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.

Hail, Caesar! (2016) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on Feb. 20, 2016

Hail,_Caesar!Score: 4.5/5

“There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South. Here in this pretty world, Gallantry took its last bow. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and of Slave. Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered, a Civilization gone with the wind…”

-“Gone With the Wind”

There is no greater metaphor than this quote for Old Hollywood, which has become as drenched in fairy tale as the films that it created.

Joel and Ethan Coen look down on this notion of what Hollywood should be with their latest film, “Hail, Caesar!”

“Hail, Caesar!” is set in the 1950s, the era when the so-called studio system was meeting its downfall. It follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), the head of the fictitious Capitol Pictures, as he works with controlling directors, pregnant starlets and screenwriting Communists.

What the Coen brothers have done is taken the old archetypes and placed them during the fall.

The dancing man-made immortal by Gene Kelly is embodied with perfection by Channing Tatum, who oddly makes great acting decisions as if he were free in his natural habitat.

The singing cowboy is Hobie Doyle, played by the show-stealing Alden Ehrenreich. Hobie is forced to be in a period drama directed by the European iconoclast Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes).

And the starlet, leading lady is DeeAnna Moran, played by Scarlett Johansson, who stars in mostly water musicals.

All four work together with Mannix to find Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), a Kirk Douglas type who specializes in sandal epics (think “Ben-Hur”). Baird has been kidnapped by a group of Communist screenwriters that call themselves “The Future.” Naturally, shenanigans ensue.

But to understand the world and themes of “Hail, Caesar!” one must have an understanding of the studio system and why it fell. In the beginning, studio heads were the feudal lords of Los Angeles, and artists had no choice but to bend their knees to one of the seven majors (20th Century Fox, Paramount, MGM, Columbia, Universal, RKO and Warner Bros.). Stars became synonymous with their respective studio and it came to a point whichever kind of film it was, it could be linked to one of the seven.

Then came the fall. In the 1950s, studios were no longer allowed to own movie houses, which became independent. The rise of the agent and talent manager didn’t help either. The Red Scare ravaged the artistic landscape with the blacklist, a list of filmmakers and actors who were suspected of being Communists.

With classic Coen brothers humor and wit, “Hail, Caesar!” is also a celebration of the moving picture’s history. A true comedy.

“Hail, Caesar!” is now playing at the Regal Natomas Marketplace Stadium 16 in Sacramento.

Modern Family: The Verdict Review

Originally posted on outloudculture.com on Oct. 23, 2015

7/10

“The Verdict” is classic “Modern Family.” If you haven’t been following the show since the beginning – like me – then it’s not the best episode to start off with.

First off, this is one of the rare episodes of the show where all of the storylines are weak to a concerning level. Claire taking her grown daughters to work with her to just so they can see her fail was almost there, but it never reached for the stars at any point.

Jay going to Joe’s preschool to volunteer had me thinking about my middle school days where parents had to volunteer for parent hours. Good times. Gloria wanting to go to jury duty feels like it’s happened in a different episode but funnier. Her calling the judge “Your Excellency” was done in the Florida episode. But I digress.

Not much happening with Cam and Mitchell and company. Something about their friends breaking up and having to invite both of them to their party. That’s it.

Phil takes Manny and Luke to fulfill their community service by picking up trash. An old friend comes up to him that he doesn’t recognize and asks for some money. Phil being Phil, gives him some cash for a cab. It’s a good deed. But no good deed goes unpunished as the boys think that Phil has been scammed. Predictably, it was all genuine.

“Modern Family” is simply not going to break any more barriers. The actors have grown comfortable in their roles enough to where their performances cannot be critiqued and the writers are doing their best. See you next week.

Note: For the next two weeks, I will be off the “American Horror Story” beat to focus on a different project. I’ll be back the beginning of November.

Modern Family: The Day Alex Left for College Review

Originally posted on outloudculture.com on Oct. 1, 2015

MODERN FAMILY - 8.5/10

Wednesday night’s episode was refreshing in the way it handles semi-losing one of its characters. I say “semi” because I have faith that Alex will be poking her head back at the Dunphy house every so often throughout the show. The approach to make Alex excited to finally be off to college has opened more doors for the series’ future. Any fool would have made this episode sappy, but instead it’s almost a pilot for a spin-off.

Alex being the serious no-nonsense personality she is, is naturally paired with a bubbly roommate who bursts into the room. Granted she too is a genius (she is 15 after all), but she’s not the kind of person that Alex thought would be her roommate. But since Haley was there to convince her otherwise, we will be treated to more of Alex and her Cal-Tech adventures.

I was worried about Luke since season 5, so it’s a relief to finally see some change in his character and thank God he’s a hipster now. Or a wannabe, I don’t know the difference. Though Phil wants to continue with Luke being his sidekick as he tries to sell a house that is unsaleable, Luke just wants to hang out with his friends at the pier (probably to read some David Foster Wallace or whatever hipsters like to do). Yet that shred of little Luke is still there when the episode ends.

