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 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.

Ten Great Movies: The California Experience

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on May 15, 2016

CaliBanner

California is where the world goes to make it in the movie business. The narrative of “making it” in Hollywood is ingrained into the very fibers of every wide-eyed drama student’s brain. But as native Californians, we know there is so much more than the façade that is Hollywood.

The California Experience is not one known idea. It is a collection of individual stories, that when forged together in tenacity and ingenuity, define the Golden State. The idea of California goes beyond the artificial world that Los Angeles socialites portray. Californians are as diverse as the landscape.

Though many movies have been set in California, few have been able to capture the spirit of its people. Here are 10 of them.

“Boyz n the Hood” (John Singleton, 1991): “Boyz n the Hood” quashes the stereotype that everyone in inner city Los Angeles is a thug. Tre Styles (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) had caring parents and good friends. The only thing that makes the police view him as a thug was that he was born in a neglected neighborhood, educated by neglected schools and born black. When Tre’s USC-bound best friend Ricky is shot down in the streets, his brother (Ice Cube) seeks vengeance and murders his killers that same night. The next morning, no reporters cover the three murders, Ice Cube’s character realizes that America “don’t know, don’t show and don’t care what happens in the hood.”

“Boyz n the Hood” is free to watch on Amazon Prime with a Starz subscription.

“Chinatown” (Roman Polanski, 1974): California could not sustain a population of almost 39 million without the complex system of canals and reservoir that make it a land of plenty. In the early 20th century, Los Angeles became too big to be sustained by the L.A. River, and the mayor realized that enough water from Owens Valley could be transported to the city via aqueduct. What ensued was the inspiration for Polanski’s “Chinatown.” It is true that agriculture is king in California, but food can’t grow without water, ergo, whoever controls water is king. Regardless of which resource is most important, what it all condenses down to is greed. If “Chinatown’s” antagonist–L.A. water department head Noah Cross (John Huston)–wasn’t so greedy, then he wouldn’t have been driven to deny water to the farmers of the North Valley, which would have created a domino effect in which most of “Chinatown” would not have happened.

“Chinatown” is free to watch on Amazon Prime with a Starz subscription.

“El Norte” (Gregory Nava, 1983): As xenophobia (unfortunately) takes center stage in the political conversation, I find myself thinking about how we benefit from the fruits of migrant workers. The myth that undocumented immigrants benefit from our tax dollars without contributing anything is blown out of the water in “El Notre.” When thugs kill Enrique and Rosa’s father, they decide to travel to America to seek a better life. The most chilling part of their journey is their mile-long crawl through a sewer when they are suddenly attacked by a swarm of rats. But the rats are not the only danger they faced during their epic journey, Enrique and Rosa came to America seeking a better life, but instead found a land that hated them. It is not until Rosa dies that she finally finds a home.

“El Norte” is available to rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

“The Endless Summer” (Bruce Brown, 1966): On the last day of every year of middle school, my classmates and I would all pile into school buses and go to Refugio Beach. In the mornings it was foggy and the water was a dark turquoise, I always remember thinking that I wanted a shirt with that color. When the sun was out, the water still cold, but I still stand by the statement that the best beaches are in Santa Barbara. It is true, that the objective of many surfers is to find the perfect wave and yes, they will literally go the ends of the earth to find it. Bruce Brown’s documentary only follows a group of surfers on their quest. But as far as audiences were concerned, they could have been searching for Shangri La and “The Endless Summer” would have been just as fun and great as it is now.

“The Endless Summer is streaming on Netflix.

“The Grapes of Wrath” (John Ford, 1940): It is a sad truth, but many who come to California seeking success will never find it. When the Dust Bowl destroyed the Midwest–known as America’s “breadbasket”–millions made the epic trek to California with the belief that work was limitless. When the Joads arrive, they quickly discover the truth that it was all a lie. Though the film adaptation ends with more hope for the future than the original John Steinbeck novel, the boundless impact the Okies had on the California landscape and economy is brought to life with the same spirit and anger.

“The Grapes of Wrath” is available to rent on iTunes.

“Milk” (Gus Van Sant, 2008): As California goes, so goes the nation. Since the 1970s, the LGBTQ+ community’s home base was the Castro neighborhood of San Francisco, and Harvey Milk was known as its mayor. His efforts as a civil rights leader and the spirit of San Francisco’s liberal community started the gay liberation movement in the 1970s. Gus Van Sant photographs San Francisco with magnificent style and awe, transporting audiences back in time to when anger fueled protest. The scenes of crowds marching through the Castro seem like archive footage from the era, and the score by Danny Elfman pays tribute to Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America.” Milk believed that politics was theater – and it is – but he also believed that to be free you have to fight, which is what he did.

“Milk” is available to stream on HBO Go and HBO Now.

