood no chance against the complex apparatus of think tanks, law firms and state officials that supported Bush in Florida. It didn’t help that George W. Bush’s brother Jeb was governor, either.

At the end of “Recount,” a Gore aide approaches a Bush aide on a tarmac and asks him if the best man won. Whether the best man won the election or Florida will never be known, despite the images of Katherine Harris and hanging chads that defined that election cycle.

What images will define the 2016 election?

“Recount” is currently available for streaming on HBO Go, HBO Now and Amazon Prime.

All Things Must Pass (2015) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on Nov. 10, 2015

imagesScore: 4/5

The founding of Tower Records is as American a story as George Washington and the cherry tree. What started as a small source of extra income for a family-owned drugstore soon grew into a billion-dollar company that found itself on the path to worldwide fame.

Director Colin Hanks’ documentary “All Things Must Pass” chronicles the rise and fall of Sacramento native Russ Solomon’s Tower Records, which started as a form of extra revenue in his father’s drugstore on Broadway in Sacramento (where Tower Cafe now stands). In a few short years, Solomon was able to create a new chain of hundreds of independent record stores across the globe.

As Tower Records began, old genres like jazz and swing began to peak and new artists like the Beach Boys became the sound for a younger and hipper generation. To Sacramento teens, Tower Records was the coolest hangout in town and hundreds of local teens would flock to the Watt Avenue location.

In the store, listening booths allowed teens to hear the hottest new music—and to get high and have sex in the booths. It became such a problem that giant lights were installed in the booths to prevent people from staying inside for too long.

The party-like atmosphere of Tower Records is embodied in Russ Solomon, a life-loving man who is aware of his humble roots and how he became a music industry legend. Each interview with Solomon is like sitting around a campfire listening to him tell stories. It’s almost hypnotic.

With the advent of digital downloads, Tower Records became a thing of the past. Growing up in the digital era, I will never know what it was like to listen to a legend like Dion or Bob Dylan in one of those steamy listening booths, and somehow my ignorance gives me an appreciation of the institution.

Like Picasso’s “Guernica”, the 1937 mural that brought the world’s attention to the Spanish Civil War, Hanks’ “All Things Must Pass” serves as a window into a world that was shaped by the turbulence of the era. As student unrest rose with the growing unpopularity of Vietnam, the music became the voice of an entire generation of young people, and they could all hear it at Tower Records.

“All Things Must Pass” is playing at Tower Theatre on Land Park Drive. Check readingcinemasus.com for showtimes.

Black Mass (2015) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on Sept 21, 2015

Black_Mass_(film)_posterScore: 4/5

Boston was where America was born. From John Adams to John F. Kennedy, the city is so rich with history that it has come to be known as The Cradle of Liberty. Yet in Scott Cooper’s film “Black Mass,” Boston is shown in complete darkness, making the city look more like a beacon of crime than a cradle for liberty.

Perhaps the reason why Boston is so engulfed in sin is because of Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger, a small-time gangster from South Boston who uses his position as an FBI informant to become one of the most powerful criminals in the country.

Johnny Depp plays Whitey Bulger, a pale-skinned man with beady blue eyes and a haircut that makes him look more like a cobra than a human. His overall demeanor is of an old primitive world. The character’s movements are serpentine and not at all like his more known persona. Whenever he’s in a room with other people, there is an air that keeps everyone silent, even his confident politician brother played by the always welcome Benedict Cumberbatch.

Bulger’s rise to power is a result of John Connolly (Joel Egerton), a kid from the neighborhood who wants to pay Bulger back for protecting him in school. So determined is Connolly to stop the Italian mob, he begins turning his back to his old pal’s activity, which include introducing drugs to Southie (a term referring to people of South Boston) kids and providing weapons for the Irish Republican Army.

Screenwriters Jez Butterworth and Mark Mallouk made effective decisions handling this story. It would’ve been easy to portray Bulger’s rise to power as rags-to-riches. Instead, it is a fall from humanity. After losing his son and mother, Bulger becomes more brutal and hungrier. His friends even notice that he is void of all joy unless he talks about Irish terrorists. Less Henry Hill and Michael Corleone, more the serpent from Genesis and Mephistopheles.

If Bulger is the embodiment of evil, then Connolly is simply the fool. After making the Faustian bargain with Bulger, he begins to change. Though he truly believes that he is a hero, others like the new U.S. Attorney only see him as a pawn in Bulger’s criminal empire. Everyone in the law enforcement community wants to go after Bulger, but Connolly insists that Bulger is more good than bad. It’s no wonder he ends up in prison as an accessory to murder.

Not since “Mean Streets” has there been a film that brought such freshness to an already overworked genre. “Black Mass” is shot from a distance, trying to destroy all intimacy with the story. Effectively, this makes the audience want to lean in and listen.

Now for some reflection: In the film, The Boston Globe breaks the story that Bulger is an FBI informant. Later this year, the film “Spotlight,” about The Globe’s investigation of child abuse in the Catholic Church, will be released. If there is true good in Boston, than it must be The Globe.

Gone Girl (2014) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on Oct 21, 2014 entitled as “Death and marriage”

Gone_Girl_Poster

Score: 4/5

The media are obsessed with missing and/or murdered wives. Every year there seems to be some sort of scandal of a bored housewife killing her child or a disloyal husband killing his loyal pregnant wife, therefore technically killing two people.

