Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Homecoming


The Facts
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Synopsis: Several months after the events of Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker tries to balance his life as an ordinary high school student in New York City while fighting crime as his superhero alter ego Spider-Man.

Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Zendaya Coleman, Marisa Tomei, Jacob Batalon, Laura Harrier, Robert Downey Jr., Jon Favreau, Donald Glover, Tyne Daly

Director: Jon Watts

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Another Spider-Man restage?  Really?  A big collective groan was heard from fanboys and girls around the world when Sony decided to reboot their prized web-slinger back in 2012 with The Amazing Spider-Man.  That film and its 2014 sequel (The Amazing Spider-Man 2), while solidifying the rising popularity of stars Andrew Garfield and Emma stone, never fully justified its back to the drawing board feel.  So when Marvel Studios came to Sony with an offer to join creative forces and bring Spidey into the Marvel universe where he belonged, it was an offer they really had no right to refuse.  Still, with a new superhero movie seemingly released every other week, did the world need to get to know Spider-Man all over again?

The answer, dear friendly neighborhood readers, was a resounding yes.  Spider-Man: Homecoming is just the reenergizing kick in the pants Marvel was needing after a string of well received but oddly bland sequels (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and iffy first outings (Doctor Strange, Ant-Man).  Best of all, it’s so tonally different than the original trilogy and recent two entries that it should keep fans of that canon at bay.  Even better news, it’s not an origin story!

If you missed either The Avengers, its sequel, or Captain America: Civil War like my movie mate did, you may be a little lost in the first moments of this new Spidey adventure.  The brief prologue recaps Spider-Man’s introduction to The Avengers in Civil War from his wide-eyed teenage perspective and quickly brings you up to speed while setting the whiz-bang pace at the same time.  It also lays the groundwork for why it’s main bad guy went so rogue.

After his brief foray into the superhero big leagues, Peter Parker (Tom Holland, The Impossible) gets grounded by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., The Judge, looking guiltier than ever at continuing to collect a paycheck) and put under the watchful eye of Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau, Entourage) who quickly loses interest in the teen.  Not one to let his new heroic muscles go unstretched, Peter sets about “saving” residents of his Queens borough neighborhood, whether they like it or not.  Often causing more trouble than preventing it, Peter stumbles upon a group of thugs led by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton, Need for Speed), all of whom are clearly up to no good.

A disgruntled former blue-collar union man, Toomes has used his skills and a few alien power sources he’s scrounged together to fashion a set of wings (complimented by a bad ass bomber jacket) that take him sky high.  As Peter gets closer to finding out the truth behind Toomes/The Vulture, he comes up against not only his most powerful villain yet but runs afoul of his ally Stark in the process.

At 133 minutes, there’s a lot to cram in and thankfully the large handful of credited screenwriters have decided to forgo retelling how Peter got his powers and waste little time with introductions.  This being a summer tentpole film for Sony and Marvel and in the wake of the critical and financial success of DC Comics stellar Wonder Woman, a lot was riding on this entry.  Those studio exces can breathe a sigh of relief because from the nicely drawn characters to several impressive action sequences, this is a film that constantly and consistently delivers the goods.

Director Jon Watts (Clown) joins a curious list of “out of the box” choices to direct a movie of this size.  Known for his work in independent films, it’s obvious from the small details Watts adds into the film (like including a bit of Japanese war history on the wall of an otherwise innocuous school official, giving even a minor character a backstory) that he was the right choice for the job.  It’s a fast, funny film that felt unpredictable even though it’s part of the most predictable genre being produced today.

Nailing down the perfect star to play Peter Parker was no small task but Sony struck gold with Holland who, though 21, feels like the first actor to successfully play a believable 15-year-old.  With Holland’s dance training (he was Billy Elliot in the London stage show) and his well-documented tremendous athleticism, he’s able to bring the character forward rather than get lost within the costume and pristine visual effects.  Sharing the screen with scenery chewers like Downey Jr. and Keaton isn’t for the faint of heart but Holland more than holds his own.

Speaking of Keaton, it’s such fun to see him play a bad guy. With his devilish grin and arched eyebrows, he gives Toomes a pulse along with ample brainwaves.  I always respond to villains that aren’t out to take over the world but to reclaim what they think was taken from them and Toomes joins a long list of Spider-Man foes that have personal reasons for going bad. Zendaya Coleman, Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers), Jacob Batalon, and Laura Harrier round out the cast and all (but especially Batalon) make for a strong support system for Peter and the film.

With a few unexpected twists (there’s at least two reveals I didn’t see coming) and edge of your seat thrills that are sure to inspire furious popcorn munching, Spider-Man: Homecoming is worth your time and your attention.  If your Spidey senses aren’t tingling from the opening logos played over the old-school title tune, they will be once Holland and company get down to business.  This being a Marvel movie, you gotta stay until the very end for one of the more meta post credit sequences to date.

