Movie Review ~ The Starling

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman adjusting to life after a loss contends with a feisty bird that’s taken over her garden — and a husband who’s struggling to find a way forward.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Chris O’Dowd, Kevin Kline, Timothy Olyphant, Daveed Diggs, Skyler Gisondo, Loretta Devine, Laura Harrier, Rosalind Chao, Kimberly Quinn

Director: Theodore Melfi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  After settling into watching the new Netflix dramedy The Starling the other day, I had a pretty good idea why the initial buzz I had heard after it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival was fairly lukewarm.  This is one of those movies that film snobs hungry to feast on spoiled leftovers just hate with a red-hot passion because it doesn’t wind up tasting all that bad.  It’s SpaghettiOs® in a season where fine Italian pasta in a rich, velvety sauce is sought and before you say that I’m knocking that canned bit of gold, I consider it a fine meal any day of the week.  Without a carcass to gnaw on, it could be easy to simply dismiss the emotions brought forth as overly sentimental TV-movie of the week junk, but in doing so you’d miss the bittersweet lead performances playing grieving parents still processing a profound loss.

Lilly Maynard (Melissa McCarthy, Thunder Force) and her husband Jack (Chris O’Dowd, The Sapphires) have big plans for their newborn, plans they discuss in the film’s opening moments as they paint her nursery with an elaborate mural of a tree with inviting branches.  Flash forward to a time in the future after their daughter has died when Lilly is a zoned-out worker at a small-town grocery superstore and Jack is spending time at a mental health facility an hour away.  She makes the trip once a week for a visit that doesn’t seem to help either one of them deal with a pain they can’t share with each other.  Resentment from both parties is strong; she doesn’t understand why he has to work through this life altering event alone and away from her, he believes she’s moving on too quickly and can’t forgive himself for the loss of their child.

On the suggestion of Jack’s group leader, Lilly seeks out the town vet, Dr. Larry Fine (Kevin Kline, Beauty and the Beast).  A former respected therapist, he gave up working with people and devotes his time to animals because they talk back less.  Resisting the unorthodox set-up, it’s the appearance of a persistently territorial starling in her garden that brings her back to Dr. Larry after the bird dive bombs her and draws blood.  As Lilly begins to open up, she exposes a wound she’d done a good job of bandaging up and in doing so it makes her more emotionally available to her husband as well as her new avian neighbor.  As Jack’s depression worsens, Lilly faces her anguish head on.  The stages of grief are accelerated after being pent up for so long and eventually the relationship between the husband and wife is put to a huge test.

Reteaming with her St. Vincent director Theodore Melfi, McCarthy demonstrates again why it’s so important for her to make films apart from her husband.  The married duo have made a string of movies together that they have collaborated on and produced and while they occasionally find a winner (The Boss actually improves with age) they also have their share of stinkers (remember Tammy?  Better yet, don’t.).  It’s clearly demonstrated that when she’s working with other directors and screenwriters, see Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Spy if you don’t believe me, she really has a chance to shine. 

The lack of chemistry between McCarthy and O’Dowd is mostly attributed to the separation of their characters for a large part of the movie.  I never totally bought them as a couple so deep in love that they were being completely tested by this tragedy, but it’s not for McCarthy’s lack of try to instill some warmth O’Dowd’s way.  I liked O’Dowd as well, but he seemed to get too lost in the sadness and/or anger of his character and the shifts were jarring instead of understandable.  The real head scratcher is why Melfi cast so many familiar faces and then gave them nothing to do.  Timothy Olyphant (Mother’s Day) has two or three scenes total and they’re so insignificant it could have been played by anyone.  Same for Daveed Diggs (Soul), Loretta Devine (wasted even more here than in Queen Bees earlier this year), and Laura Harrier (Spider-Man: Homecoming), who gets a high billing but may not even have any lines in the film if I’m remembering correctly.

A few years back I was in NYC and saw Kevin Kline’s soon-to-be Tony Award winning performance onstage in Present Laughter.  It was then I remembered how much I enjoyed watching him watching other actors.  He’s always listening and providing the kind of reaction that helps create a full character without having to say much.  It’s often wonderful to see him and he’s impressive here as a guy that resists getting too attached to his new patient, even though he has a hunch he can find a way to unlock what’s been holding her back.

Speaking of that, what’s difficult about the movie is what it holds back and that’s a lot of key details.  It’s never expressly stated how Lilly and Jack’s daughter died or how old she was.  I suppose it’s doesn’t really matter in the long run because the loss is the loss but it’s these finer points that help to round out the character arcs being put forth.  The starling also is a bit of a red herring because it doesn’t come into play much until the end of the film after making several stealth appearances (with some iffy CGI) in earlier scenes.  I understand that writer Matt Harris is trying to fast-track the narrative, but it can’t come at the cost of the finer points.

It’s interesting to see Netflix rolling out The Starling for a week in theaters before it arrives on the streaming service for the majority of its customers.  I don’t find the film strong enough for an awards run (though if the Golden Globes were a thing McCarthy would probably be a likely nominee for Best Actress) but perhaps they’re going for Kline…they’ll certainly want to push for any number of songs that were contributed by Brandi Carlile , The Lumineers, Judah & the Lion, and Nate Ruess.  I think it’s best to just keep The Starling handy for a day/night when you require a little comfort food film, some warmth from the overstuffed and stodgy succession of movies that are coming down the pike.

Movie Review ~ BlacKkKlansman


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Ron Stallworth, an African-American police officer from Colorado, successfully managed to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan and became the head of the local chapter.

Stars: John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harrier, Topher Grace, Corey Hawkins, Ryan Eggold, Robert John Burke, Paul Walter Hauser, Jasper Pääkkönen, Ashlie Atkinson

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Though he’s often scored high marks with critics, it’s been a long time since director Spike Lee (Chi-Raq) had an outright commercial hit and with the release of BlacKkKlansman Lee finally seemed to be in position to have a movie that would cross that line.  Though the box office for the movie didn’t catch on like it very well should have, BlacKkKlansman still represents Lee’s most commercial work in years and is entertaining as all get out.

The story behind BlacKkKlansman is almost too bizarre to be true.  In Colorado in the early ‘70s, black police officer Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) goes undercover to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan with the assistance of his Jewish colleague, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver, Midnight Special).  Through a unique and increasingly dangerous set-up, Stallworth communicates with the local KKK leaders on the phone while Zimmerman poses as Stallworth whenever they need to meet in person.  Stallworth even befriends David Duke (Topher Grace, American Ultra) the Grand Wizard of the KKK and the two engage in lengthy phone conversations before ever meeting face to face.

At the same time, Stallworth becomes involved with the president of the Colorado black student union (Laura Harrier, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and their relationship becomes entwined with the dealings not only with his undercover investigation with the KKK but within his own police force.  When Duke sets up a trip to Colorado to personally initiate Stallworth as a member of the KKK, Stallworth and Zimmerman’s investigation intensifies as suspicions within the hate group start to mount.

Lee’s cast crackles with energy and keeps the movie moving through a slightly slow first twenty minutes.  It takes that long to establish some characters and get Stallworth moving from new recruit to establishing himself as an undercover officer heading up his own investigation.  Once he makes that first phone call to the KKK and sets into motion the sting operation, the film moves like a locomotive toward its conclusion that propels us from a flawed past to a complicated present and uncertain future.

Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Homecoming


The Facts
:

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.