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.”

13th (2016) Review

13th_filmScore: 5/5

“We may have lost the sheets of the Ku Klux Klan, but cleary when you see black kids being shot down… we didn’t clear this cancer.” – Charles Rangel

Slavery was abolished when the United States ratified the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865.

The 2012 film “Lincoln” focused on how Abraham Lincoln and his cohorts got the amendment passed by Congress in 1864. Director Steven Spielberg portrayed it as a major step towards full equality for all Americans, and there is no doubt it was.

But Constitutional amendments have consequences. The First protects all forms of speech including hate speech while the Second could not keep up with the rapid evolution of firearms. In Ava DuVernay’s “13th,” the consequences of the Thirteenth Amendment are explored.

The first section of the amendment reads (emphasis the film’s):

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Today, one out every four Americans – a statistic from the film – is incarcerated; roughly 2.3 million people. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, 40 percent of those 2.3 million are African American even though they only make up 16 percent of the population. DuVernay uses “13th” to argue that because of 14 words, the United States became prison happy.

DuVernay demonstrated her filmmaking mastery in “Selma” but this documentary proves that she is one of the most articulate and informed filmmakers working today. Any filmmaker would have focused on the broader theme of mass incarceration without exploring the elements that contribute. DuVernay not only explores these elements, but she lingers on them just long enough for the rage to boil over.

With the slaves free there was a lack of available labor to rebuild the economy of the south. In addition to share cropping, white southerners also began arresting blacks for minor crimes so that they could be used as free labor. These arrests of black men created the myth that they were uncontrollable criminals, barely human.

But the fear doesn’t stop at that stereotype. “13th” contributes the massive prison population to Richard Nixon’s “law and order” campaign which planted the seeds for Ronald Reagan’s war on drugs. These are not new facts. Students of politics and history as well as the average stoner know that the war on drugs targets people of color more than whites.

But the film brings a larger context to this. The masterminds behind these campaigns knew exactly what they were doing – I will not specify because the anger needs to be experienced. These were not crusades for security and morality, they were diabolical strategies to consolidate the white vote for the Republican Party.

But politicians, regardless of their political affiliation, have to be tough on crime. Democrats like Charles Rangel and the Clintons supported harsh crime legislation because it became the new norm. Some even went as far as coining the term “super predators” – people who were beyond rehabilitation.

With an issue as heavy as mass incarceration it’s easy to end with resolution or at least hope. In “The Hunting Grounds” which tackles campus sexual assault, it ends with the growing support that victims have. There’s already outrage over the justice system and how it treats people of color. Institutions that were staunch opponents of these reforms are now becoming more flexible as the mood changes.

But DuVernay is too smart to let them slide. A professor from UC Santa Cruz makes it clear that history shows that when the establishment takes the lead in reforms, it usually leads to more repression. It leads me to think of Lyndon Johnson.

In addition to passing the Civil Rights Act, Johnson also initiated a war on poverty. He crafted his strategy with the help of both experts and the poor. This plan and the legislation that came from it came to be fittingly known as “The Great Society.”

“13th” is currently streaming on Netflix.

The Birth of a Nation (2016) Review

the_birth_of_a_nation_2016_filmScore: 2.5/5

“Birth of a Nation” is the story of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led. It is also the title of a 1915 DW Griffith film.

The Griffith film is incredibly racist, implying that African American men were sexual brutes who wanted nothing more than to ravage white women. But the women of the south are saved by the Ku Klux Klan, which means the country is saved – according to Griffith.

By giving his film the same title, director and star Nate Parker has turned the tables. Now, the white slave owner is the lustful predator and the black woman the victim. The heroes in this “Birth of a Nation” is the band of brothers led by Nat Turner (Parker).

Sometimes a film comes out at just the right time and “Birth of a Nation” was a long time coming. The century after Griffith’s film has been filled with racially charged violence and prejudice with whites being the main perpetrators. Romantics thought that it would have all ended when the country elected its first black president, but those tensions just became more veiled.

The refusal to acknowledge the tension coupled with unrest which resulted from a quick succession of police shootings of unarmed African Americans seem to have led up to this moment in cinema.

But that was only how it was marketed. What I saw was a much different film.

The real Nat Turner – as well as the Nat Turner of American lore – was a man who had visions of God telling him to free the slaves and annihilate the white race. By omitting that characteristic of Turner, what is left is a one dimensional hero figure – Beowulf. Parker’s Nat Turner is actually a divine figure. But he isn’t motivated to free the slave, instead he is motivated to protect women from lustful men, slavery for Parker’s Nat Turner almost becomes an afterthought.

In fact, everything that should have been explored in a film about one of the most controversial moments in American history appeared to be treated as afterthoughts. Never mind the complex relationships between free blacks and slaves, rich whites and poor whites and every other possible combination of those four groups. Never mind the intersectionality of race and class. Never mind the economics of slavery. What is important is Nate Parker – yes, I did that on purpose.

It becomes clear that Parker never wanted to make a movie about Nat Turner, instead he wanted to make a movie that would get Nate Parker more name recognition. It’s infuriating to think that “Birth of Nation” talks such a big game but walks such a small and self-serving walk.

The film that needed to exist should have been a character study within an origin story of the root of racial tension – or one of them at least. We need a film to come out that will help us cope with the ugliness that is racial prejudice so we can finally understand each other. If that’s why you want to see “Birth of a Nation” prepare to be disappointed.

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.

Confirmation (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 30, 2016

Confirmation_posterScore: 2/5

HBO’s latest original film, “Confirmation,” is a minor addition to the channel’s recent repertoire of political dramas in the same strain as 2008’s “Recount” and 2012’s “Game Change.”