In high-profile female murder cases, the news media tend to bring the most focus on the victim’s story. The film “Gone Girl”, however, focuses on the side of the disloyal husband. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) is a struggling writer who is having an affair with one of his students. His wife is Amy Dunne (Rosamond Pike), who is rich because she is the inspiration of her parent’s children’s book franchise based on a her childhood. The title character of the franchise is named Amazing Amy.

All marriages have their struggles, both internal and external, but “Gone Girl” takes it to the next level. There’s more deception and secrets in this film then there are in an entire season of “House of Cards.” On the day of Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary, Nick visits the bar that he owns with his sister Margo (Carrie Coon). When he returns home, Amy is missing. He calls the police and he becomes suspect No. 1. The overall manner in which the investigation is handled is too casual for it to be considered dramatic, yet too serious to be considered comedic. Director David Fincher and screenwriter Gillian Flynn (the author of the best-selling book by the same title) took appropriate cues from “Fargo” when constructing the characters of detective Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens) and Jim Gilpin (Patrick Fugit). Boney takes seriously the dictum “innocent until proven guilty,” while Gilpin wants to believe that Nick killed his wife. These two personalities clash as they continue to go on with their investigation to find Amazing Amy.

The decision to hold a press conference to raise awareness of the kidnapping of Amazing Amy is where Nick begins to lose control over his publicity surrounding the case. Nick goes up and says a few words, the bare minimum of useful information: Mistake No. 1. He is then asked to take a picture with the poster of his wife, which he agrees to do with a smile: Mistake No. 2. At the Find Amy headquarters, a woman comes up to Nick and takes a selfie with him without his permission: Mistake No. 3. These mistakes give the character who plays a Nancy Grace parody all the ammo she needs to take Nick down in public media.

Fincher was born to direct this film. The film’s moodiness and mystery are what make the story. He has talent in enhancing those emotions. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross use mechanical noises to pair with rhythmic, almost tribal, percussion to add to the urgent thrill of this film. Besides a long run time,149 minutes,,there are not many things to complain about. The story and screenplay are strong, form and craft are very high, and there’s not a single poor performance by any actor.

What makes this film truly amazing is how it spotlights the sensation and hyperbole that surrounds murder cases like Amazing Amy’s.

Editor’s note: “Gone Girl” is currently playing in Sacramento at Century Downtown Plaza 7, Century Stadium 14, Century Laguna 16, West Wind Sacramento 6 Drive-In and Century 16 Greenback Lane.

Trollhunter (2010) Review

Originally posted on http://jedbundy.blogspot.com/ on August 4, 2014

TrollHunterScore: 4/5
We’ve all been there: it’s a Wednesday afternoon and there’s nothing to do. But have no fear, Netflix is here! You’re looking through their selection of movies and TV series until you find something that catches your interest. But then there are those days. Those days when you don’t feel like going where everybody knows your name (and they’re always glad you came) or you’re just not into looking back with wonder. No. You want some good ole’ stupid fun and so you end up watching a movie with a title like “Pirate Werewolf vs. The Hitler Ninjas” (admit it, you would totally watch that if it existed). So that’s where we begin.
For me, that title was “Trollhunter.” A Norwegian film in the style made famous by “The Blair Witch Project” and made popular by “Paranomal Activity.” It’s poster even looked like the work of SyFy. I had to watch it. The film is about a group of college students, led by Thomas (Glenn Erland Tosterud) who follow a bear poacher named Hans (Otto Jespersen). They follow the mysterious figure into the forest and discover that he isn’t hunting for bears after all. But for trolls. This discovery leads to an entire conspiracy that includes the involvement of the Norwegian government who actually employ troll hunters to keep them from going into populated areas. They learn that trolls can smell the blood of a Christian, that there are many different types of trolls, and that they can turn into stone if they are hit by sunlight. There’s a science behind this theory, I just don’t care enough to look it up.
I know, it sounds like a stupid movie just by the plot alone, but that wasn’t the case. Director André Øvredal masterfully exhibits the natural beauty of Norway through a style of film-making that some would consider sloppy. I was assaulted with beautiful dramatic landscapes of the Scandinavian fjords and forests. It’s as if the locations were a character themselves. It makes you wonder whether or not trolls do exist in this fantastic landscape. Look I know trolls don’t exist (only on the internet) but there’s something about the location that makes you feel like anything is possible. I’m reminded of something that a teacher who visited Scotland once told me. She stood overlooking the infamous Loch Ness and felt that the entire feeling of the place made you believe that there had to be something of crypto-zoological importance underneath the murky waters. The landscapes of Norway do that too. It’s as if the secondary objective of this film was to aid tourism to the country.
Obviously the cultural fraction of Norway also prevails in what I think is a love letter to the great Norwegian culture. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s his film, he can do whatever he wants with it. After watching the film, I Googled trolls according to Norway and found that they look exactly like the trolls in folklore. I have no problem with that. I don’t even have a problem with the tasteful reference to the three Billy-goats fairy tale. My only problem with this film is that it can’t decide whether or not it’s a comedy. On Netflix, it is under the category of “Horror.” But I don’t see it that way; I see it more like a comedic homage to the found footage genre. This is an outrageous story that I believe is much more fitting for the likes of a director like Edgar Wright (“Shaun of the Dead” & “Hot Fuzz”).