Movie Review ~ Vacation

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Rusty Griswold takes his own family on a road trip to “Walley World” in order to spice things up with his wife and reconnect with his sons.

Stars: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Leslie Mann, Beverly D’Angelo, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Chevy Chase

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Like the memories of a long-ago family road trip, watching the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies have a special place in my mind.  I’ll never forget hearing my dad howl with laughter watching Chevy Chase strap a dead body to his car in the original Vacation from 1983.  I also remember my parents fumbling with the VCR remote to fast forward through some of the racier parts of 1985’s European Vacation.  And I can’t count how many memories are associated with the multiple annual viewings of 1989’s Christmas Vacation. Vegas Vacation from 1997?  Eh, I think I saw it on an airplane once…and I won’t even deign to watch the 2003 TV Movie Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure.

So you have to understand that I approached this reboot/sequel of the Vacation franchise with a side eye glance and full on arched eyebrows.  While the franchise didn’t have a spotless track record I didn’t want another inferior sequel to sully the good times of the past.  Gradually, I started to come around once the casting came together and several funnier-than-they-should-have-been previews were released.  Still…what’s to say that all the funny bits weren’t crammed into the trailers just to get unsuspecting butts in seats?

Well, the summer Vacation of 2015 is a nice throwback to the one that started it all and while many of the funny bits were tipped off in early trailers, I’m pleased to report that most of these jokes are taken a step further in the finished product and it has a healthy amount of raucous material heretofore yet unseen.

Is the ride clear of bumps?  Oh goodness no.  Thankfully, the film is so packed with gags (and a few gag worthy moments) that these rough patches are cleared in time for a better joke to land.

Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms, We’re the Millers, another in a long line of actors that have played the character, something the film delightful acknowledges) is, like his dad, a hard-working family man that just wants to eek out the best kind of life for his wife and two sons.  Working as a pilot in a bargain airline, he looks forward to the family togetherness of a yearly summer cabin retreat.  This year is going to be different, though.  Noticing a lack of excitement in the same old routine and feeling nostalgic for his family trips, he ditches the cabin idea and invests in a tricked out rental car to carry his tribe to Walley World…the destination of the first film that paved the comedic way for all trips to come.

Rusty’s wife (Christina Applegate, a good straight-man, er, woman, to Helms’s dopey simpleton) wished for a Paris trip for two but goes along with her husband’s plans in hopes of reigniting a spark in their marriage.  Their sons are post-pubescent Skyler Gisondo (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), a hopeless romantic, and pre-pubescent Steele Stebbins, a foul-mouthed nightmare that lives to torture his older brother.  All three would rather be anywhere else than road-tripping it across the country with the good natured head of their family.

As in the original, the road to Walley World isn’t an easy one and the Griswolds encounter a host of comedic roadblocks along the way…from hazardous waste ponds to a drunken sorority charity event to a detour to meet up with Rusty’s sister Audrey (Leslie Mann, The Other Woman) and her bo-hunk husband (Chris Hemsworth, Cabin in the Woods, who gets the best visual joke with the most, um, girth).   There are nice nods to the first film that I won’t spoil here and while it starts to run out of steam near the finale the ride up to that point has been more memorable than you’d care to admit.

Ironically, the worst part of this new Vacation are the two holdovers from all of the previous films…Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo.  Popping up late in the game to offer some unnecessary words of wisdom, it’s a sequence that was included with the best of intentions but comes off as superfluous, especially considering that this film seeks to establish itself on its own four wheels.  It doesn’t help that Chase looks like he took one too many extra scoops of mashed potatoes and D’Angelo’s plastic surgeon went a little wild with the Botox.

Directors and co-writers John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) start things off with a laugh in a fun (if low-brow) credit sequence and keep things light, there’s no villain of the film and the only problems that pop up are of the Griswold’s own making.  Helms and Applegate are terrific comedians and don’t oversell the material – here’s hoping this Vacation is well received to get a holiday sequel on the books.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Vacation (2015)

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Synopsis: Rusty Griswold takes his own family on a road trip to “Walley World” in order to spice things up with his wife and reconnect with his sons.

Release Date: July 29, 2015

Thoughts: As a huge fan of the original National Lampoon’s Vacation, I was dying a little inside when I heard that a remake was getting started over at Warner Brothers. Why would they need to remake a movie that had such a solid foothold in the comedy pantheon and served as the basis for many an imitation in the years to come? Fears were assuaged a bit when it was revealed this was less of a remake but more of a reboot/sequel with Rusty Griswold trying to relive one of the best trips of his life with his own family. The first trailer for the 2015 Vacation looks promising and I’m solidly behind stars Ed Helms (We’re The Millers) and Christina Applegate. Nice to see that Rusty’s parents (Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo) make a cameo in it as well. There’s also our first look at a much talked about sight gag, courtesy of Chris Hemworth (Avengers: Age of Ultron).