“Monterey Pop” (D.A. Pennebaker, 1968): During the early hours that marked the final morning of the Monterey Pop Festival, director D.A. Pennebaker used the audio from Country Joe and the Fish over images of the hippie attendants awakening and rising with the California sun. They’re drifters, slackers and most likely higher than the B-52s over Vietnam. To them, the festival was just another way to turn on, tune and drop out as Timothy Leary put it. Little did any of them know was that they were witnesses to pop culture history. To many, the Monterey Pop Festival was a beta release for Woodstock. But some – including music writer Rusty DeSoto – would argue that Monterey Pop was much more important to the development of pop music than Woodstock. Monterey Pop is where many of rock ‘n’ roll’s most influential artists, like Janis Joplin and Otis Redding, would be introduced to the world.

“Monterey Pop” can be bought through Amazon or on the Criterion Collection website: https://www.criterion.com/films/720-monterey-pop.

“Orange County” (Jake Kasdan, 2002): Though Shaun (Colin Hanks) thinks that Orange County isn’t the best place for an aspiring writer to live when compared to the intellectual world of Stanford, he realizes in this film that his friends and family are his inspiration and that stupidity and shallowness are everywhere.

“Orange County” is available to rent on Amazon Prime and iTunes.

“Sideways” (Alexander Payne, 2004): One of the benefits of California’s diverse range of climates is that it has become an excellent region for producing wine. Napa is the most famous, but I – along with Alexander Payne and author Rex Pickett — would argue that the best California wines comes from the Santa Ynez Valley. “Sideways” is a tragicomedy that follows two middle-aged men’s journey through Santa Barbara’s wine country. Payne treats the Santa Ynez Mountains with the same delicacy and sexuality that Federico Fellini used for Italy in his films, creating a fantasy world. Even the natives seem too good to be true. Miles (Paul Giamatti) meets a Maya (Virginia Madsen) who shares his enthusiasm for wine but with greater passion. Maya’s speech about the life of wine is so beautifully crafted, the audience can feel Miles slowly falling in love with her. In that moment it didn’t matter what they were drinking – as long as it wasn’t Merlot.

“Sideways” is free to watch on Amazon Prime with a Starz subscription.

“Topaz” (Dave Tatsuno, 1945): During World War II, Japanese-Americans living on the coasts were taken out of their homes and sent into the interior. No doubt this dark chapter in American history had a great effect on the Japanese American residents living in California. One of these Americans was Dave Tatsuno, who illegally documented his time in the Topaz camp in Utah to make this film. There’s nothing extraordinary that happens in Topaz; it’s mostly daily life. But after the initial shock has worn off, it becomes clear that Americans have the ability to make the best out of the worse situation. Their country told them that they were enemies of the state, but when there are children smiling and ice skating, playing in the snow, and holding baseball games it becomes abundantly clear that they are not enemies.

“Topaz” is available to watch in black and white on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KboirnCzius.

Honorable Mentions:

“Almost Famous”

“Bottle Shock”

“The Debut”

“East of Eden”

“The Graduate”

“Harold and Maude”

“The Right Stuff”

“Stand and Deliver”

“Tortilla Soup”

“Tangerine”

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.

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.

My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on April 11, 2016

A letter of concern to Nia Vardalos

greek wedding 2Score: 1.5/5

Ms. Nia Vardalos,

Thank you for “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

When I was just an awkward middle schooler in Southern California, you came into my life with your unique insight on family, love and happiness.

As Toula Portokalos, you were every person who ever felt as if there was more beyond his or her own family. You showed us the inevitable conclusion that family will always be a part of who we are.

Your confidence and Archaic sexuality stood grounded and strong in the sea of chaos that was your family.

Though I am not of Greek descent and there are more differences than similarities in the Filipino and Greek cultures, I still felt like your family was my family.Your description of the lack of personal time as a result of your family always being in each other’s business struck a chord with me.

I am filled with the great memories of weekly barbecues with my extended family, and Easters in the park, where the men would stand around the pit talking about football, the women would gather around a table and share the week’s gossip, and the kids would run in a massive swirl of energy that never seemed to wane.

Yet when I saw “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” your epilogue to your magnum opus, the Nia Vardalos that I knew and loved, was absent. Literally.

I understand that you wanted to show how Toula’s teenage daughter was experiencing the same anxieties of being part of a big family, but why was Toula pushed to the sidelines along with a subplot about trying to create the perfect marriage with her husband? It made no sense for her character.

Without Toula, the Portokalos family has become nothing but a collection of one-dimensional characters. Toula was the glue that held it all together. In “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” she is part of the madness.

Though your daughter, Paris, was supposed to be the straight man–a replacement for Toula–she only came off as being a brat.

There were also other additions to “Greek Wedding 2” that didn’t seem necessary or in character. The odd main plot about Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan) not actually being married clearly only existed because there needed to be justification for the title “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.”

And why was John Stamos in there?

Ms. Vardalos, do not take this lamentation as a criticism, but instead as a warning.

You are too talented to be corrupted by the dollar. “Greek Wedding 2” shows that it’s getting to you. Do not become one of those writers-for-hire, taking whatever project has the highest amount attached.

Your voice is still strong. Use it.

With love and concern,

Zach