The Cam and Mitch story line felt like it was thrown in at the last second and their story is starting to become more sitcom-esque than usual. Mitch is helping with estate advice while Cam has turned the upstairs apartment in an Air B ‘n’ B (The Artful Lodgers). Their struggle in this episode felt too isolated from the main story line which I feel should have united the family units. But I digress.

The Delgado-Pritchett house shined some light on another character, Manny. Manny has always been one of my favorite characters since the first season and the struggle to write for maturing characters is stronger in him than in Luke. Right now, Manny is just the witty one-liner of the family, unfortunately that’s all he does. Hopefully there’s more.

Meanwhile on the Andy/Haley front, nothing new to report which is good because the writers really need to rethink this one out. My prediction is that they might form a fourth family unit but it’s too early to confirm if it does happen.

In closing, “The Day Alex Left for College” was an excellent transition into a new era for the clan. Hopefully the momentum will continue.

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials (2015) Review

Originally posted on saccityexpress.com on Sept. 25, 2015

Maze-Runner-The-Scorch-Trials-PosterScore: 1.5/5

Aside from “The Godfather,” the second film in a franchise is usually the least liked . “The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials” is no different.

After escaping the maze in the first installment of “Runner”, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and company end up at an apparent safe zone led by a man named Mr. Janson (Aiden Gillen). The Gladers trade in their dirty earth-toned clothes for clean earth-toned clothes and meet other survivors from other mazes.

This is the first point when the film stops making sense. For me, finding out there are multiple survivors from multiple mazes is like discovering that there are multiple Dorothys on various yellow-brick roads, or that Nemo is not the only Nemo who needs to be found.

This change in plot indicates that there are even more survivors and mazes, and that they too got past “Phase One” of the evil corporation/government’s experiment, whose objective is not at all clear.

At this point the film finds a way to rid itself of even more clarity when it is revealed that the safe zone and Mr. Janson are all a big ruse and that they have been working with WCKD (the evil corporation/government) all along.

After escaping the safe zone, Thomas leads the remaining Gladers through an arid wasteland populated by zombies and Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) from “Breaking Bad,” while being pursued by Mr. Janson, who is played by Petyr Baelish (Aiden Gillen) from “Game of Thones.” (Note: I would rather see that movie than this.)

I have a theory that any actor can be good depending on the screenplay. The recent influx in young adult films strengthens this theory.

“Scorch Trials” strengthens it further when you consider the cast. Giancarlo Esposito, Patricia Clarkson, Barry Pepper. All three of these fine actors have proved in other movies that they have an above-average understanding of their craft.

Ki Hong Li, who plays Minho in both films, has shown his ability in various shorts by Wong Fu Productions and in the Netflix series “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” In this film, however, all four actors falter to mediocre status.

My advice? Go: because O’Brien and Hong Lee are good eye-candy. Leave: because all of these actors can be seen in better projects on Netflix.

The movie is playing at Century Laguna 16, Century Downtown Plaza 7 and United Artist Arden Fair 6.

We Are Your Friends (2015) Review

Orginally posted on saccityexpress.com on Aug. 29, 2015

We_Are_Your_FriendsScore: 2/5

The idea that Electronic Dance Music (EDM) is just the new disco or rock or jazz is an argument best suited for parents and their rebellious children. With that said, “We Are Your Friends” presents itself as ahead of the curve when really it’s disorganized and timid.

“We Are You Friends” is about Cole (Zac Efron), an aspiring DJ. Cole is spotted DJ-ing a party by James (Wes Bentley), who recognizes Cole’s “talent” and becomes his mentor. Soon, Cole is isolated from his friends and begins to lose sight of what being a DJ is all about. If that isn’t enough cheese-covered trope for you, there’s also a love triangle between Cole, James and James’s girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski).

If this plot sounds familiar, that’s because it is. “We Are Your Friends” is a standard rags-to-riches story told in the present day. The hedonistic nature of our generation mixed with the “wild” lifestyle of a DJ reminds me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights.” However, “Boogie Nights” looked upon the rise and fall of porn giant (no pun intended) Dirk Diggler as a sad tragedy, which it is. Director Max Joseph looks at the plight and strife of Cole the same way, with the only problem being that they all seem to come across as first-world problems.

The cast of “We Are Your Friends” was filled with talent that couldn’t be put to any good use, kind of like Efron, who is no doubt a good actor but hasn’t found the right project to showcase his talents. I know he’s a good actor because I’ve seen him in “Me and Orson Welles” where he was outstanding. Maybe his looks are what’s holding him back. Bentley is also a good actor with performances in “American Beauty” and “The Four Feathers” coming to mind. Perhaps he just needed the cash.

One of the movie’s many weaknesses is that each scene plays out as being “the best scene you’ll ever see.” With expectations that high, the entire film comes off as bland and, at times, self-entitled. Maybe EDM is the new rock ‘n’ roll, but the difference between the two is that the latter earned its dues, while the former has yet to do so. Hey, this is a perfect movie for our generation.

In theaters right now are two movies about music and the passionate practitioners of it. The first is “Straight Outta Compton,” an excellent film with social commentary. The second is “We Are Your Friends.” I really hope that they know that I’m not their friend.