Movie Review ~ The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a street magician’s stunt begins to make their show look stale, superstar magicians Burt Wonderstone and Anton Marvelton look to salvage on their act – and their friendship – by staging their own daring stunt

Stars: Steve Carell, Steve Buscemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, James Gandolfini, Jim Carrey, Jay Mohr, Michael Bully Herbig

Director: Don Scardino

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  It’s debatable but I’d argue that the best sleight of hand that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone performs is making laughs vanish for 110 minutes.  In my review of the trailer for the comedy, I predicted that the film was “either going to soar to great heights or crash and burn in terrible fashion” and while the movie isn’t a total write-off thanks to a few decent performances, it’s a largely forgettable film that vanishes from memory before you reach your car.

Though star Carell has done fairly well so far in his film career, he’s not known for taking on any roles that offer any real stretch opportunities.  I enjoyed his work in Dan in Real Life and Crazy, Stupid, Love but his work here falls into the Evan Almighty and Get Smart area…that is to say buffoonery.  In Wonderstone he’s one half of a Las Vegas magic act that seems to be sending up Siegfried and Roy grandiosity and David Copperfield (who also cameos) illusion. 

When we meet the younger Wonderstone in an enjoyable prologue, he’s a bullied child with an absentee mother who has him bake his own birthday cake.  After he receives a Rance Howard Magic Kit, he finds his passion and a partner in Anton – soon they are headlining their own show in Vegas and over the next decade they rake in the audiences along with the dough.  Trouble is, their act is stale and with a new generation wanting more bang for their buck their show becomes old hat.  It doesn’t help that Burt has become a misogynistic d-bag and Anton (a woefully untapped Buscemi) his punching bag.

For a boy that was bullied so much as a child, it’s an odd transition to have Burt become so unloving and harsh to his friends that support him.  It’s also not very fun to watch as Carell spends the first half of the movie with a put-upon snooty-toot accent and an array of sequined costumes.  When Burt and Anton find themselves without a show and not on speaking terms, Burt takes a job at a senior center for retired Las Vegas performers and that’s where he meets his idol since childhood…Rance Howard. 

As Rance, Arkin pretty much walks away with the movie as he is prone to do (and get Oscar nominated like he did in Argo) when given a character he can do something with.  Though thinly written, Arkin puts a nice shine on the grizzled magician to provide the film with its most dependable laughs.  The same can’t be said for Carrey as a Criss Angel/David Blaine style street magician whose tricks/stunts become more grotesque and dangerous as the movie progresses.  On complete auto-pilot, Carrey resurrects his Ace Ventura mannerisms to decidedly ho-hum results. 

Wilde is so shoe-horned into this film I’m wondering if her entire character wasn’t added after the film was completed to give Carell a ludicrous love interest.  Only called upon to say some of the more straight-forward dialogue that other characters couldn’t say, Wilde is totally lost at sea and knows it.  Gandolfini’s meatball head has nearly been swallowed by his shoulders and Mohr turns in one of the least funny performances in a comedy ever.

I have a quick note about the magic in the film.  I still hold to the belief that magic in movies is incredibly hard to pull off because most of us deal with a suspension of disbelief that prevents us from really buying into the magic we’re seeing on screen.  Though the film really isn’t about magic tricks, the few that are there are staged in such a way that indicates the filmmakers want us to think they’ve pulled off a great trick…when they really just positioned the camera in such a way that we can’t see what’s really happening. 

Director Scardino is known for directing television series and hasn’t made a feature film in over a decade, made painfully obvious by a dramatic lack of any sort of pacing beyond half hour increments.  The film is probably twenty minutes too long and strains to reach an ending so unbelievable I kept waiting for it to be some elaborate dream sequence.  The script by John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldstein feels a tad selfish…giving too much to Carell and ignoring some nice comedic opportunities (a senior center for retired Las Vegas performers has so much potential that is totally wasted…where are the old ladies in showgirl costumes??)

If you’re a Carell or Carrey fan chances are you’re looking forward to this one and I say more power to you.  You’ll probably get what you came for but nothing more…sometimes that’s enough.  For this reviewer, I wish the filmmakers could hvae Zim Zala-Bim-ed their way into a better movie.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Incredible Burt Wonderstone

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Synopsis: Magician Burt Wonderstone splits from his longtime stage partner after a guerrilla street magician steals their thunder. By spending some time with his boyhood idol, Burt looks to remember what made him love magic in the first place.

Release Date:  March 15, 2013

Thoughts: Here’s an example of a movie that’s either going to soar to great heights or crash and burn in terrible fashion.  Judging from the preview, the jury’s still out on which direction it will go.  It certainly has a game cast that has the combined talents to make this iffy material work.  Speaking of the material, is it just me or does this seem like a rejected idea from a sketch on Saturday Night Live?  A director who hasn’t helmed a major motion picture guiding A-list stars always makes me pause – so here’s hoping that the screenplay by John Francis Daley/Jonathan Goldstein (Horrible Bosses) has the laughs in it that the trailer promises.