But instead of exploring the behind-the-scenes operations of political campaigns, the film instead explores the confirmation process of Associate Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Even before Thomas’ colleague Anita Hill came forward with her sexual harassment allegations against him, Thomas was a figure steeped in overwhelming controversy. As a textualist that believed the Constitution must be interpreted as it was originally written, he was accused by many liberals of not caring about civil rights.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding Thomas’ jurisprudence, the Senate – at that time controlled by the Democrats – was sure that he was a shoe-in for the court.

It wasn’t until a staffer for Ted Kennedy found Hill’s name that she ever felt the need to come forward.

Hill is portrayed by Kerry Washington, who doesn’t at all look like the real Hill, but instead embodies her. She embodies how Hill carried herself during the proceedings and how she anticipated the waves of criticism and skepticism that were bound to follow.

Wendell Pierce portrays Thomas, not as a man who knows he did something wrong and is trying to cover it up, but as a man who is sure that he has done nothing wrong. To him the hearings were a political circus, a public humiliation, or in his own words “a high tech lynching.”

Overseeing these hearings is the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Joe Biden (Greg Kinnear). The members of the committee are all men and Senate lifers: old segregationist Strom Thurmond, Republican yes-men Alan Simpson and Arlen Specter, and failed presidential candidates Paul Simon, Ted Kennedy and Biden.

Biden’s leadership style throughout the hearings was centered on compromise, to a fault. Because of his approach, the GOP members were able to walk over him and Hill was left abandoned.

However, these powerful dynamics and themes of gender and race are completely ignored by director Rick Famuyiwa.

Instead, the main focus that “Confirmation” has is on the personal struggle of Thomas at home. Too much time was spent at Thomas’ Washington, D.C, townhouse as he ignored Hill and the hearings. This came off as if Thomas was the true victim of the entire affair, which is far from the truth.  Famuyiwa tried to find two sides to a story that was clearly an all-out assault on a victim of sexual harassment. This doesn’t come from research, this comes from scenes in the film.

There’s a moment when Republican members of the committee are called inside the White House by Chief of Staff Kenneth Duberstein (Eric Stonestreet) to discuss tactics for the hearings. There were only two ways the narrative could end: Hill’s story ends up being true (meaning Bush nominated a pervert), or Hill is a liar. As history shows, the committee worked as hard as they could to prove that the latter was correct.

Orrin Hatch read passages of “The Exorcist” to imply that Hill plagiarized one of the harassment accounts. Missouri Senator Jack Danforth consulted with psychologists to see if a mental illness existed that would cause Hill to create fictional scenarios in her head.

When it comes down to it, this was not a high-tech lynching of Thomas. This was the Republican Party slut-shaming Hill.

But this was the movie that could have been. I can no longer dwell on what could have been. What exists now is a film that can only be described as entertaining at best, and disappointing at worst.

“Confirmation” is now streaming on HBO Go.

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 21, 2016

Everybody_Wants_Some_posterScore: 5/5

There are directors like Quentin Tarantino and Francois Truffaut who make good movies,  and once in a lifetime will make a film that stands the tests of time. Then there are Directors – with a capital “D”– like Yasujiro Ozu, Federico Fellini and Werner Herzog who have consistently created great films, with minor works still being good.

Throughout his career, Richard Linklater has proved to be a Director with a capital “D.” Beginning with his first feature-length film “Slacker,” the Austin native has created a style of filmmaking that is equal parts autobiography, slice-of-life, philosophical rambling and stoner thoughts that is quintessentially Linklater.

The most recent addition to the auteur’s portfolio is “Everybody Wants Some!!” and though it is a minor work that will be lost in the shadow of “Boyhood,” it still stands as an example of how Linklater continues to produce quality content.

A typical Linklater film is set in the near past in a short time frame. In the case of “Everybody Wants Some!!” the year is 1980, and the time frame is three days before classes start at a small college in Central Texas.

The focus is on a group of college baseball players that live in two houses on the outskirts of campus. Not exactly a fraternity, but the ambiance is the same, minus the stereotypes. Their coach tells the players that he doesn’t care what goes on inside the houses as long as they follow two simple rules: no alcohol allowed inside, no girls allowed upstairs in the bedrooms. In short, no partying.

But here’s the thing: They’re young athletes. Of course there’s partying; they’re young athletes–jocks, bros. Shenanigans are bound to ensue. It is the animal part of “Animal House.” But I digress.

Many of Linklater’s films do not have a concrete plot or story, and “Everybody Wants Some!!” is no exception. It is a collection of relatable characters that are observed from the point of view of an active “straight man.” The straight man in this film is Jake (Blake Jenner). With this formula, the possibilities are endless.

From Jake’s point of view we meet characters like Plummer (Temple Baker), who I will spend quite some time on. I know guys like Plummer and I assume we have all known guys like him. He’s one of those guys who doesn’t know that he’s a douchebag and can’t help it, yet he has a heart of gold. For that we can’t help but like him. Baker, who according to IMDB has no prior acting experience, plays Plummer well and it is hysterical.

Linklater says that the film is a “spiritual sequel” to “Dazed and Confused,” but I suppose that is just what his agent told him to say for the film to sell tickets. Though the two films have similarities, they stand apart.

Though the film is set in the 1980s, Linklater was careful to differentiate between the 1980s of MTV, John Hughes and Reagan. To most of the country, 1980 was still the end of the ‘70s. Jimmy Carter was still president and muscle cars reigned supreme. The scars of Vietnam and Watergate still hadn’t healed. In a way, America in 1980 was still clenching onto a wild kind of innocence.

Linklater knew this and with that insight in mind, he used “Everybody Wants Some!!” to remind people what it truly meant to be young, wild, free and full of beer.

“Everybody Wants Some!!” is currently playing at the Tower Theater on Broadway in Sacramento.

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.